Sunday, July 31, 2022

Thumper's Mom

I believe Bambi was one of the first movies I saw as a child and I remember three strong impressions it made on me.


1) Terror when the forest caught fire.

2) Sadness over the death of Bambi’s mother.

3) Thoughtfulness when Thumper’s Mom said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”


Which tonight could be paraphrased, “If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.”

 Having just seen the first screening to an audience bigger than five people of the movie made about my last year at The San Francisco School and the work James, Sofia and I have done together, there were tears shed, both by me and many in the audience. Feelings deserve the words to further capture and express them, but I don’t have them at the moment. Except to say that this film, titled The Secret Song, that is at the moment being sent out to film festivals, may or may not capture the public’s attention but I’m so touched it was made. Of course, I do hope that it proves of interest, certainly not from any fantasies of fame and fortune, but simply from my lifelong faith that this work is worthy. 


If it’s accepted at a film festival, I’ll keep you posted. It’s 86 minutes long and yes, we’ll come to your school, library, community center or local movie theater if invited. If not, it was a blast to be filmed for some 100 plus hours by people who believed in the value of joyful music education. 


That’s all, folks. 




Two slanted boards with a hole in them and eight beanbags. That’s all it takes to be connected with people you know in a new and delightful way. 


It’s the weekend in our summer course and over the past 20 plus years with six of these ten fabulous teachers, we’ve found lots of fun things to do. When the course was in San Francisco, a walking tour, bike rides, Go-car rental, Beach Blanket Babylon show, jazz club or other music concert, dinner out and a movie and more. Once we moved to Hidden Valley, we’ve gone whale watching, to the Monterey Aquarium, lunch at Nepenthe in Big Sur, pitch-and putt golf at Pebble Beach, Asilomar Beach, Bach Festival, Santa Cruz Boardwalk and of course, dinner in Carmel and a movie in Monterey. 


But playing this cornhole game with beanbags, a new addition at our hotel, turned out to be one of the most fun ways of being together I can remember! So simple, but so satisfying and so interesting to see all our different personalities emerge— the childlike squeal of delight, the determined competitive “we have to win!’ look, the comic dance style of throwing, the connection with one’s teammate. And by switching partners each game, making that connection with multiple people. Again, so simple, so fun! 


Earlier, some of us had gone whale watching again and I was with a group that went to an Escape Room, my first time and hilarious how bewildered I was when we began and suddenly everyone was busily searching for things while I, who had expected us to gather around a written clue and discuss it, was totally baffled thinking, “What the hell is going on here?!!!” with no one wanting to take the time to explain it. So I just watched and joined in and kind of got the hang of it at my old-guy-slower pace, but still was mostly amazed at the quick. Insightful thinking and action of my younger colleagues. We did solve the clues and “escaped” with six minutes to spare, so that was satisfying.


That costs $45 each and whale watching was $70 and again, both were fun shared experiences. But this free game of cornhole topped them all. A good lesson to remember.


Now on to  laundry and correcting homework. Happy weekend, everyone!

Saturday, July 30, 2022


Mrs. Levy. Mrs. Williams. Miss Tomsu. Miss Rice. Mrs. Hendrickson. Mr. Anderson. Miss Conover. Mr. Reuter. Miss Richmond. Mr. Sal. Miss Saruya. My elementary school teachers. 


Yesterday I swam 71 (short) laps in the hotel pool, a little birthday ritual I started around ten years ago. One lap for each year, trying to recall something from that year while swimming. A slow-motion version of my life flashing before my eyes. 


Not an easy undertaking, but I found that my elementary school years were most easily marked by remembering the teachers I had in each grade. And though the first of them was from 66 years ago, I had no trouble remembering them. That’s the power of a teacher. 


I often feel like I’m a preacher without a congregation, an author without a readership, a musician without an audience, a politician without a constituency, self-proclaiming myself in fields where I haven’t wholly paid my dues. But for most of my life, I have been a teacher with students. As the years ascended in my swimming ritual,  some of them continued to be marked by memorable teachers and some from the places and people I taught. In my Facebook birthday greetings, a large portion of the people were my Orff students and their greetings were of the “Dearest teacher” sorts. 

