Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Return to Civilization


For three nights and four days, I lived a life in the 21st century without once opening a computer, checking a phone, driving in a car or watching TV.  I also didn’t shave, never used deodorant, never looked in a mirror and pretty much wore the same pants and shirt the whole time. I never had a sip of beer, wine or coffee (but did have a cup of peppermint tea). I never looked a single thing up on Google when faced with an interesting question nor read a single news headline nor even wondered what I was missing. Instead the daily news was on the order of how cool the lake would be this morning, when the afternoon wind would come up and disturb our card game, when the evening mosquitos would send us running into the tent. As mentioned last post, this was my return to backpacking


Today, our little three-generation team of my granddaughter, daughter and I hiked out, got a can of cold coconut water at the Echo Lake little store, got in our cars and went our separate ways, them north toward Portland, me southwest to San Francisco. I drove for over 90 minutes simply enjoying the aftermath of our voluntary time-out from civilization, savoring the changes from 7000 feet altitude in the Sierra Mountains descending to the Sacramento Valley. 


When I stopped for lunch, I still avoided the newspaper headline in front of the sandwich shop, but out of curiosity, got my phone out of airplane mode and peeked at the number of messages. 167 to be exact. Unread, unanswered. My signature would not be on some five dozen petitions, I would miss announced plays or new books, maybe 10 of all of them would be from people who needed an answer for something coming up that I’m involved in, but just might figure it out without me. Some 20 people I know would have birthdays without me greeting them on Facebook. And yet the world goes on. We are so much less important than we think we are. 


Down, down I descended, now in company with some chosen music and a new Audible book. The breathtaking beauty of the mountains now leveled down to the typical mollification of the land and big-laned freeways. San Francisco finally came into view, capped with its signature summer hat of fog. Over the bridge and off the freeway to be greeted by the homeless panhandlers on the side of the road, the cold, grey air, the lights that tell you to stop and start. Back to civilization.


In my younger days, I would imagine the backpacker’s experience as the more authentic of the two, the way folks have lived for thousands of years—well, minus actually hunting, fishing, berry-picking for sustenance. Instead, equipped with a state-of-the-art technology that makes my earlier backpacking look primitive by comparison. The just-add-water Thai curries or chicken teriyakis in the bag, the amazing 90-second water purifier, the lean and light tents put up in a minute or two, the compressed sleeping-bags inside backpacks with perfectly distributed weight and many ingenious pockets, zippers and straps, the reading lights— it’s a whole new world out there! 


And even though I took along the human-centered baggage of cards, crostics, word games, books, etc., it was a lot of time just breathing in sky and stars and shimmering lake water, of scrambling over rocks and crossing log-bridges and traversing green meadows, time to notice bugs and birds and bees. And particularly lovely to share it all with my 9-year old granddaughter Zadie, who was a trooper, genuinely appreciated it and overall did great. So it's tempting to shout out: “Let’s all return to nature!”


But to be perfectly honest, 4-weeks short of my 70thbirthday, I found the physical challenges surprisingly difficult. This 3- mile hike uphill with a 35-lb or more pack on my back was really quite different from my daily 5-mile pack-less walk in Golden Gate Park. I found out that this old body is not really happy to sit on granite slabs, climb the rocks down to the water, sleep on the ground (even on an air-filled sleeping pad). I discovered that the kind of balance one needs for mountain-goat rock scampering is not what it used to be. It was at first a bit sobering that soaking in the beauty and silence didn’t automatically bring me Thoreauvian epiphanies. Is my soul, like my body, less limber than it used to be?


But there are many paths to the spirit. My more well-practiced ones of sitting zazen on a meditation pillow, writing on the computer in a comfortable desk chair, playing piano on a solid level piano bench, watching a show on a comfortable couch, is a bit more to my taste as this stage in my life. Controlling the temperature of the shower (unavailable at the lake) suits me just fine and opening a cold beer is pretty good too! In short, civilization has its downfalls, but at the moment, feels darn good. Off for my beer. Cheers!

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Off the Grid

In the past five or ten summers, my wife has often backpacked in the Sierras with our daughter Talia. My summers have been filled with Orff workshops, so I’ve always regretfully declined and feigned jealousy—while secretly a little glad not to go through the rigmarole of having to pack, sleep on hard ground, carry 40 pound backpacks and battle mosquitos. 


