Friday, July 31, 2020

Messages from Crostics V. 212

One of many things my father bequeathed me was a lifetime love of doing Crostic puzzles. They’re similar to crossword puzzles, but have a back and forth thing happening that awakens the mind in specific ways,  both mathematical and linguistic. And the prize at the end is a quote from a book or article. The quotes themselves can range from Erma Bombeck to Dostoevsky, the books from Reader’s Digest to Macbeth. 

I generally reserve these puzzles for plane trips and in normal life, rarely do more than one every few weeks. During the sheltering time, I’ve been more following my Dad’s habit of doing one a day. And I noticed that the last three had some relevant quotes for our times. Here they are to close out July:

History is replete with proofs, from Cato the Elder to Kennedy the Younger, that if you scratch a statesman, you find an actor, but it is becoming harder and harder in our time to tell government from show business. 

This from James Thurber from at least 50 years ago. What would he think today?

Know what is evil, no matter how worshipped it may be. Let the man of sense not mistake it, even when clothed in brocade or at times crowned in gold, because it cannot thereby hide its hypocrisy. For slavery does not lose its infamy however noble the master.

Well, these days, there’s not much of an attempt to hide it. And still some—maybe 40% of Americans—still don’t see it.

And this last from George Bernard Shaw is the most relevant of all to my current reality!

I am sure that if people had to choose between living where the noise of children never stopped and where it was never heard, all the good-natured and sound people would prefer the incessant noise to the incessant silence. 

After three weeks with two explosively vocal grandchildren, the jury is still out for me on this one.

Sleeping Beauty Revisited

The King and the Queen announced a party to celebrate the birth of their child. There were thirteen wise women in the land, but because they only had twelve places at their table, they left out one in their invitations. The excluded woman was furious and just when the 11thwoman had finished given her blessing and wishes for the princess, she burst into the party scene and gave a curse: “When she turns 16, the princess shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die!” The last wise woman had one more blessing to bestow and couldn’t reverse the curse, but was able to soften it: “She shall not die but fall into a deep sleep.”

The King’s response was to burn all spinning wheels in the land, but naturally, one remained in the attic of the castle and sure enough, the princess happened upon it on her 16thbirthday, pricked her finger and fell into a deep slumber. In fact, the whole castle fell asleep for a hundred years and giant thorns grew around it.

One day a handsome prince was riding in the woods, got lost and stumbled upon the castle. He broke through the thorns, entered the castle, kissed the sleeping princess and all were awakened. 

So goes the old tale. But the modern version is that the people throwing the party were the Founding Fathers and the people they chose not to invite were Native Americans, enslaved Africans and women. Or rather, they invited them only as unpaid servants to cater the affair. The country unknowingly pricked its finger and fell asleep for 244 years. The prince awakened it with his kiss, but turned out he was a carrier of COVID and while people awakened, they were confined to the castle to reflect on and atone for their sins.

And so the end of July marks the fifth month of sheltering and each day, more people awaken while the King continues to spin his wheel of lies and surround the castle with Federal troops. But though some prefer to stay asleep, it’s too late. And the awakening kiss doesn’t come from some blond-haired blue-eyes macho stud prince, but a gay African-American woman poet. And when the people awoke, they deposed the King and threw him in the dungeon and began the real work of re-imagining the country anew, this time with all the excluded people sitting at the table.

This the story for our times.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Gift from the Sea

This summer cottage rich in books, many of which I’ve read and identified with summers here. From Nancy Drew to Gun, Germs and Steel to Wendell Berry poetry. One little gem of a book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh is called "A Gift From the Sea."

I read this book  years and years ago and found it charming and just right for the time and place. It’s a series of short pieces inspired by her summers at the seaside, not here in Michigan, but it could have been. I was wondering if it would hold up and it did and more. Her reflections on how to balance life’s business and busyness with summer’s invitation to “lie empty, choiceless as a beach, waiting for a gift from the sea” is both profound and timely for people in all times and places. It was written in 1955, when I imagine the world was simpler, but in some ways, maybe not. 

Amidst many quotable sections, I was struck by her words in her parting chapter, especially in light of my own recent post on Newsscapes. Here is what she wrote 65 years ago:

Today a kind of planetal point of view has burst upon mankind. The world is rumbling and erupting in ever-widening circles around us. The tensions, conflicts and sufferings even in the outermost circle touch us all, reverberate in all of us. We cannot avoid these vibrations.

Mind you, this was when television was in its infancy and we were light years away from 24/7 news stations and instant Internet updates. In the decade when it seemed like the Leave It to Beaver suburban lives were indeed distant from the world’s tensions, conflicts and sufferings. She goes on:

But just how far can we implement this planetal awareness? We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world; to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print; and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather—for I believe the heart is infinite—modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. 

Are you as astounded by these words as I am? How succinctly she captures what so many of us are feeling as we watch the murder of George Floyd over and over, see the Portland Moms and Dads and veterans and grandparents getting tear-gassed by government orders. How do we hold this all in our heart and still go on with our day?

It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched; but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. I cannot care for them all as I do with my family, as I would my parents in illness or old age. Our grandmothers lived in a circle small enough to let them implement in action most of the impulses of their hearts and minds. That tradition has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time.

Faced with this dilemma, what can we do?

She makes some suggestions, but wouldn’t this be a good topic of conversation at your next dinner party? Live or on Zoom? What do you do? How do you balance compassionate concern with attention to the reality of your lived moment? As E.B. White asks in my little side intro,  “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. “

Indeed, how do you plan the day? Let's talk.





Tuesday, July 28, 2020

July 28

… is my birthday and so it invites at least a few words. How about Emerson?

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air…

Pretty good description of my day. Began with my first zazen meditation of the trip (not easy in an RV!, walked out into the morning air to walk to the “Sugarbowl” giant sand dune to see if I could still ascend its steep rise. I could. Walking back along the lake’s shore, I invented some new body percussion patterns swatting biting flies. Then jumped into the inviting warmish waters of Lake Michigan and swam my allotted strokes, though a bit like swimming in a washing machine with the churling waves. Back for breakfast and requisite morning card games with Malik and Zadie and then decided to go into town to rent bikes and ride a “rails to trails” path. That we did, about 8 miles worth and the kids holding up great. 

