Friday, April 30, 2021

Changing Ponds

The other day I was walking in the woods and passed a family (masks on, of course). The mother said, “Are you Doug Goodkin?” and I replied, “Yes, how did you know?” She pointed to her 5-year-old daughter and said, “We came to your show at the SF Jazz Center!”

 

And there you have it. That’s the level of my fame that allows me to walk the streets without sunglasses (this was the first time that had happened since the show three years ago) and yet, opens just enough doors that I can keep doing the work I love to do. The woman might have been one of the thousand plus local teachers who took a workshop with me during the last 45 years or an alum from my school. If this happened on the street in Rio, Istanbul, Madrid or Singapore, I would have been very surprised, but it might have been possible as I’ve taught many times in those places and some 100 other cities around the world. Perhaps the person had read one of the nine books I’ve published or less likely still, been a loyal reader of this Blog. Or been one of the 50,000 who saw my TEDx talk from 8 years ago. 

 

The truth is that I’m a fairly big fish in a very small pond of music educators, but a pond with clear refreshing waters that’s big enough to pay for flights, hotels, meals and my teacher’s fee in places on every continent. My books, both self-published and published by others, continue to sell at their steady modest rates, I still write articles for journals and now am beginning to publish other authors. My online classes fill up enough to make them viable and I’ve been thrilled to get some famous jazz luminaries to join as guests and get a taste of the work I’m doing. On some level, it’s the perfect size of fame and fortune. 

 

But like Rockefeller, when asked “How much money is enough?” answered, “Just a little bit more,” I’m always alert as to how to get the good news spread out a little further. Not for the ego’s need for recognition (though probably it’s a player in the game), but for my firm conviction that the work is worthy of a larger audience. In short, Oprah and Terri Gross have not called me yet, but I'm ready to answer their call. 

 

And so as I finished the first draft of a new book about Jazz and Social Justice, a book that I could easily publish myself and distribute as I do with my other books, I decided to up the ante and pitch it to larger publishers. Make the daring (and terrifying) leap to become a very small fish in an enormous pond. And for that, I need help.

 

I found a school parent in the publishing world who suggested I get a literary agent and I set to work yesterday combing through Websites to begin that process. Not easy! I need to find someone particularly interested in my theme, genre and age-level audience and after combing through some 25 people, no luck yet. I went to the bookstore and looked at publishers and authors of related themes and now have to find contact information for those authors to see if they can share contact information about their literary agent. It’s a whole new world and at once daunting, overwhelming and exciting.

 

Why write about this here? Because announcing intentions to the world is often the first step to get things moving. Maybe one of you is a literary agent! Or has contacts with one. And would be willing to share it with me. Maybe even tomorrow?

 

As Goethe said, 

 

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.”

 

Providence, consider this my public commitment. Let’s go!

 

 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

White Men

I just finished Ijeoma Uluo’s book MediocreThe Dangerous Legacy of White Male America and am both impressed with her eloquence in putting her finger directly on the pulse of our national sickness and depressed by the truth of it. (Note how relevant that sentence “white men who think they have been stolen from…” is in relation to the Capitol assault!)

 

Many white men have the expectation that they shouldn’t have to climb, shouldn’t have to struggle, as others do. It’s the idea not only that they think they have less than others, but that they were supposed to have so much more. When you are denied the power, the success, or even the relationships that you think are your right, you either believe that you are broken or you believe that you have been stolen from. White men who think they have been stolen from often take that anger out on others. (70% of school shooters are white men).White men who think they are broken take that anger out on themselves. (70% of the 47,173 suicides in 2017 where white men).

 

She goes on: 

 

White male identity is in a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy successful and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition. The love, admiration, belonging, and fulfilment they have been promised will never come—it cannot exist for you when your success is tied to the subjugation of those around you. These white men are filled with anger, sadness and fear over what they do not have, what they believe has been stolen from them. And they look at where they are now, and they cannot imagine anything different. As miserable as they are, they are convinced that no other option exists for them. It is either this, or death: ours or theirs. 

 

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want this for any of us. When we look at the history of white male identity in this country, it becomes clear that we are only stuck in these cycles of reactionary violence and oppression because we have not tried anything new. We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better. 

