Monday, September 30, 2019

Such Sweet Sorrow

The hardest part of visiting the grandchildren? Saying goodbye. This morning we dropped Malik off at his preschool and stayed for about 10 minutes while he showed us some things. Then we had to go back to Zadie’s school to teach some classes and told Malik to go to the window to wave goodbye to us. He did and as we turned to wave goodbye, he was choking back tears. And then so were we. 


At 4-years old, he is a lovely combination of classic boy energy with cars and balls and filling the world with his exuberant physical energy. He is fun and funny, still playing the “steal Pop-pop’s classes from his front pocket” game that he invented when we was 2. He is alert and caring and sensitive, responding to my wife’s message that she would be bringing him a present for his birthday on the next visit with “What about Zadie? Will you bring something for her too?” He has a smile that delights and a laugh that fills a room. He just learned how to ride his bike, can write his name and is starting to make some memorable drawings. Can you feel how much I enjoy, admire and love him? 


But love comes at a high price at the moment of parting and my eyes are watering with sweet sorrow. And I predict the same will happen when we bid goodbye to Zadie later at her school. It will be seven weeks until we re-unite and then go through the whole hellos and goodbyes again. Oh, why is San Francisco so damn expensive?!! They could be living close by!! 


So it goes.

Red Meat Flying

Today is my daughter Kerala’s 39thbirthday. Her daughter Zadie is asleep on the couch and the here in Portland is chilled, announcing the new seasons to come. My wife and I will teach an art and music class at Zadie’s school, visit grandson Malik at his preschool, lunch with Kerala downtown before heading home back to our San Francisco life. It has been a wonderful two days, culminating in a birthday dinner last night for husband Ronnie at a steakhouse he has been curious about. 


We arrived at the restaurant early to find it packed to the brim and a 45 minute wait list. With two young kids, not a promising beginning. But 2 ½ hours later, we got up from one of the most harmonious dinners out with the grandkids we’ve ever had. Never a harsh reprimand and good, jovial conversation flowing amidst the slabs of red meat and the Senior’s Fish and Chips (well, broccoli) that I had. Three other Happy Birthday songs at other tables—it seemed to be a popular day to enter this life on earth. 


The other day, I heard that eating 4 lbs of red meat (about 16 hamburgers) is equivalent to flying from New York to London and back in terms of consumption of earth’s resources. At first proud and then ashamed of my Million Mile Club status, here was my ticket to relieving my guilt. Haven’t eaten any red meat for some 48 years. But isn’t that statistic interesting? I guess if you eat steak on a transatlantic flight, you are the bad guy.


Time to wake Zadie up, 39 years after my life changed forever in the most marvelous of ways. Happy birthday to my loving daughter Kerala!!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Peter Pan

…was my childhood hero. I distinctly remember watching my father pay bills and generally noticing the weirdness of adults and deciding I most certainly did not want to grow up. But of course, I had no choice in the matter and also realized there were some perks—setting your own bedtime, deciding your own meals, choosing what you read and studied and cared about. And then there was sex. 

But still there were bills and tax forms and mortgages and the thorny relationships following the sex and worse yet, the diminishment of your peer group’s humor, curiosity, imagination. Unless you had the good fortune to hang out with Zen masters and poets and jazz musicians. Because there is no reason to abandon the best of your childlike self while still accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. 

I’ve mentioned earlier that it’s hard for me to imagine leaving school because days spent in the company of children of all ages continues to refresh and energize and entertain and make me happy. I just love the way they move and think and laugh and show unexpected moments of great kindness. And those expressive faces!!! Who would want to be in an office with a group of boring adults?

But when I leave school, there’s always my grandchildren and having just spent two glorious days with a 4 and almost 8-year old, it is just so damn fun!! Of course, the screams are sometimes too screamy and the rough-house sometimes too rough and the whines certainly too whiny, but mostly it’s sheer delight. Doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, we are ready to engage with the whole of our child-like selves. 

And so I’ve taken a short break to sneak away and write this—one of the perks of being an adult (particularly a grandparent who is a mere back-up). But I’m ready to jump back in with both feet and let the imaginative banter soar and the fun begin again!

