Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It’s the turn of the year, the time to put on the Janus mask and look back at where we’ve been and ahead to where we hope to go. Behind us lie our surprising successes and inevitable disappointments, our moments of unexpected grace and life’s perpetual foot on our necks. The whole catastrophe. But glory hidden inside it all, if we know how and when and where to look. And that’s what an arbitrary calendar date can help us do. Name specifically what happened the last 365 days and what we still dream of for the next 365.

This blog has served both as a way for me to remember what happened and trumpet forth my vision of what I still hope to happen. It was birthed almost three years ago and since then, I’ve posted 696 entries, attracted 113 Followers and received 69, 210 page views. Like any writer, I’m sometimes besieged with doubt: “Why am I doing this? Do I have anything worthwhile to say? Does anyone really care to read it?” Like any writer, the answers are somewhat irrelevant. The writing comes from some inside need that defies questioning, a practice of shaping the world through language, using words as the mirrors that reflect experience and define vision and with the extra pleasure that someone somewhere might be reading it and responding. “Yes!” “Hmm.” “Is he crazy?” Doesn’t matter so much what reaction, just the pleasure of keeping a conversation going.

No question that certain themes come up again and again and sometimes to the point of boring myself or the reader with “that again?” The challenge is to keep saying the same thing over and over again but in different ways. Same as the composer using the same 12 notes or the jazz improviser working through Body and Soul for the 1,000th time. It’s a healthy practice and yes, many times, it misses the right notes or repeats the same old riff, but the glory is in the attempt.

And what precisely are these themes? Mostly praise and it’s cousin, outrage. Praising the power of art, the beauty of music, the astonishing souls of young children and equally old folks and the winning combination of all those souls meeting art. Speaking on behalf of the wondrous things that have small voices in this loud, shouting, electronically amplified world, bearing witness to the things that Fox News doesn’t cover and can’t be bought at WalMart, tuning the ear to those tender notes buried under screaming guitars, testifying to the God and gods that stay away from TV Evangelists and deluded dogmas.

I suppose my goals, such as they are, are the same as when I first wrote them in the ABOUT ME paragraph on the right— to simultaneously enjoy the world as it is and help change it to the something better it might be. I wish the same for us all as the old year turns the corner to 2014. May it be so!

Singing the World

The Australian Aborigines traditionally live in a world they call the Dreamtime. The natural world is not “an environment” or a “landscape,” but the living path of spiritual beings, the footprints of Creation. They co-participate in this timeless life by singing, dancing, painting, storytelling the tracks of the Ancestors, walking through the world following “the songlines.” We in the West have songs about mountains and lakes and wildlife, we have Beethoven evoking the natural world in his 6th Symphony or Charlie Parker referencing it in “Ornithology,” but this is something different— singing the world itself. Driving up to Pt. Reyes for a few days of hiking with several families, I got a little taste of this with my granddaughter Zadie.

It’s hard to resist not constantly hugging and kissing and wrestling with and joking with and singing and dancing with and talking with Zadie, but sometimes the greatest pleasure is simply to leave her alone and watch and listen. She sat in the back seat singing to herself an continuous improvised song incorporating the things outside the window, the people inside the car and whatever else surfaced in her own Dreamtime imagination. It was a wonder to be-hear and I believe my daughter Talia videotaped a bit, for some future lecture I may give on the innate musicality of all beings.

On the first day of hiking, I carried Zadie in the backpack and got another concert in my ear as we tramped through the woods and out onto the open fields. Naturally, we were far behind the group with no 30-lb. children in their backpacks and at one point, Zadie was getting hungry and a bit cranky. I saw the group up ahead on top of a hill and as we began to ascend the hill, it was my turn to soothe Zadie with song. Not exactly the songlines of Pt. Reyes, but I turned to my preschool class-starting repertoire and we ascended to the beat of Old King Glory, The Ants Go Marching, The Wheels on the Bus and were in the midst of Here We Go Loopty Loo when we joined the others. I kept singing and spontaneously, we all joined hands and circled around on the chorus and danced the verse with various body parts. I’ve vacationed with these families for some 25 years, but I believe that this was the first time we sang and danced Loopty Loo.

And how glorious it was to put our right hand in and take our right hand out and give our hand a shake-shake-shake and turn ourselves about on a high grassy knoll with the ocean spread out before us and a warm December sun shining and Zadie spinning happily on my back, all joined together in some timeless Dreamtime at the turn of the year, embraced by a California landscape and the circling song of traditions renewed, our children close to our age when we first began and now the first of the next generation with us as a promise to keep it going far beyond our own mortality. Loopty loo, loopty li, loopty loo, singing the world alive. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Lessons in Good Living

For the life of me, I don’t why we waste our time praying to this god or that, paying to this therapist or that, clogging our shelves with self-help books. All we need to do is hang out with a two-year old for a morning and learn at the feet of a master. Consider these life lessons from my granddaughter Zadie and try them out:

• Run down the hall. Then run up the hall. Repeat as needed.

• Have an imaginary phone conversation on a Radio Shack timer.

• Hug someone for no apparent reason.

• Take out all the credit cards from your wallet. Leave them out.

• Sing songs at the dinner table. No memorable lyrics or repeatable tune necessary.

• Walk around in circles happily talking to yourself.

• Play piano with your stuffy Eeyore at your side.

