Sunday, January 31, 2021

Turn of the Month

Well, that was quite a month.  Against all odds, the basic tenet of a still-functioning democracy— voting as the peaceful catalyst of change— actually worked. Interrupted by the desperate last (one hopes) gasp of a dying world view fed by a lunatic fringe that became briefly mainstream. And then the scrambling of those still trying to spin it all in their unearned and undeserved favor, with the jury still out on whether justice will be done and the FBI will fight against the real terrorists. And then that sad, sad man trying to find his way where even some folks in Mar a Lago are flying planes with banners ridiculing him. 


All the while, the virus continuing its havoc but then cutting back in some places and the vaccine advancing forward. And then the extraordinary young poet uplifting us all amidst a few days of much celebrating and uplift. And alongside the so-long-awaited exhale, also the pleasure of hearing a new name next to President ___________ that speaks of someone who actually understands the job, cares about the job, takes it seriously and works on behalf of the American people. Like I said, quite a month.


In my tiny world, teaching workshops filled most every weekend. Board meetings looked ahead to the summer. Four different Zoom singing groups continued. I taught University students, 3rdgraders and one 5thgrade guest appearance, I gently challenged a poet to use his voice to connect the personal with the collective, I spent evenings with the delightfully and sometimes deranged dysfunctional families doing their “Last Tango in Halifax.” I read jazz biographies, kept up exercise on the piano keys, the city streets and the bicycle routes, enjoyed a new Friday night ritual dinner at my daughter’s house and started a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Oh, and I wrote 40 Blogposts. Some of which I liked!


And so tomorrow comes February. The plum blossoms are already beginning to show in San Francisco, my Jazz History Class resumes with be-bop tomorrow night, the theme for the month’s songs are Love songs (a few to choose from!) and more songs from black culture. On one hand, I firmly believe Black History Month needs to go. All of American history is black history and needs to be understood as such. On another, any excuse to continue the work of thanking all the black folks who have helped Democracy become an honest verb and continue to do so is welcomed. Along with the great music.


My hopes for February? Nothing much. Just impeachment, incarceration for insurrectionists AND their elected enablers, hundreds of thousands vaccinated (I already personally know 8 people!), rains for California, continued Executive Orders to try to clean up the mess left behind, a neighborhood meeting to slow down and make smaller the massive hospital expansion plans in my neighborhood, the birthdays of many close to me amply celebrated, continued pleasure in my scheduled workshops, mastering a few more Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. For starters. Is that too much to ask?


Happy turn of the month!

The Healing Power of Music

• Learning music made me think in a way I never had before. It made my brain more flexible.  


• Music forms your brain, helps you to think in a different way. It’s a way speak to people and a way to listen to people.


• For some kids, music is the voice they never had.  


At the end of my six hours spent with Italian music teachers online, I shared these quotes from my 8thgraders. After dealing with the details of how to make music teaching more fun, engaging and effective, I arrived at the larger point of how music well-taught can enlarge our humanitarian promise. Certainly not a new idea for me, but I was particularly struck by how these quotes from kids resonated with the news of the day. Consider each in turn. 


1) Here in this time of entering territory for which we have no map, our one best survival tool is the capacity to think differently, to have a flexible mind capable of encountering challenges we’ve never encountered before. A President encouraging followers to desecrate the Capitol and threaten the very lives of Congress-people, a pandemic that just won’t quit, severe warnings from the climate that we can’t keep doing what we have done. Which means we can’t keep thinking as we have thought. Which means that rigid thought, clinging to dogma, replacing thought altogether with fantasy fed my lunatics, is a threat to our very survival. And thus any form of education which doesn’t actively cultivate a flexible mind capable not only of actual thought, but new kinds of needed thoughts, is a strike against the future of the human experiment. According to that 8thgrader (and the ones that followed), the music program I led with my two colleagues was a vote for the future we need. 

2) After independently affirming the first quote, the second student celebrates music’s capacity to help you speak and help you listen. Again, I would add, “music properly taught and understood.” Practicing a piece from written notation in the privacy of your home does not go nearly as far as improvising spontaneously on a xylophone and then improvising in a group joining the conversations of the other players. (I have two activities I call “The Secret Song” and “Duets and Trios” that show how to cultivate this level of speaking and listening). Would you agree that our ability to listen to each other in the U.S. at the moment is in severe disrepair? Once again, I offer my services free to Congress— that before they go into session, Republicans and Democrats work together in small groups and have musical jam sessions that require respectful, coherent and ultimately uplifting calls and responses. Then go back in and discuss the Bill on the floor. That would change everything.


3) And finally, the voice they never had because no one in the culture—the family, the neighborhood, the school, the church, the TV shows— took time to help reveal the hidden beauty in the person and gave them both the skills and invitation for it to come out of hiding and announce itself. Without that step, there is a gaping hole in the soul that fills up with hatred (both of oneself and others) shame, anger, blame, looking for an easy target to avoid its own emptiness and willing to give over its power to the next demagogue that comes along. Discovering that voice doesn’t solve everything, but it sure helps.

And so, fellow music teachers, a reminder about the supreme importance of our work and the supreme importance of doing it better than we ever thought we could. See you at the next workshop. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Careful Wishes

A friend who has been the most faithful participant in my local workshops—almost 

every one in the past 30 years!—just announced she is retiring. Another victim of the pandemic, weary of trying to make things not meant for screens work on those little gridded squares. Or when finally back with kids, wiping down mallets (even when we know that’s not how the virus spreads) and the strict injunction against singing. Why bother?


The word from my teacher friends is that everybody— the kids, the parents, themselves—are so over online school. They’re fed up. And even when kids are back as school, masked, distanced and songless, it’s still not so wonderful—especially if you’re a music teacher!


