Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Starfish at a Time

I was fortunate in my life to cross paths with a teacher named Mary Goetze. Mary achieved fame in certain circles as a children’s choir conductor and arranger, publishing many octavos, presenting at Conferences worldwide, teaching at a University and in summer courses, both Orff and Kodaly. It was Mary who convinced me to join the Macmillan McGraw-Hill Share the Music textbook team and we had many a spirited discussion and fun evening wined and dined in New York City back in the early 90’s. Partly inspired from those collaborations, Mary got interested in vocal traditions of other cultures and continued working in that direction with travel, research, books, articles and new technologies. The last time we shared a Conference was in Brisbane, Australia in 2002.

Mary has since “retired,” but we keep in Christmas touch and I just got her newsletter and her moving news of work she’s doing with displaced people, folks in prison and other marginalized groups in the cultures that love to "win" and leave the “losers” to fend for themselves. She ended her newsletter with a story whose punch-line took my breath away. I can’t think of a better message to help us turn toward the coming year. Thank you, Mary!

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?,” he asks.

 “Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

 “But, old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference to that one.”

Sonata Form

They say that life imitates art and I think that they (whoever “they” are) are correct. Or is it that art imitates life? Either way, I just dropped off my daughter, her husband and grandchildren at the exact same spot in the airport where I picked them up seven days ago. Then it was all excitement and anticipation of the time ahead, now a deep sigh of contentment over the marvelous week we had together. In-between a rainbow arc of many colors and themes criss-crossing to arrive again at the same place changed by all that happened.

When they arrived, the house was clean, neat, orderly, quiet and peaceful and it soon filled with the bubbling music of four new lines of music filling the rooms with their singing. The themes of the seven-day sonata were announced like Beethoven’s proclamations—“Bom-bom-bom bommmmm! Bom-bom-bom bommmmm!” And then the opening statements were developed, moving between keys and new melodies and sub-themes, swooping from one to another, some in major moving to minor and back again.

On the car ride to the airport, Zadie proclaimed, “I can’t stop thinking!” “Neither can I, “ I replied, “but what I’m thinking about is all the wonderful things we did together. We drew pictures, sang songs, read stories, wrote stories, watched videos, went to a movie, did puzzles, played piano, danced, ate sourgrass while hiking, rode bikes, went to two playgrounds, saw the special Christmas lights in San Francisco, decorated Christmas cookies, went out for Dim-Sum, drove to Mt. Tam and hiked some more, played games with the kids and grown-ups there, laughed, cried, talked and more! It was all like a beautiful piece of music. And now it’s coming to an end and you’ll be back in your cozy house for the next piece of music to start.”

That’s sonata form. Theme, development and at the end, recapitulation, the themes re-visited to close the loop and to note how they sound and feel different having lived all the life in-between. That’s how we live our lives, the rhythms of all our different themes with their beginnings, middles and endings. All different lengths, from starting the day getting out of bed and ending the day getting into bed, to the opening school ceremony each year leading to the closing school ceremony each year, to the baby in diapers at the beginning of speech to the elder in diapers at the end of speech. Some are symphonic in length, some are three-minute jazz tunes with the head-solo-head.

Now back home after the airport drop-off, the house again peaceful and quiet (though not yet orderly—much clean-up ahead!), but with the echoes of the vibrant voices of the grandchildren still hanging in the air. It’s the last day of the year and now the work of closing out the 2016 Symphony and preparing for the opening notes of the New Year. Somehow broken instruments rightfully discarded have found their way back into the orchestra and the conductor wrongfully hired has no musical training and no heart for the feelings music speaks. It will not be easy to play the pieces we deserve. But like steel-drum bands who made music from junk, we’ll find a way to get 2017 singing. Yes, indeed. The closing chords have sounded and the next theme awaits. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Buddha's Ba-Ba

“Ba-Ba!” shouts my grandson Malik whenever he wants some comfort. At 1 ½ , a little bottle of milk is often enough to do the trick. And each morning, his 5-year old sister sits on the couch with her warmed bottle. Both enter some zone of tranquility, a memory of being at mother’s breast, where all is comfort and peace and safety.

And so while my grandchildren sip on the couch, I sit zazen meditation on my cushion and it seems we’re both in the same place. Following Buddha’s practice, I’m nursing at the breast of World with breath, posture, intention and attention. Much more effort than the newborn with Mama or the toddler with the bottle, but once you get the hang of it, a similar effect. Held in the embrace of a life-sustaining Universe holding you in love. Not exactly a personal love, but an earned assurance that you belong to it all and the all is part of you.

Then you come off of the cushion or put down the bottle and there you are, a separate entity often at odds with World, trying to figure out how to be something called a self while also habitually dissolving that self. It’s tricky. Music can help as you blend into something larger while singing in the choir, but after the song is over, you might still dislike the soprano next to you.  The natural world is always ready to accept you without judgment, while at the same time it could kill you without remorse. You might be so lucky as find your soul-mate in a marriage, but there’s no way you’re going to get out of shouting matches about who unloaded the dishwasher last. Like I said, it’s tricky.

But it helps to start the day with the ba-ba, Buddha’s or otherwise. And end the day in the same way. Good New Year’s resolution?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

To Hell and Back in Three Hours

So one moment I’m happily bidding good-morning to my darling grandson Malik and then the next I’m curled up on the couch in pain, nauseous and light-headed. Squirming around trying to figure out what’s going on in my lower right back and abdomen and desperately seeking a comfortable position. To no avail. But ten minutes later, it seemed to pass and I ate breakfast and went out to sweep the front porch.