 

I’ve mentioned the Men’s Group I’m in that has met once every two weeks for over thirty years. We are all white men who came together for that very purpose of trying to “imagine something better.”  In both our professions and our life outside work, we’ve dedicated ourselves to helping heal others through therapy, healing children through medicine, helping those in need of legal aid, helping create character and caring in the Boy Scouts, helping a spiritual practice group dedicated to peace in ourselves and the world, heading a school designed to help children feel their intrinsic worth and meet their “intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise,” bringing insight into political issues that divide us through rigorous and revealing analysis freely given online, writing postcards, knocking on doors and helping neighbors, bringing music, ritual and ceremony into the lives of kids and adults to express beauty and to connect us. In short, the polar opposite of the mindless, misplaced anger of some of our fellow white men who refuse to take responsibility for their own soul’s growth and think that some powerful leader (with an exponentially greater wounded soul) will save them.  

 

All of this is worthy of a pat on the back, but only for a second before returning to the work of looking how that legacy has wounded us and continues to harm us and our grandchildren. How we have unconsciously perpetuated it and continue to in unseen ways. How we all could work harder to turn things around, to “start asking what we want white manhood to be and what we will no longer accept.” (Uluo)

 

Immeasurable thanks to Ijeoma Uluo for her courageous work, meticulous research, articulate eloquence and her medical genius for finding exactly where the bleeding wound resides and reminding us that we are the medicine that can heal us. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Dog Bites Man

The epidemic of extraordinary stupidity highlighted by the media continues. Just today alone, after the anti-vax school head had the spotlight, there was Lindsey Graham claiming that there is no racism in the United States. Then Tucker Carlson likening making kids wear masks in public to beating them in a supermarket. Then some School Board member complaining she was Rosa Parks being pushed to back of the bus for not wearing a mask. It seems that “Man Bites Dog” is the criteria to make it on national news these days. 

 

May I suggest a strategy for a more fair and balanced (and certainly, uplifting!) reading of our national intelligence? For each minute one of these dolts displays their certifiably crazy ranting for other idiots to grab on to as truth, there is an equal amount of time spent broadcasting a smart and  caring person saying something intelligent and thoughtful. For example, I’d recommend any one of my daughter’s 5th graders, whose level of critical thought and heartfelt compassion is light years ahead of Tucker, Lindsey and a way-too-long list of people swinging their baseball bat of insane drivel at the knees of our collective thought and discourse. 

 

Let’s at least return the news to “dog bites man” and then show the pit bull dragging away Tucker as he foams at the mouth (Tucker, that is) with his rabid vitriol. That would help.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up!

The humorist Dave Barry would sometimes get stories from his staff that he would riff on and often reminded his readers, “You can’t make stuff like this up!” 

 

That has become the new norm in the news. Idiots we have always had, but never have they been given so much public voice and the bar keeps getting lower and lower. Amongst the unbelievable stories of the last month:

 

• The new law in Georgia making it a crime to offer food or drink to voters standing on line.

 

• Republicans fighting the repeal of the 28-year Alabama law that you can’t teach yoga (because of Hindu indoctrination. )

 

• Larry Kudlow, former economic advisor to the POTUS-who-never-should-have-been  and commentator on FOX Business News, claiming that Biden’s proposed climate policies would mean you could only grill brussels sprouts at your 4thof July barbecue and you’d have to drink plant-based beer (cutting out the usual meat-based beer?). 

 

But there’s more. This  just hot off the Associated News Press:

 

A private school founded by an anti-vaccination activist in South Florida has warned teachers and staff against taking the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it will not employ anyone who has received the shot.

The Centner Academy in Miami sent a notice to parents on Monday informing them of a new policy for its two campuses for about 300 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Teachers or staff who have already taken the vaccine were told to continue reporting to school but to stay separated from students.

Co-founder Leila Centner told employees in a letter last week that she made the policy decision with a “very heavy heart." Centner asked those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine to wait until the end of the school year, and even then recommended holding off.

Centner stood by the decision Tuesday in a statement sent to The Associated Press, which featured the biologically impossible claim that unvaccinated women have experienced miscarriages and other reproductive problems just by standing in proximity to vaccinated people.

May I remind you that this is the leader of a school, an educational institution charged with the task of teaching children to think, to distinguish truth from fiction, to show them how scientists must back up their claims, how mathematicians can’t just say “1+1 =3 because I say so,” how historians can’t claim that America fulfilled its promise that “all men are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights.” And so on. 

And because future American citizens are going to schools like this, they’re likely to believe this breaking story:

“Yesterday police taking out their ticket book accidentally mistook their gun for a pencil and wounded a man who was giving brussels sprouts and meat-based beer to voters standing on line. A pregnant woman nearby started chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ after stretching her muscles in a suspiciously yoga-like way and then was rushed to the hospital because she started to miscarry having stood next to some vaccinated women. Commenting on the story, U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene blamed the whole incident on Jewish space lasers, while Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh said, ‘Hey, I like beer too!’ 

