Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tired of Triage

Here’s a phrase that I’ve never spoken: “I had too much time and ran out of things to teach.” My life as a teacher is a constant giving up of what I’d really like to teach, a constant disappointment that I can’t share everything I’d like my students to know and experience, a constant making do with a limited amount of time. It’s a kind of educational triage, making sure the most needed things get attended to first and the others left to fend on their own. My world record for working with one group happened in 2003, some 90 hours spread over six weeks with the students at the Orff Institute in Salzburg— and I got to about half of what I had planned. And had another 90 hours of things I wish I could have done had I fulfilled my initial plan.

All of this got kicked up at a meeting for a teacher-training institute seeking to include more training in the arts. This year, we managed to offer some 8 hours of classes spread out over two weeks, but everyone agreed it was a mere peek in the door of possibility. For it to really qualify as a genuine training, with sufficient time for the brain to absorb the concepts, the body to get the skills down in the muscle memory, the mind to reflect so that the large ideas take root, we would need at least 40 hours. Minimum. We floated briefly in that cloud and then dropped back to earth with the same old questions: “What can we do with the limited time we’ll actually have? “ Triage again.

On the positive side, it does make us clarify what is essential and learn how to get right to it. Such limits often can sharpen the focus and concentrate the imagination in astounding— or at least, interesting— ways. But on the negative side, it’s a relentless battle convincing the schedule-makers that what we know and have to offer is worthy of a great deal of time. Every class period wasted on some irrelevant state-mandated subject poorly taught is time taken away from the kids delving into Ella Fitagerald’s interpretation of the Great American Songbook and beginning to craft their own. For example.

I’ve accepted it all (do I have a choice?), but just once before I retire from teaching, I’d like to look at the clock and say; “Class is dismissed early. I have nothing more to say.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Scarlatti Cure

Psycho-therapy often is a ten-year commitment, surgery needs a couple of months recovery, aspirin takes an hour or so to kick in, but today I witnessed a cure that took about 10 minutes total. My Tuesday visit to Mom began with her yelling at passing nurses and throwing food at someone. She scowled at me when I started playing the ukelele and generally was in her “I’m not too pleased to be alive at this moment and nothing you are doing or saying is helping” state.

I wheeled her over to the piano and started playing some Scarlatti sonatas and by the end of the first one, she was transformed. Smiling, calm, animated, happy, her body chemistry changed from vibrations from strings inside a wooden frame artfully arranged to bring pleasure to those who understand the language. Not those trained or formally educated, but those, like my Mom, who have eavesdropped on enough conversations in this style to recognize the points of tension and release, understand the ebb and flow of the musical soundwaves so that they can ride them like surfers in the zone. I’ve always known that music is a powerful healing force and therapeutic tool, but it is simply extraordinary to see how thoroughly and quickly it can transform one’s mood, immediately re-balance brain waves and heart rhythms out of whack and bring them into harmony. No accident that harmony was both Scarlatti’s structural scaffolding and the word that describes a balanced emotional state.

And of course, so pleasing that this is no experiment in a lab, but a real life situation and means of connection between a son and his aging mother. This is my payback for the early years of breast-feeding. She fed me and soothed me with her milk and now I feed and soothe her with the musical milk flowing from my fingers. And not only am I thrilled that the “therapeutic subject” is my flesh-and-blood mother, but I know that she is thrilled that the musical doctor is her son. My wife suggested that maybe I gift her with an i-Pod filled with Scarlatti so she can listen at will, but besides the differences between the sound waves coming from the three-dimensional piano, the ambiance of the room and the community of others listening, I think it means something special to her that her offspring is producing the sounds. Today she called me a champ and raised my arm in the air like I had just won the heavyweight boxing titled when I knocked down the last note of Sonata No. 18.

For the moment, Scarlatti and Haydn seem to be her favorites. She loves the constant motion of the 16th notes, the forward momentum reaching little peaks of climax before gathering all their energy to head for the final chord. The tempos range from Allegro to Presto, vibrant, alive with energy, charging the air and our nervous system with an ordered exuberance. It’s a very different feeling than playing the old jazz standards I usually play when I visit. No one is humming along or remembering a bygone era captured in an old familiar song. Instead, they are dancing to the pure energy of musical tones.

As for Domenico Scarlatti, he was a contemporary of Bach and Handel (all three born in 1685) who lived in Italy, moved to Portugal and then spent much of his later life in Spain. His energetic keyboard works often revolve around repetitive figures that hover briefly like a hummingbird sipping nectar before flitting to the next flower. He shows a masterful command of quickly shifting harmonies and was an expert in the short Sonata form. In fact, he wrote 555 of them. (My book has 30).

That’s good news for my Mom and her neighbors. 555 roads to healing. I better get practicing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Aargh!!! Waah!! Yeah!

I published Play, Sing, Dance in 2002. Elizabeth Gilbert followed with Eat, Pray, Love in 2006.  Anne Lamott picked up the thread with Help, Thanks, Wow in 2012. So now it’s my turn again and I plan to retire from the royalties of Aargh!!! Waaah!! Yeah!  No doubt in my mind it’s going to be a hit with my granddaughter’s under-2-pre-verbal crowd and my Mom’s over-92-post-verbal crowd. But there is a hitch. None of them can read or handle their own money. So it will have to appeal to the 2-year old and aiming-for-92-year old in all of us. Here’s a short preview so you can pre-order your copy now:

Aargh!!! When I calculated how often I exhaled sharply or shouted @#$%^&*!! when the wireless randomly switched off in the middle of e-mails (and switched on and switched off without any rhyme or reason, as it does almost daily), I figured out that I could solve the energy crisis. All I needed to do was harness the wind power of all the people shouting at machines and we wouldn’t need those unsightly windmills. While conferring with top scientists over e-mail, I had a flash of inspiration and had just written it down in the e-mail when… you guessed it: the wireless cut out. I lost the e-mail and when the shouting died down, I also lost the thought. Aaaargh!!!!!!