• Lie down on a pillow and enjoy a nice warm bottle of milk.

It’s as simple as that. Try it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Best Christmas Present

Christmas has come and gone. Just one day after, I’ve already seen the first abandoned trees on street corners and it feels weird to hear Jingle Bell Rock or Silent Night. The boxes and wrapping paper are in the recycling bins and we’re searching for the receipts of the clothes that didn’t fit.

After a thorough cleansing of the front room (future blog coming on this fascinating subject), the lack of excessive gifts for me under the tree was a relief— few new things to file and store! As for gift-giving, after the initial stress, it does feel satisfying for me to look for things that add a little sparkle or opening door to my loved ones— a book, a CD, a new item of clothing, a ukelele. But perhaps the best gift I gave was helping Kerala and Ronnie go away for a night in Calistoga and leaving little Zadie in our care. And it was also the best gift I received.

After a dim sum breakfast, the parents-turned-lovebirds drove off and Karen, Aunt Talia and I took Zadie to a new playground. Talia took off just before the afternoon nap and suddenly there we were like in the old days— Karen and I in charge of a little one. But instead of the exhaustion of knowing it would be for 24 years, the sure knowledge that it was only 24 hours is the grand gift of grandparenting! Only the fun stuff and permission to bend or break a few rules!

Zadie graced us with a three and a half hour nap and then woke up ready to rock and roll. She began painting a fingerpainting with Karen and what a grand time she had! Then I brought up the Ghana xylophone and djembe and off we went for a rollicking jam session. She invented the game of playing and stopping on the xylophone, with me following her lead on the drum. Then we switched. From there, Karen and I worked on dinner while Zadie sang songs and told stories to her stuffy Eeyore and danced around perfectly content in circles. Such an independent young woman, able to effortlessly entertain herself without any help from electronic devices.

At dinner, we gave her a leftover green onion pancake heated up a bit too hot. A quick tear and then a healing song while it cooled down. The next pancake I served cold and she said, “Cold. It’s not hot.” Not something anyone would notice but a doting grandpa observing her thinking crystallizing into language, the way she made the connection of opposites. Later I sneezed and she said, :”Bless you.” And then, “Are you okay?” Up until this point, her language has been mostly repeating, but now it’s kicking into another gear of independent thought and surprising connections and observations. I don’t remember being quite this astounded with this stage with my own children, but then again, I was in the thick of the whole deal and probably didn’t feel the luxury of such detailed observation.

We all would have been happy to continue on with various activities after dinner, but having bonded with Zadie last May watching “Lady and the Tramp,” we decided to cozy in with popcorn and “Dumbo.” She made a running commentary on the rain and choo-choo train and elephants and “What happened?” and I was happy to revisit my own Disney childhood. And intrigued by the LSD-inspired (it seemed) Pink Elephant bit and the black-cultured crows singing and jiving to the “Did You Ever See an Elephant Fly?”

Then the bedtime routine of the bottle, book and night-night song and there it was, Zadie’s first night away from her parents. She saw them in the photos on the wall and commented and at one point nonchalantly said “Mama and Dada bye-bye,” but she is a model of the security that let her give herself over temporarily to Mima and Pop-pop, who turned out to be, if I may say so myself, pretty entertaining. We’ll see how tomorrow morning goes!

Meanwhile, keep these kind of Christmas presents coming!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holy Infant

The house was buzzing with activity—some of us wrapping presents, some cooking dinner, the electric train running in circles, Zadie playing, Ella Fitzgerald singing over the speakers, that lively spirit of family gatherings at the holidays. Then the decrescendo of the descending evening, little Zadie put to bed and her parents daring to sneak out to meet friends out in the city. Talia went to her apartment and it was just Karen and I left watching the Daily Show with the Fox News “Santa is white” hilarity.

Just as we turned it off, we heard the bedroom door open and Zadie came toddling down the hall nonchalanty in her PJ’s and joined us on the couch. We could have scolded her and sent her back to bed, but of course, we were delighted and spent the next 30 minutes with her drawing shapes in a little book and talking non-stop to us with a pacifier (her “bobo”) in her mouth. Between the bobo and her still-forming articulation, it sounded a bit like a running monologue in Mandarin Chinese. Every once in a while I asked Zadie if she wanted to go to bed and she responded clearly. “No.” Finally, with Karen falling asleep, I lured her back in with my guitar, lay her down with her Eeyore stuffie and sang “Silent Night” to her. “Sleep in heavenly peace” and lo and behold, she did.

I often talk about how the emergence of the Virgin Mary in the Christian mythology kicked off the fantastic explosion of art and culture in Europe in the Middle Ages. After a thousand years of the Dark Age, the appearance of the feminine both balanced and softened things, resulting in the building of cathedrals like “Notre Dame,” the composition of  music sung first to Mary and later to women by troubadours, trouveres and minnesingers, poems again first inspired by spiritual love for the Virgin and later, romantic love of the idealized woman (leading to Dante, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet all the way to Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe). The story of the Divine Mother captured the imagination of the people, not only inspiring great art, but swelling the numbers of Christian converts.

But it was equally the image of the “Holy Infant, so tender and mild” that sealed the deal. Who can resist the beauty of a mother’s love for a divine child, attended by “friendly beasts” away in a humble manger, announced by a star of wonder, witnessed by three kings bearing gifts. No wonder Christmas soon trumped the earlier more important Easter holiday. We all (I hope!) love babies, their innocence and wide-eyed wonder and the way they perpetually renew our hope for the future.

