Monday, January 31, 2022

As If

Have you considered how much of your life, your actions, your daily activities, your hopes, dreams and plans, are based on an assumption that any of it matters? Whether it matters to you or your loved ones or some stranger doesn’t matter— we go ahead with what we’re doing “as if” it matters. That’s what keeps us going. The fantasy that it matters (to whom?) that you finally lost five pounds, that you made progress on the Mozart Piano Sonata, that you found the perfect piece of furniture to complete your living room is just that—a fantasy.

 

For if we ever paused to think about it, we would be immobilized by the greater truth, the brutal reality, the crushing realization, that in the big picture, none of it matters. Not a bit. Who cares that one of your books is out of print and needs reprinting, but while the layout person has the text, he doesn’t have the cover image and the person who did that retired 10 years ago and doesn’t have the file? Why drive all the way to school to pick up the last copy of the book and drive to Berkeley to bring it to the new cover designer to scan, only to discover her scanner is too small for the book size? What’s the point of happily discovering that your scanner has a feature that increases the resolution when it consistently cuts off 1/8 of an inch of the 9 by 12 book at the bottom? Why bother to spend over an hour at Kinko’s trying to scan it more professionally and keep at it even when their scanner keeps getting the size wrong? Why go through the infuriating confusion when it finally works and is sent to your e-mail, but doesn’t arrive in your e-mail? Should you really persevere , bike back to Kinko’s and have the worker try it on another machine, finally see it arrive on your phone 15 minutes later and then go home to send it to your new cover designer and find it has disappeared on your computer? Not in new mail, old mail or spam, but then, YES! there it is in recently deleted (and who deleted it? Not me!) and finally, after miles of bike riding and driving and time spent that you had hoped to enjoy in the Park, why bother sending it to your new cover designer only to discover that is  .6MB under the limit that can be sent by e-mail and you’ve been typing this for twenty minutes while the “sending” button swirls around? So now you probably have to upload it in Google Drive and then re-send and don’t forget to press “anyone with the link” or you’ll have to send it again. 

 

And since the 2000 copies in the first printing in 2008 sold out by the second printing in 2012 after four years on the market, now it took ten years to sell out again and does anyone really care anymore? Why am I determined to keep climbing over obstacle after obstacle set in a path that should have been really simple? And who is putting those obstacles there and why? If they wanted to drive me crazy, they’ve succeeded. Test my commitment, well, that too. See how serious I am in my fantasy that the work collected in the book from, at the time of the printing, some 33 years of teaching, matters enough to keep sharing it. Well, either that or just some habitual stubbornness that I will not be defeated by the gods of minor mishaps, even when they come in a maddening series of little catastrophes.

 

Still sending, sending, sending, meaning not sending, so it’s off to Google Drive I go. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a little walk first. “As if” that matters.

 

 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Amanda Gorman's Next Step

 

(I wrote a slightly different version of this last year after watching an interview with Amanda Gorman and Trevor Noah)

 

What’s next for Amanda Gorman? Where to go after reading her poetry at the Presidential Inauguration and then the Super Bowl?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The deeper question is where are wegoing to go from here? And the best answer is found in bringing poetry into politics on its own terms, bringing beauty and soul and grief and sorrow and vulnerability and human connection to the Senate floor. As with Pablo Neruda in Chile, W.B. Yeats in Ireland and Vaclev Havel in Czechoslavakia, it is time to consider poets for Congress. 

 

I am happy to nominate Amanda Gorman.

Slipping Past the Censors

The idiots are at it again. I’m talking about the folks who will go to any lengths to stop us from thinking. Who are passing bills to prevent us from hearing the true stories that might make us question their unearned power and privilege. These are the same folks that made it illegal for enslaved people in the chattel slavery days to learn how to read, that burned books in Germany, that banned books in U.S. school districts. Yesterday, I received a plea to sign a petition to the Tennessee School Board, as follows:

 

In middle school, my mom encouraged me to read a groundbreaking book called "Maus." It’s a graphic novel that told the story of how the author’s own father had survived Nazi concentration camps. Because it was a graphic novel, and because of the powerful storytelling, it was easy to understand and helped me learn about what my family members had gone through. Since it was published 30 years ago, countless children and teenagers have learned about the Holocaust through "Maus." So I was shocked to learn that a school board in Tennessee has banned this important book for 8th graders.

