Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Letter to John Steinbeck

I began the month of August visiting the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California. So it seems fitting to end it with a passage from  a letter Steinbeck wrote to Adlai Stevenson in 1959:

 

Do you remember the two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind of house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence…Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says, “Is that all?”

 

Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick…”

 

Mainly, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves.…

 

Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can’t expect to raise our children to be good and honorable when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?

 

Well, Mr. Steinbeck, here we are 62 years later, still miserable, greedy and sicker than ever before. Catastrophe rained down on us and we are drenched by our stupid refusal to open an umbrella. Cynical immorality is the foundation of our national discourse, truth is on a ventilator and honor is an endangered species. Yet perhaps more of us than ever before are hopeful enough to try to do something about it. The kids are returning to school and I call upon all my teacher colleagues to get to the real work of teaching them what they need to know and what they need to figure out what they don’t yet know. Train them to respect the system, throw out what doesn't work and feed everything in themselves and each other that leans towards kindness, community and beauty.

 

May it be so.

The Last Straw


… is the name of one of the Diary of a Wimpy Kidbooks, a saying that refers to the one that breaks the camel’s back, the feeling I had in my 3rd week with the grandkids when they were bickering endlessly. It's also the name of a basket store in San Francisco. 

 

It’s remarkable that this small specialty store still exists in today’s business environment and today I will visit it to see if it can help heal a little basket loss I’m going through. On my fateful 70thbirthday, which starting out promising, but took a sharp left turn with the announcement of a positive Covid-case in our Orff retreat, I picked up my basket with my things, a basket that has served me faithfully for over 25 years and was deeply connected with my teaching persona— and the handle broke. The last straw, both figuratively and literally. 

 

And so back home, as I’m dealing with nesting back in my house and dealing with two broken window shades, a still-maddening two keys that work at their whim on my computer keyboard (and one of them the w that I used six times in this sentence alone), a car that needs to be washed and other such paraphernalia, it’s time to see if the irreplaceable can be replaced in some new incarnation. And with Cost Plus closed, The Last Straw may indeed be the last straw of possibility without searching online. 

 

Off I go before it closes and I’ll get back to you. 

 

PS: Not open on Tuesdays. Stay tuned for tomorrow!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Discussion Group

One would hope that the story we are living is as interesting as the ones we are watching, reading or listening to. Let’s face it— probably not as sexy or action-packed, but if we stop to consider, probably as filled with the full Shakespearean range of tragedy and comedy, triumph and tribulation, conflict and resolution. Without the dramatic soundtrack. 

 

But no matter how interesting our actual lives are, don’t we love to be wholly immersed in another story? Be it TV, movies, books or even podcasts, stories give us relief from our own mostly predictable plot with the same old characters, allow us to enter another world and imagine ourselves as part of it, invite us to find a piece of ourselves in the struggles and redemptions. What appears to be mere trivial entertainment can stretch further, especially if we consider the root of the word— “entre” meaning “among” (as in entering a room to be amongst other people) and “tain” from “tener—to have, to hold.” And so the sense of holding each other in mind, sticking by each other and supporting as we come to know ourselves by entering the stories of others. 

 

So starting in my Chicago hotel room, I hooked into a too-short Netflix series called “The Chair” about a woman (Sandra Oh) becoming head of a Humanities Department in an established Eastern college. And within six short episodes, a multitude of discussion-worthy themes emerged— the conflict between rising women and privileged men, people of color and the same-old-white folks, older traditional teachers and young hip ones, different parenting styles, the toxic atmosphere of legal pressures and legal responses to human problems, the overpowered and misguided face of well- intentioned political correctness. Entertaining it was, but for me, deadly serious about these issues that deserve a lot of thought and honest conversation.

 

Anyone want to watch it and start a discussion group? I’m in!

 

 PS One of the many good moments was someone suggesting a teacher must be good because she had 8,000 followers on Twitter. Her colleague responded, "Well, Jesus only had 12 followers. I guess that makes him a loser."

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Home Alone

My airplane story certainly doesn’t rival my daughter Talia’s 41-hour and 12 changed/ cancelled flights fiasco getting to Northern Michigan from Paris, but still it had its dramas. Got to the small Traverse City airport with my other daughter Kerala and the grandkids, two different flights 15 minutes apart heading to Chicago, me to make the San Francisco connection, them to make the Portland one. Things looked promising weather-wise and after my fond farewells, got on my flight and we headed out to the runway. Things were looking promising!

 

But of course, we stopped and the captain announced they’re not accepting many planes in Chicago due to weather, stayed on the runway for an hour and then headed back to the gate. While we were coming back to the gate, my daughter’s plane was going out. Since we were both going to Chicago, this made no sense whatsoever. And of course, they sat on the runway while I had another hour back in the airport before the same flight would try to leave again. Texting furiously, we decided that even though I already missed my SF connection in Chicago and they’d probably miss their Portland one, we should get to Chicago and I should get a hotel for us. (With a pool, my grandson insisted). 


Are you still awake? As Talia always tells me, airplane stories are dramatic to live through, but boring as hell to hear about if you weren’t there. So the short story is that I booked the hotel, got to Chicago and the next message from Kerala was “We ran off our plane to the gate and made the flight to Portland!!!” And so I was alone for my Super 8 Hotel experience—and of course, had to pay the $115 for the room with no compensation from the airlines. 

