Saturday, September 18, 2021

Measuring the Immeasurable

Yesterday I received this e-mail: 


As a professional growth goal this year, I am endeavoring to help my students regain SEL (Social Emotional Learning) skills, feel safe and become independent, empowered musicians in my classroom - of course the Schulwerk is the perfect vehicle to achieve these goals. 


While I feel confident as an experienced Orff educator, I am grappling with what it looks like to QUANTIFY the pursuit/achievement of community required by Administration (percentages, data, etc.). Have you published articles/books or materials that outline what this could look like for those of us who must show this for our evaluations? Help!

And I wrote back: 



Thanks for writing and honored that you asked for my help. However, you might not like my answer!


Einstein famously said, "Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts."


And I agree! There are many things—usually the best things— in this life that defy measurement. And when we try to measure the immeasurable, we miss the boat to genuine experience, to deep feeling, to beauty. How do you measure beauty? How do you quantify anger or love? Yes, we can put prices on paintings and maybe computer hook ups can give some number for the level of hormones released and yes, we can say, "On a scale of 1-10, how angry are you? How much do you love me?" But the real truth of social emotional experience is that it is a constantly moving target. You never arrive at mastery of emotion, you never get the relationship perfect so that you can stop talking about it. More than ever, we need to be real with each other and we especially need to be real with kids and who are we kidding by pretending that we can quantify something more about quality than numbers? And for what purpose? 


I know the school numbers-crunchers, bean-counters, corporation types that treat school like a business, want to get all their data neatly lined up and stacked to show on the Powerpoint at the Board Meeting, but any real teacher knows thats nonsense. 


But that doesn't mean there's no accountability or way to notice progress. The real teacher, the authentic teacher, the honest teacher, the reflective teacher, the artistic teacher, knows within two minutes of walking into a classroom what the mood is like, can instantly read whether the children are happily engaged, eager to share their ideas and feelings, trusting the teacher and each other, able to work both independently and cooperatively. If an administrator can't see that, then it's not the teacher's job to supply false data to make him/her feel comfortable, it is the administrator's job to learn from the teacher how to intuitively assess that. And of course, to ask the children. 

"Tell me about what you're doing. Are you enjoying it? Do you feel safe to speak out if something bothers you?" Then the necessary conversations begin to adjust the atmosphere, with the administrator, teacher and the students each alone and togetherconsidering how. 


SEL cannot just become another cliche buzzword that teachers tick off to show they're doing the "right thing," it's just a term of convenience to describe what every good teacher should, can and has done when teaching well. It's not something that someone walking into my class needs to make me prove that I'm fulfilling some quota or prescribed mandate— it's something that someone walking into my class should simply notice, appreciate and enjoy. See the way the kids help each other learn instrumental parts without me asking them to, how they work in small groups to create things of beauty— musical compositions, dances, dramatic skits. To feel how they ask questions without fear, ask me to explain or do something different if they don't get it the way I taught it, share their enthusiasm and their ideas, leave class saying "Aw, do I have to go to recess?!" or "Can we do it again?" or "Thank you, Doug!" (all things kids from 3 years old to 8th grade have said to me.)


In short, by leveling down to the "prove it with quantifiable data/ numbers/ percentages" way of thinking, we lose it. Instead of furthering community, we dumb it down and insult it, making it into a thing to measure, an inert noun rather than a flowing joyous verb. We kill the teacher's passion and enthusiasm by wasting their time filling in charts and forms and surveys instead of trusting their artistry. We reduce education to a corporate business with a bottom-line of provable profit (be it in money or units of SEL) and get sidetracked from the possibility of a school community as a joyous gathering of human intellect, feeling, achievement sparked by curiosity, fed by wonder, Instead of trying to measure the immeasurable, why not shift the energy to more deeply experiencing the mystery, the magic, marvelous world we have the privilege to investigate, learn about and participate in. 


So to answer your question, I don't have anything written about this. But I think I just wrote it. Feel free to share it with your boss!


Good luck!


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Art and Politics, Politics and Art


I mentioned the word “political” the other day to a very wise woman and she grimaced. I understand the sentiment, as we have long associated politics and religion as the two taboo subjects at the family reunion, the ones that can divide us like a lightning bolt just when the occasion calls for calm weather and Spring flowers. And never has politics been so divisive as it is now. And equally, never has it been so important to pay attention to it. 


“Polis” in ancient Greek refers to the city, the community, the collective citizens. “Politikos” means “of the citizen, pertaining to public life.” Since all of us are living a public life, we indeed need to pay attention to the necessary negotiations that allow us to live together , to function together with some semblance of order, efficiency and hopefully, justice. From the water that comes from the tap to the food on the grocery store shelves to the roads we drive on, we are utterly dependent on each other. Each of us is necessary to the smooth functioning of collective living. As such, politics is a required subject, not an elective, in the school of life. 


