Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Marvelous Memorable May

Morning has broken. The earth has spun yet once more on its axis and continued its loop around the sun (a fact that apparently some 20% of our ignorant American population doesn’t understand.) For this tiny speck of a living creature, it has been a most memorable month.

It began on a beautiful day in Mexico City. Following a lovely three-day workshop, I spent International Workers Day not working, but wandering around the neighborhood of Coyoacan. I sat in Frida Kahlo Park writing a handwritten letter to an old friend (that apparently she never received—boo Post Office!). I returned to San Francisco and my work in The San Francisco School, just five weeks away from completing my 43rd year in that mostly remarkable, but still flawed and working-on-it, community. A week or so later, my first recorded CD, one thousand of them, to be exact, arrived (yay Post Office!) two days before Doug Goodkin & the Pentatonics fulfilled a dream by performing to a sold-out audience at The SF Jazz Center, much to the delight of the children and adults attending. There was a spirited post-concert lunch on a sunny windless day with my wife, daughter, sister and  husband, son-in-law and two nephews.

No time to rest on any laurels, dove into the next week with an Elementary Spring Concert one night and a Middle School one two nights later and still the sense that “this was the best one yet!” after some 22 years of this work with my two brilliant colleagues, James and Sofia. Two days later, I hosted a stirring workshop with my new Colombian friend Adrian teaching xylophone music from the Pacific Coast. And then the next week, off to two workshops in my home state of New Jersey, one at the prestigious New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark some 20 minutes from my childhood home.

Meanwhile, some trouble in paradise with some graduating-8th-grade disrespectful behavior and a too-boisterous elementary singing time. The former prompted deep and necessary reflection on our school culture’s shadow and things turned around somewhat. The latter moved me to create a strict absolute silence rule as 100 kids enter Singing Time each day, a practice that continued into the next week and made me think, “Why haven’t I done this before?” So lovely to begin from a calm and attentive place and so important to train the kids to these skills. One of the reasons I can’t retire—need to keep coming back to get it one-inch better. Now we’re deep into Samba Contest rehearsal, a celebration I initiated some 35 years ago and watching the elementary kids work out their dance routines, that feeling that “it doesn’t’ get any better than this.”

Thrown into the mix was a perfect two-day visit from the grandchildren, my retired wife’s departure for a bike ride with friends in Germany, following by a South African safari, my Ghana visa arriving in the mail and the glory of the Golden State Warriors‘ victories that have them facing Cleveland Cavaliers yet again in the final round of the NBA Basketball Championships. If all goes well, May will end with their victory tonight to bring them just three games away from another championship. A game I will miss because I’ll be camping with my daughter and her 5th grade class. It would be a fitting ending to this most marvelous month.

Tomorrow, June will be busting out all over. My hopes are to be done with the frenzied cold winds of San Francisco’s Spring, to ride out the school year with all its ceremonies in grand style, to join the cheering throngs as Yancey’s Saloon celebrating our team’s victories, to arrive for the third Orff-Afrique Course in Ghana in good health and begin yet another summer of transformation, celebration, good weather and at least a few moments off the spinning wheel of meaningful activity to just sit and breathe in the perfection of each moment. Much lies ahead that I joyfully anticipate, much lies behind that I am grateful for, much lies within each moment that I would do well to savor and attend to.

So thank you to May and on we go.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


It’s bad when bad things happen. But it’s badder when there are no consequences. Think of all the good-old-boys acquitted after lynching someone, the Wall Street tycoons getting away with
financial murder, the NRA continuing to reap profits while innocent children are murdered in schools with assault weapons, wife-beaters keeping up their brutality because the women are afraid (understandably so) to speak out and report them, the police murdering innocent black men and going back to work the next day. The list is long.

When there are consequences, it’s not just that the bad guys get their just desserts. It’s that the bad actions get recognized by the culture as “this is not okay.” When nothing happens, it is equivalent to cultural approval of hurtful and harmful actions and attitudes. Silence is complicity, lame excuses (“Oh, I said that racist thing because of my sleep aid Ambien”) are affirming the action, denial (“I am not a racist”) and all such evasions gives a green light to those prone to keep the harm going.

So I hated hearing the story of the Starbucks eviction of two black men, but liked it that there was a recent training and was impressed by the questions the employees had to answer to help them dig deeper into the real issues behind the action. It feels right that Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are being convicted in courts. It was a bold and brave move for ABC to fire Roseanne Barr for her racist twitter comment (see Ambien excuse and “I am not a racist” comment above). This is good news. It shows there still is some standard of common decency, some line that should not be crossed without consequences.

Of course, the denial, silence, excuses and evasions go on unchecked, especially at the highest level of the Presidency where it causes the most harm. What does the Toddler-in-Chief have to do to finally be held accountable? Tax evasion, Russian collusion (“alleged”), cheating on his wife with prostitutes, lying (about 2,000 plus times since entering the Oval Office), condoning neo-Nazis and white supremacists and on and on and on. Of course, he tweeted about the ABC CEO Bob Igor, calling him to task for not apologizing to Roseanne and wondering why Igor didn’t apologize to him for “all the HORRIBLE things he said about him (Trump) on ABC.”

