Sunday, June 13, 2021

Desire

The great joy of retirement is that the day is yours to do as you please.

 

The great terror of retirement is that the day is yours to do as you please. 

 

This has not really been a problem for me. I always have so many threads going on—writing, publishing, playing piano, planning or giving workshops, alongside walking, biking, cooking, reading, crostics/ solitaire/ jigsaw puzzles, etc. And now that things are opening up, lunches with people! Each day tends to announce itself, one of the many options is sparked and invites me to blow on the fire until it gives some heat and warmth. Even the neighborhood I feel like walking in or the particular music I feel like working on appears as an intuitive suggestion and I simply follow. 

 

But suddenly today, nothing is calling. The jigsaw puzzle that I couldn’t tear myself away is down to the maddening white pieces, the Bach notes I’m playing are okay, but not truly singing, the “must-do” list has no appeal, I’m not preparing my next Jazz Class (it’s over),  leftovers will be dinner. I will go for a walk but don’t feel inspired to do the usual loop in the Park and no other neighborhood is calling to me. 

 

One name for that little engine that chugs things along could be desire, not the operatically dramatic desire of deep longing for the thing or person you will never possess, but the smaller companion to intuition that says, “This moment is perfect as it is, but it might be a little better if you write a needed addendum to your book, practice a few measures in Bach’s Prelude No. 16, get some kale for dinner tonight." In my na├»ve Buddhist days, I thought that being free from desire was the goal, but instead, it seems to me that some measure of desire is necessary to move the day along from pleasure to pleasure. The word itself comes from “de sidere”—“from the stars.” So the desire that guides us is waiting for what the stars may bring. Whether you feel it as a gift from above or a sign from within, its presence— at least for me—is a necessary life companion.

 

I have been spared (so far) the horror of depression and looking from the outside, it seems like the worst part of that debilitating state is the cessation of desire. Nothing calls to you, motivation declines, what once brought pleasure and glistened with bright promise is now dull and listless. You could do something, but the voice that calls says one thing only:  “Why bother?”

 

What I’m describing here is so mild in comparison. In fact, I can guess why I feel a bit at loose ends. I had a lovely two-day visit with my wife’s brother and wife and so lost the rhythmic thread of my various projects. And I took them to the airport quite early this morning and frankly, I’m just tired. But at least writing about it all sparked something of interest and I’m ready to face the afternoon.

 

And how is your car running? And which desire is in the driver’s seat?

 

 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

TV Then and Now

(I came across this article I wrote over 20 years ago in 1999 and thought it would be hopelessly outdated. But though it certainly deserves a new perspective, I think it mostly held up. And if you were born in the 1950's, see how many of these shows listed you used to watch!)


Lying on a bed in northern Ghana this summer, I found myself thinking about this:

 

Betty Boop; Clutch Cargo; Soupy Sales; Captain Kangaroo; Romper Room; Mickey Mouse; 

Our Miss Brooks; My Three Sons; I Love Lucy; Love That Bob; The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; The Donna Reed Show; The Danny Thomas Show; The Jack Benny Show; 

The Dobie Gillis Show; The Patty Duke Show; Leave It To Beaver; Father Knows Best; The Honeymooners; Ozzie and Harriet; Burns and Allen; Abbot and Costello; Amos and Andy; 

The Three Stooges; Dennis the Menace; The Little Rascals; Gomer Pyle; F Troop; Sgt. Bilko; McHale's Navy; Hogan's Heroes; Gilligan's Island; Flipper; Sea Hunt; Gunsmoke; Rawhide; Bonanza; Wagon Train;  Maverick; The Wild Wild West; The Texas Rangers; The Lone Ranger; Death Valley Days; Roy Rogers; Hopalong Cassady; The Real McCoys; The Beverly Hillbillies; Petticoat Junction; Green Acres; I Dream of Jeannie; Bewitched; My Favorite Martian; Star Trek; Lost in Space; The Outer Limits; The Twilight Zone; The Alfred Hitchcock Show; Lassie; Rin Tin Tin; Mister Ed; Wild Kingdom; Perry Mason; 77 Sunset Strip; Route 66; Hawaii 5 O; Highway Patrol;Dragnet; The FBI; I Spy; The Avengers; Mission Impossible; The Mod Squad; The Untouchables; The Fugitive; Superman; Car 54 Where Are You? Dr. Kildare; Ben Casey; The Jetsons; The Flintstones; Beat the Clock; Truth or Consequences; Queen for a Day; The Price Is Right; Concentration; To Tell the Truth; I've Got a Secret; What's My Line?; The 64,000 Question; You Bet Your Life; Jeopardy; Candid Camera; Hollywood Squares; The Walt Disney Show; The Ed Sullivan Show; The Jackie Gleason Show; The Carol Burnet Show; The Joey Bishop Show; The Jack Paar Show; The Red Skeleton Show; The Dinah Shore Show; The Dick Clark Show; American Bandstand; Laugh-In

 

Those who know me in my role as anti-TV crusader may be smiling as incredulously as I was. If habitual TV viewing is as bad as I've claimed, what do I make of this incredible list, this litany of my childhood TV? Do I relax and realize that everything's fine? Do I intensify my efforts to save the children from my fate?  Do I suggest kids only watch Nick at Nite?  

