Monday, February 28, 2022

The Glory of Grandeur, the Smallness of Screens

Here’s a confession. The thought of being three days without my computer in our tent cabin in Yosemite Village was daunting. It has come to that. When something becomes such a central part of your daily life— e-mails, Facebook, these Blogposts, course sign-ups, Zoom classes, Youtube dailies, Internet research— it is hard to imagine three days without it. 


Yet once arrived, it was much easier to hang the “Gone fishing” sign in my psyche then I thought. In fact, glorious. What helped was the grandeur of this spectacular place on the planet. Swept up into the sheer granite walls of El Capitan, the breathtaking Yosemite Falls, the serene watchful eye of Half Dome, the sheer size of it all made the tiny screen of the computers and even tiny screen of the phones assume their proper proportion. Meaning, “no contest.” So much of our screens are poor compensation for our inability to get swept up in the grand spectacle of this living, breathing, planet. To revel in the roar and rush of the rivers, delight in the ice caps on top of the river rocks, feel the broad expanse of the snow-covered meadows, humble down to our proper size amidst Ponderosa pines and white firs.  What is a Facebook chat or cute Youtube clip next to that? 


Even driving out of the valley, I tried out some Mozart piano sonata recordings as a soundtrack to the vistas and it didn’t fit, this music composed in and for indoor courts. Silence was the far better option. 


We can’t all live in—or even visit (so many people there!)—Yosemite Valley, but hopefully we can all find a bit of night sky to gaze up to, a patch of grass to lie down in, a tree of any size to sit under or embrace or observe or climb. I believe this is what Gary Snyder had in mind when he wrote:


“This living flowing land / is all there is, forever / We are it / it sings through us- / We could live on this Earth / without clothes or tools!”


At my age, I’d prefer some clothes, thank you very much, but I agree with the spirit of these words. 

Both Sides Now

In honor of my wife’s 72nd birthday, off we went to meet our daughter in Yosemite. I was 21 when I first visited this magnificent place. I hitchhiked there and backpacked alone for four days. Those were the years when my life was spread out before me, when I was reading Yeats and listening to Judy Collins and Bob Dylan and was filled with the collective dream we were creating poem by poem, song by song.


Two years later, I was back in Yosemite with my new girlfriend and six years after that, we returned there again on our honeymoon, just back from a remarkable one-year trip around the world and resuming teaching at the alternative school for our fourth year. That dream of a better world had grown feet and class by class, we were walking with the children toward the promised land of a kinder, more just and more beautiful world that already existed in each art and music class that we taught.


So here we were, over four decades later, driving the familiar route past the familiar places listening to Judy Collins. Only now we were talking about friends who are looking into moving to an Assisted Living place. The lion’s paw of mortality is still with claws retracted, but it is most definitely brushing against our shoulders. While Judy Collins brought us back to the time when all was future, a “Someday Soon” with Dylan’s answers “Blowing in the Wind” and Yeats’ visions of the “bee-loud glade” of some future home. At the same time that we glimpsed a possible future of nursing care and wheelchairs going to some Home’s art class or playing their piano. 


We are both poised in a new place on Time's wheel, where possibility  holds hands with certainty, “hope to” is wed to “did it,” that pimply “who will I become?” walks side by side with the  wrinkled “who have I been?” It is the meeting point of our innocence and experience. And like the Yin/ Yang symbol, with its small circle of the other contained inside each half, we were already living the wisdom of experience in the midst of our innocence, we are now keeping our capacity to still dream and imagine alive and breathing inside our experience. 


Consider: Yeats was 32 years old when he wrote, “Though I am old with wandering now…”, Judy Collins 28 years old when she wondered “Who knows where the time goes? (and the songwriter Sandy Dennis 20 when she wrote it!), Bob Dylan was 22 years old when he longed to be in that room again with friends in his song Bob Dylan’s Dream. All of them speaking with the voice of age through the eyes of youth.


At the other end of the spectrum, I’m still asking “what if?” and dreaming alongside my grandchildren in the face of the stark realities that daily try to trample my dreams to dust. Nevertheless, I persist, looking at life from “both sides now,” dancing to the soundtracks of my youth with the body of my aging. Driving to Yosemite with all times and all ages by my side. 


Thursday, February 24, 2022



According to my Blogspot stats (see above), yesterday’s post was number 3, 333. I wish I had written 3,333 on 2/22/22 but I was two days late! As a card-carrying numbers nerd, I just had to comment.