Waaah!! This is my preferred mode of telling friends that they owe me an e-mail and I still haven’t heard from them. It’s my backdoor way of telling them I care while simultaneously making them feel guilty enough to write already! We all used Waaah! as our primary communication device as toddlers and then graduated to the whiny Pleeeeeezze? From there to the eye roll and Whatever and if we lived in California and went to an ex-hippy school, learned to use I statements, assume good intentions, monitor our tone, accept diverse points of view and be transparent in our communication. All of which was an elaborate disguise for Waaah!!!

Yeah! This was Louis Armstrong’s word of choice (the people’s version of James Joyce’s) and the way he let you know that somethin’ swinging was happenin’ here and worthy of our attention. Today I was in my living room playing the hell out of Cole Porter’s All of You at my piano when during a pause, I heard a trumpet out on the street picking up on the melody. We exchanged a few phrases and then I stepped outside. There was a young man outside my window and he smiled and said: “Just happened to be walking by and heard you, so I thought I’d join in.” I invited him in, but when he politely declined, I went back in and opened the window and we had another few choruses. (This really happened!) Sometimes life throws you an unexpected “Yeah!” and you need to open the window and let it come in.

I’m sure we all have countless testimonies of our Aargh!!! Waaah!! Yeah! moments, from life’s little annoyances and surprises to its larger ones (just add a few exclamation points!) to the collective cultural (last night’s Oscars?) and political ones (a teacher friend overhearing a conversation about preferred handguns in the staff lounge).

And sometimes they come all jumbled together. Like when I passed an old friend who had been at my colleague Sue Walton’s Memorial Service. Since I had to leave early, I asked him how the rest of it was. He replied,

Pretty amazing! The band played, we all danced and then they ushered us all outside to witness the dispersion of the ashes. There on the ground was a little cannon. They put the container inside and BOOOM!!!, shot the ashes out into the Bay, complete with Roman candles and other fireworks! Just the way Sue would have liked it!”

Well, there you have it. Aargh!!!, Waah!! and Yeah! all in one piece.

With a Boom!!! thrown in.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Holding the Thread

Where did this idea come from that the good life was a perpetual Hawaii vacation? No schedules, no responsibilities, no work? That our jobs were merely to be endured until the bliss of retirement? Then golf every day, naps when you want, a perpetual bridge club party, preferably in Florida (or Hawaii). Of course, those of us caught in a deadly daily commute, bone-weary at the end of the day, watching the clock tick in boring meetings, might be thinking, “Sounds great to me!”

But statistics and friends I know retiring say otherwise. Retirement might look from afar as step into the Golden Years, but the doorway to it is an often harsh and difficult farewell to the life that has been our constant companion. Whether we loved our work or hated it, looked forward to it each day or merely endured it, were energized or exhausted by it, our jobs provided a thread that connected the days. For some of us, work was our chosen thread that nourished our passion, for many (most?), work was bread and we looked elsewhere for our deeper fulfillment—family, travel, hobbies, a separate life cobbled together in the evenings, weekends and summer vacations.

But whether thread or bread, the newly retired often feel a bit adrift, directionless, tossed about it in the choppy seas of deciding whether to do this project or that one. With the freedom to fill the hours however we choose comes the responsibility to fill the hours. And lost in that sea without a thread, there are suddenly a lot of hours to fill.

Maybe it’s time to change our attitudes about both work and retirement. Work, when it’s the work that suits us, uses our capacities and helps us feel useful, feel needed, feel connected to the world, feel threaded into a greater fabric that would be more dull without our particular texture and color. When we’ve paid our dues and put in the years, we do feel a yearning to follow some of our deferred passions, to lighten the load, to re-balance the schedule. It seems like the most successful transitions come from this gradual lightening that allows us to keep ahold of our thread, but also start to weave in some other ones long left neglected. My wife, now in her 39th year teaching art at the same school, is down to three days a week at school and four days off— plus a 10 week summer. Not bad! I’m four days a week, but with three months off each year to write, travel and teach. And three more in summer. Equally sane! Of course, not everyone can do that (thank you, SF School!), but I see that friends who leave their workplace, but keep connected in their field consulting or teaching one day a week or volunteering their time, get the best of both worlds— the freedom of naming each day and the pleasure of feeling useful.

I imagine the latter is the most difficult transition for my retired friends. We spend a lifetime contributing and perpetually preparing for how we are needed and then we are suddenly not needed. Especially in a culture where our identity is tied to our work, to stop our work is to lose a big piece of ourself, to become superfluous to society and shooed off to the retirement community in Arizona (or Florida or Hawaii—note the pattern. No big exodus to upstate Minnesota!) And while it’s lovely to go on a cruise, sleep late, meet friends for afternoon coffee, I imagine some miss that thread of feeling useful and needed and valued. Maybe that’s where babysitting the grandkids comes in! In fact, that’s the perfect metaphor. The pleasures of child-raising without the full measure of responsibility. The pleasure of following our passion and keeping our skillset sharpened without the exhausting ambition, dull meetings and relentless schedule.