 

A clue came to me later in the summer as I read our recommended school reading, "The Shelter of Each Other." Amongst many fine points Mary Pipher makes, one thought struck particularly deep—"What made sense even thirty or forty years ago is counter-intuitive today." That got me wondering. What was different about TV viewing back then? If it was different, how was it different? Are those differences significant? These questions rarely enter discussions about TV, leaving us free to comfort ourselves that "we turned out okay." Pipher's book suggests that things aredifferent for kids today—radically different— and we would all do well to pay attention. 

 

I would say the first big difference in my childhood experience was that TV hadn't been around for 50 years. The "art" of TV—i.e., the craft most suited to the medium—had yet to be developed. Here I'm speaking of multiple angles, close-ups and fade-outs, speed of shifting images, condensation of plot—watching Seinfeld and then My Three Sons would make these differences immediately obvious. Early TV was more like our present-day videotaping of school plays—a kind of theater in a box. Neil Postman, a long-standing critic of TV's effects on children and culture, remarks in his essay, Remembering the Golden Age, that between 1948 and 1958, over 1500 fifty-two minute plays were performed live on American television (the remaining eight minutes used for credits, coming attractions and of course, commercials). He lists an impressive group of talented writers who wrote "serious, provocative and original dramas." As television "matured," it shifted from a writing medium to a technical and merchandising medium. "Entrepreneurs and executives had discovered that television is a vast, unsleeping money machine, provided that it is used to keep viewers in a condition of almost psychopathic consumership. Thus, American television turned toward sit-coms, soap operas and game shows. Its uses fell into the hands of merchants who, obviously, have a different agenda from serious artists."

 

This is good food for thought, but my list above (note Gilligan's Island) was hardly the stuff of provocative writing. Yet the overall pace of the shows (and the commercials) was markedly different. Listening to Barney and Andy chat in the jailhouse and watching Beaver throw stones off the bridge into the water was pretty darn close to the real time pace of my daily life. My memory of the news was Walter Cronkite talking. Both Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers were a bit like my teachers being followed around with a camera. By the time Sesame Street  hit the air, it was a whole new ballgame. TV had hit its rhythmic stride, had found its media identity that separated it from real life, theater, radio and movies—fast-paced, constantly shifting images, slickly packaged.

 

As children's nervous systems adapted, they required things faster and louder for stimulation. Watch a commercial shown on MTV for an extreme example or go to the movies and notice the televisionized previews—consciously 20% louder than the feature film and a frantic image assault increasingly difficult for old-timers like myself to stomach. While the media industry consciously and methodically ups the ante, we teachers and parents are coping with the epidemic rise of ADD.

 

It's not only the pace of the shows that invites short attention spans, but the number  of shows to choose from. I still remember the signal around midnight when NO SHOWS WERE BROADCAST ON ANY CHANNEL until around 6:30 the next morning (was that Sunrise Semester?) In our 24/ 7, 25 to 500 channel TV world, this story seems virtually unbelievable to today's child. When we did tune in, we tended to stick with one show the whole time, also a radical idea for today's remote channel-surfing generation. TV, already fragmented by commercials, became even more manic with increased paces and the constant temptation to move back and forth between shows. We watch our children begin to play with something and then turn away when it gets hard to look for something else to do and we wonder why. 

 

Then there's the whole sticky issue of content. As we grew older, we may have protested the sanitized morality of the collective American dream entering our heads every night or laughed at "Father Knowing Best"  and Ward lecturing Wally about being nice to his younger brother. But now the laugh is on us as our own children see us as hopeless Homer Simpsons and our six-year olds turn on prime time TV and watch adults engage in casual sex, rampant violence and lives of uncaring indifference without judgement. Not only aren't these characters viewed as distasteful, but they're portrayed as cool. I enjoyed Seinfeld as much as the next person and desperately struggled to believe it was really satirical. But did anyone else think it was going a tad too far to have George smiling about his fiance's death because it freed him of commitment? Was anyone else uncomfortable watching a 9:00 show with their kids about a masturbation contest or "finishing the sex act with a swirl?" 


Lest this seem too close to "a return to 50's family values" for comfort, let's remember Amos and Andy, Jack Benny's  Rochester, the Lone Ranger's Tonto, "my name's Jose Jimenez" and the whole Cowboy and Indians mentality. The "good old days" weren't all that good for non-whites and women, on or off the screen. The Bill Cosby Show notwithstanding, I frankly don't see all that much improvement. And given a choice between the way women are portrayed on MTV and Lucy Ricardo, Alice Cramden, and Donna Reed, I'd go for the latter.

 

TV networks in the 50's and the 60's had a firm censorship stance which filtered some adult themes—mostly sexual—from children unprepared for them. Parents didn't have to work so hard monitoring the kid's watching because the industry took the responsibility. Why is it so hard for today's parents to commit to monitoring their kids' media intake? Not only has prime time TV abdicated that responsibility, but the media industry has intensified both the amounts and the number of mediums available. How can we keep track? No sooner do we shut off the TV then our child's research on the Internet takes a left turn to the pornographic chat room. We're pressured to get Nintendo and fail to notice our sons playing games that stalk women. We're careful about what shows we watch and then send our children off to birthday parties with unsupervised video viewing. The burden of buying the V-chip lands on our individual overburdened shoulders.

 

This is indeed something new under the sun. Most of our parents showed us how to set limits when it came to candy, sexual experimentation, or smoking. They provided models that we may have chosen to follow, reject, revise or modify, but that functioned as models nonetheless. But very few of us have models of protecting children from inappropriate images on TV because the culture and industry mostly did it for us. That's a difference worth noting. 

