Monday, October 31, 2016

Safe on the Edge

“All this world is but a play. Be thou the joyful player.”

Halloween—San Francisco’s favorite holiday! In spite of a light rain, hundreds turned up on Belvedere St., a neighborhood famous for its Halloween spirit. Three blocks in which the street is blocked off to traffic, most every house is decorated to the max, folks sit on the front steps with buckets of candy and the streets swarm with adults and kids in mostly home-made costumes. There are garages filled with coordinated music and dancing ghosts, real people dancing in second-story windows, pumpkin carving that deserves its own gallery in the museum, a live band at the end of the street and more. So fun to show the Interns and out-of-town friends San Francisco at its best. One commented:

“It’s like Disneyland— without the long lines, expensive tickets and corporate sponsorship!”

Yes, indeed. It is homegrown fun and frivolity for no other reason than to have a rollicking good time, be a bit zany and crazy, try on someone or something else’s persona for one wild night. That’s the San Francisco way, a city built by folks discontent with the stories they were handed down, the just a bit-too-settled lives they were expected to inherit, folks who felt a wanderlust and followed Horace Greeley’s advice, “Go west.” They came to the edge of the continent and the edge of their comfortable psychic landscape and kept reaching, pushing out the borders of the imagination and willing to hang out with their demons and monsters, their fool-selves and circus acrobats, their jazz improvisations outside the chords and their poems breaking free of conventional meters. They walked the tightrope of excess, swung from the rafters of play, pushed out the forms where love might live. One ongoing Halloween night.

But in the big picture, there is safety in playing the full range of characters available to us precisely because it is play. The mask will come off the next day and we get to choose when to put it on again. It is safe because we are playing with fake light sabers instead of real assault weapons. We are roaring like demons just for fun instead of seriously ranting like demons to get elected. We are making light shows with explosive music instead of stockpiling megaton weapons and entering the theater of war. The danger comes from those who refuse the play of life, who accept the mask pushed onto their face by those who hate, who never wholly met their angel and were left with nothing but their devil. Behind their mask is the frightened or wounded or bullied or bullying little boy or girl and they hold on tight to the edges for fear that the true revelation of their character would kill them. And it would—kill their inauthentic selves, that is. I believe something truer would grow from the courageous act of being unmasked.

Like so many, each of the next eight days will find me shaking with fear that the masked bandits might win, the ones who can’t tell the difference between the mask and the true face. I will have to talk myself down from the ledge, keep faith in the true lightness of play amidst the heavy consequences of our future at stake.

But meanwhile, I sure had a helluva good time going up and down the street on a San Francisco Halloween Night.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Geometry of Wonder

Winging homeward from the grandkids, north to south.
The hills of Marin colored bright green by early
       October rains, the angles of Bolinas
and Point Reyes
     jutting out into the Pacific waters,
                        the curves of the rivers
                                    emptying out into the shining sea.

Cotton-puff clouds hovering below the endless sky.
     above the damp earth, the wing out my window
           cuts through the wisps, as if opening the window
              to the next view below.

Light refracted in the shimmering ocean, bumps of distant islands,
        dots of drifting boats.
The plane tilts with bird-like grace, its hum an arced bow
     to the music below.

And me, for once, no wires in my ears,
no nose in a book,
no eyes glued to screen.
The good sense to just sit and watch
as we cross to the city’s edge.

Now the metallic glint from roofed houses, the blue dots of swimming pools,
        The green diamonds of baseball fields, the cloverleaves of freeways.
              On to the salt flats and a perfect sideways rainbow from the East Bay to my window.
                     A cornucopia of geometric forms and shapes and colors to welcome me home.

How much of each day are we truly alive
   to the wonder of it all?

The New Detention

Who amongst us has ever been punished for being naughty? Gotten a time-out or been lectured or spanked or sent out in the hall or to the principal? Raise your hands, please. Yep, I thought so.

The ten billion connections we can make in the human brain guarantee that some choices will be faulty and we will do things that we regret, that hurt others or ourselves. It’s part of the deal evolution made with us when it gave us the capacity to choose beyond our animal instincts. I’ve never seen a kitten or a puppy in time-out nor a jail for teenage elephants.

