Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dancing in the Streets

I was 18-years old when I went to my first mass demonstration—one of the early marches on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. It was exciting, thrilling, important-feeling and bit scary when tear-gassed in a restaurant. But it felt like the right place to be with the right people for the right reason. Wanton death and destruction in the name of freedom was not, is not and never shall be a good idea. And so we said with our presence out on the streets.

And again today, marching with the school contigent at the Gay Pride Parade. An especially festive atmosphere with the overturn of Prop 8 and DOMA and the next step toward allowing people to define themselves without shame and to love whom they choose and to be accorded the same rights in a loving relationship as anyone else. Simple, yes?

In-between 1969 and today, I spent some time on the streets protesting nuclear weapons proliferation, the Desert Storm war, the war in Iraq and other death-dealing/ environment crushing/ freedom-limiting ventures. I also took to the streets in San Francisco’s Carnaval Parade, Day of the Dead Parade, Halloween and other festive ventures celebrating—well, celebrating the fun of celebration! With music, dance, and fellowship. (And some of the most memorable festivals have been in places like India, Bali, Japan, Ghana, Brazil, Mexico, Spain.)

Of course, I also enjoy a quiet evening at home, a meeting in a cafĂ© with a friend, an intimate concert in a cozy jazz club or political discussion around a dinnertable. But whether protesting a political outrage, celebrating a political victory, joining the fans after a World Series win or simply dancing to bells and drums in full costume, the streets are the place I keep coming back to. We need those moments when like-minded folks join their voices to create a larger presence. It felt like at least a million people lining SF’s Market Street today, cheering in exultation. Exciting!

But I think tomorrow night I’ll stay home and read a book.

24 Hour Minister

I’m going to marry someone today. That is, officiate a wedding. I have a 24 hour license from the Alameda Marriage Commisioner which expires tomorrow. My virgin voyage as a minister and thrilled to be doing it.

Before the wedding, I’m off to march in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. Should be quite an event, with the recent DOMA and Prop 8 Supreme Court decision. But it occurred to me that I should take advantage of my status and offer to marry anyone interested on the spot. And quick before another court changes its mind.

“To prepare oneself for how one will be needed in the world.” That’s a good definition of education and one’s own commitment to lifelong learning. I’m grateful beyond measure whenever an opportunity presents itself to use my particular combination of skills and interests. From inviting kids into the house of jazz to leading a wedding ceremony to leading a funeral ceremony to playing piano at the Old Age home to helping edit and publish someone’s book (and my own) to giving public talks on music and education to teaching kids to teaching adults to playing ukelele and singing to my granddaughter, it’s a wonderful, wild, wacky and weird ride and I’m so happy to be on the rollercoaster. Yes, grouchy when someone doesn’t let me on the ride, but that’s part of my confidence that I have something to contribute and how can you not see that?! (spoken with indignation, disappointment or outrage).

But that’s my particular insanity, wanting it all and today is the moment to celebrate the flip side, my amazement and again, deep gratitude, that I get to do the things I get to do. All by design, all by hard work, all by the fortune of the right connections, but mostly, all by grace and the generosity of the world. Thank you, world, and don’t forget, Gay Pride Marchers, I have a license and I know how to use it!

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Patience and perseverance. Sometimes they pay off. Today I fulfilled a long-time dream of performing a Family Jazz Concert in the prestigious Stanford Jazz Festival with my group The Pentatonics. (Thanks to Jim Nadel!) With a bigger audience than I’m used to, I should have been a little nervous. But I wasn’t. For one simple reason. Much of the audience was kids between 1 and 8 years old and I speak Childrenese.

Can’t take much credit for it. After teaching kids between 3 and 14 for 38 years, I better be fluent! But it was thrilling to use my skills to help kids cross the bridge into jazz in a way they can relate to and understand. Family Jazz is hot right now and I love it that great jazz musicians are taking time with the kids. But they’re used to speaking Adultenese and sometimes shoot over the heads of the kids with the facts and figures of jazz a bit hard for the three-year old to relate to. Of course, the music is great and goes right to the muscles and bone, but still it helps to have a child-sized door to go through.

Today’s strategies began with participation through singing, through gesture, through movement (all in their seats). After a welcome song, there was the story of the family, each a different size and shape with a different voice and a different personality—“Just like your family!” There was Mr. Bass going for a walk and then Ms. Drum, a bit more hyper, picking up a stone there and picking a flower there, accompanied him. Then came Mr. Sax, who loved to tell the story of his day and then Ms. Piano, interjecting “Ah hah’s” and “Really?” and “What happened next?” and then telling a little story herself. Then they all sang a song together and in came Ms. Singer, telling them how much she “Loved Being Here with You.” It helped give the kids some images as to how to listen to the different relationships. And the adults too.

Other strategies included Mozart hiding a song inside notes (his variations on Twinkle Little Star melody) and then having a weird dream (now a jazz version of the song the kids know so well). There was the song about working on the farm, with its invitation to practice pronouns while pointing to different people around in the audience. The old Boom Chick a Boom, with kids trying out different voices that their parents had to copy and then some coming up on stage to play xylophones and drums with all parts coming from the text. There was my Juba mosquito-slapping routine (always a hit!) and then select kids going through a silent movie about waking up and going through the day while I played ragtime piano. A song about being happy and optimistic (The Sunnyside of the Street), another about the season we’re in (Summertime) and finally the rollicking Latin jazz tune “Soul Sauce.”

Almost 90 minutes with kids with it almost every step of the way. At the end, they swarmed the stage to try out some of the instruments. Like 100 of them. Proof that the show affirmed their own musical desires and enticed them to participate further. That they knew that the band spoke Childrenese and we understood how kids think and feel. Music is its own direct language, but it sure helps to have some help entering its conversation. And that takes as much thought and intelligence as composing, playing and improvising the music itself.

Thanks to fellow members Joshi Marshall, Sam Heminger, Micah McClain, Connie Doolan (music teachers of kids all) and Josh Reinier (14 years old) for the great music and great spirit. The smile of the little girl who ran up and shouted, “That was so much fun!” was the best review we could have gotten. A memorable morning!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Outrage Lite

“If  you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

I like this bumper sticker. Not enough to buy one, but then again, I don’t need to— I’m living it. Outrage is my constant companion these days and truth be told, it’s not always the best company. Good for a vigorous walk around the block, but not the person you want to wake up next to or hug goodnight.

For reasons far beyond my understanding, I seem to have the same capacity for outrage at near 62-years old as the 12-year old finding out for the first time about the slave trade. “Do you guys know about this?!! Slavery sucks!!!” I also seem to have the bad luck to actually pay attention to the things going on around me and these days, that act of attention mostly ends in indignation, disbelief, anger, disappointment and…well, outrage.

I believe in outrage. It serves a noble purpose and the world would be less without it. But when it starts becoming the state you live in, even if for understandable reasons, it starts to get toxic. Not only for your own health and well-being, but for anyone who has the misfortune to be in striking distance and expected to share your dismay. We need the option of ordering Outrage Lite. 

So I tried an experiment today. Instead of expecting the things I consider sane and just and compassionate and true to cross my threshold, I imagined that something else outrageous was going to happen and instead of being shocked, I should just be curious as to what form it was going to take. Then go out and greet it calmly, “Oh, there you are. Good to see you again. Wow! Nice suit. Looking good as you wreak havoc.”

Sure enough, two things came in through the proverbial mail slot that normally would raise my blood pressure and merit the now customary, “What the &$%#?!!!” response. Instead, I just said, “Well, isn’t that interesting?” and went on with my day.

And here’s the amazing thing. It worked!!! I felt light and dispassionate and untouched by it all. Of course, people I know will be hurt by it or our capacity to think and feel will be diminished, but for once in my life, I took the mainstream stance: “Hey, it’s not my problem.” It felt great!! Why am I beating my head against the wall of some vision of the world the way it “should be” and the way it is? Just accept it all, get through, keep my head down and my mouth shut and hope for the best. What a great strategy! Why didn’t I think of this before?