But this summer, for obvious reasons, I only have one live Orff workshop. No more excuses. And it was billed as my granddaughter’s first backpack trip ever. How could I resist? Ironically, my wife had to bow out as she struggles with hard-to-identify (but ten doctors are trying) back pain, so it’s just the three of us heading up to a mountain lake tomorrow for four days. Sounds lovely, yes?


But on Thursday, I had some notable tooth pain, on Friday decided to brave the dentist and get it identified as a fractured root canal in my wisdom tooth, with an appointment to get it extracted as soon as I return from the backpack trip. Fun, fun, fun! Today, I got antibiotics at Walgreens for the tidy sum of $97 and would have researched joining an anti-pharmaceutical political group if it weren’t for the fact that I had to pack. From sleeping bag to lip balm, bear cannisters filled with food to a deck of cards, clothes for 90 degree weather during the day and cooler at night. I’m exhausted already.


Then there’s the three-hour drive leaving at 7am and the anxiety of getting a parking spot, with the penalty an extra-mile and a half of hiking if I don’t. Finally, of course, the nagging question— 4 weeks short of my 70th birthday, can I really do this? I have been walking around 5 miles a day or biking around 10 for a whole year, so I think I’m in pretty good shape. But none of it was with a heavy pack on my back scrabbling up rocky paths. While encouraging a 9-year old to “Keep going! We’re almost there!”


My hope, of course, is that I will spend many memorable days soothed by the silence, invigorated by the lake, taking time to watch the sun set and lie down awash in the stars overhead. A chance to get off the grid and stop checking my e-mail or reaching for my phone. A chance to quiet the mind and discover if there’s still worthy thoughts and feelings beneath the tumult of the world. 

If you note a sudden silence in these almost daily posts, that’s why. See you in July!


Friday, June 25, 2021

Third Childhood

Rummy 500, jigsaw puzzle, paddleball, biking to ice cream, Go-Car, Mechanical Museum games, composing music for four rubber pigs, two chickens and a duck, working at the Food Bank, Nine to Five and Sea Biscuit videos at home with popcorn, In the Heights  at the movie theater, baking cookies, making buckwheat pancakes, putting make-up on me and a wig, two playgrounds, walk on the beach, parallel silent reading, hugs, snuggles, much laughter and occasional eye rolls, deep discussions— that’s been my week. As you might guess, my granddaughter is visiting. 


I loved Peter Pan growing up and watching my father pay bills did not entice me to aspire to adulthood. And so I fell into a job where I played clapping games with kids, sang songs like “Boom Boom! Ain’t It Great to Be Crazy!,” danced to all sorts of music, made all sorts of music and generally had a rollicking good time—and got paid for it! And then when I taught adults, I created an instant community of spirited children inside of adult bodies that were so starved to play again! And I got paid for that! 


I also did end up paying bills and voting and being stern with children when they needed it 

and being serious about the great matters of life and death when the occasion called for it. I learned the difference between “childish” and “childlike” and understood that life is too serious to not play your way through it, too much fun not to be taken seriously. 


And so Peter Pan didn’t get it all right— too much denial of the necessary evolution to a responsible adulthood. But he was on the right track. 


I won't grow up (I won't grow up), 
I don't wanna go to school (I don't wanna go to school)
Just to learn to be a parrot (Just to learn to be a parrot)
And recite a silly rule (And recite a silly rule)

If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree
I'll never grow up never grow up, never grow up, never grow up
Not me! (Not I!) Not me! (Not me!)


I won't grow up, I don't wanna wear a tie
And a serious expression, In the middle of July
And if it means I must prepare ,to shoulder burdens with a worried air
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, so there!


So I did decide to go to school and teach there for 45 years, but was a place where we taught the kids to sing their own song instead of parroting others, to understand when rules here important and when they weren’t and when they can be broken and why all of the above. I dressed casually (no tie) and with summers to travel and teach and vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan, I never wore an unnecessarily serious expression in July— or any other month! 


 And how did adulthood go for you? If you need help, I suggest consulting the nearest kid.