It appears that punishment and threat of punishment is necessary to contain the chaos of human fallibility. We’ve amassed quite a list of socially approved and government-sponsored punishments over the millennium—drinking poison hemlock, crucifixion, burning at the stake, the guillotine, the rack, public hanging, waterboarding, the electric chair, whipping, the stocks, solitary confinement, prison, spanking, dunce caps in the corner, school detention, time-out— not to mention threats of burning in eternal hellfire. Aren’t we imaginative in the ways we can kill and torture and punish and shame each other?

We would be hard put to convince people that some form of punishment was unnecessary in human society. But what if punishment was something more than controlling the damage? What if it actually served to rehabilitate the transgressor, move them from their bad choices and worst selves to something better? Wouldn’t that make sense?

This on my mind as my colleagues and I met with 4 boys who had behaved poorly in our music class. Nothing drastic, just the usual antics of mischievous kids. But these guys do hold a certain power in the class pecking order and seducing their classmates down the dark path of anti-social behavior. So there we sat and one of them said, “Are we in trouble or do you just want to talk with us?” And my answer was, “Yes.” On I went:

“How do you guys feel about Donald Trump?” General nods of disapproval. “Well, I found out recently that he was a bad boy in school and got sent all the time to detention. And then his parents finally sent him to a military school. All that punishment, but none of it helped him understand why his behavior as a bully was something that he could change in himself, something he should change in himself. I heard that Martin Luther King also got in trouble in school, but then learned how to turn that energy into something positive that helped him and his classmates find the best in himself. So yes, you’re kind of “in trouble,” but if we just punish you, you won’t understand what was wrong and what could be better. So that’s why we’re here talking. What do you think you did and how it affected the class and what do you think you need to be a better version of yourself?”

So they talked—eloquently— apologized sincerely, we helped them develop some simple strategies that will help them in the future (like choosing who to sit next to) and we all shook hands. And lo and behold, the next few classes were much better. And that’s a model for a new kind of detention that actually gets closer to the root of the situation.

And there are others. In San Quentin prison, hardened criminals are doing yoga to learn how to calm their mind and align their body, taking drama classes to learn how to express feelings in the proper container, engaging in discussion groups to share the stories that led them to where they are and imagine the stories that will lead them down a new path. Real rehabilitation. And note my Louis Armstrong series of blogs and the good fortune that 12-year old boy had to go to a Juvenile Hall that had a music program that changed both his life and ours.

A recent Facebook post highlighted a school where the detention room became a meditation room and the number of kids suspended when down from its current number to zero. It’s part of the new story that we’re all capable of making bad choices and doing wrong against our fellow humans and we are also all worthy of redemption. We all need to be held accountable for our actions—that’s our individual responsibility. We also all need help, skills, practices and new stories that help us heal our wounded selves—that’s the responsibility of the community. So from Prison Yoga to Restorative to Meditation Detention to genuine conversations with kids “in trouble”, the New Detention holds firm against evil deeds while attempting to help the evil doer.

One of the most powerful stories I’ve heard (whether true or not) was of a South African community that had a unique system for dealing with criminals. When someone transgressed against the community—stole, lied, cheated, hurt, murdered—the village put the wrongdoer in the middle of a circle. Instead of stoning him or her to death, they went around the circle one by one and each told a story of an act of kindness or goodness or comradery or laughter they remembered about the person. Can you imagine the effect?

In a time when so many of us can’t imagine how a Trump ascended to his present position, it is not too far-fetched that we helped it happen by refusing to refuse the ongoing habits of bullying unchecked, wrongdoing excused, transgression punished with an equal measure of violence and hatred. That’s where the work of healing will need to begin.

Friday, October 28, 2016


Only at The San Francisco School would you find 8th graders singing children’s Halloween songs alternating with 60’s protest songs while across the hall an Indian woman with her husband from Guinea, West Africa, was leading a dance with 100 preschoolers and elementary students to celebrate Diwali. Either our kids are hopelessly confused or else they understand that life is to be wholly embraced and celebrated in all its myriad colors and sounds and gestures and stories and while it matters to understand what Halloween, Diwali and the Civil Rights movement each means, they all are joined at the root.