God Bless America.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Happy 100th!

Dear Mom,

 

Today you would be 100 years old! As you liked to say, “Imagine that!” 

 

It is now seven years since you left us and I hope you’re pleased to know that you are remembered with love and appreciation. Every day, I see your photo on my desk and yesterday, played Blossom Dearie’s Dance Only With Me in my Jazz History Class and showed some beautiful photos of you from long ago. No surprise that the tears flowed and that I didn’t feel the need, as so many people do, to say, “I’m sorry.” Why do people say that when they cry in public? Why apologize for allowing yourself to feel the bittersweet blend of grief and happiness that loss brings? 

 

As for the report from Planet Earth, it remains “the best of times and the worst of times.” It is April and Spring has sprung, the renewed hope of flowers joined with the renewed hope of a President with a mind, a heart and the drive to actually work and get the work done. There are signs of greenery poking up through the cracks of the hard concrete of our refusal of justice and you would be amazed to see how Hollywood is changing to include so many people it is has always either entirely excluded or put in small boxes— the black servant, the sexy woman, the immigrant with the funny accent. It is changing and it’s about time. Not that we ever had deep discussions about these things or that you were politically involved. You had your plate full battling your bi-polar condition and recovering from a difficult childhood in a poor Jewish family in Coney Island during the Depression. But somehow you came through it all with a capacity to offer me your unconditional love, which I gratefully accepted, more and more as the years went on. 

 

You’d be happy to know that after cursing you and Dad for passing on bad teeth, I went to the dentist yesterday for a teeth-cleaning and got an A+! And can say, in the words of that forever-imprinted childhood commercial, “Look, Ma, no cavities!” I just made plane reservations to see your two great-grandkids in Portland! And maybe two more from Ginny’s son Ian! How you would have loved these four kids!

 

And speaking of Ginny, today I’m going up to see her, not only to honor the occasion of our mother’s birthday, but to be interviewed for a film being made about me. Imagine that! Your son might be in the movies someday!

 

But I’m not holding my breath, not expecting anything beyond the pleasure that someone is interested in what I’ve done with my life and affirmed with that interest that teaching children is a noble profession and teaching music to children brings it up a notch. Giving them the skills, the understandings, the exposure to this exalted human faculty that can bring them comfort in dark times and sing their happiness in good times. Last night I played recordings of some of my favorite jazz songs and jazz singers and marveled at how poor my life would have been without them. 

 

I need to sign off to teach some college kids online for 45 minutes, a one-time flash-in-the-pan that I hope to make as tasty and nutritious as I can. And who knows? For one of them, it might be enough to utterly change their life. One can never tell.

 

Happy 100th birthday, Mom and know that you are forever loved and remembered.

 

Your loving son,


Doug

Monday, April 26, 2021

An Oscar for the Oscars

My wife loves the Oscars. Each year, I dutifully watch them with her and enjoy some of it. But the increased magnitude of the spectacle side of things, with the enormous screens magnifying the people on stage, the outrageous overpriced outfits, the sheer wealth in the room, always turns me off a bit. I keep wishing they’d hold them in a high school auditorium. 

 

And last night, thanks to the pandemic, the spectacle was downsized to a more intimate gathering, akin to Yoshi’s Jazz Club. That was the first thing that helped me enjoy it more.

 

The second was the representation of women and people of color, not only in the audience, but in the awards. Which not only shows that these previously excluded groups are more present in Hollywood, but they’re making films and the films are memorable and Oscar-worthy. And did you notice that just about every ad also featured people of color? Between the ads, the awards given and the show, it felt like the white folks might have been in the minority. Or at most around the 50% line. If I was a card-carrying white supremacist, I’d be freaked out! I’m imagining them cowering in fear, “They’re everywhere! They’re taking over!” 

 

Me, I couldn’t be happier. So long overdue and unlike white folks in power, I’ve never felt concerned that either black folks or women would start keeping me out of their neighborhood, deny me work, shoot me for driving a car, hit on me inappropriately in the workplace without shame or consequence, take away my votes and the long, long list of systemic racism and sexism suddenly reversed. Theoretically, it could happen. Being black alone is no guarantee of justice and compassion (note Papa Doc and Idi Amin) nor is being a woman a guarantee of more empathy and intelligence (see Marjorie Taylor Green and Kelly Anne Conway), but I’m not worried about it. I’m just thrilled to see the depth of humanity on display last night. 

 

And thirdly, remember when Michael Moore was booed off the Oscar stage in his acceptance speech for making political comments about the Iraq War? That was a mere 18 years ago in 2003. It was tacitly understood that politics had no place in entertainment, a luxury we now have the name for—“white privilege.” Even as recently as 2016, it was considered bold and radical for Meryl Streep to criticize you-know-who for mocking a disabled reporter. 