But the Trump has never been known for nuanced thinking. Calling someone out for the actions they’ve committed and the words they’ve spoken is not equivalent to saying that “the Muslim brotherhood and the planet of Apes had a baby.” That’s an attack on a person’s religion and race independent of their character, words and actions.  That’s what Bob Igor’s action is responding to and rightfully so.

Do all these consequences mean that these bad thoughts and words and actions will stop? Of course not!! That takes a much deeper layer of education and reflection. But it will certainly make some people pause and it will affirm the cultural standard of what’s okay and what’s not. And without such consequences, we know for sure that such transgressions of common human decency will continue unchecked.

It’s a big thing in schools to teach our future citizens responsibility, but how can children learn that if the politicians in power, the media, the religious leaders, the courts, the CEO’s, don’t show them that they have the “ability to respond” to wrongdoing? In short, it's not just the cessation of bad things happening that's important, but how we respond to them. We can't control the bad things happening, much as we wish we could. But we can control how we react to them and keep the bar set high for what constitutes acceptable behavior. When we do, the cultural standard of ethics, morality and decency goes up a notch. And we are so far at the bottom of that yardstick that every notch is welcome.

Keep it going!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Visual Jazz

Basketball is on my mind lately. I’ve been a staunch loyal fan of the play-off season Warriors, often much to my pain and suffering (games 5 and 6 and the first half of game 7 against the Rockets). Last night, there were some sweet moves and poetry-in-motion passes in that first half, though most of them from James Harden and crew before the Warriors kicked into their third-quarter-comeback mode. So sweet to watch the numbers advance towards and surpass the Rockets and sail home (though still on rocky seas) to that sweet victory.

So it should have been no surprise that listening to Brad Mehldau’s latest album driving to school, I kept visualizing Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson moving that ball toward the hoop while listening to the music and I couldn’t help but feel the connection. Brad Mehldau is the Steph Curry (or James Harden or Lebron James) of the piano keys, moving around and in and through the defense of the chord changes to drive to the hoop or sail a long 3-pointer. Monster speed, control, coordination in both, feigning and darting and pivoting and faking through the notes or players to end the phrase with a swoosh and gather for the next time downcourt.

If I had more technical skills, I could try to match one of Mehldau’s solos with select footage of Curry (or Harden or LeBron James—plenty to pick from) so that the synchronicity would be clear. But meanwhile, I tried playing piano imagining them playing and then got the idea of a free jazz piece where I’m actually watching the game with the sound turned off and trying to follow it with my own improvised solo. Well, that  was interesting.

You could make a case for all art forms being variations of the same human capacities, but I do think that basketball and jazz have a special connection, especially that need to be present in the moment and to respond from the cumulated discipline of hard, relentless practice. To notice who's open, to flow through the changes, to know when to shoot and when to pass. The teamwork and attention needed when someone passes you some notes or the ball and you follow the flow of the assist.

So next time you listen to jazz, imagine a great team moving the ball downcourt. Next time you watch a basketball game, imagine a great jazz band playing together.

And of course, Go Warriors!!!

From Balinese Festival to Japanese Garden

The grandkids have come and gone. It was a whirlwind two days, the house filled with their yelps and screams and laughter, little feet running up and down the hall, toys strewn helter skelter in every room, markers and paper out, rubber chickens and pigs being squeezed. Life with a 6 and a 3-year old proclaiming their exuberant little selves inside the same house where their mom and aunt used to do the same. I love it.

But there’s also something to be said for the space and silence of a clean, orderly room, counter and table surfaces with a bit of emptiness, a welcome quiet and every object in its proper place. I love this too.

The contrast is akin to a Balinese Festival and a Japanese Rock Garden. The former awash with color and cooking smells and incense and loud gamelan music and vibrant dancing and the buzz of the crowd and the squawks of the roosters and barking of the dogs and singing of the birds and chirping of the frogs. A feast for the senses, everything loud, alive, vibrant, in motion. Like grandkids in a small house.

The Japanese garden is mostly grey, white and black, an oasis of cultivated emptiness and welcome spaciousness, the people silent observers off to the side of the picture, a visual and aural silence that invites tranquility, reflection, calm attention to quiet breathing. Like grandparents alone in their houses.

I love them both. Either alone would start to get on my nerves, but the conversation between the two is just right, the proper balance between full immersion into the glory and chaos of life and time apart to reflect, savor, order and enjoy some needed peace and quiet.

Wishing us all a bit of both Bali and Japan in our lives.

Monday, May 28, 2018

How It Goes On

Six-year granddaughter Zadie reading a book to her three-year old brother Malik. The book is called My Book About Me and belonged to her Aunt Talia, who filled in the questions (“My name is ______. I am this tall __________. I like to ____________.” etc. when she was six-years old. And sitting on the same couch where I’d often see her mother Kerala reading books when she  was six-years old.

How it goes on.