 

If there are problems with too much inappropriate sexual material too easily available, how much more so with violence. There is no doubt that the number of acts of violence per viewing hour, the intensity of such acts and their increasingly graphic portrayal has risen dramatically since Dragnet  and Perry Mason, Let's not parade out the statistics here of how much violence children witness—they're simply too depressing. Nor need we trot out the latest research that shows that the emotional system reacts to violence "real or imagined" in much the same way. Let's just note that the episode showing Beavis and Butthead laughing at the trapped stewardess in the burning plane simply never would have entered even the most calloused TV executive's mind in the 1950's. 

 

Finally, if my list indicates that I wasted an entire childhood in front of the "boob tube," my own memory is quite different. Most of the time, from six years old on, I was roaming around the local park with my friends wading in creeks, climbing trees, skipping stones in the lake, playing hide and seek in "Lover's lane," choosing up teams for baseball or football, building forts from old Christmas trees. In my house, I was listening to my scratchy 78's of Beethoven imagining stories, playing board games, reading books and comic books, practicing my lassoing, lying in the hammock in the back yard, throwing the ball against the front stoop while narrating my no-hitter World Series victory. TV was just one of many sources for stories and entertainment and one mostly in line with my experience in my daily world. 

 

Fast forward (with your remote in hand, of course) to TV now and there can be no question that it is a different experience entirely. Not only has TV changed—content, pace, availability—and children's lives changed—very few opportunities to get to the bottom of boredom and come up with something interesting on their own—but the whole culture has become televisionized.

 

USA Today is a television newspaper, the 6:00 o'clock News is indistinguishable from a TV Drama, scandal in the White House is no different than an afternoon Soap Opera; Natural Disasters have catchy soundbyte titles, movies, videos, video games, the Internet, radio, music (MTV) are melting together into one vast undifferentiated television, a giant lens that has become the dominant medium through which children filter the world. Running the whole show is the Almighty Buck, allowing advertising executives to shamelessly target children as a great, untapped market , buoyed up by one irrefutable truth—television works. Children do become loyal to Nike and Barbie. They do learn to be lifelong consumers in a world that cannot afford wanton consumption. They also reach puberty earlier, put rock star posters on their walls at eight years old, wearing S&M paraphernalia at six, tell their teachers they'll get them fired at four—and these are the good kids. 

 

The walls my generation grew up with were exclusive, stifling and constraining. But they also gave us something to shape a response to— we built muscles pushing against it. We imagined that knocking down walls was enough to build the new world, but now understand, at great expense to a whole generation of children, that growing up with no walls is as damaging, and probably more damaging, that growing up with too many. Walls can exclude and restrain, but they can also protect. If children are to remain children—and biology suggests a long maturation period as children is a good idea—it's time to build new walls—or at least fences with gates that have childproof locks. If good parenting in the 60's meant exposing children to more, good parenting in the 90's means protecting them from too much.

 

One last image. The hole in our cultural ozone layer grows daily larger, eroding the protective filters that shield us from harmful rays. Our biggest challenge as parents is to remember to rub the media sunscreen on our children. I recommend the highest possible number! Someday our children will thank us for it.

 

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Modern Day Hydra

I had had enough. E-mail used to be a mostly pleasant experience, looking forward to who would write to me today, offering either that little token of continued friendship, that exciting invitation to lead a workshop, that answer to some arrangement that needed making. Like all of us humans hungry for connection, I felt excitement when the mail dropped through the slot and then later, when the grinding gears of the computer ended with “You’ve got mail!” and finally, when I now just click swiftly and silently to see what awaits me. 

 

Whether it was the mail slot or AOL (yep, still a loyal member!), there was always a certain percentage of junk mail and bills and let’s face it, it almost outnumbered the more welcome kind. But since the need these last four years to step up my political involvement combined with the ease of groups sharing addresses, suddenly I noticed that for every mail I actually cared to read, there were 10 to 15 that I didn’t even want to open. And so my daily  e-mail routine began with “delete, delete, delete, delete, delete, delete—repeat.”

 

A comedian once talked about going to parties and getting stuck in boring conversations and suddenly realizing, “Wait a second! I just realized that you’re boring and I’ve got legs!” And so in that spirit, it struck me:  “Hey! I can unsubscribe!!”

 

And so began my campaign. It took longer than deleting, but the perk was that in the future, I’d have very few junk e-mails to deal with. Makes sense, yes? 

 

And yet three days into my campaign, I seem to be getting just as many, if not more. Do these companies take revenge and turn your address over to ten more to punish you? It feels like the modern day equivalent of the old Greek hydra, that many-headed serpent with nine heads that preyed on people. If you cut of one of its heads, two more would immediately grow back. What to do?

 

Stay with me and I’ll report back. That is, unless you unsubscribe from my Blog. Then you’ll get twice as many. 

Return, Renew, Rejuvenate, Restore

As the world in California continues to re-open, it feels important to spend some time with the family of words joined by the prefix “re,”  that powerful modifier that means “back, again.” And when we find ourselves talking unmasked in close proximity to strangers, some not-so-distant part of ourselves recognizes (another “re” word!) that we are back in a familiar world that we have been exiled from. We are again in a place that we took for granted and now perhaps (or perhaps not) appreciate anew.