Are you detecting a little sarcasm here? Oh, you clever reader. But there is a hint of seriousness. It does feel great not to keep trying to kick the football that gets snatched away. It’s a relief having shouldered the burden of a caring beyond reason to set it down for a moment. It’s a brilliant thought that at least some of the energy spent brooding and fuming and writing and talking to others might be better spent mastering Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin on the piano.

Do I care about the people who will bear the consequences of a dubious decision? Yes, I do. But for now all I can do is play the piano on their behalf.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Son of Numbers Nerd

Sorry. I just can’t resist. Yesterday’s posting was my 555th entry since I began this blog and my followers tipped over to 100. And then the TEDx talk went to 4,555. That’s a stellar day for Numbers Nerd! (Thinking about getting a T-shirt made to proclaim my new secret identity— or a tattoo?)

What is it about numbers? I think they tickle that part of our brain that sets us apart from our animal kinfolk, that capacity to perceive and name and measure pattern, the ability to abtract ourselves from the messy, muddy world and enter a pure realm of thought. It was the last part of the brain to develop, tucked away (though not solely) in the left hemisphere far from the line that goes to the heart. It’s safe and dry there and when we understand how things work, predictable and dependable. In short, all the things that life is not.

And so it’s a place to retreat to when emotions feel too muddled, a haven where the arrows of outrage, grief, bitterness, anger, disappointment can’t reach. I think of my recent encounter with the woman who felt that music was too intense for her to listen to or play. Apparently, she’s a brilliant mathematician and perhaps the two are connected for her. Music is too scary to invite in.

And yet what is music but math in sound and motion? What is math but disembodied music? Every aspect of music can be—and is— described mathematically. The carnival of numbers and patterns in rhythm— measured intervals of beat, the 3/4, 4/4/, 6/8, 15/16 groupings of beats in meter, the elongations, divisions and subdivisions of beat in all their half note, quarter note, eighth note and beyond glory, the common denominators of polyrhythm as 2 and 3 meet down the line, the tempo markings on the metronome—it’s all math. Pitch itself is described mathematically (A=440 cycles per second), melodies have a geometric shape and contour. Harmony is advanced mathematics as the V7 chord resolves to the I and then goes on to journey through a veritable playground of simultaneous sounds described at the IImb7  or the Bb13 or the D7#5, those sonic vertical constructions. Timbre is also math-defined, the louds and softs measured in decibels, attack measurable in visible sound envelopes, instrument tone colors determined by ratios of frequencies and overtones. And finally, form is yet another playground of mathematical relationships— the AABA models or the 12-bar blues or the canon with one part chasing another. Math, math, math.

The beauty is that music is the place where math can open the heart. It’s the beckoning door from the closed castle of abstract thought that leads back to the world, takes the chaos and puts it in order (or rather reveals the inherent order in the apparent chaos), writes a love note where V7 falls into the arms of I and they live happily ever after.

And that’s the question here. How to live with the heart open to love? Anything can become a retreat from the hurt or fear of hurt—math, machines, even music. And we need such retreats to survive. But it’s not a good idea to live there. The world beckons us forth, in full knowledge of the pain and suffering that comes from loving too deeply, caring too much, trusting too much. On yet another inviting summer day, I step outside ready to meet it.

But first I want to check how many Facebook friends I have. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Triple Surprise!

I am always prepared to be astonished and the world came through today.

First was visiting my Mom and finding her upright in her chair, complete awake, lucid and present. She’s been a roller coaster her whole life and the sharp descents and difficult ascents are yet more extreme in the past five years and yet more in the past five weeks. Truth be told, the evidence seemed to be pointing to steady decline and exit. But today she was wholly there. Happy, coherent, observant. How does this happen?

Next surprise was a slap in the face from science. Almost two years now that I began the Doug Diet that finally allowed me to tuck in my shirt in public. As time went on, I became more and more lax and yet my metabolism seemed to have changed and didn’t punish me. I felt like I was really beating the system, eating large helpings of ice cream and such and having a grand old time and every time, the needle on the scale stayed in the same place. Until today. Seems there was five pounds tucked away in some negative universe in my body and it jumped out from its hiding place and shouted, “Gotcha!!” Seriously. Yesterday, one weight and today, plus five! Dang! Back to some restraint.

But of course, such trivia as my weight pattern barely merits mention on Facebook, never mind this elevated blog. What really astounded me today was getting the news that Supreme Court did something right for a change. Astounding! Striking down DOMA and Prop 8 and a step in the direction of justice, equality and for goodness sakes, letting people love whom they choose! All this Conservative huffing and puffing because their paradigm is challenged while they seem oh so comfortable to put guns in the hands of serial killers. Well, good on you, Supreme Court, for taking this necessary, bold and just step. Keep on going! Keep surprising us!

Three surprises were about all I could handle, but there was one more waiting for me. Some God of Public Transportation has decreed that whenever Doug waits for the N-Judah underground, the J, K, L, and M shall always come first and often come again before the N appears. Never fails. But today, I walked down the stairs and straight into the open doors of—the N-Judah!!!

Just when we’re prepared to accept all the disappointment, bad decisions, failed hopes, things like this happen and renew our optimism. Sometimes government comes through, the streetcar arrives just on time, a loved one springs back. Hooray for that!

Now to go eat my cottage cheese and kale for dinner.

PS The universe always seeks balance. So of course, I burned the kale while posting this blog.

World First

I imagine we all have our own way to start the day. A cup of coffee or tea, a morning jog, a yoga or Pilates routine. For some 40 years now, mine has been to sit atop a black round pillow with my legs crossed, make a circle with my arms, thumbs touching lightly and set myself gently into the world with each rise and fall of my breath. This exquisite practice of zazen, honed and crafted over a couple of thousand years, walks me across the bridge from the dream world into the living day. But the window between first opening the eyes and lighting the incense should be small. It’s important to go from Dream to Presence before the mind starts pumping out its lists, its obsessions, its daily chatter, Give it a chance to merge with morning birds and settle into a pure awareness before it starts checking its messages.

All writing is to oneself alone, not so much revelation as reminder and here I’m sending a note to Self: “Don’t open the damn laptop before sitting!” There’s a little feud going on between my need to connect with World through the body and breath and my equal need to feel connected to others through the glittering glamour of e-mails and Facebook posts, those flimsy illusions that we are needed and important and interesting to others. Well, yes, some of that chatter is necessary to keep the engines of our lives running and often pleasurable to hear from a friend or find out their news. But order matters. Sit first. E-mail later.

Today I went down the dark path to the bright screen and my sitting was weaker for it. I remembered an old haiku somewhere on this subject and miraculously, found it in one of my old handwritten journals:

                                                “The messenger
                                                 Offers the branch of plum blossoms,
                                                 Then the letter."

Brilliant! First the plum blossoms, then the letter. And then the blossoms again. The sun is out in San Francisco after three days of wintry rain and I am out the door and running.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Music for All?

When talking to an audience about the need for quality music education, I finally have a shtick. (You can see this on my TEDx talk.)  I ask three questions:

1)    “How many of you are musicians?"
2)    "How many are musical?"
3)  "How many love music?"

Amongst American adults (not the kids at my school!), the percentage is fairly consistent— between 15% and 25% for the first, between 40% and 50% for the second and always 100% for the third.

Until today.

While giving a workshop to classroom teachers, I noted one teacher didn’t raise her hand for number three. “Really?” I asked. “Yes, it’s true. If I listen to music, it gets stuck in my head, so I prefer not to listen. I have no record/CD collection, don’t listen to the radio, really, I just don’t like listening to music.”

Well, here was a fascinating challenge. Not that I felt I had to convince her. But let’s face it, that’s a fairly uncommon response. I was intrigued. “All music?” “Yes, pretty much all music. Though I have thought about having Gregorian Chant sung at my funeral. I don’t mind that music so much.” Because it’s not repetitive enough to get stuck in your head?” “Well, maybe that’s it.”