 

But now? Did you notice the number of people accepting awards that included reminders of the humanitarian work we all need to do? The new agreement that this is not only okay, but important? And note also that most of the time, it related to the subject of the films themselves that were tackling the issues, educating the public through expertly crafted story or documentary, helping us walk in the shoes of others, to feel the world from their perspective, to understand struggles others face that are different from the struggles we face—whichever "we" you may be. 

 

Hollywood has long been a see-saw between pure escapist fantasy, to entertainment as distraction and direct engagement with important social issues, with the scales tipped heavily to the entertainment side. The serious movies about serious issues were few and far between— Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Defiant Ones, The Miracle Worker, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and so on. 

 

But the balance is shifting. The films nominated for Best Picture dealt with issues around the elderly, the disabled, the environment, the Chicago protest in the 60’s and recent Hong Kong protests, dispossessed American nomads in the West, poverty in Appalachia, immigrants in Arkansas, racist imprisonment in Louisiana, the police murder of black activist Fred Hampton, the French resistance, a lament for a murdered black girl, health care fraud in Romania and yet more. Are you feeling this? 

 

Every day I feel an enormous shift in the wind (literally in San Francisco!), noticing how even watching movies or sit-coms from the 80’s or 90’s feels so outdated in terms of attitudes, assumptions, portrayals of women, people of color and so on. What I laughed about then suddenly seems not so funny. 

 

This is a good sign. It reveals that we are expanding our awareness at exponential rates. Just as the i-phone or computer from four years ago seems so antique, so do the attitudes and assumptions that kept systemic racism, sexism and other ism’s going seem like yesterday’s models. Time to upgrade. And we are.

 

Of course, not all. Those resistant to changing their attitudes are clinging to them like old dial phone landlines who nobody calls. But the groundswell is growing and the punchline is that the Oscars last night were a good indication of the change. I nominate last night’s show for Best Oscar Program and suggest Stacey Abrams gives the acceptance speech and receives the statue. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

To Be of Use

Yesterday was a watershed day in the slow creep toward normalcy. For the first time in 13 months, I shook hands with a stranger! And then another! I gathered with 20 vaccinated people outside without masks and then 10 of us later went inside and talked for another two hours. I talked to people I had just met. Amazing!!

 

The occasion was the 70thbirthday of a friend (Marlene) who my wife and I have known for 47 years. We gathered in a lovely greenbelt in Davis where she lives and after an hour or so of meeting her various friends individually, I took charge, got us all in a circle and orchestrated a simple formal way to mark the occasion. Go around one by one, introduce ourselves and tell where we’re from and tell the story of how we first met Marlene. Before the party, Marlene was in her attention-deflecting mode and while she agreed to the circle idea when I spontaneously proposed it, she kept emphasizing “right to pass.” Which thankfully, no one took. Why would they? They were there because they cared for her and were delighted to reach back into their history together and share their stories. And after each person spoke, Marlene said something to the group about the unique qualities of each person that she so deeply appreciated. It was so simple and so right for the occasion. 

 

But without me there, it wouldn’t have happened. People in general are not well-trained in the practice of gathering beyond the “make sure there’s lots to eat and drink,” but these little formal moments can make them much more memorable and remind us all that we are worthy of celebration and we often need these informally formal ways of reminding us and connecting us. 

 

And that’s what I do. My instinct for it given exercise with 45 years of creating, sustaining and leading school ceremonies, with the “teach like it’s music” forms of the workshops I give with enticing beginnings, connected middles and satisfying endings, all of which can make a room of strangers feel happily connected within the first ten minutes, with each and every class I’ve ever taught with children. And these skills spilling over into officiating weddings, funerals, birthday parties, Christmas caroling, neighborhood sings and yet more. I’ve figured out simple ways to make even Zoom feel more warm and intimate, from the opening Chat introductions to the closing unmute and say goodbye. 

 

None of this is boasting, simply naming the unusual blend of skills that allows me to be of use in a given occasion. Some will bring the casseroles, others see whose drinks need re-filling, some will circulate and put people together, some will stay late to wash the dishes. Each finds their own way to contribute according to their particular skills and personalities and this just happens to be mine. And what a joy it was for me to get to exercise it live (not Zoomed) after a year with so few opportunities. 

 

Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” ends with these lines:

 

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know that they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

 

The pandemic has many of us feeling like Hopi vases in a museum, but yesterday this pitcher of water was carried and poured, this person returned to his work that feels real. And after the circle of appreciation as over and people began cleaning up and saying goodbyes, a smaller group continued on to someone's nearby house. 