The house is very quiet now, just me awake with the tree while millions of still-innocent children are dreaming of sugarplums and the appearance of a Santa of any color (deal with it, Fox News!). We let go some of our time-honored Christmas Eve traditions tonight—didn’t drive out to see the luminaries on Mt. Davidson, didn’t light the house with candles only and gather around the piano for one final family carol sing. My daughters didn’t act out Frosty and Rudolf while Ella sang (well, they kind of stopped that in their teenage years anyway). No one left cookies out for Santa.

But no matter. I’ll treasure those quiet moments with Zadie on the couch drawing in her book and then singing to her and Eeyore. On this Christmas Eve, I wish you all a heavenly sleep and divine awakening. The Holy infant lives in us if we attend correctly, as I am reminded on this silent and holy night.

Revised Thoughts on the Wonders of Two-Year Olds

Oops! Forgot about tantrums.

Two Is the New Three

“’Twas the night before Christmas and all through my home
    Little Zadie was roaming—and so ends this poem!”

Because really, nothing more to say that can make that simple fact more extraordinary than it already is. And of course, I’m going to try to say it!

It’s not just that I love my granddaughter to the ends of this earth and love it that she’s here in San Francisco for this special time. It’s that being around a two-year old is like hanging out with Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Einstein and Robin Williams. Her fresh way of seeing the world, her ebullient and infectious spirit, her unrelenting curiosity and her spontaneous hilarity make her just about the most delightful person to spend time with that I know. I always have felt that three-years old was the height of the human experiment, my favorite age (along with 8th grade) to teach at school, but I’m finding myself astounded by the two-year old mentality. Just on the cusp of language and every day, new connections being made that are captured in the net of words.

Yesterday Zadie said “Uh-oh” and I countered with “spaghetti-o’s.” She repeated it, went on with her play and five minutes later, said “Uh-oh, spaghetti-o’s.” That “absorbent mind” (Montessori’s term) is a wonder to behold. The adult brain is clogged with fixed, rigid neuron connections with little room for new thoughts, ideas, never mind daily wonder. It’s like a perpetual meeting of the Tea Party in there— the same old, same old thoughts that were terrible to begin with mouthed over and over again, all so tired and predictable and inducing deadly slumber.

Zadie, by contrast, is a bundle of alertness, aliveness, surprise. “Whaz dat?” she asks as she walks through each day like a New World explorer. But without the greed of Columbus and certainly a better sense of humor.  She entertained us for twenty minutes yesterday looking at the picture of the snowman on her plate and exclaiming, “Dat’s funny!” and laughing uproariously. Now she’s looking at a book with her Grandma exclaiming “Ho ho ho!” when she sees Santa and making the sounds of the animals she sees. Yesterday she met a fellow two-year old, son of her mom Kerala’s childhood friend since birth who she hadn’t seen in fifteen years! Besides being a poignant moment, the hilarity doubled as the two sat side-by-side sharing—and yes, they actually shared!— a bag of fancy potato chips.

Last night we sat on the couch to watch “Miracle on 34th St.” It held up, but it was pale besides “The Miracle on 2nd Avenue.” And she calls to me now. “Bye, bye, computer…”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Home to Ithaca

After the closing singing time described in the last posting, all the staff went to the raucous and spirited White Elephant gathering. Great fun, but near the end, it became clear that some of the Interns had to leave. We rushed outside for a final photo back where we took the opening photo four months ago at the Opening Ceremony of school. The arc between the two ceremonies struck me. It began with the beckoning invitation of the kids (and Interns) first arriving at school, all possibility, promise, potential. Four months later, we stood in the same spot, with over 500 clasees behind us, scores of songs, dances and instrumental pieces learned, the ritual markers of Halloween and the Body Music Festival and the World Music Festival and the Holiday plays and the Middle School St. George echoing in our memory. The characters of the children revealed, the little breakthroughs and astounding moments, the character of the teachers and the whole of school culture witnessed and lived. Not to mention the wonders of San Francisco—Vertigo at the Castro Theater, Halloween on Belvedere St., the Sea Chantey Sing on the Balclutha, the Grace Cathedral labyrinth and view from the Crown Room at the Fairmount Hotel. The Interns moving from observers to participants to teachers and the marks that they left on the school, the children and each other. How much life we lived together in those short four months!

So there we were again, in the same spot where we took an opening photo, taking another one behind the Odyssey cardboard boat. It was too rushed for me to find the right words for our final hug. But they came just as I was leaving school. Something like this:

“Alice, Andrea, Banu, Celia, Christine and Lisa. We have been on an Odyssey together and the boat has come home to Ithaca. We survived our Cyclops, Sirens, Scylla, Charybidis, Circe, Apollo and Calypso moments and they were mild in the big picture. For most of the days, the sea was calm, the breeze balmy, the wine fine—very fine!—and the golden fruit of the children’s genius ripe for the tasting. We wove our garments, unwove the parts that didn’t work and re-wove them again. You were the first six to take this journey with us and we—Sofia, James and I— will hold you forever in our hearts. You have witnessed the risk and the planning, the surprising moments that revealed the children blossoming and the surprising moments that trampled the delicate flower of the class, you’ve seen the quick inspiration of the moment and the carefully unrolled unfolding of a class unit. You’ve seen us “in the zone” and “ out of sorts,” beheld us as confident captains of the ship and helpless sailors blown about by the wind. You’ve put your hands on the oar and risen to your own commanding possibilities. It has been a voyage of a lifetime and Ithaca was with us every moment of true sincerity, humor and creative gusto. May you be forever united with Penelope as you return to your homelands. Bon voyage!”