Of course, in a world gone mad, where Russian dictators are still acting out the old world domination model of the last century, insane conspiracy theorists are shutting down butterfly habitats at the Mexican border, serious democracy-killing former leaders and their like are still walking free on the streets, this kind of post is frivolous beyond reason. But if we denied ourselves such moments of trivia, shut down any levity, spent each day biting our nails in fear and trembling, then the nay-sayers and death-servers win. So let’s leave some space for lightness in the face of the heaviness, live a both-and life and find grace, beauty and humor where and when we can.


In short, 3333 on 22222 (well, almost) still feels newsworthy.  

Marsyas Meets Marsalis

Apollo was the god of Logos, the carrier of reason and logic and the clarity of the intellect. The stringed lyre was his instrument. Dionysus was the god of Wine, the carrier of Eros and intuition and unbound emotion. His favored instrument was the flute and his cohorts were the satyrs, half men, half goats. 


One day the satyr Marsyas found a flute invented  by Athena, who in her vanity threw it down to earth when she discovered her cheeks bulged when she played. Marsyas learned to play it so well that he decided to challenge Apollo to a contest to determine whose music was superior. The Nine Muses were the judges and after each had played, they couldn’t decide who was superior and called it a tie. Apollo requested one more chance and turned his harp/lyre upside down and played it. He challenged Marsyas to do the same, but when he blew into the wrong end of the flute, no sound came out and Apollo was declared the winner. He then flayed Marsyas and made a drum of his skin. 


This Greek myth, alongside Plato’s elevation of reason over the poetry of Homer, helped move Western civilization toward the Age of Enlightenment, tilting the faculties of the human psyche and the culture that grew from it away from Dionysian intuition, ecstasy and connection with nature and toward the removed Apollonian intellect, cold objectivity and domination of nature. It led to the glorious achievements of Bach and Mozart and the scientific revolution, but at the expense of the feminine side of culture (the Witch Trials), the poetic imagination (Shelley’s argument titled “In Defense of Poetry”), the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of African considered “primitive” because they lived close to the earth, played drums and danced ecstatically (in the spirit of Dionysus’s wine but without the wine). 


In the European music world, this Apollonian tilt favored the strings (Apollo’s instrument) in the symphonic orchestras, evolved a complex musical theory and large orchestral forms and put composition at the top of the musicianship hierarchy. In the African musical world, the instruments played by breath (flutes, horns and the singing voice) expressed the more immediate and soulful side of the psyche, accompanied by the earthy vibrations of drums (Marsyas’s skin), kept music connected with dance and valued improvisation (inside of composed forms). 


And so when the Apollonian West European father brought its dominating mentality to the Dionysian West Africa mother, there was a hierarchical forced marriage that took place in the New World in which a child was born, an African-American child who lived inside the father’s forms, structures and language without ever losing the qualities of the mother that alchemically transformed everything they touched. In plainer language, the enslaved African peoples in the U.S. spoke a new language, sang English hymns, copied the quadrille dances they saw at the plantation house and later the couple dances they saw in the ballrooms, later began playing the piano, trumpet, saxophone, double bass and more, all European instruments.  But out of that encounter grew a new music unrecognizable in either England or Ghana, a proliferation of new styles known as field hollers, blues, ring shouts, Lindy Hop dances, and jazz, jazz, jazz. 


The Western side of things had Louis Armstrong mastering the technique of the trumpet, but infusing it with his sense of swing with slides and swoops and growls. It had Duke Ellington following the legacy of Mozart and Beethoven by composing large works with notes written down, but always with space for his orchestra to improvise within in and often, with dancers dancing to it.  By the time the be-bop masters came on the scene, they continued to ascend into the upper Apollonian regions of advanced harmonies, but always with their feet rooted in the soil of the blues and with the breath-based horns leading the way. When Charlie Parker played with strings accompanying him, he sincerely loved the sound of them supporting his Icarus flights into the stratosphere, but the key image here is the strings supporting rather than dominating. When Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks bulged out when he played, he looked more strange than Athena did, but did not worry about his appearance knowing the Soul was streaming out of the horn. When Ella Fitzgerald won the contest at the Apollo Theater, it gave a new dimension to the theater’s namesake.


Jazz progressed by balancing and re-balancing Apollo and Marsyas, until the latter was re-incarnated as Marsalis, that extraordinary musical family. Father Ellis sat at the piano (a stringed instrument) and his sons Wynton (trumpet), Branford (saxophone), Delfayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) continued the Marsyas flute and drum side of the matter. Alongside the stringed bass, the Land of the Symphony that split off the Isle of Jazz into Mainland/ Island with a Sea of Dischord between them now build the Bridge of Harmony between them where the Strings and the Horns married. 