 

The more consciously we re-enter this familiar world, the more we open the possibility to both a personal and collective transformation that has eluded us in our busy, merry-go-round life. With all those horses bobbing up and down endlessly circling to loud music, we were driven to distraction with neither the time nor inclination to sit quietly and discover what the world might offer “apart from the pulling and hauling.” The pandemic changed all that. Or at least offered the possibility. 

Some words to consider as we re-enter our more familiar life.

 

Return

To turn and to turn shall be our delight,

Till by turning, turning, we come round right.     — Simple Gifts

 

Unlike the machine-driven merry-go-round with someone else’s pace and music, the Shaker notion of turning (and the Sufi’s as well) was to find the still center in the dance, to know with the intuitive wisdom of our pet dog, just when it is time to lie down into the comfort of “the place just right.” To re-turn is to turn again to look anew at the perspectives one missed when we always look forward in one direction. To notice what is behind us, to the side. And so to arrive at “the valley of love and delight,” with all sides considered.

 

Renew

To make new again that which had grown old through disuse or inattention, to renew the book at the library to give yourself more time to read it more carefully and ponder the parts you missed, to wash the car or paint the room or spend time with your spouse instead of buying a new car, new house, looking for a new spouse— all this and more allows us to step out of the pandemic with old eyes seeing anew, old ears hearing anew, our old heart feeling anew. Renewed. 

 

Rejuvenate

“Joven” means “young“ in Spanish and to rejuvenate is to reenter the world with new energy and youthful vigor. By the energy of youth I don’t mean wishing we could type faster with our thumbs and turn heads when we enter a bar, but accessing a faculty that is independent of age, a cultivated innocence and freshness that revitalizes all who come in contact with it. We will need that kind of energy to meet what awaits us on the other side of the pandemic door. 

 

Restore

Perhaps the most important of the list, to re-store is to re-story, to re-tell the origin stories that give our life and culture meaning. To collectively revisit the Constitution, to return words to their origins and make language meaningful again, to find the story we’re in by reclaiming our truthful histories and soul-uplifiting myths, to consider what story we need to tell, we need to live, to make sense of who we are and where we are now and who we hope to be and where we hope to go. 

 

When we live well, we are constantly in the cycle of repairing, rebuilding, reinstating, renovating our old selves, be it breath by breath, day by day, month by month or within a full year (and more) pandemic. We humans are constantly forgetting and remembering, exiled and welcomed back, down in the dumps or flying high. Our lives are not a steadily rising corporate graph where we watch our spiritual wealth grow, but a constant cyclical reoccurrence, a tidal ebb and flow, a seasonal circling. 

 

So let’s live more fully in the “re’s” and apologies that I didn’t have time to express this better by re-writing it!

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Time of Our Singing

It has been quite a year. On the surface, so many of us experienced the same thing, but how we experienced it, how we felt it, how we thought about it, was as varied as we are.  Amongst many possibilities:

 

• A big time-out, sent to our room and forbidden our usual pleasures. 

• A challenge to survive financially, emotionally, physically. 

• An opportunity to attend to things we often can’t in our busy lives— more reading, piano practice, creative cooking, cleaning the basement, walking in the park, etc. 

• A chance to sort out the important from the unimportant, the deep needs from the superficial wants.

• A collective initiation into the world-to-come that we desperately need.

 

In a recent video, mythologist Michael Meade follows this idea of a collective initiation. He notes three phases in traditional initiation as follows: 

 

SEPARATION: The young men are taken off into the forest with the elders, the women gather in a hut, there is a break from business as usual. Mortality is more present than usual, some extreme initiations literally a life or death ordeal. 

 

Clearly the pandemic has created a collective separation, which can be felt as isolation and loneliness, but also as a welcome reflection and solitude. Business as usual is either entirely suspended or radically changed— Zoom work, masked shopping, the closure of restaurants/ concert halls/ movie theaters. Death is present in the Covid numbers broadcast daily, in the neighbors, friends or family members who were afflicted. 

 

ORDEAL: Classic initiation requires going through some kind of ordeal, a kind of testing ground. It often involves some kind of both physical and psychic pain, suffering, a descent. It is a liminal space, a threshold that puts us “betwixt and between” between who we were or who we thought we were and who we are about to become. Classically, in rites of passage initiation, it is a farewell to childhood and welcoming into adulthood.

 

We have all suffered some form of this descent, the worst those who died and the loved ones of those who died who can’t properly mourn, those who caught the virus and those who lived in great fear of the virus. The grandparents separated from their children and grandchildren, friends separated from friends. In the midst of this suffering, there were two paths available—to become smaller versions of ourselves (Capitol riots) or larger souls (Black Lives Matter). The first are those who refused the invitation of initiation, failed the test to become larger, more aware, more compassionate, versions of themselves, the latter those who will emerge transformed. In either case, the metaphor holds that not only individually but as a culture, we’ve been in a holding space between who we’ve been and who we’ve yet to be and one way or another, will emerge— and should emerge— different from when we went in.

 

RETURN: The third step is to return to the community with a conscious recognition of what has changed,  both from the young people initiated and the community welcoming them back.

 

Collectively, we clearly have experienced the first two phases of initiation. But now we stand at the threshold of return. How have we changed? What kind of community will welcome us back? 