 

Sigh. Conservative state governors are racing with each other to see who can shut down schools teaching our actual history the fastest. It’s an epidemic of censorship in the land of free speech and yet another vote for calamity in the race between education and catastrophe, another attempt to elevate ignorance to the same level as knowledge. 

 

There is a tiny bit of relief to know that such idiocy has always been with us and the power of good literature and freedom to read has mostly prevailed. Yesterday, a friend posted a thumbnail history of attempts made (and succeeded in the short run) to ban certain landmarks of children’s literature. Good for a laugh if it wasn’t so depressingly true that it happened. Some examples: 

 

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle appeared on the banned books list in January 2010 thanks to the Texas Board of Education. Author Bill Martin Jr. happens to have the same name as an obscure Marxist theorist, and no one "bothered" to see if they were the same person.

 

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: A Colorado library put this book in a locked reference collection because a librarian thought the tale of Charlie Bucket and his tour of a candy factory embraced a "poor philosophy of life."

 

Charlotte’s Web: A parents group in Kansas decided that any book featuring two talking animals must be the work of the devil, and so had E.B. White's 1952 work barred from classrooms. The group's central complaint was that humans are the highest level of God's creation, as shown by, they said, the fact we're "the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God."

 

Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, chronicles the tragic experience of a Jewish family in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, where the 13-year-old and her family hid until they were caught and sent to concentration camps in August 1944. The book has been challenged numerous times for sexually explicit passages, and, in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for rejecting the book because it was "a real downer."

 

Dictionaries: Both American Heritage and Merriam Webster have been banned in various libraries and schools. In 1987, for example, the Anchorage School Board banned the American Heritage Dictionary for its "objectionable" entries — particularly slang words, including "bed," "knocker," and "balls."

 

Harriet the Spy: Louise Fitzhugh's well-loved tale of a girl who spies on her friends and has to face the consequences was banned because it was said to set a bad example for children, supposedly encouraging them to spy, lie, and swear.

 

James & The Giant Peach: Roald Dahl's fantastical novel about a boy escaping his miserable life with his aunts by entering a magical, house-sized peach has repeatedly been banned because it contains the word "ass." Other schools bristled at the fact that James and the Giant Peach mentions snuff, tobacco, and whiskey. In Wisconsin in 1999, the book was banned because of concerns the spider licking its lips could be interpreted as sexual.

 

Little Red Riding Hood: The fairy tale of a little girl who is led astray by a wolf while on the way to her grandmother's house was banned by two California school districts because one of the refreshments that little Red Riding Hood was carrying to her grandmother was wine.

 

The Lorax: Beloved children's author Dr. Seuss took a stand for the environment in 1971 with The Lorax, which describes the destruction of an imagined forest of woolly Truffula trees. The narrator chops down the trees to use their foliage to knit clothing. While some readers may have been offended by the book's use of the word "stupid," it was the logging industry that was insulted by the anti-deforesting plot line.

 

Tarzan: All Tarzan books were banned in Los Angeles, in 1929 because Tarzan was living in the jungle with Jane without being married. The books were likewise pulled from the shelves of the public library in the- appropriately named- town of Tarzana , California, in the 1930s.

 

Twelfth Night: Shakespeare offended school authorities in Merrimack, New Hampshire, with a tale of a girl who washes ashore after a shipwreck, disguises herself as a page, and falls in love with her male master. That jolly cross-dressing and fake-same-sex romance was deemed in violation of the district's "prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction," and copies of the play were pulled from schools.

 

Where’s Waldo: Martin Hanford's books have met controversy in Michigan and New York when a sunbathing woman’s exposed breast was noted.

 

Wizard of Oz: Frank L. Baum's classic story came under fire for its perceived socialist values, but it was also banned because it described witches as good – as in Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. In Detroit, it was banned from the libraries for having "no value" for children and supporting "negativism."

 

If I was on the censorship team, I would have included The Little House, a tale of anti-urban development, Alice in Wonderland, clearly written by someone on LSD, Peter Rabbit, promoting theft and trespassing, The Grinch, with its obvious anti-consumer message. The Ugly Duckling, with its cross-species implications and so many more.