Of course, I’ll keep writing, playing music, preaching as I do and keeping politically involved, all of which find their way into my teaching and widen the narrow definition of “music teacher.” But when it comes to identifying with one identity, as we human beings like to do to sort and place ourselves in the ecology of professions, I will happily claim the dignity and delight of “teacher.”


And perhaps someone in the future will be swimming the birthday laps of their years and my face will appear before them for one of them. And that would make me happy.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Question to the Gods

Hey, gods, I have a question for you. While you’re frolicking around endlessly drinking ambrosia and getting into trouble, we poor mortals have to constantly face the truth of our own mortality. Is this really necessary? I took a bite of dried mango today, its sweetness exploding in my mouth and thought, “Why shouldn’t I get to taste this forever? Why will I have to stop making music with my Level III students someday? It doesn’t make sense! I love it all so much, from mangos to music, and it took me so long to clear away the thorns to finally fully smell the roses and you’re telling me that a clock is ticking and it has to stop?”


That ticking clock said “71” today and I’d be a bit happier if it got stuck on, say, 51, but I guess I don’t get to decide. So I’ll just keep on keepin’ on, savor the mango yet deeper and teach until my last breath, if need be. But hey, if you want to send a bit of immortal ambrosia down this way, I’d happily take a sip.



Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Farewell to 70

There's three words I don't believe I'll write again. (The title, that is.) Though perhaps in a future life?

I’m spending the last day of my 70th year (well, technically my 71st) doing what I love most and it’s nice to not feel any pressure for the fanfare of the decade turn. Who cares about 71? 

Like most people I know, I’m still perpetually astounded by a number that makes no sense when it comes to how things feel inside. And (knock on wood) to how they are outside, as I casually walked 91/2 miles one day last week without any fanfare, can still folk dance as we did last night, have mostly unflagging energy not dependent on naps or coffee and still feel like I have so much to do, so much to learn (like more Latin jazz and Gospel piano, for example). 


Today was another stellar day taking my students to the Philippines, Ghana, China, Slovenia, Lithuania and a New York City jazz club via the magic transport of sound vibrations artfully combined. The conversation between hushed silences of profound seriousness and the flowing laughter of spontaneous humor continues unabated and the only tiny fly in the ointment is deciding to learn Google Classroom to give notes and collect homework and not wholly thrilled with that dog and pony show. But I did have homework assignments printed and still read them with paper and pen in hand, so all is not lost. 


Amidst the fun and frolicking is my dual responsibility as director of the course making sure all is running smoothly (much help from my colleagues here, who sometimes are more on top of it than I am) and my responsibility as a Level III teacher to connect with each of my 24 students, write the daily outlines after each class and then actually correct and comment on the assignments. The pool out my door beckons, but the papers do as well. It's still work, but the kind I love that gives back as much, if not more, as it takes, feels meaningful, uses all of me in a way that keeps me alive and kickin’.


But still, that pool looks awfully enticing. 



Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Beyond the Seventh

If there’s a heaven higher than the seventh, that’s where you’ll find me. Teaching 24 Level III students in our International Orff training, alongside nine colleagues I’ve known and loved from anywhere between 10 and 30 years. The teachers gathered at my house on Saturday night for dinner, together for the first time after three years apart. Within two minutes, the laughter flowed alongside the beer and wine and I realized how much I missed this. 

Down we drove on Sunday for the profound Opening Ceremony described yesterday and Monday morning, the wild rumpus began. My 24 students were equally happy to re-unite with former Levels classmates after a few year’s absence and after last year’s modified course with only American students, it has been a delight beyond words to once again greet these beautiful souls from Spain, Catalonia, Croatia, Latvia, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Brazil, Thailand, China and throughout the United States, each bringing their extraordinary musicianship, cultures and beautiful selves to the mix. 