Friday, September 27, 2019

America the Beautiful

I have always followed Camus’s advice, “Live close to tears.” There are certain predictable moments— Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, talking at a workshop about my mentor Avon Gillespie, delivering a eulogy at a Memorial Service—when the tears start flowing. But sometimes they surprise me.

Today for example. We have a Singing Time theme of natural landscapes—valleys (Red River Valley), mountains (I Love the Mountains), rivers (Oh Shenandoah), prairies (Home on the Range) and so on. Today we sang “America the Beautiful” and as the 1stthrough 5thgrade children sang this lovely anthem set to Katherine Lee Bates 1893 poem, it was all I could do to keep from weeping openly in front of the children. What was going on?

Simply this. This country that I have criticized my whole life for failing to live up to its promise is the same one I have loved my whole life. And when I thought about the ”amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain’s majesties” and “fruited plains” being sold down the polluted river for corporate profit, when I think about the deep values that were just beginning to bloom and the long-deferred dreams getting their feet on the ground, only to have it all trampled by a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, small-minded, tiny-hearted maniac supported by all those who want to “win” at any cost, even if the cost be the dismantling of the best this country has to offer—well, no wonder I began to weep. 

I’ve never been a big fan of the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, My Country Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful (though the last the most benign of all in terms of blind patriotism), feeling unhappy about the hypocrisy of people who claim criticism as anti-patriotic. But now I’m feeling like the real traitors, the real unpatriotic folks are those who are supporting this madness or standing by and saying nothing or are simply mouthing the same old tireless platitudes without an ounce of understanding about what real freedom means. Now I am the patriotic one and I believe the Repugnantins are the ones that should “love it or leave it.” If you truly love those amber waves of grain, you better get your butt in gear to protect it. If you think you’re conservative, why, get to work conserving the beauty and whatever truth is left in our beloved country. If you want to live in God’s country crowned with brotherhood, you better start including every American as your brother—or sister—or gender of their choice— and not think you can pick and choose who is in your good ole boys club. 

In a rare moment of restraint, I resisted telling the children all of this on the verge of tears. But I did feel it. Deeply. I want my country back, the one that was at least tiptoeing toward the end of the rainbow that bends towards justice. And beauty. And spacious skies with intact ozone layers unsullied by pointless greed. I will be singing this song more with the children and will encourage them to reflect deeply about what it means to preserve whatever beauty, physical or moral, that remains.

That is, if I can talk over my own sobs.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

My Life in Haiku

I began studying Zen in 1973, just at the beginning of my adult life. Practicing Zen Buddhism naturally led me to Japanese culture and Japanese culture led me to haiku. I became a big fan of Basho, Issa, Buson and more and then began to write some myself. Sometimes I followed the strict 5-7-5 syllabic form and that was an intriguing challenge. But also knowing that this was originally intended for the Japanese language and reading R.H. Blyth’s more free-form translations, I didn’t always hold myself to it. 

Mostly writing haiku meant putting myself in a state of observation, quieting the monkey mind and letting the imagination slumber in favor of strict observance of what was happening around me. It was a way to tune into the five senses, to notice, to be open, to be mindful of the moment—and then try to capture it a small poem that packs some kind of punch line to attract the reader beyond “this happened.” 

Today, I’ve decided to try to do a class with 4thgraders on haiku and musical accompaniment and set about to collect my favorites. And so stumbled upon a summary I made years back of the various haiku scattered in my journals. And lo and behold, I liked them! Here they are, mostly between 1973 when I first came to San Francisco and 1984. 


Car after car passes
As we grow older
On the Burlington freeway ramp.

The poetry of despair
Hitchhiker’s graffiti on
“No Hitchhiking” signs.

The setting sun
Another night sleeping
By the freeway.


Sleeping and waking
Sleeping and waking
The endless night.

Turning on the radio
To keep awake driving
Nothing but static.

Swallowed up by
The vast Kansas sky
The road its tongue.

Crouched in tall grass
Ready to spring
The police car.



“Too many flies!” 
say the people.
“Not enough people!”
say the flies. 



Three old women
Sitting amidst rhododendrons
They too, have blossomed.

Coughing violently
He returns it to his mouth
The burning cigarette.

Every day he sits
In his glass booth watching his life
Passing before his eyes.