But it’s not the whole deal. We also have our individual destinies to work out , which often are independent of and even in opposition to public life. They often require solitude off to the side of pulling and hauling of the group, be it the writer at the desk, the monk on the meditation cushion, the musician alone with the instrument. But even those solitudes are in service of the community, as each of these disciplines remains incomplete until the book gets published, the insights are shared, the music is performed. Yet what gets published and who gets to perform and where are political questions.


We would hope that true art bypasses the squabbles of opposition and heads straight for our shared humanity. It brings comfort, inspiration, beauty, energy, meaning, into our lives and yes, who wants to muddy those clear flowing waters with political debate? And what’s the good of an efficient, fair, helpful social structure if there’s no beauty at the end of the day? As such, art is also a required subject in the school of life. 


In short: No art without politics. No politics without art.


I’m about to launch my course Jazz and Social Justice as a place where these two required subjects meet and converse. I will share stories about jazz musicians who lived in the deep center of their art, but were also deeply affected by the politics of their day and called upon to respond. Sometimes they responded with actions, sometimes with music, sometimes with words and sometimes with words and music, protest songs that got both points across. By hearing their stories and listening to their music and clearly seeing the thread of systemic racism that ran through all their lives, we might edge one inch closer to the work that lies head, the reparations, the reconciliations, the healing we all yearn for. 


Besides hearing these necessary and mostly unknown stories, we’ll also listen to the music. I can think of no more pleasurable way to do our duty at citizens in the Polis. 


PS If you want to join, come aboard! Here’s the link:




Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Same Old Same Old

Re-reading old journals, many people are struck how they keep writing about the same things and nothing seems to change. For better or worse. That truth resonated with me as I read something I wrote at 27 years old on a plane from Egypt to India. This would mean more to the people who know me, but except for some inevitable life changes (like eventually buying a car, a house, a stereo), almost everything else is still true. Yet another affirmation that all we dream of, we hope for, we desire, is that which we essentially are and always have been. 


As I begin to step out of this 4-year journal, I wonder what has changed? What has stayed the same? Well, my hair is short now and thinner on top, I’ve stopped wearing suspenders and overalls and torn dungaree jackets, my dress is a bit more respectable and my nails kept trim. I still don’t eat meat, prefer brown rice and vegetables and tamari. A bit looser about spending money for movies and records and even dinners out. Still making friends with women easier than men. A bit more self-confident having begun the journey from my potential as a teacher to successfully actualizing it and establishing myself in that field. A bit frustrated in achieving satisfying musical expression, but much further along. More solid in my zazen practice, more tolerant and open to my parent’s generation and less enchanted by the irresponsible hippy life. Still open to taking risks and new travels (this trip!) but finding more and more pleasure in the world of hard work and creative day-to-day routine. Less yearning for the life of eternal wandering or cabin in the woods seclusion. Strong feelings about beginning a family. Still the sense that I can accomplish what I set out to do, with a  clearer picture of my responsibility in this life. Sometimes longing for more close friends, still keeping one eye out for the ideal school-spiritual-artistic-community-in-the-country. Haven’t yet bought a car or a house or a stereo. Completely uninterested in taking any drugs, a socially acceptable tolerance of alcohol, though still trouble finishing a beer myself. Still feeling in touch with the dreams of my childhood that my teachers and parents predicted would get swallowed up in the reality of the adult life. (They haven’t). A continued deep affection for children and animals, a growing appreciation of plants. Still have never planted a garden and often at a loss in the world of things and machines (though my wife’s aspirin-cap stories to the contrary, have gotten better at trying to fix things  and am not as intimidated as before). Still enjoy hitchhiking and sleeping out. Have kept my love of basketball and dancing, especially to James Brown. Still available for any foolery that comes up—pajama parties, games of sardines etc. My feet keep heading for parks and a day’s exploring of nowhere in particular satisfies as much as anything I know. Still love reading books, movies have become a steady diet. Still get uneasy sometimes in the presence of people I respect who I want to like me. Still love to be alone and invisible, still love to be the center of attention. I still make the same mistakes over and over again, am still graced with the same remembrances of the absolute beauty of this life. At once, not a single regret for a single moment of these past 27 years and the knowledge that I’ve achieved nothing worth mentioning and must persevere in the face of how much is left to do. 