In some ways, we got what we wanted. “Be careful what you wish for” and all those who declared school obsolete once all information could be instantly gathered with a click to the Web, who imagined their kids becoming fast friends with folks in Uganda, Uruguay and United Kingdom in some fantasy of the electronic global village, all those who were happy to have their kids raised by appliances and schooled by a perpetual Sesame Street edu-tainment— have they finally figured out what really counts in this world? Hopefully, the pandemic has taught us that it's kind of important to actually be physically together in a room and work with something called our bodies and value something called singing and appreciate something called social interaction after bonding with just machines. 


We are resilient creatures and while one can be rightfully concerned about kids—and adults—losing a year of learning how to be friends, remembering how to sing, working as a team with others in sports or music, I think we can bounce back. And hopefully with renewed appreciation for the value to these things  we took for granted. Put the screens away for a while or at least, use them less. 


Having written this, I’m off to teach a 3-hour online music workshop (seriously!) to teachers in Italy. But believe me, I’d rather be there!




Friday, January 29, 2021

Advice for Amanda

Trevor Noah recently asked the extraordinary young poet Amanda Gorman: “So, you’re 22 years old, stole the show at the Presidential Inauguration and are invited to read your poetry in the Super Bowl. Where can you go from here?”


Thinking on her feet, she gave a decent answer, but if I were her and had time to prepare, here’s what I would say: 


“In order to answer that, we have to understand the territory in which poetry lives. ‘The Hill I Climb’ is not the mountain of fame and fortune. It has nothing to do with the number of likes on Facebook or the number of talk show invitations. It’s the one that offers that spectacular view that you can’t see down in the lowlands. The poet makes an uphill effort, feels with a rock-climber’s mind where the next needed word is that will support the weight of the poem. Once at the top, her responsibility and pleasure is to report to others what she sees. To encourage them to ascend and see for themselves. That’s one of  poetry’s possibilities and there’s always another mountain out there. 


And the poet is also a deep-sea diver, descending down into the watery depths of sorrow and grief and then rising up from those waters with a poem that has the power to give someone a hug who cannot be touched (especially in these pandemic times) in their hour of need, a poem that has the physicality of an embrace coiled in the muscle of language. There is no bottom to that sea and no end to those waters. 


The poet is also a miner, looking for the glimmer of gold hidden in the folds of the hard rock of our armored human heart and coaxing it out. Or panning for it in the streams of our flowing lives, trying to stratify the merely mundane and separate it from our extraordinary possibility. 


What lies ahead? The full measure of a human life with all its complexities, triumphs and tribulations. The challenge to keep climbing the mountains, diving into the seas, excavating the hidden gold and write something lasting and memorable that brings comfort or inspiration to people I will never meet. The hope to stumble upon something that is at once timely and timeless, particular and universal, something that appears to someone as if the poem was written precisely for them, for what they’re going through, what they need to hear, what they wanted to say but couldn’t find the words. 


At the same time that the Inauguration and Super Bowl is an extraordinary moment of fame thrust upon me, one that allows me to reach millions more than the 20 people in a poetry reading, that opens doors and gives opportunities for more poems to be shared, there is also a great danger. I could get lost in the glitz and glamour of a rock-star culture, the one that prefers to adore and idolize and grab the coattails of the rich and famous rather than do the work themselves to shine their own light. 


Poetry is not a halftime show at the Super Bowl nor a touchdown run with a “look what I did!” end-zone dance. It’s not about entertainment and let’s get on with the show, but about finding the needed words for any occasion that bring healing, solace and light. It’s not about how awesome and amazing I am, but how vulnerable and wounded and beautiful we all are and can be.


That’s where I think I need to go from here.”

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Body in the Mind

Exercise is always a good idea. Hunter-gatherers walked an average of 12 miles a day and human beings until recently have always exercised daily through something called “work.” Tilling the fields, weeding the garden, building the stone wall, stacking the hay, mopping the floor, pounding the grain, hammering the nail, the whole range of vigorous motions that gets the heart pumping and the muscles working and the hand growing its intelligence. 


But as civilization moved to the sedentary work in the chair, reducing the wide range of motions to pushing buttons or tapping keys, the body suffered and something called “exercise” was invented. From jogging to the gym, the whole arsenal of work motions reproduced artificially and more and more, with machines monitoring distances and calories and heart-rates so that the whole pleasure of simply moving through the forest or working in the field becomes a numbers game.


But that’s what we have to work with and I will sheepishly admit that after enjoying my daily walk through my beloved city, I check on my phone to see if it was close to the 5 miles I arbitrarily decided I need each day. I used to have something for my bike that got stolen and I never replaced it, so I’m off of the numbers alert when I decide to ride instead of walk. Still though, I have a sense of how many miles some routes are and want to make sure I fulfill some quota. 


Yesterday it rained and for perhaps the second time in 6 months, I literally never stepped foot out the door. And today at lunchtime, it is raining still. So naturally part of me thinks, “How can I survive having missed my walk or ride? I’m falling behind!” And yet, I became fully engrossed in my new jigsaw puzzle, in piano playing, in writing a new piece, in solving a Crostic puzzle and lo and behold, I felt fine. Yes, the numbers and calories burned and heart rates and muscles used do make a difference, but you can also get energy from whole immersion in a challenging and engaging task. It somehow seeps into the muscles and invigorates you as much as that vigorous walk or energetic bike ride. I don’t know the science behind it, but it feels right. At least up to a point.


Still, I’m ready to go out, rain or not.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Grendel's Mother

In the old days in Denmark, long before the TV Mini-series BorgenKing Hrothgar is enjoying a prosperous and successful reign. He builds a great hall where people gather to feast, recite poetry, sing songs. But the noise of people’s revelry and the insupportable sound of happiness angers the demon Grendel who lives in the nearby swamp. And so the monster goes on a rampage killing all he meets and fear, danger and death ravage the land. 