Man walking briskly
Big-bellied woman shouting
“You don’t love me no more!”

Inside the liquor store
Waiting for the rain to stop
All of us together.

The old man’s head turns slowly
As the young girl walks by.


Like cows in their stalls
The flowers peek out from
Between the bars.

A small explosion 
Of leaves as the chickadee
Leaves the ground.

“Lawn Bowling Only”
Six feeding blackbirds
Boldly ignore the sign.

The preening duck
Swims quickly away
Waving goodbye with its tail.

Three horns honk
Each a higher note
Than the one before it.


The snow in August
Ah, the head!
Ah, the cold!

Amidst the ravaged forest
Half-eaten by bulldozers
Wildflowers still bloom.


The breeze around the corner
What will it bring me today?

This lonely evening
Even apple juice and popcorn
Fail to cheer me up.

Brother cockroaches!
Please go outside and play!
We have guests tonight.

She’s coming over to me
And I just farted. 

Five in the morning
Its song outside my window
The garbage truck.

On the roof, two dogs
Peering down while a cat
Walks confidently below.

Oh, to spend my days
Skipping stones across the lake
One        two  three fourfive.


Stop for a roadside pee
Zip back up and turn around
Twenty cows staring.


A crow’s caw, a cow’s moo,
A fence’s creak.
All on the same pitch


Advice from two monks:
“You are perfect as you are.” But
“Keep on tryin’.”


Awakening in darkness
One faint star
And a lone rooster’s cry.

A man pissing
In the morning mist
He thinks he’s alone.

Finishing the meal
He wipes his face
With a tortilla.


Unbroken cycle
The goat shits and eats
At the same time.

The mosquitoes
Hovering outside my net
Look hungry.

A light rain falls
Another year passes
Ripples in the pond.

My oar at rest
Drifting, drifting
Suddenly, the other shore!


Closing poppies
Along the morning trailside
Sleeping late.

Monkey flowers point one way
Morning glories the other.

Silent trumpets announcing the day
Morning glories.


Mist of breath
Steam of oatmeal
Smoke of fire
All mingle and merge.

Bright green needles
Dark green needles
Two years on the same tree.

Walking the spine of the ridge
Mountain chiropractery.

Thinking about the temple gong haiku
A mosquito lands
On my bagpipe.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The End of Neutral

We’re in a heat wave in San Francisco and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess that I’m worried. It’s not just that the air is hot, but the quality of the sun’s heat on the skin feels markedly different than what I remember about heat. As if the ozone layer is getting thinner. Hmm. There’s a novel thought. 

I passed a billboard that read:

______  Evolve

_______ Perish

Pick one. Because there is no more neutral. All the folks who have glibly said, “I’m just not that into politics.” Or “Climate change? Black lives matter? Impeachment? Whatever. It doesn’t affect me.” Well, dream on. Especially the first. That means there is no “pass” as we hand around the talking stick to find out where each person stands. And if you’re sticking with “business as usual,” you’ve just ticked off “Perish.” 

May I recommend “Evolve?” Be a co-creator in the new needed narratives that highlight care, compassion, kindness, sustainability, simplicity, love, beauty and dismantle the old stories of hatred, ignorance, greed, selfishness, one-upmanship, short-sightedness and so on. It’s really not that hard and the rewards have always been great. However, up until now, it has seemed optional to feed your better self. No more. 

Which one will you check?

Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead!

What pleasure I felt as a child reading stories and arriving at the moment when evil was defeated! When the monster wreaking havoc appeared to be unstoppable and along came David bringing down Goliath  or St. George slew the dragon or the Wizard of Oz witch was melting. Little did I suspect that such monsters came in many guises and that often they hurt people with their heavy shoulders of power with no consequence, no accountability and certainly no remorse. And no more so than the current nightmarish fairy tale in which an officially endorsed psychopath (see last entry) keeps getting away with transgression after transgression against the Constitution, basic democratic process and simple human decency.

But now that’s about to change. Or so we hope. When Stephen Colbert announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings, the non-stop roar from the studio audience expressed it well. We are so sick and tired of this clown getting away with outrage after outrage and when what we all hope for finally comes to pass (oh, please, oh please!), the rafters will ring with jubilation. He has set the country on fire and now the first drops of water from the bucket are being thrown to put it out and what pleasure we will take to see his outlandish ego melt down before this long overdue consequence. 