 

Almost a year ago on June 14, 2020, I wrote a blogpost titled “No Business as Usual” suggesting that we should not return to the world as we knew it, but decide from our new perspective what to keep, what to throw out, what to change. I quoted the Indian writer Arundhati Roy:

 

“Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, to enter a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

 

How tragic if the passing of the virus put it all back to sleep again. Will we music teachers return to jobs? If so, will they be reduced or enlarged? Have parents and administrators finally learned that in the big life moments, the times of crisis (more of which awaits), it is the singing and poetry and imagination that lead the way. No one gathers around the deathbed of a loved one and takes out their old math sheets. We are all gathering around the deathbeds of so much— fellow citizens murdered by police because of skin pigment, birds and bees and little creatures losing habitats, predictable weather patterns going awry because we drive so often to Walmart, the foundations of democracy being purposefully dismantled while so many just sit around and watch. 

 

This is the time of our singing. This is the time to dance that moral arc towards justice. This is the time to improvise through the staggering accelerated changes like a disciplined jazz musician. This is the time to work on our downward dog and then come up barking ferociously at the robbers trying to steal the treasures of our humanity, the shameless profiteers coming to steal the souls of our children.  This is the time to connect the mindfulness of our breath with the denial of some of us to breathe while the knees of centuries old and government sanctioned brutality are on their neck.

 

And as we head into another school year of distanced learning, it is the time to commit yet more fully to the real education our children need and have always needed and now need more than ever. The education that nourishes heart, mind, body and spirit as one undivided entity. The education that puts arts in the center, not the arts of the  specialized talent off to the side playing for the football game, but arts as an exalted and necessary faculty of the human imagination that is in the center of the way we live, think and act. We’ll need all the players in this game—the scientists, the business folks, the politicians, the lawyers, most certainly the doctors and more, but we need the artists up there at the front leading the songs that give us courage, comfort and connection. This will be a singing revolution. 

 

And that means the children need to learn the songs. They need to know how to sing. And right now, in this moment, they need more than ever the comfort of a soothing lullaby, the caress of a violin string or the healing breath of the saxophone.. They need to create something from sounds, images, colors and motions to stave off the chaos of the world, to bring order to the pandemic’s pandemonium, the cultural confusion. They need to understand that beauty is powerful, a flowering plant pushing up through the concrete or singing even through the screen. This they need and this they deserve. We all do.

 

My hopes that we will emerge from the winter of our sheltering into the beautiful blossoming that was waited patiently for its moment. And that moment is now.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Such Sweet Sorrow

Shakespeare had it right about parting— so sorry to come to the end of my online Jazz History class, so sweet that I got to do it with such lovely people. By the end, there were 10 or so that stayed with it the whole year, a spirited and diverse group of folks that got to enjoy each other even on the distant gridded squares simply because we all were on the same marvelous trip. 

 

It reminded me of my very first Jazz/Orff Course in 1988 at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nationally acclaimed Orff teacher Jane Frazee invited me to teach this groundbreaking course and when only six people signed up, we re-negotiated the salary and decided to hold the course. At the end of the five days, the class gifted me with a Lake Wobegon T-Shirt with a little message hand-embroidered on it: The First Six. I took it as a prophecy that they knew there would be more and wanted to be written into the history books as the first six bold explorers. 

 

Indeed, I have taught such a course every year since in a wide variety of places— over 30 glorious years culminating in the extraordinary New Orleans Jazz Course in 2019. 2020 was an online version and this summer will be the first with neither a live nor an online Jazz Course. But note that the Jazz Course was a hands-on experience of how anyone can play some basic swingin’ jazz and teach their kids the same. I always had a short section each day on Jazz History, but it was the proverbial drop in the bucket of a subject that deserved so much more. And so the chance this year to wholly stretch out, to let go of the active playing so unsatisfying online and delve deeply into the stories, recordings, videos that work just fine on the screen (minus the frustration of wimpy computer speakers for the music) helped compensate for the loss of the live course— at least until next summer, when I hope to revive it back in New Orleans.

 

And so like that first course in St. Paul, I hope this will be the first of many more Jazz History courses to come, both live and online. As I told the class yesterday, I will always have a special affection in my heart for the “first ten,” the pioneers that stayed on board with me for the whole voyage (and those who also joined for whatever time they could manage). Here’s the little note I wrote to them:

 

And so we come to the end of the study that has no end. 9 months, 32 classes, 64 hours, just barely enough time to begin this journey into a world that brings us comfort, solace, energy, joy, a world that challenges our mind, opens our heart, gets our bodies dancing, lifts up our spirit  and enlarges our soul. A uniquely American and yet universal art form, born from the worst of who we have been while moving us constantly to the best we might become. 


By participating in this expedition, you have fulfilled a patriotic duty so few of our fellow citizens have even begun or even know exists. You have helped bring healing to the Ancestors, the Descendants and to all of us right here in the present moment. Immeasurable thanks to each and every one of you, to our wonderful guest artists Kofi Gbolonyo, Tom Pierre, T.S. Monk, Regina Carter, Herlin Riley, to the East Coasters staying up so late, to the faraway folks watching the recordings, to Laura Ruppert for hosting the sessions, to SF Orff Course for sponsoring them, to Zoom for making them possible, to the kids in the SF School who shared this work with me for 45 years and most of all, to all the jazz musicians who worked tirelessly to bring so much beauty to the world and make their voices heard  in the face of a culture that tried to shut them down. May they inspire us to make our own voices heard—artistically, politically, humanistically. Hope we all meet again further down the road. Preferably in New Orleans!       