A warrior named Beowulf shows up to challenge the monster, fights him unarmed, tears Grendel’s arm off and hangs it in the hall while the terrified demon slinks off back to his swamp to die. While all are celebrating to honor the hero, another more fierce and more dangerous demon emerges from her watery lair for revenge—Grendel’s mother! Beowulf wrestles with her in the depths of the waters and finds her a more formidable enemy than her son, only winning the battle by virtue of a specially forged sword. 


Naturally, with the two monsters dead, peace is restored to the land. 


As any reader of these more recent blogs can attest, I’m pretty much in the camp that Racism is the Grendel monster ravaging the countryside and a top priority for our national attention and educational Mission Statements. But after reading a short little article about Wall Street wolves seeking to privatize water rights so they can profit by denying basic human needs unless you have the money to pay up, it reminded me that there is something evil lurking behind Grendel—unchecked Capitalism. In fact, the disaster of slavery and its unending horrific legacy of Racism begins with this even more dangerous mother who gave birth to it all—human greed unleashed and given full cultural approval. 


It’s crucial to remember that the demand for enslaved people came from an economic need and greed. When it became clear that white convicts didn’t work so well and Native Americans tended to die from diseases spread by the Europeans, it was the heartier enslaved Africans that were just the ticket. Once in place as an economic institution, now there was the need to create a narrative that would allow the slaveholders to sleep at night and feel like they were doing God’s will and being charitable to un-baptized people who were certainly “better off than in the jungles (which didn’t exist) of West Africa.” So the priests got their Biblical quotes and misquotes in line, the scientists cooked up their cock-eyed theories of racial superiority, the politicians aligned the laws with it all and the slave patrols (later to become police forces) kept everyone in line. God, Science, Manifest Destiny decreed and convinced the unsuspecting populace that this was the natural order of the world, with the secret mission of growing rich and powerful off the unpaid labor of human beings brutally treated, bought and sold, raped and beaten, kept away hidden in the corner. 


How does this work? Three words: "Follow the money." This simple formula is the key to unlocking so many of the world's atrocities. Is there a dictator abusing rights in a foreign country? The good old U.S.A. will rush in to depose him—well, actually only if there’s oil or other natural resources that we need. Otherwise, why bother? If it’s in our economic interest, we’ll do anything and sugar-coat it with all the needed words to make it appear noble and grand. 


If Racism is the long over-due discussion we’re finally edging closer to, unchecked Capitalism is still at the back of the line. Yes, there was a brief flurry in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it seemed to have petered out and now they’re back at work trying to take water from us to sell back to us. Just as we’re educating ourselves and some are starting to teach the children about the untold stories of systemic racism, so do we need a parallel track looking at our history of profit from human misery. 

And let’s not leave out ecological devastation. Grendel’s mother had at least two children— racism and environmental destruction leading to climate change. Behind every environmental disaster is people who don't live in the neighborhood getting rich off of strip mining, razing the rain forest, mass producing junk we don't need and don't have room for in the garbage bin, building the nuclear power plants, creating an oil-dependent auto industry, you name it. We can’t wholly eradicate either racism nor climate change without dealing with the mother. 

Just as smoking was considered the norm in the 50’s and now people gather sheepishly outside to sneak a smoke, so might the idea of taking more than your share at any cost and not giving back when your good old boy excuses you from paying taxes might finally become the cause for shame it deserves to be. And then line up the laws to make unchecked greed the offense it actually is. 


Just when you thought you could return to thinking about that lovely trip you once took to Formentera and what you would do for a zucchini, I’m introducing you to the mother from hell and suggesting we better paid attention. Aargh! Isn’t the pandemic and the aftermath of the our own Demon’s disaster enough? Yes but…


The monster unnamed is the one that’s the most dangerous. Let’s start talking about Grendel and his mother. (And yes, you can take some time off and watch Borgen. It's excellent!)


Waiting for a Miracle


The Buddha was said to have walked on a jeweled walkway suspended in mid-air while streams of water spouted and flames flashed from his body. Moses parted the Red Sea. Jesus walked on water. 


But none of these miracles mean much to me compared to the miracle I am awaiting: that an American Republican congressperson would stand up and finally, finally, against all expectations of past behavior, lack of spine, loss of moral compass and alignment with simple decency, finally stand up in Congress and do the right thing: declare once and for all that no one is above the law and there are no more excuses left for defiling the Capitol Building, the Constitution and the very oath their guy swore. 


That would be a miracle that would put the others to shame. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Time Travel to Formentera

I recently received a Facebook message from Bruce, an old college  acquaintance. Haven’t been in touch with Bruce for over 20 years, but he found himself thinking about a trip we took and wondering if I remembered more than he did about what happened on it. Luckily, I still had my journal, the first one I wrote to be followed by 47 more years of journal writing. And so I typed over my entries from that trip.


I was a senior in college touring Europe with the Antioch Chorus, some 30 hippies singing the sacred Masses of Guillame Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem in the great cathedrals of France and Italy. We had been together for about a month, going from Amsterdam to Belgium to various parts of France and then had a two week “vacation” free to do what we liked. I decided to go to Spain with three others—Lexi, Bruce and Suzanne. We started hitchhiking in Southern France, but it soon became clear that four people hitchhiking were too many. So we split up—Lexi with Susanne, me with Bruce—and decided to meet in Barcelona. The eventual plan was to go to the island of Formentera, where Lexi had a friend who offered her house for us to stay in. 