The contrast with the world’s refusal to permit its own happiness is maddening. If people everywhere had met the people I have and partaken of the fruits of delicious shared humanity, why would there be any cause for the torment of self-imposed isms? If they had been present at the three-hour jam session last night with non-stop playing, singing and dancing together, why would they ever wish harm to another human being? If they witnessed the warmth and the humor and the pride and the humility of the 90 lovely souls gathered together to help make the children they teach happier and do their part to bequeath them the world they deserve, would they keep excusing politicians and corporate raiders who harm others for their own power and financial gain?


You see, it’s not easy for me to simply accept the gift of living in the realm beyond the seventh layer of heaven without wishing it for all people, without holding the hurters’ feet to the fire. But here in this moment, I am simply grateful beyond any words, songs or gestures to have the opportunity to share everything I love and care for and devoted my life to upholding with this group of people eager to receive it. Having been in the first two Levels here, these people know things and are comfortable enough with the basic understandings, techniques and repertoire that allow us to play fabulous music instantly, to discuss the details of pedagogy that will change their teaching forever, that will help reveal the exquisite sequence lying underneath the fun and childlike activities. 


I’ve often quoted Rockefeller as a critique of his unsatiable greed— “How much money is enough? “ “Just a little bit more.” But truth be told, I have the same feeling about teaching like this. I’m teaching four hours a day here for 10 days, but already feel, “Not enough! More! I’m just getting warmed up!” 


Perhaps I simply need to wait until a Vacancy sign appears in the Ninth Heaven. Meanwhile, I am fully savoring each minute of the Eighth. 


Land and Labor Acknowledgment

I first encountered the practice of Land Acknowledgement some 20 years ago in New Zealand. Like with so many things, it took a long time for the U.S. to catch on (Canada behind New Zealand, but ahead of us), but in the last year or two, the idea has spread until it seems to be the norm in many places. Better late than never. 


Yet as with so many things, good ideas start to feel routine and as people recite or read in bland, TV newscaster voices, I wonder how many present are really feeling the impact and the import of it. It can feel like an obligation to tick off and back to business as usual. As a musician and teacher of music, it feels to me like it should have a jazz flair, the sense that each time we come to the same song, we bring our whole self to it and express it from the depths of our feeling. That we hear the words with our heart as well as our ears. That the assembled group take a genuine moment to reflect on what that means and how that sense of privilege that allowed folks to steal land without a trace of shame is still playing out in the world in a thousand different ways.


This year at our Summer Orff Course will be the first time we have included the acknowledgement in our Opening Ceremony, and being who we are, we took it one step farther. All the credit goes to my colleague Sofia Lopez-Ibor, who remembered that we had performed together with some Ohlone people at a World Music Festival. So she contacted them, offered them some recompense and invited them to lead the acknowledgment with a traditional song and dance. It was a lovely sharing of songs, a gentle reminder of whom we owe our presence to and a blessing of sorts from the Ancestors as we do the work of healing.


This got me thinking, “Why stop here?” If we are here living on land never ceded to us, we are also here benefiting economically from the labor of enslaved Africans who never agreed to do our work for free. We are also benefitting culturally from their extraordinary artistic achievements without ever feeling like we owed something for the privilege of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and hundreds (if not thousands) American geniuses who virtually defined our cultural soundscape.


And so I invited Tom Pierre, our extraordinary black singer here as a movement apprentice to represent by singing a Field Holler, to charge the air with a Labor Acknowledgement for beyond a few scripted sentences. He did and it was every bit as powerful as I knew it would be, bringing another set of Ancestors into the room. 


The faculty then sang a three-part Ukranian folk-song about welcoming guests into the home, in solidarity with these fellow human beings suffering so much from the brutal excesses of power. 


Now we were ready to begin our course. 


I believe each of the 90 people present felt it all to the depth of their Soul: “This is not business as usual. This is not a show about being woke. This is the real deal, asking all to feel far beyond the norm, to consider deeper than “Oh well, what can I do?,” to pause and then enter this two-week community with the full force of their determination to not only learn how to serve the children they teach better than they have, but to awaken more fully to how to serve the new culture of caring we are trying to create. Our presence here is the meeting point of the Ancestors and the Descendants and we brought them all into the room to join us, as appropriate.