Singing Out the Year

For those following the thread, our play last night—The Odyssey— was a resounding success. With an adult live audience, the kids brought everything up a notch and people left uplifted. But no time to bask—there were more special moments ahead. This morning was the old school tradition of ice skating, a chance to hold a kid’s hand for a couple of loops around the ice and congratulate them on the play or reach out to them to steady our wobbly legs or for us to steady their’s. The ritual Hokey Pokey on ice and then back to school for 8th grade performances of St. George and the Dragon, brought to life with great verve, humor and new twists and turns.

Then switch the rugs, light the candles and in come 190 children from 1st through 8th grade to close out a glorious Fall with joyful song. With Wrong Words Day behind them, their voices were pure and their seriousness palpable. Kids love to be goofy and jivey and boisterous beyond adult tolerance, but they also can appreciate— and love and need— a silence charged with a luminous quiet and tenderness. And so with a Frosty here and a Winter Wonderland there to lighten the mix, we sang in the midnight clear of a silent night to the angels who were hearing us on high. And a glorious sound it was.

I accompanied on the piano and believe me, I tried my best to sing, but my body was racked with quiet sobs. To hear children sing beautiful music with such sincerity and see their shining ieyes and beautiful faces— well, it’s enough to melt the most hardened heart. And mine is perpetually on the soft side anyway.

So at the end when I tried to say some final words, I couldn’t. The kids heard the catch in my voice and saw the glistening tear forming as I tried to thank them for a beautiful ending to a beautiful Fall together. I squeaked something out and then made my ritual joke—“See you next year!” and dismissed them. Three first graders came over and patted me on the back to comfort me. The hearts of children are sometimes a wonder to behold.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reverse Hanukkah

Apparently, oil that should have lasted one day burning for eight qualified for enough of a miracle to create a holiday that’s lasted, oh say, some 2200 years. Well, I’d like to make a bid for a new Holiday based on a similar miracle. Our Elementary Holiday Play that lasted two hours in rehearsal clocked in at one hour and eight minutes in today’s first performance! Kind of a reverse oil-burning phenomena.

Where did those extra 52 minutes go? Mostly, just whisked away in hitting the rhythm of a play well-rehearsed with the motivation of an audience to tighten it all up. The audience was composed of fellow 4 to 8 year old kids at school, but the happy surprise for actors and directors alike was that the audience was silent and engaged, enthralled with a complex story they probably didn’t fully get, but delighted to see kids acting, in full costume, with great music, energetic dance, beautiful songs and booming group lines.

Tonight is the show for the grown-ups and though one can’t depend on miracles, it feels that the kids are prepared enough that I can be writing this blog two hours before the show instead of fretting about where Kevin’s F# bar is or whether Mary’s hat will stay on during her scene. At first nervous that I had invited friends and colleagues, now hopeful that they’ll come to see what it’s like when kids stop being 4th graders and are transformed through drama to draw you into a story where you stop thinking about their height. There are sublime moments when the kids transcend the school play cliché of dutiful schoolchildren reciting their lines on time while adults are thinking, “Isn’t that cute?” I told the kids that they’re better than “cute” and it’s their job to send chills up my spine. Which actually happened twice today during today’s performance.

After today’s daytime show, the miracles kept coming. The always delightful and long-awaited “Wrong Words Day,” the kids setting beards on fire, skiing into trees and walking around in women’s underwear. Then a delightful dress rehearsal of 8th grade’s St. George and the Dragon play, capped off by the six interns joining Sofia, James and I for their last preschool sing. We brought the room of 3, 4 and 5 year olds into a luminous quiet with our four-part harmony rendition of Silent Night and then romped together with the kids through The Twelve Days of Christmas with the “sacred cards” bought 40 years ago at Vella Variety Store on San Bruno Avenue.

You see why I don’t need to go to church. Nothing more miraculous than this constant communion and creative convocation of people of all sizes and shapes singing together through the joys and griefs of the year. Every day angels bending near the earth and strumming their harps of gold, singing all types of song and playing all sorts of grooving rhythms. Come hear them tonight! After all, it’s only an hour and eight minutes long.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stripping Away the Extraneous

The composer Arnold Schoenberg once said, “A composer’s most important tool is an eraser. ” I imagine this is true of all art forms. First splash everything out you can imagine and then start to trim and weed, to cut and erase, to strip away every extraneous part that distracts from the essence of the piece, that leads to a side street interesting in itself, but irrelevant to the forward motion of the story or trajectory. It’s sometimes hard to take away what you created so painstakingly, but if everything else you created is clouded with too much or thrown off course or bogged down, then what’s the point? I think Schoenberg was rightly suggesting that the heart of artistry is feeling your way through what’s essential and what’s dispensable, figuring out what notes not to play, what words not to say.