What brought all this on? Is this a backdoor way to announce my retirement? Absolutely not. But I see my newly retired friends struggle to hold on to some kind of thread to give a shape to their days. Serendipitously, someone sent me the poem below by William Stafford that has something to contribute to these thoughts. I’ll give him the last word and take off for a Sunday walk. With my thread in hand.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Beyond Nureyev

I haven’t been to the exhibit about Nureyev at San Francisco’s De Young museum, but as great a dancer as he may have been, I think my Mom outdid him today. Sitting in her wheelchair.

Our visit started off on a sour note. She was sitting with her cheeks stuffed with food, a favorite storage place, and not only didn’t smile when she saw me, but waved her hand and told me to go away. But she was curious about the book in my hand and when I showed her the music notes by Scarlatti, she seemed intrigued. She didn’t protest when I suggested we go to the piano and so we did. I left her a moment to bring her some water, came back to find some of the stored food on the floor, but after a sip of cool water and a cascade of flowing notes from Scarlatti, she settled back into her groove and off we went.

For almost five years now, we’ve done this dance. Me playing the piano, her at my right hand side mimicking the contours of the music, dancing with her arms or playing air piano. I’ve noticed lately she seems to like the single lines of 16th notes dished out by Haydn, Mozart and Scarlatti, riding them like a whitewater rafter heading downstream. She was in fine form today, marking the ebb and flow, the rise and fall inside each piece of music and always approaching the climax with a clear foreknowledge that we’re heading for the last notes, which she punctuates accordingly, opens her eyes wide in astonishment and then claps for our mutual performance.

My mother took piano lessons briefly and enrolled in a belly dance class when I was a kid, but really had no formal music or dance training. She occasionally listened to WQXR, the classical music station, but mostly listened to easy listening selections— Henry Mancini, 101 Strings, things like that. Even when she was more lucid, she couldn’t name any favorite songs and never really sang along with my other octagenarian friends who gather with me at the Jewish Home for the Aged.

But now close to her 92nd birthday, she seems to be channeling some musical intelligence out there in the universe. Her intuitions are spot on as she conducts me from her chair and occasionally, remarkably inspired. Like today, when I played the ballad Two Sleepy People and trickled gently up the keyboard at the end, she rose one hand  upward in perfect synchromicity and looked to the heavens, flicking the last note up into the sky. I know someone should be filming this, but such grace doesn’t come on command and I’m not that organized. So I’ll just keep that image with me and marvel yet again at the extraordinary power of music and movement and gesture, the way it can arrive so unexpectedly and fill our hearts with a beauty almost too large too hold.

Thanks, Mom. See you on Friday with some Mozart and Fats Waller.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here Today

On Sunday morning, I was blissfully wandering amongst plum blossoms and browsing amongst happy vegetables at the local farmer’s market. On Sunday afternoon, I was lying in bed with an ice pack and four Advil coursing through my blood stream. All from the simple mistake of carrying home a too-heavy bag of food the wrong way. In the past twenty years, I’ve had the agony of my back going out now and then and while this was not a full-blown-can’t-move-get-thee-to-the-chiropractor-catastrophe, it was enough to send me tail-spinning into mild depression. I actually haven’t had a big problem for the past five years, but it only took two seconds to remember that feeling of limitation, of having to calculate one’s every move, of feeling so much less than my whole self. And then that sense of self-pity and rage against the world. “Why me? I was so happy this morning?!”

In the big picture, this is pretty small potatoes compared to the long list of catstrophes awaiting us at any moment. I was able to walk and drive yesterday and though I’m still on the edge, a few more days of careful activity with ice and aspirin should bring me back to full strength. But it is a reminder of our fraility and vulnerability, of that uncomfortable truth that no matter how much we try to control and direct our lives, we are constantly at the mercy of microbes and muscles, not to mention bad weather, bad politics and bad luck. As the old proverb reminds us: no matter how wonderful we feel here today, it all can be gone tomorrow. In a flash.

Which brings me to the season finale of Downton Abby. What the hell?!!! Was this the writers trying to instruct us with a profound truth or a cheap shot to get us to tune in next season? I’m cynically inclined toward the latter. Even Masterpiece Theater has succumbed to the formula that only disaster keeps us hooked in. Who would want to tune in next year to a happy family?

Well, I would. I’m of the camp that literature and art is there to tell truth and that includes facing head-on the terror of this life. But it is also there to hold our hand and comfort and uplift. I’m still a big fan of the happy ending, because though mortality waits around the corner, the beauty of a hard-earned here today is every bit as real and necessary to remember.

So off to bed with ice to continue my catch-up watching of Season 2. Just at the point where Matthew is about to recover feeling in his legs. He had despaired of every walking again and suddenly there's hope. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bodhisattva in Purple Tights

Today I lived a Sunday morning as if it was a Sunday morning. Well, I didn’t got to a formal church service, but I did leave the computer closed and got out the door by 9:00 am for the annual visit to the plum trees on Edgewood Terrace near my house. In this time of everything 24/7,  I was heartened to know that Sunday still feels different. The streets were quiet and unpeopled and the traffic sparse. The sun was slowly soaking into my bones and illuminating the peaked plum blossoms that line this lovely street. I then sauntered (my favorite walking pace) to the local Farmer’s Market, the smells of food cooking and the sounds of a steel drum reaching me before I reached them. I entered the market to join the crowd sampling and tasting, joined in our common pleasure of fresh fruit and vegetables, tasty treats served up by friendly vendors. From there to the local bakery, where the bread was still warm and the happy workers in the Arizmendi Collective made change with a smile.

