Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Sound of One Finger Snapping

Those of us who have dabbled in Eastern thought will recognize the reference to the famous Zen riddle: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Answering that enigmatic question means you are graced with a Buddhist enlightenment. The answer to the “one finger snapping” is less mysterious— it is an Iranian body percussion technique practiced nowhere else on the planet, but virtually a required skill for every Iranian citizen. (I myself have been working on it off and on for some eight years and can only produce a feeble version.) Answering that question means achieving a different kind of enlightenment— that the people the newspapers would have us vilify as enemies are fun, intelligent, open-minded, artistic and expressive folks—and exceptionally good looking as well! At least the ones that I have met.

I met my first group of Iranian music teachers in Salzburg some ten years ago and it was love at first sight. They began attending both summer courses and the year-long Special course at the Orff Institut and I had the good fortune to teach many of them. Thanks to that training and some coming to our International Orff Course, the Orff movement is flourishing in Iran and exciting things are happening! But like many places, there is a disconnect between the people and the government. Or rather, the people who have ascended to government are those with the most narrow ideas, an intelligence disconnected from compassion, a closed mind fearful of expression and critique, an aesthetic limited to one or two colors of the rainbow. These types are everywhere and because their inclination is to wield power and rule over others rather than savor the full flavor of life, they often wreak havoc as they ascend to positions of authority. So that those of us who would rather just laugh and sing and cook and play together need to gather our own collective power to create a space for ourselves in a repressive society.

But here in the Turkish countryside, we can let go of that for the moment and live life as it’s meant to be lived. Formal classes with accent on play and playful free time with fun conversation and more music and games freely shared. And let me clear: I’m enjoying the Turkish folks here every bit as much as the Iranians, often don’t know yet who is who and of course, it doesn’t really matter. Here we are all much larger than our ethnic identity.

Finishing this at an outdoor café in the small village of Sirincé, sitting with my Orff student turned colleague, Estevao from Brazil. (Such a pleasure, that. Love this young man, who will carry the work forward for beyond me!). Hot, dry air, welcome tree-covered shade, fresh orange juice, an Internet connection and music piped out from all sorts of places. Yesterday I heard Del Shannon’s Runaway, a 45 my sister owned in the early 60’s, just now a Cha Cha Cha version of The Continental, made famous in an old Fred Astaire movie.

In our way of thinking “life would be perfect if only…” I’m still anxiously awaiting the news of my overdue grandson’s birth. Tomorrow is a week overdue. Every day, I open e-mail hoping to see "Kerala's in labor!" or better yet, "He's here!" Instead my wife writes, "We are soooo ready for this baby to be born."

While writing, 8 lovely Iranian men and women spot Estevao and I and rush over for photo opportunities. (I freely confess that at an age when I’m wholly invisible if I walk into a bar with young people, that's a great perk of this work!) Now French café music on the speakers, me with nothing really left to say and yet I keep on writing. If I could capture the scene well enough that you, the armchair traveler, felt carried to this table, I believe you would enjoy it as much as I am. But my high school English teachers are rolling their eyes— stick to the topic, man! If I could find the perfect sentence to tie all the disparate threads together, I could come out of this alive. How about:

“Malik, if you come out tomorrow, I promise to take you one day to this spot, where we’ll sip fresh orange juice, eat ice cream, listen to the music and enjoy the attention of all the beautiful Iranian and Turkish peoples who will serenade you with the miracle of one finger snapping.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

Me and Jimmy Stewart

Strange to feel a stranger to the airport. It’s only been two months since I’ve been in one, and of course, it grows more familiar with each step past the familiar restaurants newsstands and bookstores. But I’ve been quite happy to be mostly home, walking or biking or driving, each with its own speed and thus, sense of participation. If our hope is to attend more closely to the world, walking is the best. If we want a bit more exercise, the workout of uphill and thrill of downhill, the chance to do errands without fighting traffic and parking, then biking it is. If it’s a ten-hour trip to Portland, the car with a book on tape is just the ticket. And if it’s halfway around the world to Turkey to teach for one week, I suppose it better be a plane!