 - Much love, Doug

 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Wisdom of Yogi

Back in my spiritual shopping days as a young adult, I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Don’t remember too much about it beyond some exceptional mystical flights into realms I had never visited— and never would. But little did I know that the wisdom I was seeking was much closer to home, in the words of another Yogi who was the catcher for the New York Yankees team I followed as a kid!

 

Tomorrow is my last of 32 Jazz History classes and I will indeed be sad to have it end (though stay tuned for future incarnations). It’s a good time for summing up our new-found understanding of jazz, so I saved the most profound reflection for the end. Here is a little treasure I stumbled into one day (don’t know where it’s from)— Yogi Berra explaining jazz. Enjoy!

 

Interviewer: Can you explain jazz? 

 

Yogi: I can't, but I will. 90% of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, it's right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it's wrong. 

 

Interviewer: I don't understand. 

 

Yogi: Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can't understand it. It's too complicated. That's what's so simple about it. 

 

Interviewer: Do you understand it? 

 

Yogi: No. That's why I can explain it. If I understood it, I wouldn't know anything about it. 

 

Interviewer: Are there any great jazz players alive today? 

 

Yogi: No. All the great jazz players alive today are dead. Except for the ones that are still alive. But so many of them are dead, that the ones that are still alive are dying to be like the ones that are dead. 

 

Interviewer: What is syncopation? 

 

Yogi: That's when the note that you should hear now happens either before or after you hear it. In jazz, you don't hear notes when they happen because that would be some other type of music. Other types of music can be jazz, but only if they're the same as something different from those other kinds. 

 

Interviewer: Now I really don't understand. 

 

Yogi: I haven't taught you enough for you to not understand jazz that well.

  

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Life in the Pentatonic Scale

Did you ever look back at some time in your old life and wonder, “How the hell did I do that?” While my daughter is enjoying the palpable release of the last class with her 5thgrade, the last staff meeting, the last report card, for me this entry into June is just another day. What used to feel like a grand Beethoven drama, with all the tension of unresolved harmonies aiming for the final thundering chords is like a simple pentatonic scale meandering over a drone. Tiny little tensions (the re tone over the do of the drone) but the scale of the drama is toned down from grand opera to a casual sit-com. 

 

But it didn’t used to be like that. Thinking back on what I and my colleagues James and Sofia used to do the last month of school has me shaking my head in disbelief. For starters, the Spring Concert. Not only did we have to prepare 190 kids in each of 16 classes to get up on stage and play, sing and dance with coherence and joyful pleasure, making sure every mallet and triangle beater was in place and that no one had misplaced the peacock feather props, but we also had to arrange the theater, the U-haul van, the parent crew to help. We had to pack the van, drive the van, park the van, unload the van, set up the stage, talk with the lighting director, acclimate the kids to the stage, do the dress rehearsal that day within the confines of the given schedule and perform the concert that night. 

 

And then as the last note sounded and the parents gave the customary applause, we got to bask in the glory of it all. For one minute. Then it was soliciting help from the parents, clearing the stage and packing the van, driving it back to school and parking it, getting ourselves back home and early next morning, unpacking the van, re-setting the instruments in the music room, returning the van and then rush back to school to teach our regularly scheduled classes. Did we really do that?

 

It gets worse. The next week, we turned the music room into a recording studio so we could make the next school cassette tape/CD, an annual tradition I began in 1983 and continued until 2012, making 26 recordings of some thousand plus pieces that we had arranged or composed for the Orff Ensemble, taught, directed and documented. Again, all within the school schedule, with 30 to 45 minutes to get each class immortalized in a permanent listening form, with volunteer school parents as recording engineers and the challenge of balls bouncing against the music room door or kids at recess shouting or squeaky tricycles circling outside the music room window. Never mind the kids recording who were sneezing or laughing or talking or playing the wrong note loud and clear in the last two seconds of the recording. And now an additional 80 kids in the mix as we recorded the preschoolers. (Have you ever tried explaining how recording works to a 3-year old?) One whole week to get some 40 to 60 pieces laid down with just the right balance. 

 

But that’s just the beginning. Then came the mixing at Duncan Street recording studios in our “free time” on the weekend, sitting in a studio for some 8 hours a day listening to take after take (24 takes on a one-minute 1st grade piece was the record), deciding the best or splicing some together, working with the levels, deciding the order, sometimes calling up kids and asking them to come into the studio to overdub. Slow, painstaking, at times grueling work to get it all in a final recording that we could stand to listen to and feel that it adequately represented our work.

 

But then came the liner notes. Collecting art work from the kids, getting a parent graphic designer to put it together, writing the liner notes, asking permission for some pieces, getting it to the printer. 

 

Were we done yet? Of course not! We had to get the tapes/CD’s duplicated and liner notes done in time for the full production, find the place that did this work, take it all to the place that did this work, pick it up when it was ready. Hopefully before the last day of school, where we would then sell them to the parents to earn back some of the considerable expense, often on the last day of school, out on the sidewalk hawking the CD’s as we said goodbye to the kids and the parents picking them up. Yet again, how the hell did we do that?!!!!