The above is the story from a Disney cartoon called Silly Symphony—Music Land made in 1935 (part of a series of 74 other music cartoons made by Disney). It astounded me how it captured so many of the points in my fanciful look at how this ancient Greek myth continues to play out in the music world today, particularly in the world of jazz where the instruments, techniques, music theory and function in society of the European inheritance meet the sensibilities, rhythms, new techniques and functions from the African inheritance. Check it out!


        Silly Symphonies- Music Land (1935):



Tuesday, February 22, 2022


In honor of today’s date, a once-only in human history  music class: 


• Say those numbers out loud to the beat—0-2-2-2-2-0-2-2


• Get a friend to join you with another way to write today’s date—2-2-2-2-2


• Join the two rhythms together and continue speaking the two ostinai:


Part 1) 0-2-2-2-/ 2-0-2-2 / 0-2-2-2-/ 2-0-2-2 / 0-2-2-2-/ 2-0-2-2 / 0-2-2-2-/ 2-0-2-2 /


Part 2) 2-2-2-2-/2  *  * *   / 2-2-2-2-/2  * *  * /2-2-2-2-/2  * *  * /2-2-2-2-/2  * *  * /


• Perform above as body percussion: 0= stamp 2= clap * = snap


• Play as above while speaking numbers


• Get a third person to recite the following poem over the above ostinato:


Two tutors who tooted the flute * * 

Tried to tutor two tutors to toot * *

Said the two to the tutors, ‘tis easier to toot

Or to tutor two tutors to toot? * *


• Transfer all of the above to percussion instruments. 


Check back in on 02/22/2222.


Monday, February 21, 2022

Maria and Carl

The traveling music teacher, that fellow who kicked off this Blog’s theme, is back! This time to Orlando, Florida for the American Montessori Institute’s Conference. Not my usual venue, but having worked at a school founded by the Montessori Method for 45 years, I certainly had something to say on the subject. 


First off, I have long been an admirer of Maria Montessori’s brilliant observations about children and Mt. Everest level of articulation in her writings. Few before or since have rivaled her vision of children as the future of a more cultivated humanity through the means of meeting their dignity and delight at each stage of development. The principles of the Montessori Method are sound and have been proven many times over, with first-hand evidence from the hundreds of children I’ve taught (including my own) at my school. 


As determined as she was to develop the full 360 degree promise of each child, no one person could do that all and indeed, it was clear to me from the beginning that she fell short in her ideas about music, movement, drama and visual arts. As a scientist, she was a genius at nurturing the intellectual and practical side of childhood, developing materials that allowed the children to explore their way into discovery of which shape block fits into which shape hole without the teacher’s interference, to come to conclusions about the way size, weight, shape, the varied pitches of the scale and more work, to gain the longed-for independence to be able to tie one’s own shoes, cut carrots, take care of the space and bake some hurry-up cake. All effective, useful, helping the child gain confidence and mastery of the world around her at her appropriate developmental stage of understanding.


But there’s more to the matter. In my workshop, I described and shared a video of my 5-year old students discovering their “secret song.” In Montessori fashion, I left them alone to explore the material, in this case a xylophone set up in pentatonic scale. But my goal was not to have them discover the order of the tones, the proper mallet technique (yet), the difference between metal and wood. All of which they will discover later, as is proper for music education. 

Yet at the beginning of the venture, armed with an unshakeable faith in their innate musicality and intuitive sense of how to create a coherent melody before learning a single rule, I set them free to “uncover” the secret song waiting inside the bars for them to reveal. The goal is neither practical mastery nor intellectual understanding, but imaginative flight into self-expression. This is the balancing act that a good Orff Schulwerk program can offer a good Montessori program.


Montessori classrooms are set up with children at individual desks working alone with the material and why I imagine many (like my school) have some kind of circle time and certainly outside time when children play together, the Orff approach leans heavily to group work, not desks in pods, but children seated or standing or dancing in circles. Children (and adults) who play music, sing and dance together form a social connection in ways that only music can provide and the Orff approach in particular accents the social side of the community— clapping games with partners, small groups creating pieces, large groups dancing in unison and yet larger groups singing in parts. The Orff-Montessori blend is a lovely complementary experience, not an either-or but a both-and. 