This entry was from Barcelona, written two days after my 22ndbirthday. My life then appeared as a marvelous banquet with an enticing table set for me and an invitation to sit down and enjoy. That wondrous sense of adventure and possibility and blank pages to be written, that delicious uncertainty about what life would bring to me and what I would offer it in return. I read again now at the other end of that banquet, looking back with gratitude and wonder at that beautiful meal shared with friends on top of a hill overlooking the city. I’m not getting up from the table yet, still another course or two (one hopes!) awaiting and other people at the table, even if now on small screens. So sweet to remember this time of travel and comradery and youth in this other time of sheltering, solitude and eldership, not as nostalgia, but as simply another dot on the same line of a long life. Here’s that 22-year old:



7/30/ 1973  “The snail crawls two feet—and the day is over.” An appropriate haiku to describe the pace of this line at the ticket office for boats to Formentera. But no matter—a chance for me to write a bit about Barcelona, this city with an unmistakable magic. A pedestrian city with many walkways lined with trees and alleys where cars never venture. The weather is warm and breezy and the city pulses with activity, drawing one immediately into its world.


The city  lives in passion, one becomes lost in the dance of events,  filled with delightful smells and sights, a carnival of impressions that carry you away. Its loudness is the chatter of the teeming jungle, the animation of people and animals, not the mechanical roar of machines that pervades most cities. ALL LIVES, ALL DANCES AND ALL IS LOUD a line from some poem that comes to mind. 


The open-air market is filled with all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, fish and meat. We shopped there, milling about and moving from one stall to another guided by our appetite and our pocketbook. Then we ascended via metro, cable car and cable railway to the Tibidabo, a small mountain that watches over the city. Found a table in a park and picnicked on strawberries, grapes, peaches, dates, figs, peanuts, bread, goat’s cheese, blue cheese, wheat biscuits, green beans, milk and wind. A welcome balance to the frenzied activity below, sitting on top of the world bathed in silence and sharing food with friends. We then strolled to the amusement park which crowned the hill and had a quick battle in the bumper cars. It brought me back to the Jersey shore, walking the boardwalk and pausing to watch how everything glowed in the night and feel the beauty of the moment. 



Tickets finally in hand, we head to the boat leaving for Ibiza. Said a simple goodbye to Janet, a good spirit who I enjoyed. Then boarded the boat, hung over the deck and watched the people gathering to see us off and the workers tying up cars and boats to load onto the ship. Rolls of toilet paper suddenly appeared from nowhere and within minutes, colorful streams of paper where flapping in the breezing, connecting the ship to the people below. I caught one and flung it down to a beautiful grey-haired woman with marvelous blue eyes that were opened wide in childish delight. She caught it and we remained connected for 15 minutes, maneuvering in and out of the criss-crossing paper and adjusting to the various wind speeds. It was an art and we played as if it was a matter of life and death to maintain our bond. I started praying that our line wouldn’t break, I got so involved. An incredible spectacle as we stood waiting, the air streaming with toilet paper, people shouting back and forth, huge smiles and great festivity. And all this for a nightly 10 hour board ride! It seemed that there were some regulars in the crowd who came every night just to see boats off. (I definitely want to do that when I return—I am fascinated by the light-hearted seriousness people put into useless activities—sailing boats in fountains, unraveling toilet paper as ships depart—they seem the only things really worth doing). 


The boat finally took off. My paper-mate and I were out early in the contest, having a short roll. We bade each other an affectionate farewell as our paper blew off into the distance. And now we are 30 minutes out to sea. The night has fallen and I sit on the deck, amazed that I find myself here. Ships hold such a romantic appeal to me, a dream from childhood come true. I am happy now…


Monday, January 25, 2021

Jet Lag and Zucchini

Got time on your hands? Today’s assignment: Write a piece with Jet Lag and Zucchini as a title. Go!


Mine is simple. I was cooking a Thai Yellow Curry, vegetables over red rice, and wanted a zucchini. I didn’t have one. So out I went in the dark, cold 6 pm air in light sprinkling rain in search of a store. First stop, one block away on 3rdAvenue. Carrots, onions, avocado, but no zucchini. On to 5thAvenue. Closed. On to 10thAvenue–didn’t see one right away and was considering if it was worth it to continue to 15thAvenue. How much did I really want it? And then Bingo! A zucchini! Back home and cooked the curry. So far a pretty riveting story, yes? J


Early that day, I was in an online poetry class where the poet was talking about the change in his life from flying all over the world giving talks and dealing with jet lag. In this respect, our lives were parallel and he noted that one blessing of no-travel was less wear and tear on his body. I could relate. Arriving somewhere after a long plane ride, meeting the welcome hotel bed, but often awakening in the middle of the night and having to teach for six hours the next day. The first three days of teaching wrapped in a kind of fog as my body in canon was trying to catch up to itself. That moment were I could feel the click, the two bodies merging and back to normal. But then in a few days or a week or so, the return trip and another three days of the jet lag drama as I returned to teaching kids at school. Wear and tear indeed. 


How to connect these two stories? Both were trials asking me how much I was willing to sacrifice for what I thought I cared about. How much did it mean to me that I was willing to walk the 20 blocks round trip and contemplate 30 blocks just for one zucchini? How much did it matter to me that I was willing to get a visa if necessary, pack my bags, take the BART train to the airport, fly from 3 to 17 hours, teach for three days in a jet-lag stupor on one end and another three of the same the other end? Apparently, enough that I did it time and time again regularly during the last 30 years. 


Now the level of sacrifice is simply agreeing to sit in a chair facing a screen and especially with the opportunity to walk out in the world for three hours after sitting for three hours, the body is indeed much happier, the ozone layer is happier, the time freed up from not traveling, preparing to travel, re-orienting after travel is appreciated. 