Thursday, June 24, 2021

Gay Pride and Beyond

In the midst of a writing project teaching 5thto 8thgraders about jazz and social justice—particularly racism— it feels important to also touch on sexism, homophobia and other constricting social constructs that made jazz musicians’ lives (amongst countless others!) difficult— and always unnecessarily so. Here I write about Billy Strayhorn, both because he deserves a place in the lineage of memorable jazz artists and because he had some particular struggles that other jazz musicians didn’t Note that this material is ©2021 Doug Goodkin and not to be shared without permission— but certainly to be pondered and followed up on by listening to Mr. Strayhorn’s extraordinary music. In honor of Gay Pride Month, in honor of ongoing anti-racism work, in honor of music education and in honor of the human capacity for expression, beauty, resilience, perseverance and more, here it is:


Imagine being a black man in a racist society. Imagine a man loving a man in a homophobic culture. Imagine a black man loving a white man in a country where both gay and bi-racial marriage is illegal. Imagine being a sensitive artist in a nation that wanted men to be macho males and ruthless businessmen. Imagine an extraordinary friendship with a fellow artist who often got the credit for things you created. Welcome to the life of Billy Strayhorn. 


Billy Strayhorn worked side by side with Duke Ellington, helping to arrange music for the band, composing some pieces with Duke and composing some of his own that Duke sometimes got credit for! Because Billy’s personality was more shy and retiring and Duke was full of magnetic charm that lit up every room he walked into, the arrangement seemed to suit them both. At least until Billy stopped getting credit for famous tunes like Take the A Train!  Duke always paid him well, but still it’s good to be known for what one does!


Billy was different in another way, being an openly gay man in a time when such things were usually hidden. He was proud of both his black identity and his sexuality long before James Brown could exclaim, “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” and before Gay Pride Parades were commonplace. He was very aware of the importance of the Civil Rights movement and someone who often came to visit him whenever he was in New York was his none other than Martin Luther King! He had come one night to visit Duke Ellington’s doctor, Arthur Logan and Billy Strayhorn got him into the kitchen to help him cook. That was enough to begin an ongoing friendship! The Logans hosted many fund-raising events in their home for Dr. King’s work and Billy Strayhorn always played piano at them. 


Billy and his good friend, the singer Lena Horne, traveled to the South together to meet with organizers of the Civil Rights Movement and help them with fundraising through benefit performances. They both were present at the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. 


Billy died too young at 51 years old from cancer. At his Memorial Service, Duke Ellington spoke and said: 


 Because he had a rare sensitivity and applied himself to his gifts, Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody words and harmony. His greatest virtue was his honesty, not only to others, but to himself. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms:


• Freedom from hate. Unconditionally.

• Freedom for self-pity—even throughout all the pain and bad news. 

• Freedom from fear of doing something that might help another more than himself.

• Freedom from the kind of pride that makes people feel they’re better than their neighbor. 


These are the freedoms that take effort to achieve. To climb higher up the mountain of human kindness is difficult, but the view is marvelous. Billy Strayhorn always signed his letters: “Ever onward and upward!” We would do well to follow his example. 



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Education and Catastrophe

“We are in a race between education and catastrophe.”  -H.G. Wells


Let me introduce the contestants: In this corner, Catastrophe!


• My daughter reports it was 107 in Portland, Oregon yesterday. 

• We found a dead whale as we walked on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Apparently one of fourteen recently noted. 

• Mitch McConnell still exists. And he is using power he never deserved to block the most simple of democratic principles. 




In this corner, Education! 


• Yesterday, Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to openly declare that he is gay. A professional FOOTBALL player. 

• I walk the streets with my mixed-race granddaughter and no one blinks an eye. As far as I know, she’s made it through 9 years without anyone publicly insulting her based on race. 

• Joe Biden is President. Kamala Harris is Vice-President. Barack Obama was President.




Because Zadie is visiting, I don’t believe I have time to do justice to the main point I want to make. Or will have to be (gasp!) uncharacteristically succinct. But here it is in three Acts:


ACT ONE: Watching old movies and reading old books, I’m struck by what was commonplace and accepted as the norm within my lifetime seems so weird and unacceptable now. I’m talking about things like sexual harassment at the workplace (all levels), domestic abuse, child abuse, religious discrimination, homophobia and anything and everything that has to do with race.