A bit of shopping and back to the cottage for a swim in the back lake, quick shower, make some gazpacho while my daughter bakes the chicken and my wife cooks the corn and voila, a summery birthday dinner. A Zoom call with my sister and nephews on her side and son-in-law Ronnie sadly left behind in Portland to work and that certainly made today distinctive—my first (and hopefully last!) Zoom birthday party!

Some old family friends on my wife’s side came over to sit on the deck and share the blueberry crumble dessert and three hours later, we bid them goodnight. The longest real time social gathering outside the immediate family I’ve had in five months! A classic beautiful sunset, followed quickly by a moon rising, a bald eagle swooping by and enough wind coming up to chase out any bugs. 

In between was reading the Facebook birthday greetings, now extended with text messages and what’s ap messages and even a few e-mails! Let’s be honest here—how can one but help to feel known and appreciated by so many people taking five seconds out of their life to let you know they’re thinking of you. I took a moment to imagine each and when and where and how our paths crossed and that felt good. 

In short, an auspicious way to begin the last of my years in my 60’s, a decade that has surprisingly been one of the happiest and most satisfying of my life. And a good reminder to heed Emerson as one can. On to 70!


On the way to Mt. Rushmore, we were astounded to see the tourist attractions offered. There were big signs for a Wax Museum, a bear park, a Christmas village, a dinosaur park, a Founding Fathers exhibit complete with musket shooting, a zip line tour, a gold mine tour, Old Macdonald’s Farm, Candyland, Glassblowers and Naked Winery. Only in America. Then in the nearby town, there was a tent for Trump with a sign “Keep America first!” Well, that seems to be working: first in number of COVID places, first in gun ownership and mass murders, first in the most unqualified world leader and so on.

Besides these Disneyesque forms of pseudo-entertainment, there were also ads in our trip across 90 for various intriguing museums. Really, it could be a fun road trip to visit all these quirky little pieces of Americana. In South Dakota alone, there was a tractor museum, Laura Ingalls Wilder house, the Armed Forces Military Display Museum, the Campbell Original Straw Bale Built Museum, the Celebrity Hotel Memorabilia Display, the Classic Wheels Museum, the Corn Palace (been there!), National Museum of Woodcarving, National Presidential Wax Museum. And so on.

Anyone want to join my obscure museum road trip?

Monday, July 27, 2020

Rethinking Monuments

Statues are very much in the news these days. It’s just part of our finally coming to grips with our past through the eyes of the present and making conscious decisions as to who we want to be. A statue, a monument, a memorial is a testimony to a person or event that is considered worthy of celebration, designed to make us pause and appreciate and consider and thank those that sacrificed to bring us the world we now inhabit.
In that light, it’s extraordinary that it is over 150 years past the Civil War that we are finally taking down Confederate flags and statues of those who defended the institution of slavery. Naturally, removing things alone or changing Monuments accomplishes nothing if it’s not accompanied by the deep teaching and consideration of the history we all should have learned. But it is a step that announces clearly: “We will see this in a larger, more just and more inclusive light.”
Take the Little Bighorn Monument in Montana, the site of “Custer’s Last Stand.” In my childhood, Custer was a hero tragically defeated by savage Indians. The moment we drove past the sign on Route 90, I was determined to find out how they were telling that story now, even if it cost $25 per vehicle. So we went into the park and the first thing we saw was the gravestones of the fallen soldiers. The white soldiers, that is. Not a good start.
But up the hill was a monument to the Indian Warriors and the pamphlet began with an acknowledgement of the battle as one of the last attempts of the Lakota and Cheyenne in the area to preserve and protect their sacred land. This new addition and the change of name from Custer’s Battlefield to Little Bighorn Monument (signed and approved by George W. Bush in 1991) is a step in that direction. Naturally, I would like to see it go a few steps further. In one short sentence, the pamphlet mentions that the government treaty agreed to “allow” the Lakota and Cheyenne to live in the Black Hills, their ancestral home. First thing to note: What gave them the power and audacity to “allow” people to live where they had lived for centuries?
But—pay attention here—the big change happened when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The gold-driven white culture (set in motion by Columbus and his ilk centuries before) felt that this was enough to nullify the treaty and Custer was there by the permission of the U.S. government to break its word and drive out the native inhabitants. That battle was a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne, but naturally, the government simply re-doubled its efforts and within a year, they both were driven out. Follow the moneyis the mantra of any history teaching worth its salt and we need to see that force at play not only with Native American genocide and slavery, but with yesterday’s news. Arkansas Trumpublican senator Tom Cotton just said that “slavery was the necessary evil upon which our Union was built.” He’s correct that our economic prosperity came from a few hundred years of free labor, so if you follow the money, it was indeed “necessary.” But if you have a humanitarian bone in your body and a single moral fiber, you would never, ever, ever, justify such barbarity, terrorism, psychopathological relationship as necessary. And if you were an alert citizen and decent human being, you would never, ever, ever, elect such a person to a position of leadership and power. And yet we have. And yet we do. 
Further down the road, we went to Mt. Rushmore, sight of a recent POTUS rally that defied social distancing in the time of COVID. Here the narrative was likewise in the “follow the money” mode. Washington was revered for helping create new union, Jefferson for expanding the territory with the Louisiana Purchase (another blow to Native American inhabitant), Lincoln for re-uniting the country that still remains divided (as mentioned, Confederate flags just now coming down and Southern Senators still ambivalent about the demise of slavery) and Teddy Roosevelt not for creating National Parks (thanks for that, Teddy!) but for expanding our international presence through the Spanish American war and more. Power and money, power and money, the mantra of our nation, so often at the expense of culture and justice. 
One thing I haven’t heard any news about is Stone Mountain in Georgia. Do you know that it is a Southern Mt. Rushmore, faces into the rocks in a similar way? Only these faces are Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and were carved with money donated by the Ku Klux Klan as a monument to the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” And more shocking yet (just found this out while writing this), the person first hired to carve it was none other than Gutzon Borglum, the guy who did Mt. Rushmore! Aargh! Apparently he was involved with the KKK, but somewhat disdained because he was a Northerner and they fired him in the midst of his planning. From there, he went on to carve Mt. Rushmore. 
Looking that up, I also discovered that there have been protests to remove this monument to white supremacy, one as recently as July 5th, but that to do so would require approval from the Georgia State Legislature. Well, maybe if Stacy Abrams becomes our next Vice-President, there might be some hope to get that moving.
That’s the monument report from the trip. One or two more posts and then ready to return to the present!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Second Parenthood

