Friday, December 31, 2021

Turn of the Year



Sitting on a green bench while the sun sets over Spreckels Lake. A man walks by and wishes me a happy new year. Another lies on the grass curled up with his dog. The sun sets behind the cypress trees while the evening shadows fall on the rippling waters of the lake. It is the time of seasonal death and renewal, the chance to align oneself with nature’s unvarying pattern, an opportunity to join Janus and look back and ahead at the same time. 

 

The day began dropping off the grandkids and daughter at Oakland Airport—at 6:00 am. A morning of reclaiming the house and then off for a long walk in the park. On this, the last day of the year, I am accompanied by the full community of selves that live together in this body-mind— my doubts and confidences, my shortcomings and successes, my old hurts and wounds and disappointments alongside my power to heal, my unshakeable faith, my muscular hope. All huddled together in this fragile, feeble, foolhardy, flowering, forgiving, fun-loving human frame. 

 

At the turn of the year, it’s a time for the house-straightening, desk-cleaning, bill-paying, project-planning, calendar-filling outside work and the inside work of carrying up my doubts, disappointments and demons from the basement, sitting them down and giving them a good talking to. As well as a good listen. What do they want from me? What can I learn from them? And then leave room for my faithful friends to say their piece, the ones that have stayed true to the pattern and keep weaving the next image into the design that is uniquely my life. 

 

The evening plans will be different this year, as the relentless pandemic cancelled the ritual Paula Poundstone New Year’s shows, as well as the usual party with the ringing of Tibetan bells at midnight. Instead, a bean soup, bread and salad dinner, a visit with Bach on the piano after 11 days absence, the next episode in our current TV series. 

 

In six minutes, it will be New Year’s pandemonium in Denver and Phoenix and by the time it rolls to San Francisco, I believe I will be greeting it in my sleep. Just this final post— the 365th with a one-per-day average!— to acknowledge the perpetual renewal of hope against all odds, the certainty of more grief and bewilderment and mayhem up ahead, but also the happiness we ourselves can create through the simple decision to live wholly and attentively, to accept and embrace and enact the design that accompanied us into this life. On we go, however we can, staggering forth rejoicing.

Unsubscribe

 The most used key on my computer? Delete. 

 

For a long time, the mail coming through the door slot has been 8 parts junk mail/ money appeals, 1.5 part bills and .5 something personal and interesting— and .4 of that .5 the Christmas card season.

Now on e-mail, there are nine organizational appeals for every one personal e-mail— and getting worse. Each day, I slog through the mud of what to delete before setting my foot on the solid path of what’s useful, interesting and occasional heart-warming to respond to. 

 

So yesterday was a field day of “unsubscribe.” Like Hercules lopping of the nine heads of the monstrous Hydra, I set to work. Like both the Greek mythological creature and the actual aquatic animal, I imagine the severed heads will re-generate and the appeals keep coming. It simply is a modern fact of electronic communication, getting worse each day with both consumer hunters and the 10,000 political organizations trying to get both my attention and my money. We crave the human connection of the almost extinct snail mail and almost antiquated e-mail, alongside the texts and Facebook posts and Instagrams. But there is a price and the swords of "unsubscribe/ delete/ block contact/ unfriend" are part of our communications arsenal.

 

Gratitude to the Holiday Season that live family time overshadows the screen. The turn to the New Year marks the end of our home filled with kid-energy again and a return to the more solitary and more screened life we've become accustomed to. (Probably the longest stretch without a Zoom meeting since the pandemic began!) A mere hour ago, I took my daughter and the grandkids to the airport and the house feels both blessedly peaceful and less vibrant (though enjoying the peace for now!). It has been an intense and wonderful eleven days together and almost the first time without a major blow-up. But I think the pressure was too much for the kids and both Zadie and Malik had a minor meltdown yesterday. Oh well.

 

We went to a play yesterday—Malik’s first— a Beach-Blanket Babylon-style version of Aladdin’s The Magic Lamp and they passed out cards with pictures of each character and a quality— Joy, Hope, Laughter, Kindness, Silliness, Love, Magic, Beauty, etc. After the play, Zadie tried to make up a game where she chose two cards and I had to choose which was more important to me. Impossible.

 

And so amidst the constant begging for treats, sibling poking, prodding and punching, things strewn about the house, too-loud indoor voices alongside the joy, hope, laughter, kindness, silliness, love, magic and beauty these two bring into my life, this much is clear: 

 

Grandparent.com is the one organization from which I will never unsubscribe.