It’s a bit too early to sing out the “Ding! Dong!” song, but believe me, I will join the millions (and add my bagpipe to the band!) who are awaiting the conductor’s downbeat. 
Start practicing the words now!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Topsy Turvy

Consider what kind of person fits these descriptions:

1. Uncaring: Callous and showing a lack of empathy; coldheartedness
2.  Shallow emotions: No shame, guilt or embarrassment.
3. Irresponsibility:Always blaming others for problems
4. Insincere speech: From glibness and superficial charm to outright pathological lying, devaluing speech by inflating it toward selfish ends. Conning others for personal profit.
5. Overconfidence: A grandiose sense of self worth.
6. Selfishness: A pathological egocentricity.

According to Dr. William Hirstein, these are the traits of a deeply-disturbed person known as a psychopath. It’s the profile of a Mafia hit-man, a serial killer, a wolf of Wall Street and beyond. The place for such a person in the old days would be a lunatic asylum. Today it would be intensive care in a therapeutic ward. 

The first comment on our extraordinary times is that we have put such a person in the White House.

The second one is that three years later, he is still there.

Let the men in the white coats come! And hurry!

PS A few hours after writing this, the news reported Trump's statement "I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for lots of things." (See 5 and 6 above). In fact, a good (but simple ) challenge to give one (or one thousand) examples for each above. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Why I Have Hope

One of the many great pleasures of my job is to work with the same children over an eleven-year span. At 3 years old, much of the child’s lifelong character is already in place, a seed awaiting further blossoming. The school’s job is to keep the soil fertile and offer the light towards which the plants grows. The teacher’s job is to keep watering and weeding out the invasive plants that choke growth. 

Sometimes the plants seem sickly, infested with the aphids of difficult home-lives or victims of inherited bad seeds. Sometimes the plants thrive in the math or P.E. greenhouse and don’t respond in the music ones. When it comes to human beings, anything can happen.

But in Friday’s 8thgrade class, two kids who have been mostly disengaged in music classes for ten whole years each had a burst of growth and an unexpected flowering, one enthusiastically and competently playing the bass bars and the other the drum set. After all my years of frustration with them and their disconnections with me, one gave me a spontaneous high-five on the way out and the other looked me in the eye and said “Thank you” at the end of class. Another of a thousand reminders over the years to keep faith in each child’s possibility and note the moment of blooming.

That’s one thing I’m going to miss when I stop teaching at school. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The 3 F's

I’m so close to sending my book off to the printer and that’s a satisfying moment. The book is based on little lists or sayings that condense effective pedagogy into a pithy, memorable form. Things like the 3D’s and the 4H’s. (“What are those?” you wonder. Well, you’ll just have to buy the book. Stay tuned.)

So when talking about the brain stem and its function to help us survive, I invoke the three F’s to describe our choices when responding to danger: Fight, flight, freeze. It’s a handy way to remember and an important reminder that when we feel any level of fear, stress or anxiety, we go immediately to that instinctive center in the brain and can’t access higher thinking skill. 

But thanks to Orff colleague Dawn Haylett, who shared a story about a teacher’s secret of success, I have a whole new meaning to the 3 F’s and am tempted to add a chapter to my book! Because it speaks volumes about what it takes to be an effective teacher. In short: 

“Be fun.”
“Be friendly.”
“Be firm.”

Love it! And I believe all three are necessary and perhaps in the order given. The last without the first two is just grouchy. The first two without the last is opening yourself up to the extravagance of kids going too far. 

But all three together—why, as good a summary as any about what it takes to be a teacher that kids will rejoice in, respect and remember. Which is now the beginnings of  a new Chapter: “Learning the 3R’s through the 3R’s.”

Or something like that. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Closet Poet: Part II

Since I just posted about my sister’s 70thbirthday, appropriate to share the poem I found on the occasion of her 60th. Chester the cat is long gone, having reaching the bottom of the cat food tin.


I keep the cat’s food in a large, purple tin.
Inside a red cup to scoop it out.