 

But the one book that slipped through the censors in their campaign to protect our children from harmful literature, a book filled with sanctioned violence, sex, anti-capitalism, peacenik propaganda, prostitution, alcohol in sacred places, body mutilation and more, is the perhaps the most dangerous of all.  


It’s called The Bible.

 

Come on, governors, get to work!

Friday, January 28, 2022

Yes and No

 


“And yes I said yes I will Yes.”  —last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses

 

“Oh, yeah!” — Louis Armstrong’s signature ending to a song

 

Life is nasty, short and brutish, intolerable, incomprehensible, one catastrophe after another —and yet glorious. What other choice do we have than to wholly affirm it, embrace it, greet it with an all-encompassing “Yes!” Easy enough when things are going well, supremely difficult when they’re not. But even in the midst of all the death and destruction and depression and disappointment, there are yes’s to be found and sung and savored and shouted out. Like being on stage playing music with 7thgraders yesterday, wholly in the groove, the music swingin’ and joy abundant in the air made more joyful from the fact of the children’s exuberant yes to their own musical promise, their own needed expression, their own connection with each other as they reaped the harvest of months of hard work. 


We in this culture like to think of 7th graders as sullen eye-rolling pimply sub-humans who none of us would ever willingly choose to hang out with, but here they were proclaiming, “Listen to us! We’re putting ourselves out there and we also have hope and joy and powerful feelings and tender vulnerabilities. Check it out!”

 

Sometimes I treat myself to a “Yes!” day, shut down the voices trying to convince me the world and its people and my own little life is nothing more than dogshit on my shoe. I walk the streets with a hearty “Yes!” to whatever comes my way,  meet the day with the whole of my joy, my love, my sense of humor— and lo and behold, the world responds and suddenly feels five shades brighter and more colorful.

 

On another day, I give myself a “No!” day, not the kind that refuses hope or my own promise, but the kind that says no to everything trying to distract me, to bring me down, to discourage happiness. No to compliance with bullshit, no to hiding that which deserves to be seen, no to the Siren lure of the phone or screen. No to each and every ism, no to each and every publicly broadcast lie, the no that draws the line and says, “This is where it stops. No, you will not step over and keep the hatred going.”

 

And so I pass my days, bouncing between the worlds of Yes and No. Which are you today?

 

 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Paperwork Nightmare

 

Isn’t it curious the small moments we remember from our childhood? Today I thought about a moment when I was perhaps nine or ten and my Dad was at the dining room table with the monthly bills spread out to be paid. When I asked him what he was doing and he explained, I thought, “I sure as hell am not looking forward to that when I grow up!”

 

Like most kids, I thought that so much of what adults did was weird, unintelligible and just plain boring. And I was right! Peter Pan was my hero and I was determined to live a youthful life of adventure and play. And by George, that’s exactly what I mostly did! Got paid for playing clapping games with five-year olds and dancing with 4th graders and playing hot jazz with 8th graders. 

 

Of course, I did have to pay my bills. One strategy was not to buy too much so that beyond gas, electricity, garbage and a long-delayed credit card, I wasn’t overwhelmed by them. And truth be told, there was a certain satisfaction in setting aside a small block of time and getting out the stamps, checkbook and return address stickers and feel some satisfaction that the lights would stay lit for another month, the heat could be turned on as needed, the garbage would happily be taken away. 

 

So today began with a morning set aside for taking care of business, but gone are the days of writing a simple check or filling out a simple form. Bureaucracy seems to be multiplying like rabbits, but the little bunnies it spawns are anything but cute and fuzzy. 

 

For example, I need to ship some books from my Pentatonic Press Vicks Printers to my IPG distribution center, which use to mean giving Vicks the book title, amount to be shipped and address. But now I need to write to IPG and request that they generate a PO number. They write back when they have done so, then I go the Website and search around a bit until I find an “Advance Shipment Notice Form.” I fill out that form and it generates a bar code, which I then forward on to Vicks to be affixed to the box of books. After sending the books, Vicks has to e-mail the packing list with the PO number listed as a reference. Are you following this?