 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Riding the Horse

 

In these times, science has risen to the top of the pyramid.  It has given us vaccinations, Zoom, electric cars and flush toilets. I, for one, am appreciative. But lest we forget, science also gave us the fossil fuel industry, nuclear weapons, assault rifles and fracking. It divorced the head from the heart, relegated poetry to the basement, disdained dancing, demoted music to mere entertainment and reduced the human being to talking heads on TV.

 

I laid it all at the feet of Descartes of “I think, therefore I am” fame. By equating the essence of our being to the organ of thought, he seemed to be discounting the body, the heart, the soul, the spirit. The elevation of rational thought as humankind’s greatest faculty threw the community of human aptitudes off balance, a move we would have to pay for later. The rise of dream therapy, yoga, social-emotional-learning in schools, jazz, Orff Schulwerk and drum circles are just some of the signs of attempts to rebalance ourselves. All well and good. Yet suddenly, there is an alarming demise in rational thought that has me yearning for the Age of Enlightenment and re-invoking Descartes as a modern day hero!

 

I’m a big fan of intuition married to intellect, improvisation alongside thoughtful composition, a playful spirit holding hands with a rigorous discipline. Descartes phrase (which ironically, came to him in a dream) feels more true to me with the clauses reversed: “I am, therefore I think.” And then paired with other verbs: “I am, therefore I dance/ sing/ dream/ create/ etc.” 

 

But let’s stay with thinking for now. As a beginning Zen student practicing meditation, I imagined the goal was to erase thought and just be.Yet as anyone who has ever tried it can testify, thoughts are endless. The issue is not to erase them (impossible) but to let them pass without attachment, without identifying with them, without following them and thus allowing a larger self to emerge. Thought indeed is a unique human faculty and not an issue with your pet dog or cat. Since thinking is part of us, learning how to dance with it seems a good idea. 

 

To live a full 3D life, as I suggest in a chapter in my Teach Like It’s Music book, we might consider the order of experience: Do something first, discuss it after (with others or with your own reflective self) and then do it again with an understanding gifted by rational thought. Life gives us a horse and our first job is to mount it and ride it, both for the pleasure and the journey. Then dismount and think about it, write about it, talk about it and tell others. Then back on the horse with renewed perspective and knowledge. Descartes was on to something— I’m just suggesting he got the order wrong.

 

And so the punchline that came in a dream last night and inspired this little meditation. 

 

“Don’t put Descartes before the horse.”     (Snare drum and cymbal here!)

  

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

WQED

Sounds like a radio station, but actually ths ar th lttrs that oftn on’t work on my computer kyboard. For a long time, it as just W and Q an thn, sunly, (ystrday, to be exact) the D and E started giving me trouble (as you can see in some of the words above). 

 

Months back, when “w” was the most problematic, I went to the Apple Store, came home and wrote this (never posted): 

 

“How I wished for the wherewithal to weather the storm of my washed-out w on the computer. But of course, as soon as I drove across town to my appointment to fix it, it worked perfectly. I mean without a single moment of failing to deliver the wwwwwww and also the qqqqqqqqqq and I could only think: 'Why? How? When did it fix itself? Will it continue back home?' "

 

It did briefly and then went back to its unreliable self. And now these two new letters added to the mix. If it was X or Z, I could live with it, but W is pretty front and center in the English language and in the spirit of “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” I'm discovering that D and E are pretty dang important also. What to do?

 

I have a choice of:

    1) Get a new computer

    2) Replace the keyboard

    3) Use an external keyboard

    4) Learn how to express myself using all the words that don’t have these four letters.

    5) Stop writing

 

My first-world problem du jour.  

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Grandparenting Tips?

 

What to do with the grandkids when it’s cold and rainy in San Francisco for two days straight? When their Mom is working virtually down the street, their aunt is off backpacking, their Dad back working in Portland? When you’ve exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the card games and board games and there’s no jigsaw puzzle to tap into? When instead of being in neutral territory, the kids are now in your house with your breakable things (our precious electric train set taken out once a year already broken when one of them tripped over a wire)?

 

At the moment, my collection of rubber squeeze toys— chickens, ducks, pigs— is providing some independent musical study, but at the expense of my nerves having to listen to the grunts, squeaks and squawks and concern about the noise for my upstairs neighbors. We’ve read most of the Christmas books hauled up from the basement and Calvin and Hobbes seems promising, but that would only be good for 20 minutes or so. We could revert to a video, but daytime TV is definitely stepping over the line of our lifetime screen values. Malik wants to return to the soccer game in the covered alley we invented yesterday, which actually was kind of fun and is protected by the rain. I snuck in a few minutes to share my pain on this Blogpost, but Malik insisted I set a timer before the alley soccer game begins. And I have 3 minutes and 54 seconds left. 