And so off we go.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Back to Earth

Now that I’ve done my part to save democracy with my barbership analysis in the last five posts, it’s back to the things people are happier to read. What did we make for dinner when my daughter Talia came over after her week in Mexico? Did I really put on the heat this morning in the midst of the country’s heat wave? (Remember I live in cold-foggy San Francisco.) What new Netflix Series might I recommend?


Tonight I’m hosting a dinner for the ten faculty of our annual San Francisco International Orff Course gathering, 10 beautiful souls who have not taught together, have not been together for three years! (Gee, I wonder why.) They’re flying in from Germany, Spain, Tennessee, Colorado and driving over from the Peninsula, Oakland and San Francisco. Tomorrow we head down to Carmel Valley to greet some 80 teachers from the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Spain, Croatia, Thailand, Iran and more. I’m happy to write about the political, sociological, psychological and mythological dimensions of the current world situation, but clearly have no cred in the public eye. But this, the passing on of the Orff Schulwerk baton, is what I do best, what I know most thoroughly, what I’ve paid my dues in far beyond the norm. This is home base. 


Meanwhile, Talia’s heading off for her next backpacking trip, daughter Kerala and family are off camping in Oregon, my wife Karen is driving on to Michigan from a family reunion in Tennessee (and spending the night in my college town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a place she’s never seen before!) The painters are spilling over into the fourth week of painting the outside of the house, having found dry rot that will of course, increase both the time and the expense. It has been cold and foggy for five days and I’m starting to feel some Seasonal Affect Disorder, ready for the perfect weather of Carmel Valley. 


But first is an airport pick-up, packing, getting the house ready for house-sitters, shopping for tonight’s dinner, gathering the materials needed to teach, from a Ghana xylophone to a rubber chicken. Back to the details of life on Earth, down from the lofty perch of writing and reflection and happily, returning to the party of two weeks of playing music, singing and dancing in company with my fellow human beings. The perfect way to pass the last week of my 70th year. 


That’s the news, such as it is. 


Friday, July 22, 2022

What's Happening? The Mythological Side

Contemporary people easily understand what it means to be politically aware and involved, are coming to understand the narratives that our driving our political and cultural choices and experiencing first-hand some of the crippling effects of stress and anxiety caused by our uncertain future, are looking for guidance in self-care. 


But when it comes to the role of myth, most modern people are likely to be wholly confused. They are already confusing “myth” with “lie” (as in the “myth of stolen election”) or else putting it on some bookshelf of fanciful stories for kids and most of them politically incorrect at that. Why is mythology invited to the same table as the other “ologies” and what can it possibly offer in the search for healing we desperately need? Do I think that Zeus is going to save us with some well-placed thunderbolts or Eros will shoot an arrow into Mitch McConnell’s heart (if it can be found) and awaken him to love?


If you spent time, as I did, in the 1980’s getting to know the work of Joseph Campbell (suddenly thrust into the limelight in the 6-part televised series with Bill Moyers titled “The Power of Myth”) you have a different perspective, the sense that mythology indeed carries a power we should consider. For example, my quick Internet search about Campbell’s precise definition of myth brought this up:


Campbell believed myth helped people to express what it felt like to live in awe of the universe — what it meant to be human in the midst of so many unknowns. This function serves for providing scale. The universe is big. The world is scary.


Hmm. Unknowns? Scary? An enormous universe beyond our comprehension, but not beyond are capacity to live in awe of it? In the light of all discussed here, doesn’t that definition seem relevant?