On to the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, my oldtime companion in my 40-year San Francisco history. My wife was with a group sketching magnolia trees in full regalia, photographers were poking lens into the hearts of sleeping flowers, a group of Japanese women sang a song together and then giggled in pleasure. Everyone out doing nothing in particular but enjoying the day. I suppose that’s what the Sabbath is for. You can go to a temple, mosque or church if you prefer, but it’s all about taking time out to savor and praise and personally, I find a stroll in the park or walk in the woods to be my preferred medium of paying attention and offering gratitude. To each his own.

How happy I was to have the good sense to get the heck out of the house and partake in this tiny slice of life as it’s meant to be lived! How seldom I do it! But as Henderson the Rain King (in an old Saul Bellow novel) so wisely said, “The forgiveness of sin is perpetual.” My oft-repeated sin is not lust or greed or commandment-breaking, but simply forgetting to remember what’s important. And then remembering. And then forgetting again.

At this point, you may be wondering about the title. In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is someone who has traveled far enough up the spiritual path to merit release from the cycle of birth and death, but chooses to be reborn out of compassion for us suffering human beings. They stay behind to help us out. What does this have to do with today’s blog? And what’s the deal with the purple tights?

Patience. There is an explanation. Firstly, I felt like my titles have been lacking in punch lately and when I heard this phrase, I just knew I had to use it. Secondly, these words were spoken by a friend of drama teacher Sue Walton at her Memorial Service as a way to describe both Sue's selfless giving to others and her wacky dramatic self. I wrote about Sue back on Dec. 15th (“Farewell to Wanda Woman”) and it was touching to come to this service yesterday. I’m reasonably sure Sue herself would never claim the title of Bodhisattva, but she did own every inch of her 6’2” frame, shared her passion with the world and made herself memorable to everyone who met her. She left behind a trail of fun songs, epic plays and an infectious gusto for life.

Sue and I had many a memorable moment together putting on 10 years of plays at The San Francisco School. I’m only sorry that I never invited her to take a walk with me in the Arboretum on a Sunday wearing purple tights. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

100 Paths to Happiness

Yesterday was Hundreds Day. It’s a relatively new celebration in schools (maybe 20 years ago?) propogated by Math departments celebrated on…you guessed it: the 100th day of school! It’s a delightful way to make an abstract number concrete. Over the years, we’ve done things like lined up 100 kids, shot 100 baskets, brainstormed 100 Spanish words, build structures with 100 toothpicks, listed 100 books a class has collectively read. Great fun.

For the music department, our contribution is to brainstorm with the kids 100 songs that they’ve sung with us. Not the songs from the radio, but the repertoire we choose to share with them. The elementary school gathers every day for 20 minutes to sing and here is the payoff, when we get to collectively look back and the kids realize just how many songs they know. It’s impressive.

To help focus the kids’ thinking, we put different categories on the board— train songs, animal songs, food songs, love songs, songs with motions, nonsense word songs, songs in Spanish, songs from other countries, songs from the Caribbean (a unit we had just completed), holiday songs, jazz songs, songs that tell stories, rounds. The room is electric with the kids' enthusiasm as they call out the songs they know. “Know” runs the gamut from recognizing the melody to singing the chorus to reading all the verses from our ancient song sheets to knowing all the words.

All this brainstorming takes place before Hundreds Day. Then on the day itself, we sing the first line of each song to see if we can squeeze them all in within the 20 minutes time slot. It’s quite a spectacle to witness. The kids get so excited we have to pause and remind them that songs are to be sung, not screamed!

This daily singing has been a constant at the school for the near- forty years I’ve been there. Even schools with strong music programs don’t often include this extra bonus and of course, many schools without music programs graduate kids who know very few songs in common— perhaps Happy Birthday, The Star Spangled Banner and Bingo. For me, it’s unthinkable that a kid would leave our education system so poorly served. It’s as if their schools had put up roadblocks to 100 paths to knowledge, 100 paths to fellowship, 100 paths to happiness.

A song is one of the most ancient and most reliable technologies that we know. It is a sustainable and renewable resource that condenses a vast amount of information in a small container. It carries vital linguistic information, stories, poems, proverbs, rhymes, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, patterned math, history, culture, not to mention all the musical elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form and more, often in a mere three minutes. The physical singing of songs charges the brain, boosts the immune system, opens the heart and touches the spirit through the vehicle of breath, tones the body and connects people engaged in singing together like few other things do. A simple definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs. When they sing them together, they reaffirm their collective identity and sense of belonging. Songs not only change bodies, minds and hearts, but they can change history as well, facts well documented in the Estonian movie The Singing Revolution, the South African Amandla and our own Civil Rights movement in the U.S..

Songs are durable. They stay with you your whole life and long past the time when language fails, memory blurs and dementia or Alzheimer’s sets in, songs survive. Check out the youtube clips of elders whose every facial feature is blank until the music starts and you see them come to life in front of your eyes. The song you teach to a three-year old will still be by their side when they’re 103 and bring the same pleasure and comfort.

Shall I go on? If you pitched to a school board that you discovered a cheap and efficient technology that never needs purchased upgrades, touches on just about every subject in the school curriculum, knits together a connected community and touches the heart of every child, don’t you think they’d be interested? It costs a mere music teacher’s salary (cheap!!!) and a commitment to 20 minutes a day, every day. It has been tested with similar results at many schools (but not enough) around the world and brought countless children 100 plus paths to happiness.