That’s as far as we got before lunch. But note, she voluntarily came to a workshop on music. She participated fully in the activities, sang the songs (for an hour!) with the others after lunch, danced while singing, played percussion instruments and tried out the body percussion. I had to admire her for spending a day doing something she claimed she disliked.

At the end of the workshop, I brought out six Orff instruments to do a little improvisation exercise. I asked for volunteers, but I made a special point to volunteer my music-skeptic friend. And sure enough, she improvised a coherent and tuneful melody on the metallophone. At the end, she admitted it was okay. And then commented, “But I could never be a music teacher. It’s just so intense.” “Well, here’s the good news. You don’t have to be a music teacher! But you might consider letting yourself enjoy a bit of music now and then.” Now she was warming up. “Like an occasional rich dessert.” “Yes, that’s the idea. And it’s a pretty big banquet table to choose from. I bet you can find something that suits your mood.”

Finally, at the end, she said, “You know, I think it’s just that the emotions released in music are too intense for me to handle.” This was a long journey from “I get silly songs stuck in my head.” And I told her she had some exalted company. I remember reading that the brilliant psychologist Carl Jung had to ration himself listening to music because it unleashed such powerful forces in him. I suggested she try small doses of music too intricate to get stuck in her head (the Germans call this “earworms”) and choose some of the more cerebral or dispassionate styles. She is a mathematician, so I thought Bach might be a good place to start. She left with a thoughtful look on her face— “I just might try that”— and thanked me for the day.

It was a memorable encounter. I’m still thinking about it. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013


After waxing rhapsodic with yesterday’s Ode to Summer, I woke up this morning to a harsh reminder— I live in San Francisco. The summer fog— oh, so romantic viewed from a distance, yet oh so depressing when you’re in the thick of it— had arrived with its suitcases packed for a long stay. This was the thick variety verging on heavy mist and occasionally crossing the line into light rain. Which is strictly against the rules of our dry season expecations.

As ill luck would have it, this is the day I chose to take my Mom out for a drive in the car. It’s a bit of a production to get her into the car and I need a block of time longer than I usually have, so truth be told, it must have been 8 months since she left the confines of the Jewish Home. Inside, the atrium is spacious, there is a live tree and there are gardens close by when the weather invites, but still it’s inside. Not that she complains— in her state, it’s all the same to her.

But yet it’s not. When we go out, her interest perks up and I think she returns refreshed in a way that nothing else offers. Today, she was lethargic for the first part of the ride, but then gradually got livelier and started exclaiming, as she often does, “Will you look at that? Isn’t that beautiful?” I thought I could outrun the fog and headed south to Half Moon Bay, but though it stopped raining and the view was a bit clearer, no sun in sight. Still sweet to cross over on 92 to Rt. 1, pass the old memories of taking my kids to the Pumpkin Patch and more recent delightful excursions in that area. Back we went serenaded by Allan Sherman’s hilarious songs and then, back to her poem where she conducted me yet again with piano adventures with Haydn, Beethoven, Grieg and company. And outside, still the fog.

So tonight’s summer night is perfect for a hearty miso soup and finishing the long video of the 1946 version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Ahead of its time with Larry the spiritual seeker going to India to find his truth, but hilarious to see Hollywood’s 1940’s depiction of a yoga ashram there. (Bill Murray’s more recent adaptation much better).

But one appealing thing about the scenes in India.

There was no fog.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Here My Summer Begins

Conveniently, the calendar and I agree. The first day of summer felt like the first day of summer. Kept the laptop lid closed and whisked off in the morning to visit friends and meet their grandchild— a year late! How fine it felt to be on my bike, the sun on my face, the wind at my back, my deadlined-work behind me and the summer gloriously ahead. The little tyke was ever bit as adorable as the proud grandparents had been proclaiming and naturally, with a piano in the house, we had to do some singing and dancing. And so we did and joyfully so.

Then off on the bikes to Marin, joining the tourist throngs on the Golden Gate Bridge over to Sausalito. High winds on the bridge and extraordinary that the railing is still about shoulder-high, conjuring fantasies of an untimely wind gust lifting me up and over. Down to Sausalito, where the crowds thickened yet again, the water sparkling, the city off in the distance like the fairy tale castles in the old stories. An outdoor lunch, grilled panini, mozzarella and tomato with an ice coffee chaser and back on the bike for the return trek. Had to smile at the “Bicycles Slow Down” sign right at the base of the enormous hill ascending to the bridge.

Passing through Golden Gate Park, I heard the click of sticks and saw the Morris Dancers in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, heralding in the new season and the longest day of the year. (On Facebook, saw photos of the bonfires in Finland. They do it up big there!). The lawns filled with bathing-suited summer loafers doing just what the season recommends— nothing! Stop at the market on the way home and buy the first nectarines of the season, ripe, juicy and summery delicious.

Now it’s Prairie Home Companion on the radio to accompany the corn on the cob, grilled vegetables and Aidell’s sausage preparation, to be followed by a DVD re-viewing of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as an extension of The Paris Wife book I just finished. Yeah!

Theoretically, I could have eight more weeks of days like this. But of course, I don’t. Six of the eight will be filled with teaching Orff courses and happily so. I love every minute of it. Still, there comes a time (somewhere around the 5th straight week) when I realize that as joyful as it is, I’m still living according to schedule, with some evening class planning and occasional homework to correct. Not precisely the “nothing” of true Summer.

But hey, I’m not complaining. It’s all good and it’s especially good today and I’m grateful for all of it. “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” Yes, indeed.

The Spider in the Sink Basin

When I stepped up to the sink to shave this morning, I noticed a spider in the basin. It made me pause. Normally, I would have just turned on the water and washed it away. After all, I’m a higher living form and have both the power and right to sweep away the lesser creatures interfering with my important schedule. I might have done it with humor, singing “out came the rain and washed the spider out!” or with cruelty or calloused indifference. I could have gotten revenge on all the people who have treated me shabbily (the list is growing!) and taken it out on this little spider.

But instead I paused. For here was one of God’s creatures who had caused me no harm, posed me no threat, did nothing wrong but show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ain’t it got a right to the Tree of Life? And so I took a piece of paper, scooped it up and set it outside the bathroom window. It felt like the right thing to do.

Why am I telling about this? Do I expect some credit or Frequent Karma Flyer miles in the Ahimsa- Do-No-Harm Incorporated club? Of course I do!! I’m an American!! Even good deeds must be measurable in payback and treated as an economic transaction. Duh!

And in fact, most of the world’s religions have something like this. The Christian Heaven-Hell-Purgatory Clubs, the Jewish Yahweh keeping an account in his ledger, the Hindu Wheel of Re-incarnation and Karma Record (kill a spider, be reincarnated as a fly!).  We flawed mortals don’t have what it takes to do the right thing because it is the right thing in itself. We must be threatened, cajoled, punished, rewarded to motivate us and keep us on the straight and narrow. This trickles down to our child-raising and school policies and workplace culture and we consistently fulfill our own predictions. When we get hooked into the system of reward and punishment as motivation, we lose our own moral compass and also our own pleasure in doing things for their own pleasurable and sense of rightness. But every once in a while, we remember what a privilege it is to be incarnated as a human being and what responsibilities come with the job. Ahimsa. Minimize harm to others and self.

That’s today’s comment, inspired by an itsy-bitsy spider near my waterspout. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

No Comment

The poet Mary Oliver takes a morning walk every day and World says to her: “Here I am. Would you like to make a comment?” And so she does, in an impressive body of work that essentially says the same thing in many different ways, “Thank you, World. You are beautiful.”

I see this blog as my comment board, but agree with Ms. Oliver that one must get out of the house to make a comment worthy of the ink or electrons it requires. I’ve been buried for two days straight wandering through the maze of official J-1 Visa forms so three people from abroad can join the music department next Fall in our first-ever and long-dreamed of Orff Internship Program. If I had know what lay ahead with Visa requirements when I first dreamed the idea, I would have quickly shelved it as a nightmare! However, I did find one friendly and helpful person in a buffer-zone-institution that is helping me walk through it and that is helping.