 

It was interesting to be relatively relaxed because I wasn’t about to miss teaching a workshop or returning in time to teach school. I had a reasonably pleasant evening, courtesy of Netflix, got up and out the next morning with good weather and my flight on time and even a Premium kind-of-business-class seat with two good movies. And greeted by good weather in San Francisco after weeks when it apparently was cold, foggy and smoky. Yeah!

 

So back to my house where I hadn’t been for five weeks, shopped at Trader Joes, unpacked, sorted mail, opened windows and aired out the house, did a laundry, walked through the Park to get some Tartine bread (but they were out), my Califia Oatmilk (just one left), some banking, loving the smell (non-smoky) of the West Coast air and noting the more diverse folks on the street than in the little town of Frankfort, Michigan and the presence of Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants within a two-block radius in my neighborhood. Michael Meade recently referred to a West African idea that Nature is Spirit clothed in green and added his idea that Culture is Spirit wearing a multi-colored robe. I can relate to that.

 

And then there was my piano, my rusty fingers making up in freshness what was missing in in-shape technique. It’s good to be home and particularly special to have the house to myself as my wife keeps her summer going for two more weeks in Michigan. Time to turn toward the Fall and without the structure of school to focus my days, the choice of which of some ten projects I should begin (or complete), which new classes and workshops I should offer, which schedules I should create for myself so that I don’t just wander through distractions. The gift and challenge of retired life.

 

Top of the list: Write more interesting blogposts than this one! 

Bird Lives!

It’s Charlie Parker’s 101stbirthday. In his honor, an excerpt from a new book (©2021 Doug Goodkin) written for a young adult audience, with the dual purpose of getting them acquainted with remarkable American artists and thinking about the many routes to social justice. 

 

Charlie Parker never once voted in an election. Yet he cast many ballots for the dignity and genius of his fellow African-Americans,  not through the levers of the voting machine, but using the keypad of his alto saxophone. Nicknamed Bird, each note was a flight into freedom, soaring high above those who tried to hold him down but couldn’t. 

 

One of his lessons was perseverance. When he was young, a jazz drummer threw a cymbal at his feet for not playing well in a jam session. Charlie could have walked out with his head down never to return. Instead, he went home and began practicing for 11 to 15 hours a day— for four years! As he went on to become one of the most important players in the entire history of jazz, he showed that tenacity paid off, be it in music or the fight for social justice. 

 

Charlie was an astute observer of people and was well aware of the many facets of racism. One day, a white man who liked Charlie’s music took his date to hear him. When she entered the club, she exclaimed out loud, “Why, they’re all colored in here!” Charlie sent the waiter off to buy some chocolate and vanilla cookies, mix them in a bowl and bring them to the table and then bet a friend $14 that the woman would only eat the vanilla cookies. 

 

He won the bet.  

 

Another time, he got a job at a place called The Plantation Club in St. Louis, where black musicians played for the enjoyment of white patrons. (The name of the club should have alerted him that this would not be a happy experience!). When he arrived at the job, the club owner insisted that he and his band could not come through the front door. During the break, he and his band were in a back room and he went to each in turn, pointed to their glass and asked if they had drunk water from it. When each said yes, he took their glass and threw it on the floor, shattering each one. The club owner came back and demanded to know what he was doing. 


Charlie looked him in the eye and said, “Since my band can’t even walk through your front door, I know you don’t want your patrons drinking from the same glass that we did. So I saved you the trouble and broke all the glasses myself.” It was a strong lesson in the absurdity of segregation, but the club owner, like so many white folks holding on to their privilege, wasn’t ready to learn it.  He fired them on the spot. 

 

Charlie Parker and his fellow musicians in the 1940’s and 50’s were part of a new generation of jazz musicians who met white culture on their own terms. They weren’t interested in playing just for entertainment or dancing, but worked hard to bring the music to a new level. They played fast and furious, creating art that was, in the words of Stanley Crouch, “as tough as they knew the world to be and that was as compassionate as they wished it could become.” To understand what they were saying, you really had to listen.

 

So though everyone should indeed vote in all elections, Charlie Parker’s music reminds us that there are many ways to change the world. Sometimes it’s enough just to listen. 

Wheels on Suitcases

Human beings are incredibly intelligent, innovative, inventive. Just think about what went into your i-phone, that convocation of previous inventions of cameras, telephones, recording technologies, radios, televisions, newspapers, books and more. It’s staggering.

 

But we can also be dumb as dirt, missing the most obvious good ideas. Like the wheeled suitcase. 

 

It’s estimated that the wheel was invented in Mesopotamia, some 5500 years ago. The modern suitcase had its inception in the increased travel options of the 19thcentury, from stagecoach to train, with the trunk as the most popular form of luggage. By the beginning of the 20thcentury, the smaller and more lightweight modern suitcase was invented. But it wasn’t until 1972 that someone had the idea of a wheeled suitcase and not until 1987 that the more common rollerboard wheeled suitcase became the norm. It was a simple idea to combine the wheels with the suitcase, but somehow we missed it for millennia/ centuries/ decades.