 

Yesterday, I taught my first online class through OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute connected with San Francisco State. Naturally, in order to get paid, I had to fill out some forms, which for some reason they insisted I send my snail mail rather than scan and send by e-mail. That’s okay, I have those stamp and envelope skills. But instead of including a copy of my passport or sending that scanned copy through e-mail, I had to be available for a Zoom call today where someone had me hold it up to the camera. And then asked me to scan it and send it by e-mail! Really? What’s the logic there?

 

Finally, after enjoying both mentoring and teaching an Orff teacher at a local school, I decided I might as well get on the sub list. Simple, yes? Of course not. 

 

I was sent various forms which I filled out electronically and sent by e-mail back. But the Human Resources manager wanted me to also print them out and mail them or bring them by. I starting printing and then noticed that the file contained 123 pages. Let me repeat that.  

123 PAGES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Fearing that the cost of replacing the printer ink would require three days of subbing to pay for, I asked if that was necessary and why so many pages? The answer was that some of those pages were the school handbook (still, over a 100 pages?!!), but if I preferred them to print them and leave them at their office, they would. 

 

Finally today, on the way to helping out with the 7thgrade concert, I dropped by the office hoping to just sign a few pages and write my name and address, but it quickly became clear it would be more. So I went to the concert (and how wonderful that was!!) and then afterwards sat in the park across the street to deal with the paperwork. 45 minutes later, I had filled out their forms that included: job application, W-4, withholding allowance, self-identification of race/ ethnicity, criminal record statement, employment eligibility verification from the Department of Homeland Security, tuberculosis risk assessment questionnaire, employee rights statement, requirement to report child abuse statement — are you still awake? Oh, did I mention that several weeks ago, I finally found a place to do Live-scan fingerprinting and got that notarized and sent?

 

All of this to play a few clapping games with kids. The price of Peter Pan has skyrocketed. Heaven help us all. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Blossoms Are Coming

February is right around the corner and in San Francisco, that means the plums will be a’bloom. I saw my first little blossom yesterday and remembered this poem I wrote eight years ago:

 

The twined bare branches against the grey sky,

A twisted prayer pointing upwards. 

All is winter in the plum tree, 

a mere remembrance of a 

former red-leaved splendor.

 

Hidden in the tangle 

is a single pink blossom,

a scout sent out ahead bearing

the good news:

 

“The bloom is on its way. These stark branches

will soon be aflame in pink blossoms, 

singing their Hallelujah 

to Spring.”

 

Perhaps this is my work also.

To be the lone pink blossom

announcing the glory to come. 

 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Neidglucken

A friend just leant me one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. Titled The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, it’s based on the premise that we can’t wholly know/feel/ experience/ understand that which we have no language for. Every advance in human consciousness or change in human society carries with it new words necessary to understanding the new territory. For example, when Carl Jung ventured into uncharted landscapes of the human psyche that Freud never visited, a new vocabulary was created that any aspiring Jungian needs to comprehend. New words (or new meanings to old words) include archetype, anima, animus, collective unconscious, enantiodromia, quaternity and my favorite, syzygy (an archetypal pairing of contrasexual opposites, symbolizing the communication of the conscious and unconscious minds). 

 

When it comes to human emotion and our language to describe it, we’re mostly stuck in the kindergarten class of happy, sad, angry, bored, proud, ashamed, fearful, joyful, anxious, confused, the kinds of things you can carve on pumpkin faces or send as emojis in your phone texts. But when it comes to the nuances and subtleties of the emotional landscape, we are often at a loss for words. 


Koenig introduces his book noting the words in other languages that have no English equivalent— the German shadenfreude(joy in the misfortune of others), the Spanish duende (a soulful artistic quality expressing and evoking heightened passion and anguish), the Brazilian Portuguese saudade ( a quality of nostalgia feeling the bitter inside the sweet and the sweet inside the bitter), the Danish hygge (feeling the coziness of enjoying the small pleasures of life with friends and family)  and the Bantu ubuntu ( the sense of a shared humanity, that I am because we are). 

 

Koenig’s book tries to fill in the gap in our present-day English by making up words that capture in one or a few words the more subtle layers of human feeling. Not randomly making them up, but often combining two existing words in a new way. Two examples:

 

Looseleft— adj: feeling a sense of loss upon finishing a good book, sensing the weight of the back cover locking away the lives of characters you’ve gotten to know so well. (From loose-leaf, a removable sheet of paper + left, departed.)