But in the meantime, some lovely warm San Francisco days are slipping away from me as I chain myself to the screen. Days where a long walk or bike ride may have reaped some worthy comments. Days that I hope to re-enter after 5 pm today, when the paperwork sets off on its journey to open the door to these visitors from abroad. May it be so!

Meanwhile, all I have to report is that my 99th reader appeared (thanks, Janet!), a glorious Family Jazz Concert with my Pentatonics band awaits me in one week, the sun is shining and the World is probably warm and beautiful, but who would know seated at the screen that knows no weather and is making me dizzy with its bright lights and convoluted Visa forms. At least I can take a break and go out with my lunch.

If I see anything worth commenting on while eating leftover quinoa salad, I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Return of Numbers Nerd

Here’s what people with too much time on their hands do:

• Keep checking to see when their TEDx talk hits 4, 444 viewings with camera ready to take a photo. (Missed it! It’s at 4, 446)

• Hope that one more person became a Blog follower to total 99. (They didn’t. It’s 98.)

• See if all all-time Blog page views hit 51,115. (Again, missed it. It’s 51,169).

• See if number of friends on Facebook hit 1,234. (Missed it. 1, 243).

• Thought it would have been cool to see 4444, 99, 51115, 1234 and be disappointed to miss them.

• Try to upgrade their self-esteem by checking these numbers— and then sneakily post them publicly in this blog.

• Spend 5 minutes and 55 seconds trying to think of a clever closing line and redeem their shame that they've posted such nonsense.

• Give up and post it anyway. At 11:11 pm. 

• Confess that it's really 10:54 pm, but not worth waiting up another 17 minutes.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Moveable Feast

Finished The Paris Wife on my plane ride home and found it intriguing to get a more intimate portrait of Hemingway and the ex-pats over in Paris in the ’20’s. Hemingway’s macho gun-toting heavy-drinking exterior and his actual writing have never done much for me and still don’t. But stories of people driven by their art and committed to honing their craft are more and more intriguing and both were certainly true of him. Like Carl Orff and Gary Snyder, he had four wives, most of them overlapping (the above book is about his first and soon-to-be second wife). He lived in interesting places, most of which I’ve been to— upper Michigan, Toronto, Chicago, Paris, Key West (saw his house there), Cuba (saw his house there) and then Idaho (haven’t been there) and spent lots of time in Spain (me, too).

I’m always intrigued by the gathering of artists and find it particularly interesting that writers, usually working in solitude, have always sought out each other’s company and formed little communities— Hemingway’s crowd in Paris (Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more) the Algonquin Round Table in New York, the Beat Poets in San Francisco, And often there is a mixture of artists— throw in Picasso and Stravinsky and Josephine Baker and things get even more interesting. All these people stretching the bounds of convention (these 20’s women more “liberated” than their 50’s American counterparts) getting together to create their own conventions, which back then meant parties, parties, parties, and lots and lots of drinking, drinking and more drinking. Reading about it, you wonder when they ever worked! But work they did and the work they left us was important enough that we care to read about their drinking parties.

Yesterday I bought Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his last work digging back into that time in the 20’s in Paris. I’ll give him one last chance to interest me as a writer and am intrigued to hear the story from his point of view. Meanwhile, I did the Wiki-bio of the man to corraborate some of the facts and was struck by all he suffered. I always have this romantic notion of the successful artist leading the charmed life and really, who knows where I got that strange idea from. Just like at the facts— Bach goes blind, Beethoven goes deaf, Schumann ruins his fingers with a weird contraption and goes crazy, Chopin and poet Rilke in poor health their whole life, Scott Jopin’s opera fails and he ends in a mental institution, Cole Porter is crippled in a car accident, Gershwin dies young of a brain tumor. Well, it’s a long list and I’m just getting warmed-up— drinking, drugs, failed relationships, disease, insanity, suicide. No wonder people are so averse to arts in the school! Keep your kids away from it!!

Hemingway was severely wounded as a young ambulance driver in Italy, got in two car accidents and two plane crashes, his father, sister and brother all committed suicide, he went to the Mayo clinic for depression and got electro-shock therapy and finally committed suicide himself at 62 years old. My age.

My health (knock on wood) is hearty at the moment, my drinking limited to a half a bottle of beer a day (corked up for the next), my tragedies of relatively small proportion— like finding my window smashed in my parked car and my backpack gone filled with Xerox sheers of classical music (a cultured thief!). But I have been heartily knocked off the horse of my notion that life improves in ascending measurable curves, that one’s reputation is solid and untouchable, that one’s achievements are universally appreciated, that one’s relationships are dependable and filled with honest communication, that each day, each month, each year, moves delightfully from one moveable feast to another.

Let’s face it, I’m in it up to my neck like the rest of us and the "feast" is sometimes stale potato chips and moldy white bread. While we think we can craft the world we want to be with vision, love and patience, mostly we’re just trying to survive any way we can. We talk about being open, but we carry our portable fortress with us at all times to protect us from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And mostly we wear it daily. It just hurts too damn much to put it down and meet life bare-chested.

Well, I guess it’s time to get that car window fixed. Hope some thief somewhere is enjoying playing Schumann's Arabesque.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Honor Thy Father

Well, the full quote is "Honor thy father and mother," but Hallmark says to focus on the father now and though I’m a day late, might as well join the Facebook crowd and say a few words.  (Actually, only 4 hours late at 4 am in the jet-lagged morning after 22 hours of travel from Finland and little sleep.)

I did dream of my dad the night before, details fuzzy, but the feeling warm and the image from an earlier time. One of the difficulties of our intense 7-months of saying goodbye back in 2007 was that the images from the end tended to supplant the man I knew from earlier times. When he was gone, the man I remembered was the bed-ridden one. That earlier man is coming back now, in all his simplicity and complexity.

But mostly complexity. What person is not filled with complex qualities, many at war with each other and with the world? What parent-child relationship is not equally filled with the push and pull of acceptance and rejection, nurture and judgment, affirmation and disappointment? The traditional (in some cultures? in all cultures?) role of the father as demanding conditional love (perhaps more to the son than the daughter) and the mother of offering unconditional love (perhaps more to the son than the daughter) held up in my family. To this very day, my still living mother calls me her darling boy (how I will miss that!! Who will take her place?), but my father always was sparse in his praise and all of it had to be earned on his terms. By the end, he did express sincere pride in the success I had in my work and in my own role as father, but to the bitter end, was watching and measuring and judging and letting me know when I fell short. More than one psychologist has suggested that one’s ambition and determination to make a splash in the world is motivated at least in part to prove yourself to the father. And that’s not wholly a bad thing.

In his long attempted recovery from heart-surgery at 88-years old, I visited my dad almost daily in the midst of school and other responsibilities, driving the 101-North “Corridor of Sorrow,” weeping on the return trip while listening to Blossom Dearie. After six-months of this and assured by hospice that he had time left, my wife and I decided to go ahead with a long-planned two-week rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. I asked for his blessing and understanding and in the moment, he seemed to grant it. But upon returning, he decided he was furious with me for abandoning him and shouted at me that when his Dad was sick, he visited him EVERY day! “How many days was that, Dad?” “Seven whole days!” he replied and didn’t quite see the disconnect between that and my six-month vigil. That was my Dad! I think we healed that rupture in the remaining last weeks, but it was typical to the end of that conditional love dynamic.

Six years now since I felt the vibration of his voice with my hand on his back, since our ritual call before each trip and upon returning home and his sign-off “Shake it easy,” since our lunches together at The Left Bank in Larkspur, since sitting on the couch in the Novato apartment watching the old movies he had taped from TV. He lives on in every Crostic puzzle I do on planes, in each visit to my Mom and my sister (I see his face more and more in her). Of course, I miss him and am sorry he missed the next phases of his grandchildren’s lives and the birth of his great-grandchild and the next few books I’ve written and my sister’s dance concerts and my music concerts (he was a faithful audience member), but I think even the most religiously skeptical amongst us get some comfort in imagining our departed loved ones looking down (or up or sideways) from somewhere and no matter whether or not it’s a literal puffy-clouded heaven, there is presence in his absence.