 

Then there’s the right-hand turn at red lights. Wiki does not tell which state had the idea first, but in my lifetime, I remember having to ask when I drove in a different state. By 1980, all 50 states (Massachusetts the last) finally saw the wisdom of the practice, both as a time-saving device and a fuel-saving one. Looking back, we can casually say, “Well, duh!” but it took a long time before we figured it out.

 

So let’s look at what else is staring us in the face and shouting “Hello?!!! Wake up!!!”

 

Like voting. Who does it hurt to have it on the weekend when you don’t have to take off work? Or for two or three days instead of one. Or to encourage the mail-in ballot. Well, the Republicans think it hurts them to make voting more easy for those with difficulty having access and they’re right. Which is why they're embarking on a massive campaign to make it easier for the rich and privileged and harder for the people they don’t want to go to school with. So some of this is deliberate. But some is just mindlessly continuing the way it’s always been done without new thoughts about what’s actually more fair, democratic, efficient and honest.

 

The Electoral College is another dinosaur that missed the memo that its time was past.

 

What can you add to the list? From the ecological (stop making and selling those damn plastic water bottles!!! Especially the small ones!) to the economic (yes, the rich should pay taxes) to the psychological (healing trauma is harder and more expensive than avoiding it with healthy parenting and schooling) to the moral (cultivating kindness is more crucial to our survival than purposefully promulgating hate) to the linguistic (“e” instead of “they” is a less-confusing pronoun for non-binary people) to the trivial (is motorized self-driving luggage the next innovation?)

 

Add your own idea here. _________________________________

 

 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Short Memories

A P.S. to “It’s time to go” and the most important reason— I’m out of McCann’s oatmeal, difficult enough to find in San Francisco and impossible here in Northern Michigan. And after trying two different brands of oatmilk, none came close to Califia! 

 

Happy to report that our last full day was lovely. The kids held it together, they rode in the canoe with their Mom and Mima to the outlet (where the back lake meets the front lake) while I followed swimming, then I canoed them back while their Mom swam back. A fun game of Monopoly when the storm started, a lovely dinner out and walk to the Frankfort lighthouse, popcorn and movie back home and this morning, after a night of intense, intense, thunderstorms, snuggling in bed telling each other our dreams. 

 

As I always tell young teachers, the good news is that kids have short memories and they mostly will not hold your horrible class against you when they show up again in the next class. They live enough in the now that the then doesn’t cling as ferociously to them as it does to us. And they are generally forgiving. So in the spirit of a good ending to music that started to go sour, I feel wholly redeemed after our recent conflicts and so do they. 

 

But still I’m happy for the upcoming alone time. 

 

And so are they.

Friday, August 27, 2021

More Sweet Than Sorrow

It’s time. The fruit flies have had a mating frenzy and are swarming throughout the kitchen. The biting black flies are taking over the beach. And the waters of Lake Michigan, which have been so blessedly and benevolently warm, just took a turn to the cool. 

 

Not to mention this child-loving doting-grandfather needing a break from the little ones measuring the smoothies I poured for them to the millimeter to make sure they are exactly equal, piercing my ear drums with their indoor screams (even when in fun by scaring each other). I’m ready to reclaim my day so I’m not at the mercy of the explosive energy of a 6-year old-boy and the extreme mood swings of a prepubescent 10-year-old girl. (And I freely confess that my clever "Behavior Management" techniques outlined in the last post did NOT work. The kids forgot to read the manual.)

 

Not that it hasn’t been fun. We’ve played just about every game in the cupboard— math games like Othello and Yahtzee, word games like Boggle and Scrabble, board games like Clue and Monopoly.      We finished two jigsaw puzzles and run the full gambit of card games—Uno, War, Go-fish, Blackjack, Rummy 500, Solitaire (3 styles), Trash, Five Crowns. We’ve improved our hand-eye coordination with paddleball, wiffleball, catch, frisbee, bean bag toss and miniature golf. We splashed in the waves, floated on rafts, swam in the lake, canoed to the outlet, hiked up one sand dune, hiked to another and ran down it, walked in the woods, biked a rail-to-trails path. Then there were the drive-in movie (Jungle Cruise) and the five videos we watched here (E.T., A League of Their Own, Hoosiers, The Black Stallion, Luca),the trips to the library and hours of reading, each alone and also out loud (just finished reading Island of the Blue Dolphins to the kids). There were two dinners out in town, the trips to the ice cream store, the delicious home-cooked meals, the sunsets from the deck, the lighting flashes during thunderstorms. Evening visits with the neighbors included a singing bonfire on the beach, a dance party and a Charades game. And then of course, so much time just lying out on the beach letting the mind drift, as it should in summer. 

 

It has been grand. But it is time to go. For all of us. The kids will return to Portland and prepare for school, my daughter already back home at staff meetings, my other daughter continuing her online work minus the perk of finishing with a beer at the beach, my wife staying here for another 10 days hosting high school friends and me returning to a blissful time of solitude back in my own house. I’m sure I’ll miss the lake amidst the fog and smoke awaiting me in San Francisco, but Solitude is bliss and I am ready for it. And the piano.

 

Parting is most always sweet sorrow, but in this moment, the sweet outdoes the sorrow!