Now back in a thin tube of metal soaring through the skies, mostly aisle seats these days, so not even the sense of the world below. Instead, my book, the movies, my dreams if I’m lucky enough to sleep on this long, long flight to Istanbul.

Yes, it’s the traveling music teacher at it again, from Istanbul to Izmir to a place further in the countryside for a week music camp with mostly Turks and Iranians. Don’t know quite what to expect, not exactly the typical Orff workshop with xylophones and class plans adaptable for teachers hungry to gather material. Instead, it sounds like a kind of Middle Eastern Burning Man led by a Turk, Brazilian and American (that’s me!). Well, probably not that far out, but something more about just gathering and making any kind of music with whatever is available and not worry so much about the two most frequently asked questions: “Which grade kids do you do this with? And is it in the notes?” (The answers are “all” and “no.”)


Now in the Istanbul Airport and movies it was—from the frivolous Mom’s Night Out to the suspenseful State of Play to the prophetic Head of State (2004 movie with Chris Rock winning the election as the first black president— now old news!). The man next to me moved his seat. Nothing like an empty seat on a long flight to bring instant bliss! If only the next man vacated, I could have (gasp!) lay down, but that was too much to expect. But on the cusp of 64 years old and with an established reputation as a sought-after workshop leader with hard-earned expertise, maybe it’s time to declare myself Business-Class worthy. Yes, I like being a man of the people and sharing the misery of coach, but hey, I’ve paid my dues. Maybe enough is enough.

Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines has the worst take-off and landing music, some non-descript New Age pablum, but the best meals. Fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, fabulous cheese and bread, an amazing eggplant salad, Turkish delight and baklava deserts, all with real (not plastic) silverware. Simple pleasures.


Now about to board the next plane to Izmir. No wi-fi in the airport and no wi-fi where I’m going (though apparently close by), so could be that by the time I post this, it will already be obsolete. The blog is more the form for the flotsam and jetsam (hmm. Where do those words come from? No wi-fi to look them up!) of each day’s news, not wholly conducive to ocean-worthy observations. Sometimes I try to dive beneath the surface, aim for more depth or capture amount floating placidity on the ocean’s calm expanse. But not today! More from the next opportunity to write. For now, the boarding tones are ringing.


A short, smooth flight, my luggage arrived intact, my name on a sign outside the baggage claim, a half-hour ride in a van to a small town, transfer to a car and up into the hills on a bumpy road, get out and change to a donkey– ha ha!– just kidding. The car arrived at the Circle Camp site and people grouped on the lawn in the refreshing cool night air chatting, the first to greet me an ex-student from Germany and then some five Turks and five Iranians I know and my wonderful host Ezo and companion-in-crime Estevao and I’m in a jet-lag stupor, but happy to have arrived. Still worried and wondering about grandson Malik, parts of me running to catch up from San Francisco and the rest preparing for what looks to be yet another marvelous week of exploring how to be in human community. A new book idea flashed through me like lightning last night, awoke at 3 am to jot things down, managed to sleep until 7:30 and now the rooster crow and a shower awaiting.

Jimmy Stewart never got to realize his travel dreams, but I certainly have and we both have arrived at the same conclusion: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

History in the Making

I’m stunned. Who could have believed that an American president could speak as President Obama just did in his eulogy in Charleston? It just goes to show how powerless a President is in some ways, with the possibility of being obstructed by Congress and blocked by lobbyists and shut down by big money. These checks and balances of democracy are healthy in one way, blocking a despot as well as a visionary. But damn the Republicans for not getting behind him and working with him and engaging in genuine conversation that might have led to civil compromise. Instead, they refused to accept him, demonized him, wished him ill and did everything in their power to stop him from making so much needed change. And yes, it’s possible that he needs to take some responsibility for not being forceful enough or less naïve or too compromising. I’ll be honest—I don’t know the details.

But this I do know. I have never felt more ashamed to be an American than during the 8 years George Bush stood up and told his lies and spoke his narrow vision in such inarticulate language. He was a good old boy without shame, the guy born on third base who thought he hit a triple, the one who opened his $1000 a plate fund-raising dinner by toasting “Welcome to the haves and the have mores! (chuckle, chuckle),” whose concept of winning was to protect the unearned privileges of the ruling class and call that “America.” His inability to speak proper English was good fodder for comedians, but set a disgraceful tone in America, making intelligence suspect and glorifying stupidity.