 That about sums it up. Am still a half-a-beer guy, love to play games with the grandkids, have more women friends than men, read books and watch movies and occasionally, am still graced with remembrance of beauty. On to more of the same. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Opening the Door

For the first time in over 20 months, I was finally going to get to play some music with my jazz band. I arrived  a bit late at the drummer Micah’s  house and heard the band playing (outside) The Saints Go Marchin’ In. So in I marched and started making up a new verse about me reuniting with the band as I headed to the piano. Suddenly, I notice some 20 other people in the back yard! I was too engrossed in the musical moment to pay it much mind, but as I started playing and looked out at them, I noticed that these were many of the folks who had signed up to come to my summer 70thbirthday and dropped out at the last moment because of that little pandemic scare. And so it dawned on me: “This is a surprise party!”


How sweet was that! We finished the tune and people went over to the food and people couldn’t tell if I was genuinely surprised and I assured them that I was, but it would have been yet clearer if they actually shouted out “Surprise!!!” Someone forgot to give them the manual. Ha ha! Nevertheless, it meant the world to me that these folks had felt bad that they didn’t end up joining me back in July and wanted to let me know they cared enough about it that they came up with this Plan B. 


So here was my 4thcelebration—my actual birthday with a dinner out, the bigger party, another party with the family in Michigan and now this. Three more to go to fulfill some “one celebration per decade” idea someone gave me. (The next will be a concert in October with the band). After some milling about, I did sit down with the band and we played about five pieces, such pleasure to hear the horns and have the bass and drums with the piano and to my ears, everyone sounding great. And at one point, the sax player Joshi proposed a toast and gave a short emotional talk about how meeting me had opened so many doors for him, into rooms that he loved being in with people he loved being with. Never at a loss for words, I spoke briefly about the fact that if indeed, I had the good fortune to open doors for everyone gathered there (I had), it was merely repaying the debt to people who opened doors for me, the reason why I never stopped thanking Avon and he in turned owed his life to people like Carl Orff who owed his life to thousands of unnamed ancestors who helped him grow his vision. How one of the greatest pleasures of being a teacher was not only to open doors, but to notice who’s ready and ripe to walk through them and in some ways, it’s almost selfish: “You look like an interesting person and I want to be in the room with you! Come on in!” And ended with acknowledging both the kids each of them are opening doors for and the future teachers who they will invite in to the party. 


The next day, I was on a Zoom call with some people who I had sung with in a college choir in an unforgettable European tour in 1973. One of us had passed away and this Zoom memorial was a reason to check in with people I literally had not seen in in 48 years! After speaking some about the recently departed man, we began talking about John Ronsheim, the teacher who took us on that trip and who had passed away in 1997. It was extraordinary how each person’s life had been directly impacted by his example, either going into music or becoming a winemaker (he was a passionate gourmet) or simply remembering his ever-curious ever-youthful childlike nature. Another door opener into yet more marvelous rooms.


Who has opened doors for you? Who have you opened doors for? Take a moment to think about it on your way to work today. And where possible, don’t forget to thank them.



Saturday, September 11, 2021

Thrice Created

All things are created thrice. 


1) First in the imagination, in the planning and dreaming.


2) Second in the living, the doing.


3) Third in the remembrance and recollection, the documentation and the sharing. 


I first spoke of this to teachers as a guide to lesson planning. Live the lesson plan in your imagination (or in the early days, actually teach to an imaginary class), then teach the lesson, then reflect on the lesson with the purpose of considering what to adjust. And by all means, write down afterwards what you did for documentation purposes. ( I have 45 books in my closet outlining every class I ever taught at my school). 


But this also applies to taking a trip. First comes the planning and dreaming. Not just the itinerary and hotel reservations and train tickets and such, but also imagining ahead of time the fun and excitement that awaits you. Then the trip itself, made larger by the anticipation even as it deviates slightly or dramatically from what you expected. Then leave some time at the end, not only to organize the photos and bore your friends with them, but recall those moments of leisure when you’re too busy, that sense of newness when things feel old, that pleasure of being open to the next surprise when life becomes too predictable. 

And so I’m beginning a new and different writing project from my usual music activities or educational philosophy books, this more of a personal memoir/ travel stories/ culture celebration based on a year-long trip my soon-to-be wife and I took around the world in 1978-79. It began in England, Germany, Italy, Greece and continued to India, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia (Java and Bali) and ended in Japan.  It was a time when every place did not have Starbucks or even McDonald’s, when most people you met did not speak English, when thin-blue-paper aerograms picked up at American Express offices was the link to back home in a world that couldn’t even imagine e-mail/ cell phones/ texting and wi-fi even in remote villages. It made everything more complicated and challenging and difficult and unpredictable and that’s precisely what made it so glorious. It was an extraordinary time and proved to feed every aspect of my life to come— musically, philosophically, culturally and personally. 