Each day, I put a cupful in his bowl
And he eats. 
Each day, the dry pellets in the tin
sink down
cup by cup 
toward the shiny bottom,
until one day, 
                                                                                                they’re gone. 

And so do our years descend in measured cups,
feeding some small creature who purrs with contentment
and rubs against our leg
in gratitude and affection.

Closet Poet

I have a folder on the computer titled: Songs, Raps and Poems. It’s a collection of my occasional poetic outbursts over all these years. While looking for a poem (coming soon in the next post or two), I browsed through some of my work and discovered —I like them! I can see a future publishing project gathering them all together. Meanwhile, here are four short ones from 10 to 13 years ago: 



56 years old, I step onto the bathroom scale.

Further proof that the universe is expanding.


The blonde in front of me in line
is talking on some fancy new gadget.

Off to the side, four guys are staring.
Are they checking herout
Or her machine?


“Attention, passengers. This train is stopping.”

In 1989, the voice on the Atlanta airport shuttle train
was robotic, a stuttered a-rhythmic monotone
without inflection.

In 2008, the voice has become almost cheery.
It could be the girl next door, your dental hygienist
or your 3rdgrade teacher. 

That’s progress.


The hardest part of flying
is the five minutes after the seat belts are released
with their click of impatience
and the jetway crawls to the plane door.

This one is slower than usual and we weary adults,
sullen and travel-worn, stand in the aisle 
sighing, slumped and simpering.

Meanwhile, the four-year old girl
stands on her seat and aims the overhead air nozzle
at her face. Shrieks with delight as her hair blows behind her,
opens her mouth wide to swallow the wind. 
And we grumpy grown-ups think,
“What didn’t we think of that?”

Me and My i-Phone: Part II

Stumbled on a rap I wrote last year when I first got my i-Phone. Probably posted it back then, but hey, who remembers? Enjoy!

I’m settin’ it all up on my new i-Phone
Got me a password and a new ring tone
Downloading stuff from Ye Ole App Store
I got me ten apps and I want ten more.
Got me my Lyft, got me my Uber
Got my Google search to read up on Franz Gruber

You’re comin’ to my workshop and you need to pay?
Got my Venmo and my Paypal, you can pay me today!
I got me my flashlight to search in the dark,
I got me my Park and Pay that will pay when I park
I got my Google Map, I got my Ways app
So I can get around it when the traffic is crap

Now I’ll have my head down when I’m out for a walk
Checking all the ways that we can talk
I can send you a text , a video or call
Tell you where to meet me in the shopping Mall
And if you want to know more about who I am
I can show you now on Facebook or on Instagram
 I'll tell you what I think, I'll show you how I feel
I'll show you a cool photo of my last fancy meal
I can send you an emoji that’s angry and mad
Or choose the one that’s happy, confused or sad,
Yes, I can show you how I feel, I can tell you what I think
I can show you a photo of my new kitchen sink

Now I can be distracted when my life feels dreary
I got no friends, but hey! There’s always Siri!
I’ll never feel bored, I’ll never feel alone
Cause I am reconnected on my new i-Phone
I love my new machine, I'm flying' high in heaven
Cause now I am connected all 24/7
It will solve all my problems, it will cure climate change
It will… wait! I have no service, I’m getting’ out of range!

Me and my i-Phone

It was about one year ago that I capitulated to the i-phone culture. Reluctantly, but the tipping point was having it available to capture certain moments in the music class and having more storage space for videos and photos. I was determined to be in charge and not be enslaved by all its dazzling features. So how’s it going one year later?

On the pro side, here are some things I’ve enjoyed:

• The aforementioned photo and video moments, while still resisting the urge to document my meals and post them.

• Useful moments with the GPS.

• The occasional Uber or Lyft (though still trying to support the occasional taxicab ride).

• Occasional looking up a tune’s chords on the electronic Jazz Real Book (while still using the paper versions)

• The alarm clock.