Parenting has often been called a “second childhood,” but these days, grandparenting can feel like a “second parenthood.” I’ve probably spent more time with my grandkids in this past year than I ever spent with my grandparents my whole life! Two weeks in Palm Springs in the Winter Holidays, two weeks in San Francisco in March at the beginning of sheltering, two weeks in Portland/ driving cross-country/ northern Michigan with four more to go. But not the kind of grandparenting where you see them for a couple of hours and go home. Especially with the father going to an actual workplace in Portland and their mother working online, it really is parenting again in 8-hour shifts, aided considerably when their Aunt Talia is also available (she is now). 
Mostly I love it. I’m certainly prepared for it with a lifetime of parenting and teaching as training. Besides the classic games like Sorry and Uno, the old card games of War, Go-fish, Rummy 500 and the newer 5 Crowns, the traveling games like G-H-O-S-T, my Grandmother’s House, Concentration, I Spy, Old Doc Jones, there’s frisbee, paddleball, pillow fights, walking up giant sand dunes, riding waves, swimming, cooking, drawing, reading, singing. I’ve been giving piano lessons to Zadie and that’s going surprisingly well and piggybacking daughter Talia teaching Malik to read. (It’s working!) 

Then there’s the fascinating conversations, the humorous banter, the spontaneous songs and occasional dances. It’s a heap of fun. But the territory also comes with explosive tantrums, sibling rivalry, the endless plea for instant gratification, the cajoling to finish dinner, the clean-up time resistance. In short, the full 100 yards of childhood in all its glory and difficulty. Again, I mostly love it, but would be less than honest if I didn’t admit missing both solitude and adult time. Grandparenting in slightly smaller doses. 

Late at night now and Malik awakens early. Better go to bed.

The Devil and Donald Trump

An Off-road Diversion in the American Odyssey Series
REPORTER CHRIS WALLACE: Sir, how do you respond to the fact that the U.S. now has the highest COVID mortality rate in the world?
POTUS:  Actually we have the lowest mortality rate. (A Trumpublican brings him a piece of paper. He turns it around once and says, “See, here it is. Lowest mortality rate in the world.:”
In this moment, there is a flash of light and smoke and the Devil appears.
DEVIL: Okay, Mr. T., that’s enough. Usually I ask some questions that must be answered before I decide which way you’ll go when you die, but in your case, we already have your rooms reserved in the hottest part of Hell. The only question is which room you’ll get. And so you have to answer two questions and your only acceptable answer is a or b. Here we go:
a) Are you fully aware you’re lying through your teeth and purposely trying to dupe the American people to make you look good and throw your power around?
b) Are you actually incapable of distinguishing between a real fact and the one you want to be true to make you look good and throw your power around?
POTUS: Well, if you look at this piece of paper, you’ll see that I give the best answers. There is no one…
DEVIL: You’re not hearing me. A or B. Two choices only.
POTUS: Well, it’s a large alphabet, I mean America has the most letters of any country and we should use all of them…
DEVIL: I forgot to mention that there are actually three rooms waiting for you. If you answer “a,” you go to the room alongside all the people who supported you, excused you, justified you. You will also be visited by the children you caged, the women you slept with, the Americans you deported, the black folks your police killed, the people you fired, cheated, insulted, etc. etc. and etc. And visiting hours are 24/7.
If you answer “b,” you will go back to first grade in Hell’s Remedial School and the tests will be MUCH harder than the baby cognitive test you just took. 
If you do your Roy Cohn tap dance and ignore the question, spin the question or otherwise refuse to answer, you will share a room with Roy and Giuliani  and Newt and Rush and Rupert and Mitch and Lindsey and most of the FOX news staff. And there’s only one bed. 
POTUS (throwing a tantrum): I want to go to the bunker!!!!
DEVIL: (sneezing in his face): No can do. And sorry you’re not wearing a mask because I just tested positive. See you soon!