 

In short, we are in desperate need of sunshine, a sudden burst of creative projects from the kids or a divine spark of inspiration— “Hey, kids, want to go through 45 years of workshop notes in the filing cabinet and help me sort to save or recycle? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

 

Wish us luck!

  

Monday, December 27, 2021

San Francisco Winter

It is almost January, San Francisco’s one month where Winter shows her teeth and brings some serious chill to the air. Not snows or blizzards or sub-zero temperatures, but rain, heavy sweaters hauled from the closet and gloves when bike-riding. The free-standing heater in our house is like the Little Engine That Could, huffing and puffing while chanting “I think I can, I think I can.” Heat all the six rooms in our house, that is. 

 

Returned last night to our house that was empty for 7 days and the cold had moved in. Three hours of the heater full blast had little effect and though I wanted to do the rare thing of keeping it on all night, my wife by habit had shut it off and so the morning has a bite to it. Cold inside, cold outside, with rain and the hopes to bike with the grandkids or have them try out their new rollerblades dashed. Maybe time to bring the electric train set up from the basement and bring out the board games.

 

January here will also bring the first blooms on the magnolia trees, so it is nothing like my New Jersey childhood when the magic of December snows started to turn to the slush and relentless cold of February that had me longing for March and April to hurry up. In my older age, I can see the appeal of the move to Florida (weather-wise, certainly not politically!), the pleasure of not having to use skin as border guard, but let it relax and open to the air. Yet in terms of culture and nature and food and friends, San Francisco it is, January and all. 

 

The heater chugs on, the rain beats on the window panes, the bags are unpacked, the grandkids awakening— I’m home.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Morning Comments

My daughter and granddaughter are enjoying a morning hot tub, their last before our 9-hour car ride back to San Francisco. My other daughter and grandson are doing a Mad Lib. My wife is packing her bags, my son-in-law already returned to Portland to get ready for work on Monday and I’m seated here observing it all. That’s the trademark of a writer, a profession I’m considering when I grow up. In the words of Mary Oliver:

 

“Each morning, the world says to you, ‘Here I am. Would you like to make a comment?’”

 

And if you’re a writer, you do. If not, you might make a painting of what you see, a composition out of what you hear, a dance from the motions beckoning from within. You might arrange numbers so everything tumbles into place, take raw ingredients and gather them into the food that delights and sustains us, gather children in a circle in the school and show and tell what’s happened recently. One of the great gifts of a human incarnation is the multiplicity of choices. Like all choices, it can also be our downfall as we make and sell guns, drugs that addict, laws that repress and oppress. 

 

But we know all that. On the day after Christmas and six days ahead before the year turns, no need to go down that dark tunnel. It has been a happy, happy week. There’s a long car ride ahead, made palatable with the kids with an Audible Alice in Wonderland, more Mad Libs, listening to Hamilton, talking, laughing and reminding the kids not to touch each other or scream in the car. And then a week ahead with them in San Francisco filled with yet more delights.

 

Breakfast awaits. These comments are pedestrian and are not likely to inspire, uplift, comfort or even interest anyone else, but a writer often just writes like a jazz musician just plays, starts with a word (or a note) and sees where it leads. Apparently this one is leading me to heating up the bagels. 

 

Best wishes to all. 

 

 

  

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas in Pam Springs

Hiking, happiness and hot tubs. 

Paddleball, puzzles and Pilates. 

Swimming, sunning and sword dancing. 

Music, movies and merriment. 

 

Cards, carols and convivial conversation. 

Reading, relaxing and rejuvenating.

Drawing, driving and dancing.

Life, love and laughter.

 

Christmas with the family in Palm Springs. 








Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve in India

Today is Christmas Eve. For those of you who celebrate Christmas, which was your most memorable one? One of mine was at a Zen meditation retreat in 1973 at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California (I can see them from here in Palm Springs!) Another was in Kerala, the southern state of India ,in 1978. Here is my journal entry from that trip. I was 27 years old when I wrote it.

 

12/24— Varkala a pleasant village leading to the Arabian Sea. Checked into the Guest House and walked down to a small, quite beautiful beach. Stood a long time gazing out into the shimmering waters, just as I used to gaze out over the lights of L.A. in the Zen meditation retreats at Mt. Baldy, imagining everyone cozy inside their houses, filled with the warmth and love I hoped Christmas would awaken in them, and silently blessing them all. Here the sky overcast, a pregnant feel in the air of impending rain, a cool breeze caressing the skin. Somewhere halfway across the world, children are awakening to the last day of breathless excitement. Some are stoking wood-burning stoves, others putting on air-conditioning. The New York Times prints the stories of the needy, television bursting with Christmas specials, the streets bustling with last-minute shopping, the radios piping in the classic carols. Here a woman in a purple sari walks slowly into the palm trees and we walk back to the Guest House for a meal of chapati and vegetable curry, with boiled banana and the ever-present tea. 