 

Slipfast— adj: longing to disappear completely; to melt into a crowd and become invisible, so you can take in the world without having to take part in it—free to wander through conversations without ever leaving footprints, free to dive deep into things without worrying about making a splash.(From slip, to move or fly away in secret +fast, fortified against attack.)

 

Inspired by the idea, I made up two of my own:

 

Prokeepsakination—verb: putting off going through old boxes filled with nostalgic keepsakes for fear of spending countless days in that rabbit hole. (From procrastinate, to put off doing things + keepsake, an object that was once meaningful and important to you.)

 

Fixination: — noun: The state of wondering why your 5-disc CD changer works randomly and unreliably without ever replacing it or attempting to fix it. (From fascination, a heightened state of intrigue + fix, a determination to make something work again.) 

 

Once you get started, there’s no end! I’m working on a term for the opposite of shadenfreude  that means “envy of the good fortune of others.” (Following the German, maybe neidglucken? Neid - envy. gluck- fortune). And what word would describe the sensation of having a few thousand friends on Facebook and hundreds of friends around the world, but having trouble thinking of who to invite to the movies in San Francisco? 

 

I could imagine re-configuring this entire Blog to this theme, but I believe John Koenig has already done it. I’m feeling some neidglucken here. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

Advice to a 7th Grader

I continue to both observe/ mentor and co-teach 7th grade with a colleague at his school and isn’t that a pleasure! A challenging situation with 24 kids for an hour, two classes back-to-back with different repertoire and meeting three times a week.  He’s handled it so well. But of course, they’re 7th graders and he’s outnumbered 24 to 1 (a perplexing situation to people in cultures where all ages hang out, I might add). It isn't easy.

 

Today was the next-to-last chance to review pieces and prepare for a performance. A  kid who I had noticed the first class was, shall we say, a bit off task, less than fully with the program today.  But in that first class, I noticed he was a good dancer and gave him a moment in the spotlight that was just what was needed. So my friend and were talking about him at lunch just as he happened to pass by. On his own, the child told the teacher that he would try harder tomorrow and that was my opening. So I said:

 

“Thank you for noticing that you needed to apologize. We needed better from you in today’s rehearsal. But I just want to let you know I love kids like you, the kind that drive us teachers crazy. You have a lively and strong energy and while most teachers might tell you to put that away in a drawer, I’m telling you you wouldn’t be you without it. I don’t want to give the impression that we don’t like it. The question is what you do with it and where you place it. Our recommendation is to put it into the music, to use in to serve the group, elevate the music, bring some spirit to the upcoming performance. 

 

Most teachers would love kids to just be quiet and obedient and believe me, there are moments when that’s very nice for a teacher! But especially with music, we want to see your whole spirit. If great artists were simply polite, nobody would want to see them perform. We want to see their extravagance, but not in a random, self-involved way. They have to combine it with the discipline of artistic control.“

 

This might be a conversation that this kid forgot about two minutes later or it might be one that sticks with him and echoes far into his future. Who knows? My job simply was to say it, to tell him something a little different than what he probably expected or usually gets. And yes, the energy Martin Luther King needed to do what he did in service of truth, beauty and justice for all is the same energy the Wall St. mogul turns towards his own selfish ends. We should celebrate that energy while educating the people who have it to aim it at the right place. And start them young. 

 

Just a thought. 

 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Modern Miracles

When despair is beating you down, the doomsday clock is ticking and hope has left the room, here's the antidote. 12 minutes of your time to show that just when you think there's no possibility of winning the game, this happens:

 

https://youtu.be/3BsuMNEdRFI

 

Forget the Maccabees and the oil, the loaves and fishes, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Here are the modern day miracles that boggle the mind and uplift the spirit. 

 

I can’t help but wonder what happened to the people after performing the miracle? Where could they go from there? Do they carry the video on the phone and show their moment over and over again to everyone they meet? Did they grow impatient with the ordinary and try to duplicate a moment impossible to duplicate? Or are they content to have had their slice of the miraculous and are happy to get back to the mundane. Do any of you know any of these people and can you put me in touch? I’d love to talk to them!

 

Meanwhile, next time you’re losing faith in humanity and need a boost of hope that the miraculous can happen against all odds, in any field of endeavor, just watch the clip. Repeat as needed. 