ACT TWO: Though it’s clear there are plenty— and indeed, far too many— “unwoke” people still walking the streets, voting and getting media attention, I believe there are more people than ever before, both numbers and percentages, who clearly understand how human beings might finally treat each other with kindness and decency. Jokes, behavior, talk, stories, values that fueled hatred, discrimination, false superiority, unearned privilege are losing ground—yesterday’s norm is today’s unacceptable. What was cool back then is uncool now.


Take smoking. Look at the photos of Greta Garbo and Lauren Bacall and James Dean and Marlon Brando, of Billie Holiday and Lester Young and Miles Davis and Bill Evans, all those icons of cool—and every one of them smoking.  Now if you’re a smoker, you’re hiding out in some back alley somewhere and embarrassed if you’re caught. 


Same with all the signs of intolerance and toughness. A mere 30 to 40 years ago, you were insulted if you were black or a white person befriending blacks, if you were gay or a straight person befriending gays, if you were a woman or a man embracing the feminist movement. None of that was cool. Now it’s the opposite. If you’re intolerant and still attached to some macho tough stance, you are thoroughly uncool. Of course, not to WAY TOO MANY people, the ones showing up a T….. Rallies. But overall, in the media, in intelligent public discourse, in the overall direction the Rainbow Coalition flag is blowing in the wind, more and more people are waking up to the simple truths of how to raise better kids in better schools in better societies with better food and better exercise and better health care and better self-care.


ACT THREE: Think about it. It’s not hard to think of a thousand ways we seem to be worse versions of ourselves today than we were yesterday, but I believe the evidence points in the other direction. More people know more about what it takes to be free of the crippling limitations of blind intolerance, but just as we’re getting close to finally justify evolution’s long patient process, the whales start washing up on the shores in 107 degree heat. It is indeed a race. Can we make it in time? We’re so close to getting it right—or at least knowing what’s needed to get it right—but we could be brought down by the consequences of our historied greed, ignorance and ill-will just as we’re in sight of the finish line. 


Let’s commit to the right team in the relay race. Train yourself, eat well, work as a time and of course, hydrate. But not with those damn plastic water bottles!


Monday, June 21, 2021

Father's Day

If I hadn’t been a father, I wouldn’t have met my 9-year-old granddaughter yesterday at the gate for her first flight alone.


I wouldn’t have gone straight to her Tita’s house (her aunt, my daughter) and witnessed their always loving and joyful reunion. 


I wouldn’t have ridden with her in a Go-Cart around downtown San Francisco, then watched a street break-dance group and then play games at the newly re-opened Mechanical Museum. 


There would have been no taco dinner with my wife and daughter and no time spent finding the straight-edges in my new sushi jigsaw puzzle (photo of sushi, not made from rice!). 


There would have been no evening video, sharing one of my favorite movies that totally held up—Nine to Five, with its look at the men that we don’t want any more in this world and the women that we do. 


So hooray for fatherhood for what it was and what it is and for the way that it led to grandfatherhood. I love it all. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

In Prison with E.D. Hirsch

Let me confess. I, like everyone, am constantly judging my fellow human beings— sometimes generously, sometimes harshly. This is natural.  Who we dislike and why we dislike them is one of the ways we cultivate our own values, one of the ways we grow a self. If we are lucky, we mature enough to criticize the behavior rather than the person, coming to realize that the behavior is not the whole person. That is a handy thing to know when teaching children and trying to guide them toward a better version of themselves.


If we mature a bit more, we might come to realize that the very quality we don't like seeing in others is a hidden part of ourselves that we need to come to grips with. It's much easier to dismiss someone else, of course, than own the fact that the same dynamic is at work within ourself. 

And if we mature yet further, we make an attempt to hear a person’s story. A child curled up in the corner refusing to participate in our music class or acting out bothering others makes us an unsympathetic and frustrated teacher as they thwart our lesson plan. But if we take the time to talk to them later and discover that their loving grandmother had just passed away, we immediately switch from anger to sympathy. 


Of course, this is a challenge when the behavior turns truly destructive. No police are likely to have the time, energy, inclination to ask terrorists holding innocent people hostage why they’re being so mean. And even if we did hear their life story and understood better what led them to this action, we still need to stop their behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. 