 

There I got into several intriguing conversations, ranging from our total ignorance of Vice-Presidents in our history to my little independent study about Frank Sinatra only to discover that Marlene’s Dad sold him a car, her mother played Mah Jong with his fourth wife and her son-in-law’s dentist grandfather worked on his teeth. Amazing! 

 

And then two other guys and I started telling jokes and I was in heaven! We mostly knew the same ones, but it was the kind of connection I’ve had before with a few people (mostly men) where one finishes a joke which immediately helps another recall a related one and on it goes. And on it went for about 25 minutes! We’d think we were done and I was standing up with keys in hand and then Boom! “So a guy walks into a bar…” and off we went for another five minutes. Fun, fun, fun!!!

 

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to get back to the kind of occasions we took for granted and the first answer is “Wonderful!” May it continue!

 

   

Saturday, April 24, 2021

History's Nightmare

 

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” —James Joyce

 

“100,000 slaves, black or mulatto, work in sugar mills, indigo and cocoa plantations, sacrificing their lives to gratify our newly acquired appetites for sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, needs unknown to our ancestors.”      - Voltaire: Essay on Morals and Customs 1756

 

So you wake up in the morning, put on your cotton shirt, get your coffee percolating, have some cereal with banana, put some sugar in the coffee, pack your lunch in a plastic bag and get in your car to go to work. It doesn’t matter if your job is to save the rainforest or destroy more to make grazing land for McDonald’s, whether you’re white, black, man, woman, gay, trans, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican. If you are alive in this moment, you are benefiting from centuries of genocide, slavery, environmental destruction, brutality. You may think you’re doing something important by choosing not to sing a song with kids that minstrels once sang, but the cotton from your shirt began in slavery’s cotton fields, the coffee or tea or sugar from other slave plantations, the bananas from the havoc wreaked in “the Banana Republic,” the plastic bag and gas for the car from the petroleum in Iraq’s fields that we killed thousands for a mere 20 years ago. Perhaps you bike to work and feel proud of that, but the rubber that made your tires came from historically from forced labor in the Congo, where King Leopold cut off worker's hands who didn't meet his quota. Oh, and if you live in the U.S. or Canada —or anywhere in North and South America or Australia, for that matter— did I mention that millions of Native Americans were displaced and killed so you could live where you do? 

 

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that sugar is bad for your teeth, weight and overall health, coffee is an addictive substance, tobacco as well and can give you lung cancer, plastic is choking the oceans and car and plane emissions are eroding the ozone layer. It’s one thing to battle over land and resources in a struggle for survival—all human groups have done so— but another thing to create so much human misery to feed our unnecessary and even harmful “newly acquired appetites.” 

 

So I repeat. No one’s hands are clean. We are all (see list above) enjoying the inheritance carved from relentless human brutality, each and every moment of our 21stcentury day. Now that you’ve read this (and watch the film Exterminate All the Brutes  for more), are you having a nice day?

 

But having recognized the story, isn’t it time to awaken from the nightmare? To understand how it keeps playing out in the daily news and still is echoing in our own breast? To consider how to refuse it, how to transform it, how to grieve for it and rise stronger to carve the new story that awaits? Watching that film above was a heavy weight on my chest, reminding me of what I already knew, but feeling beaten down by the sheer enormity of culturally-sanctioned evil yesterday, today and tomorrow. But I am a teacher of children and have taken an oath for hope, have bought a ticket on the freedom (solar-powered) train bound for the glory that also lives in us and shown its face it works of great beauty and acts of great courage and small gestures of great kindness. As I wrote to a fellow teacher who recommended the film: Such hard, hard reminders of the darkest regions of the human being sanctioned by the masses at the time who have been brainwashed into hatred and fooled into ignorance. And yet still we do our daily work to lead forth children's capacity of beauty and love in each class we teach."

 

Having woken up today, let’s do the work to truly wake up. The world is waiting.

 

 

 

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Wailing Wall Talks Back

Let’s start with one of my favorite jokes: 

 

A reporter goes to Israel to write a piece about the Wailing Wall. Every day she sits and observes the crowds coming and going and notices that there is one man in particular who comes four times a day, rain or shine. After a week, she approaches him and asks if she can interview him for the magazine. He agrees and she begins: 

 

"I notice you've come here four times every day and sat at the wall praying for at least a half an hour each visit. How long have you been doing that?"

 

The man answers: "40 years."

 

" 40 years? Four times a day every day for 40 years?"

 

"That's right."