 

 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Behavior Management

Early in my teaching career, I realized that it was useful to understand children and anticipate how they would react to different situations. For example, if there was an Italian song with the word “pee-pee,” I knew the kids would start giggling and couldn’t finish the song. So I made up a game to see who would be the most mature child and resist giggling. No prizes other than acknowledging their impressive restraint. It helped. Likewise, the whole thinking behind Wrong Words Day, chronicled many times in these blogposts. 

 

So after three weeks together, the dynamic between my grandkids Zadie and Malik is starting to wear me down. “Stop!!! Maliiiiiik!!! Zadie!!!!!” The trigger could be Malik humming two notes of a song while Zadie is “concentrating” on Scrabble. Not something worthy of a scream, just a patterned dynamic that has taken root.

 

Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So the adults reacting to each outburst and treating it like a unique situation became part of the negative pattern. Nothing changed. In cases like this, there are two strategies:


1) Break the pattern. By any means necessary. (Except anger and violence, which erupt from the frustration of not being able to change the pattern.) So this morning, after what promised to be a sweet beginning to the morning with them both visiting me in bed while I showed them a slide show on my computer quickly took a sharp left turn into “Maliik! You’re in my way!!!!!” it was time for action. I gave them each an allowance of 4 times each that they could either scream each other’s names or say “Stop!!!” If Zadie shouted Malik, it counted against both of them because chances are that he was doing something, however small, to annoy her and she was responding explosively rather than calmly. And vice versa.


The consequence for over-spending was, of course, no food treats that day. 

 

Two hours later, neither has spent any of their allowance. It’s helping.

 

2) Get them apart and do something special with each of them. I took Zadie miniature golfing yesterday morning and helped her get a Frankfort, Michigan library card. That afternoon, I went on an “adventure walk” in the woods with Malik which included playing frisbee, jumping in the lake, noticing daddy long-legs spiders and digging up a bear bottle in the dirt that we recycled. That helped also. 

 

In short, when you find yourself sick and tired of kids’ behavior, create a game-like structure to inhibit or at least temper kids’ extreme tendencies, a deadly serious way to say “No” without the exclamation point that helps break up patterns before they spiral out of control and lead to frustrated outbursts of adult anger. Teaching or parenting, it’s a helpful strategy.

 

And then the second is to give them the kind of positive attention they need and deserve, as in the one-on-one special times. Just the positive alone is often not enough, as kids get too much in the habit of them at the center of the universe whose every whim and desire should be fulfilled by guilty adults. And certainly, just the negative controls are not enough by themselves. 

 

And if you’re a grandparent, there is a third strategy. Give them back to the parents and go back home to your quiet, child-free house! 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Drifting

Thanks (and no thanks!) to an ap on my phone, my daily walks are marked in steps and miles. My bike rides once were measured with an odometer, but thankfully, it broke and I never replaced it (though still somewhat aware of the miles of various SF bike rides). My summer swims in Lake Michigan have long been counted by strokes, and so in addition to any pleasure the walks, rides and swims give me—and they do— there is always this sense of aiming for some quota that theoretically fulfills some other purpose of calories burned, heart rate regulated, muscles exercised. And one could rightfully say that I’m rather driven in my professional life, almost always with a list to check off and a goal to achieve and a timetable within which to do both. 

 

And yet. Since forever, wandering aimlessly in a new city or town or neighborhood or stretch of woods is also a cherished part of my psychic makeup, singing alive the Incredible String Band song “I’ve nowhere to go and I’ve nothing to do, I’m not in the slightest way upset, I’m not chasing a hope or a dream or a cloud, and I’m not even chasing the sunset.” This gets more and more difficult with the 24/7 in-touch phone in my pocket, but still I can often resist the pull and save the e-mails and such for when I’m home. 

 

So here on Lake Michigan, we blew up the rafts the other day and to lie on them out on the waters and let the gentle waves take me where they will, to drift aimlessly without purpose or intent, is simply a little slice of heaven. And if your 6-year old grandson is on your lap, also in some kind of floating trance punctuated by the always fascinating little thoughts that pop up in his head, why, that’s lovely too. To move away from “the riptide of busyness” (my daughter Talia’s eloquent phrase) and just drift. 

 

Summer exists to remind us of that and today, I remembered.

 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

House in the Country

Yesterday, I finally got to visit some family friends in their dream house in Traverse City, Michigan. I had been hearing about this for some 10 years, from the initial idea of buying the land and then the architectural plans and then the actual building, with all the unsurprising trials and tribulations with builders and contracters and such. So I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

 

It was lovely. A house in the woods with no other houses visible, a beautiful screened-in porch looking out at the beech trees, an office for one and art studio for the other, an in-tune acoustic piano, workable kitchen, three bedrooms and hiking paths throughout the woods of a semi-planned community. The kind of place an artist or musician or writer would settle into in and think, “Here I will finally do some worthy work.” Or a retired couple (they were) would dream of their Golden Years in company with morning birds, a full round of seasons and peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the workaday world. It could make this city-dweller in a flat overflowing with too many books and CD’s and piano books envious.

