Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Ghost of Henry Ford

How much are inventors responsible for the aftermath of their creations? I’m sure that William Winchester inventing his rifle could not have imagined the AK 47’s gunning down innocent children in school or the rise of the NRA. That whoever made the first explosives would be aghast at the latest news from Pakistan or Brussels. That Philo T. Farnsworth working in his Green St. laboratory in San Francisco to create television could never have dreamed about Fox News, the shopping channel or Reality TV.

What would Henry Ford have thought if he shared the taxi with me in Bangkok or Manila or Singapore? Spent an hour and a half traveling a few short miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic at 10 o’clock at night? Would he have thought twice if he could have known about an endangered ozone layer looking like Swiss cheese from stalled traffic with air conditioners blaring? Would he have wondered about the stress and anxiety of 24/7 traffic-snarled- streets and just opted to keep the status quo of horse and buggies? Or invested in bicycles?

It’s true that Mr. Ford is responsible for some great pleasures. Making out in the back seat in Lover’s Lane or the Drive-in Movie, visiting grandma and grandpa out on Long Island and the exhilarating freedom of the Kerouackian “Road Trip!” It would be hard to lose one’s virginity on the back of a horse and the wagon train bumpy road trip was certainly more grueling than fun. But were those few pleasures worth the price?

American culture has long been arrogant about our standard of living, pitying those poor Europeans riding in trains, those hundreds of thousands of Chinese riding bicycles or those nomads on camels or horses. “If only the rest of the world could live like us” was our strange notion of progress and in a short 30 years or so, it has become true with a vengeance. So many of the Asian cities I’ve visited are choked day and night with traffic. (Tokyo, with its amazing subway system, a bit of an exception.) It’s bad enough the sheer numbers of cars and the effect of gas guzzling, but it all gets multiplied geometrically when it takes a gallon of gas to move a half-mile down the road. With air conditioning on. With rush hour at all hours. If Americans have cars, then all the world should have them. Yet cars times seven billion is a bad ecological and human health equation. To put it mildly.

Henry Ford, what hast thou wrought?!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lay Your Comfort Down

Following my lifetime practice, I woke up this morning thinking about what song or game would be good to ritually close off a beautiful three days of Jazz with 50 Thai (and other) teachers. And my trust that something would arise proved once again reliable and off we went with the Georgia Sea Island game, Little Johnny Brown.

Little Johnny Brown, lay your comfort down.

 Goodness knows we all need comfort. Whether food, music or people, we constantly seek that which is warm, familiar, reliable, a steadfast companion to be by our side through the treacherous waters of the daily round. Our go-to choices, our routines, our steering toward still waters is what makes us comfortable. And this is good, as far as it goes.

But the first problem is that “as far as it goes” is often a short distance. That which makes us comfortable is often in middle of the dial, medium tempo, medium volume, all pretty chords with little tension. It can turn comfortable into complacent and keep us a safe distance from a beckoning horizon. Nobody gets to the rainbow’s end watching a show on TV about the color spectrum while sipping one’s favorite soft drink.

And even if you find your comfort closer to the edge, something akin to the sublime late quartets of Beethoven or Coltrane’s Love Supreme, without attention, such things can lose their luster and become commonplace. The window they opened that invited you to fly free can close with the shades drawn.

And so after three days of moving into the swamp and lotus fields of jazz, hitting walls and soaring through windows, singing palpaple pain and jubilant joy, Little Johnny Brown invited us to keep the momentum going, to lay our comfort down ( a scarf set down on the floor) enclosed in the circle of loving support we created for each other.

Fold up the corner, Johnny Brown.

No need to throw it away with disdain. Give it the care and respect it deserves and fold it up neatly. You may need it again.

Show us your motion, Johnny Brown.

Not your carefully rehearsed or clich├ęd disco move, but the motion that best expresses who you are in the moment in a style that is 100% you. That’s the next step the world is waiting for you to take and be it small or big, tentative or exuberant, we only want to see you take it.

We can do your motion, Johnny Brown.

We will show it back to you so you can see clearly what you look like when the world takes up your offering. One small gesture amplified 50 times over and a powerful view of how you can affect the world once you commit to your particular genius.

Take it to your friend now, Johnny Brown.