 

"Wow. That is really devotion. May I ask you what you pray about?"

 

"I pray that parents will care for love their children and children will appreciate and respect their parents. I pray that politicians will speak the truth and serve on behalf of the people they represent. I pray that that the poor will be cared for and the rich recognize their responsibility to give back to the community. I pray that people will care for the natural world and not take more than they need. I pray that Israel and Palestine will make peace and that all religions realize that we're all children of the same God, no matter what name we give to that God."

 

The reporter, teary-eyed: "That is so beautiful. Four times a day, every day of the year for 40 years you make these prayers. Tell me, how does it feel?"

 

"Like I'm talkin' to a f*ckin' wall !!!!!"

 

 And that well described the feeling of writing letters, calling Congress, protesting the antics of he-who-shall-not-be-named for four long horrifying years. 

 

But all of that has changed. A President who can call the Floyd family and speak heart-to-heart having known great loss himself, who is taking his work seriously and getting the job done in spite of the shameless opposition, who can make a mistake like telling a story about a woman running a salon and later calling it a saloon, catching himself, laughing about it— in short, a real, hard-working, decent human being who I feel proud to share a species with is also someone I can write to thinking I can be heard and considered. Someone—especially alongside his wife Jill— I could sit down at a table with and share my ideas of education with and we could actually have a meaningful discussion. 

 

When Obama was elected, I felt as so many did, “We did it. Now we can relax and pay attention to the fine things in life—children, jazz, walks in the park— and not dirty our hands with politics. He’ll take care of things.” Biggest mistake we ever made. How severely we underestimated the doubling-down from the Republicans to demonize him and his policies, work behind the scenes to rig future votes and crank up the hate-vulnerable, refuse every offer to sit down together and mutually serve the country. 

 

So I made a vow when Biden was elected to keep on top of things—keep donating, keep in touch with the next Republican scam, keep thinking of ways I can give food to Georgia voters standing in line to vote and teach yoga to people in Alabama. And at the same time, enjoy the sensation of full inhales and exhales, stop bracing myself against every tidbit of news and let the muscles relax just a little bit. The physical, psychological, psychic assaults from those four years that have entered our bodies and minds, an ongoing relentless national trauma that filtered down to our very cells and impacted our nervous systems, is still in a healing stage.

 

But alongside the personal respite from that ongoing battering is the determination to keep moving forward, not to rest content with each new victory, but to keep it moving forward to the long-term healing we all so desperately need. To keep praying—active, focused prayer—perhaps even more fervently, when the Wailing Wall finally begins to talk back. And start building piece by piece the Rejoicing Wall. One day at a time. 

 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

4/20 Contest

Write a piece (poetry, essay or fiction) or choreograph a dance or compose a song or piece of music or make a piece of art * connecting these four facts about April 20:

 

1. 4/20 is Cannabis Day

 

2. 4/20 is Hitler's birthday.

 

3. 4/20 is when the Chauvin verdict was delivered (virtually the first of its kind holding a white policeman accountable for killing a black person).

 

4. 4/20 is the day of Columbine School shooting.

 

First prize is an ounce of weed, a copy of Mein Kamf to burn, a Black Lives Matter statue for your yard and a lifelong pledge to take down the NRA.

 

Go!


If you choose to make a piece of art, note that this day was also Joan Miro’s birthday.

 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The New 4/20

A shift in the wind. A turn of the tide. A watershed moment. The tipping point. A turn at the crossroads. Choose whatever image you like— something monumental happened yesterday with the George Floyd verdict. The notion that murder is a crime unless you are white person—policeman or civilian—killing a black person has taken its first step toward a radical new notion in America: Murder is a crime. Period. And you will pay. 

 

Imagine you’re a kid torturing your little brother or sister or a mean kid at school bullying others or a grown man abusing his wife. Of course you need some form of counselling to examine what’s missing in you that you feel you need to hurt others, but the first step is that you need to be in a society that clearly condemns such actions, refuses to excuse them with “that’s just the way things are” or “boys will be boys” or “it builds character” or “I did it and I turned out all right” or a thousand other ways the enablers excuse unacceptable behavior. 

 

And the second step is clear consequence. Fear of punishment doesn’t wholly deter people from doing bad things, but this much is clear— a history of no consequence absolutely feeds our worst impulses and gives explicit permission to keep doing it. And when it comes to police—or civilians—killing innocent black folks for little or no reason, it clearly has kept the door open to repeated incidents that showed no signs of stopping. Until now.