Dad, you will always be my father, at least as long as I’m still here to remember and invoke you and criticize you and affirm you and thank you and curse you and love you and all of the above. Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finnish Finish

Okay, I confess. I don’t have anything earthshaking to say here, but feel compelled to write for three reasons:

  1. I had to use the title above. *
  2. My plane was cancelled and I was re-routed, giving me three extra hours in the airport. If I have to pass the time, I might as well invite you to join me.
  3. Sometimes you just have to start writing and see if anything interesting turns up.
So here in Helsinki Airport awaiting the long flights home. Last night, got off the boat and was whisked away to have dinner with Finnish tap dancers taught by a Greek man and a French woman living in Spain with her husband from Cameroon and their mixed-race Down’s syndrome daughter—all meeting in a Turkish restaurant and most of us talking in English. Diversity committee, take note! Dinner was superb, conversation fascinating and stimulating. I had an image of secret messages being tapped by feet under the table, but either they were too subtle for my diminishing ears or it didn’t happen. The Greek teacher and a Finnish man sitting side-by-side both had on plaid shirts and after a conversation with my daughter about the Hipster movement in plaid, I took a photo to show how it is spreading internationally.

Back at my friend’s house, I helped her translate the Finnish Orff Guidelines into English. Which seems strange since I speak exactly three words of Finnish, but actually I was able to help her. She gave me the music and translation to some haunting minor Finnnish folk songs (one of which they had sung to me while I lay in the middle of the circle). I’m excited about making some piano reharmonizations of them and learning one or two to try with the kids. We shared stories of our struggles with folks in power who don’t get who we are and what we have to offer (it’s universal!) and I retreated to my room to watch the end of Roman Holiday (see last entry).

The morning continued with more stories of parents who are abdicating their authority to their kids and letting the machines run their lives and though it’s just beginning in Finland, the scenarios are, again, universal. As authors Jerry Mander and Neal Postman pointed out decades ago, these technologies are not culturally, psychologically or emotional neutral. They have clear consequences and the patterns are traceable and consistent regardless of the mother culture. They amp up greed and desire, lower responsibility and connection in relationship, subvert family life and a healthy authority, promote short attention spans and restlessness. In the 1980’s, a school parent and I instituted the first TV Awareness week, later changed it to Media Awareness and continued these discussions each year for the next 10 to 15 years. But we haven’t had one at school for over a decade and how things have changed since then! Maybe time to bring it back. The only antidote to the negative effects is awareness, an awareness that can help us enjoy the positive things while also knowing when to unplug.

The alert reader might be thinking, “Hello, Doug!!?? You’re complaining about this and making us sit through this boring blog because the airport has Free Wi-fi, you have a laptop and you have a blog? Why don’t you just shut-up and watch the people walking by or gaze at the line of pine trees out the window or try to pronounce all the Finnish words you see?”

Okay, I get it. I’ll stop.

Right after I check my e-mail.

* PS Looked up last year’s blogs and already used that title! Darn!

Roman Holiday

No, I didn’t change my flight from Helsinki to San Francisco to go to Rome instead, abandon all my responsibilities and opt for a permanent holiday. (Though hey, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea!) But I have a habit of bringing one DVD movie with me on trips like this to enjoy some lonely night in my hotel room. And this trip’s choice was Roman Holiday, the classic film with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. (In fact, I think Audrey Hepburn's first film.)

Of course, I’d seen it before many years ago, but thanks to leaking memory, it didn’t diminish the pleasure to watch it again. In fact, it just zoomed up to my top 10 favorite list. It has everything I look for in a film— attractive leading man and lady with attractive characters to boot, a plot with twists and turns, secrets and misunderstandings, adventure, surprise and most important of all, transformation. Someone’s world opening up to new dimensions, often riding on the wings of love. Not only love between two people, but the love freed up by new experiences, new dreamed-of or previously undreamed-of possibilities, the delicious sense of abandoning the obligations that both define us and keep us tethered to a too narrow definition. Opening wider, reaching higher, digging deeper, the 360 degree expansion into a larger version of ourself. And then the inevitable return to duty— but with the windows still open to further transformation. Humor, tenderness, heart-stopping moments, all set against the romance of Rome. A classic.

To quote the predictable endings of our elementary school book reports (do kids still do these?): “If you want to find out what happened, I suggest you see this film.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tallinn Cuisine

A mere two days later, I’m back on the boat to Helsinki. Again, too windy for Deck 9, so I’m down in the snack bar with wireless Internet and girl’s basketball on TV. They’re good! Last night I finished my last class for two and half weeks, to resume that thread in Barcelona in early July.

I’m sure I have nothing new to say about Estonia except that I’m happy I came here again. My gracious host went out of her way to choose three extraordinary restaurants, giving me an impression of Tallinn cuisine as up there with Beijing as the best I’ve ever sampled. There is a dark bread with crunchy hemp seeds in it that is unlike any I’ve ever had— in a good way! I had the best Caesar salad of my life presented most artistically, grilled vegetables that seemed as if each were attended with loving care by a master chef, prawns who gave their life for a good cause and a cherry beer that would earn Trader Joe’s my lifetime loyalty if only they would carry it. All in beautiful settings with attentive staff who didn’t tell you their name. The bills came in a little wooden box. And, icing on the delicious dessert cake, were always paid for by my host!

My hotel room was simple, sparse, filled with beautiful wood and had a view of a forest instead of parking lot. There were two pillows instead of the American 30, one telephone instead of five, working reading lights, free wireless and more hangars than I needed. There were glass glasses in the bathroom and not a single atom of Styrofoam or plastic in the breakfast room.

After a walk in a lovely park (which I wished had been three hours long— see last entry), my host took me to a family concert outside of the city on the edge of the sea. We passed a procession of some 50 American cars from the 50’s and 60’s, mostly the kind with fins, like the Cadillacs, Buicks and the Chrysler of my own childhood. How I regretted not having my camera handy! Down we drove along the inviting forested shoreline and stepped out into the blustery wind. (Ah, the familiar weather of San Francisco!) We stopped at a charming outdoor Farmer’s Market and then on to the concert site.

After yesterday’s workshops, some 10 girls from the Music School where I taught performed a folk song that took my breath away, both the song and the performance. The same girls were on stage now, but to my small disappointment, mostly as back-up vocals for some pop singers performing for the kids. There were two clowns and one funny singer, two pop-starrish ones giving autographs to 6-year olds after the concert. Not my preferred venue and I don’t love getting the young ones into the pop-star mentality, but some of it was cute and the back-up band was versatile and talented.

I met the girls backstage after the concert and asked them to sing the folk song again, this time with camera ready and it was as lovely as I remembered it, enhanced by some gestures and choreography the girls had invented. The old meeting the new.

Though around in bits and pieces for a while (I first gave a workshop in 2002), the Orff wildflower hasn’t yet firmly taken root in Estonia. But I met some promising teachers and tried to lure them to our course in the Carmel Valley. We shall see. Like Finland—and indeed, much of the world— there is a marked absence of men in these courses. In fact, I realized that when I met my host’s husband, he was one of the few Estonian men I’ve met!

Helsinki approaching, one more night out on the town and then the long flight home. I had hopes of trying to finish one of my book projects in the next two weeks at home, but now am leaning toward cleaning my front room. Fun, fun, fun. But I do have one fun little project in mind.

Find out how to bake Estonian dark bread with hemp seeds. Anyone got a recipe?

No Matter. Never Mind.