Some people have an innate gift for the well-placed word, the well-timed comment, the perfectly chosen note, the just-right seasoning, but for the rest of us folks, we begin by trying to say everything and if we are lucky, start to trim it down. It’s a typical mistake of the young, flashy jazz player, trying to fill the canvas with every note imaginable while the old ones listen carefully for what notes needs to be played next. Some of it is temperament and some even technique— how could Art Tatum resist his flashy runs and maybe Count Basie’s technique was limited but put to good use?

This is on my mind the night before our 3rd-4th-5th grade play of the epic story The Odyssey. An epic story that doesn’t exactly work as an epic children’s play. And so all our tools were out full force—erasers, delete buttons, scissors, whatever we needed to cut this down to a palatable size. Without taking away too much from the work the kids already put into it. Of course, if they delivered their lines with the full force of their stage voice in an articulated tempo with grand gesture and facial expression like we tell them to, none of this would be a problem. In our regular classes, their oversized voices interrupt our lessons and need to be taken down three notches. When they get on stage and have the opportunity to announce themselves to the world, why, that’s when they choose to whisper. Of course. And so the little darlings deserve the cuts they get!

But honestly, we— my colleagues James, Sofia and I—wrote the scripts and have to take some responsibility for our grand sweeping visions and large appetites. Each of us worked alone with one of the respective grades and thus, each scene in itself seemed like it would be great. It’s when we put them all together that we looked at each other in horror. Two hours and 18 hard-to-hear scenes? And the show is tomorrow? We better get out the eraser big time.

As with art, so with life. And here I speak directly to myself: “Curb your appetite. Choose one, two or three essential things and do them well. Maybe just two. Heck, maybe just one! Tune your ear to the main theme and eliminate the dross. Write shorter blogs. And so…

Monday, December 16, 2013

Wood and Weeds

542 Sheridan Ave. Roselle, New Jersey. That’s where I grew up. Zip code (which came in later)— 07203. Phone number 245-7097, memorized as CH(estnut) 5-7097. These are things we apparently remember forever, emblazoned in the brain and stamped forever on the heart. 18 years in the same house before going off to college and my old room there for me for years later. Until 1992, when my folks moved to follow my sister and I out to California. I was thrilled to welcome them and sad to say goodbye to that house. In fact, I wrote a letter just to the house, thanking it for everything it meant to me. I never got an answer.

I still dream about it, often with my folks in it. In these dreams, I’m aware that the house has been sold, but the new owners are indefinitely away and seem to feel fine about us coming back there to live. And so I tour the old place in that dream world, happy to see the chin-up bar in my bedroom doorway, the oak tree out the window, the fireplace that rarely had a fire, the back studio with glass windows looking out to the apple tree and our tilting garage, the organ in the living room and piano in the dining room, the long couch and small TV and big dining room table where my Dad paid bills and played solitaire, the cozy kitchen nook and the milkbox by the side door and on and on. I always awake refreshed by these dreams, ready to face the next day of the future warmed by the embrace of the past.

I dreamt about it again last night and realized why. I had just seen the film Nebraska and there’s a scene in which the aging father returns to the house he grew up in, now abandoned and sitting empty in some field. His son asks whether he was moved to see the old place and he replied something to the effect of “Why should I be? It’s just a bunch of wood and weeds.” And yet one could imagine the lives that had once been lived in those rooms with now broken windows and if one cared to, feel the presence of the old ones alive again in that collection of wood and weeds. But some such houses were filled with constant pain and why would one want to remember?

Though I haven’t seen it for some five years, I’m sure that 542 is still standing and new lives are being lived there. And that the mostly happy childhood I lived there is untouchable and visitable through the dreams that come unbidden and also the ones I conjure up. I can smell the fresh pine of the Christmas tree and don’t need to strain a neuron remembering the Silent Night Christmas ball ornament, for it sits in the center of my tree here, now, in this moment. The wood is freshly painted and the weeds pulled up through the caretaking of memory. It’s a wonderful life indeed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's Great Getting Old!

That title sentence is not one you hear very often. And I only say it because I can still ride my bike up the 3rd Ave. hill and hike the Inca Trail, the bodily organs seem to be working and I only occasionally fall asleep at the movies. Of course, the mirror is brutal, noisy restaurants are hell, I have to keep upgrading my glasses and it’s sobering to check out the women in the bar only to realize they see me as the Invisible Man or Grandpa. But there is great satisfaction in the aging process. I’m talking about little spiritual breakthroughs that never would have happened if I had died young.

Hard to put my finger on in with articulate language, but it has something to do with acceptance, forgiveness and that sometimes dubious notion of personal growth (beyond the waistline). “Sometimes dubious” because part of acceptance is to realize that parts of us ain’t never gonna change and as long as it’s not the part that buys assault weapons, acceptance is a better strategy than constant failure. But then, some surprising things happen. Like noticing that I’m reacting differently to situations that previously would have set me off, that certain buttons that provoked particular reactions when pushed are finally (or at least temporarily) disconnected. Things like shifting the weight from “will this benefit me?” to “will this benefit others?” Things like releasing that whiny, needy little boy or life-is-unfaired teenager and freeing up space in the heart for noticing other’s needs and how I might serve them. They’re all moving targets, but lately I’ve noticed a few satisfying bulls-eyes and I attribute it to the promise of aging gracefully.