 

I’m not na├»ve, I’m not suggesting that after yesterday, we’re done with police violence against people of color. But the wind that has always been at their back now has turned around to slam them in the face and I believe they’re going to finally start paying attention. The moral arc of justice that has been beaten back with each new horror story reached its long overdue tipping point and it is pointing the other way. The systematic bullying, abuse and yes, murder that has gone on for so long unpunished has finally hit a line that says clearly—“Here’s where it stops. Step over it and you will face the consequences.”

 

Now white folks in general and police in particular, consider this. If I had to advise black folks on what they must do to stop being murdered, the list would be something like this:


• Don’t drive in your car.

• Don’t walk in a neighborhood.

• Don’t sell cigarettes or CD’s on the street.

• Don’t sit on your couch eating ice cream. 

• Don’t stand in your yard with a cell phone in your hand.

• Don’t sleep in your bed. 

 

If I had to advise white folks what to do to avoid going to jail in this new world to come?


• Stop murdering black folks. 

 

George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michelle Cusseaux, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson and others killed by police in the last six years, Emmet Till and the three thousand plus people murdered by lynching, I wish each and every one of you could have had the God-given right to live out your life here on earth. I can’t imagine how hard it was to have your life snatched away without having done a single thing wrong and how maddening it would feel that your murderers got away with it. I’d like to imagine you gathering today in the other world, kept alive by this new movement to “remember your names” and witnessing this historic moment. It is renewed flicker of hope from the candle of light and love and justice. 

 

White folks who still think you have the luxury of deciding whether you “believe in” white privilege or not, read those names again or better yet, go to this Website and read the synopsis of their story—what they were doing, how the police responded, what the consequences for the police were. And then we’ll talk. https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2020/know-their-names/index.html

 


Meanwhile, on 4/20 when some folks (most white) were out celebrating their freedom to smoke pot, a long-deferred justice came to pass. May this milestone be the new 4/20, a  National Day of Remembrance and Re-commitment to Justice. 

 

 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Night with John Coltrane

“If you could go back in time and have dinner with anyone you choose, who would it be?” 

 

This popular interview question is always thought-provoking. Should anyone ever ask me, I might mention Charles Dickens or Joseph Campbell or Martin Luther King, but after last night’s Jazz History class, my time-machine moment is clear. 

 

I want to be in the front row at the Village Vanguard listening to the John Coltrane Quartet play A Love Supreme. At midnight. 

 

Mind you, they never did play that extended composition there, but hey, this is my fantasy so I can arrange it however I want. And then after playing some other tunes— perhaps Giant Steps or Bessie’s Blues, Johnny Hartmann would come on stage at 2am in the morning and sing They Say It’s Wonderful while I slow danced with the love of my life. And indeed, I can’t imagine anything more wonderful.

 

But since fantasy is fantasy, I did the next best thing. Played Pursuance from  A Love Supreme for my Jazz Class and even with the wimpy computer sound (and hey, tech people, with all your innovations, don’t you think you could have turned the sound up on these damn machines?!), Coltrane’s horn entering at four minutes and sixteen seconds penetrated straight to the heart and yet deeper to the soul and took me (and hopefully the class) for a wild ride that expressed everything at once—grief, joy, rage, beauty, the heart-wrenching sadness and euphoria of simply being alive inextricably mixed and dancing together in his extraordinary solo. All the stormy turbulence and turmoil of the daily news gathered up in a whirling frenzy of tones and given a voice that brings shape and meaning to it all. If you’re listening—really listening—all the petty emotions of your small life are washed away in a tidal wave of intensity that grows you larger than you ever thought possible. 

 

And then as you emerge from it all in a daze, on comes Johnny Hartmann to comfort and soothe and hold you close and let you settle into the sweetness of a love much larger than you’ve ever been able to give, much larger than you’ve ever been able to receive. When class is over, you get up from your chair a different person than when you sat down and that is what great art can do to you, what a good class can do for you. Rilke said:

 

If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do

by some immense storm we would become strong too… 

When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small.  

 

Coltrane is the storm that gives us strength beyond our imagination and yet we’re content to just tap our toe to the pop pablum served daily. Well, as I said, this is my fantasy not yours. But may I suggest you take time one day to lie down on the floor between two speakers or with your phone and high-quality headphones and immerse yourself wholly in A Love Supreme? Or Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s 9thSymphony, Ravi Shankar playing sitar, Keith Jarrett’s Kohn Concert? Treat yourself to a wrestling match with great art and let yourself be thrown down, kneaded and shaped to a new and greater self. 

 

Whoever was beaten by this Angel …went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

 

  

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Mystery of the Missing Word

It’s no secret that politics is everywhere these days, not only because of the instant accessibility of the Internet and the 24/7 addiction, but because we just lived through the horror of what happens when people (mostly white, but not entirely) think that they can either ignore it or chose a side and dig in their heels to insult and attack the other. 