Contrast Obama, whose “sermon” ranks side by side with Martin Luther King’s speech and delivered in the same style and in the same context. He set the tone for the nation to actually feel things and face things and work to overcome than rather than try to hide them or spin them or secretly laugh about them. He was the teacher whose class rose to his level of discourse and were inspired to work harder and think deeper and care wider. He was the preacher infusing the room with Spirit and Soul. He was the father sternly rebuking and the idealistic child refusing to give in to cynicism. He was the spiritual man leaning toward forgiveness and the politician looking for helpful solutions and the citizen reminding us all to do our part. He was the radical outing the selfish using their power for their own self-interest. He was the praiser, blessing those who did acts and lived lives worthy of praise. 

Never have I felt so proud to be an American. I believe that though too long for most people’s attention span, this speech is one of the most significant historical events of the last fifty years. I believe it should be required viewing in every school across this nation. And indeed the world, for people to see an America they rarely get to see. Side by side with the Supreme Court's extraordinary ruling on Gay Marriage, upholding Obama care, Republican politicians agreeing to take down the Confederate Flag and the Pope speaking out on climate change, this has been a week for history to remember. 

Here’s what I wrote in Facebook about the speech, with lots of Amens and other comments from my “friends.”

Ladies and gentleman, I believe there has never been a speech by an American president in the entire history of our country more eloquent, more true, more heartfelt, more soulful than Barack Obama's Eulogy in Charleston. Take 37 minutes out of your busy life and see if by the end, you're not holding your hands up to the screen to feel the full power of the grace in that room released by his extraordinary sermon. Imagine each of us with the courage to open our hurting hearts that wide, with the intelligence to articulate the height and depth of these complex issues, with the humility of Spirit to feel some greater purpose at work, with the common sense to not ignore the political issues that we humans need to address. We have the possibility to do all of that and if we step toward it, there might finally be the healing in this land we all need, we all crave, we all deserve.

Friday, June 26, 2015


May I recommend a book? It’s titled Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank by Robert W. Fuller. Published in 2004, it’s a sleeper of an idea whose time is overdue, but didn’t seem to hit the nerve center of the national dialogue and become a New York Times National Bestseller.

But it's not too late. In the face of looking again at white supremacy, from it’s recent extreme version in Charleston to the insidious more subtle forms (see cartoon above) permeating every corner of our culture, it’s an idea worthy of consideration. My daughter Talia had papers posted on her 4th grade classroom wall with titles like Racism, Sexism, Ageism, Homophobia, Ableism, Classism and more. When her students came across examples of these in the news or books they were reading or in their daily life at school, they would put a Post-it describing it on the appropriate paper. As Fuller says:

"Unnamed, things can continue to debilitate, damage and destroy; named, we can begin to unravel its pathology and take steps to protect ourselves. …Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere."

But is there something deeper that unites all these isms? Some common element that is consistent in each, one thing that can enter our conscious awareness to begin a proper healing and begin to turn the whole catastrophe around? After all, blacks can be homophobic, gay people can be racist, poor people can be sexist and all possible combinations of each ism. What is the core part of us that generates and perpetuates these malignant ideologies? That is precisely the question Fuller is trying to answer in his book. And he does. He calls it Rankism. In his own words:

“…Rankism isn’t just another ism. It subsumes the familiar dishonorable isms. It’s the mother of them all. …Attacking the familiar isms, one at a time, is like lopping heads off the Hydra of discrimination and oppression; going after rankism aims to drive a stake through the Hydra’s heart.”  (pp 5/7)

In short, rankism is abusing power, either earned or granted, to become a “somebody” by making others a “nobody.” It strips both individual and whole groups of dignity and equal rights, perpetuates limiting stereotypes and ultimately, hurts the “somebody” as well through a false sense of achievement and self-worth (again, see cartoon above). It’s what kept and keeps poor whites abused by the entitled rich from banding together with poor blacks, through a clever game of convincing them they’re one rank above their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. It’s what still keeps voters voting for candidates against their own self-interest. “Yes, we’ll close down your farm and wipe out your small town’s center for our own profit, but by voting for us, you can join our club of straight people superior to gays.”