May I ride with Santa Claus , dropping blessings down the chimney with him to each and every household so that on Christmas morning all sentient beings wake up to themselves.

GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO!

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Cleansing

 

There’s dozens of reasons I often prefer the company of kids to adults. But high on the list is … laughter. Many claim children laugh some 300 times a day. And adults? A mere 20. (That could be a fun sociological study to participate in, hanging around kids and counting their laughs.) But regardless of the precise numbers, it’s clear— kids laugh a lot and make me laugh as well.

 

For example, today, playing HORSE with Zadie with an inflatable basketball hoop that floated in the pool basketball. We started getting into challenging each other in unique and creative ways. 

 

 “For this shot, you have to hop four times on one foot, close your eyes and dunk the ball.” 

 

“Okay, for this one, you have to jump up three times, do the hokey pokey, turn yourself around and then shoot with you left hand.”

 

“ For this one, you have to sing the whole Frosty the Snowman, make a funny face, recite the opening lines of the Gettysburg address and burp when you shoot!”

 

You get the idea. We were cracking up! Then my daughter Talia teamed up with my grandson Malik to play 2 on 2 basketball against Zadie and I. We all were making up the rules as we went along and laughing for some 15 minutes straight. Now that was a cleansing experience, better than any spa treatment, your troubles thoroughly washed away by the frothy bubbles of laughter reaching all the corners of our much-too-serious-selves. 

 

When life weighs us down, when adults disappoint us, when we just take ourselves and our problems too seriously, I highly recommend just finding a bunch of kids and hanging out with them for a couple of hours. Follow their lead, laugh often and from the whole body and emerge a new person. The best therapy. And it’s free!

 

Solstice Dinner

 

“As Winter dies, so must I die

And rise to Spring again!”   

-      St. George and the Dragon Mummer’s Play

 

 Yesterday was the Winter Solstice. At dinner with the grandkids and family, we had a most interesting conversation about what creates the seasons. Try explaining it to your friends or family— not as easy as you think! After several false starts— and without looking anything up— we remembered the important fact of the Earth’s tilt and with the help of an orange and lime, finally got it down. 

 

From the scientific, we moved to the mythological and I explained to the kids about the way they ancients participated in the nature’s cycles by petitioning the gods through ritual to ensure the return of the light. Which led to the St. George and the Dragon English mummer’s play that I first encountered with John Langstaff and the Christmas Revels in 1986. That same year, I brought that play to my school and there it lived on for the next 35 years and thanks to my colleague James Harding, continues on in my absence. The characters and lines stay the same, but naturally the kids who play them change and as I always told them, their job is to make their particular performance memorable. And many did— the one who used an accent the year the movie Boratcame out, the one who whispered one of the lines as an aside that became the standard way, the one who told the Dragon “Look, it’s Superman!” and then killed him with his sword as the Dragon looked away. It’s a funny and wacky and profound play that include a mystical sword dance that kills St. George (the dying of the light), has a doctor try to resurrect him (the choicest part) until the Fool casts him aside and brings St. George back to life (the return of the Light). 

 

We associate creativity with the constant creation of something new, but there is much to be said for revisiting the same script and form and investing our imagination in the small changes of details that keep it alive and growing .While giving kids something to count on and look forward to in the year’s calendar. The 8th graders traditionally perform the play for the 1st through 7th graders and afterwards, we sometimes ask the audience to share with each other which part they’d like to play. It’s the kind of continuity that brings pleasure and excitement to community, always something to look forward to it. 

 

So last night, we had a reading of the play around the dinner table. 6-year old Malik as St. George, son-in-law Ronnie as the Giant, daughter Talia as the Doctor, the role she wished for when she was in 8th grade at the school and didn’t get (never too late to heal old wounds). Last year at this retreat, I brought the school swords and we did the dance, but Talia forgot to bring them this year. Perhaps I’ll go into Palm Springs and get some—thin yardsticks work okay. 

 

Meanwhile, today marks the beginning of the return of the Light. May the cultural match the physical! 