Saturday, July 25, 2020


Driving a car while listening to music is a treasured American pastime. Any movie with “Road Trip!!” will include folks bopping down the highway dancing in their seats to the required rhythm ‘n’ blues songs from the 50’s or 60’s. And so with the help of Spotify, I would start the mornings with Hit Tunes of the 60’s and set off singing along with Kathy’s Clown, Cecilia, Daydream, It’s in His Kiss, Stop in the Name of Love and another 50 or so tunes that marked my adolescence. What would America be without them? They accompanied our teenage longings, first sexual experiments in the back seats of cars, spoke our physical exuberance expressed in dance, sang our joy and confusion about being pimply social beings trying to find our way in the pack, gave language to the feelings we didn’t have words for yet—Born to Be Wild, My Girl, Light My Fire, Sounds of Silence, All You Need Is Love. Like I said, a long, long list. And because we are layered like onions, that 16-year old still alive inside the 68-year old, it takes just a few licks of a guitar to be transported instantly to that starting version of the self that was just beginning to blossom. Yeah! 
In the afternoons, I switched to the folk material that sang some of the landscape, even if it was from another bioregion altogether. Doc Watson singing Appalachian ballads, Mississippi John Hurt singing some gentle blues, Hank Williams belting out the country Your Cheatin’ Heart. From the electric rock ‘n’ roll to the acoustic guitars, banjos and fiddles, it brought the passing landscape alive in grand mythological ways. 
And then in the few nights of driving after dark, it was jazz—Miles, Ella, bossa nova, Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington. The more urban rhythms didn’t jive wholly with the wide open spaces and distant mountains, but at night, they evoked the “round midnight” world of the underground jazz club, low lights, the night wrapping around you—minus the smoke. 
And thus, the soundscape and landscape merging (and away from the newscape!) to give a shape and color and sense of belonging, of being part of some grand cultural embrace that has the name America. An America now torn apart from the machinations of the greedy, self-serving and ignorant, where our government-sanctioned police beat down peacefully protesting mothers, tear-gas mayors, club senior citizens, kill our black citizens, all sanctioned by the shameless Trumpublicans. 
And here’s the irony. The things in the soundscape that define us as Americans, that have given us so much joy and happiness, that have invited admiration from cultures all around the world, were all created by the very black folks we enslaved, segregated, marginalized, beat down and murdered. The rhythm in Rhythm ‘n’ Blues is an African heartbeat, the blues is an African-American response to the brutality, the grand sweep of jazz was all set in motion and carried along by American Aristocrats—King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lady Day, Bessie Smith (the Empress of the Blues) and Lester “Prez (President)” Young, for starters.

And listen to Doc Watson. Definitely a Scots-Irish strand, but there he is playing the banjo invented by black folks, a guitar that developed from the Middle Eastern oud through the Moors to the Spanish guitar and playing ragtime pieces and blues as well.
We all so casually enjoy this rich legacy of American music without a single word of thanks to the creators—or even knowing who to thank. On behalf of all Americans, I thank them all here for making my trip—all our trips— so damn fun and enjoyable. 

Friday, July 24, 2020


One of the blessings of our seven-day odyssey was detaching ourselves from the news. Just living each day immersed in what we directly saw, heard and felt. Being wholly present with each other, with our own bodies and minds. That is a rare experience in our current reality.

Think about it. Until the invention of newspapers, the news was found in the daily gossip at the community well, the stories of strangers passing through, the scat trails in the forest telling alert hunters which animals had passed through last night. Newspapers were the beginning of tales of things that happened far away, most of which didn’t directly affect the leader or took a long time for the ramifications of who was elected to reach her or his doorstep. An article about a distant war or natural catastrophe evoked a small grunt—“Well, isn’t that interesting” and then folks went back to their life.
Radio changed that a bit, as one could hear the sounds of explosions as the war reporter on-the-spot came into your living room. Then television with its graphic images. Now the 6 o-clock news entered the house more fully clothed and became a part of one’s mental imagery. Kids being pummeled by fire hoses by the local police, snarling dogs, a President in an open car assassinated in full view, a monk in Vietnam burning in front of your eyes, a sole protester in front of a tank in Tianmen square, the twin towers in New York toppling over and over and over again, a cop killing an innocent George Floyd without anyone batting an eye.
 And when the 6 0’clock news changed to the 24/7 variety, the life one wasn’t living, the things that happened outside one’s immediate experience, starting seeping in to become the mind we lived in. One could have a perfectly nice day and be hammered by the printed word, the podcast, the talk show, the Internet stories, the incessant ramblings of a mean-spirited ignorant orange-haired toddler-in-chief endorsed by his heartless Trumpublicans in his efforts to bring the country to its knees to feed his own pathological narcissistic sickness that had spread pandemically to all those who support, excuse, ignore him. 
Yes, the news has become the grand infectious virus we live in. A man sets up a telescope on a street and passer-bys look up at the moon and each expresses awe at this mysterious unfathomable universe of which we are a tiny part. That could be an image to bring us together and for one brief instant, it does. But it is quickly overshadowed by the extremities the news prefers and back we are into the mud of a sick national discourse.
Last night, I was doing a crostic puzzle after a glorious sunset over Lake Michigan, one daughter was reading her kids to sleep, the other reading her book, my wife listening with earphones to her favorite podcast, The Daily. At one point, my daughter nudged me and whispered, “Mom’s crying.”
Now let me be clear. My wife never cries. Even at the funerals of her parents, it was hard for her to shed a tear. And here she began to weep copiously in her whole body. Turns out she had been listening to the news about the alarming fascist response of police and unmarked troops and soldiers in full riot gear in my other daughter’s home town of Portland, the place we left just eight days ago to begin this trip, the place where my grandchildren are being raised, where my black son-in-law stayed behind to work and help people in their suffering in his hard-earned profession as an occupational therapist. She listened to the accounts of the mayor being tear-gassed, the thousand Moms forming a protective blockade in front of the peaceful protesters and still getting tear-gassed, the Dads who joined the protest with leaf blowers to blow the tear gas away. This from a mostly white city joined together in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The combination of the courage, determination and bravery of the protesters, now in their 50thstraight day of protest and the unbelievable fascist response here in the land of the free, brought my wife to her knees and racked her body with sobs. Not easy to witness, but I was so proud of her. This is the level of grief our current situation calls for. Later, I read an account from a reporter who had been in similar armed responses in Bolivia, Brazil, Beirut and he was affirming that we had taken a new, unprecedented step in our slide toward fascism. 
And please don’t get me wrong. This level of government-sanctioned violence, from slavery to lynchings to the Birmingham fire-hoses to George, Breanna, Ahmaud, Sandra, Tamir, Trayvon and hundreds more, has been going on against black folks forever. Tear-gas and rubber bullets against white moms is mild compared to that and the Portland folks know it. But even as the best-selling books are about how whites can be anti-racists and we have evolved to new levels of awareness, this last gasp of protecting greed, privilege, white supremacy is indeed alarming. If it can make my wife sob in fear and empathy, you know this shit’s getting real.
It’s a beautiful morning and the calm lakes beckons us into its waters. That’s real. But the Trump sign we saw driving up here is also indelibly seared into our soul . Ignoring it is not an option, but getting dragged down by it, having it wholly dominate our day, doesn’t feel right either. Somehow the two are connected and we have to find the thread. This lake and land and the beauties of being wholly human are what we are trying to protect, my mixed-race granddaughter playing in the sand and spontaneously proclaiming “I love me!”, free from the limitations and hatred white supremacy will be throwing at her, is what the Portland Moms are standing up against. 
You can tell I have no easy answer here. This is just to report that when my wife weeps about what’s going on, we all better pay attention. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020