 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Fun, Fun, Fun


Someone just passed on the comments a former SF School student made about my teaching and I was happily struck by her use of the word “fun.” It resonated with the Leonard Bernstein quote I recently found and reminded me that I had written a whole chapter on the subject in my book The ABC’s of Education. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter, followed by my student’s comments.  

 

“F is for Fun, a word that appears on more evaluation forms in my workshops than any other word. And I always read it with mixed emotion, thinking to myself,

 

“I spent five hours preparing this workshop, trying to connect each thread so that an exquisite pattern would emerge and you might suddenly see, hear, feel, do or understand something that had previously been closed to you, I gathered every musical skill, every teaching practice, every philosophical insight that I have spent decades cultivating to create this experience for you and others so that you might bring it back to your children, and all you can say is …‘Fun?!!!!’”

 

So I’ve thought a lot about the word “fun”— an alliterative cousin of “fluff,” the beginning of “funny,” with its dangerous glide toward the “funny farm,” A word more associated with recess than with the “serious” work of school. A quick look at Mr. Roget supports this thesis— his thesaurus links fun with  “amusing, diverting, droll, entertaining.” If it’s “fun,” then it’s a diversion from the straight and narrow path of education, a droll aside, an entertaining break before getting back to brass tacks (whatever brass tacks are, they sound anything but fun). And the Oxford Dictionary debases “fun” yet further, giving “hoax” as the first definition, followed by “practical joke” and ending with a quote by someone named Walker: “With great deference to Dr. Johnson, I think fun ought rather to be styled low merriment.” Perhaps now the sympathetic reader may understand why I bristle when my life’s work is associated with “low merriment.”

 

So I am on a mission here to restore some dignity to the word “fun,” make the case that it is fundamental to the best learning, a needed antidote to funereal practices. I want to assert that the mind functions best when a sense of fun prevails. Who to call to the witness stand?

 

Well, the children for starters. When your students say, “That was fun! Can we do it again?” after a math game, a folk dance or a science experiment, they’re effectively “You’re on to something here! I’m motivated! I’m excited! I want to do it again! You have my attention and I’m with you all the way! And no one in the class is misbehaving because we’re having more fun doing the activity than trying to get out of it or make fun of it!” 

 

That’s the eight-year-old version. If that child is particularly precocious and up on current brain research, the explanation might go like this:

 

 “You are reinforcing my neural pathways with needed repetition so that the learning is imprinted more deeply, motivating that repetition through positive emotional affects and cementing it through associations with those emotions. In the words of my esteemed colleague, Joseph Chilton Pearce:

 

 ‘The emotional state in which a learning takes place is probably far more important than the information learned at the time. The state of mind that a child is in when the learning takes place enters in as a major part of the learning itself… Because the emotional/cognitive system is involved in all memory and learning, the emotional state of that learning is brought back into play on a hormonal level— that is, the body kicks back up the very same adrenaline and all the rest of it that went in when the learning took place.’

 

“If you need further evidence (the eight-year-old continues) of the importance of fun being associated with any learning activity, may I recommend Antonio Damasio’s fine scientific treatise, Descartes’ Error. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some serious fun to attend to.”

 

When something is fun, we don’t want it to stop. The body is primed, the heart is open and the mind alert. You can say that the surface area on which the learning can be mapped is increased.  We are motivated to learn, and as every teacher knows, motivation is the key to accomplishment.…”

 

The chapter goes on to show how fun’s antidote, fear, shuts down learning, blocks motivation and makes everyone, children and teachers alike, miserable.

 

I’ll end with my former student’s words, using the word “fun” five times in seven sentences. 


"I think Doug's just a really creative person and he wants students to be creative too. I think he cares so much about students learning and that's his main goal, he wants us to learn and he wants us to have fun at the end of the day. Because a lot of teachers sometimes they might teach but they don't care about having fun. But Doug thought music was fun. And he got all of us to think music was fun. And he just had us have fun during music class. And so I think we always looked forward to it because he created that energy and he created community. 

 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Lesson from a Younger Self

How rare to feel genuine satisfaction for even a minute in your life for who you are, who you’re with, where you are, what you’re doing. Wherever you are, the grass always seems greener over there. But even if you jumped the fence, you'd still have to mow it. And who knows what bugs lie hidden waiting to bite you?