 

But I wasn’t. While I thought the house in the country was my destination ever since reading Walden as a teenager, I’ve lived my entire adult life in a city and happily so. I like a certain amount of hustle and bustle, the energy of people, the pleasures of jazz clubs and concerts and restaurants and movie theaters and once I’m in my writer’s mind, it doesn’t matter if I’m looking out through the window at the woods or at my tiny desk facing a wall. Yes, I’d love to be able to play piano any time day or night without worrying about my upstairs neighbors and following our not-before-10-am and not-after 9-pm agreement, grumble as much as anyone when stuck in traffic, get tired of walking past the litter in the street. But living a half block from Golden Gate Park helps tremendously, as well as being close to the open spaces of Marin or just a few hours from the grandeur of Yosemite. Having this summer “cottage” in Michigan helps balance the equation, for sure. Which through marriage, actually is my house in the country. 

 

But even though it sounds crazy to look somewhat forward to trading this extraordinary site with a private beach on a pristine swimmable Lake Michigan 50 feet away, spending the day in a bathing suit in pitch-perfect weather, sharing it all with the extended family, for a return to a foggy, smoky, San Francisco alone in my house, I find myself looking forward to it. It’s part of the seasonality of my life and a reminder that paradise is not a place, but an attitude with a constantly shifting focus. I’m happy for the family friends in their country house, but not jealous. 


I’m perfectly fine where I am.

  

Monday, August 23, 2021

Thanks to Rudy Benton

Like every first-year teacher, my first few months teaching music at The San Francisco School were a challenge, to say the least. It was the first music program at the school and so kids not only had to get used to me as a new teacher, but get used to doing activities out of their comfort zone. I remember the assistant administrator’s daughter once refusing to come to class and delight in telling the story of the preschoolers who were practicing marching, galloping, jumping and when it came to running, they ran out the door and down the hall! I needed a crash course in class management!

 

And at someone’s recommendation, I went to visit a P.E. teacher in Brisbane named Rudy Benton and sat amazed watching him get a hundred kids in a gym joyfully moving and wholly engaged without a moment of chaos. He had a playful series of commands (“When I count to 3, jump three times and run to the other side of the room. Go! Ohh. I’m sorry. I thought my direction was you had to wait until I count to 3. You have to listen to the whole direction. Let’s try again. Ready? Go!! That was better. 1 – 2- 4!!!”), had everyone wonderfully involved with worthy activities and playing well together. After going to see him one more time, my life as a teacher was wholly changed.

 

Besides the playful commands, he introduced me to sitting postures (long sitting, hook sitting, tailor sitting—later “criss-cross-applesauce), complete control (a yoga relaxation process at the end of class) and a game called Stations that was one of the kids’ favorite for my entire 45-year tenure. 

 

I never visited his class again— his work with me was done after a mere two visits—but I forever appreciated him for his gift to my teaching and always acknowledged him as the source of the above activities, even as I changed and adapted them to my field. 

 

And why do I write this now? I just found that he passed away at 84 years old, leaving me with mild regret that I didn’t touch base in the last ten years to thank him again and reminding me of how much I was indebted to him. So thank you, Rudy Benton and rather than imagine you resting in peace, I can see you organizing games in the other world. 

  

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Number One Rule

After being defeated soundly by Malik in our first Othello game together, he started to walk away. I invoked the non-negotiable number one rule of life—“Winner cleans up!” Even at 6-years old, he knew there was no arguing. That’s the rule and no discussion necessary.

 

Now it’s time to alert the white-privileged upper-class mostly-male population that the world is a mess and it’s their job to clean it up. Clean up the wreckage of slavery and genocide and Jim Crow and redlining and school-to-prison-pipeline that bought them their house on the hill, the aftermath of plundering the earth without thought for a single future generation, the detritus of their 5 million dollar yachts and trips to space while Amazon employees struggle with their health issues from poor working conditions. 

 

And yet they keep walking away from the game, continue to throw their trash out on the street for others to clean up, gloat about winning without even paying the tiniest debt to society—say income tax. How can I teach my grandson what’s fair and just and necessary in the face of their boldfaced and shameless flaunting of the most basic rules of human civility? Why did nobody teach them?

Time to hold them accountable. Winner cleans up the game. No more ifs, ands or buts. Do it!

 

Now!

  

Fragility

In the midst of the glory, things can turn on a dime. We go to sleep in the arms of a benevolent mother and awaken alone and abandoned.  A bit overdramatic, as my own story is so mild compared to the telegram in wartime or the cancer diagnosis or the call from the police. But after feeling embraced by the lakes I’ve been graced to swim in each and every one of the two weeks here “up north,” I suddenly felt like I was underwater and couldn’t shake the water out of my ear. Went to sleep hoping I’d awaken normal, but that didn’t happen. So off to the local emergency room, where they irrigated my ear, got out the accumulated ear wax and confirmed that I had a mild “swimmer’s ear” infection and I should take drops and stay out of the water for at least five days. Aargh! And while they were at it, they looked at my cut foot that wasn’t healing because I kept walking on it and suggested I keep that out of the lake as well for a while. So no wading either.

 

Ach! Not easy to be exiled from one of the best reasons to be here, to watch the grandchildren splash around without joining them. And then I lost my pen, the Niji stylist I’m very attached to and was having a terrible game of Five Crowns with the family and getting grouchier by the second (though I did make a comeback on the last hand and went from last place to second!). 