Driving across this wide country on northern route 90, two things are clear:
1) This land is breathtakingly beautiful. Still. 
2) This land is big. Big skies, big views, long, long unending roads. 
First, the beauty. The forests of Oregon with Mt. Hood looming over it all, the windy roads of Idaho passing contoured hills, the extraordinary vistas of Montana, large valleys rimmed by mountains, rivers alongside roads with kayaks and rafts. And then the South Dakota Badlands, up there in my book with Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon as some of the most unique land formations on the planet. And then Wisconsin’s more intimate rolling hills and inviting lakes and rivers. And finally, to our familiar piece of heaven on the shores of Lake Michigan. 
Despite the onslaught of strip malls that have ravaged the land, there is so much beauty still and not all of it in National Parks. Beauty comes in many forms, shapes and colors and in the West, it is mostly the endless open space and grandeur and crisp, clean air, the kind that inspired even sophisticated urbanites like Cole Porter to wax rhapsodic about the magnificent splendor of the American West, the kind of freedom it invites:
Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above, don’t fence me in. 
Let me ride in the wide open country that I love, don’t fence me in.
And that brings us to the enormity of that wide open country, those spacious views. Whenever I worry about overpopulation, I marvel at hundreds and hundreds of miles with barely a building or a human being in sight. Well, there are details like water sources, but still, there’s just so much room!And that also means long, long hours of driving on roads that just seem to stretch out forever. It’s a big, big country and it’s no casual thing to drive all the way across—well, to Michigan, still a day or two from the East Coast. Amazing that I used to do this hitchhiking. Twice. 
So this my little report to assure all armchair travelers that in spite of real estate developers, industrial expansion, the proliferation of strip malls and overpopulation, beauty and open land are still a part of the United States of America. In spite of all the mindless uglification in the name of profit, there are still majestic purple mountains and waving amber waves of grain and spacious skies. 
And it is beautiful. 

Dragnet Diary

“Just the facts, ma’am,” said Lt. Jack Webb when investigating a case on the old TV show Dragnet. And so my attempt to chronicle the last seven days of travel across the continental U.S. with minimal adjectives. Those will follow, but for now, here’s what we did, where we went and when.
Day 1: Left Portland, Oregon, four of us in the Cruise America RV and two in the rental car following. Drove the width or Oregon and ended in our first KOA outside Boise, Idaho. Shoulder to shoulder with fellow RV’ers in what felt like a parking lot. Kids zipped around on their scooters for the exercise they were missing while we cooked our first meal in our little kitchen. Talia set up her tent, the remaining five claimed their beds inside the camper and slept with a roaring air conditioner. 
Day 2: From Boise to Bozeman, Montana. Another crowded KOA, surprisingly free from my expectation of loud music and boisterous parties (never happened all trip). Talia left us to visit her high school friend who lived nearby, we dined and read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to the kids. 
Day 3: A difficult start to the morning with the grandkids, complete with threats of turning around and dropping them back home! Instead, we went for a 6.6 mile hike to a sweeping vista (oops! an adjective!) and pretty impressive that a 5-year old and an 8-year old did the whole thing without a whine or a whimper. The latter helped by six stories I told him on the return walk. That night a barbecue dinner with Talia’s friend and the kids with a short dip in her hot tub.
Day 4: On the road again, stopping along the way at the Little Big Horn Monument to see how it talked about Custer’s Last Stand (more on this later). The kid highlight walking through some grass and setting a few hundred grasshoppers jumping up. On through Wyoming and reluctantly passing by Yellowstone Park because of time. A long, long day of driving, the three in the car ending the drive with a quick visit to Mt. Rushmore, the three in the RV continuing on to the KOA in Rapid City, South Dakota to get dinner ready. 
Day 5: The latter three up early to see Mt. Rushmore, then all of us continuing on 90 West through the long, long width of South Dakota, with a little detour to the Badlands (deserving of all the adjectives I’m leaving out here!). Realizing we wouldn’t make it to the campground at a reasonable hour, we ordered takeout from Applebee’s and ate inside the van in some mall parking lot. On we continued with our first night driving, kids lying down but seat-belted and across the more narrow Minnesota to Lacrosse, Wisconsin, pulling in 13 hours later around 11:30 at night —well, 12:30 because we lost yet another hour crossing into Central Time Zone. 

Day 6: Awoke to our most spacious campground on the edge of a river, kids scootering next to my jogging daughters to start the day. On to my brother-in-law’s house in Prairie Du Sac for lunch and an unexpected speed boat trip on the river, Zadie getting to steer the boat with the wind blowing through her hair and we headed to an ice cream place further downriver. Another take-out dinner from El Pueblo Mexican Restaurant and another pull in late at night to our last RV camp in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Day 7: Awoke to a place that had a swimming pool, giant trampoline, goats and other kid-friendly activities. Talia stayed with the kids while Kerala returned the RV in one place and Karen and I picked up a second rental car in another and after much drama and frustration (including the disappearance of the kids’ scooters and Talia’s backpack left on the picnic table while they swam—which turned out to be in the campground office), we finally arrived at the “cottage” outside Frankfort, Michigan and all jumped into the lake to celebrate the completion of the RV Odyssey.
That’s the news, such as it is. Adjectives and impressions to follow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