 

We all need reminders to embrace the whole of our life more fully. And sometimes it comes from surprising places. Sometimes a former version of ourselves, a future version or even this morning’s version can help us remember the lesson. And isn’t it interesting that we carry all these teachers with us, that we can learn from our childhood innocence, our teenage confusion, our young adult conviction and passion, our mid-life befuddlement, our elder wisdom. All have something to offer at a different time and in a different way. 

 

And so this journal excerpt from my 27-year old self, speaking to me (and now, you) across the years about acceptance of everything within, before, besides and behind us:

 

Buddha’s first Noble Truth: Life is suffering. The poor are suffering from their want, the rich are suffering from their excesses. The single people are suffering from their loneliness, the couples from loss of independence.  The workers are suffering from their lack of leisure, the idle  from their lack of work. The sick are suffering from their illness, the healthy from the fear of sickness. The ugly long to be beautiful, the handsome pay the price of their beauty. The unknowns crave fame, the famous, anonymity. There isn’t a single condition in the human world that doesn’t have suffering as its companion. To acknowledge, receive and ultimately embrace both the suffering and joy inherent in one’s particular situation is to unite them both into a fuller understanding. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Critical to the Race

 

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

 

This quote from almost a century ago has often been on my mind throughout my decades of teaching. I’ve done what I could to give my students all the things my teachers (with some exceptions) didn’t give to me, to try to overcome the catastrophe that silence caused. 

 

First on the list was a joyful music education that releases and cultivates the musical promise that every human being has. Which turned out to also mean how to create a loving and supportive community that understands children’s way of learning through play, celebrates their dignity and delight at each stage of their development, reveals their unique genius to both themselves and the group. 


I also used the opportunity to tell my students the truth about how things have worked in this country so they understand why everyone knows Elvis and few know Big Mama Thornton, can make sense of the unbelievable fact that Ella Fitzgerald was removed from her first-class airplane seats en-route to Australia to show the world the beauty of American jazz. To give them both the facts and the habits of thought to connect the dots between Miles getting beat up by police outside the club he was performing in and George Floyd. To give them the opportunity to express their own thoughts and views on what they’ve seen, heard, read, played, experienced and begin to practice a lifetime of both personal reflection and active citizenship. Throughout it all, it felt clear that such practices indeed can serve to steer us away from catastrophe. Education of the next generation was the key to progress, the kind of progress that brings more beauty, truth and justice to the world.

 

And now, education is the catastrophe. With all the Republican governors scrambling to shut down “critical race theory,” we might as well be burning books and censoring all material that doesn’t support their big lies. The education I’m talking about is the same one Martin Luther King meant when he said,  “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” 

 

And yet here we are.  Anti-vaxers who die of Covid and their husband goes the next day unmasked to an anti-vax rally. People elected to some of the highest offices in the land blaming Jewish space lasers for what’s happening. People huddled in their Texas homes without heat or power talking about the hoax of climate change. An entire political party supporting a Big Lie that hasn’t a shred of evidence to back it up, crying about stolen elections while putting forth hundreds of new bills designed to suppress voting rights so they can steal the next election. 

 

In the face of overwhelming evidence of the catastrophe upon us and that to come, I have long been a keeper of hope, especially with all those decades of first-hand experience of how a true education makes an impact and changes things both personally and collectively. But the deepest blow to hope is the death of an education that can distinguish fact from fancy, value evidence over insane, blind belief, cultivate critical thought over following the rantings of demagogues. And now the moves to make a real education illegal. 

 

Catastrophe seems to be winning, but fellow teachers, parents and kids, don’t give up! Double down on your efforts to get these bastards out of office, insist on an education worthy of and necessary to our future, keep reading yourself and get your kids reading before the important books are banned or burned. Amongst other things, in the race between education and catastrophe, critical race theory is critical to the race. 

 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Examined Life

My first journal was a green, spiral bound notebook I took with me on my first trip to Europe in 1973. I was touring with my Antioch College choir and thought it might be a good idea to record the trip. 