Michael Meade, our contemporary mythologist who carried forth Campbell’s work into new directions, has written and spoken prolifically about the specific powers myth offers us (see his Podcasts). In his book, The Genius Myth, he writes:


“The purpose of myth is to reveal the deeper truths of life…When the daily world becomes a state of chaos and constant turmoil, it is time to turn back to the mythic imagination that resides deep in the soul.…Imagination is the deepest power of the human soul and mythic imagination helps make meaning of all that happens in the world…what we learn in myth is the nature of the story trying to live through each of us amidst the ongoing drama of the world around us. The territory of myth includes all the unseen things that affects us most deeply and all the missing parts and hidden dreams that might make us whole.” (pp 16-17)


In so many of the good-hearted people I know trying to navigate through the mess of the daily news, there runs a thread of despair. We vote out one horrible candidate and two more spring up. We write postcards and that’s good for the moment, but we never know what actual impact they’re having. We educate ourselves as to the debilitating narratives, but don’t know how to kick-start the next needed story. We feel the stress and anxiety, but lean towards a few glasses of wine or some prescribed meds to help us manage it. The whole drama is taking place on the surface of life, in the here and the now, in the ping and the pong of the next news story or election cycle and it’s so easy to feel discouraged.


Meade again:

“When it comes to living in hard times and dealing with radical change, it is important to know that there are hidden truths and secret unities set within the human soul.”


That’s where myth comes in. Myth is forever, the ancestors singing to us from the past, the descendants beckoning to us from the future. By dipping below the line of the daily round into the realm of the imagination, into a natural world constantly speaking to us but unheard as we bury ourselves in our phones looking at the latest polls, into the creative depths of our own souls, we have the possibility of being perpetually renewed and refreshed. We travel far beyond our Facebook friends into the company of so many who have endured the same struggles, fought the same battles, persevered in the face of endless obstacles. We are creatures of meaning and by putting the day’s battle in the context of the larger meanings always around us and within us, we renew our sense of purpose. 


Myth doesn’t solve social dilemmas with simplistic answers, but it does ask us to consider: What story are we in? What archetype is at play here? Which oracle should we petition? By naming the players, we give a face to the energies at play and can work to diminish their negative power or increase their positive power. The images from these timeless stories arise to help us. Indeed, the very idea in most fairy tales that an animal helper is needed in the hero’s quest is itself a metaphor for the kind of imaginative help mythic images can offer. We may feel lost in a labyrinth and remember Ariadne’s thread. We may hit a dead end in our office work and decline to be stuck with Sisyphus rolling his rock. We might succumb to despair but find ourselves at the water’s edge soothed by Yemanja. The point here is not to literalize myth and make it into a social program, but to keep in touch with the greater dimensions of all current dilemmas, both personal and collective, to draw from a deeper well. 


Myth reminds us that though there is a temporal nature to our problems unique to our time, there is also a universal and eternal nature to them, a next chapter in the tales of collapse and renewal that might help us see that “this, too, shall pass” and in the winter of our discontent, the buds of Spring are already preparing to bloom. 


In looking at our present time through these four different lens and considering how they might talk to each other, we have the possibility of both effecting real outer change and nurturing profound inner change. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is translatable to dogma, nothing requires blind faith or belief, nothing can be reduced to a step program. Yet everything breathes of possibility, longs to be spoken aloud in poetry or music or dance or art, can enter the body as a lived experience that carries a truth unprovable but real, can be expanded to a vision that reaches into all corners of time, past, present and future. None of it is easy. All of it is needed. 


Let’s go.



What's Happening? The Psychological Side

We are not likely to remember the first steps we took or the first words we spoke, but they marked the beginning of transitioning from the helpless baby utterly dependent on adults to feed, clothe and comfort us to the autonomous, independent person we were growing towards. The preschooler who could dress herself, tie her shoes and express some of her needs with her growing vocabulary. The elementary student cracking the reading code and beginning to grow his own sense of self through the stories he read. Who can forget the thrill of first walking to the corner store alone, of going to sleepaway camp, of getting the car keys from your parents, of saying goodbye to them at the airport on the way to college? The exhilaration of having grown wings strong enough to fly. Autonomy. Independence. Freedom. The conditions necessary for happy and fulfilled human beings, even when the excitement of the first apartment is tempered by paying the first Utility bill.