Then there is getting to be a Grandpa and having my first jazz band (so much fun playing and teaching together at SF Jazz Center yesterday!) and being at school staff meetings with my daughter and comforting my Mom with classical piano music that I’m playing better than I ever have. None of it would have happened if I had checked out early.

“Let my enemies live long to see what I have become” is a West African proverb and the title of a play I once saw. Read one way, there is a touch of spite in it (“in your face, Mr. Bully!”), but also an opening for enlarged compassion. And it can read reversed: “Let me live long to see what my enemies have become.” In any case, the real punch line is “Let me live long!” At least short of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, nurses taking me to the bathroom, etc.

Fate willing, I’m in it for the long haul and at least for now, happily so. If I had the chance to hear my eulogies at my funeral, what’s the one line I’d like to hear more than “He was smart, talented, kind, a family man, a faithful friend, etc.”? 

“Look! He’s moving!”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Singing in the Fast Lane

Yesterday I helped direct two different plays with three different classes, went caroling around school with 50 preschoolers, sang with100 elementary kids, then zipped off to my Mom’s for more songs around the piano and then back to school to sing with a gathering of 25 alums, some who had graduated 30 years ago (and they remembered all the songs!). Today I’m off to SF Jazz Center to lead more singing (and playing and dancing) with the families going to the Family Concert there. Next week will be our annual neighborhood caroling party— yet more singing with a whole different group of people. All this from a guy who never sang as a kid, was not immersed in a culture of singing, remembers two songs his Dad would sometimes sing—“There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” and his original composition, “Piggy Piggy Poo.”

Days like this are insane by any standard of life lived at a reaonsable tempo. I’m hurtling down the fast lane of the highway without a moment’s rest to even see the flowers I’m rushing by, never mind smell them. But inside the car, singing with whoever happens to be in the back seat, there is a connection that nothing else quite can make in the same way. I’m not a great singer by any reasonable standard and I don’t even habitually sing in the shower, but I love the way a shared song charges the air and momentarily erases those bothersome distances we create between each other. And so in rushing helter-skelter from one thing to another with barely a rest stop, I’m sustained and uplifted and energized by the power of song.

In our fantasies of Heaven, there are harps and heavenly choirs, while Hell is a mess of undisciplined shrieking and moaning. I still need to consider a more leisurely pace in my hectic life, but as long as there’s music, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. And heck, plenty of time for rest when I’m six-feet under. Maybe it’s just fine to keep zooming down the fast lane while the car still works and people are still sending me invitations.

Time for the SF JAZZ gig. Off I go! Whhheeeeeeeee!!!! 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Quiz— The Answers

Answers to yesterday’s quiz:
  1. Hannukah. Jesus was Jewish.
  2. None. I think you know why.
  3. None. There can be snow in a Bethlehem winter, but no reindeer.
  4. No one. Ain’t no mistletoe where he lived. And they didn’t have office parties back then anyway.
  5. No one. Hallmark hadn't been incorporated yet.
  6. Huh?
  7. None. St. Francis added them into the story over a thousand years later.
  8. They didn’t. But they did have pine trees.
  9. Get up and go to work. The first recorded reference to Christmas (Christ’s Mass) was in 1038. Easter was the main holiday until the Virgin Mary and Santa Claus came into the picture. (Huh?)
  10. Irving Berlin. And he lived in L.A. where it never snowed. 
If you can think of a weirder, wackier holiday pieced together with so many diverse traditions, I’d like to know about it. So as I go hang out with Frosty the Snowman in a San Francisco Winter Wonderland and Deck the Halls with ivy while looking out for Rudolf’s Red Nose flying over a Partridge in a Pear-Tree, this Jewish Unitarian Buddhist practicing pagan rites says, "I Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Quiz

When my daughter Talia was little, we drove past a front lawn displaying both Santa and his sleigh and Jesus in the manger. With all that honest innocence of children, she asked, “What’s Jesus doing there? What does he have to do with Christmas?!!” 

This little anecdote could be a confession of our failure as parents to take our kids to a Christian church— or a prelude to the Christmas Quiz I just made up. I’m going for the latter. See how you do:

1. What holiday did Jesus celebrate around Christmas-time?
2. In what book of the Bible did Santa Claus appear?
3. How many reindeer brought the Wise men to Bethlehem by sleigh?
4. Who did Joseph kiss under the mistletoe?
5. Historically speaking (and grammatically correct), to whom did the Popes send Christmas cards before the 20th century?
6. Did the Easter bunny and St. Nick ever meet?
7. What animals surrounding Jesus in the manger are mentioned in the Bible?
8. When did the Israelites decorate their Christmas trees back then?
9. What was a typical Christmas celebration like in the year 1000?
10. What Jewish songwriter wrote “White Christmas?”

 Answers will appear in the next Blog (thus upgrading my reader count). Good luck!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Records of My Life

I know many of you are enduring sleepless nights wondering whether I ever got to cleaning my front room. Well, today I opened that Pandor'a box, beginning with the videos, DVD’s, CD’s and records. Yes, records. (And yes, videotapes.) In my 1,000 plus collection, most are stored in my basement, but 150 or so took up valuable shelf-space that I’ve desparately needed from my overflowing CD collection. (And I predict in a year or so, I’ll have to say to young people, “Yes, CD’s. You actually bought them in a store and put them on a shelf and put them in a player to play. And occasionally read the micro-printed liner notes.")