• Getting paid through Venmo or Paypal and occasionally paying others

• Quick messages with groups through What’s Ap

• Occasional Facetimes with the grandchildren (still mostly use Skype on the computer)

• Texting people picking me up at airports

On the con side, a few things worry me or drive me crazy:

• The What’s Ap groups. While extremely useful for large group communication during the Jazz Course with all the uncertainty of the tropical storm, it quickly became, “Who’s going to Frenchman St.?” “I’ll meet you in the lobby.” “Hey, great food over at this restaurant!” etc. etc. Knowing that some messages might be actually important for all, I had to read all of them zipped back and forth between 45 people. Then again during the Orff Summer Course, now with Orff Interns. If everyone agrees that this is the way to communicate more than phone calls, e-mails or just arranging meetings and such ahead of time, it means you must be on 24/7. That’s precisely what I’m trying to resist.

• Already have the sensation that I can’t/ shouldn’t go anywhere—a walk, a bike ride, a drive in the car—without my phone (though I actually get very few phone calls). Which also means always being aware of having it charged. I can feel it creeping into the forefront of my life so that I might eventually join the mainstream opinion: “How did we live without it?”

• The more photos and videos I have, the more time I need to organize them, arrange them, figure out the best place to store them, etc. 

In short, I seem to be enjoying the benefits without being wholly overwhelmed by the dangers. I don’t take it out often in public, certainly not while walking down the street or in the park, not at airports or bus stops, I don’t feel compelled to immediately check it after the movie to see what I missed, etc. I don’t check e-mail on it or Facebook except occasionally (saving both for private time at home with the computer), but I can definitely feel the pull. I certainly will never testify “OMG, how did I live without it?! This has changed my life!!” My life was working just fine before I got it (just one short year ago) and to my knowledge, I never missed work opportunities, incredible discussions, vital information. 

I’ll check in again this time next year to see if I kept some sense of balance. 

And you? 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Question Authority

In my recent workshop, I developed a short music/ dance drama from the nursery rhyme: “I will not be my father’s Jack, I will not be my mother’s Jill. I will be the fiddler and have music when I will…” I then wanted to cleverly shame everyone by showing how they broke the first Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Except I later found out that that’s either number 4 or number 6. Oops!

But I was a little surprised how few of the Ten Commandments that 90 people in the workshop knew. Can you recite them all? 

If you do, it will be transparently clear how little we heed them these days. Our President, for example, has indisputably broken just about every single one. Check it out and connect the dots. 

But here I was reminded why I rejected the whole Judeo-Christian theology as a teenager and young (and old) adult. The Commandments are found in two place: Exodus 20: 1-17 and Deuteronomy: 6-21 and really, didn’t the editor notice that the author is repeating himself? 

But the two things that struck me: 

You shall not make yourself a graven image…you shall not bow down to them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation…

Whoah, hold on! The spiritual Master of the Universe, who is here to inspire us to be our best selves, is jealous? Have you seen a therapist? Isn’t that a rather petty emotion for a Supreme Being? And the punishment! Not just reprimand the wrongdoer, but punish innocent children three or four generations hence. What kind of model behavior is that?

And then: you shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant or his ox, or his ass (STAND-UP COMICS, TAKE NOTE!) or anything that is his neighbor’s.

 Lots of material here, but if you look up “manservant,” you see it translates to “slave.” So here is God condoning slavery, only asking that you’re not jealous of your neighbor’s slave. And wait? Jealous? Why can you be jealous but not us? Is this one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” commandments?

Well, I’m just warming up here. Check out Leviticus for more details than you would ever want (13: 2-59) for how to deal with leprosy and lepers. Then there’s 11:29 talking about all the unclean things that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard and the chameleon. Mr. God, why do you say “Every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is an abomination?!” Who created them? Oh yeah, YOU!! Why would you do that? And don’t get me started on poison oak and mosquitoes.”

So yeah, lots of contradictions, lots of weirdness and really, how can anyone with half a brain cell accept this as the sacred text that guides their life? I think this was my first hint: “Question authority.” And I think you should too.

Monday, September 16, 2019

My Sister's Birthday

The engine thrumming beneath my feet, the wind tussling my paltry strands of hair, the spray of mist on my face. On the Larkspur Ferry to meet my sister on the occasion of her 70thbirthday. Behind me the skyline of the city I have loved for so long, where we have shared so much of our adult life together. To my right, the span of the bridge we first crossed in a packed Volkswagen bug in 1971, oh, so many years ago. 