This is the project the orishas blessed (see last post) and after my first day of writing, there was a rare brief thunderstorm in San Francisco. Since Shango was the one who encouraged me and he is associated with thunder and lightning, should I take that as a sign? In a mere two days, I’ve written 22 pages and hit upon the formula of alternating between quoting passages from my extensive journals from that trip, written by a 27-year-old who had taught for 3 years at The SF School and just begun investigating various world musics, and looking at it from the perspective of the 70-year-old who taught for 45 years, studied Balinese gamelan/ Philippine kulintang/ Bulgarian bagpipe/ Ghanaian xylophone and drums/ Brazilian samba and more in the intervening years and traveled to some 50 other countries teaching music teachers. It makes for a stimulating conversation!


And how wonderful to relive it all, both through my journals and memory. In the closet is the extensive slide show we made when we returned and the 15 cassette tapes I recorded.  Shall I dig them out? 


Meanwhile, page 23 awaits me and off I go back to Italy!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Throwing the Shells

Well, that was different. With the Fall open before me and a host of worthy projects competing for my attention, I felt I needed some guidance. I had some notions about which to pursue, but I wanted a second opinion. So naturally, it was time to consult a Priestess of the Orishas. 


For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the notion of the Ancestors, the departed who live in the Other World, whatever that may be. I’ve collected things like the Irish saying, “What is wrong in this world can only be healed by those in the Other World, what’s wrong in the Other World can only be healed by those in this world.” And so the cultures that pay attention to this idea, be it Ancestor Veneration in China, trance dance in Ghana or the Mexican Day of the Dead, believe that the departed continue to live amongst us and are available through both collective ritual and personal remembrance to help us here on this material plane. And likewise, by paying them proper respect and continuing the work they couldn’t finish, we can help them in their new form of existence. It’s not a Hollywood ghost story, but a living conversation that brings a fuller dimension to life. And death.


So when I heard about a 91-year old woman who did readings in-between her work helping battered women and running a judo studio for young girls, I thought: “Just my cup of tea!” Especially because of my involvement with Ghana and the African diaspora and my second-hand knowledge of these Orishas, spirits who acted as intermediaries between the human and the divine. I knew the names of five or six, but apparently there are as many as 401, each with his or her own specialty. Like the Greek gods or the Catholic saints (who they hid behind when people were kidnapped and brought to Brazil and Cuba by the Portuguese and Spanish Catholic). If I was going to get some guidance, I wanted to hear their opinion more than those of Facebook friends.


And so I met with this elder, white, Jewish, ordained priestess.  How I wanted to whip out my i-Phone and photograph her basement filled with statues, dolls, stones, drums, a buffalo head mounted on the wall and a few hundred other items related to the task at hand. But feeling that some things are not for show or casual sharing (I’m ambivalent about saying this much about it), I put the phone down and sat down to throw the cowrie shells that she could read but I couldn’t. At the first reading, she looked down and exclaimed, “Hm. You’re complicated” and I knew I was in the right place. 


Again, without revealing too much, there were messages from various orishas, Shango the one that kept appearing the most. He is associated with thunder, lightning, fire, passion, justice, dance and music and that was fine with me. I asked many specific questions, particularly about writing projects and believe I got some excellent advice. Two hours later, I had to decide whether to go beyond work into the personal, inquire about relationships with my wife, colleagues, men’s group and beyond, but decided to save that for another time. Apparently, these sessions work best in three-month blocks and since the Fall was precisely the time I was asking about, that suited me fine. 


In retrospect, I should have asked about continuing this 11-year blog, but truth be told, advice one gets, whether it be from a friend or orisha, is often a speaking out loud of an intuition not yet fully formed that gives a kind of permission to go ahead with what you probably would have done anyway. It’s not a mandate or a stern warning or an unconditional blessing, it’s a conversation that you’ve already been having with yourself and now feels a bit clearer having shared it. And yes, I believe I'll keep writing this blog even as I set to work on a new book.


To get there and back, I walked 7 miles and made a point of passing by the three other houses I had previously lived in in San Francisco and somehow that added a bit to the ritual. I came home exercised, energized, intrigued and ready to get to work. Here I go! With Shango by my side.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Real Deal

Sometimes you hear veteran jazz musicians listen to a younger up and coming one and exclaim, “Yep! He/ she’s the real deal.” It means they hear something authentic, something with integrity, something with character. The musician has something to say and they’re saying it. And what they say is what they feel and what they feel is what they live. They’re taking it all as seriously as a life and death matter, even (and hopefully!) with humor and play thrown into the mix. I remember being at a Joshua Redman concert and was mesmerized watching him come out onto the stage playing his saxophone like a hunter stalking his prey. A hunter whose family hadn’t eaten in weeks in a land where prey was scarce. And he caught it!