And so I arrive at E.D. Hirsch, the Southern University professor who wrote the best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know and then further versions: What Every 1stGrader Should Know, What Every 2nd Grader Should Know etc. The book was based on this premise that Americans need to recover a sense of shared cultural knowledge, both to empower them as informed voters and unite them as fellow citizens with a shared socio-political vision. Sounds good, yes?


And yet. while including some 22 European classical music composers and such musical forms as the sonata and the fugue, he only includes 4 American jazz musicians and unforgivably so, leaves out THE BLUES!!!!!!!!! How could he do that?!!! And what made him think that he alone, a white male university professor, had the knowledge, the insight, the depth and breadth of cultural knowledge and vision, to decide all by himself what every American needs to know? Did it even once occur to him to gather a committee including black folks, Latinx people, Native Americans, women, poor people, rich people, middle class people, LGTB people, elders, kids, artists, scientists, politicians, cab drivers, disabled people, etc. etc. and again, etc.? Or at least have them as readers of the first-draft before submitting it?  And once again, how could he leave out the blues?!!!!


After raking him over the coals to my 8th grade students all these years, and more recently, to my adult Jazz History students, it struck me that while he is accountable, the transgression is not his alone. Why didn’t the publishers notice what a weird premise this was? His editors? His friends reading the first draft? What about all those folks who bought the book? His reviewers? Did the blues ever come on to his radar screen and did he consciously reject it? Or did he grow up in the United States of America not knowing anything about it? And here the accountability goes back yet further. If the latter, why didn’t his teachers teach him? How did he get to be a University Professor with such an underdeveloped education.? How could all of this happened (or not happen)?


And the answer in two words: White Privilege. The entire-deeply-embedded-often-invisible infrastructure of White Privilege that allowed him and millions others to go through their days ignorant of the power of the blues and its place in American musical culture and its place in the history of social injustice and the first steps to healing. Sure, a lot of these folks listened to and enjoyed Rock Around the Clock, Hound Dog, Rockin’ Robin, Charlie Brown, Johnny B. Goode, Barbra Ann, I Got You (alias I Feel Good), Money, Route 66, Highway 61 Revisited, Crossroads and hundreds more rock and roll hits without ever considering that these are all 12-bar blues, without understanding who Bill Haley, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream and countless others were indebted to, as well as Chuck Berry, the Coasters, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and countless more black artists. Why don’t we know that? Well, now you know. And that gives you the responsibility to know more and to pass it on to others.

In my 8thgrade class, I sentence E.D. Hirsch to a prison term where he has to listen to every blues ever recorded and every song derived from the blues 8 hours a day and have the class imagine how long his prison sentence would be. So, dear reader, you might turn yourself in and volunteer to do the same. Then let me know when you get out. 


Such a delightful and powerful life-changing prison sentence that would be!

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Blues Trail

During this long year, I thought that each re-acquaintance with the life I used to take for granted would be accompanied by bells and whistles and the fireworks of renewed appreciation. Things like hugging friends, shaking hands with strangers, eating indoors in restaurants, re-uniting live with the men’s group— all of which I’ve done and can honestly report just felt like the next day since I’d last done it, no big deal. Happy to do it, but no sense of deep astonishment and high-opera appreciation. 


But the other night, I went into a movie theater and saw a movie called The Blues Trail Revisited. Just sitting there in that home away from home where I’ve passed so many hours swept up into the big screen and taken to other worlds, the ritual of popcorn and lights dimming and coming attractions (before the damn commercials came in), sitting amidst strangers now fellow voyagers, shaking oneself back to reality as the lights came up and if the movie was good— and naturally, they certainly all weren’t!— that sense of arising refreshed, just a slightly different person than the one who sat down. And if the movie was extraordinary, that sense of not wanting to get up, but sit through the very last credit where you find out who cleaned up the lemonade the star spilled that was brought by another person who got it at another store and transported it in this or that particular limousine service. (Have you ever noticed the details of the people who’ve worked on a movie?) It felt so good to be back in the old Balboa Theater, a noteworthy homecoming.


This film was about two college students traveling to Mississippi in 1971 armed with a funky camera and recording equipment in search of old black blues players. Then rediscovering that forgotten film material cleaning out the garage and deciding to return 50 years later to the same places and film that journey as well. (Made all the more interesting because one of the people was a parent alum from my school!) In the first part, we meet some country blues legends like Son House, Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes and others whose names I didn’t know, but were certainly worth knowing. It’s clear that though some of them achieved modest national recognition through recordings, they were just folks back home and of course, largely ignored (or ill-treated by) their white neighbors. 