For one brief moment, you are the center of the known universe and gloriously so. But step out of the center and give room to the next miracle to be revealed. Rejoin the circle of miraculous beings, each wholly unique and each wholly just a small part of a yet more glorious whole.

And so we played our way to a glorious summary of three days of risk, renewal and restoration of our promising selves often put to sleep by the indifference of the world. We took the delicate butterflies of soul in our gentle hands and released them to flutter to the tunes of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, the chants of children singing Mama Lama, Humpty Dump, Boom Chick a Boom, Criss-Cross Applesauce and more. 

Before this course, few could have imagined how Soup Soup served in Duke’s Place, One Potato fully cooked in the Pennsylvania Hotel, Lemonade sipped while wearing Little Suede Shoes are just the right dishes to satiate our jazz hunger. This the weird, wild and wacky world I had the good fortune to discover that keeps me traveling around the globe bringing jazz that uplifts the human spirit and awakens the human soul. And as long as I keep laying my comfort down, I believe it will continue to work its magic. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Begin the Day with Hope

Which means, “Do not watch morning news while eating breakfast.” Two TV’s blaring at my Bangkok hotel’s dining room and just in case I was feeling happy about teaching jazz to 50 Thai teachers or feeling hopeful after seeing the bird land in front of Bernie Sanders, the news suggested I start the day feeling hopeless about the human condition. Suicide bombers in Pakistan, more aftermath of the Brussels incident, protest here, disaster there. Just the usual fare with your eggs and toast, served up at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Under the guise of keeping you informed, it’s a 24/7 conspiracy to keep the fear level on orange and choose between being empathic and overwhelmed by the sheer weight of so much human suffering or smugly satisfied that it happened over there and not here, to them and not you.

“I know the world’s being shaved by a drunken barber,” says the Walter Brennan character in the film Meet John Doe who refuses to read newspapers. “I don’t need to read about it.” Would that we were all so wise. Of course, some things feel important to know, but how much and how often and how presented? And might it be as important to hear about the small daily victories, the entire day when no one in this place was murdered or jailed or went hungry and a surprising number of people were kind to each other without any hope of reward or punishment? (Or any thought of getting on the news?)

Any blog reader knows I have an excess of opinion about what might make the world better and do my part to convince others of a few useful tips. But what do I know? I just know that I’m not capable of eating breakfast and watching the news—or lunch or dinner, for that matter. I know that today I saw 50 reasons to be hopeful about humanity as people danced so joyfully and sang with gusto and played with faces amazed by the beauty and power of the sounds they were generating without having had to go home and practice music. Right here, right now, in company with others, from delicate improvisations to hot jazz solos. All the miracles the damn news will never report. And so I do here. It was real. It happened. And it was glorious.

Friends, begin the day with hope, keep it well exercised as the sun arcs across the sky, end with a poem to read or write or listen to Bach or Miles to remind yourself that while the worst of us is paraded across the screens, the best of us is every bit as present and real. I believe that hope begets more hope and I say to hell with the drunken barbers.

Tomorrow morning, I'm ordering room service.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Sometimes all it takes to be happy is an open window and a rooster’s crow. Woke up in the arms of my Dutch wife (it’s a pillow), the clickety-clack of a fan, the distant sound of thunder. Heaven. Once again a small part of God’s grand creation.

My hotel room in Singapore was all forced air, no openable windows, that self-enclosed artificial human creation that defines our modern notion of comfort. Each morning I went down to an excessive and expensive buffet breakfast, out into the air-conditioned cab driving trafficked roads to an air-conditioned school with more closed windows, then the cab and my hotel room again at the end of the day. I’m used to it.

But where is the soul that comes from birdsong and the gentle buzz of people in the village stirring to start the day? Setting out flowered offerings, sweeping the front of their open-air restaurant, children walking the roads to go to school or fly some kites. The sounds of insects and roosters and barking dogs, the smells of early-morning cooking, the distant music of West African drums, Indian singing or Balinese gamelan. That’s the travel I’ve known and miss so dearly.

