Monday, March 30, 2015

A Marvelous March

Eleven Orff courses. Eight flights. Seven countries. Five hotels. Four houses. Three trains. Two books finished. One day at home in San Francisco. Time spent with friends from near and far— Andrea, Shirley, Barbara, Elisa, Rodrigo, Petra, Tadeja, Mandana, Peta, Christa, Samantha, Mieke, Katrins, Johanna, Melanie, Rainer, Mine, Sue, Elley, Kofi, Zukhra, Melonko, Matei, Tonmai, Tik, Wittaya, Ga and sorry for anyone I’m forgetting! Not to mention all the new friends (particularly the Salzburg Special Course!) and acquaintances made. And 31 blogs to try to capture the marvels of this extraordinary March.

That’s my silly fascination with statistics, but it’s the quality of those lived days that leaves me so grateful for each and every minute. At my age— and perhaps every age— we long for Time to slow its relentless forward march and there’s few experiences so dense and intense as travel. A month in the school routine passes swiftly, but all these 31 tiny lives lived here, there and everywhere do indeed create the sensation that a year’s worth of memorable experiences have been packed into a 4-plus week-span.

And not over yet. Tomorrow I begin my three-day Jazz Course for the Thai Orff folks, some 50 people coming to sing, swing and step their way into a basic foundation for America’s greatest export. Then a happily anticipated week with daughter Talia in Bali where we last took her when she was 2 ½. It would have been sweet for Kerala and Karen and Zadie and Ronnie to come as well, but with Kerala 6 months pregnant, time off from jobs being saved up and airline tickets being the cost they are, we opted for the Economy Package. And as Talia pointed out, she went to Patagonia with her Mom, but never did a trip like this with dear old Dad. I’m honored she’s excited about it, though also well aware that the gift of the airline ticket for her 30th birthday helped light that enthusiasm! Then she returns back to school and I go on to Singapore for one more week of teaching before finishing the school year and returning to the quick flip of the calendar pages.

But as March slips into April, this quick peek back at what has been sheer joy— never an unhappy day or unsatisfying workshop, the weirdness of going from San Francisco Spring to European end of Winter to Asian 90 degree Summer feeling, great books to keep me company (thanks Meg Wollitzer, Jonathan Tropper and Lisa See!), fun movies on long plane rides, good food everywhere and the grand adventure of the Lone Ranger of Orff doing his good deeds and rearing back on his horse shouting “Hi ho Silver!” as he gallops away to the next venue. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Report from Tomorrow

Dear San Francisco,

As you read this, consider that tomorrow has already happened.

I’m 14 hours ahead of you and can report back
that it’s going to be a great day.

Weather hot, with a slight cooling breeze at the river.

If you do a workshop at a school with other music teachers and a class of kids,
I’m happy to say that you’re going to have a great time.

Dinner at the restaurant will be spectacularly delicious and the company?

You’ll go to sleep with an acoustic fan, much nicer than air-conditioning
            and you’ll remember those hot summer nights in New Jersey as a child,
                        crickets outside and the innocence of the world unbroken
                                    By TV news.

And when it does come, there’s the calm reassurance of Walter Cronkite and
            nowhere a sign of the mean-spirited Bill O’Reilly and company.
(They were around, we just didn’t give them a platform back then
 and raise bigotry, arrogance and stupidity to a national norm.
    They kept their proper place as the ranting of my friend’s drunken father. )

The world will keep up its spin tomorrow and there will be the daily dose of
       unbearable suffering, much of which could have been avoided by children
going to schools with teachers teaching with love and compassion, teachers
            teaching love and compassion.

But there will be plenty of them doing just that tomorrow.
Of course, Fox news will never report it. If you’re not in a constant low-grade state of fear and cynicism, they can’t control you.   

By the time you live the glorious day I’m reporting,
          I’ll already be living the next tomorrow.

I’ll keep you posted.