Once again, I find myself at the wrong end of the stick of power. In a situation in which I have the greater expertise, the other has the job description that grants them the right to use power any way they see fit. And so I spent over three hours of a sunny Estonian morning defending choices point-by-point that I shouldn’t have to defend. Despite some people’s fantasies, I’m not asking for mindless agreement with my point of view. I’m asking people to think, to lay out their thinking and back up their decisions with coherence. As always, I begin the conversation congenially and look for a good spirited discussion that will forge both parties’ thinking on the anvil of disagreement. If that door doesn’t open, the heat rises— and why? Because these conflicts are the guards at the door of my passion, testing me to see exactly how serious I am and how much I'm willing to sacrifice on behalf of my vision. In the end, all antagonists must be thanked, but in the midst of it, it’s just a royal pain in the butt. Three hours indoors when I could have been touring Tallinn.

I finally had the good sense to get the heck out of the hotel and found a nearby park. The birds were singing in their summer glory and within minutes, all was put in perspective. They were telling me in no uncertain terms, “Wake up, you idiot. Out here is the real deal. None of that other stuff matters.”

And they’re right. The article that I’m slaving away on will be read by a mere handful and then put down or forgotten. This very blog is as ephemeral as a blogspot malfunction, these gathered electrons floating out into cyberspace and really, who cares one way or another? The class I spend a lifetime preparing for is a micro-drop in an ocean of schooling. All that seems so vital and important to us in the moment is a dandelion’s head blown away by a sudden breeze, a 10-second footprint on the sand washed away in the next wave, a leaf fallen from a tree. Walking in this park, the birds singing, the sun shining, the breeze blowing, all these relentless struggles fell off of my shoulders, that could sincerely shrug, “No matter. Never mind.”

The Japanese Buddhist haiku masters, those spokespeople for this fleeting, ephemeral world, captured much of this. (Gary Snyder once explained the Buddhist concept of emptiness with this blog’s title: “No matter. Never mind.”) Consider Issa:

This world of dew
Is a world of dew…
And yet. And yet.

About that “and yet.” The birds are right, but they’re also wrong. The great trick is to consider deep down that none of it ultimately matters, but to live each moment “as if.” "As if" it makes all the difference in the world to voice a chord this way instead of that, to choose this word instead of the other one, to spend an hour shopping for the little toys that will make your music class more concrete and fun. "As if" it’s essential to keep knocking at the doors slammed in your face, to jimmy the lock, to take it off the hinges if necessary, in service of what you know is right and true and just. "As if" someone may someday thank you even as you know they won’t.

The birds kept singing and I said back to them, “You know, it doesn’t matter that you are singing. And yet, you do. It doesn’t matter that I am listening. And yet, I am. Knowing that, why do you do it? Because you have to. Every note is proclaiming (as voiced by the poet Hopkins) ‘What I do is me. For that I came.’"

At the end of the day, whether or not someon’s listening, whether or not someone cares, whether or not someone vows to remember, all we can say is, “This is what I had to do. How about you?”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Nobody in Particular

Let this entry start with happiness. That’s the gift that descended while I waited to board the boat to Tallin, Estonia. Just anticipating the open sea ahead was enough to set the spirit soaring. Time to shed the cloak of being someone in particular and retreat into the anonymous traveler set loose in the world to simply partake, observe, enjoy— and then comment in my still handwritten journal and this screened public record. No classes to plan (well, actually yes— a full-day workshop tomorrow, but able to set that aside for the boat ride), no expectations to fulfill, no strings attached. Free. Yes, those strings are golden and connect me to my gods in an intricate and beautiful design— but still I need time for them to go slack. And so after a delicious Nepalese lunch with my dear friend and colleague Terhi, off I went on the boat.

Up to the open air deck, away from the screens and bad music, out with the smokers and Japanese tourists. An overcast day, jeans and vest weather, and the beckoning sea. Wind picking up, guys bringing beer to their table, one with a T-shirt that reads “I always come first.” (I’m thinking, “Not a good advertisement for the ladies.”) The phoners, the texters, the nappers, the sea-gazers, the magazine readers, all gathered on Deck 9.

My mind casts out a line into the sea of neurons and starts reeling in all the big boats I’ve boarded all these years. From Staten Island to Queens, from Barcelona to Formentera, from Italy to Greece, from England to France, from Wales to Ireland, from Athens to Santorini, from Helsinki to Tallin and beyond. Each one a marker in a time of my life that carries treasured memories and will never come again. From the little boy visiting the relatives with his parents to the college senior in his first European adventure to the young adult setting off on a year-trip around the world to the young father with his wife and two darling girls to the seasoned father with everyone grown to the astonished almost-62 year old who can call up each age with a mere memory and feels them all still vibrant and present inside.

So much time and energy keeping those golden threads taut and seeking to create the next design in the pattern. The constant e-mails, flight arrangements, workshop details, class plans, music practice, notes organization, reading, writing that go into making it possible for a few hours of joy in a workshop. Of course, it's a rare gift to get the chance to use everything I know, everything I have, everything I am in each workshop and edge one inch closer to that somebody in particular we’re each destined to be. But truth be told, there are moments in which I think I could happily toss it all overboard and just wander this world being nobody in particular, the guy over in the corner of Deck 9 scribbbling in his blue journal.

But of course, I won’t. Or if I did, I’d have to post it all on this blog.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Full Rainbow Palette

No matter who we are or what our talents, we all are seeking a place in the world to show ourselves, to be wholly used and wholly useful. Daily we sing to World, “All of me, why not use all of me?” —and yet, World is sometimes hard of hearing or indifferent. But today, It opened it’s arms wide and beckoned each color in my rainbow to come through.

It’s not often I get to play the Ghanaian xylophone and Bulgarian bagpipe and grand piano all in the same day, not exactly usual to do gumboot dancing the same day as singing Slavic songs with strong Finnish women, not an every day thing to teach a class to kids with strings, flute, trumpet, French horn and then give a solo piano concert and then watch, in company with many, the video of the Salzburg performance my colleagues and I put on with 17 kids two years ago.

I love teaching my jazz course and it’s probably the place I’ve moved the Orff approach the furthest into new territory. But I equally enjoy teaching this World Music Course. Every piece calls forth a story from my travels and then more stories from the kids at school who played them and then more stories created as I share them with folks in the various places I’ve taught this course—Vancouver, Toronto, Madrid and now Finland. And the joy of feeling so many distinct feelings evoked by music crafted over decades and centuries in cultures far and wide. This rainbow palette of emotion is no clichĂ©— it’s as real as each song, dance, game that dips its brush into the human heart.

Amongst the day’s generous peaks, two stand out. The class with 12 Finnish kids from 8 to 16 years old may have been the finest I’ve ever taught in my entire career. Beginning with a silly game to see who could react fast and clap exactly when I do, we moved seamlessly through a 16-beat body percussion pattern, freely improvised xylophone duets and trios, learning the text and melody to a Slovenian song, finding it on the xylophones, improvising on the tune in groups and solos, then finding it on the band/orchestra instruments, then improvising on those instruments, then featuring three inspired improvisations that wove together masterfully, then transposing to a new key and then the hilarious finish of each choosing their own key— Stravinsky, move over!

The kids were wholly engaged every second of the hour-plus class, filled with good spirit and humor and willing to take daring risks. Uncharacteristically for Finnish culture, they were also quite full of themselves in an exuberant kid kind of way. The girl who said “I know” when I joked that she was my favorite student and the guy who shook my hand goodbye and told me, “You’ll see me on TV someday.” Well, there’s a topic. The naysayers will tell the kid, “Don’t be so full of yourself. Be humble” Or “Do you realize how many kids want to be on TV and how few get chosen? Forget it. It ain’t gonna happen.” And so they step on the young people’s dreams and start training them for cynicism, teach them to accept less than they could be, encourage them to give up and just get through. I told the boy, “I look forward to that.”

And then the day’s final epiphany. Showing the video of the Salzburg performance and me seeing for the first time this professional version, two years later. There were the kids who just graduated from 8th grade last week, there were the kids that just finished 9th and 10th grade elsewhere, there was my heavier mustached self, but once the show started rolling, I was right back in that moment and what a glorious thing that was. The show held up— the music, the energy, the comradery, the astounding variety, the audience’s wild enthusiasm, the love. The Finns felt it vicariously, clapping as vigorously as the people who were there live. By the end, my eyes were wet with the beauty of it all.