The ferry plunges forward, parting the waters like a modern Moses. Glides by Alcatraz and then Angel Island, each with their stories of told and untold suffering. One now offers a tourist’s delight, the other criss-crossed paths of hiking bliss. Surrounded on all sides by the bounteous Bay and its light-dazzled waters. All around and above and behind and below is the unfettered feeling of freedom, carrying this man with a bike and a book to lunch with the one person on the planet he has known longer than any other. 

I will order the Jacques Pepin eggplant sandwich at the Left Bank Restaurant, she will go with the fondue and we will pass a pleasant hour or so. Undoubtedly, one of us will toast to the memory of my father in this place where we used to ceremonially dine once a month or so and equally remember the lunch with my mother where she flirted so shamelessly (but fun!) with the waiter at 82 years old. We will talk of children and grandchildren and spouses, move on to the distant cousins and aunts and uncles and childhood friends, the long parade of our mutual life. 

The now mandatory selfie to mark the moment and then we each turn back—her to the north and me to the south—to our still unfolding lives, our next steps on our shared and separate lives. 

Happy birthday, sis!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

8:42 Thursday Evening

It was a long day at school. Full day of classes and then an afterschool 90 minute first rehearsal with the 38 Middle School kids preparing for the Orff Conference Concert in November. The office told us we missed the deadline to order dinner with the rest of the staff, so had to drive off to a taqueria and get back by 7:20 for the Back to School Night with parents. We did and I finished my last presentation around 8:35. I was anxious to get home and thought, “Hey, it’s Thursday night. Shouldn’t be any traffic on the freeway.”

When there’s not—and when exactly is that again?— I can be home in 12 minutes. So I got on with high hopes that were immediately shattered by the long line of red brake lights ahead of me. Once you’re committed, nowhere to get off and take short-cuts that makes sense, so I sailed a long at a speedy 11 miles per hour for several miles before it finally opened up. 

So San Francisco, here’s my question. At 8:42 on a Thursday night, where the hell is everyone going?!!! I mean, really?!! Too late for post-work rush hour, no ball game or big concert downtown that I knew of, no one goes to the movies anymore and no one’s going out of town on a Thursday night. So again, who are you people and where are you going? Did you all do Back to School Nights?

Well, I’m home. Note to self: No more city freeway if you have a choice.

The Most Beautiful Music

I’ve heard a lot of beautiful music these past few days. Ahmad Jamal’s concert at SF Jazz, Opera in the Park, some new CD’s I just bought (yes, I still buy CD’s—thank you, Amoeba Records!) But none more beautiful than what I heard this last Tuesday:

15 minutes of me demonstrating to the 8thgraders the new information they needed to move further down the path of understanding and playing blues— and not a single whispered side-conversation or sound from nervous hands or comment on whatever I just said. Just 15 beautiful minutes of rapt silent attention listening as if their lives depended on it. 

As a teacher at a school where children often think what they have to say is much more interesting and important than that which the teacher has spent a lifetime preparing, where the filter between thought and mouth is virtually non-existent and anything you say is occasion for blurting out some random spontaneous association (“Cat Anderson played trumpet?  have a cat!!!!”), where kids born with channel-changing remotes in their hand have trouble focusing on anything for more than 4 seconds, this was indeed a miracle. So often I feel I’m swimming upstream against the current of distraction and I know it wears me down and can be exhausting. What if every class could be like those 15 minutes? Was this a plot to get me to stay another 45 years at school? Or at least 10?

No need to question. Just enjoy it while it lasted. 

And I did. And I told the kids. Who went on to play some fabulous music. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

More (Then) Than You Can Imagine

I have been working off and on for a full year trying to gather my thoughts for my ninth book, TEACH LIKE IT’S MUSIC: An Artful Approach to Education. I spent Saturday entering the changes from my thorough and meticulous copy-editor and then went through it all again this morning. Three times. And STILL found little mistakes!!! Some missing end-quotes, a few misspelled words, using the wrong word (“then” instead of “than”), finding inconsistencies (book titles italicized some places, underlined others). It simply is extraordinary how much the human eye and mind can miss and just when you think you’ve finally got it, well, there’s another one. Writing a book is hard!!