When it comes to teaching kids, it’s the same. For me, the real deal is you are not playing around. I mean, you are playing around, but as if your life depended on it. You can be goofy and funny and occasionally even corny, but mostly you are feeding the little ones who are starved for something worthy of them, hungry for beauty, thirsting for something that feels real and meaningful and authentic. Dished up with meticulous care, unswerving affection, unrelenting determination. You are the teacher whose motto “Whatever it takes” means you’re never clocking your hours or billing your time. Your steadfast refusal to be cute or contrived, to talk down to kids, to exploit their vulnerability to the insulting dumbed-down aesthetic, is part of what makes you real. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, you have been hugged and loved and dragged over the floor by kid after kid, stuffed away or thrown into the corner or even into the trash by adults who don’t get who you are,. Your clothes are ragged, your ear is torn, your buttons are missing, your face is dirty, but as the story says, it’s all part of what makes you real.


This is on my mind because my real-as-they-get colleague passed on to me a Youtube video from one of the teachers we trained who should have known better, but lowered the bar to the merely clever and even that, not so much. And then once that rabbit hole opened up, I took a peek at all the other side videos for what passes for music education these days and it gets so much worse. I mean, so much worse.


And somehow, all of this connects to every crisis we’re facing in culture and climate. When we can’t be real to the most important people on the planet— the children—what hope is there for them? Or us? 


I’ve spent my life convincing people that music is a delightful game we play in which everyone wins. And it is. But the teaching of music ain’t no game. If you get my meaning.



Monday, September 6, 2021

Call the Agent

“Agent, agent!!” you’ll hear my shout when I’m trying to problem-solve something with an 800 number and can’t stand talking to a machine. If I sign up for something that has a 5-second process with a Submit button without having to create or remember a password, I can bypass the human connection. But otherwise, I would always prefer talking to a live human being. Always. Multiply that. 


And so last post, I asked what plans the world has for me and apparently, not the same as I had for it. While the Bay Area is justifiably proud of its Bicycle Coalition and excellent work making biking more friendly, accessible and common, the actual bike paths—at least from the Sausalito Ferry to downtown Larkspur— are poorly marked. I was determined to not get Siri involved and so, I simply asked people whenever I suspected I was a bit lost—and as it turned out, that suspicion was most always true as they turned me around! And so with the help of some eight kind souls happy and willing to help out, I arrived at the restaurant to lunch with my sister 2 minutes before the reserved time. 


My clever plan was to take the longer ferry ride from Larkspur home, but after some dead ends and help from more people to get to the Ferry Terminal through the complex freeway challenge, it appeared that no ferries were running. Everything locked up and a schedule that mentioned weekends, but nothing for holidays. And so the only solution was another 8 miles or so back to the Sausalito Ferry.


I decided to get Siri into the action and that simply proved my point—she was useless. The first thing she noted was that it was 8.2 miles away, but suggested it would take over 2 hours for me to get there. Then started giving me directions to get on the freeway. With my bike. So I ended the route, began again accenting “BIKE route” and off I went again. The first five minutes were fine, but soon she was telling me again to get on the freeway. So I went back to my tried and true human contacts, met one man with great gestures indicating turns and useful icons (after the Bank of America) and pretty soon, things looked familiar as I hooked back into the way I had come— past Marin Joes, the empty Tesla dealer, the Black Lives Matter sign, the school where I had made a turn. Like the human contact, I equally enjoy the landscape contact rather than just blindly following GPS directions. 


And so some 30 bike miles later, I arrived home ready for a hot bath and some time off the bike seat. But reinvigorated by the exercise, the human contact, the ferry rides on the water, the lovely lunch with my sister at the Left Bank restaurant where we used to meet my Mom and Dad, amazingly and blessedly still there (the restaurant, that is), though with my favorite Jacque Pepin sandwich removed from the menu. 


Perhaps these helpers giving me directions were the enjoyable “Company I Keep” —and so last night’s dream was fulfilled. 

Messages from Dreamworld

All night long, the dream voices kept chanting a phrase in my sleeping ear: “The Company We Keep.” It sounded like a catchy title to a book and I followed it into dreamworld imagining offering it up to today’s popular authors I’ve been reading— Jo Jo Moyes, Krsitin Hannah, Britt Bennet, Ann Patchett, Kelly Rimmer (note, all women!)— with a little note: “Here’s the title. Now all you have to do is write the book.” And then a P.S.—“If it becomes a New York Times Bestseller (and the title alone suggests it will), you can pay me back by getting me a literary agent for my books. Deal?”


So when I woke up this morning, I wondered if someone had already written a book with that title. And lo and behold, there was a movie called “The Company You Keep” with Robert Redford that I had seen and another “The Company We Keep” that I hadn’t. Was the dream suggesting I should watch them both? What does it all mean?


Perhaps the most important point is that in a world that we want to control, in a life that we want to be wholly in charge of, there are still mysterious other voices talking to us in a language we can’t quite comprehend and in the end, don’t need to analyze and assign literal meaning. We just need to listen and marvel that life keeps throwing out breadcrumbs on the trail without signposts as to where they lead. If we pay attention and follow, something interesting may happen. 