As with people, so with countries. Recent history began with the Age of Colonialism, beginning more or less in the 1700’s. In the couple of centuries that followed, Great Britain alone ruled over some 90 other countries, Spain over 35. The 20thcentury was a domino-toppling release from colonial rule, the last Spanish colony (Belize) gaining independence in 1981, the last British one (Hong Kong) ceded back to China in 1997. 


Every country celebrates their Independence Day with great fervor, affirming that the evolutionary direction is towards autonomous rule, independence, freedom to define themselves. According to the Freedom in the World website, some 112 out of a 194 countries now have free elections. 


And yet as I write, Russia is still invading Ukraine, human rights have diminished in Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil — and the United States. What is going on? Having tasted the benefits of independence and freedom, why are some swinging the pendulum back to childish dependence at the hands of despots and tyrants? Here's where a psychological perspective on the current world crisis might shed some light why people are sawing off the branch they sit on. 


No matter where you sit in regard to today’s pressing issues, the evidence is in— we’re in deep shit. Of course, that has always been the state of the world. I defy you to name a year unmarked by war, abuse, atrocities, disasters. But what feels new is the ticking clock of climate change, the unstoppable pandemic calmed down, but still very much alive, the alarming dismantling of the human rights and just laws and evolved tolerance we worked so hard to create. As I write, temperatures in both Europe and the U.S. are consistently over 100 degrees in many places, Covid infections are again spiking, the Supreme Court overturned legislation that protected the rights of half our population and 157 Republican Senators voted to turn down guarantees of keeping same-sex and interracial marriage laws. Prices are going up, services are going down, jobs are on the line and just about everything that we thought we could count on, we can’t. As Michael Meade summarizes it, Nature is rattling and culture is unravelling. And if that’s not reason enough to feel afraid for our future, the news media is overwhelming us 24/7 with its latest, greatest, breaking news purposefully designed to ramp up the fear a few notches higher so they can attract viewers and serve the people in power who depend upon fear to attract their voters.


How to react to this fearful situation? The way human beings are designed to. Whenever we feel a threat, the brain stem takes over, shutting down the thought and feeling parts of the brain to deal with the emergency with one of three strategies: Fight, Flight. Freeze. When we walk around the corner of the forest path and meet a bear, those are the choices. We don’t talk to the bear to discuss the situation or use I statements to share with the bear how we’re feeling. We either run like hell, freeze until the bear makes the next move or hope that our camping shovel can serve as a viable weapon. The adrenaline rushes in to give us extra strength and when the bear has hopefully walked away, we sit to re-calibrate our nervous system. Later, we might write a poem about our feelings or analyze the situation to think about how to avoid the bear the next time. 

So far, so good. The brain and body have done exactly what they need to for survival. But when the “bear” is an ongoing fear (see above) and we start to live in our brain stem, things do not go well. What was designed for a short-term strategy is not effective for a long-term strategy and we become perpetually anxious, stressed, fearful, unable to access higher feeling or thinking skills. We lash out mindlessly fighting (the January 6thInsurrection), take flight in numbing distraction (alcohol, drugs, denial of climate change, Facebook) or freeze in helplessness (depression). None of this is good. 


In this state of fear, of deep discomfort with uncertainty, of relentless anxiety that the world as we know it is disappearing, we are vulnerable to those who promise to save us, to protect us, to tell us who the bad guys are and vow to bring them down. We lose our own independent thought and power and become helpless children wanting Daddy to make it go away. We willingly outsource our intelligence to conspiracy theories, give up the car keys and tell the big boys to drive, stop choosing our own clothes and wear the uniform of the Fundamentalist group that promises the easiest answers. 


Fear is the necessary condition for tyrants to prosper. It’s in their interest to ratchet it up— as Trump did masterfully as he talked about approaching immigrant mobs, Muslim terrorists, shithole countries and the like. A populace in fear is willing to excuse transgression of normal democratic procedures in the face of a constant “state of emergency.” None of this is good.