Fuller’s “Rankism” is not yet another simplistic dragon to be slayed. There are many layers for it, but as with everything, naming it, investigating its nuances, recognizing it, are the first steps to overcoming it.  A few key notions:

• The need for hierarchy and rank in human culture is as natural as in the animal kingdom.
Rank earned through effort and talent is an essential component of a harmonious community.

• As such, the solution is not to attempt to abolish rank, but to keep it from being used to “abuse, humiliate, exploit and subjugate." (Fuller: p. 4)

• Rank is mutable. “You can be taken for a nobody one day and for a somebody the next. You can be a nobody at home and a somebody at work, or vice versa.”

• Like all our human strengths and frailities, awareness of our tendency to bully or kick the dog or build our identity by putting down others is a first step out of our baser impulses towards a more accepting, compassionate and understanding self.

• We are all “rankists.” We all have capability of being less rankist—and thus, less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, less ageist and so on.

• Schools are the place where children can be educated to value the worth and dignity of every living being. And yet schools continue to be places of intense ranking, from teacher to student, from student to student, from government to whole schools.

Following yesterday’s blog, I wish I was more of a “somebody” in the national discourse so these ideas could be heard further than this blog. Who wants to listen to an elementary school music teacher? But even a “nobody” can contribute. And Fuller, one-time physics professor at Columbia and later President of Oberlin College, has the necessary status to be listened to. But only if you buy and read his book! Consider it.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


“Mr. Rockefeller, you’re the richest man in the world. Tell me, how much money is enough?”

“Just a little bit more.”

I trot this quote out whenever I need to show that greed has no bottom or top. But if I think about it, it kind of works for all kinds of situations. Substitute “fame” or “love” or “Orff workshops” for “money” and the people who have those nouns at the top of their dream list would probably agree. If we’re lucky, we’re also graced with those moments when everything feels “just right,” we’re wholly content with the blessings of what’s before us or within us or who’s next to us, desiring neither less nor more. But usually the engine of desire is run on the energy of wanting something more than we presently have, be it piano technique, understanding or social justice.

Today I drove back from Portland to San Francisco in a world-record-10-hour-non-stop drive with my daughter Talia, fueled by deep and honest conversation, good snacks and the intellectual stimulation of sharing various talks through our various devices. One theme was “play,” another “compassion,” a third “grief and praise” and not only did I find that I’ve said many similar things to the speakers in various talks I’ve given in my Orff workshops, but I have handy the extra dimension of ritual musical activities that activate them beyond mere mental comprehension. These vibrant ideas come into the active body and enter the opening heart and jump-start the imaginative mind, all within the living circle of community.

The speakers I heard on the TED Radio Station talking about play were limited to talking about video games or Burning Man for examples, both far inferior in my view to the kinds of things we do in Orff workshops—and without drugs or expensive machines, I might add. The speakers on compassion were good, but none of them were aware of the power of the Beanbag Game or the Boom-Chick-a-Boom circle to generate a living, breathing practice that both demonstrates our innate compassion and joyfully develops it. The need to actively and publicly grieve the atrocities of genocide and slavery in the U.S. in particular to get out of our stuckness around the legacy of racism is something that rarely enters the political conversation. But without this spiritual dimension of weeping for the wandering ghosts of our ancestors ungrieved, I believe there’s no hope to truly move forward. And to do that, we will need some songs and dances and may I add, I have a few? Every jazz course I teach, there comes a moment of reckoning as we descend into the darkness surrounding the creation of this joyful music we are playing and a moment of heaviness where guilt and shame hang heavy in the air. Then comes the “Little Sally Walker” song and game and everything changes. Not by trying to step around it and be happy again, but by learning how to step through it and feel both the grief and the praise, the fall and the rise, the suffering and the triumph.