Anyone want to make the movie about The Singing Curriculum? I know just the school.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Culture of Composure

Our staff meeting began with a report about a Technology and Education Conference a teacher attended. He told us how the participants sat with computers open during the presentation and a peek over their shoulder revealed everyone in various states of Facebook/e-mail/ Website browsing with one ear open to the actual presentation. The next item on our agenda was noticing how our kids are so distractable and have a hard time paying attention and focusing on the task at hand. Can we suggest a little connection between these two items?

I am well past the rant that electronic media is destroying everything precious about our humanity. After all, it allows me to write these words so you can read them! But Emerson said long ago “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” his poetic way of suggesting that the cart before the horse is a bad arrangement. We are being led by our noses by the machines of our own creation and really have no idea how they are changing us. And this is most important to consider when it comes to children. If we’re going to jump on the “every child with an I-Pad bandwagon,” we should at least not be surprised when they find us live teachers less interesting that whatever else is a button click away. We should stop calling them ADD and drugging them as if it was their personal problem when the whole culture flow is toward a hyper-manic sensory assault that breeds distractability and short attention spans.

The fact is that the kids at our school have trouble with silence, focused listening, being still. And it certainly is not wholly the effect of electronic media. Our own school culture, which we adults are in charge of, is partly the culprit. We treat our kids as if they’re God’s gift to the world. And they are! But in an overpopulated world, there’s not room or time for all of God’s creatures to constantly proclaim their genius without raising their hand. And even then, there might not be time to call on them.

At my school, we are so interested in the kids’ ideas and so encouraging of them to express themselves that we forgot to tell them that, to put it bluntly, they need to shut-up every one in a while. And of course, telling them isn’t enough. If we really want them to enjoy the golden glow of occasional silence, we need to create a practice of silence and composure and attention. We do it in our Montessori preschool where 38 children from three to five years old eat lunch in absolute silence. We just need to start valuing it enough to create a time and space and means for them to practice stilling their monkey minds. They need to learn how to install a little roadblock between their mouth and their thoughts, to understand that while their ideas are occasionally fascinating, they’re not consistently so and don’t merit interrupting the teacher’s own valued words.

More and more I see that the kids who are happiest and most confident and most competent are the kids that can filter their thoughts, still their bodies, calm their excitement. There are exceptions, kids driven by a passion to a point of hyperactivity, but most kids, like most adults, need to direct their thinking, temper their emotion and feel at home in their bodies. Some of that is internally driven by personal chemistry, history, personality, character and some is culturally created, as noted above, with both kids merely reflecting back to us what we’re giving them. Which makes it all the more important to create practices of attention, habits of silence, rituals of attention. To create in our own school communities a culture of composure.

It's a conversation worth having. Around a table with computers closed. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Getting Through

I’m a terrible Zen Buddhist. Every day, paradise invites me through the door and I miss the invitation. Today at school, I stepped outside my class for five minutes and sat in the sun and the veil of ignorance started to part. I’ve had these rare moments before, when the clock that ticks from one scheduled event to the next stops and the world opens up as it is — a luminous present now. All our yearnings for the fabled grails of our longing cease because they are fulfilled in the simple act of being wholly aware and alive in this moment. No French dessert, love letter from the movie star of our dreams, announcement of the Pulitzer Prize or job promotion can improve our happiness one iota.

Back into my responsible work life, each day bears the stamp of its schedule and each hour is marked by the class of children who appear in my room. I’m having a great time with them, enjoying the music we’re making, the dances we’re dancing, the opportunities they have to show me their prodigious imagination. I do my work to plan these classes ahead of time, dutifully mark them afterward in my record book, go to the required staff meetings and show up at my carpool duty. It all is pleasurable, satisfying, fun and fulfilling.

But like so many of us, I get into the routine of setting up each class like bowling pins to be knocked down and scored, a list of obligations to be fulfilled and gotten through until… what? Well, the evening when I can catch up on Downton Abby or cook a nice dinner or play piano— at least, in-between answering e-mails and planning the next day’s classes.

But today reminded me that each moment of each day is an opportunity to savor the miracles at the turn of each breath, a chance to part the curtains of the time-crunched world and inhale a healthy dose of eternity. Even morning zazen meditation can feel like a habitual routine to simply tone the spirit rather than a heavy-duty drill to break through the rock of our illusions. But working at this glorious school, I have a better chance than most to remember. I spend my days with these innocent creatures so far from mortality’s dripping hourglass, so fresh from that other world behind the curtains, each day a playground filled with skinned knees and bruised feelings, but mostly an exuberant swinging on the monkey bars of the minutes, swinging to the skies and playing in the dirt. If I stop to notice, the children can infect me with their untrammeled Buddha nature and remind me that my day is not to just gotten through. If I am to get through anything, it is that veil that separates time from timelessness, a future paradise from the one right here, right now.

See you on the other side. (Where we already are.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Times They Are A' Changin'

There are things we’ve known our whole lives that we assumed were untouchable, as much of the reality of life as sunset and moonrise. And now they’ve changed.

I’m talking about Canada’s decision to stop making pennies. Apparently it costs more than a penny to make a penny and such logic is not up for challenge. I heard about this last summer and now the time has come. The last penny has been made and twenty years from now, children will have to look up what “a penny for your thoughts” means when Grandpa slips it into conversation. Music teachers will have to adapt the children’s game “Who has the penny?” Math books with problems about pennies, nickels, quarters and dimes will have to be re-written. The repercussions are staggering.