One more day of this too-short course, ready to venture to Nicaragua, the Basque country, Zimbabwe, Japan and beyond in music time, then begin a short journey to Estonia in car and boat time. Thanks to the guiding hands, seen and unseen, that made this all possible, the happy blend of deep desire, intention, perseverance, dedication, hard work, good luck and grace. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

True Finn

It was a splendid evening in Finland. The first course over, the final hugs and goodbyes being said, off I went to a teacher’s home for dinner. A lovely, rambling big house with a swing made from birch log, chickens in the barn, a flourishing garden, a grand piano in the living room with a tuba nearby— and of course, the mandatory Finnish sauna. After a brief house and grounds tour (and taking turns on the swing), the ladies went to the sauna while the gents strolled the neighborhood. Past the lilac bushes with their mere 5-day bloom, the neighbor with three Siberian huskies who showed us the dogsled she uses in the winter, walking while swatting the mosquitoes that come with the summer’s joys. And then our turn for the sauna, complete with drinking special local beer, whipping ourselves and each other with leafy birch branches and diving into the cold pool in-between sessions. My bravado in all three earned me the title of “True Finn.”

Then we joined the ladies for a remarkable soup made from local mushrooms picked by our hosts. Apparently it’s poisonous raw, but delicious and safe when cooked. From soup to Indian cuisine exquisitely prepared and lovingly served. Convivial conversation about art and culture and education— warm and intelligent, with healthy doses of laughter. Then a tuba-piano duet with the teenage daughter, followed by a jazz piano lesson with one of the guests who didn’t believe I could make her sound good while improvising and took me up on a bet (she lost—she sounded good!). Having just written about wanting to hear the piano played from underneath, I crawled under while another teacher played. It was splendiferous— a unique musical experience! (Note to self: have your kids at school do the same at the end of class someday while you play.)

By the time we pulled ourselves away from such an enjoyable evening, it was 1:45 in the morning. The sky seemed somewhat light and I was told that it was already heading toward sunrise. I had missed the half hour of dark that comes ‘round midnight. (Hmm. New verse to the Monk song?) Another 2 am bedtime and decided to use the mask someone gave me. Apparently it worked! Didn’t arise until 9:30 in the morning. Time enough to prepare my next class on World Music scheduled to start at 1 pm.

In my fourth full day in Finland, I think the rest of my body has finally arrived and minus jet-lag, feeling more wholly myself and yet more able to enjoy this marvelous land and its people. My next bucket list goal is to come for a week or so (no more!) in the dead of winter and experience the opposite end of the dark/light spectrum. But first, three days of travel ahead to Bali, Japan, the Phillipine, Thailand, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Spain, Ireland, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and beyond. No hotels, passports, airline tickets required. Just fly everywhere on the wings of the sounds of xylophones, drums, bells and whistles. 

Air cleared by a thunderstorm, heart opening wider from the hospitality of the real True Finns and the unqualified joy of doing the work I was born to do, this happy traveler signs off with a song in his heart. In multiple languages, of course.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Women Under Pianos

In our summer Orff training courses and in the last two Miniconferences, I’ve created a new venue for piano solo performance— lights out and people lying on the floor while I play a jazz ballad. People seem to like it, often sharing with me the particular journey they went on in their mind. The only strange thing is the ambivalence about what to do after the last note. Like when there’s a moving piece of music in a church service, do you clap? Most people settle for a tentative, feeble applause and I don’t feel too insulted— loud clapping would be too jarring after some heart-opening moments. But when inventing a new venue, there's a lot to figure out—the end etiquette is a work-in-process.

Last night was the Orff Course show put on by the students, a hilarious affair with the guiding story of the Swedish Princess’s recent marriage at the center of the parody. (Really quite brilliant the way it held together, including a marriage ceremony in which vows were spoken as a clapping play!) At the end was a jubilant live Samba percussion jam that went on for well over an hour, climaxing in people coming down the line two-by-two dancing to the music, each time in a different style with different motions. Quite extraordinary the limitless possibilities when the human body and the human imagination meet on the Samba border.

As the drumming was winding down, I led the musicians over to the piano and segued into a bossa nova, the old standard, “The Girl From Ipanema.” From there, it was an effortless segue into “Besame Mucho” and then “Sway”, with saxophones, trumpets, flutes and accordions appearing and singers who knew all the words. A boisterous boogie blues to "Hound Dog" lyrics followed and then a thrilling conversation between me on piano and a tap-dancer as we “Stomped at the Savoy.” I brought the energy down again with various singers singing a slow, sultry “Summertime” and that’s when I noticed at the end that eight women were lying under the piano.

Several musician friends told me how they used to do the same as kids when their Mom or Dad was playing piano, feeling the vibrations above and below and absorbing the music with their whole body as a giant ear. I’d like to try it myself sometime! But meanwhile, it helped remind me to voice each chord fully, hear all the overtones and let them ring, lay down a sensual carpet of sound whose job was not to impress with flash and dazzle, but to soothe and comfort with the vibrations of intimacy and a mother’s love.

And so I played “Embraceable You” as the lights went down and the room grew silent and me imagining, as I often do now, my own Mom sitting to my right. Off we all went together, embraced by Gershwin’s invitation to let our hearts go tipsy and wrap our arms around each phrase. And it was the perfect jazz time— 2:00 in the morning, the sky actually somewhat dark—rare in these long-lit Finnish summer nights. It was a gym rather than a club and there was no smoke for miles around, but good music transcends place and time— or rather, can invoke it regardless where you are.

People listened in deep silence and when I released the last note, the women under the piano beckoned me to come lay down with them. And so I did. 

Well, in my dreams. J

Friday, June 7, 2013

Foreign Love Affair

I love Finland! The people sing like angels— or lusty barmaids, as the occasion calls for it. They dance with abandon, humor and grace.They listen to my hour and a half lecture on Alfred North Whitehead’s Rhythmic Cycle of Learning with rapt attention and nodding heads, all of it delivered in their second (or third or fourth) language. The government gives mothers up to three years leave from their jobs with a guaranteed re-entry and the corporate sector runs businesses with civic duty and the health of the culture sharing the bottom line with reasonable profit. The schools care more about children’s learning than some mindless testing. In short, they have their cultural values lined up with some pretty damn good notions of how to live a civil and fulfilling life and have not yet been pushed off the tracks by the lure of more money, fancier machines, cynical notions of childraising and education and the like.

I slept from midnight to 5 a.m. and then began my long day of teaching with no opportunity for a nap in sight. 90 minutes with a Level 1 class, lunch, 90 minutes with Level II, snack, 90 minutes lecture, dinner including a wild parade into the small town with boomwhackers and drums to entice people to a small festival, then leading 90 minutes of folk dance, an evening snack and ready to get horizontal finally at 10:15.

But despite this action-packed day— or rather because of the energy generated by singing, dancing, playing and talking with these marvelous folks, I stayed awake and constant throughout. Until now. If words typed on a screen could artfully express severe jet lag, it might

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Back Home Again

It’s 5:30 am in Orivesi, Finland and it has been light for some three hours. My confused body, in canon with itself, managed four hours of sleep before the full day of teaching that awaits me. I’m spread out all over the place. Part of me is feeling the echo of the end of school and a soul-stirring graduation ceremony in our new Community Center, which just took it’s first step towards earning its name. Part of me is still thinking about the two movies I saw on the plane, while another is back in the 1920’s in Chicago with Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley Richardson about to go to Paris (the book is The Paris Wife by Paula McLain). Yet another piece of me looks at the date and notes the one-year anniversary of the passing of our faithful 18-year old cat, Chester. Part of me is confused that I can get online for my blog and access school e-mail, but can’t open AOL (and I know my eye-rolling friends are thinking, “Serves you right for being faithful to the dinosaurs!”). Another part is savoring a left-over dark bread with cheese and cucumber sandwich and yet another is starting to dream up the day’s classes.