And it’s not just Ghana or India or Bali that it brings me back to, it’s my childhood in New Jersey waking up on a summer’s morn. Yes, we had a TV and air-conditioning downstairs (but only a fan in my bedroom) and later a dishwasher, but the bulk of the day was spent roaming the nearby park, sitting on the front stoop, mowing the back lawn with a hand-operated mower, lying in the hammock. How grateful I am for my analog and natural childhood!

And so here at my dear friend Zukhra’s house on the outskirts of Bangkok, I notice that I’m much more interested in stepping outside and watching the dawn break than checking the news on my machine. How refreshing to look at a tree instead of Trump! Read the news of the day that the breeze blows in, see if there’s any news from a real fox. I’m more inclined to savor the world than save it today. Isn’t that refreshing.

And it’s Easter Sunday. Good to begin the day resurrected back to my old familiar and welcome self. Thinking about going to a Holi Festival, the Indian celebration of Spring with people splashing colored powder and paints on each other. Went to one in Rajasthan in 1979 and kept the splattered T-shirt for years. Also oddly was here in Bangkok for Easter that year also, when my wife and I made the terrible choice of going out to see the movie The Deer Hunter, a brutal film about the Vietnam war. Bad idea that was.

Now the music of rain on the roof, the family dog coming in to greet me, the light breeze of the fan and renewal of life lived close to the skin. It’s enough for happiness.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Fable for Our Time

Every teacher has a story about that kid. You know who I mean. The one that seemed hopeless, gave you a run for your money (which was paltry enough), thwarted your every effort to help him or care about him. And then. Sometimes at a slow glacial pace, sometimes with an astonishing explosive breakthrough, something changed. That hard exterior softened, that scowl changed to a smile, that lack of faith in himself turned around. But none of it happened without significant, constant and unified effort.

We had a kid like that once. He was the terror that no one could tame. He mocked the kid who stuttered, teased the girls relentlessly, had to win every game or else he’d get his gang of miscreants to beat you up. He had no sense of shame or remorse and the only smile he could manage was an arrogant smirk when he won or made someone cry. He’d say whatever came into his head with no thought of the consequences, lied repeatedly and didn’t care if he was caught in a lie. He had to be the center of attention in every social situation or else he’d pout or lash out. Like I said, a terror.

But we had to deal with him, so we set to work. Called in his parents and began the meeting listing his strengths and good points. At the same time, we required some family counseling to help them learn how to set reasonable limits at home and clear, natural consequences when he did something mean-spirited. We listed specific behaviors that were unacceptable because they hurt other children, disrupted the learning environment and ultimately worked against his best interests as well and made a plan for consequences. We developed strategies to help him become aware of his actions and begin to care about how they affected others. We paired him with the girl he teased to work together on a project with a high-stakes grade at the end. We partnered him with a younger kid with a disability who admired him to see if his bullying side could turn into protecting him from other’s teasing. We told him that he actually had a fine musical talent, but created situations to show him how his notes sounded even better when they worked with his neighbors—which meant he had to listen.  We discovered he had a passion for fly-fishing and let him teach a lesson to the other kids to show off his considerable knowledge. And then take it around to some other classes as well. In short, we did everything in our power to show that “playing well with others” was the most important kind of power a person can have. Kindness, listening, helping was more powerful than bullying, shouting, pouting, teasing— and made everyone happier as well. Especially him.

Over time, it began to pay off. His aggressive energy turned into more positive channels and some delicate part of himself hidden behind the rough exterior began to realize how much we truly cared about him. There were many one-step forward, two-steps backwards moments, but the general direction was forward. These efforts carried him into high school and lo and behold, he now is doing inspiring work in a company devoted to sustainable futures. It worked.

Right around the same time, a friend told me about a similar boy in another school. But the parents of that boy showed no interest in changing their style, talked about his mean aggression as a laudable ambition to get ahead. The teachers threw up their hands, the community excused it all as “boys will be boys.” The other kids, fearful of his power, kowtowed to him and their parents chose not to get involved. In short, not only did no one challenge or question this kid’s actions, but fed it through indifference and excuses. The kid had no motivation to change and even if he wanted to, had no tools with which to do so, no support system, no community who cared. You might expect that this kid got involved in gangs or drug trafficking or some such thing and eventually landed in jail.

In fact, this kid grew up and is running for the President of the United States. With millions of people cheering him on.

Nothing about this story is true.

Everything about this story is true.