The next blow to the solid ground of dependable customs was the U.S. Post Office announcing it would no longer deliver mail on Saturday. No surprise that they’re struggling and instead of feeling frustrated that we’ll have to wait an extra day for the letter from our dear friend, it mostly means a day off from recycling the useless coupons, stacking bills or ignoring pleas for money from humanitarian organizations. But still. No mail on Saturday? Sacrilege!

Along these lines, San Francisco announced that Sundays will no longer mean free metered parking. The city is determined to squeeze every penny from us (well, in Canada, nickels)— no day of rest for the economy. And I’ve already noticed new parking meters with credit card swipes and complicated instructions with numbered spaces. Perhaps soon money itself will be obsolete, everything a plastic card to be swiped. Drug dealers on street corners will have little credit card machines, a candy bar bought at the corner store will need a signature.

Soon I suppose they’ll stop making telephone books and we’ll have to buy a step ladder instead of stacking them to reach something on the top shelf. And there’s already the move to stop making books themselves and CD’s and DVD’s, those physical manifestations of our need for words and tones, stories and music traded for abstract electronic bits floating around in cyberspace. Finally, there’s the move to replace real teachers with screened versions, give up the archaic practice of live people gathered in rooms having conversations and replace it with everyone plugged into their private i-Pad University.

I’d like to write a letter to someone and put on a 44 cent stamp, but I’d miss my penny change, have to pay for parking when I go out on Sunday to buy an envelope, worry that it wouldn’t arrive on time and wonder whether anyone can still read cursive. So instead I’ll just have to voice these thoughts on my cyberspace blog and hope it makes it on someone’s curriculum in Electronic U.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


The alert reader may have divined that I’m more than a little prideful to be off to the side of the mainstream. To reveal that I had a habit of watching Seinfeld re-runs and the occasional football game takes on the tone of a confession. And so here comes another one:

I’m hooked on Downton Abby.*

It took three or four shows to jump in and feel connected, but by Sunday’s show after the heart-wrenching Super Bowl, I was a believer. So much so that I went to our local Le Video store and got Season One to begin the long trek to catch up. Five shows into that and the addiction has taken root in the bloodstream. If there was only one copy of the next show at the video store, I’m sure I would commit physical violence against the person who tried to get it before me.

Like Seinfeld or a Dickens novel, the first step is to recognize the characters and get a feel for who they are and what they’re about and how they react. You have to love or hate them enough to wonder what their next move is, make little predictions and either have the satisfaction of proving correct or the surprise of watching them grow or fall from grace. (It’s not unlike the scientist making an hypothesis or a music listener imagining the next phrase of the music.) Howard Gardner might call such shows schools for developing  the interpersonal intelligence.

Then you get drawn into the threads of the plot and as I wrote back in the The Three Pillars of Literacy, we story-brained humans thrive on this kind of food. We live vicariously in an ongoing story similar to our own, but three notches higher on the drama end and easier to stomach because we’re a few steps removed. TV has always had this with the daytime soap operas which we loved to make fun of, but from The Sopranos to The Wire to Madmen to Downton Abby, it’s all the new, upgraded Days of Our Lives and General Hospital.

And then there’s the beautiful hatreds and rivalries between the characters and no matter if you’re upstairs, downstairs or out in the garden. Our fantasies of “transparent" communication and New Age togetherness would make for some poor drama. Who wants to show five seasons of people hugging each other, working out their issues with good honest talk straight from the heart in every encounter, relinquishing their positions of power to be more inclusive and fair? One of my first shocks going to Mt. Baldy Zen Center was discovering how the book image of a peaceful community was pretty far from the actual gathering of bizarre characters. Even the Roshi at a celebration talked about how when they began, this officer wouldn’t talk to that one, that one abused the other and how if people in a place devoted to nurturing peace in the heart couldn’t get along, what hope was there for the world?

But the biggest lesson this na├»ve seeker has learned is that such hope begins with the recognition that alongside the moments of deep communion, hard-earned love, humor, shared joy and quiet connections, human relations are all about power, betrayal, disappointment, rivalry, barbed verbal assaults and occasionally outbursts (more honest!) of physical ones. In every place, in every time, amongst any group of people thrown together in work, travel, neighborhood, what-have-you. It’s all Peyton Place and Downton Abby. No exemptions.

And then what’s fascinating are all the styles of personal warfare. There’s the gender-based approaches—Bates collars Thomas against the wall and tells him he’ll smash his face in if he doesn’t stop this crap, while the Dowager and Mrs. Crawley throw their little verbal darts laden with secret poisons. Mary and Edith forgot to read the book Siblings Without Rivalry and go after the same man as a little game of one-upwomanship. Mrs. Patmore uses Daisy as her whipping girl, while Sibyl is a living California bumper sticker performing random acts of kindness.

And then the secrets that we all carry about, that ride on our shoulder as we put on the front of being normal human beings. Mary’s bizarre encounter with the Turk, Bates' secret story that throws up a wall between him and Anna (back in Season One here) and most delightful of all, Carson, the Guru of the stiff upper lip, and his secret shame that he once sang and danced on the vaudeville stage. Horrors!

If you don’t know these people, these words don’t mean as much. But perhaps they’re enticing you to join the club and that’s another pleasure of this practice— now it is a shared story that peppers the lunchtime conversations at school of those “in the know” and creates a common point of reference. I imagine new words may creep into the vernacular— “Stop O’Briening that person!” “That was so Thomas!”