The sounds of my grandchildren Zadie and Malik quietly chattering while playing with legos, the chopping of vegetables as my two daughters prepare dinner, the lap of the waves of close-by Lake Michigan. This the music Mozart and Miles aimed for, but to my ears, this is far superior. 
And a feast for the eyes also, as Zadie puts on her post-swim reddish-patterned dress that perfectly complements her beauty, Malik dressed in an equally complementary blue shirt. I told them I would love them no matter what they looked like, but beauty is not something to put casually to the side. We are all refreshed by it and I’m not just talking about the glamor-magazine kind. The glow on the skin is partly the happiness radiating from their perfect bodies. 
My own beauty is more soul deep than skin deep, the latter sagging and wrinkled as age demands, but the former growing yet more beautiful as the years roll on, which is to say, finally coming into focus as its true shape and color. After a long-awaited swim in the lake after a 7-day Odyssey across the country, I jumped in the shower, shaved my accumulated scraggly beard, donned fresh clothes, cut my nails—finger and toes—and I’m feeling an inner radiance shining forth from this old body. And then, joy of all joys, that constant pleasure this traveler takes in unpacking the suitcase and hanging the clothes in the closet, nesting the folded T-shirts and underwear in the drawers, putting the books on the shelves, that so-satisfying sense of arriving and putting the inner and outer house in order, preparing for the life that awaits.
It has been quite a week, the usual bouncing back and forth between heaven and hell, but the heavens higher than the norm and the hells a notch deeper. (And to be fair, heaven outweighed hell by a significant margin). Six souls between 5 years old and 70 years old thrown together in one car and one Cruise-America Recreational Vehicle (RV) with the ultimate destination of our summer retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan, a place my wife and I have come to annually since 1975, my own children for most of their 36 and 40 years and now my grandchildren having joined the party. 
I always enjoy hanging my clothes when I unpack, but to put them into the closet of the room where so many previous incarnations of myself have lived and loved and dreamed and savored summer carries an extra measure of happiness and adding to that, the miracle of escaping from the limits of sheltering within the limits of San Francisco to the expansive sky, sand and water of this most lovely place, well, this is a gift from the gods. 
I sorely missed writing each day of the last seven, but once you hear the story, it will be clear why this was simply impossible. But stay tuned. Hope to capture bits and pieces in retrospect in the days to come. Meanwhile, the dinner is cooking, the sun begins its descent over the waters and this happy traveler is sending out his message in the first year of Wi-fi at the summer cottage. Yes, things change (including the lakes coastline), but as long as there is life, we are blessed to be here with it all. Blessed to feel the sense of arrival. And I do.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Song of the Open Road

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.…  Walt Whitman

Well, almost. I am thankfully healthy, free from certain burdens and responsibilities in my 
newly-minted retirement and yes, the world is before me. I’m somewhat lighthearted, but 
do feel the echoes of much human discord, certainly from the country at large, but also from 
divisions within my own professional Orff world and recent family arguments. That’s when 
the beckoning open road is most inviting, but in this case, much of the family is in on the 
ride! Wife, two daughters and two grandchildren, so the geometrical combinations of 
quarrelling are many!

And the road isn’t exactly as open as it was in my younger days, as we hunker down in
our newly picked up RV!— our solution to avoiding hotels and restaurants. Whoever would 
have imagined this old hippie hitchhiker driving a Cruise America vehicle!

And as for the long brown path leading wherever I choose? Well, it’s the asphalted super-
highway and we’ll be pretty much following our itinerary to reserved RV sites. Still, it 
should be a memorable time with the grandchildren during a memorable time in our 
country’s history.

And so tomorrow morning, the venture begins. For this modern-day writer, that means 7 
days off-the-grid. I’ll still write these almost daily posts, but will have to wait to post them. 
Just to let you know in case you miss me. 

See you in a bit!

Stoop Sitting

At an Air B&B a block away from my grandkid’s house, we spend a lot of time walking back and forth.  Every time we pass her neighbor, a newly retired man, he is sitting on his front porch just passing the time. And I mean just sitting there. No phone in his hand, no beer or martini, no book, just hanging out watching the world. Greeting us each time we walk by. Just the way I used to do as a kid, with my cat on my lap saying hi to the neighbors. Just the way folks from time immemorial have done before getting seduced by TV and screens and such. 
That’s all. Just a shout out to Larry, the stoop sitter, for reminding me that this lost art can—and should—be revived. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Quiet Time

I’m a great believer in Mother Nature’s basic agenda. For example, the wisdom to make it difficult for people in their 60’s to start raising a family. A friend whose kids and grandkids have sheltered in place with him and his wife the last four months spent most of his days with a 1 and 4 year old and seemed to be enjoying it. But when the parents and kids traveled across country to the other set of grandparents, he suddenly realized why he was always completely exhausted at the end of the day. Now with his house once again spacious and silent, he was amazed by how much energy he had!
As is obvious from my stories, I’ve spent a good deal of time around the young ones and not only survive it fine, but am uplifted and energized by it. But up to a point. Here I am in the third day of being in charge (along with my wife) of my 5 and 9-year old grandchildren and we’ve mostly had a merry old time. But the thing that crossed my boundaries is not just the constant energy, but the screaming and loud voices. I know there are some scientific explanations of the kind of stress such too-loud sounds make, but you don’t have to be a scientist to know that it’s just TOO MUCH! 
Of course, being a progressive educator, I don’t want to inhibit the free expression of the little darlings, but I also want to survive with my own sanity intact. So today after the ride-in-the-car just went over that sonic edge, I enforced an hour-long Quiet Time back at the house. 
Ah… such blessed silence. Malik played Legos silently, Zadie worked on her sewing and you can tell how much they appreciated the silence as well. I caught up on e-mails, started to write this post, but then…STOP IT, MALIK!!! Just rang out in the other room. I guess Quiet Time is over. 
But we’ll have another one tomorrow. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Human Evolution