 

It should be embarrassing to publicly admit these ridiculous First World problems in the face of the catastrophes that have, can and might happen, but hey, I promised myself to share both my triumphs and tribulations, my confidences and my vulnerabilities, my moments of the best childlike self dancing with the most adult self and the wise elder and equally, my needy and whiny 3-year old and the teenager who feels shunned by the group (as I did in a recent men’s group). 

 

And so. A reminder that life is perpetually fragile and it’s a freaking miracle to simply be alive and functioning, so we better be grateful for each moment of health and friendship and good fortune. The boats are out on the lake, the refrigerator is full, my kids are working on the puzzle they gifted me made from photos of the family, Zadie is astounding me with some puzzle genius as she finds and fits in the two pieces none of us could find, Malik is reading aloud at his 4thgrade level on the cusp of going into kindergarten, my wife is jogging having dealt with five months with her own surprise turn of events with constant back pain. The world keeps spinning, the virus keeps raging, far too many people think and act as if we have the luxury of business as usual, but inside it all is the sheer miracle that life exists on this planet and that we are here to savor, enjoy, sustain and preserve it. 

 

Time for my ear drops.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Glory of Difficulty

I’m on a mission to introduce my grandkids to classic movies, from the 30’s up to today. Zadie and I have watched three great cross-dressing films—Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, then went on to women empowerment films—9 to 5, Big Business  and last night, A League of Their Own. They’ve all held up well and I was particularly struck by a moment in last night’s film when Geena Davis, a player on the all-women baseball team, tells manager Tom Hanks why she’s leaving the team:  “It’s hard.” And he replies: 

 

“It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” 

 

That’s a poster-worthy quote and in fact, Google reveals many such posters. But even though it can sound like clichĂ©, it is as true as true can be. True of jazz piano, true of Orff Schulwerk, true of writing a book, true of Zen practice. All of which I keep working at and daily getting my butt kicked. It’s a simpler way of saying what the poet Rilke said many, many years earlier (excerpted from his poem The Man Watching):

 

When we win it’s with small things,

And the triumph itself makes us small. 

What is extraordinary and eternal

Does not want  to be bent by us…

 

…This is how we grow: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

 

There can be a bit of the extraordinary and eternal in any craft, be it baseball, cooking, child-raising or chess. Choose your opponent and jump into the ring, ready to be pummeled and kneaded into your true shape.

  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Standing at the Edge

One of the iconic images  my daughters have of me is standing at the water’s edge with my hands on my hips getting my nerve up to jump in the water. For five, ten, even fifteen minutes. 

 

But on this trip, I find myself jumping right in without hesitation. It helps that the water is warmer than usual, but it’s more a psychological shift, jumping into the water as if it’s there to embrace me and welcome me back to a kind of watery womb. And it works. I look forward to the moment of immersion and enjoy each of the 800 to 1200 strokes I like to swim. 

 

And this sense of jumping straight into the water, while not always my go-to in actual water, is certainly how I’ve gone through life. Just about everything I’ve jumped into— from teaching kids to teaching adults to writing books to publishing books to performing jazz and more— I’ve jumped in not sure how far I could swim or what I would encounter in the water or how cold the water would be. And it turns out that I almost always end up swimming further than I thought I could, love being in the water and appreciate the exercise that not only gets my heart pumping physically, but warms it spiritually as well. 

 

And yes, sometimes I’m in over my head and could use some life-jackets in the form of helpers, paid or unpaid, but I end up making it to the shore in one way or another. And I'm mostly comfortable in the waters in which I swim while feeling ready to meet the new waters await. 


Without standing too long arms on hips at the water’s edge.

 

 

The Twilight Zone

Only people of my generation— and their numbers are dwindling—will get that title reference and start singing the theme music. But for those who missed out, it was a TV series about the mysterious, inexplicable, far-fetched stories ranging from Martians landing to someone suddenly able to read everyone’s thoughts. Whenever something out of the ordinary happened, my friends and I would start singing "Dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee." 

 

And so when I returned from my long bike ride yesterday and reached for my glasses in their case in my front pocket, they weren’t there. I searched the house for all the places I might have set them down, knowing that I had just used them reading at the beach before setting off on the bike ride. Nowhere. They simply had disappeared. Dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee-dee. 

 

To make it yet stranger, I had a similar experience the summer before, when I returned from a bike ride with both glasses and case gone from my front pocket. Bike riding is a pretty vertical activity (at least on my bike) and it made no sense whatsoever that they could have fallen out of my pocket. But just for my idea of fun, I drove my route in the car with granddaughter Zadie and had her looking for them at the side of the road. And lo and behold, after a few miles, there they were!!! Astounding! Dee dee dee dee. Of course, they were broken, but it still set my mind at ease that they hadn’t simply vanished into the Twilight Zone.

 

So Zadie and I got in the car yesterday to look for this missing pair and……………

 

We didn’t find them. And they still haven’t shown up in the house. Just gone. Vanished. 

 

Perhaps we’ll be shopping in town someday and pass someone wearing them. 

 

Or not. 