Monday, December 20, 2021

For Spacious Skies

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies… “

 

We shape our environment and are shaped by it. We may share a common humanity at our core (we do!) but the city dweller, desert nomad, island inhabitant, far north native amidst the ice and snow and extremes of lightness and darkness and rain forest dweller all have different influences circulating in their psyche. The outside affects the inside in all sorts of ways. 

 

For example, the afternoon walk we just took in our Palm Desert vacation getaway placed us in open space stretching in all directions, interrupted only by some hills and palm trees and the vast, vast sky that allowed our minds to drift upward and feel the spacious expanse. And thus, our spirits uplifted and grown large, simple by walking on the desert sand. My wife remembered a previous trip in the desert where we camped for four days in such an environment and when we came home, the walls of our house felt so confining and claustrophobic. Of course, we adjusted, as we flexible, malleable humans do, but carried a bit of the expansive spirit back with us when we resumed our familiar life. 

 

Any time a friend, acquaintance or loved one passes away, I find myself going to water. To the ocean at Land’s End or Stowe Lake, just an intuition that the water outside needs to get the water inside flowing to help calm, soothe and comfort. 

 

That’s all. No big insights, but just the simple remembrance of how immense skies, the canopy of trees, the intimacy of a mountain lake, the skyscraping buildings downtown, the inviting green meadows peppered by wildflowers, changes us, if only for a moment. Reminds us of the multiple faces of Spirit and the ways we’re connected to it all. 

 

The Mouths of Babes

A group of professional people posed this question to a group of 4 to 8 year-olds, "What does love mean?" The answers they got were broader and deeper than anyone could have imagined. See what you think:

 

 "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."

     Rebecca- age 8

 

"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth."

     Billy - age 4

 

"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other."

     Karl - age 5

 

"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs."

     Chrissy - age 6

 

"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK."

     Danny - age 7

 

"Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."

                Mary Ann - age 4

 

"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

     Bobby - age 7 

 

"If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a person who you hate,"

     Nikka - age 6


It's not easy, but I'm working on it, Nikka! And Bobby, I hope to take your advice in a few days.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

To Be of Use

It is a great blessing to feel useful and this week, there were multiple opportunities. The guest class with 7th graders where I found yet another rambunctious boy with a great dance move and praised him publicly. The teacher who was my Level III student who asked advice for songs to commemorate a colleague at school who unexpectedly died. The chance to play piano in a new wing of the Jewish Home and light up people’s lives with energizing and soothing music for an hour. Organizing the annual caroling and leading some 45 people from 2 years old to 75, from the neighborhood, from the school, from the family and some who just saw and heard us and joined in, throughout the Inner Sunset bringing some happiness and cheer to the folks dining out in the parklets. Calling an old neighborhood couple who have been coming since 1982 and had to stay home for health reasons and including them on Facetime for a few songs. And so forth.

 

Kindness is simple, is its own reward, is the dutiful payback for all the help we received without feeling like a duty, because it brings pleasure to the giver and receiver alike. I never knew what use some 20,000 hours of practicing piano and other instruments would be put to, but alongside another 30,000 hours of teaching, it seems there’s a place for it in the world to bring some measure of happiness, comfort and togetherness to people. To put them out of clock time into the timeless world where everything makes sense and every note speaks to a sense of beauty that helps us forget the ugliness, that erases momentarily the cares and woes that besiege us, that unites us through the mere power of organized vibrations. All that work has bequeathed me a power more potent than money and position, have hired me to be an ambassador of joy, given the possibility of both comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable (because music also moves us out of mere elevator-muzak pleasantness and challenges us to listen from some deeper parts of ourselves). 

 

Last night’s caroling began gathered in front of the park’s Arboretum and singing our way through the printed sheets of lyrics, from the sublime Silent Night to the whimsical Frosty the Snowman to the glorious Angels We Have Heard on High to the silly wrong words to Jingle Bells, something for everyone so kids and adults alike were equally delighted. We moved into the business district, where the pandemic proliferation of parklets allowed us to sing to the outdoor diners and also include them in some of the songs. We moved from 9th Avenue to 6th and families started to peel off until we were left with some 10 singers. We stopped at a house where a single person had come down and opened her door to listen to us and when she had to leave, gathered in a small circle while an opera-trained singer sang a solo version (with me on guitar) of O Holy Night. A perfect ending to the evening and it was a Holy Night indeed. 

 

Next year will be the 40th year of neighborhood caroling that I have led and “if the Fates allow,” I hope for at least ten or twenty more. Meanwhile, a good time to start training my replacement so that the Ambassadorship of Joy continue. With the correct guitar chords. 