 

It was. In my na├»ve younger “be here now” self, I declined to take a camera and I regret that. Most of us 30 college students declined to take a camera, but thanks to Bruce England, there are a few photos of that most amazing time kicking around. But that journal was a camera of sorts and it kicked off a habit of simultaneously living life and reflecting on it that echoed through all the years that followed.

 

In the bookcase in my hallway are the 26 journals I’ve written to date, my little life and all my thoughts about it captured between those covers. I’m not only re-reading three of them now from another trip my wife and I took around the world in 1978-79, but selecting entries to include in a new book I’m writing about that trip. So in addition to being a chronicle interesting to me as to who I’ve been, who I thought I would become, who I became and who I’ve yet to become, it feels like with some careful editing and new writing from 2022, that trip might make an interesting book for others to read as well. Impressions of Europe, India, Indonesia, Japan and beyond in a time when travel was a different thing altogether.

 

Meanwhile, my wife and I also kept journals for our kids that they still cherish, occasionally looking back to see when they rolled over and what that 5th grade paddleball record really was and how we were feeling seeing them off to college.  They make fun of the way that I often began each entry with “it’s been so long since I’ve written here!” and my second daughter is slightly bitter than her sister’s journal is longer and a bit more complete.

 

I had hoped my older daughter would have continued the practice with her own children, but when it became clear she wasn’t, my wife and I have taken over that practice with the grandchildren. And I still often begin with “it’s been so long since I’ve written here!”

 

Now add to all of this my 12th year of a public journal in the form of this blog, last year literally writing the equivalent of one entry each day. My nine books and scores of articles reflecting my teaching practice. My annual lectures at the Orff Summer Course. My check-ins every two weeks with the Men’s Group over the last 32 years. It seems like I’ve taken Socrates to heart: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

 

But have I overdone it? What would Socrates say about “the over-examined life?” Is there too much reflecting and not enough “flecting?”

 

Well, it’s not really my choice. It’s just how I’m put together and I might as well accept it. 

I’m reasonably sure I’ll write something else here tomorrow. After I write in my journal, the grandkids' journals (I really am overdue!), copy over a few more 1979 journal entries and then check in with the men’s group tonight. That’s my life, such as it is.

 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Signs of a Benevolent Universe

I’m really not interested in talking about whether God exists or not. And certainly not interested in which version of God is the “correct” one. But I am constantly on the lookout for signs that there is some benevolence in the universe, that another world exists behind this tangible, physical one, that unseen presences, be they ancestors or angels, are by our side if we would but pay attention to the signs. Today I received a sign. 

 

It began yesterday, when I finished my latest 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that I only finished 999 pieces and the final piece was nowhere to be seen. Aargh! I’ve been through this before and usually, it eventually appears. But having scoured every inch of the floor within ten feet of my puzzle place, it seemed to have mysteriously vanished. 

 

My daughter, a fellow puzzle enthusiast, came over for dinner last night and I shared my woes with her. She claimed that sometimes puzzle pieces stick to articles of clothing. I have high respect for my daughter’s intelligence and pay attention to her point of view, but this seemed a bit far-fetched. 

 

And then. This morning I sat my morning meditation as I do and with the house a little chilly, I wore a sweater. After I sat, I did my ritual three bows and turned around to re-fluff the meditation cushion and lo and behold, there was the puzzle piece!!!!! Astonishing!!! I guess it had stuck to my sweater somehow and dropped off. 

 

Two takeaways:

 

• The universe is benevolent.

 

• Listen to your daughter.  

Monday, January 17, 2022

Leonard Bernstein Appetizers

 

Looking for a quote from Leonard Bernstein that I couldn’t find, I stumbled on others that I’m happy I did find. In the spirit of the one-line snacks from yesterday’s post (and arguably much more interesting) are some select gems from the maestro.

 

• The joy of music should never be interrupted by a commercial.

 

• I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.

 

• Children must receive music instruction as naturally as food, with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game and this must happen from the beginning of their lives.

 

• Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time… the wait is simply too long.

 

• I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is Yes.

 

• To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.

 

(Compare to Duke Ellington’s: A goal is a dream with a finish line.)

 

And finally, in honor of Martin Luther King Day:

 

I believe in people. I feel, love, need and respect people above all else, including natural scenery, organized piety and nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the mountain disappear for me, one person fighting for truth can disqualify for me the entire system which had dispensed it.