In the workshop I gave there was an interesting moment of conflicting views. I invited the participants to treat percussion instruments as drama props and while clear to them (and even clearer to the children!) that they couldn’t toss hand drums as frisbees, they could make the motion with the drum or use it as a pizza being delivered or a mirror or a hat or a mask or a boat to sit in and row (these drums are durable). The participants came up with some great imaginative uses of the instruments to a cartoon-like musical score and one of them commented later that she felt her joyful inner child re-awakened and loved watching how happy people were when given the invitation to imagine beyond the norm.


But in the discussion that followed, a few felt that Montessori would have heartily disapproved as the exercise went entirely against the grain of learning the proper way to hold or play or treat each piece of material (in this case, an instrument). Whereas Orff would have applauded heartily. In the Maria/ Carl marriage, you can imagine the interesting conversation that would have ensued when the kids went home!

Perhaps they simply would have concluded, as Sly Stone did, “different strokes for different folks.” While honoring those who felt funny about it, I also invited them to step to the side of the sound principles edging toward dogma and trust the joy and happiness that such activities release in both children and adults. Indeed, this was Montessori’s most brilliant principle— to observe the nature of the child and build your lessons around that. While considering that perhaps her conclusion about the child’s nature might be different than Orff’s (or Steiner’s or Dewey’s, etc.). 


In addition to a three-hour workshop, I got to do another 90-minute closing session where I led the 75% who said at the beginning that they were not musical through an activity that they agreed at the end was indeed musical— and that they were successful. And then showed videos of my then 2-year old granddaughter, my 5-year old class, my 4thgraders, the school middle school students performing in Salzburg and my adult jazz class playing for and singing with 90-yr.-olds, each video a testimony to the joyful, body-based, relaxed, improvisatory, connected spirit that a good Orff program releases and nurtures. 


Was it worth the fossil-fuel, the combined 28 hours of round-trip travel in a three-day period, waiting for 15 minutes to check-out while someone’s credit card didn’t work and another 15 minutes for the taxi company to answer the phone?


I think both Maria and Carl would say, “Yes, it was.” 


And I agree.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Flying to Jericho

We have given over the power and eloquence of the hand to the click of buttons on calculators, cuisenarts, drum machines, our calculating intelligence to computers, our imagination to constant entertainment and now our capacity to remember to Facebook Memories. Yet sometimes it’s interesting to see what I posted from one or six years ago. 


Here’s the little piece I posted on Facebook on this day in 2019, still relevant, always relevant and a reminder to myself as to why I’m flying to Florida today to present a music workshop at the American Montessori Conference. I won’t take my bagpipe, but hoping to make a crack in the walls that keep us apart, that divide our once whole inner self, that create large rooms for the privileged and shove the rest of us into small closets. 


Walked through the streets of Singapore on Sunday hearing Hindu chants, Muslim calls to prayer, Christian church choirs, Buddhist intonations. Inside the synagogue, the Jewish cantors were singing, in another building, a Balinese gamelan was rehearsing and the next day, my class of teachers were joyfully playing Step Back Baby on their way to the blues. All the many facets of our common Divine Spirit were alive and vibrant and not a single vibration was claiming itself as the only true and worthy one. Amidst all the shameful shouting and posturing and toddler-tantrum demanding of taxpayers money to fuel yet more division with the Wall, we need to realize that the wall has already been built, in the sense that Duke Ellington said long ago:


"Of all the walls, the tallest, most invisible, and most insidious… is the wall of prejudice."


The mandate of our times is to fight the battle of Jericho, play the trumpets—and sitars and djembes and Bulgarian bagpipes—that will make those walls come tumblin’ down. Let that be the mandate of the music education of the future!



Friday, February 18, 2022

Patience and Fortitude

While teaching a class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I stumbled into a great lifelong-learning moment. The topic was jazz’s presence in just about every corner of American life and this class focused on radio, film and TV. In the film part, I discovered a phenomena known as “Soundies,” short three-minute music videos that were the forefunners of MTV. They were produced mostly in the 1940’s and shown in coin-operated “movie jukeboxes” called Panaroms. They were placed in nightclubs, taverns, restaurants, public amusement centers and even factory lounges, with films changing weekly.  Each Panarom housed a 16mm film projector with eight films lopping through its threads. Mirrors flashed the image from the lower half of the cabinet onto a front-facing screen in the top half. After depositing 10 cents, you saw whatever film of the eight was next in line. 


By the time Soundies and Panaroms became obsolete in 1947 with the rise of television, over 1800 little films had been made featuring a large variety of musicians and musical styles. Amongst them was jazz and several notable—and less-known— jazz musicians. 