But it is understandable and helpful to realize why fundamentalism and dictatorship seems to be on the rise. The trick is to flip the fear in a disciplined aikido move, to turn it away from becoming smaller selves and toward becoming larger souls. If the evidence of increased fanatic and crazed thought and action is clear, so is the evidence for an awakening towards greater awareness of how black lives matter, how transgender rights are a real issue, how social activism is no longer optional, how kindness is a value to live and celebrate. (A recent school supply catalogue advertised some 50 different posters with messages like, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”). Crisis can be an opportunity for character to flourish and we can see evidence of that all around us, though Fox News (or any news, for that matter) will not be reporting it.


Psychology as currently practiced often treats our problems as personal, as the result of our mother or father issues, a fluke of our wiring, a nameable syndrome treatable by medication. Here we need to feel this as a collective issue. In the face of the daily news, fear, stress, anxiety, even depression is a normal reaction. Let us talk with each other to know that we not alone and develop our collective strategies of transformation. Social action, meditation, art, all the things that get us working with those feelings rather than feeling helplessly weighed down by them. Aiming our efforts at changing what we can of the conditions that cause these understandable fears. Which means joining forces with the political and sociological issues as outlined previously.


We can blame Pandora for unleashing the miseries that lay inside the box she opened—lies, greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, wars and more. But she closed the lid before hope was released to be overcome by those plagues. This brings us to the next player on our team to keep hope alive and well—the mythological. 



Thursday, July 21, 2022

What's Happening? The Sociological Side

The spoken and unspoken contracts within any society are driven by a common narrative, a kind of “mission statement” that steers us in the right direction and keeps us on the road we’ve laid out. In the United States, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are that road. If we understand them and know them, we are equipped to recognize when we’ve veered off course or got stuck in a ditch. 


Yet as we know, the glorious words didn’t match the reality for so many of the people living in this land at the time of their drafting— Native Americans, blacks and women, for starters. That fact doesn’t wholly cancel the immense value of the documents. Indeed, it elevates us by understanding it, as Dr. King did, as promissory notes that is long overdue. It is the North star by which we might navigate, but unlike that fixed point, it is subject to amendment as our consciousness evolves (or doesn’t) with the times.


We are the products of both known and hidden narratives and even with such a document, there were a host of other stories at work, stories that made it seem just fine for Jefferson to write the exalted words he did while still keeping slaves and having an affair with a woman he owned, an enslaved Sally Hemings. It is easy for us (though not all of us!) to see the contradiction from the vantage point of our times, but there are thousands of stories that don’t make sense to us now that were unquestioned in their time. And there are stories driving us in our own time that our descendants might look back on in disbelief. (Really? No change in rules around assault rifles in the U.S. after an epidemic of mass shootings of innocent children and adults?!!!)


These narratives of the "true" God, the Master race, the superior gender, the omnipotence of money, drive society and culture, but most of us are driven by them without ever seeing their face. And that makes them more dangerous. As long as they remains masked, there is little hope of being freed from it. Once we know the backstories, everything falls into place as perfectly logical within their constructs. Then we can decide whether to accept them or refuse them, to continue them or replace them. 


The one narrative that drives so much of the world, but particularly the United States, can be summarized in three words. “FOLLOW THE MONEY.” So many of the horrors of the history of the “New World” came from unchecked greed for gold and land (and later, spices, tobacco, coffee, sugar and cotton) given permission by a wrathful mono-theistic Supreme Being hell-bent on eradicating (or converting) the heathens. Enslavement of Africans and Genocide of Native Americans did not come from a simple preference of skin color, but an economic need for free labor and greed for free land that justified itself with purposefully manufactured theories of racial superiority so the conquerors could sleep easily at night. Once in place, all the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” could be limited to the chosen few (white male landowners) without apology because the human-created Doctrine of White Supremacy, endorsed by God and Science, decreed it the norm.