In the return visit, suddenly there is renewed interest and pride in the blues legacy of Mississippi and a now official blues trail with markers noting what happened here or there and who we should thank for their music. Clarksdale, Mississippi, has its own blues festival and Delta Blues Museum and claims itself as either birthplace or part-time home of such blues greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke and others. Clubs with local blues singers, young and old, abound and this roots music that informed so much that followed—jazz, boogie-woogie, R & B, funk and beyond— is finally being given some of the recognition it deserved. 


During the question and answer period with filmmaker Ted Reed and that alum parent, Tim Treadway, how I wanted to stand up and tell two important stories about how the blues has not been recognized in mainstream America. But I resisted in deference to the venue (they were asking for questions, not teaching moment!). But here you are, captive to this post, so I’ll tell one here and one in the next post.  


It’s no secret that the British rock invasion— the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Animals, Dave Clark Five, etc— began with this young English lads listening day and night to recordings by many of the black blues musicians mentioned above. So when the Beatles disembarked from the plane on their first visit to the U.S., one of the many reporters who swarmed around them asked: “What do you want to see first in America? The Statue of Liberty? The Empire State Building? The Washington Monument? Disneyland?” 


John Lennon replied: “We want to see Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.”


The reporter answered, confused: “Where’s that?”


John Lennon looked down at him and said: “Seems like you Americans don’t know your own national heroes.”


And of course, he was right. And most of us still don’t. (Are you running to Google to look up these two people? Come on, admit it!). Stay tuned for Part II which absolves you of some responsibility if you didn’t know these artists—but not all of it!

P.S. And Happy Juneteenth! Educating yourself about the blues is a perfect way to celebrate!

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Summer of Our Discontent

… is a title I fervently hope we will not use come September. While no ostrich in the sand when it comes to climate change, still I’m particularly sensitive to the dire predictions and find it hard to face the end of life as we know it on this planet. I suspect I’m not alone in this. I do have some unfounded faith that there are larger spiritual forces at work that will help pull us back from the precipice, but not naively so. I take seriously the punch line of this joke: 


A novice yogi was taught by his Master  that God would provide. One day he sat in the middle of a road in deep meditation when a man riding an elephant approached and shouted at him to get out of the way before he was trampled. The yogi thought:


“God is good and the universe is beneficent and I am one with the whole cosmos. Why should I worry about a mere elephant? God will take care of me.”


The elephant reached the young man and swept him briskly away with his trunk into nearby bramble bushes, where he emerged scratched, bruised and severely injured. He crawled to the Master and said, “You told me that God would provide! Look what happened!”


The Master replied: “Did I not teach you that God lives in all things? That the elephant driver is God and the elephant is God and you are God?”


“Yes, Master.”


“Therefore, that was God on top of God shouting at God to get out of the way! Why didn’t you listen?!”


In other words, we have to do our part. And facing what lies ahead is step one.


So this is just to say that normally, summer for me, a lifelong teacher, is the essence of life lived well, with leisure, family barbecues, fresh corn and tomatoes, peaches and cherries and fresh-picked blueberries, lazy days on a beach, walks in the woods, floating on a lake looking up at the clouds, the bells of the ice cream truck, fireflies at night, August meteor showers, long lazy days outdoors getting off the wheel of busyness and letting summer soak in. 


And yet now I face it all with a bit of dread. Now summer is starting to mean wildfires out of control, hurricanes, record heat-waves, higher sunscreens. Instead of the invitation to relax into it all, I’m finding myself just a little bit tense with anxiety about what’s to come—not so much wondering if it will come, but when and at what intensity. It’s not a happy feeling. 


I don’t believe in mere wishful thinking, but I do believe in the need for hope, coupled with the actions of naming the elephants in the room and then listening to their warnings and acting accordingly. With a President who cares about this and isn’t hiding, with a population feeling the first-hand effects and less-inclined to deny, there are some glimmers of a more optimistic view. In another words:


Biden ain’t hidin’, on this you can rely

With scientists he’s sidin’ and refuses to deny, 

(Okay, stop me before I resume my Dougie-Fresh wannabe-rapper identity.)