 

Dee dee dee dee…

 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Friends

And so the days proceed apace up north on Lake Michigan. The grandkids help me with my solitaire game, join me for morning oatmeal, sit on the couch with me while I read The Island of the Blue Dolphins to them. We frolic in the lake, build sand castles, play paddleball and frisbee, walk on the beach and occasionally up the steep sand dune called The Sugar Bowl. And often, in the late afternoon, a new joy— all of us nestled in with our own books. We are a family of readers and we are so happy to welcome the next generation to the club.

 

This morning Malik was talking to his Mom about his friends and included my wife and I. Given the amount that we play together, hike together, read together, watch movies together, there is some truth in that. Such a contrast to the parents and grandparents of my childhood. The idea of an adult being a friend with a kid just didn’t really exist. We lived in worlds apart and mostly happily so. We had no desire to hang out with adults, who sat and talked about boring things, did weird things like sit and pay bills, drank disgusting beverages and might occasionally play catch with us, but never climb trees or jump in puddles or twirl until they fell down. And they certainly had no desire to watch cartoons with us or listen to our fart jokes. Or talk to us about our ideas or hopes or dreams. The going maxim at the family gathering dinner table was “Children should be seen and not heard.”

 

So I was intrigued by an essay by John Steinbeck (from America and Americans) called Conversations at Sag Harbor. Written in 1961, it talks of a trip he took with his two sons and begins:

 

“I do not subscribe to Togetherness, which seems to foster active dislike between American parents and their children. A father being a pal to his son not only is nonsense but can be dangerous. Father and son are natural enemies and each is happier and more secure in keeping it that way. 

 

Last year we decided to go to Sag Harbor. Ours is no attempt to be pals but rather for each side to spy out and neutralize the changing weapons of the other. In the car trip there, we passed a few guarded remarks—weather, how we felt, how good it was to be together—not really fighting, just feinting and getting the range…”

 

 You get the idea. But as one reads, you see they had a marvelous time together, filled with deep conversation and memorable activities. 

 

Malik is now at the beach doing yoga with his aunt, Zadie just woke up and scared me from behind as I write (as she does each morning), last night we built a fire on the beach, toasted marshmallows for s’mores, sang songs and looked for the Big Dipper in the night sky. Tonight some guests will come and we’ll all play Charades after dinner, kids and adults alike. I was happy to be a parent of young children in the 80’s, a grandparent of young children in the teens and a teacher of young children my whole life. I’m willing to be stern and strict as needed, understand and respect the clear boundaries between the kid’s mind, heart and body and the adult’s, but my lifelong pleasure in playing with children has kept the child in me alive, that young boy who I admire, respect, enjoy and am glad to have by my side.

 

Had he lived in a different time, I think Steinbeck would understand. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Body and Soul

Today was the bike ride day, a 10-12 mile Rails to Trails ride through the woods without changing gears— flat, flat, flat (amazing for a San Franciscan!) with a perfect temperature and a beautiful dappled light path. One way ended with a swim in Crystal Lake and a picnic lunch, the return trip rewarded with an ice cream from the bike rental/cafĂ© shop ( a necessary enticement for my young grandchildren).  Then the adults went another eight miles back to the cottage. Grab a towel, go to the back lake and plunge in the waters for a vigorous half-mile swim. 

 

I’ve never been obsessive about exercise, feeling that getting up and down off the floor and dancing with kids guaranteed a minimum of necessary physical exertion, alongside weekend bike rides. In my newly (well, over a year now) retired life during the pandemic, I’ve either walked some five miles each day around the city or biked around ten miles. And no surprise— it feels good. 

 

But between counting my swim strokes and noting my miles walked on my phone ap (doesn’t work for the bike), it’s tempting to fall into the numerical pit of fulfilling a certain quota, exercising not just for the pleasure of movement, but to prove to myself that I did the right amount to make me happier and healthier. It’s a slippery slope to equate those numbers to the state of your soul. The science is clear the body and mind are intricately and inextricably connected, that exercise helps oxygenate the brain, tone the body, releases the feel-good dopamine and serotine neurotransmitters— in short, helps the mind think better, the emotions feel better, the body function better. I don’t think anyone can argue with that. 

 

But what about the soul? I think of people like Chopin and Rilke and other artists with frail bodies and constant sickness singing such soulful music and poetry. Would daily workouts at the gym contributed more to their creations? Or distracted them? Or traded in feeling hale and hearty for their explorations into the deep recesses of the suffering and exuberant soul? 

 

I plan to think about this during my 800-stroke swim tomorrow.

In Praise of Teachers

 

When John Steinbeck’s 11-year old son asked his father how much longer he had to go to school, 

Steinbeck replied, “About fifteen years. It’s terrible and I’m not going to try to tell you it isn’t. But I can tell you this—if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher and that is a wonderful thing.” He then goes on to praise teachers with his characteristic eloquence and insight:

 

“A great teacher is a great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

 

Great teachers have these things in common:

 

• They all love what they are doing.

• They do not tell—instead, they catalyze a burning desire to know. 

• Under their influence, horizons spring wide and fear goes away and the unknown becomes knowable.

• Most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, becomes beautiful and very precious.