 

But of course, there’s more. A week or so after recording, we were also preparing for the annual 5-day camping trip with 60 3rd/4th/5th graders! Along with the classroom teachers, renting a bus to take us to the Sierras, renting a van, shopping for the week’s groceries, picking up the van, packing the van and bus and then the five days of 24/7 camping with some kids who had never camped and others who had never spent a night away from home. With the added drama of raccoons, bears, rattlesnakes, snow, escaped convicts, rain on leaky tents. We loved it! But it was a helluva lot of work and when we returned to school, we had to return the van, clean the Coleman stoves, re-store all the equipment, divvy up the leftover food and so on and so on.

 

Just in time for the last week of school ceremonies—staff-8th grade basketball game, move-up day, end-of-year slide show, mud-pie dessert ritual, closing day ceremonies, hug-line—and we’re done!! Well, almost. There was that little matter of—oh yeah, Graduation! Then the graduation party. Then three more days of staff meetings and farewells to staff members leaving. Now are we done?

 

Nope. Don’t forget report cards!!!! We wanted to, but we couldn’t. But when we signed off on that last one, now we could exhale fully and breathe in the glorious summer that awaited us. Unless our back went out in the hug line or we caught a terrible cold on our first day of summer or the postponed hernia operation was finally scheduled. 

 

Do I miss it? Not exactly. Though it’s true that in sex, music and life, the greater the tension, the greater the release, I’m perfectly happy to have the day after others finish school to feel pretty much like the day before they finished. Life in the pentatonic scale is good.

 

But let me be clear. That life I lived, that work I did without a single extra penny of pay, official job title or acknowledgement in my job description contract, was utterly insane. Batshit crazy.


And I loved every minute of it.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Life with My Sister

As noted, I just celebrated my sister Ginny’s 50th Wedding Anniversary. Between that and a recent co-interview for a film, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the life we’ve shared together and it struck me that this is not normal. In the best way. A few highlights:

 

• 70 years of sharing this life, the only people left who have known each other in each of our countless incarnations (though I missed her first two years, having not been born yet.)

 

• Coming of age together in the late 60’s and early 70’s— never marched on Washington together, but did smoke some pot, took one acid trip, listened to the same music. Visited her at college, she visited me, played organ at her wedding in 1971.

 

• First trip to my future home of California in 1972, driving across the country with her husband Jim and a dancer friend in a VW bug! Camping and crashing with friends.

 

• Stayed at Ginny and Jim’s apartment in San Francisco when I first moved out in 1973 and the three of us went to our first (of many to come) 7-day Zen retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Southern California. (25 years later went to Ginny’s ordination ceremony as a lay monk. Both of us continue to practice zazen)

 

• First jobs were accompanying modern dance classes Ginny taught or took at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Studio.

 

• Moved in with Ginny and Jim at 247 Downey St. in the upper Haight, beautiful view of the ocean and $125 per month rent split three ways! Lived together 1974/1975. Learned vegetarian cooking, shared books, music, Japanese movies and the alternative San Francisco lifestyle. 

 

• Ginny part of the team for my first daughter’s home birth with midwives in 1980.

 

• Ginny began her labor with first son at our Thanksgiving meal. Was with us vacationing in Calistoga when my wife began her labor with our second daughter. I was part of her home birth team for her second son. 

 

• In 1984, I taught body music to her dance troupe, composed piano music that she choreographed with them, performed both and more together at a concert in which our parents came and included her dancing solo to me playing a piano piece my father composed. 

 

• Our families began a 30-year tradition of going up to the snow in December with two other families (later to the West Point Inn in Marin), to Calistoga in the Spring. With another family, another 40 year tradition of an annual New Year’s walk. 

 

• Her two older sons went to my school and I was their music teacher. 

 

• She moved to Sebastopol in 1992, had her third son (who just got married last week) and our parents moved to from our New Jersey home to Novato, California.

 

And so it continued. I played music for her high school students’ dance recitals, she helped choreograph some dance for my elementary students. I went to her dance concerts, she to my music concerts (and some performed together). I visited her first son Ian in Japan, her second son Kyle lived with us a while in San Francisco and worked briefly at our school, I went to many of her third son Damion's performances in plays (he's an excellent actor). Ian now has two children and lives Portland and gets together with my daughter Kerala and her two children. Ginny and Jim were at my children's graduations, visited Kerala whenever they visit Ian, celebrated the last Thanksgiving at my daughter Talia's house. We've celebrated all our Thanksgivings together and they come to our annual Christmas caroling party. We were all together for the weddings of 3 of our 5 children, the Memorial Services for our Mom and Dad. 

 

In short, we influenced each other artistically, spiritually, practically, shared life’s big moments of birth, death, weddings, retirements and life’s small moments of Sunday brunches, haiku contests while walking in the park and playing Boggle or Taboo. Weirdly, she and Jim have never been to my wife’s summer place in Michigan and we’ve never travelled together to another country. But that gives us yet more to look forward to.

 

This my deep appreciation of my beloved sister. Our Mom and Dad would be happy to read it.

  

Friday, June 4, 2021

Comings and Goings

It has not been a quiet week in my Lake Wobegon— but happily so. My sister’s third son’s marriage on Sunday, breakfast the next day with my wife’s brother’s son and then off to a 4-day Sea Ranch retreat with my wife and two daughters, my sister and her husband, sister-in-law and three sons, joined together for her 50th Wedding Anniversary party with other family friends we’ve retreated with for over 30 years. Hikes, meals, hot tubs, games, a jigsaw puzzle, ceremonies, convivial conversations and all the shared (or previously unshared) stories of these multiple lives we’ve lived together. 