But though I care greatly for accuracy, grammar, spelling, punctuation and such, at some point, one just has to say, “I did what I could. And at the end of the day, its it’s the thought that counts.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that English is the most maddingly confusing language on the planet—it’s/ its, there/their/they’re, where/wear, etc. etc. and yet, again etc. I’d say about 50% of my good friends speak English as a second language and my admiration for them has increased a thousand-fold.  

At any rate, the punch line is that I was so happy today to send this off to my layout person!!! Still the cover art and design to do, but am hoping that the presses will start rolling soon and I will soon hold this baby I’ve carried for at least six years, when I first began writing down some of the ideas. These fly-by-night blog posts are fun to write, but there is a deep satisfaction from the kind of attention I gave each chapter, paragraph, sentence, word in this ambitious project. Hopefully in six weeks or so, I’ll show you pictures of the baby.

Until then, I have classes to prepare. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Useful Advice from Today's Opera in the Park

“Don’t accept gambling advice from the ghost of someone you killed.”

Keep it in mind. You never know when it might come in handy.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Reverse Lion Dance

We all seem to agree that rituals and ceremonies are both needed and welcomed at life’s big moments— births, graduations, weddings, funerals and more. And in some cultures, they extend that idea to the opening of a new business. Like China, for example. At the grand opening of a store or business office or school, the lion dancers are invited to mark the occasion and bring good luck and fortune. There were lion dancers at the re-opening of the De Young Museum in San Francisco and we hired some to open our National Orff Conference that we hosted in San José back in 2007.

But what happens when a store or business or movie theater or school closes? Is there a comparable ritual marking of that moment? For all the people who were regular customers, for the neighborhood, for the store owners, isn’t this a death of sorts that is worthy of some public ceremonial farewell? I say yes and yet, I can’t think of any such thing anywhere that I know of. If people pass away without a funeral or memorial service, if there is no proper moment of mourning, it is said that their spirit wanders like a ghost, not of this world but not able to fully transition to the next world. Might the loss of places and businesses echo this sense of non-closure? Could there be some kind of reverse Lion-Dance to thank them and wish them well as they move on, a time for people to gather and share stories of their first date in that movie theater, the fun family dinners in that restaurant, the hours of pleasure spent browsing that bookstore?

Change is the way of the natural and human world and it is inevitable that the things we once enjoyed and even loved have a certain longevity and then close. But wouldn’t it feel good to do more than exclaim, “Well, that’s a bummer!” have a way to process the feelings of loss? Again, I say, “Yes.”

This on my mind because I rode my bike on Haight-Street and saw the big EVERYTHING MUST GO!! CLOSING SALE!!! sign on the Haight-Ashbury Music Center. My reaction was immediate: 


I’ve been a loyal customer since it opened in the mid-70’s, back when it was called Chickens That Sing Music. They’ve supplied my school’s music program with all sorts of instruments, repaired our drums, sold our special vibraphone mallets and with a remarkably consistent group of workers who I came to recognize. Especially the owner, Massoud. I didn’t have time at the moment to pop into the store and get the story, but found a newspaper article in which Massoud said he works every day except for three and hasn’t had a paycheck in five years. He explained:

"The demographic of San Francisco has changed a lot. A lot of our customers have moved out because the tech people have moved in and they can't afford it here anymore. Tech people don't seem to support local businesses — they like buying everything online."

Well, here’s the second post in a row noting that this truth is really starting to hit home. It pisses me off and at the same time, here I am writing a blog post made possible by the tech industry. We support it in a thousand ways and then it bites us back. Aargh!!

I propose a gathering of musicians outside (or inside) the store on closing day to sing it off properly to the next world. Have some time for testimonies, bring some rubber chickens to sing music (or a real one to sacrifice?) and hey, why not Lion Dancers going backwards out of the store? 

Meanwhile, Haight-Ashbury Music Center now joins the ranks of my dearly missed San Francisco places— the Surf Theater, Uncle Gaylord’s ice cream, Fleishacker pool, Aquarius Records, Stoyanoff’s Greek restaurant, Narai’s Thai restaurant (and recently Tep Nam), Heidi’s Bakery, Le Video and so much more. Thank you for your service and know you are missed!