And yet, I would get on the 20-hour flight to Australia in a heartbeat for the chance to actually stand in a circle holding hands with people and spend the day singing, dancing, playing music together. I do care about it enough to make that sacrifice, jet lag and all. 


And then after the workshop, I’d walk to the store to buy a zucchini. 

But only 10 blocks. 


Sunday, January 24, 2021

My Life on Zoom

Starting in the mid-80’s, I thought much, wrote much and spoke much about the dangers of too much screen time, be it TV, computers or video games. And now, Zoom is one of my best friends! In just the past three weeks, I’ve…


• Had a board meeting with the Orff-Afrique folks.

• Had a board meeting with SF International Orff Course.

• Gave a workshop to folks in Iran.

• Gathered with American Orff teacher elders.

• Gathered with the family-reunion folks on my wife’s Dad side.

• Gave a workshop on games.

• Sung New Year’s and protest songs with school alums.

• Sung the same with my granddaughter’s 3rd grade.

• Talked (with my family) and interviewed my wife’s 94-year old aunt who worked for women’s rights. 

• Attended an interview with jazz violinist Regina Carter.

• Gave a private Orff lesson to a man from Iran.

• Took a poetry class with David Whyte. 

• Met with my Men’s Group.

• Gave a 5 hour Orff workshop (my longest) to folks in Orange County and beyond.

• Took a class about dance in Orff Schulwerk from my colleague Christa Coogan.

• Was a surprise guest in my daughter’s 5thgrade class (well, technically that was Google Meet).


In the next few weeks, I will:


• Meet up with my jazz band for the first time since the pandemic.

• Teach a guest college class for University students in Texas. 

• Interview Kofi Gbolonyo for an article about African music and Orff Schulwerk.

• Teach an Orff workshop to folks in Verona, Italy.

• Teach the first of my 6-classes on Jazz History: The Be-bop Years.

• Teach two benefit workshops for the Orff Forum with teachers on every continent.

• Meet up with the New Year’s Walk group of family friends who have walked and dined together for 39 years.

• Meet up again with old college friends who Zoomed in the Fall.

• Meet up again with old students and teachers from the Arthur Morgan School where I taught in 1972-3 who also Zoomed in the Fall.


Thanks to Zoom, this retired teacher in a sheltered pandemic can enjoy his solitude walking and biking in the park while still keeping connected to others and his lifelong work on a screen. Whoever imagined this former Luddite thanking an electronic delivery system? 


But I do. 


Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Wound and the Awakening

“You can’t talk racists out of their racism. They have to have an experience that breaks them down to their essence so they realize two things: an awareness that I am really wounded and the reason I put all this pain on other people is that I’m denying my own woundedness and my own internal inferiority and since I don’t want to deal with it, I put it on other people. That’s the dynamic of racism”


This gem from Michael Meade’s recent talk goes far in making clear the work ahead. Biden’s executive orders are welcome and necessary. Accountability for the traitors, especially the enablers in Congress, is both an affirmation of justice and a warning to those who thought they had permission to be above the law, including the deposed tyrant. Re-working of laws to root out systemic, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the like are essential. 


But all of this is just a safety net to minimize the damage of our cultural failures, our educational failures, our family-raising failures and our personal failures. If people felt whole in their own soul, were wholly awake in their critical thinking skills, where able to distinguish truth from lies and good character from bad, where able to care about truth and good character…well, it would be a different world indeed. 


Hard to say something new about the catastrophe of these last four years, but I think Meade hits an important point that doesn’t make into the news. It’s not just a political problem, it’s a deep psychological, mythological, spiritual problem of how we acknowledge, look at and deal with our wounds. We are all, after all, the walking wounded, carrying different levels of hurt and even trauma in our bodies and minds. No one gets away with a sorrow-free life and even if you are so fortunate to have had the most loving parents, good food and pleasant shelter, a fabulous school with a great music program and no deaths beyond your pet hamster, life will eventually find you and that means disappointment, betrayal, injustice, lost love, lost loved ones. Not to mention your own failures to be wholly the extraordinary person you hoped to be, the facing of the hard truth that you feel less than others, inferior in some ways and ashamed of it all.  


All of these blows leave wounds and now the question is how you will meet them. Welcome to the world of drug addiction, alcoholism, money addiction, abusive behavior, depression, denial, the fortressing of the heart to avoid the next attack. Sometimes the wounds go inward to depression, sometimes outward to rage and in that case, they feel “better” if you have a target, something or someone else to blame it on.


Enter Trump and his ilk. Here is a man willing to offer the targets and stoke the fear—the Muslims, the Mexicans coming in mass mobs, the blacks taking your jobs, the Democrats limiting your freedom to drive your SUV, stockpile assault weapons, live away from the people with darker skin. Now your personal unwillingness to face your demons and acknowledge your inferiority is wrapped in a good and evil cause, elevates you to a crusader, armors you with fanaticism and joins you with the others who are also to scared to admit that they are wounded and need to look strong and tough, to take on the archetype of the warrior. And to go so far as to storm the Capitol in the name of patriotism. 


Trump also gave them another kind of permission, a living example of someone who was emotionally abandoned by both his parents and spent his life covering up his deep wound, a man who is like a hungry ghost with a vacant soul trying to fill up the empty space with constant adoration, trying to satiate his soul’s hunger with the food of unquestioned admiration that never fills him up for more than five seconds. For those wanting affirmation of their own choice to deny their wounds, he’s their guy. Heck, he became the President of the United States! 


And now here’s Joe Biden, a man who was deeply wounded by the death of a wife, son and daughter and owns that grief, acknowledges it, works with it. He consciously creates a memorial ceremony for the 400,00 Americans who have died from Covid and gives it the solemnity and gravitas it deserves. And Kamala Harris— while I don’t know the specific stories of her wounds, I know that as a black person and a woman in this country, she has had more than her fair share. To have this country run by two people who understand grief is one of the most extraordinary turns we have taken as a nation. 