Made it driving 12 hours non-stop from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon in company with Ijeoma Oluo talking to me (via Audible) about race with insight, depth, heart and humor. Then came the long-awaited 3-month-missed hugs from the grandchildren and off we went into the next phase of summer. Watching them on their bikes, scooters, skateboards, playing card games, board games, reading books, singing songs, deflecting the ritual stealing of my glasses from my front pocket and so on. 
Malik had recently turned five and besides his elongated body, I could feel a sea change in his level of maturity, his interesting comments, his increased control over the physical body and mental processes. Also appreciated my son-in-law now 9 months into his career as an Occupational Therapist after struggling for some fifteen years to finally land at how he would contribute to the world. The shift from studying to passing tests, to surmounting obstacle after obstacle (made yet more challenging from all the things thrown in the path of a black man in America) to finally landing in a job in which he excells with a boss who loves him and who he appreciates deeply. So lovely to see him free from doubt and stress and coming into his own. 
And then, of course, the 8-year old Zadie writing thoughtful essays about Black Lives Matters, rapping a complex piece that she and her Dad wrote together and challenging me to chess!! My own daughter’s triumphs were less dramatic, as she has always steadily climbed up the ladder of her talent, but still one could feel the palpable depth of her life’s efforts as she rounds the corner to 40 years old (!!!). 
As a teacher, I’ve been a lifetime student of human evolution, sitting down in the circle with 3-year-old-kids in their first music class with me and looking into their eyes imagining the 14-year-old I might speak about as graduation. Having witnessed and been part of the 11-years of constant transformation of the many children I have taught, I’ve always maintained a firm faith in the possibilities of our constant evolution. 
And feeling it in my own soul’s walk toward itself, that vague outline imagined at the beginning of the journey coming into sharper focus and filling out into the details. It was by my side during the torrent of last week’s difficult meetings with a professional world in crisis and never failed to steer me towards a certain sense of integrity and rightness.
And that’s as much time as I have, because the grandkids are calling me to the Sorry Board. See ya!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

In the Torrent and Out the Door

Just spent another four days partly on the screen, this time a gathering of Orff teachers from around the world, many of whom I had taught or taught with. Still amazes me how much those small faces in the squares can warm a heart.
But part of this gathering is about a divisive Hatfield/ McCoy type feud and yet another reminder that if the best people I know in the world can’t get along, who can?!!! But that’s simply the human comedy and tragedy. But a group of opposable-thumbed bi-ped large-brained creatures together for a while and the very infinite combinations of neural connections and heart-feelings are bound to bump into each other and cause some bruising. To say the least. 
And so I’m reminded of Goethe, who said that talent is formed in solitude, character in the world’s torrent. What we say and how we say it and who we say it to reveals our character and as we’re buffeted about, we hopefully learn how to navigate the storm with greater and great integrity, honesty and compassion. Or not.
But I can’t think too much more about this because after staying within the confines of the 49 square miles of San Francisco for four months straight, I’m gettin’ out of Dodge!! So weird that me with my Million-mile flight club (I know, nothing to brag about in terms of consuming the earth’s resources) hasn’t packed a suitcase in a full third of a year! But takes only two minutes to get back into that frame of mind and remember what I consider essential to bring—and if I was wise, reduce it by a third! (I’m not wise.)
Took one more bike ride around the old city and sat to finish my handwritten journal, somewhere around my 24thsince I began in 1973. The last ten or so have been almost exactly in two-year cycles, always beginning wondering how I’ll end and who will still be by my side and what I will have done. And then ending by answering that question. 
Now back to packing and up and out early and may the travel gods be with us, the masks sturdy and used in the states we pass through, the weather beneficent and the grandchildren well-behaved. More to come.

Why We Come to Orff Workshops

It really is noteworthy that the people in my profession give up so many Saturdays and weeks in summer to come to Orff workshops and courses. Why would they do that? What are they looking for? What do they hope to come away with?
As an invocation before a recent online workshop, I made a list. Partly to clarify what I thought those things were and partly to see if they could actually still be accomplished in an online format. (Good news—they can! Some certainly in a diluted form and some maybe even more so, for example, as we spend more time than usual with music theory and/or pedagogical reflection.) Orff teachers, see if this resonates. Those in other fields attending conferences, see if they hold up in your experience. And interesting that almost all of them also resonate with why I might go to a jazz concert, what I might expect and why I might be satisfied or disappointed. Here’s the list: 
1)   Material: The Orff teacher is a lifelong collector of repertoire and workshops are the place to shop. When participants leave with material they can’t wait to try out on Monday—games, songs dances and more— they feel that their time was well spent.

2)   Process: Orff Schulwerk offers more than just the material—it shows models of both the many different ways one can teach it in an engaging, surprising and effective way and the many ways one can extend it and have the students create something new—improvise new melodies, compose new accompaniments, choreograph a dance, the whole limitless possibilities of “What can we do next?”

3)   Understanding: Music holds a vast storehouse of specific knowledge—techniques, theory, stylistic considerations, histories. If a workshop offers new insight as to how music works, it enlarges our understanding of what’s important to know and teach.

4)   Affirmation: “Yes! I do that!  I had doubts as to whether I was on the right track and here is this famous teacher doing the same thing!” We hope that the workshop participant comes away with :some sense of encouragement that their intuitive way of working is actually grounded in deep pedagogical principles and is within their reach. 

5)   Challenge: “Hmm. I never thought about that.” Or “A-ha! That’s the detail I was missing!” If a workshop is only affirmation and no challenge, one gets complacent. If only challenge and no affirmation, one gets discouraged. Some balance, some sense of “I can do that!” mixed with “Back to the drawing board—I better get to work!” makes the whole effort to attend a workshop worthy of one’s time. 

6)   Inspiration: The beckoning finger of someone further ahead on the path is often the impetus we need to keep walking. The details that they reveal that we might miss walking on our own, the secret beauties they show us, the testimonies and living examples of how this path has sustained them, blow new breath into us (the etymology of in-spire) and help us feel more alive and determined to keep moving forward.