  

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Culture Building

My plans yesterday did not include watching and hour and a half Youtube talk! But when a friend forwarded a talk by David Brooks about “The Next American Culture,” the title intrigued me enough to take a peek. I had never heard David Brooks speak and indeed, didn’t know who he was. 

 

But he was clearly a good speaker, as he immediately brought the audience in with some charming humor that opened the heart and mind to receive the complex and fascinating and eloquently-articulated ideas that followed. I just meant to listen a short while and 90 minutes later, got up with all-systems firing as he articulated the things I have cared about and talked about and written about and tried to live, all in his own style and well-spoken words. My friend had labelled him as a “thoughtful conservative,” a term these days that feels like the very definition of oxymoron, but if indeed his politics are far to the right of my own, you would never know it from our shared agreement about the narratives that drive our culture and our desperate need for a new one.


The short summary of his ideas is as follows:

 

• From 1900 to 1968 or so, there was a needed sense of “we’re all in this together,” a logical response to World War I, the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. From war bonds to women factory-workers/ baseball teams/ jazz bands, from Government’s helping hand in the New Deal, the values of modesty, hard work, community building rose to the top. The weaknesses included the continued exclusion in some realms— for example, black folks joined the team work in the factories, the armed forces, the entertainment industry keeping our spirits up, but still could not live in this neighborhood or eat in that restaurant when they came back from the wars. In other realms, men were emotionally cold, food was boring, the comfortable suburban ideal overshadowed the creative impulse, women after the wars were returned to the limits of homemakers (though some positive results in child raising). It wasn’t the “good ole days” and yet, the “we’re all in this together” mentality is something we would do well to re-consider in the face of its absence in the next phase of American culture.

 

• From 1968 to the present, the energy shifted from “us” to “me,”  from collective collaboration to individual liberation. In 1969, the Super-Bowl pitted two quarterbacks against each other— Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts and “Broadway Joe” Namath of the New York Jets. Unitas was the humble old-school crew-cut citizen who worked off season in a  low-paying factory job. Broadway Joe was the party guy in the spotlight, showing off for the cameras, doing TV ads, appearances on TV shows and even acting on Broadway. It was symbolic that the unfavored Jets won that Super Bowl, announcing the shift in culture. 

 

In 1972, Marlow Thomas released her album and book Free to Be You and Mesaluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity. A major thematic message is that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—can achieve anything. Black pride, feminism, gay rights, the interest in Eastern religions, the back-to-the-land movements— all of this was seeking liberation from the repression of the earlier culture (and rightly so, I would add), claiming one’s worth and particular genius. And this manifested in its shadow form in the right-wing, with Reagan’s espousing getting government restraints off one’s back and encouraging the freedom to make money and live your life anyway you want, regardless of who would eventually drink the water the chemicals were thrown into. 

 

The price of this excessive individualism was loss of both collective meaning and individual meaning and moral purpose. Statistics revealed the rise in depression, loneliness, drug addiction, mental illness, as well as loss of confidence in government (decades ago, 80% trusted government would do the right thing most of the time, now 20%). People devoid of a moral compass or common vision are vulnerable to fanaticism, alienation, identifying with a small tribe at odds with the enemy tribes. 

 

• And so a new ethos is needed and it’s not “I’m free to believe whatever I want” nor “return to tribe and believe whatever the despots brainwash us with.” The more difficult and more essential ethos is to live at the meeting point of the individual and the commons, join the liberation of self with the collective good of the community, connect the gladness of your deep self with the essential needs of the other. The new definition of freedom is (Fran Leibowitz’s quote here) “my freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face” and in a more positive realm, “my freedom to extend my arm allows me to shake your hand.”

 

As a kid at the height of the Cold War, there was some prophetic moment when I had three flags on my desk. At one end, the American flag, at the other, the Russian one and in-between, the U.N. flag. I had some intuition back then that these apparent opposites had to find their common ground. Instead of a career as a diplomat, I fell into teaching music and early on, articulated the deeper hope of my classes— to teach children the importance of both “standing out” and “blending in.” The first had to do with expressing one’s unique genius, as in the jazz solo, and the second with releasing to the group sound, as in blending your voice in the choir or fitting your rhythm to the collective groove. Music demands both and so does life. Without being aware of it, I was trying—and still am— to build a culture that honors both the dignity and unique soul of each individual and the need to offer it all to the common good. I believe that’s the third culture David Brooks is aiming for.

 

We are so close to it and yet so far. Again, as a kid growing up with “us versus them” as the spoken and unspoken center of cultural life, I often felt like a Space invasion would unite the world against a common enemy. We would stop fighting with each other and join forces against the greater threat and in so doing, finally see the humanity in each other. 