Your man in Bangkok

Prayer, Then Millionaire

In all my years of flying, that was a first. Before taking off, a Muslim prayer appeared on the Malaysian Airlines screen. And then I watched Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

Well, why not? We are all here by the grace and mercy of spiritual forces. I have my own ritual prayers that I quietly intone each flight, perhaps to the dismay of an observant seatmate. I begin with the Buddhist chant “The Dharani to Remove Disaster” and then finish with a generic little prayer I made up: “O Great spirit, as we enter into your realm, we commit our bodies to your care and ask for your guidance and protection. Amen.” The Muslim prayer on the screen was also tailor-made for the occasion, asking Allah to bless the take-off and landing. If you think about the incredible act of hurling through space inside tubes of metal, all prayers are more than justified.

And just for the record, Marilyn Monroe is quite the comedic actress.

Confessions of a Lifelong Racist

I went to an excellent talk at this EARCOS Conference by Anne Sibley O’Brien. The title was: The Formation of Racial and Cultural Identity and she came to it from an unusual perspective—her story as a minority white American growing up in Korea. Though a minority in one sense, she also had the entire history of white dominance and privilege in the background that allowed her to read books and see movies and watch TV where she was the norm. That certainly made her experience quite different from say, a Chinese American growing up as the only Chinese family in town (as the main character in Lisa See’s China Doll or my childhood friend, David Quon did), with Charlie Chan showing in the movies and no one in the school books resembling them.

Her talk unleashed a stampede of wild horses which I’ve been trying to corral into coherent thought, but it’s hopeless. The needed discussions are so profound and so various and so complex that each thought is a chapter in itself in a book I will never write. But after a few more remarks here, I’ll try to at least house each horse in a bulleted corral for future consideration.

Ms. O’Brien talked about her own wild horse stampede when she went to a talk titled “The Neuroscience of Bias” and the realization that we are genetically programmed to note difference (apparently 6-month old babies can already distinguish race) and make judgment of “the other.” Makes sense as a survival strategy. Without it, we couldn’t distinguish between the dangerous tiger and the harmless house cat, the delicious blackberry and the malicious poison oak. But then comes all the cultural practices that get set in motion and solidified as “the way it spozed to be,” from scientific theories of racial inferiority concocted to allow slave masters to sleep peacefully at night to clitorectomies in various West African cultures or bound feet in China or homophobia just about everywhere. Now the plot thickens and not happily so.

Turns out we are all biased, each and every one of us and even the best-hearted amongst us, unconsciously driven by old biological and cultural programs. What the culture feeds us has enormous impact. Growing up with David Quon, George Gonzales and Bill “Lump” Blackshear, I already was crossing lines of separation and finding friendship in human qualities independent of race and cultural origin. But on TV, images of Tonto, Amos and Andy, José Jimenez, Charlie Chan were being imprinted on my young brain. I feel my friend and colleague from Ghana Kofi Gbolonyo like a long-lost brother, but still I grew up watching Tarzan and reading Little Black Sambo. I have two strong, independent daughters who beat me in basketball, Boggle and baking, but still I watched Betty Boop. One of Ms. O-Brien’s missions is to enlarge the imagery of “the other” through children’s books, both as an illustrator and an author and I’m convinced this is essential.

The good news is that our brain’s wiring for bias is the starting point of the discussion, but not the end. It is not an excuse to shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well. Guess that’s just the way it is.” But neither can we leap over the rough terrain of difference, both biological, cultural, perceived and otherwise, into the lioned and lambed beauty of our common shared humanity. The only antidote is increased awareness, consciousness and of course, intention to widen one’s world to include all. It requires questioning assumptions handed down, working through fear of the other, refusing the invitation to feel superior— and working to create a new culture for our children that will save them some (but not all) of this difficult work. I love it when the kids at school see some old movie portrayal or hear history’s stories and respond with puzzled looks, “What was wrong with those people?” And most of what was wrong was far beyond any one person’s control or choice, simply was the air we collectively breathed passed down from one ignorant generation to another.

People like me spend some time defending, either to others or ourselves, that we aren’t racist or sexist or homophobic. How could I be, with a gay African-American Orff mentor, a mixed-race granddaughter, teachers and students from some 45 countries who I enjoy, admire and even love? And yet these images and assumptions still live on in my brain and influence my perceptions and ideas, whether I’m aware of it or not.