But mostly, I’m feeling back home again in the “confessions of a traveling music teacher” that started this blog. As I’ve “confessed” many times, most trips nowadays are as much about re-connecting with old friends and new acquaintances as it is bringing the light of the Orff approach into a roomful of strangers. The first tier are beloved friends Soili, Terhi, Markus, 10-plus year veterans and partners-in-crime in our mutual passion of the joys and delights our work unleashes. Their ear-to-ear smiles and crushing hugs upon greeting me are just what the doctor ordered—people genuinely happy to see me, people who love who I am, people who deeply appreciate what I offer. And of course, it flows both ways. These are beautiful human beings doing superb work and our happiness upon reconnecting is mutual.

We walk down to the barbecue pit by the pond and there are some 70 students (the course began two days ago) who, as Soili put it, are “eagerly awaiting my arrival.” Some 20 are playing ukeleles (as big a hit in Finland as they are in the U.S.) singing Finnish songs and then switching to a “Welcome Doug!” improvised one. I was here exactly one year ago and over half the faces are familiar, some telling me of their successes with their children using the material I introduced last year. Sweet.

And so after a difficult time with some folks who don’t fully accept my “I yam what I yam” self and having being constantly on the defensive, I could feel every cell in my body relax its grip and start to breathe fully again. It's time to release myself into summer’s waiting arms, to return to the core of my work with more conviction, creativity, kindness, more determination to contribute. To savor the blooming lupine in the Finnish forest, the tranquil lakes, the fresh berries and yogurt and dark Finnish bread, the cleansing saunas, the light at all hours, the solitude of my little monk’s room with my book, journal and deck of cards, back in the home of my belonging.

Oh, yeah, and to teach a few classes.

Change Yourself?

My whole adult life I’ve been under the impression that we can create the self we want to be. Through meditation, art, therapy, reading, journal writing, habitual self-reflection and other disciplines, we can choose our image of the perfected self and eventually inhabit that person we envision. Now I’m not so sure.

The fact that we keep bumping into the same old limitations and disappointments with ourselves decade after decade suggests that there is some hard-wiring at work in our personality. Whether from genetics or some soul’s destiny or just plain orneriness of our character, there are distinct limits to how much we can change. No matter what your transformation program, you just can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. We can change and should strive to change, but within a pretty small margin. We can modify, we can temper, we can occasionally learn a lesson that we don’t repeat over and over again, but let’s lower the bar here and consider this radical idea— accepting the way we’re put together and even stop apologizing for it.

For example, I predictably (but also am always surprised anew) hit a habitual wall I call “The Cazadero Syndrome.” A few lifetimes ago, I worked at Cazadero Music Camp and felt like it was the perfect fit for me— doing music with groups of kids out under the redwoods. And in many ways it was. But session after session, when it came time for the kids to board the buses, I noticed how they hugged certain teachers they made a deep connection with— and I was never one of them. Same thing at my school as the 8th graders run past me getting a teacher to sign their yearbook. What’s going on here?

Well, I have lots of ideas. I’m more of a forest than a trees guy, creating joyful events with large groups, but not always making the personal one-on-one connection. I don’t hang out casually with kids at recess, rarely talk about the latest hit song or cool movie with them, sincerely love them, but from a distance. (Some of this also comes from being 50 years older than the average middle schooler!) When the alums come back to visit, I’m always happy to see them and greet them warmly, but conversation usually stops after the first hello. What’s going on here? And why does it bother me?

On some level, it’s just the way I’m put together. Why fight it? Doesn’t hurt anybody (except me sometimes). It might be inextricably tied with the writer side of myself, that fellow whose habit of thought necessarily puts a distance between myself and a group. That part of me sometimes earns admiration or respect from others, but doesn't generate the warm fuzzy feeling that makes the parting hard when the buses pull up.

One stragey is to put yet more distance and comment to myself, “Ah ha. There you are again. My old friend The Cazadero Syndrome.” Another is to stand with Popeye and say with the full measure of my conviction, “I yam what I yam!” But here I go again, projecting the self I want to be without much evidence that I’ll actually ever be it. I think the best we can hope for is an acceptance of our flawed self side-by-side with a determination to improve by inches instead of miles. As Suzuki-Roshi so wisely said it:

“We are perfect as we are. But we could all stand a little improvement.”

Advice Quotient

Here’s what I meant to say to the 8th graders in their pre-graduation ceremony:

“Three C’s and one K. We’ve tried to encourage certain qualities here at school and looking around at you all, I think we’ve done pretty well. And when I say we, I mean all of us—you the students, we the teachers and of course, your parents and families. But it’s always a good idea to say out loud what we’re aiming for and here at this moment, it's a good time to share what I wish for you to carry into your next four years of school and beyond. 3 C’s and one K.

1.)   Creativity. A terribly overused word, but truly one of the great possibilities we have as human beings. You’ve exercised it a lot during your schooling— improvising and composing in many styles, choreographing dances, writing songs. Think of all the art you’ve created, the stories and poems you’ve written, the science fair projects you’ve done, the Travel Fair presentations you’ve made. Your imagination muscle is strong and flexible. Keep it in shape.

2.)   Convictions. Have them. Build them slowly from your reading, your thinking, your conversations, your values. Aim them toward the things the world needs more of, all those difficult things like justice, beauty, tolerance, stewardship, compassion. Stand up for them and speak up for them even when it is unpopular and sometimes even when it’s downright dangerous. If you don’t, who will?

3.)   Contribute. Keep asking yourself in every situation— “What can I offer here? How can I help?” It can be as simple as setting the table or washing the dishes, lending a hand, asking what’s needed, as complex as offering the world your talents and skills even when it hasn’t asked for it. No potential is fully realized until you put it out into the world, take that terrible risk of sharing your ideas, putting up your artwork, offering a concert.

4.)   And the final one, the K? Kindness. A word so important that the Dali Lama once said “My religion is kindness.”Most of the world is about who’s on top and who’s on bottom, who wins, who loses, who’s in, who’s out and we have to accept that’s the way we’re put together. But within that, there’s degrees of inclusion and exclusion and that’s where kindness comes in, those moments when we realize we’re all in it together and we might as well be nice to each other and help out those in need. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. Lean towards compassion and forgiveness.”

That’s what I wanted to say to the 8th graders as my last words. But after dancing the Grand March, passing around the Tibetan bowl with each of the thirty-two 8th graders sharing a memory of school and ringing it, when it was my turn to speak, I could tell they had surpassed their quotient of wise counsel and adult advice. So I simply said, “I will remember each of you and tell stories about you to those who come. Lots more I can say, but hey, we got a graduation to do. Let’s do it and then go out and have fun!”

We sang Siyahamba, played a last rollicking body percussion piece and off they went into their glorious future. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ode to Procrastination

A topic that holds for me great fascination
Is the art and the practice of procrastination.
Though we long to be happy, it’s a sure path to sorrow
If we don’t do today and put off for tomorrow.

We check in to Facebook or watch a Blue Ray
To avoid the one thing that we should do today.
We write a love poem to that Miss that we kissed
Put writing report cards far down the list.

We squiggle and squirm, makes all kinds of excuses
Go weed the garden or go check the fuses.
Keep saying “Not now” or “tonight” or “well, soon,”
Maybe at 10 or 11 or noon.

Now we’re too hungry and now we’re too tired
Now we’re not focused and now we’re too wired.
Right after this or right before that.
Or just after the trip to the vet with the cat.

The hours are ticking, the deadline draws near.
What started in fun is ending in fear.
We strap ourselves down to grade this lass or lad
Once we get going, think, “This ain’t so bad.”

When the last one is done, we feel a big stone
Lifted off of our shoulders and go check our phone.
The library says to return what we borrowed.
And we think to ourselves, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

P.S. Writing this poem wasn't so hard
       And kept me from writing the next report card!

P.P.S.   So if you find yourself in Procrastinate Bog.
             Why, keep scrolling down to read the next Blog.

P.P.P.S.  There's no end to the ways that we avoid work.
               But my voice is shouting, "Just stop it, you jerk!"

Okay, 4th grade report cards, here I come!