 

And lo and behold, that common enemy has arrived!! Two, in fact. The Covid 19 virus and the unmistakable threats of climate change. Neither care which political party we serve, neither is the least bit interested in whether we’re gay or straight or black or white or Christian or Buddhist or rich or poor or vegan or carnivorous etc. etc. and again, etc. Here is our moment for “we’re all in this together!”

 

And yet. We’re still clinging to our tribe, the Republicans in Congress blocking anything that serves all of us simply because the Democrats propose it, the anti-vaxers dismissing the virus and endangering the rest of us, the nations banding together against others like high school cliques. People, people, people! Wake up! Let’s get going here! We know everything we need to know to build a kinder, more just, more sustainable culture. Why do we cling so desperately to the old half-cultures that didn’t wholly serve us then and certainly don’t serve us now?

 

So one final image. Remember as a kid how fun it was to build something with others? A snow fort, a sand castle, a Lincoln Logs or Lego construction? Building culture can be just as fun! David Brooks talked about “moral joy,” putting two words together that are often separate, but belong together. Why keep making ourselves miserable? Unwrap the present that these words offer and let’s get building. 

 

PS For those interested in the talk itself, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URSERvgLDGY

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

100%

At 70 years old, I’m still trying to figure out what I’ll be when I grow up. Like Horton, I sometimes feel that I’m sitting on someone else’s eggs. I know I will never be on the concert stage playing Scarlatti, Bach, Chopin or Debussy, but nevertheless, I persist in trying to make my daily one inch of progress bringing their music to full blossom. Likewise, Wynton Marsalis or Josh Redman will never call me to play piano on their gig, but I keep adding to some 300 jazz tunes I can make my way through just in case they do. Most every day for 11 years, I post on this Blog, along with writing countless articles and publishing 10 books, but the New York Times Bestseller List will continue to ignore me. I sit zazen daily, as I mostly have for each day for 48 years, but nobody will ever call me Roshi or ask my advice as a spiritual teacher. Though the eggs these practices hatch will never wholly be mine, like Horton, I’m faithful to them all, 100%.

 

But the nest that is my true home, no questions asked, is Orff teacher. With adults of all ages, occasional college and high school students (but not enough!), preschool through middle school kids, this is the place I come wholly alive and feel fully confident that I have something valuable to offer. This is where I wholly belong.

 

Like yesterday, when I had the supreme privilege and pleasure of working with 7th graders, one group who I had briefly taught last week and the other new. I’m supposed to be observing the teacher (Yari) who hired me to be his mentor, but after last week’s class, he asked me to do another introductory lesson and then we would split the group for the remainder of the class. With his blessing, I ended up teaching the whole hour-long class of each group and it was glorious. I came into class so happy to see the 24 kids I worked with last week and equally happy to meet the next group. That happiness one of the signs that you’re sitting in the right nest on the right eggs. Yari told me that when he announced the other day that I was returning to teach a bit, the class cheered. So it seems they were also happy to see me and when the two happys meet with a good class plan and some solid musical skills (thanks to Yari!), you can bet something even happier will happen. And it did. Great energy, great spirit, great music that was really started to groove.

 

And so it struck me. I think I’m perfectly content to make omelettes at home with the eggs of a long career of teaching (or roast the chickens from their hatching?), but without knowing it, it turns out I really miss teaching kids! The idea of diving back into 7 classes a day has no appeal, but at least one group once or twice a week feels delicious. And though I know I would love the 3, 5, 7, 9 year olds (even numbers too!), somehow this middle school age feels particularly right. I need them and they need me. It looks like Yari and I might collaborate for a January concert, so while I will step back and give him the floor, it looks like I can keep the connections going. And maybe my own school will finally let me back someday to sub for colleagues James or Sofia or be part of an afterschool project. Wouldn’t that be fine? 

 

This is just to say that whether it be my nest in my preferred tree or someone else’s, this elephant’s faithful to that which brings happiness, healing, harmony and hope, that hatches the eggs of our humanitarian promise. 100%.

 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

White Christmas Revisited

(A parody I wrote in 2018. Sing it out loud. And given a choice—and we all do have that choice— live the second verse instead of the first.)

 

1) I’m dreaming of my White Privilege, just like the one I used to know.

Where the whites were winners, were served their dinners,

By folks they never cared to know. 

 

I’m trying to save my white Privilege, with every crooked vote I cast.

May our wrong way of living long last, 

May we keep the present like the past. 

 

 

2) I’m tired of my white privilege, I never earned it anyway

All the rights I’ve been given, by those who were driven,

To keep all the different folks away.