In one Youtube collection of some of the Soundies called Jazz and Jive 

( can see the Delta Rhythm Boys singing the A Train, Fats Waller singing Your Feet’s Too Big and Count Basie playing Take Me Back Baby.


But the big surprise was a singer named Valaida Snow singing a song called Patience and Fortitude 

( she's at 12:22 in the video should you want to see it— and you should!) She was an impressive singer, but really surprised me when she picked up the trumpet and played a wonderful short solo. After I showed it to the class, one of the students asked if I knew more about her. I confessed that indeed I didn’t. So in our 5-minute break, I rushed to Wikipedia and here’s what I found:


“Snow was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her mother, Etta, was a Howard University- educated music teacher and her father, John, was a minister who was the leader of the Pickaninny Troubadours, a group mainly consisting of child performers. Raised on the road in a show-business family, where starting from the age of five, she began performing with her father's group. By the time she was 15, she learned to play cello, bass, violin, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone. She also sang and danced.”


What?!! My kind of musician!! It goes on.


“After focusing on the trumpet, Snow quickly became so famous at the instrument that she was nicknamed "Little Louis" after Louis Armstrong, who called her the world's second best jazz trumpet player, besides himself. W.C. Handy who is known as the Father of the Blues, gave her the nickname "Queen of the Trumpet." In a 1928 performance in Chicago at the Sunset Café, Snow played the trumpet, sang. Then seven pairs of shoes were placed in a row at the front of the stage, and she danced in each pair for one chorus. The dances and shoes to match were: soft-shoe, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, Chinese straw sandals, Turkish slippers, and the last pair, Russian boots. "When Louis Armstrong saw the show one night, he continued clapping after others had stopped and remarked, 'Boy I never saw anything that great'."


So why don’t we know about her? No surprise. Read on.


“Despite her talent, she had fewer opportunities to hold residencies as a bandleader at clubs in New York or Chicago, like many of her male peers. Instead, she predominantly toured, playing concerts throughout the US, Europe, and China. In 1926, she toured London and Paris with theBlackbirds revue and then from 1926 to 1929, she toured with Jack Carter's Serenaders in Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta and Jakarta.”


Pretty amazing to travel to those places in the 1920’s! Things were looking up in the 30’s:


"Her most successful period was in the 1930s when she became the toast of London and Paris. Around this time she recorded her hit song "High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm". She performed in the  show Rhapsody in Black, in New York. In the mid-1930s, Snow made films with her husband, Ananias Berry, of the Berry Brothers  dancing troupe. After playing the Apollo Theater  in New York City, she revisited Europe and the Far East for more shows and films. She was imprisoned in a Copenhagen jail during WWII when Nazi soldiers took over Denmark, where she was touring. 


Valaida Snow died aged 51 of a brain hemorrhage on May 30, 1956, in New York City, backstage during a performance at the Palace Theater." 


On February 22, 2020, the New York Times published a long-belated obituary of her in a series appropriately titled Overlooked No More. While she exhorts us to consider that Patience and Fortitude is what it takes for things to come our way, it’s not so easy if you’re a woman in a man’s world and a black person in a white-dominated world. So alongside Lil Hardin, Big Mama Thornton and Hazel Scott, I’m definitely adding Valaida Snow to the list of people we need to know about.

Patience and fortitude. Good advice for the world we're in at the moment. We could all use more of it. And now we have Valaida Snow to help remind us. 

Patience and fortitude (3x) 
And things will come your way


Couldn't wait for the egg to hatch
Used to burn both ends of the match
Couldn't wait for the cake to bake
But now I can see it's a big mistake


River wear away the rock
With patient fortitude
And rust will spoil the strongest lock
With patient fortitude


And grindstone wears away the knife
With patient fortitude
Same applies to naggin' wife
Have patient fortitude.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022


“Think globally, act locally.” In our acronym, soundbyte-world, I thought I’d try that out as a reminder to us all. Especially me. “Think globally” is my default setting and I can turn the simple smallest experience— a kid learning to skip in music class, a delicious soup with perfectly blended ingredients, a game with beanbags balanced on the head— into a formula for world peace and harmony. I can critique whole civilizations with a turn of a phrase, try to reveal to the million non-readers of this Blog what they might consider to live with more happiness, kindness and compassion, draw invisible lines against insidious political forces that I vow not to cross. 