I do think it’s worth being less glib by calling us all racists (though admit it! That title caught your attention!). That’s a charged word and I suggest that there’s a large divide between just about everyone I know and General Custer, Sheriff Clark or Hitler. “Bias” is a more accurate term and applies to us all equally. And really, I complete understand why racism is mostly a black and white issue in the U.S., but it’s time to enlarge the discussion. My childhood friend David Quon says that the black kids in my town insulted him the most and some of historical American black culture’s issues with women, gays and even Africans need to get up on the table along with everything else. Though a victim of bias will elicit more sympathy and understanding than the perpetrator, it’s still not okay to carry other biases forward without challenge.

One of the biggest takeaways from Ms. O’Brien’s talk is that even as I yearn for and accent and aim for the shared humanity end of the whole matter, I will never wholly understand what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, to be a minority constantly under judgment, disdain, marginalization and yes, real danger, as recent events so depressingly affirm. I’ll always be the boy on the basketball team who is simply a player on the team, never the one girl on the team who will always be “the girl” on the team, with every action and reaction under surveillance as the “other.” Even if I lived the rest of my life in a remote Ghanaian village, I’d still carry my male privilege, see images of a white Jesus Christ and be somehow connected to everything the British brought in when they colonized Ghana.  

So much for the corrals. I’ve let horses run freely around and that’s fine, it’s a start. I’m looking forward to investigating more about the neuroscience of bias and keeping the discussion alive. Thanks to Ms. O'Brien for her work and stimulating presentation. Let’s keep it all moving forward, people! 

Saturday, March 28, 2015


A free morning and the good sense to get out on a boat and go to one of the nearby islands. After landing, headed up the Jungle Trail, which started out promising and became increasingly overgrown, with a few questionable moments about where the path went. Ascended up the spine of the island and for the first time, feeling real heat, my shirt soaked with sweat. Not the least prepared for what to expect and no knowledge whatsoever about plants or reptiles or other life forms that could be dangerous. But innocence can often be a protector and I trudged on through dense foliage serenaded by birds and the rustle of small lizards in leaves. Stepped over a branch that was a super-highway for ants and was caught several times by a thin thorny vine before starting to pay more careful attention. Arrived at the island’s end and discovered a welcome paved lower path the 1500 meters back. At one point,  some twenty feet away, spotted a rather large Komodo dragonish lizard. Hmm. I stopped, he paused and then scurried off to the side.

Back to the beach and into the welcome cool waters of the South China Sea and then sit at a table in the shade to enjoy my book. And that’s when I noticed my watch had stopped. Hmm. Never happened to me on a trip and realized how much I depended on it. Now what? Alone in the jungle, I felt a moment of timelessness Zen-style, but this was a different animal altogether. Luckily, I still have enough social grace to actually ask other folks what time it is and thus, made it back on time for the return boat trip.

Another remarkable lunch, though these extravagant buffets seem to be the tests I persistently fail and my appetite to try everything is not happy news for the return of the belly bulge. Then to the last of my four workshops on singing and after three workshops without a single instrument other than body and voice, some good-hearted people heard my request for a guitar and lo and behold, there it was. And a conga! And though I loved playing the children’s games with everyone and exploring the imaginative potential of children’s rhymes and dancing the exuberant circle dances, there are few pleasures in life as deep as sitting with a crowd of people—any age— with a guitar and a bottomless well of great songs, each with interesting accompanying stories.

Then the ritual post-workshop pool, read in the lounge chair and watch the sunset, come back and get ready for dinner, which will include some live music tonight. Let me say it once more: one could get spoiled with this as the new standard for giving workshops. No more drafty gyms, hotels with views of parking lots and Olive Garden dinners in shopping malls for me. My new contract will either insist on castles in Spain or mountains in Austria or palm trees in Malaysia. Well, I’ll also take the beaches in Rio or the village in Ghana or the temple in Japan. I’m flexible.

Off to dinner as soon as I find out one thing: Anyone know what time it is?