It’s the final day of our wonderful two days at The West Point Inn. Jovial company, great weather, good food, fun games and the ever-inspiring view. Highlight for me was some informal music sessions with the 1, 2 and 5 year olds, most hilariously me playing ragtime on the piano while the little ones ran circles around the room chased by their parents.

And so I awoke looking forward to breakfast, clean-up, group photo and either a 2-mile hike back to the cars or ten-mile hike to Sausalito and the ferry. But life had other plans. While sweeping the porch, I felt dizzy and the pains had returned. I tried everything—lying down, sitting up, standing up, walking around, but there was no escape. I hoped it would pass soon as the first one did and when it didn’t, we all began to be concerned. There was one car at the Inn to take our belongings down while the 20 of us hiked the two miles to the other cars. It became clear I couldn’t walk, so Karen drove that car with me in it, to switch to our car at the parking lot.

And so began the most excruciating hour of my life. Bumping up the dirt road to the asphalt one, winding down in hellaceous curves, me gripping the door handle and screaming and moaning a one-hour non-stop aria with one melismatic word-OOOWWW!!
Just before I left, a couple of the folks offered a diagnosis: “Kidney stones.” With the addendum: “This is the closest men will ever get to experience labor pains.” I tried to bless women for their efforts from this new point of view, but couldn’t help but think, “At least they get a short rest between contractions.” Sorry, women, I know you get the worse deal, but it was true that this was like one, long, uninterrupted 60-minute labor pain bumping down the mountain and out to the freeway and over the bridge with Kaiser Hospital the goal. There was not one iota of relief. Not a second.

When we arrived at Kaiser, I tumbled out of the car and entered the hospital with my yelping aria at full volume. No one seemed too concerned— it was the Emergency Room, after all, and I had no visible knife or gun wounds— but as far as I was concerned, I wanted attention and I wanted it NOW!  Some five minutes later, the morphine started flowing and ten minutes later, I re-entered the land of the living and could breath again. The Cat-scan revealed it indeed was a kidney stone and it seemed poised to exit. They gave me a screen to catch it and at first pee, nothing. But by now, the morphine (bless whoever invented that!!!) was flowing full-tilt, the diagnosis made and I could go home. Walked into the door and peed and there it was. Three hours from 0 to 100 on the pain-o-meter and back again to 0. I could go hiking on Mt. Tam this afternoon.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if all this kicked in hiking the ten miles down the mountain. Or if the group decided to leave me for a bit at the Inn, get the car and come back, adding another hour to pain beyond my capacity to endure. Or if this whole internal drama decided to unfold on a 15-hour plane ride to Singapore. (Of course, the glass half-empty notes that it could have kicked in just as we crossed the bridge to San Francisco and the whole fiasco would have been a manageable fifteen minutes.)

I’m always looking for a moral and a message and the remarkable fragility of life, its capriciousness, unpredictability and uncaring choice of who to make suffer is the obvious one. Or I could reflect on the power of something the size of the period at the end of this sentence to cause such excruciating pain and wreak such havoc. 

But why do I have to always make everything labor its way to meaning? Bad stuff happens and today was my day. And though I would have tried to punch you in the face if you said in the midst of my highest note of pain’s song, "it could be worse," of course, that's true. And at the end of the matter, I'm grateful. 

PS Friends, if it ever comes down to being brave enough to withstand torture to not name you to the Inquisitors, this is as good a time as any to say: "Sorry. Don't count on me."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

'Tis the Season

The jollity with the grandchildren continues! Ghana xylophone jam sessions, a giant robot made with cardboard boxes, a walk by the ocean eating sourgrass and snapping family photos with a Golden Gate Bridge backdrop, a Dim Sum brunch, rough-and-tumble chase games until someone gets hurt, reading books, books and more books, drawing and more drawing and making up little stories to go with the drawing, singing songs with ukulele, big meals and lively dinner conversation, the clean-plate-club group fist bump, group yoga, Zadie riding the training-wheel bike to the playground, Malik dancing to the piano, Polar Express video, the house in a delightful chaos of liveliness, a few stolen moments of adult peace and quiet when the kids are asleep.

Today off to Mt. Tam and the West Point Inn with three other families and the children of children I taught at The San Francisco School. (Blog cover photo is the view from that most wonderful place!). More welcome chaos to come, framed by early morning sunrise over the Bay Area, communal cooking, Hearts games, day hikes and more. Hope to end as we often have with four of us hiking down the mountain all the way to Sausalito and the ferry and the N-Judah to take us home again and prepare for the turn of the year.

The artist Andrew Goldsworthy once said “What’s behind a wall affects the quality of the wall” speaking of textures and such. I always thought it a profound metaphor for what lies below the surface, be it our psychological or cultural or political sub-conscious, affecting everything on that surface. It’s a blessing to not have to bring this up every time I write, but still I can’t help but feel that no matter how beautiful the painting on the wall, I can’t wholly enjoy it knowing the evil that lurks behind. You know what I’m talking about.

But music, art, hiking, reading, writing, singing, cooking, playing, dancing, the stuff of these days with the grandchildren, is what will see me through, what will see us through. Fa la la la la, la la la la.