But in the past two weeks ago, I took part in two delightful local actions regarding Golden Gate Park, the big backyard a half-block from my house that I enjoy daily while someone else takes care of it. The first was a neighborhood work-day at Kezar Triangle, the little spot of park that is the entrance to the grander paradise that I walk through every day. Mostly it is a gathering spot for dog-owners, so I don’t actually hang out there much, but appreciate it as a lovely doorway into my daily walk or bike ride. 

I’m proud to report that my wife Karen independently conceived of, organized and co-led with a Park gardener the event and got some 25 volunteers working for three hours to take care of and help beautify this tiny spot of land. The work was mostly picking up litter, weeding, moving mulch, breaking down an outworn fence and such. Simple tasks without dramatic effect, but left the space at the end just a little bit better than it was at the beginning. While promoting good neighbor relations and giving my daughter Talia and I a new way to talk while we weeded. Now when I pass through, I can see the tiny footprints of our helping out.


Then on Saturday, another neighbor organized a rally to keep JFK Drive in the park car-free. This spot of road has long been car-free on Sundays, but during the pandemic, closed every day of the week and was a constant river of walkers, joggers, roller-bladers, bikers, skateboarders and beyond. Now the City Supervisors are considering re-opening it to cars and with my neighbor’s efforts, some two to three hundred people gathered to let it be known “No, thank you. We prefer it as it is.” There were some Chinese Lion Dancers, two supervisors and others who spoke and at the end of the speeches, as we got ready to walk, I led the group in a song I made up for the occasion. (I had met this neighbor when I created the Pandemic Neighborhood Sing that I continued for two years, so she had suggested that I create a song for the rally). The whole event was festive, again an opportunity to build community and an invitation to come out of the pandemic with renewed determination to continue the things we all enjoyed— less car traffic, more walking or other self-propelled transportation, more time out in the park with trees and grass and cawing crows. 


The threat of climate change, of encroaching fascism, of an ongoing pandemic, is an enormous Goliath that few of us little Davids have the capacity or strength or strategy to bring down. But to pull out some weeds and walk to keep a road without cars, that I can do. And if thousands or millions or billions commit to simple local acts based on community and stewardship and intelligent education, why, they can add up to something enormous that can meet the giant with sufficient strength. TGAL, people!


PS My little song below, sung as an echo with the group: 



1) I don’t know, but I heard some say (group echoes each line) 

They want cars back on JFK

So we are gathered here today

To stand together and say “No way!”


CHORUS:And so we’ve come together, you, you and me

To keep JFK (clap) car-free!

To keep JFK (clap) car-free!


2) We love this space to take a walk 

And hear each other when we talk

We love this road to ride our bike

Skateboard, roller blade, take a hike.




3) We’re using too much fossil fuels

That’s what we teach the kids in schools.

So here’s a chance to mean what we say

Keep a car-free JFK.



Monday, February 14, 2022

And So It Began …

Today’s Facebook memory from two years ago to the day:


With courses cancelled in Hong Kong, Macau and Bangkok, flying home early from Singapore. Grateful that I was able to teach six different two-day courses here without getting shut down. 14-hour flight ahead, looks like I'll be able to see the plum blossoms in San Francisco after all. Meanwhile, heartbreaking news about the continued spread of the virus— sending healing thoughts to China and beyond.


Little did I knew what lay ahead and how “beyond” would come to my doorstep, to everyone’s doorstep around the world and stay so long beyond its welcome. It seems to be finally packing its bags and we’re all hoping that some distant cousin doesn’t suddenly show up and move in. 

Maybe someday I can finally teach those courses in Hong Kong, Macau and Bangkok.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Sunrise, Sunset

No, this isn’t about the music from Fiddler on the Roof.  (Which incidentally, is one of the few Broadway plays my parents took me to as a kid. My father had taken some art classes with Zero Mostel and Zero graciously invited our family backstage. I loved the play and enjoyed meeting the first famous person I had ever met. But I digress.)


After yesterday’s justifiable and necessary outrage, I needed to take some deep breaths and see if I could arrive at a more hopeful state of mind. I do feel like the extremities of these reactions by scared people trained to project their fear outwards is the last gasp of a dying breed, a mentality that has no place in a future that is not only sustainable, and kinder and more intelligent, but is an actual future for the human species. We are in indeed, as poet Matthew Arnold puts it,  “wandering between two worlds , one dead, the other powerless to be born.” In the best scenario, we will bury the dead and turn our power to the living. 