The day awaits and I have my plans for it. What plans does it have for me?

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Tipping Point

Back when intelligence lived in the brain cells of human beings before being outsourced to machines, there was that moment at the restaurant when you had to calculate the 12% or 15% that was the norm for a respectable tip. Some people could do this in their head, others searched for a pen or pencil to scrawl it out on the napkin. Later, a rare few might bring a pocket calculator, but once cell phones became the norm and the calculator was at your fingertips, the mind could stay powered off while the fingers did the math. 


Now, the restaurant does it all for you, showing the exact amount on the bill for a 15% or 18% or 20% tip and lately (have you noticed?), those numbers keep rising—22%/ 25%/ in a recent cab ride, even 30%.  Keeping in mind that the prices of the meals (and cab rides) also keep rising exponentially (remember burritos or a sandwich were mostly $5 back in the good ole days, say 5 years ago?), the inflated tip plus the inflated bill means a casual lunch out might mean consulting your financial advisor. 


Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been a waiter, but I know they depend heavily on tips and are not to be blamed for this rise in contribution to their living wage. But I also know there are other ways to support them. Like insisting that restaurants actually pay them what they’re worth so that they don’t need to depend upon tips. Some places in San Francisco indeed are doing that and make it clear that the diner does not need to tip at all. This has long been in practice in Japan, where it is considered an insult to tip. And in Europe, a tip remains just a small gesture, rarely more than 10% and no guilt if it’s less. It’s a way of saying “I know the restaurant pays you fairly, but you were very helpful, so here’s a little something extra. Treat yourself to an ice cream after work.”


And so I object to even the presence of the 25% tip on the restaurant bill, whose function is to make that more and more the norm and make the 20% or God forbid 18% tipper struggle with guilt and shame. In a recent Youtube video, drive-by Good Samaritans were going to drive-through fast-food take-out places and tipping the young workers $100 or $200. Suggesting that if only we all did something like that, what a wonderful world it would be. 


But how about actually using that energy for lobbying for fair and livable minimum wage? Not putting the burden on consumers while the owners grow rich shortchanging their work staff? This is such a typical American response, like in my least favorite movie Mr. Holland’s Opuswhere a music teacher gets fired for lack of funds for the arts and the parents throw a bit surprise party where they hire an orchestra to play one of his compositions as a grand, loving farewell gesture. Well, hey, how about using those funds to keep his job or better yet, organize and raise hell with the school board insisting that your taxes support arts in schools, as State Curriculums have promised since around 1848?


And so my First-World new pet peeve—the inflation of the standard tip has passed the Tipping Point that I find acceptable. If my waiter actually answered my question about how this tofu was cooked so well, snuck me the recipe, gave me a little post-dinner schnapps on the house, told me three new jokes I hadn’t heard, I would be comfortable with the exceptional 25% tip. But I refuse to make it the new norm. While supporting any movement toward fair and livable wages for all. 

Saturday, September 4, 2021

News from Home

In this age of rapid change, one can be away for 5 weeks and not count on anything being the same. Of course, most of it is, but whether through natural cycles, political decisions, or just circumstance, some things change. For better or worse, depending on your point of view. 


So here in San Francisco, my house was still standing, the refrigerator was empty and surprisingly clean, my upstairs neighbors moved a bench in the back yard. A walk to my neighborhood shopping district and lo and behold, Yancey’s Bar was open again after 16 months closed! Not that I’m a frequent customer, but it has been the site of some glorious and thunderous SF Giants/ 49’ers/ Golden State Warriors title victories. Memories of being carried on the wave of sports euphoria, loving all my co-celebrating neighbors, hugging strangers, embraced by 20 minutes of roars and horn honks. I hated to think that it would close and now all we need is the resurgence of those great teams to keep the memories moving forward.


A bike ride out to the Great Highway revealed that my petition to keep it closed to cars and open for bikers and pedestrians failed and that was sad. But I soon discovered that there was a compromise and from 12 noon Friday through Sunday at 5:00, it is wholly walking and biking territory. Good decision. 


The Dahlia Garden at the Conservatory is again in bloom, further proof that nature endures in its cycles and beauty is on its agenda. But the lake where I backpacked with my granddaughter and daughter back in early July has been ravaged by fire, those trees we leaned against gone, the Echo Lake store destroyed. Devastating. 


My time away from the news was ended when I checked in and discovered that the Repugnitans have lowered the bar yet again to the 7thlayer of Hell. Texas may have birthed Willie Nelson, Ornette Coleman, Roy Hargrove, Janis Joplin, Beyonce, Buddy Holly, Steve Martin, Sandra Day O’Connor and other worthy human beings, but has a lot of climbing to do to return to a place that can be spoken without shame. And the Supreme Court? Don’t get me started. 