So to backtrack a bit. Halloween is…well, Halloween, but at our school it has a different twist with an intense ritual involving a Mother Goose rhyme, Intery Mintery, performed by every one of the 100 children in the elementary school in an event that involves Orff instruments, Indonesian angklung and Bulgarian bagpipe. Close on its heels is the Mexican Day of the Dead, with altars found throughout the school and the songs and stories that go with that.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival of light that celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. (11 days out from our election, we can only hope people will vote with these victories in mind!) With the increase in Indian immigrants come to work in Silicon Valley, I can imagine that this holiday will find its way deeper into our school in a similar manner to Chinese New Year. The dance the kids learned today leaned a bit to the Bollywood side and there was some African inflection from the dancer’s husband drummer, but hey! why not?

And the Minnie Jean in the title is Minnie Jean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock 9 who integrated Central High School in 1957 escorted by the National Guard. She spent three days with us telling her remarkable story and answering the kids’ well-thought-out questions. We ended with an assembly, of course with song to frame the story and the feelings—Free at Last, If I Had a Hammer, Eyes on the Prize, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, We Shall Overcome and two South African freedom songs. The kids raised the roof with Spirit and in our elementary session welcoming her, there was a deep silence after the last notes of We Shall Overcome that these remarkable kids were able to hold without giggling or nervously chatting. I finally said, “Well, there’s only one song we can sing after a song like that” and off we went into Intery Mintery. It was the perfect choice, showing how quickly the kids could—and needed to— move from the grief of our broken world and our charge to them to help fix it to this whimsical rhyme and all the fun of Halloween.

Nothing could be sadder than all the efforts of so many in this confused country to separate, wall out, deport, denounce, put down all those who be choice or birth or circumstance, dare to be different from their neighbor. Besides all the unnecessary harm and hurt and pain and suffering, these people are missing out on so much fun! In just one day at our school, the ancient Celts, Mexicans, Indians, West Africans, Indonesians, Bulgarians, South Africans, African-Americans and more were represented and what a fine party that was!

Maybe some day Minnijean-Diwaliween will become a national holiday. 

Rags, Riches and American Politics: Part III

For the whole story, go online and look up the New York Times Article, “The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise.” Louis, who mostly stayed out of the fray to play his joyful music, found his moment to take a stronger stand. The year was 1957, the moment when Governor Faubus defied the Supreme Courts ruling that schools were now to be integrated and 9 black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, tried to enter Central High School. They were blocked by the state troops that Faubus sent and President Eisenhower refused to intervene. And Louis got mad.

In an interview in his hotel room before giving a concert in North Dakota, he spoke out strongly and clearly:

“The way they’re treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell!”

 He canceled his tour to Russia and went on to say other strong things that he permitted the interviewer to publish. It was his Colin Kaepernick moment. Using his fame to call attention to something that begged for attention. And of course, he paid a price for daring to speak out. Immediately after (as reported in the Times article)

“A radio station in Hattiesburg, Miss., threw out all of Mr. Armstrong’s records….There were calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.”
Under pressure from others, Eisenhower eventually relented and brought in the National Guard to escort the 9 students and stay with them. Louis wrote him a letter of thanks, in his own ebullient style, and the incident blew over.
And Louis went back to playing his music, singing Hello Dolly and It’s a Wonderful World” and doing his part to make the world yet more wonderful in the way that only he knew how. One might wish for more ongoing outspokenness, but it’s not unconceivable that we would have missed the last 14 years of Louis’ music. (While writing this, I see the police are threatening some scandulous charge against Kaepernick and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess how the powers that be want to shut him up and discredit him. Shameful, shameful, shameful. The Bundy Brothers were just acquitted for their armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife Refuge while Native Americans in Dakota defending their sacred land are being beaten and jailed left and right. It’s absolutely extraordinary and yet so sadly predictable who gets away with terrorism and who gets called to the carpet for defending threatened land and lives. Yet another reason to keep kneeling during the National Anthem until we truly become the “land of the free.”)
So ends my little three-part lesson about our national hero, Mr. Louis Armstrong. Inadvertently helped the 1954 Supreme Court decision to integrate schools and consciously spoke out against the failure of the South to comply. And before, after and during, made some music that brought love, joy and healing. Thanks, Satchmo.