Off to the video store for the next show. And don’t even think about getting there before me!

* For those in the dark, this is a BBC series about some upper-class Brits and their downstairs servants set at a country estate in the early 1990’s. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cry, Sigh, Die

Intrigued by the title? Wondering if this is about the three stages of hospice care or the sequel to the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love? Well, I could take it in either of those directions, but the real story is much more mundane. It’s about spelling.

I’ve had this conversation often with my daughter Talia, who endured three years of trying to explain to first graders in Argentina how these three words could possibly rhyme. (Or should I say “righm” or “riem”?) As speakers of a logical, ordered and coherent language known as Spanish, where everything is spelled precisely how it sounds according to simple rules, they must think that English is absolutely insane. And when it comes to spelling, they’re right! (Ryte, riet, rite, rhyte?)

This came up in a little poem I was doing with 2nd graders about Grandpa Grigg and a pig and as native speakers, they were non-plussed. Having hung out around dry, fry, fly, my, pry, sly, sky, sty, shy, spy, spry, try, why, spent time with high and nigh and their cousins, blight, flight, might, night, right, sight, tight and had their share of pie, lie, tie, weird spellings of same-sound endings is just part of their linguistic landscape.

And more to come. Add to cry, sigh, die the words buy, chai, hi, rye and any wonder why kids are so confused? Imagine them writing (wryting? wrighting?) a little story that begins “Kie goes to trie to bie some chie and marble rie on the way to see The Life of Pie…" and getting back the corrections from the teacher: "Kai goes to try to buy some Chai and marble rye on the way to the Life of Pi." Can you blame the kid if he looks at it and wonder wie why ?

Yup, English is entirely loco— a word, by the way, which could only be spelled “loco” in Spanish, but might be spelled be lowco or luoco or loughco (think row, quo, dough) in English.  I imagine this is partly due to the mutt nature of the current vernacular. Current English is so interwoven with other languages that it defies the neat and tidy patterns of its pedigree neighbors. (Or naybors, nabors, nebors).

Wryting this is making me tighred so I’m going to sine off and say “By!”

Or is it “Bye?”

Monday, February 4, 2013

Kept Back Another Year

The heart never makes progress. The brain moves from 1+1=2 to advanced calculus in measured steps, but the heart is perpetually stuck in kindergarten. How do I know this?

Because at 61 years old, I’m still moping around because my team lost the Superbowl.

P.S. I still say it was holding!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Three Pillars of Literacy

Without a novel to enter before the day is done, my life feels just a little bit emptier. I suppose I’ve been reading novels just about my whole life, from Dick and Jane to Dickens and the search for the next story is constant. Luckily, authors keep writing, publishers keep publishing and there’s no dearth of stories to be told.

What do I look for in a novel? Plot, for one. Many a fine author has me wandering around pleasant scenes where nothing much is happening and my only motivation to turn the page is to hope that someone will mysteriously disappear and leave me to wonder why. A plot that leads me to the edge of wanting to know what will happen next is one of the things that makes me look forward to the nightly read, picking up the next thread of the story. Some of my favorite authors are masters of the unfolding story— like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Others may be short on substance (Agatha Christie and Dan Brown, for example), but can give me sufficient pleasure with plot alone.

Then there’s characters. I have to care about them. Not necessarily like them, but be interested enough that I want to hang out with them. Settings and eras contribute as well. I like armchair traveling to another time and place, but am also a sucker for American novels covering the 50’s to today, with references to events, places and situations I’ve lived through. (For example, The Brothers K, The Power of Their Singing, The Marriage Plot, The Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid.)

Finally, there’s the writing itself. I love being wrapped up in a good writer’s way of saying things, his or her rhythm, cadence, turn of phrase, grammar and syntax. Little Bee by Chris Cleave is an example of a story that was brutally difficult, with situations and images I’d rather not carry around with me, but with writing so exquisite that it elevated horror to beauty. It’s the same kind of pleasure I get from the touch, phrasing and harmonies of favorite jazz piano players. Doesn’t matter what the song is or plot or characters, it’s the sound alone that touches me.

The icing on the cake is a compatability with the author’s way of seeing the world, from politics to taste to humanitarian concerns. Philosophy married with plot, character, settings and style. That’s the mother lode of novel writing and reading.

Then non-fiction. Ever since discovering Joseph Campbell in the late 1980’s, someone who came to wisdom through a practice of reading 9 hours a day for five years, I’ve kept up a steady diet of intriguing non-fiction, often in waves of subject matter. The whole family of “ologies”— anthropology, mythology, sociology, psychology, technology, musicology, ethnomusicology, ecology and beyond. And etymology— the suffix “ology” means a branch of knowledge and how fascinating it has been to climb each part of the enormous tree of what we know and what interests us. Add to the above readings on neuroscience, education, history, spirituality, philosophy, politics, linguistics, music, jazz history and biography and humor and you have a pretty good idea of my library and my love for ideas. Story touches the heart, ideas light up the mind and both make me grateful that I went to school and entered whole universes through the magic of the printed word.

The third pillar of literacy’s exquisite gifts is poetry, the literary form that awakens the soul. An essay is about something, but a poem is the thing itself— or as near to it as you can get. Poetry is not every day fare for me, I dip in and out like a lake in different seasons. If I’m cold, its wintry waters are often too bracing for my taste. But when the borders of skin relax in the warmth of a sunny season in my life, nothing is more refreshing than to enter those waters of sensous sound. I’ve heard it said that only two things that we experience light up the whole brain and they are deeply connected— poetry and music. The hush in a room when a good poem is being recited is akin to Casals playing the Bach Cello Suites.