In my “just a little more” greed, I feel frustrated that what I can contribute to the conversation around human health and happiness rarely gets further than the 40-person Orff workshop. Yes, I do have a TEDx talk that is close to 20,000 views, but it’s not exactly going viral and my hands were tied not having enough time to actually do something with the audience. And yes, it’s entirely possible that my work is not worthy of an audience larger than it currently is, but still I have that desire for more. And the accompanying frustration that it stays so small.

I comfort myself with Gary Snyder’s quote from his Zen teacher: “Sweep the garden. Any size.” It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the quality of the offering, the feeling in the room that the Ancestors are present, the immeasurable healing of a group of people simply having the courage to talk about and sing about and dance about uncomfortable topics that stay underground and stagnate our collective Soul. It just might be that one courageous conversation or a group of people sitting in profound meditation or a jazz concert in a small club that enters some sublime territory is more powerful than a Hollywood Bowl lecture. Who knows?

But if anyone with connections and influence is reading this small-audience blog and wants to take a chance on finding out just how much the world needs me to demonstrate the Beanbag Game and play Boom-Chick-A-Boom, give me a call. A bigger TED talk, Terry Gross, Oprah, New Yorker article, United Nations meeting, session with Congress, Middle East Peace Talks, Superbowl halftime…whatever. I’m ready. Give me a call.

PS If none of that works, I also do kid’s birthday parties. J

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


In my sixth day in Portland waiting for my grandson Malik and no sign that he’s ready to emerge. It’s a strange feeling, neither wholly here nor there, in a kind of limbo. Not that it hasn’t been lovely being with my two daughters, Kerala and Talia. son-in-law Ronnie, wife Karen and granddaughter Zadie on lazy summer days. Every day has had at least one social focus— meeting my nephews at the local Farmer’s Market (I highly recommend the crepes!), meeting Talia’s new boyfriend’s (Xander) family who live five blocks from Kerala and Ronnie, having a barbecue dinner and great conversation with my old college friends Gabe and Steve.

I’ve been biking around this most bikable city, bought a new watch downtown, shopped to stock up on groceries for the impending birth. And today we went to a local pool. It’s been a busy enough time and each thing fun. Oh, and at the center is just following Zadie around and responding to her interests—building Marble Mazes, singing songs, telling stories, watching her jump off the fence or paint or dance.

But I feel some restlessness throughout it all and the tension of an impending deadline that now has arrived. Tomorrow Talia and I need to drive back to San Francisco. Me to rehearse for a Saturday morning jazz concert and pack for a Saturday evening plane flight to Turkey to teach an Orff Course, she to get ready to go to a good friend’s wedding. It feels terrible to leave before Malik appears, not only sad to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event, but also disappointed to not be here to help with Zadie and help care for Kerala and generally celebrate the occasion. We all thought he would come early, only because Zadie did and second babies often do, and now he’s two days overdue. Aarghh.

If I didn’t already have a plane ticket to Turkey and wasn’t one of three teachers that the group is counting on, I would definitely consider canceling. But once you commit to a path, there are certain sacrifices you expect to make. And so I have all my excuses and justifications lined up, the way we do, to try to make our ambivalence bearable. Aren't we great at that?

• It’s not as if most grandparents see their grandkids being born. They usually stop by a few weeks later, especially if they're from out of town.

• My wife will stay on to help out and Ronnie is off from work. They have good neighbors and a growing support system.

• I’ll be up here again six weeks from now and will meet Malik then. And that's how old Zadie was when we first met her.

• I’ve spent my life constantly negotiating between work and family and did a reasonably good job, often combining the two and bringing the family to places I was working like Australia, Salzburg, South Africa, India, Brazil and more. I left a course when my Dad had open-heart surgery and naturally, planned things around weddings and such.

• It's all in the life of the traveling music teacher. And this is my confession.

• It is what it is.

See how good I am at this? But the bottom line is that I'm sad to leave, sorry to miss out, sorry to not be available to help. No one to wholly blame (Malik?), we all were "open to outcome but can't be attached to outcome" and this is all a small blip in the big picture.

But still.

Malik, I will welcome you from afar, be good to your mother on your way out and we shall meet a bit further down the road.