Today I walked out into the cold and fog and walked back in warmth and sun. Life continues in its ebb and flow, its high and low, its fast and slow, its yes and no. We watch it all and deem it better or worse, prose or verse, a blessing or a curse, good or bad, happy or sad, constant or fad, accepting or mad. 


And as September begins to roll out into the Fall, that’s the news from San Francisco, such as it is. 


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Mandatory Emergency Aid

Get a random group of people together in today’s world and it’s highly unlikely that all of them will agree on anything. Except this:


We are in trouble. 


 Just when things looked better in the ongoing pandemic, the Delta variant swooped in (thanks to the anti-vaxers) and the masks are back on and the hospitals filling.


Storms, floods and fires wreak destruction across the land and temperatures in the last decade are higher than any in recorded history. The scientists keep moving up the deadline to turn around the time left before the irrevocable damage of climate change becomes irreversible. 


Just at a time when we know more than ever about what needs to be done, large segments of the population have retreated into denial, purposeful ignorance and wild conspiracy theories, led by power-hungry leaders who care about nothing beyond their own power and privilege. 


We are in trouble.


And though some cling to the fantasy that they can win by making others lose, viruses and storms and fires don’t discriminate. Thus, the world presents us with another irrefutable truth:


We are in this together. We need each other to both survive and thrive and we need each other at our highest level of human possibility. 


That suggests—no, insists—that we contribute from our own corner of creation. Imagine what might happen if people of all professions used their expertise on behalf of  the common good. Dream with us here that therapists schooled in healing personal pain and trauma expanded their scope to include collective pain and trauma. Athletes schooled in teamwork on the court could model for all of us how to work together off the court. Farmers with deep understanding of the cycles and seasons of the land could educate us as to how to better caretake our precious resources. Historians could illuminate the recurring patterns that continue to bring us bad news each day and suggest how to stop the hurting and harming. 


In short, wherever our passion takes us, we should consider how to go beyond simply doing our job as it has always been done and move beyond that into a larger territory where it has rarely ventured. A place where all our divisive constructions— race, religion, politics and so on—must be left at the door, where dogmas and beliefs and illusionary certainties are left behind and like little children going into an unexplored woods, we hold hands and walk together alert in all our faculties. Of all the “isms” that give us the structure and focus we crave, there is perhaps just one that would qualify for entrance— humanitarianism.


Humanitarianism is defined as “an active belief in the value of human life, whereby human beings practice benevolent treatment and provide assistance to other humans in order to improve the conditions of humanity for moral, altruistic and logical reasons.” 


The presence of that last clause indicates that a humanitarian perspective is optional. Now those “moral, altruistic and logical reasons” can be replaced with one idea—“survival.” To "practice benevolent treatment and provide assistance to others humans in order to survive." What a mere few decades ago felt like something only nice, generous people with time on their hands might consider has moved from luxury to necessity. The definition goes on:


“Humanitarianism is today primarily understood as voluntary emergency aid.” but strike the word “voluntary” and understand that the “emergency” is ongoing and we arrive at a new definition: We are in a time of mandatory emergency aid. All people in all walks of life are called upon to nurture, develop, sustain and put into action their highest humanitarian impulses. 


That means, for example, that music teachers still need to teach 6/8 meter and help kids understand pentatonic scales, but with a different purpose than simply meeting some national standard of expected knowledge. Those skills and understandings become tools to a personal expression that can sing the soul’s deepest need. A soul at home with itself has no need to harm others—and so the implications are larger. Likewise, music as a practice of communication with others, both the actual playing with fellow musicians and the hope to bring beauty into the audience’s life, become part of the larger healing we all need. In short, if all people in all walks of life think of their craft as mandatory emergency aid—which includes considering abandoning their craft (weapons makers and dealers and drug dealers and political hatemongers take note ), a new humanitarianism may help walk us toward a more hopeful and healthful future. 


Think about this as you go to work today.  


How often some adult confesses to me “I’m not musical” and I respond with: “You’re more musical than you think you are and I’m going to prove it to you.” And then I do. 


How often I say to myself, “I’m not handy around the house.” Without anyone around to say “You’re handier than you think you are.” 


When it comes to such things, my wife usually takes over and I’m happy to let her. I’ve had small moments when I’ve doubted my manhood— aren’t all men supposed to be handy? Be able to fix things? Be fascinated by engines and machines and such? But I’ve never been that guy. And in some chicken-egg dynamic, my lack of interest guarantees that I don’t get better at it and my feeling of incompetence guarantees that I won’t ramp up my interest. 