I’ve liked reading poetry ever since I discovered Whitman and e.e.cummings as a teenager, but it is only in the last decade that I began memorizing poetry and taking it off the page into a spoken, declaimed and gestured art form and that has made all the difference. I now have the power to change and charge the energy in a room with a simple combination of condensed words that bring things to a halt. I did it recently when I recited Langston Hughes long poem “Let America Be America Again” on Martin Luther King day. If you can bring 90 Middle School students to a pindrop silence for seven minutes, you know you’re on to something!

Fiction, non-fiction and poetry—the three pillars of literacy, food for the heart, mind and soul. Constant companions my whole life long and in the years to come. Thanks to the ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Medieval monks, Johannes Gutenburg and the long illustrious legacy of people who lived their lives and chose to tell about it in print.

P.S. On a lovely Sunday afternoon, trying to decide whether to read Dostoyevsky, Alfred North Whitehead or W.B. Yeats— or go watch the Superbowl. No contest. Go Niners!!!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Good News on the Way

Happy Groundhog’s Day! Some 40 years ago,  a 12-year old student, Julie Pred, and I decided it was our favorite holiday and have sent each other greetings every year since. Truth be told, I rarely follow the whole shadow thing, but it’s just fun to claim a quirky holiday. February also boasts Valentine’s Day (and various ritual classes and songs with the kids at school around love), my wife’s birthday and the birthdays of my two dear colleagues, James and Sofia, a President’s Day long weekend, the riches of Black History month and an occasional leap year. Lots going on in the year’s shortest month!

But for all of my San Francisco life, February is the time when the plum blossoms bloom, the first heralds of Spring even as so many in the more northern climes are still shoveling their driveways and slogging through slush to work. We have a small family ritual of walking up to Edgewood Terrace when the blossoms hit their peak, an entire street planted with plum trees and quite a glorious sight.

There is also a plum outside my music room window, another visible from our home deck and one in our yard. This morning I looked at its bare branches and saw the first little blossom. And lo and behold, it sprouted a poem! I have my own private collection of my poetry and occasionally read some in public, but it had been a long time since I had written one. It was an auspicious surprise and along with going to a concert tonight at the new SF Jazz Center, another sign that February looks promising. And so here’s the poem.

The Plum Tree in February

The twined bare branches against the grey sky,
a twisted prayer pointing upwards.
All is winter in the plum tree,
a mere remembrance of a
former red-leaved splendor.

Hidden in the tangle
is a single pink blossom,
a scout sent out ahead bearing
the good news:

“The bloom will soon be here.
Soon these stark branches
will be aflame in pink blossoms 
singing their Hallelujah to Spring.”

Perhaps this is my work also.
To be the lone pink blossom
announcing the glory to come. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mutual Admiration

February is off to a good start. It began with an 8th grade class that played the heck out of a Monk tune, almost performance-ready in three classes. The focus of this particular group is extraordinary, not the usual swimming upstream against constant kid movement, chatter and xylophone tinkering while I’m talking and the result is that they learn quickly and it sticks. After the last note, I blew them a kiss and said, “You are one remarkable group of kids. With this music behind you, go forth into the day in peace and beauty!” One of them lingered a bit after class and said, in all sincerity, “Thank you. That was really fun.”

Later I had a class of 25 preschoolers playing a stirring version of Roses Are Red on frog woodblocks, triangles and conga drums. A five-year old turned to me on the way out the door and said, “You’re a great music teacher!!” “Why, thank you, “ I replied. “And you’re a great music student!”

And there was the perfect balance between the elder affirming the child for his effort and accomplishment and the child recognizing that it’s proper to also thank the teacher. I grew up in the “children should be seen and not heard” style of child-raising and yes, some sense of being seen by a few key adults occasionally came my way, but it certainly was not high on the adults’ “to-do list.” And so I devoted my life to a school where the children reigned supreme, called us teachers by our first names (and still do), where we didn’t (and still mostly don’t) even have a teacher’s faculty room. I can report back that children indeed feel known and seen and heard and honored and appreciated in our school and ultimately look back at it all with gratitude. Hooray for that! But a little more gratitude and respect for the teacher at each step along the way wouldn’t be a bad thing. In fact, it would be a wonderful thing.

I’m mostly in the camp that respect for the elder is something that is organically grown and earned by the teacher’s relationship with each child. Going through the mere gestures of respect often becomes routine and insincere. But respect is also a cultural value, a practice, an etiquette and something that adults need to inculcate in the children we raise. We certainly could do a better job at my school.

Just yesterday, a middle school class came in and sat on the risers as they do at the beginning of class. Now granted, 8:15 am does not show the 13-year old at his or her peak, but still, when I said “Good morning” to the group, I got a few random samples of a mumbled “good morning” with a hardly a moving lip in sight and no eye contact. So I told them how in many places I travel, the class stands up when the teacher enters and gives an energetic group unison, “Good morning!” to the teacher. So I suggested we try it for practice. I walked out the door and re-entered and they said “Good morning, Mr. Goodkin!” Of course, it was all in play, but may I freely confess? I loved it! It felt great!

Mutual respect and admiration. It's a good idea, easy to say, hard to come by. If you have it in your school, let me in on the secret.