Meanwhile, my fervent hopes for a happy summer.  

P.S. The morning news after I wrote this? "Tropical storm Claudette swamps the Gulf Coast." Aargh!

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Cycles of Maintenance

While so much of our attention is on some forward-moving trajectory, have you ever stopped and thought about how much of our actual live is lived in cycles great and small?  It would be interesting to add up the hours spent each day, each week, each month, each year, engaged in maintenance, the constant renewal of things that wind down and need re-winding. A short list (with many variants possible): 


Several times a day

• Eat and drink

• The opposite

• Brush your teeth (I hope!)

• Wash your hands

• Wash the dishes (or load the dishwasher)

• Charge the phone

• Check your e-mail


Once a day

• Make the bed

• Unload the dishwasher or dish drainer

• Feed your pet

• Shower/ Shave

• Get dressed

• Sleep


Once a week

• Food shopping

• Laundry

• Water plants

• Take out garbage/ recycling/ compost

• Gas in the car (hopefully longer)

• Clean computer screen


Once every month, two or three

• Cut nails

• Haircut

• Air in bike tires

• Check the oil in the car

• Replace ink cartridges in computer

• Take out a new pen


Once a year

• Get some new underwear (every 5 years if you’re male)


And so amidst the more profound meditations about collapse and renewal, comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes, these little reminders that nails grow and need cutting and then start growing again, incense sticks run out and need replacing and then burn down again, things get dirty and need washing and then get dirty again. Quirky ways to mark the passing of time and to invest in the next round. 


Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe it’s time to clean my computer screen.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

True Spouse


I can’t remember the last time I wrote a poem, but wrote two yesterday. Here’s one of them: 


Who is this who awakens with me each morning 


and walks with me through each day?



There’s one who, like everyone else, 


wants to be like everyone else, 


wants to be liked by everyone else, 


wants to like everyone else. 



And then there’s the one that is my true spouse, 


who whispers to me the poems or songs it wants written, 

                       the life it wants lived, 


the one who nudges me to pay attention to things 


            I’d otherwise pass by. 


The one who stepped into the party, 


                        saw me and exclaimed, 


“That’s the one I’m going to marry. 


That’s the one I will spend the rest of my life with.”


The Horse and the Tractor


“When a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relations. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.”        - John Steinbeck; The Grapes of Wrath

Many years back, the Green Gulch Zen Center had to decide whether to buy a horse or a tractor to help clear the land for the garden. They knew the tractor was easier and more efficient, but engaged in a practice of connection, of deep understanding and profound relationship and the restoration of wonder, they wisely chose the horse. 


Needless to say, in the culture at large, the tractor has won hands down, the enormous monoculture farm has swallowed the small multi-faceted family farm (though now some renaissance at Farmer’s Markets) and the sense of intimacy and connection to the land and to the work has suffered. Ease and speed and size and efficiency is what drives our decision-making and the warmth and vitality of the living horse is given over to the cold metal of the dead machine. Steinbeck continues:


“Nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”


These truths resonate in worlds beyond farms. Teaching, for example. The teacher gets to know the hills and valleys and subtle contours of the child’s landscape, walks that land feeling the dirt and the coolness of the streams and the birdsong from the trees. The horse that drives the teacher’s passion continues to chew on the hay and keep its eyes and ears alert when it goes to the barn at night. It is no engine that shuts off, but is perpetually breathing with warmth and vitality. 


But the administrators who have long abandoned the classroom— or worse yet, never entered it— have become those who do not know the children and thus, cannot love them, can understand only money and power and clamor for the machines that bring the illusion of ease and efficiency (as the pandemic has taught us, nothing is more inefficient than trying to play music together on Zoom). And so they drain the wonder from the whole venture and adventure of education and with the loss of wonder comes the collapse of understanding and relationship, comes the hidden contempt for the teachers who live at the heart of the matter. Those with conferred authority lack the spiritual authority needed to lead a dead school toward a living community and they walk through the halls as mere vehicles of carbon, calcium, salt and water minus the Soul that animates it all and makes a living man or woman. 