 

I’m tired of my white privilege, it’s time to finally do what’s right

Let the rainbow colors shine bright, 

And may all glow together as one light. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

The New News

 

“What happened in 1978?” I needed to know and a mere four numbers typed into Google Search gave me some answers. 

 

The year did not begin with promising prospects of peace and prosperity. In January alone, 213 people died in an Indian plane crash, a Chile referendum approved Pinochet’s dictatorial rule, Pedro Cardenal criticized the Nicaraguan government and was assassinated, a blizzard in Ohio killed 70, and serial killer Ted Bundy killed two more women in a sorority house in Florida. 

 

February began with film director Roman Polanski skipping bail and fleeing after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year old girl, another blizzard killed 100 in New England and another plane crashed in British Colombia killing 40. There was a terrorist hotel bombing in Sydney, Australia and the Hillside Strangler, another serial killer, claimed his 10th victim.

 

On March 1, someone stole Charlie Chaplin’s remains, and before the month was out, porn publisher Larry Flynt was shot and paralyzed, Rhodesia attacked Zambia, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was sentenced to death by hanging for ordering the assassination of a political opponent and there was a terrorist attack at the New Tokyo International Airport. 


And so the year continues. More murders, wars, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, a mass suicide in Jonestown and San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Superviser Harvey Milk murdered by Dan White. On Christmas day, Vietnam launched a major offensive against the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. 

 

Pick any year (including this last one) and the news will be the same — natural disasters, personal and collective murders, political disasters, the full catastrophe of the 10,000 ways human beings fall short and life proves itself dangerous, undependable and uncaring about the effects of gale force storms, fires and shifting tectonic plates. 

 

In short, killing, crashing, craving, catastrophe is basically business as usual. The news is nothing new at all— it’s the norm. So the real news is when all is working well, when people actually have a nice day, when they surprise themselves with what they can achieve and each other by unexpected acts of kindness. Seen through this lens, the TV cameras should have come  rushing to my school when they got the tip that 3rd grader Will learned to finally skip today. When 8th grader  Evelyn who constantly left class to hide in the bathroom mastered her bass bar part and stayed the whole class. When Lucy composed a lovely piece on the soprano metallophone and Andres stayed patiently next to his partner on the vibraphone helping him master his part. 

 

Those would be the headlines in my newspaper. And then, in a small paragraph on the back page, a little notice:


Some people were once again shaved by a drunken barber, some poorly-sighted folks led innocent followers into a ditch and some traded another inch of precious time for useless dollars. No need to name them all— just keep them in your thoughts. 

The Mathematics of Aging

Stumbled into a piece I wrote two years ago and like it. Perhaps I already posted it then, perhaps not. Either way, here it is.

 

At the Men’s Group annual retreat, nine of us gathered around a ringed oak table for morning pancakes and poetry. The chosen poems about were all about aging, singing their mournful song about the body’s decay, the diminishing of faculties, the loss of memory. 

 

When this group began meeting 30 years ago, it was all talk about hopes and dreams amidst the tangles of life lived in the thick of it, in company with young children, aging parents, advancing careers. Now white-haired with slower steps, the talk turns to aches and pains, the losses of loved ones, the wounds from the lion’s paw of time. 

 

And so we read these poems while passing the butter, nodding in agreement with the old Chinese poets that “everything passes, everything goes and never looks back, as we grow older and less strong.” Aging as subtraction. Every day we have less and less—energy, vitality, libido, you name it. We are retreating from the great game, casting off onto the ice floe toward our next incarnation.

 

And yet. There is more. There are great pleasures and rewards in eldership beyond the grandchildren and cruise ships. What so few speak of is aging as addition.

 

When I walk down the hall of my school to the kitchen, a trip I have taken almost every day for 44 years, I am in company with thousands of former students and hundreds of former teachers that I have shared this life with. With a mere moment of remembrance, each one is present, a tangible presence, not in flesh and bone, but in mind and memory. Each an indelible unerasable part of the grand ever-enlarging adventure. Like figures in the landscape of a Chinese scroll, they walk by my side, unrolled by memory’s invocation. 

 

The ghosts of those who I couldn’t love and couldn’t love me are present also, only now redeemed through the forgiveness the aging heart can finally know. We join hands in the dancing circle and lift each other up through lightness and laughter. The subtraction of loved ones we once held and heard and hugged is surely one of sorrow’s most heartbreaking burdens to bear. But the constant addition of each day’s dawn and those we spend the day with makes us larger and more grateful and less lonely, held in a constantly growing circle of mirth and miracles.

 

The addition and subtraction of aging. This the math you can’t learn at school.