So one poetic image is the sunset of the previous world (much more beautiful and gentle than what is actually happening) and the sunrise of the one we hope to welcome. So I’ll let these two images speak for themselves, the first a sunset from Spreckel’s Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (actually taken on New Year’s Eve) and the second a sunrise from the West Point Inn on Mt. Tam in Marin (the same place the “cover” photo of this blog shows). Let these images guide us forward.


Friday, February 11, 2022


This just in on a mailing I was sent:


“Last week—just days after a Tennessee school board banned "Maus," a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from being taught in schools—a church in the state held a book burning. Footage from the event shows hundreds of people gleefully tossing books deemed "demonic" into the fire.”


 Is anyone else alarmed by this? Book-burning? (One of which was “Harry Potter” for its witchcraft.) Haven’t we seen enough films about the Nazis to know that this is not a good sign? 


Now add to that the statistic of the murder rate doubled this past year, disturbing incidents on planes increasing from some 400 in 2020 to over 4,000 in 2021, a recent crime wave of car-jacking in New Orleans and small mobs in San Francisco (my home town!!!) running into and looting department stores, alongside the 14 states shutting down teaching our actual history in schools and blatantly shutting down voting rights and all I can think to say is  WTF?!!!!!!

It’s no secret that our country and the world is in crisis on all fronts— the pandemic, climate change, the attempt to dismantle democracy— but I’ve been happily following Michael Meade’s suggestions that crisis is opportunity. We have a choice to become smaller people or larger souls and yes, there is ample evidence on the larger soul front. People taking time to educate themselves about systemic racism, environmental destruction, using the pandemic to sort out the essential from the frivolous and re-connect with art, with beauty, with nature, with each other. But it feels like the tipping point toward hope is being pushed back to despair as Nazis march in Orlando with the consent of the governor’s silence, big-name criminals whose names rhyme with “rump” and “hates” and "duelie Donny" are still afoot and not in jail. And looting in San Francisco? What are you thinking, people?


This much I know. The brain is programmed to fight, freeze, flee or feed when confronted with danger and that’s a useful survival skill. But when it stays locked in that mode during times of more drawn-out dangers, it’s good for exactly no one. The fighters are storming the Capitol, the freezers are locked in depression and vulnerable to suicide, the fleers are binging on Netflix and video games with their heads in the sand and the feeders are growing obese with potato chips. When we are in that lower region of the brain, we neither have access to the heart’s more nuanced emotions nor the brain’s capacity of intelligent thought. People dancing around fires with the books burning they tossed in are terrified and purposefully choosing to shut down all thought, not only their own, but trying to impose their chosen ignorance on others. This is not a good thing.


Meanwhile, those who are digging deeper into the truth of privilege, doing the reading, watching the documentaries, having the courageous conversations with both themselves and others, owning their fears real and imagined and doing the work to move beyond them, are the last hope we have for both survival and beyond-survival to the long-deferred better world we deserve. We really have only two choices— be taken down by our fear or lifted up by a firm faith in our human potential. 


Nazi rallies, car-jacking, store looting, book-burning, voter suppression, closing down thought in schools, letting all our wild dogs loose into a lawless Gotham City— what is going on here?!  In my experience, when crisis visits people in the form of illness, bad fortune, a death in the family, when a house is lost to fire or a neighborhood is ravaged by a storm, the people I know lean more towards helping, towards kindness, towards compassion. Can we please take that path, dear fellow citizens? For all of our sakes.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Life in Serial Form

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s epic novel Crossroads. Though well-written and engaging, I must confess that I grew weary of hanging out with its dysfunctional family, its members obsessed with God, dealing with drug issues and struggling with their own mental health. Yet when in an interview with the author, he reveals that this is the first of a three-part series, I knew that I would read the next one, curious as to what had become of Perry and Judson, Becky and Clem, how Russ’s new ministry was going, whether Marion’s new-found healing held and if Rick Ambrose was genuinely good or whether he finally got brought down by a sex scandal. 


My new read is the third in a series of four novels by Elin Hilderbrand, having enjoyed another series of three that she wrote. Back in the living room, the Swedish TV serial Bonus Family gives me something to look forward to in the evening. All of this got me thinking about the power and pleasure of the serial. 


Time at its best may be one eternal ever-cycling present moment, but we humans are forever in the parade of its linear march forward and it’s both comforting and engaging to have an ongoing thread that develops and changes through time with familiar and knowable themes and characters. I’ve always loved movies, but these days, in-between the serial TV show of the month, when I see a movie, it feels such a short time to get to know the characters! Still a good movie is a good movie, but if I watch another one the next night, there’s a certain labor in getting acclimated to the new story and people and setting and theme. I find myself preferring the long-term commitment a few seasons of a show provides.