 

Everyone has their theory about how to fix it, from abolish the Republican Party (great idea! but of course, another will spring up) to better law enforcement, both from police and the judicial system, to passing the bills in Congress that help people rather than hurt them, to more accountability for transgression in every walk of life, to better education. 

 

I’m in the “all of the above” camp, but particularly interested in education. But the issue isn’t that people who make bad choices, whether in the voting booth, the bedroom or the halls of Congress, are not intelligent enough. They may have done perfectly well on their SAT’S, gone to Harvard or Yale and still graduated using their intelligence to harm rather than help, to feed their greed over their generosity, to amass personal power over helping create cultural well-being, 

 

But from my perspective, the biggest failing is missing a name. It’s not a simple SEL label, which seems to be mostly about an individual feeling better about themselves, nor a moral issue, as the rioters are convinced that they are defending God and country, nor a spiritual problem, as many New Agers in touch with the nuances of their biorhythms and the ability to follow their breath don’t seem to understand they need to say something about policemen taking away other people’s (mostly black people’s) breath. A failure of imagination gets closer, as the ability to imagine the humanity and needs of the other, to imagine new solutions to new problems, has devolved to imagination as fantasy, the vulnerability to believing in far-flung conspiracy theories. I have an idea about the faculty we all possess that needs attention, but don’t quite have a name for it. So let me come in through a description. 

 

In her poem Flare, the poet Mary Oliver wrote: 

 

My father

was a demon of frustrated dreams, 

 a breaker of trust, 

a poor, thin boy with bad luck.

He followed God, there being no one else

he could talk to;

He swaggered before God, there being no one else

who would listen.…

 

Later in the poem she writes,

 

The voice of the child howling out of the tall, bearded,

muscular man, 

is a misery, and a terror.

 

How this jumped out having just read these sentences from Ijeoma Oluo’s new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America: 

 

Why do these white men need to be angry at us? People of color are convenient scapegoats for white people who are disappointed by life’s outcomes. We are also the distraction that those in power point to when they want to void the blame for this country’s vast wealth and opportunity gaps. 

 

Do you feel the connection? Ms. Oliver’s father as a “demon of frustrated dreams,” that tall, muscular bearded man howling with his childish voice—and there were many of them in the Capitol insurrection— causing so much misery and terror to us all. And then those people in power teaming up with Fox News and hate radio to purposefully feed that anger with the lies of stolen elections and dangerous black people and affirmative action people of color coming for their jobs, all for their own power and profit and privilege.

 

So yes, legal action like throwing the rioters in jail and impeaching their supporters in Congress, legislation that limits Right Wing media’s power to keep feeding the lies, holding Twitter and Facebook to that same standard— all of this would help. But it doesn’t get down to the root of the cancer. 

 

Imagine with me that white men—and of course, all people— were given an education that led them to their own genius untethered from the fantasy of power and money as some standard of success. That they began to court failure as hints from the soul as to how to stand up stronger instead of whine like a child. That they were educated into the connections between their wounds and their gifts. That they grew up amongst caring people who would actually listen to them rather than converse with some indifferent imaginary God. These people would not be vulnerable to blaming others, to scapegoating, could see these vicious tactics from the Right for what they are and refuse complicity in the big lie that these politicians put forth and then laugh behind closed doors. The vicious trickery to poor whites that “Hey, you’re one of us. Just because you’re white, you’re better than them. And sure, just work hard and you can have 10 cars and a yacht too!” Snicker, snicker, snicker. 

 

But what is the name for this quality I’m trying to capture here? It’s not precisely character or morality or emotional intelligence. It’s not exactly mental health and psychological well-being, while closer, is too clinical. Finding the language for something is the first step toward understanding and needed change, but the needed term eludes me. 

 

But whatever the term, it is the best road I can imagine to long-term and effective healing. Once you refuse to vilify the other, reject basing your identity on fantasies of superiority bequeathed to you without any effort on your part, determine to strive harder to fulfill your promise, everything changes. For you personally and the culture at large. Everyone wins. 

 

But it’s not available on Amazon.com or by purchasing an ap. It takes a long, long concerted effort, mostly by you, but also by those surrounding you. It’s not just your individual problem, it’s a cultural collective problem that needs everyone on board. Schools, workplaces, churches, neighborhoods, wherever people gather. 

 

So join me in the search for the right term and then we can gather our personal and collective energies and get to work. Help me solve the mystery of the missing word. Any ideas?