 

Now we have re-packed the suitcases, cleared the refrigerator, checked the drawers and closets, packed the car and said our goodbyes to the last of the gang to resume the next chapter of our home lives, refreshed and renewed by the unmasked and hug-filled re-gathering of many people we have enjoyed and cared about for so many years. 

 

What is this life but a perpetual arrival and departure, a greeting and a farewell, a coming and a going? Not only with the people in our lives, but to the person we were yesterday and the person we might be tomorrow. Perhaps this has something to do with my lifelong obsession with public attention to these tidal moments in our life, the importance of creating welcoming ceremonies and closing rituals filled with praise and appreciation. Reminded by Facebook that this time last year was my last day after 45 years at The SF School, I still feel the absence of a farewell party that would have put the punctuation mark at the end of that long, long sentence. (Interesting thought: Would it have been a period, question mark, exclamation point or comma?) 

 

But whether we mark the moment or not, time doesn’t care, but marches on in both its linear and circular form. As the 50 years (!!!) that have elapsed since I played the organ at my sister’s wedding, the 29 years since I greeted my nephew’s arrival into this world, testify— time moves forward. 


And then the circular nature of it all. I think of those lines in the classic movie Grand Hotel: 

 

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People coming. People going. Nothing ever happens.”

 

And everything happens. And isn’t it marvelous?

  

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Religious Followers, Spiritual Seekers

 

Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit— the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”      - John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

 

I’ve never been a big fan of God or Jesus. God as a spiritual presence beyond the everyday material world and Jesus as a teacher of humanitarian compassion are both fine with me. But the wrathful, vengeful, spiteful, jealous bearded patriarch in the sky who smites anyone who doesn’t worship him? No, thank you.  And the Jesus who people claimed died for my sins and demands my allegiance? What kind of idea is that? As if he got blamed for something I did and he doesn’t know why he got blamed and I don’t know what I did wrong except to get born (into Original Sin). And now I need him to save me, which absolves me of any effort whatsoever except to blindly believe that he’s the guy. Again, not for me.

 

From teenage-hood on, this idea of blind religious belief and obedience struck me not only as a bad idea for the salvation of my soul, but as a bad way to live period. To adhere to a dogma or a leader, be it political, religious or philosophical, to set aside any critical thought or doubt, to mumble the given prayers, to unthinkingly follow the patterns others made and follow their paint-by-number steps— none of it made sense to me. 

 

What did attract me were all the ways that asked me to enlarge my thought, enlarge my feeling life, enlarge my experience, to step into one unknown after another in search of something I could feel as true not solely with my mind, with my senses, with my heart, with my intuition, but through some confluence of them all, aided by and in conversation with those who had been further down the path. Who kept inviting me to find my own way while affirming that a way would open up if I persevered. Who insisted I question everything, as in Whitman’s stirring advice:

 

“Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

 

In short, to be a spiritual seeker rather than a religious follower and in everything I did, to go for the first-hand experience. 

 

And so no surprise that I was attracted to Orff, Jazz and Zen, three practices that have significant disciplines with specific techniques— teaching pedagogies, musical scales and theories, meditation postures and chants— but none of them content with mere replication. All of them requiring some personal experience and expression that are both particularly mine and universally everyone’s. All of them with strong structural ideas, but all coming to life only when they’re actively flowing, never allowed to harden into rigid dogma. 

 

Orff says: “You are musical. Make music. Create music. Any age. Any form.”

 

Jazz says: “Learn the stories that come before you to tell your own. Your solo is your life and the next solo should not use the same notes and rhythms because you are a different person from the one who played in the club last night. Sing your truth.”

 

Zen says: “Don't believe in Buddha, but through a first-hand meditation practice, work hard to re-create his insight into the nature of Self. Come to know your True Nature that is always with you, but obscured by the clouds of your own ignorance. Sit, breathe, clear the sky, manifest your whole Self, which is ‘the one big soul everybody (and everything) is part of.’

 

Progressive schools say: Hands-on experience first. Then the concepts. Ask the question that leads to the next beautiful question. Follow your wonder.”

 

Love says: Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger. Do not just talk about love. Love!”

 

So I’m with Steinbeck. Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Or Mohammed or Krishna? Or Communism or Capitalism? When words like the above serve to divide more than unite, obscure more than illuminate, bring misery more than happiness, why use them? Throw them out! Get down to work and learn how to love the whole shebang first-hand. Keep asking your own questions and stop hunkering down in someone else’s answer. Stop following and start seeking. 


And I can testify that this way of life makes all the difference in the world. It protects you from being led astray by power-hungry leaders eager to use you for their own selfish and hurtful ends. It connects you with a community of extraordinary people, both living and dead, who had the courage to follow their star. It opens the doors of revelation and leads you into a world of breathtaking beauty. It keeps you moving forward, knowing that you never wholly arrive. Indeed, this is why it is called the Orff approach, knowing that you are getting closer to bringing joy, belonging, musical wonder, to a group of students and every student in that group, but you can never claim you have fully arrived. It is why every jazz musician is still searching for the perfect combination of notes to express the inexpressible. It is why they say that even Buddha is still working on himself/ herself somewhere. 


Perhaps it is why more often than not, I sign each letter:


"Onward!"


See you in the whole shebang!