7)   Connection: One of the central delights of Orff workshops, conferences, courses, is simply to be in company with people who share similar experiences, passions and ways of being in the world. And sharing ideas and material and understandings as well. The act of singing, dancing and/or playing music together with fellow human beings is one of the simplest and most powerful means of connection, that deep longing that we all equally share to feel that we belong, that we are needed, valued, welcomed members of a community. And yet music teaching in schools can be a lonely profession as we walk into the staff room with no other music teachers to share our day’s stories with. Simply to connect with each other in the workshop is often enough reason to attend and then richer still as fellow teachers share their successes and challenges. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Do Your Job

In my progressive school, we once had a workshop about understanding young adolescents. The presenter was assuring us that it’s normal and healthy for 12 and 13 year- olds to test us, to roll their eyes, to question us, to make foolish choices. And that’s true. But one very wise teacher said, “Yes, but what’s our job? We need to make clear boundaries, clear consequences, and clear statements about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable.” 
And she was 100% right. That’s the push and pull of the dance and the young people are counting on us to carry our weight in the matter. But confused modern day parents often think that our efforts to understand these kids means we excuse them from it all. And so it continues.
It’s actually a school alum parent who wrote the book “Strangers in Their Own Land” as she sought to understand, as a radical Berkeley sociologist, why working class people in Louisiana would vote against their own self-interest. A commendable task and I admired her for the couple of years she took to live amongst them and talk to them and listen to their stories in order to understand them better. All well and good. 
But at the end of the day, these were people who refused to listen to the stories of black folks. Who resented being called out on their explicit and implicit racism inherited by generations of non-questioning acceptance of the honor and gentility of the Southern way of life. Who appeared to love their land, but let the corporations come in and destroy it. To tell you the truth, it really pissed me off, all this effort to “understand” people who as human beings, deserved understanding, but did not deserved to be excused from perpetuating so much that was destroying land, people and culture. Understanding their perspective may be a useful first step, but it’s the next step that’s important—educating them, inspiring them to educate themselves, not to prefer this candidate over another, but to really feel down to their bones the Golden Rule. Not to give them a pass on being a decent citizen just because they were friendly to a white liberal and nice to their dog. Because as the book White Fragility so clearly demonstrates, being a nice person who ignores systematic racism means that on some level, you're attending the picnic at the lynching party. 
So just like the parent/ adolescent dynamic, we need to ask, “What’s our job?”  and not apologize for being P.C. or arrogant. Some thoughts:
• It’s the job of adolescents to test us. It’s our job to set and enforce the boundaries.
• It’s our job to make purposeful and mindless hatred illegal, uncool and unacceptable.
• It’s our job to make ignorance shameful and not celebrate it.
• It’s our job to teach people to look behind the curtain and see the scared little men pulling the ropes of words like “Freedom! The American way! Honor!” to create illusory special effects. 
• It’s our job to include all voices and it’s the people speaking's job to have done the work to back up their point of view. 
• It’s our job not to normalize over 10,000 documented lies told by the leader of the land and to hold accountable the fellow politicians who support it, disguise, excuse or ignore them. 
• It’s our job to put on a f’’ing mask and stay 6-feet-the-hell-away and to make clear that this is not a personal choice.
And so on. Let's do our job.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Carl Orff Meets Little Sally Walker

“Search for that which joins us, understand that which separates us.”  —Carl Orff
Yesterday was my 2727 blog post (cool number!). Not all of it is about my life in Orff Schulwerk, but a good deal of it is, either directly or indirectly. Add to that another 100 or so published articles and contributions to 12 books and 9 books of my own and I think it’s safe to say, “I have a lot to say about the subject!”
Carl Orff, by contrast, wrote one book about his ideas, made scattered comments to accompany the five books of composed music for children and gave several speeches. Most of his book was about the story of how things came to be, so I think it’s safe to say that his direct words about the approach probably would fill no more than 10 pages. 
And yet. Each phrase, each sentence, each idea is so articulate and opens up to the 2727 plus expansion I’ve given it. I am always stunning by how succinctly he captures life-changing ideas in a few well-chosen words. 
And because there are so few of them, I’ve mostly memorized, or at least, recognized the key famous phrases. So imagine my surprise when I logged on to the first online International Orff Forum Meeting (usually held in Salzburg) and saw a quote I had never heard. It was like a Mozart devotee discovering an unpublished score or someone digging up an extraordinary Coltrane recording that had lay hidden in someone’s basement.
And with those words above, Carl did it again! Perfectly described my recent Jazz Course, in which we spent time looking at the examples of systematic racism purposefully perpetrated by those who stood (and still stand) to benefit and developing some understanding of how these evil, evil people have succeeded in separating us and continue to do so with 4thof July speeches at Mt. Rushmore and the daily spin on Fox Fake News. And at the same time, to feel uplifted by the music that grew like a lotus from that swamp and did—and does—the work of re-joining what never should have been torn asunder. 
I had already been thinking about this theme. Music teachers who sing saccharine songs about world peace and plea, “Can’t we all just get along? Kumbayah, my Lord, Kumbaya…” are na├»ve at best and help keep it all going by refusing to look at the dynamics of how all the “isms” work. Conversely, those who work tirelessly to reveal everything that’s broken (don’t get me wrong—worthy work!) often leave us feeling blamed, shamed, despairing and there’s no redemption to lift us up, join us together and inspire us to both move forward toward justice and savor the gift of each precious moment of life. 
And so we need both. Each jazz course usually includes singing and dancing this song:
Little Sally Walker, sittin’ in a saucer, cryin’ and a’weepin’ over all she has done. 
Rise Sally Rise, wipe those cryin’ eyes. Turn to the East, Sally. Turn to the West, Sally, 
Turn to the very one that you love the best.
You can’t rise up until you’ve gone down into grief. But don’t stay down there. Rise up. And then point to someone you love (ie, whoever you point to as you circle with your eyes closed) and invite them to join. 
And so Carl Orff found the words that have informed my teaching, my life, my vision of what’s needed. Worth saying again and in whatever walk of life you travel, think about how you can use this to give a worthy shape and meaning to your work. 
“Search for that which joins us, understand that which separates us.”