Saturday, March 31, 2018

Closing Out the Month

And so March. Began the month in Shanghai in winter clothes and write this wearing shorts in San Francisco. In-between was my effortless re-entry into school, non-stop reflection on the despair of school shootings and the hope of the largest march (in March!) in Washington in the history of protest marches. The awakening and public presence of concerned, articulate, intelligent and feeling young people who are so much larger than our image of them as superficial tweeting teens, the Millenials not counting on the Baby Boomers and taking matters into their own hands.

In the classroom, making music with my students again was a sheer joy, though I am noticing a curmudgeonly impatience with kids who are not 100% focused. And on the music front, got to work on my long-dreamed of CD recording with my Pentatonics jazz band and the fun, excitement and amazement to be laying down tracks at Fantasy Records whose walls are filled with album covers that speak my own cultural history, from Miles to Coltrane to Bill Evans to Allen Ginsberg and beyond. Going back to mix it tomorrow and started work on the liner notes this morning. As Duke Ellington said, “ a goal is a dream with a finish line” and with our May 12th concert at SF Jazz uncomfortably close, I’ve got to get to work here.

Tomorrow is Easter, no kids or grandkids nearby to hide the eggs, but as mentioned, will spend the day hunting for the perfect combination of sounds to mix into the final CD in the studio. Ironically, also April Fool’s Day! Hope the engineer doesn’t leave a note on the door saying, “Just kidding. No session today.” Much promise ahead in the weeks of April, but I’ll wait until tomorrow to announce it. Not that anyone’s on the edge of their chair.

But first to close out March. Time to change my razor, cut my toenails, organize my school papers, clear my desk. Prepare for the miracle of resurrection, which in today’s political terms means reclaiming Congress and the possibility of a democracy that deserves the name. In personal terms, the usual struggle with exercise and the burgeoning belly and the ongoing war dance with the piano and the eternal battle between complaint and gratitude.

And on we go.

Friday, March 30, 2018


1990. That's the number of blogs I've written since I began this 8 years ago. But it also was a significant year in my life. Starting some 40 blogs ago, I noticed that the number of blogs I’ve written  correspond to the dates in my autobiography. So each number I see reminds me of significant things from that year. Getting born in 1951, going to Antioch College in 1969, starting teaching at school in 1975, traveling around the world in 1978, the birth of my daughters in 1980 and 1984, graduating from Orff Level III in 1985 and so on.

And so 1990. That was the year I taught in the Symposium and Summer Course at the Orff Institute in Salzburg and met most of my wonderful international colleagues and friends (including Sofia Lopez-Ibor, who I’ve taught with at school now for 22 years), people who opened the door to my international Orff teaching and years of memorable comradery.

It was also the year I started meeting once every two weeks with 9 men to figure out what it meant to be a sensitive male supporting feminism while also claiming a positive masculinity. 28 years later, we are still trying to figure it out. It was the year that both my daughters were in elementary school at the same time —1st and 5th grade—and I saw them every day in Singing Time. It was the year I taught an Intro. Orff Course in the Santa Cruz Orff Training that I had graduated from, the course that is now in the Carmel Valley and which I direct. I was 39 then, on the cusp of what I imagined was SO OLD when I was about to turn 40.

On the world news front, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declared independence from Russia in what was called The Singing Revolution, East and West Germany were united. The Internet officially began, smoking was banned on cross-country flights, JW Rowling began writing her first Harry Potter book, the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow and Leonard Bernstein died at 72-years old. There was no shortage of human squabbles escalated to terror and war, in Rwanda, Haiti, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq.

In short, the world, back then and still now, was being shaved by a drunken barber and amidst it all, doors opened and closed in people’s personal lives while the world kept spinning on its axis. Autumn leaves fell, snow came to the northern climes, Spring followed through on its commitment to re-birth and blossoms, Summer offered some time at the beach and long, leisurely days with ice cream. These things that happened to me that year were significant to me only, but also set things in motion that helped open (or close) doors in other people’s lives who I have touched. In the big picture, nobody cares and it means nothing, but these little tidbits of significance are what we have to work with if the daily round is to be graced with some sense of purpose and meaning.

So a salute to 1990 and then off to school to teach my next classes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Whole Wheat Pizza Crust

 I have a mysterious itching rash on the side of my leg that has been there for six days. For two weeks, my back feels constantly on the edge of going out and my usual strategies aren’t making any difference. My wife decided she prefers Trader Joe’s whole wheat pizza crust and I don’t like it. A friend who hadn’t seen me in a while exclaimed, “Wow! You’ve gained a lot of weight.” And she was right.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to Rick Santorum telling school shooting survivors to stop expecting others to solve their problems (ie, how dare you suggest legislation for gun control?!) and do something useful, like learn CPR. When their friend is dying of multiple gun shot wounds in algebra class because the government makes it easier to bring assault rifles into schools than peanut butter, surely, CPR will save the day. Thanks, Rick, that brightened my day.

My daily dose of Stephen Colbert always helps me be both informed and somewhat lightened by his humorous humanity, but even he was talking about being 400 days into this marathon of political, cultural, moral and spiritual disaster and feeling like his legs are giving out while the finish line seems to keep receding. I am so ready for this to be over. Hopefully, victories in November will help enormously, so we have to keep the legs pumping, keep hydrated, keep our eyes on the prize. Nobody said it would be easy.

And yes, I know that when the bad guys are finally led away, I will cheer enormously as I did when they got Nixon and experience a few days of well-earned euphoria. And then back to the work that is never-ending. And even when the political climate improves, there will always be those rashes on legs, dubious backs and small domestic battles over pizza crust.