 

My first true teacher, in addition to other things, brought discovery. She aroused us to discovery to shouting, bookwaving discussions. She had the nosiest class in school and she didn’t even seem to know it. We could never stick to the subject, geometry of the chanted recitation of the memorized phyla. Our speculation ranged the world. She breathed curiosity into us so that we brought in facts or truths shielded in our hands like captured fireflies. 

 

She was fired and perhaps rightly so, for failing to teach the fundamentals. Such things must be learned. But she left a passion in us for the pure knowable world and me she inflamed with a curiosity which never left me. I could not do simple arithmetic but through her I sensed that abstract mathematics was very like music. When she was removed, a sadness came over us but the light did not go out. She left her signature on us, the literature of the teacher who writes on minds. I have had many teachers who told me soon-forgotten facts but only a few who created in me a new thing, a new attitude and a new hunger. I am the unsigned manuscript of that high school teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person."  

 

And you, dear reader. Have you been so lucky as to find a teacher with that magic that lit up all the years that followed? If so, and you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to thank them.

 

  

Friday, August 13, 2021

Paddleball for Peace

Back when my first daughter Kerala was 9 years old, we had a memorable peak experience while standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. You might imagine us standing looking at that unfathomable grandeur at sunset, properly awed by its majesty, its antiquity, its goosebump beauty. A father and a daughter holding hands and contemplating together life’s great mystery.  Embraced by a moment that made the clocks stop and swept us up together into the arms of a profound sense of belonging. A moment we would remember for the rest of our lives.

 

Remember it we did, but it wasn’t as described. The epiphany was us achieving our world record of consecutive paddleball volleys— somewhere around 510, if I remember correctly. 

 

And now paddleball— I mean the simple act of two paddles and a little ball volleying back and forth, no net, no rules beyond seeing how many you can do before someone misses— has come back into my family life. First during the pandemic as an activity with my daughter Talia and another record-breaking volley of 600 plus (the exact figure scrawled down somewhere). The scene was her back yard, not quite as impressive as the Grand Canyon. Achieving our personal best at ages 36 and 69 also had a different resonance, but certainly was satisfying. I did a little with the grandkids during their various visits during this pandemic year and now here in Michigan, we’re resuming it. 6-year-old Malik’s record is 16 and 9-year-old Zadie’s is 37 (and don’t worry, I’m not comparing her to her mother). Today, my wife joined us for the first time and Kerala jumped back in after a 32-year hiatus and using two cloth paddles we found alongside the two wooden paddles and the back of a few frisbees, had a full-family game of 6. (World record was 25). 

 

And so in the way that I do, finding solutions to world turmoil in whatever simple acts I currently enjoy, I’m ready to raise the banner of “Paddleball for Peace.” Again, opposing members of Congress beginning sessions with a mandatory 15 minutes of paddleball in pairs, each session trying to beat their personal best (with no big prizes for the highest score, but also some recognition of such accomplishment). Might that civilize the dialogue, help politicians both the pleasure and importance of working together, soften the demonizing that has become the norm? I certainly think so.

 

Try it yourself. With your family and friends. Or fellow staff members before a meeting or colleagues before getting down to business. Playing games is a game-changer. And paddleball is cheap, simple, challenging and satisfying. Go!

Unplugged

In the middle of my daughter’s Zoom work day up north in our Lake Michigan retreat, the power went out. Ever resourceful, I suggested we go into town in hopes that the power outage hadn’t reached there. It hadn’t. So she got to work in the library, the kids were delighted to take out ten books and when they got restless, we went to the ice cream shop with the promise that this was their treat for the day— no more sweets after dinner. I dropped in the hardware store to buy a paddleball set and we played for a while longer in the park and returned to the cottage, certain that the power would be back on after our three-hour absence.

 

It wasn’t. And our neighbor said she heard it wouldn’t be restored for four more days. She had a generator and generously offered her refrigerator if needed, but the news was disconcerting. Luckily, it was the beginning of a work break for my daughter—exactly four days!— but we began to take stock of the challenges and the solutions. 

 

There was the food in the refrigerator and the absence of drinking water. Solved by another trip to town to get four gallon water jugs, ice for the cooler and putting some of the perishables in the freezer, which would stay cold longer. Without electricity, the toilets don’t flush. No problem. There’s the woods. The shower wouldn’t work. But there’s the lake. The stove wouldn’t work. Leftover cold soup, sandwiches and quesadillas on the propane grill work fine. No internet, no phone service— no problem. The world will go on without us answering the phone or e-mails. We couldn’t finish the E.T. movie we had started to watch with the kids. Who cares? We got books! The old-fashioned kind with covers and paper-pages. The electric piano won’t play. But then there’s the guitar. As for light, we have candles and in the morning, the sun would return. 

 

And so we passed a delightful evening singing by candlelight, talking and joking, reading a bit by flashlight. My wife went next door to our other neighbor and rescued the ice cream in her freezer (she was away for the night) and told the kids we HAD to eat it. Two ice cream cones in one day!! This might give them ideas to cut the power lines for future treats. 


And then in the middle of the night, I was awakened by lights on and the bathroom sink running. The power was back 3½ days ahead of schedule. Naturally, it makes things easier and makes publishing this possible, but the way things are going, we all would do well to practice for live without— or with less—electricity. And discover that it’s not only possible, but sometimes more delightful.