And as Meade makes clear, Grief’s companion is Joy and we saw it, the descent of the Memorial the night before and the ascent rising up singing in the Inauguration and the after-party the day after. It’s not a mean-spirited Joy—“We (the Democrats) won!! In your face, Repugnicans!” but an inclusive “We all won a chance to be better than we've been.” For once we acknowledge our own wounds, we find ourselves connected to everyone else who has them—which means “everyone else” and can truly move from “me against you” to “we.” Nothing unifies so much as grief. Nothing unifies so much as joy. 


Finally, Meade notes that traditional initiation ceremonies have two parts— a descent into the wounds and ascent awakening into our larger—and better—self. That’s where we are. And it’s a beautiful place to be. More grief awaits and let’s not tap dance around it. Let’s dance through it and rise up joyfully—together.


Friday, January 22, 2021

The Founding Mothers

Did anyone notice who carried the day in that stirring and soulful Inauguration? There was Amanda Gorman, speaking with the body, voice and mind the words that soothed our troubled soul and awakened our determined spirits. Wise beyond her years at 22 years old. There was Kamala Harris representing the long-deferred dream of women finally given a voice high in the halls of power so that the dream doesn’t fester, crust over or explode, but can say its piece in measured speech. There was firefighter Andrea Hall who spoke and signed the Pledge of Allegiance in a way that made clear: “I said it, I meant it, I’m here to represent it!”


The night before the Inauguration, at the much overdue and sorely needed memorial for the 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid, the necessarily sparse words and eloquent silence were given yet fuller voice by nurse Lorie Marie Key singing Amazing Grace and Yolanda Adams singing Hallelujah. I believe those heartfelt and heart-sung notes helped carry the ungrieved dead to the ancestral lands where their loved ones awaited them. 


The “Celebrate America” event after the Inauguration had its own happy blend of music, poetry, appreciations (including a brief shot of an Orff xylophone in the part honoring teachers!!), but for me the highlight was watching the two women on the side signing the words of the songs. They were dancin’!!! Never have seen such infectiously joyful interpretations in sign language and in case, you missed it, go back and check it out. The facial expressions and whole body amplifying further what the hands had to say. 


All those folks mentioned above had one thing in common. They were black women. I, for one, would like to physically and metaphorically get down on my knees and thank black women for being the carriers of true democracy in this land. The white Founding Fathers planted the seed of the idea and ideals of democracy, but I nominate American black women as the ones who actually birthed that baby and raised it. Carried it in their bodies, endured the agonizing labor of giving birth, swaddled and held and breast-fed that baby, changed its diapers, helped it learn how to walk and talk, organized the doctor visits and drove it to soccer practice, helped it with its homework, taught it how to be fair and kind and clean its own room, how to work hard and persevere, soothed its scraped knees and got it up and back on the bike. While they did the day-to-day work of giving body and soul of airy ideals, the fathers sat in their good-ole-boys club smoking cigars and making up laws to keep democracy the small province of gentlemen who owned land. 


What makes this yet more extraordinary is that these black women began their tenure torn from their homeland, stuffed down into the dark holds of ships, unloaded like cargo, taken away from their families, bought and sold, beaten and raped, made to work sun-up to sun-down in scorched cotton fields or in the house taking care of the slave-masters’ children. All while these propertied “gentlemen” sat on their porch sipping mint juleps and talked about the honor of the South.


So join with me in honoring the true carriers of democracy, from the founding moment to yesterday’s inauguration. Speak their names out loud like the long beautiful poem they are— Phillis Wheatley. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Ida B. Wells. Rosa Parks. Fannie Lou Hamer. Shirley Chisholm. Angela Davis. Michelle Obama, Susan Rice, Alicia Garza/ Patrice Cullors/ Opel Tometi, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Oprah Winfrey, Nikki Giovanni. Norma Miller. Pearl Primus. Katherine Dunham. Bessie Smith. Ella Fitzgerald. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Marian Anderson. Mary Lou Williams. Hazel Scott. Mahalia Jackson. Big Mama Thornton.Nina Simone. Carmen Macrae. Nancy Wilson. Natalie Cole. Dionne Warwick. Gladys Knight. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin—and so many more. 


And next time you pass a black woman on the street, take a moment to thank her. And then get to work and follow their example. And yes, I'm talking to you (us), white men!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Feelin' Good

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for us. And we’re feeling good.”


A song is often a good way—in fact, often the best way— to marry meaning and emotion and sing out what you feel. And so this song written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who also wrote another anthem of hope “Gonna Build Me a Mountain”) and sung so soulfully by Nina Simone, captures a tiny bit of my feeling after watching that most moving and most needed and most timely of Inauguration Ceremonies. So open up Youtube and sing along! 


And I mean everyone. As expressed in a blogpost a while back, those who didn’t vote for Biden and Harris won as much as those who did. They won a chance to curtail the pandemic that devastates us all, pay attention to the climate change that threatens us all, to consider draining the hate from their heart that hurts them as much as they people they choose to hate, to consider that life is a helluva lot more fun when you choose to simply enjoy people without imprisoning them in your categories and our chances for survival are a helluva lot better when we join forces. After all, neither the pandemic nor the fires nor the storms nor the god or gods you think are on your side only gives a rat’s ass for your ideologies and dogma and group names. So give up your loyalty to your worst self egged on by that lunatic now gone—what was his name again?— and join in the song. Trust me, you will be so much happier and so will your children and so will we all. Okay?


Now sing along with Nina!


Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel

It's a new dawn, It's a new day, It's a new life for me
And I'm feeling good

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River running free, you know how I feel
Blossom on a tree, you know how I feel

It's a new dawn, It's a new day, It's a new life for me
And I'm feeling good


Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know
Butterflies all havin' fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that's what I mean
And this old world is a new world, and a bold world, for me. (us!)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Letter to My Grandchildren


Dear Zadie and Malik, 


In just 16 hours from now, we will come to the end of an era error and the future you deserve will begin again. I have waited for this moment for four long agonizing years, years I couldn’t imagine I could endure. And yet somehow I did. We all did. We got mad, we got sad, we were outraged, we were struck dumb wondering how this could have happened. But we also got together and we spoke out and we wrote postcards and signed petitions and gave money and put our bodies out on the streets and our thoughts on our clever signs and our marks on the ballot. And lo and behold, it made a difference and the man who spent every waking minute selling your future down the river will be exiled from his throne of power, leaving in disgrace with even many (but not all) of his staunch supporters and enablers cutting themselves loose from his adoring fan club. Not a moment too soon. 


You both began life with one of the finest Presidents the country has ever had. Things were so promising when you started out. The first black President, a black woman bass player (Esperanza Spalding) playing jazz at the White House, more women in Congress than ever had been before and doors that had been closed for so long finally starting to open. 


Zadie, as a girl, you can play any sport you please, aim for just about any profession you please, be proud of your talented math-skills without even considering that you have to hide them, outrun every single boy in your class (you can!). If someone makes nasty comments to you or touches you when you don’t want them too, you don’t have to keep silent and they will get in trouble. In the future, you can marry whom you please—black or white, Buddhist or Jewish, man or woman. (Or choose to remain single, of course). I imagine you are thinking, “Duh! Of course I can!” but even a mere 50 years ago, it wasn’t easy or even possible. 


And Malik, you can be wholly the sensitive boy you are and cry freely and love whatever or whomever you love without apology. Now you know you could be President (not the best job, by the way) or a poet and if you wanted to play classical music instead of jazz or hip-hop, you could. Or all three. You will have support when you choose to respect all people and appreciate women as your friends, colleagues and equals. And though you might get teased or bullied by boys or men with small hearts who confuse strength with hurting and harming others, you will be able to find others like you who find strength in kindness. 


These are all good signs. These are the things your grandmother and I fought for almost 50 years ago (and are still fighting for), things your Mom, Dad and Aunt are fighting for now, things that, truth be told, you both will probably have to continue to fight for. But hopefully not quite so much because of the work that came before.


And yet. While I write this, you are hiding in an Air B&B away from your house because there were some suspicious people in your yard and strange vans on the street and your parents are worried about Inauguration Day and all the unleashed dogs fed by this lunatic man who somehow was chosen to lead this country. I share their caution. All of us are nervous about what might happen tomorrow in a ceremony which, until this moment, has always been a sacred moment in the history of our country. 

This is not good. This is not normal. This is not what any of us ever dreamed could come to pass after each new victory against racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental destruction, capitalist greed, military stockpiling. We thought that once the right door opened, everyone would happily walk through. We (or at least I) couldn’t have predicted how important it was to so many people to keep their identity based on white supremacy, male dominance, heterosexual status, “Christian” values and how ferociously they would cling to it, to the point of wanting to overthrow the very government that they professed to love. 


And yet again. Just think of how far we have come! (I know, because I know how it was before). The casualness with which my colleague James can introduce his husband Dan, the way your white Mom and black Dad can go to some restaurants and no one looks twice, the way the Portland Moms and then grandma’s and grand-dads and then leaf-blower-equipped Dads stood up so bravely to protest murders by police, the way just about every house in your neighborhood has a sign that says “Science is real. Women’s rights are human rights. Black Lives Matter. No person is illegal. Love is Love.” We have made progress.


We were heading to the cliff’s edge and enough of us woke up in time to make a sharp turn and get back on the real road. Driven by a caring, hard-working intelligent man as President and our first female/ black/ Indian Vice President. And the First Lady is a teacher!! How about that?! And instead of tweeting out mean-spirited and hateful messages that divide, instead of stirring up violence, instead of bragging about a self that is a shame to our species, Mr. Joe Biden talks about unity, mourns the pandemic deaths, is already hard at work on actual plans to recover from this severe blow. After fingernails on a chalkboard, this is music as beautiful as Bach and as swingin’ as Sonny Rollins.


And so on this night before this moment we have waited for for so long, all I see is your beautiful faces and your future that we’re all fighting for. You are blessed to have two such loving parents, an extraordinary aunt and grandparents who love you beyond what any arms can stretch to show. Tomorrow Joe and Kamala take the seat and that disgraceful little boy in a man’s body will be confined to his golf cart or (hopefully) prison cell and we can begin this work again.


For both of you. 


For all of us. 


Happy Inauguration Day!!






Monday, January 18, 2021

Out of the Tunnel

If my own adult children are any standard of measurement, there about 12 people left in America who are willing to watch old black and white movies. But in honor of MLK Day and the coming Inauguration and for my own sheer pleasure, I watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Again. 

It holds up. And with some new meaning. There was Jimmy Stewart with glazed eyes staring at the Capitol Building like a pilgrim finally arriving at a Sacred Temple. His eyes are open with wonder as he passes the stones carved with words like “Equal Justice” and at the end of the film, after more than 7 hours of non-stop talking on the Senate floor about the graft and lies he's discovered in Congress, gasps out something about the bad guy “Mr. Taylor and his army marching into the Capitol…” before fainting on the floor. The parallels are astounding. 