When records first switched to CD’s, I vowed not to duplicate the ones I had bought. That, of course, changed and over the years, I assumed I had indeed replaced the important recordings I cared about— things like Coltrane’s  A Love Supreme, Duke Ellington’s  Live at Newport, Sonny Rollins Tenor Madness and into an “and so on” that would take up several pages. But going through the records above, I realized that indeed I hadn’t. And looking again through my collection, I felt like the kid in the candy store, re-discovering old gems I had forgotten. Made more amazing by the fact that I tried out my old turntable and discovered it worked just fine. I could actually listen to them! And listen I did while I continued to sort, discard, re-shelf.

Damn, it felt good to hold the old records in my hand! To relish the art work on the cover, to be able to read the print on the back, to remember sometimes where I bought it and who I was at that moment and who that recording helped me become. Indeed, these records in my life are also a record of my life. Without a strong cultural identity to mold and shape me, I realized early on that my American gift (and limitation) was to try to create my own identity from the confluence of my passions and interests. Of course, TV and movies did their part to define some of my dreams and notions, as did my family, my friends, my schools, my time— whatever was in the news or being talked about in the day-to-day conversations. But the act of conscious cultivation of the person I hoped to be came from books and records— and to some extent, still do. With the added attraction of me writing and recording my own.

I was sharing with a friend my frustration with the floating cloudworld of recordings these days, how hard it is for me to find space on my computer for the digital files and how much I missed the concrete object in my hand, be it a record or CD— or book (though still resisting Kindle). By the end, I realized I may indeed have to capitulate and go the i-Phone route. But I'm trying to imagine growing up in this digital world and 50 years from now, going through old digital files and seeing a title on the screen. Ain’t no-way no-how that can compare with the whole gestalt of the trip to the record store, the prized object brought home, read, listened to, shelved and proudly displayed as the next chapter in “the emerging Me.” And then held in the hand again all those years later. I'm grateful for it, am loving listening to them again, am determined not to get rid of them. I just have one nagging question:

“Anyone have an extra attic to store them all in?”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yo Heave Ho Amen!

I did it again. Went to the Sea Chantey sing-a-long aboard the Balclutha ship on the Hyde St. Pier. People of all ages, sizes and shapes huddled together in a simple low-ceiling room while the song leader enters, sits down, sings a line and the room erupts in a lusty full-bodied response. Those who don’t know it quickly catch on and off we go! Two hours, with breaks for hot cocoa and cider, of song after song begun by whoever has the spirit. (I finally screwed up the courage to do one!). No big egos or efforts to impress, just the pleasure of people singing together with a power that I’ve only found in the African diaspora with it’s call and response traditions. Indeed, I sometimes felt as if I was in a Baptist church in the American South or a candomble ceremony in Brazil, no tambourines or drums, but an earthy beat in every ditty matched by glorious bass tones and whole body singing, witty lyrics, little stories and the longing of sailors to be “homeward bound.” We simply sat and sang the songs the sailors traditionally worked to, but you could feel the heave of the anchor and the pulling up of sail, the chapped and blistered hands, the sweat of your neighbor joined with you on the rope, it all came through.

No performance this, no ticket price, a room of strangers (though obviously regulars) instantly connected, a palpable energy in the shared tones that shook every atom of the body. It was everything that church should be, minus the dogma and theology. Indeed, I’ve always wondered why we need the word God and why all the fuss about a book with blatantly contradictory and often downright weird stories? God is not something to believe in or wonder about or accept on faith or be converted to by somebody else’s story. God is to be experienced in the marrow of the bones, the chambers of the heart, the electrical and chemical explosions in the brain, the rise and fall and bellows of the breath.
Prayer is not asking for something with mere words. It’s in the very act of chanting, poetically praising, singing from the bottom of your toes that God comes out from the hiding place. We’re not primed to find the Holy Spirit in lusty songs praising alcohol and the lovely maidens of Plymouth Town, but there it was.

Stepped out from the warmth of singing bodies to the winter night of a sparkling San Francisco, the lights of Ghiradelli Square, the waters lapping at the shore, the songs echoing in my ear and to quote my friend Chris Cunningham, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forgiving Mr. Salcito

The mercury dropped last night in San Francisco and a rare frost covered the morning ground. And now, the rains have come and all these commonplace happenings take on a mythological significance as Nelson Mandela has crossed to the other side. The rains are both an auspicious sign of life renewed and tears of farewell to a great man. Listening to the radio this morning, I couldn’t help but be struck by the personal stories of journalists who had had the good fortune to meet him, all moved by his humble and personable manner, his humor, wit and gracious bearing, his listening ear, made all the more remarkable by his stature of a man of great inner power, courage and vision. And made yet more remarkable by his stories of 27 years in prison, a prison within a society already imprisoned by hatred, fear, racism, ignorance and brutality.

27 years! I’m still bitter that I didn’t get my promised prize for winning the pie-eating contest in 4th grade! This man spent almost three decades in jail and emerged loving his enemies, forgiving his tormentors and meeting each day with optimism, hope, gratitude forged from the depths of human suffering. What a story.