To give you an idea of the level of my incompetence: When my wife first met me, I was struggling figuring out how to open up child-proof aspirin bottles. I have learned how to fix our running toilet and if push comes to shove, I can change a flat tire, but my skills are really dismally low and my interest in improving them even lower.


So when two different window shades broke a couple of days ago with my wife away in Michigan, I had several choices:


1) Wait until she gets back for her to deal with it.


2) Find someone I can pay to come and fix it.


3) Ask my upstairs neighbor (a very handy guy) for help.


4) Figure it out myself. 


So I sat myself down and looked myself in the metaphorical eye and said:


• If you can play Bach on the piano, you probably have the physical skills to turn a screwdriver. 

• If you can write nine books, you probably have the intelligence to figure out what needs to be done with each shade to get it working again. 

• If you can prove to other people that they’re better than think they are, musically and sometimes in other ways, you can pay yourself the same respect.


And so I set to work. And lo and behold, after much trial and error, I did it! I’m so proud!


But just between you and me, I’m not going to pull down either shade. At least until my wife comes home. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Songs for the New Year

I believe that some day we shall be weary of this daily miserable struggle, that a little true love will be born in the withered hearts of men. Perhaps, after our hatred, kindled only by a few, there will come one of those cleansing revolutions that will shake the world on its foundations and sweep away the poisonous vapors. Perhaps, then, a new life will rise up and with something of youth and verdure and joy; while the old limping religions, the gods in whom no one believes, will be swept away with the ruins…A little fraternity, a little love, a little gladness will gleam on the face of the world, and catch up the hearts of men in one impulse, in one rhythm. And for these new hearts there will be need to be new songs.            -  

-      Ernst Bloch


September 1st is here and for kids and teachers alike, it’s the real New Year. (Though more and more, the beginning of school is creeping back into mid-August and even earlier!) New Year, in all times  and in all places, is the time for renewal, for resurgence of hope, for taking stock and making vows and re-making intentions. And so what better way to begin than this sweeping quote from Ernst Bloch. 


Ernst Bloch was a German-Jewish Marxist philosopher (1885-1977) who escaped Nazi Germany and wrote a book called The Principles of Hope, which aligns perfectly with these stirring and eloquent words. And yet the quote is actually from another Ernst Bloch, a contemporary who was a Swiss-Jewish composer (1880-1959) who also emigrated to the U.S. and lived in Oregon. (I’m not familiar with his music, but am now curious to search it out. Amongst other details of his bio, he studied briefly with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, one of the first innovators of moderns music education).


But how well he captures the zeitgeist of our time (of all times?) with his image of the withered hearts awaiting a spark of love when they finally grow weary of the hard work of ongoing hatred. The insight that it is a self-serving few who kindle that hatred and the hope that we can wake up to how we are being duped and be cleansed of the poisonous vapors. Indeed, new laws and better enforcement of some old ones are necessary— who can doubt that?— but the thing that will “shake the world on its foundations” is never simply concrete and practical, but comes from the depths of the soul. It comes from the inspiration and determination to reclaim our youthful sense of wonder and dream and the green hope of Spring. Away with the limping religions incapable of walking or dancing us into the future we deserve, away with the fantasy gods who we think will solve it for us (“I’ve got this! -God” was a sign I saw outside a church in Michigan and could only think, “Do you really?”), away with the winner/loser mindset that keeps driving political discourse and action. Once swept away, there will be room for a gleaming spark of fraternity, of love, of gladness to catch fire and ignite the waiting hearts of us weary people.


And then that stunning last line:


“And for these new hearts there will be need to be new songs.”


Music to a music teacher’s ears! What else are we training the children for other than creating the songs we need? No need to throw out the songs we once needed that keep playing and re-playing in our repertoire, but yes to moving them forward with new interpretations and versions and previously unimagined creations that show we are alive and alert to this day. 


Happy New Year to kids and teachers everywhere!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Letter to John Steinbeck

I began the month of August visiting the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California. So it seems fitting to end it with a passage from  a letter Steinbeck wrote to Adlai Stevenson in 1959:


Do you remember the two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind of house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence…Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says, “Is that all?”


Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick…”


Mainly, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves.…


Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can’t expect to raise our children to be good and honorable when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?


Well, Mr. Steinbeck, here we are 62 years later, still miserable, greedy and sicker than ever before. Catastrophe rained down on us and we are drenched by our stupid refusal to open an umbrella. Cynical immorality is the foundation of our national discourse, truth is on a ventilator and honor is an endangered species. Yet perhaps more of us than ever before are hopeful enough to try to do something about it. The kids are returning to school and I call upon all my teacher colleagues to get to the real work of teaching them what they need to know and what they need to figure out what they don’t yet know. Train them to respect the system, throw out what doesn't work and feed everything in themselves and each other that leans towards kindness, community and beauty.


May it be so.