As with films or books, so with life. I remember the feeling of my first class each year teaching three-year olds, looking at each child and thinking, “I hope we’re going to like each other, because we’ve got 11 years ahead of us!” And then in the blink of an eye, there I am giving a graduation speech for one of those kids who sat in that circle, often with their 8th grade self at eye-level or even looking down at me. Always the feeling that this has been quite a serial drama watching them grow and develop— and maybe for them watching me as well! 


So it has been with just about all aspects of my life. The serial drama of waking up next to my wife over the past 48 years, life in the school where I walked the halls for 45 years, my children now 37 and 41 years old, people in my men’s group turning 80 after 32 years together, my grandchildren now 10 and 6. All of us characters in the grand serial drama, forever changing and growing and developing and evolving and staying the same. 


And me hoping the show will last for many more seasons, curious as to how it will turn out. 


Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Vocation of Eloquence

What is writing but our attempt to re-articulate what has mostly been said before in forever new ways? If our vocation is eloquence, it is firmly built upon the heightened speech of others who have made the same climb up the ladder of cultivated intelligence. People like Canadian English professor Northrop Frye. The mark of a good author is that we are astonished anew by his revelations when we turn to read them years later.  I recently re-opened his book The Educated Imagination, published in 1964, and based on six talks aired on the radio (a kind of pre-Podcast lecture series). I was mightily impressed by the depth of his thinking and his power of articulation. 


So here I present select passages from his final talk titled The Vocation of Eloquence. Much delicious and nutritious food for thought— enjoy the meal!


• Literature speaks the language of the imagination and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination. We use our imagination all the time… the choice is between a badly trained imagination and a well-trained one. 


• The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in… and how to relate the two. 


• The first thing our imagination can do for us when we learn to read and write and talk, is to fight to protect us from falling into the illusions society threatens us with. Those illusions are produced by the social imagination, but it’s an inverted form of imagination, What is creates is the imaginary which is different from the imaginative.

¨• If our only aim is to get by in society, our reactions will become almost completely mechanical. That’s when we resort to clichés. Clichés are the ready-made, prefabricated formulas designed to give those who are too lazy to think the illusion of thinking. 


• In a society which changes rapidly, many things happen that frighten us or make us feel threatened. People who do nothing but accept their social mythology can only try to huddle more closely together when they feel frightened or threatened and their clichés turn hysterical.


• The study of language and literature is essential to free speech. We are in a battleground between the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliché, ready-made ideas and automatic babble and leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob. 


Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language and such knowledge is not a gift; it has to be learned at worked at, like practicing the piano. 


• There’s something in all of us that wants to drift toward a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike—except people that we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency of giving in to it. When we fight against it, we’re taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilization. 


• The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure … it looks very impressive, except that it has no human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it’s really a crazy ramshackle building and at any time may crash around our ears. We are living in a modern Tower of Babel and what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. 


All had originally one language, the myth says. That language is not English or Russian or Chinese—it is the language of human nature, the language that made both Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer to heaven, and that it is time to return to earth.


Thank you, Northrop Frye. The difference between clichés and genuine free speech, between the imaginary (conspiracy theories!) and the imaginative (art), the need to cultivate and educate the imagination (pay attention, schools!), to listen in leisure (the gift of the pandemic), the inability to truly listen in a state of panic and hysteria and the need to plant our feet firmly on the earth. Good reminders for us all, some 60 years after you spoke them. 


If this was my 5th grade book report, I’d end with: 


“I recommend you read this book.”

Monday, February 7, 2022

The Limits of Numbers

“Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted, counts.”


Have you noticed how numbers are taking over the world? How quantity supersedes quality? How our sense of self is driven by Facebook likes and sense of public service by poll numbers? Has it struck you that people’s opinions have never been asked for more and yet we have never done less to prepare them to make an intelligent assessment? How what people think about what you’re doing is more important than the integrity of your actions? And don’t get me started on IQ and numerical grades as an assessment of intelligence. 


I’m trying to imagine Dr. King’s checking his poll numbers before deciding to march on Selma. Gandhi asking his Facebook friends if they think he should fast or not. Mozart trying out his new composition online to get public opinion about whether he used too many notes. 


We might note that Jesus had only 12 followers. By today’s standards, what a loser!


PS On a scale of 1 to 100, how would you rate this post? I’m trying to figure out what to write tomorrow.