It occurred to me that almost everyone else of his stature, those who combined spiritual victory with political struggle for human rights and dignity— from Gandhi to Martin Luther King and so on down through Malcolm X, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Che Guevara— all met an untimely death from an assassin’s bullet. To reach the ripe age of 95, to achieve the unthinkable and become President at an age when most people had packed away their dreams and are content to go golfing, to see some of the fruits of his work ripen, is an extraordinary achievement. And equally to see some rot and spoil, to see some of his own people squander the full measure of freedom and responsibility and stay caught in the tangle of violence that still characterizes some of life in South Africa, must have been cause for another kind of bitterness. And yet he seemed to keep his whole humanity intact. People often lament that they don’t make ‘em like they used to—no new heroes coming down the pike. And yet here he was amongst us, spanning two different centuries and keeping his eye on the prize. As the radio commentators said, “We’re not likely to see a person of this caliber again.”

Or will we? I have a few candidates amongst my students between 3 and 13 years old. If we keep feeding them what they need to grow a true character and a constant vision, who knows what can happen?

As for me, I publicly proclaim that I forgive Mr. Salcito for neglecting to give me that pie-eating prize. I’m over it. No more bitterness, ready to embrace the world with wholehearted love, compassion, empathy and optimism. And I owe it all to Nelson Mandela.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Life in a Square of Cardboard

Yesterday’s 8th grade jazz history lesson began with me showing a 12-by-12 blank square of cardboard. “This changed my life,” I proclaimed and I believe I had their attention. A little more banter and then I turned it around. It was the album cover (just the front—the back had been torn off) of Joshua Rifkin playing Scott Joplin rags. I told the story of the 1971 Thanksgiving dinner at my college where someone was playing this album. Thoroughly enchanted and intrigued by music unlike any I had ever heard, I went and bought some of Joplin’s piano music. In addition to some F blues I had been fooling around with, my entry into the world of jazz piano began.

From my personal story to Joplin’s story of success, dissolution, fall into obscurity, rise to fame a half-century later with Joshua Rifkin’s album and the movie The Sting. From Joplin’s story to the greater story of the emergence of ragtime and its influence musically (Joseph Lamb, Eubie Blake, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” and on to why it wasn’t quite jazz yet (no swing, all notes written and composed without expectation of improvisation, no blues, etc.). From there to the greater story of Queen Victoria’s death two years after Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” topped the sheet-music sales, the shift in atmosphere as her libertine son Edward helped unleash white culture from its prudish and proper ways. How ragtime was the soundtrack of youthful freedom, folks looking to black culture to learn how to loosen up, get in touch with their hips and learn how to party beyond the upraised pinky holding the teacup.

Back to Joplin’s music, me playing the Maple Leaf Rag on the piano in his style and then loosening it up with a Jelly Roll Morton version that was swinging, with a more percussive touch and some improvisation. And now on to Mr. Ferdinand La Menthe Morton, his life in New Orleans, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case that pre-dated Rosa Parks by some 60 years that ended in the Jim Crow laws, throwing educated Creoles like Jelly Roll together with the black folks from the Mississipi Delta. One group helped the other learn instrumental technique and how to read music, the other shared the soul of the blues and improvisation and now the roots of jazz were fully nourished and prepared to flower into a genius named Louis Armstrong. To be continued next week.

In one 45-minute period, music, history, biography, culture, personal anecdotes, politics, aesthetics, film, architecture (Victorian and Edwardian houses in San Francisco). On one hand, open to critique as TMI for any coherent understanding, on the other, a model lesson of how all things are interconnected. Not only isn’t it enough just to play jazz without knowing its history, but it’s a lost opportunity to show how that history started things in motion that changed and evolved through time to become this present moment. How they continue to affect the way things are, how we think, who we are and what different choices we might make as to who we will become if only we knew. And though a significant part of my jazz history class uses my personal DVD collection and Youtube to help make that history come alive, this class was taught via the ancient art of storytelling, aided by the technology of a piano.

And most importantly, a square of cardboard. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

First-World Problems

Twelve hours in the car yesterday and now preparing my way back to the workaday world. The re-entry began with a lost school planning book, a sketchy printer, six pounds heavier on the bathroom scale, a refrigerator with condiments only until I get to the store. Each one annoying and eliciting inappropriate small oaths and each worthy of the new mantra my daughter introduced me to: “First-World Problem. Get over it.”

Really, in light of famine, tsunamis, war, openly repressive governments, these all are so small and deserve being put in their proper perspective. Don’t get me wrong— all of the above are possible and can (and do) exist in these so-called First-World countries. And I certainly don’t mean this in any arrogant “I’m so glad I’m an American” kind of way. But truth be told, I live in a prosperous country in a privileged position and become accustomed to things that are supposed to work, that are supposed to be fair, that seem to exist to serve my every need and are deserving of my outrage when they fail to please me. From the bus that’s late to the wireless that cuts out in the middle of sending an e-mail to the Xerox machine that’s broken just before my class. First-World Problems that deserve to be cut down to their trivial size.

My sister called from my Mom’s place and it was another bad day for her 92-year old body and mind. This is an All-World Problem, even as she is being given care in a fine facility paid for by insurance. In this, we are united and in these moments, called upon to enlarge our compassion. For no one escapes from the ravages of time, the capriciousness of health, the disappointments of dreams that never found their feet— and if that’s not enough, the battlescarred fields of love and marriage. We’re all in it up to our necks—might as well slog through it together. And commiserating over broken printers just ain’t enough to … Dang! My wireless cut out!