When the caretakers of the land, the teachers in the school, are forced out by the dust and drought of an impoverished spirit, when the bankers move in to take the money and leave, then (Steinbeck again), “the doors of the empty houses swing open and drift back and forth in the wind. Bands of boys come out from the towns to break the windows and to pick over the debris… the cats creep through the open doors and walk mewing through the empty rooms… And on windy nights the doors bang, and the ragged curtains flutter in the broken windows.”


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tug of War

To become who you essentially are and to feel a welcomed part of the community—two universal and non-negotiable needs every human being is born with, yet so few die having realized. Why is that? 


To be who you are sounds easy, but there is nothing more difficult in this life. We cannot be content with some surface version of getting enough likes on Facebook, think that if we shout “You’re awesome!” long enough, our deep self will believe it. Because let’s face it. We all know we’re the furthest thing from awesome. We’re a wreck, the walking wounded, the ones faking our way through it all, the jumbled, bundled, chaos of doubt and even self-loathing. The only way to arrive at awesome is to swim through those swampy creature-infested waters and if we do arrive at some pristine clear lake of wonder and awe, it’s not our small self that has arrived there. 


It’s one thing to consider that we are here to become who we essentially are, that genius or daimon or essential deep self that accompanied us at birth into this world, and quite another to realize how it’s a constant game of hide and seek. And that the parts of our self most important to spend time with are precisely the ones our parents, our friends, our fellow colleagues, our culture, don’t want to see. We all have a deep and vital need to become who we are meant to be, but it is coupled with an equally deep and vital need to feel part of a group. 


Where can we find a group that is willing to accept all of us? There are scores of groups that will welcome us, but demand a high price. Join our political party, but you better follow the party line. Join our religious group, but don’t dare to have a doubt or question that disturbs our dogma. Claim our mutual identity of race or class or sexual preference but don’t consider that it’s not your whole self. Join our conspiracy theory but don’t forget to pay the dues of outsourcing your identity and never, ever, look inward or wonder if indeed it’s that other group that is wholly responsible for your misery. You get the idea.

In short, none of us get a free pass from our deep longing to belong nor can we choose to ignore what our Soul is asking of us. How we negotiate that tightrope conversation between these two apparently opposite truths is what makes things interesting. We might eschew the group together, but what’s the good of realizing a Self that can’t contribute to or feel part of the community? We might abandon the search in favor of belonging, but as noted, if the group requires us to check indispensable parts of ourselves at the door, then it’s a deal with the devil. So it’s a constant tug-of-war between two vital necessities, each pulling the other over the line and sometimes, both letting go of the rope and tumbing to the ground. 


Music gives both the metaphor and experience of joining the blending in with the standing out. Releasing yourself to the group harmony by blending your voice, your rhythm, your dance to the larger universe of sound, feeling that small self dissolving in the greater self in the power and beauty of unified tones and rhythms. And then comes your solo, where you soar into the sky with the full measure of your unique voice, both supported by and enhancing and being welcomed by the community of harmonious music. It is possible. But it takes a lifetime of intention, attention and disciplined practice. 


Good luck! 


Monday, June 14, 2021

Choosing a Profession

Since I’ve announced a 70th birthday party, I remembered that I used the occasion of the 60th to read some poems I’ve written. I’ve considered publishing some of my poetry from over the years, but it doesn’t seem likely, so it felt good to read them on that occasion. And so tonight I dipped into the folder searching for some that I might read for my 70th and found this one from 6 years ago that has promise, but needs some work. But “good enough” for a blog post. And here it is:


Choosing a Profession


Be a carpenter of the soul

and build a shelter for your longing.


Be a plumber of the heart

            and flush down the clogged pipes of your wounds and hurts.


Be an electrician of the mind

            and connect the brain’s neurocircuitry until you light up

                        like a Christmas tree.


Be a stern judge of your own crimes

            and banish your greed and vanity and smallness to the dungeon.


Be a compassionate judge of your own self-judgment

            and declare yourself innocent of the guilt others heap on you.


Be a musician of the spirit

            and strum the strings that send you soaring

                        beat the drums that set you dancing.


Be an artist of your genius

            and paint the self-portrait that looks like no one else

                        and yet is everyone else.


Be a doctor of your failings

            and diagnose the symptoms in time for healing.


Your job training is in every waking moment.

Your diploma is a peaceful heart.

Your retirement benefits are the heaven you’ve made for yourself

By living well.