Earlier in the film, he talks about his Dad teaching him to look at the beauty of this world as if coming out of a tunnel and seeing it for the very first time. Ah, there’s an image. Because we have one more day in the tunnel with the World Record Liar-in-Chief and if the law and order folks do their job, the armed lunatics will not be waiting for us, but behind us, hopefully behind bars. The beauty that awaits is no Shangri-la paradise, it will be fraught with the enormous challenges of the continued pandemic, the ongoing climate change, the wild dogs let out and equipped by the NRA and the enormous job of simply cleaning up the mess of four years of utter incompetency and uncaring. But simply being out of the tunnel will let the hardy plants of human kindness and simple decency (again, see the film and let Mr. Smith tell you) rise up through the cracks in the concrete. 


One more day. 


“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”              - Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself

Everyone has their favorite idea of what separates human beings from animals, usually not with Whitman’s humble perspective, but more an arrogance about what makes us so special. As a member of the homo sapiens species, I do appreciate our place in the evolutionary chain, but also am painfully aware of how what blesses us also curses us and spend my days both celebrating the blessings and lamenting the curses. Consider some of the commonly accepted turns in evolution that moved us from being a small population low on Creation’s list— not as fast as cheetahs, large as elephants, agile as monkeys, fierce as lions, numerous as cockroaches, etc.—to overrunning the earth at 7 billion plus. Note how each “advance” that has blossomed into our glorious achievements also carries the seeds of its own demise:

• The opposable thumb that makes it possible for us to invent the wheel, write like Emily Dickinson, play Chopin’s piano music and send loving e-mails to friends far and wide also can text hate messages, pull triggers on AK47’s and push the nuclear button. 

• Bi-pedalism that allows us to stand upright frees our hands to work with tools, allows us to see further and lets us dance like the Nicholas Brothers also takes us further away from the earth, gives us fallen arches and back problems and reduces us to talking heads on TV standing at podiums. 

• Language that makes Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Mary Oliver’s poems and Dickens’ novels possible also can incite hateful dolts to storm the Capitol Building and be like, uh, totally, I mean, awesome.

• Music that gives us the capacity for West African drumming, Indian raga, jazz be-bop, European symphonies and beyond also gives us Muzak on elevators, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and disco. 

 • Storytelling that gives us the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Ramayana, Shakespeare’s plays, Tolstoy novels, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Frank Capra/ Hitchcock/Fellini films also gives us The Valley of the Dolls and the recent movie Four Christmases. Our capacity to create the story of the life we live in can give us a narrative of a meaningful existence that accents beauty, justice, compassion, sustainability, living harmoniously with each other, plants and animal or a narrative that thrives on raw survival-I’m-number-one-get-yours-now subsistence in a cruel and meaningless world built on exclusion, hatred, abuse, escape through drugs, greed, selfishness, ignorance, distraction, sensation and violence. 

• The neo-cortex layer of the brain that makes Bach’s fugues, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence possible also can conjure up theories of racial superiority, invent the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, dream up the notion of the Apocalypse. 

In short, everything that was evolutionary with the development of these human attributes was also counter-evolutionary in terms of both the health of the planet and now the survival of the species. So where does that leave us?

Precisely where a fairly evolved storyteller named John Steinbeck placed us in his novel East of Eden: the territory of choice. As spoken by his character Lee:

 There are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do Thou’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But  the Hebrew word timshel—“Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. And that’s what makes a man great, what gives him stature with the gods…a cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. But we have the glory of a choice.

And of course, the responsibility to make a wise choice. Now more than ever. 


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Yelling at Cars

The despisers of mankind—apart from the mere fools and mimics—are of two sorts. Those who believe their merit neglected and unappreciated, make up one class; those who receive adulation and flattery, knowing their own worthlessness, compose the other. Be sure that the coldest-hearted misanthropes are ever of this last order.– Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge

Thank the heavens for Stephen Colbert. He remains the voice of sanity mixing humor with serious in-depth understanding of what’s going on, a clear moral compass and the good sense to invite conversations with others who can shed new light on  a variety of important (and sometimes frivolous- still a place for that) subjects. One of his recent guests on the “important” side was former FBI Director James Comey. 


I was at first surprised and then intrigued to hear Comey say that T**** shouldn’t be prosecuted in Washington, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because it’s what he wants—to stay in the public spotlight and keep steering the ship of our everyday discourse. Comey noted that T****'s pathological need for constant adulation, attention and flattery is the oxygen he breathes and suggests his worse punishment would be to deprive him of that air. He’s already gasping with the loss of his Twitter account. To just leave him alone to be a sorry old man “yelling at cars in Mar a Lago” would be the ultimate punishment. 


An interesting perspective! I’d still prefer him to be shouting out the barred windows of his solitary confinement in prison as a message to any future imposters that there will  be consequences and alongside the 64 judges who turned down Rudy Guiliani’s fantasy that the votes were illegitimate, a sign that the Justice System, while still terribly broken (white cop murderers given a mere slap on the hand), it hasn’t completely collapsed.


At many times during T****’s Reign of Horror and the cliff-edge danger of democracy’s collapse, I said there were three things that distinguished us from Nazi Germany, North Korea, China, Turkey, etc. 


1) Free Speech: Colbert, Trevor Noah and even me in this blogposts could have been jailed, disappeared, murdered, without it, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post.


2) The Legal System: As above, the court’s refusal (including the Supreme Court) to declare the election invalid.


3) Term Limits and the Right to Vote: No matter how horrible a President may be, we only have to endure it for 4 to 8 years and have the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power with the simply act of filling out a ballot. 


And that we did and while we take to the pandemic streets in a cavalcade of cars to celebrate the upcoming inauguration (with FBI on the alert, please), we can finally ignore that sad, sad man yelling at us from the sidelines, left to the solitary prison of his own worthlessness.


Three more days.