But I am really ready for pizza crust to be the main topic of the news. Aren't you?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

To Thicken the Plot

“Why is there evil in the universe?” a disciple asked Ramakrishna.

“To thicken the plot.”

I started to list my outrage over the reaction to these soulful, truthful Parkland kids, but I felt dirtied just writing about the ugly words heaped by adults on these tender, brave, grieving young people. It’s not bad enough that these Republican politicians, supporters and apologists share the name “American” with people like these kids. I’m ashamed to be in the same species as them.

Ramakrishna, your answer was clever and intriguing, but I don’t have enough bandwidth left to be able to withstand more plot thickening. Of course, there was Hitler and his gang, but at least Germany was suffering the aftermath of a terrible war and desperate for some kind of salvation, no matter how evil or delusional. But these Repugnantcans with big houses, three cars, job security, every privilege a white Christian man has stolen from the rest of the world, what’s their excuse for being so damn mean? For attacking kids who have just suffered great trauma and are feeling great grief and are using their intelligence to try to stop the epidemic of violence. I simply can’t imagine a single justification.

I don’t accept any notions of heaven with harps and hell with hellfire, but it’s tempting to become a believer if only to feel that there will be some justice when each and every one of these awful people will enter the room awaiting them in Hell’s Hall of Shame. That this thought gives me comfort just shows how far we have fallen from grace.

I really need to stop looking on Facebook. It doesn’t make such evil go away, but it stops distracting me from my work for Redemption. Instead of going down that rabbit hole, I’m choosing to listen to Brad Mehldau’s new album, After Bach. I’m listening right now to the last song; “Prayer for Healing.” Yep, that’s better.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Grace and Courtesy

I love the kids at my school. I love how they’re innocent without being na├»ve. I love how they’re worldly-wise without being cynical. I love how they’re willing to take risks in front of their peers, be it expressing a thought or singing a solo or improvising on a glockenspiel. I love it that they’re mostly kind and accepting of each other, as far as their developmental levels allow them. I love their humor, their seriousness, their ease with adults, their care of plants and animals. I love all of these things and more.

But in the area of etiquette, manners, simple grace and courtesy, well, they could use a little work. Okay, a lot of work! The idea of waiting until two adults stop talking before interrupting, of letting a teacher get through three sentences of directions without any side-talk or comments on what the teacher is saying, of restraining themselves from touching or picking up any instrument in the music room within arm’s reach… well, like I said, a work in progress.

It’s interesting how much more I’m valuing the simple rituals of grace and courtesy as an older adult. As a younger one coming to age in the 60’s, we thought it was all superficial posturing and insincere pretense. A leftover from the bourgeoisie. We didn’t need these smokescreens of politeness, we would be direct and tell it like it is.

Turns out that the etymology of etiquette comes from an 18th century French word meaning of :list of ceremonial observances at court” and was related to the word “ticket” (“tiquette”) because little cards saying things like “keep of the grass” were written and strategically placed to remind people of proper behavior. Isn’t that interesting? So it turns out that  it was a bourgeois practice coming from the oh-so-proper behavior we associate with European Court life. No wonder we hippies didn’t care to hold our pinky out just so while sipping tea!

But when I began to travel around the world, part of the game was learning the different customs of each place— the way in Indonesia you don’t sit pointing your feet at someone or step over instruments or start drinking tea or even noticing that your host has put it in front of you before they say “Mari.” It became a game of sorts and I began to realize that these little gestures of agreed-upon customs were the glue that kept things civil, connected and harmonious. Some are universal— some physical greetings (a bow, a hand-shake, a high-five, a hug), some form of thank you and you’re welcome and please—and some are specific— formal and informal pronouns, the above tea example and more.

And as any notion of a civil society becomes unglued with the shouting matches of hateful talk shows, the insulting tweets of a President, the loss of the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate language and the whole nightmare of cell phone usage, it’s not an easy atmosphere in which to teach school children grace and courtesy. But perhaps more important than ever to do so. It’s a new mission for me in my classes, to be explicit and to practice what was once implicit and understood and walk kids through the words and gestures like a script in a play, a script with a purpose of making our time together more pleasant and courteous. It may seem insincere when a child says “thank you” because the adult is making them, but it is important, I do believe, for them to practice it nonetheless.

But it also means that when a child says thank you without prompting, they really mean it. And when this happened to me three times on Friday after classes I had just taught—one from an 8th grader, one from a 4th grader and one from a 5-year old (who turned to me as we were walking down the hall and looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you for teaching me.”), it was a sign that I had done something right that day. I had taught things worthy of their attention and taught them in such a way that they meant something to the students. They had both fun and challenge and the surprise of a success beyond what they thought they could accomplish. While they absolutely deserve some credit (and I often thank kids for the sincere efforts I see them making), they also recognized that none of it would have happened without my efforts to give them something worthy of their best selves. I’ve yet to receive any “Teacher of the Year Awards” that the newspaper will report, but every time I receive these kind of thank yous—and there have been many this year—I feel affirmed in the most meaningful way.

If you read my last post, you’ll understand when I say, “Kerry M. Collier, are you reading this? Might you have been a little more civil than you were when you called me “trash” for suggesting that certain people are hiding behind their limited understanding of their 2nd Amendment rights to avoid facing the reality of children being shot in school? Was that called for? Oh, by the way, in polite society, people often say, “I’m sorry. That was unacceptable. Please accept my apology and let’s see if we can discuss the 2nd Amendment more calmly, with Grace and Courtesy.” And then I’ll be most happy to talk.

Thank you.