Three examples to highlight the point. The first from Pope Nicholas in a Papal Bull published in 1452 called Dum Diversas: 


We grant you, King Alfonso of Portugal, by these present documents, with our Apostolic authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery (boldface mine)and to apply…the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his own use and profit.”


Note: Free permission to enslave these “enemies of Christ” and take everything they have for profit. (Don’t think that was Jesus’s narrative!). Follow the money.


Then this excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s journal in Howard Zinn’s A People‘s History of the United States. When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas, the Arawak people greeted him with food, water and gifts. He wrote:


 They… brought us parrots and balls of toon and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willing traded everything they owned. They were well-build, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms and do not know them.…They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”


And that’s precisely what he did. And what was the “whatever we want?” Was it to show Columbus and his men how they hunted or fished or farmed, share their music and dance, teach them the value of generosity? Of course not! It was to find gold. And so he ordered all males fourteen years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months. If they did, they were given a copper token to hang around their necks. Any Indians found without the token had their hands cut off and bled to death. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


Follow the money.


Finally, here is Charles Dickens giving his impression of America in his novel  Martin Chuzzlewit, written after he visited the United States in the 1840’s:


"Martin was anxious to hear the conversation of the busy gentlemen...It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contribution that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honor, and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Do anything for dollars!”


Do anything for dollars. The seed in Dickens time that grew to the creed of the corporate world, environment/ fair wages/ safe working conditions be damned! Follow the money and never mind if it leads you to genocide, slavery, war after war, the innocent slaughter of children in schools. In this story, kindness and generosity are perceived as weakness, justice as foolish, fairness for suckers. Screw the common good, you gotta look out for Number One! So some good politicians may get elected and a few laws might change, but without a radical shift in narrative, none of it will matter much. What needs to change is the story itself. 


Consider: The astronomical rise of the 1% that spends its extreme wealth on super yachts and trips to space could have been radically different with a different narrative in place. As Reich notes:


“As the corporate raiders gained more wealth and power they could have made a different choice. They could have used their political and economic clout to get better schools for all, comprehensive job re-training, wage insurance, better public transportation and expanded unemployment insurance. They could have pushed for universal health care. They could have paid for all of this by accepting, even lobbying for, higher taxes on themselves. They could have strengthened rather than fought off unions and pushed for laws giving workers more rather than less voice. They could have demanded limits on campaign spending.

“They did the reverse. They spent more and more of their ever-expanding wealth to alter the rules of the game to their own advantage. We are now living with the consequences.”


Indeed we are. Had they been immersed in a different back story— for example, the actual tales of Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, caring for the poor and the meek, advocating love of neighbor— these so-called Christians might have done all of the above. But no surprise that they didn’t.


And at the other end of the spectrum, the poor whites driven by the get-rich dream are duped into believing that people like Trump care about them, dream of winning lottery tickets, believe the lies of the White Supremacy narrative that it’s people of color and immigrants who are taking their jobs away—and again, we are living with the consequences of people who vote against their own interests while the rich cats laugh at them from their yachts while pretending to be their friend.

At the end of Dicken’s “dollars” passage, he writes:


"I was a-thinking, sir," returned Mark, "that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?"

"Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose." 


"No," said Mark. "That wouldn't do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its dishonesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it..."


"And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!" said Martin. "Well, Mark. Let us hope so."


Dickens, ever the optimist! Me, too, but that Phoenix needs to thoroughly understand the ash from which it springs. If we are to escape the clutches of “follow the money” and rise to the new narrative of sustainability, common good, justice, kindness and beauty, we have to be clear about the stories living through us. Enacting laws limiting big money in politics, redistributing wealth, demanding taxes are absolutely necessary, are not alone enough without a change in narrative. 


And let us start with the children. Show them that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are sub-standard human beings not to be emulated. Stop stuffing ourselves with things to fill the holes in our Soul and live simply and lightly on this earth. Be clear that Number 1 is nothing without Numbers 2, 3, 4 and beyond. Show them the strength in vulnerability, the winning virtue of kindness. Teach them the things that really matter. Bring above ground the underground narratives of the real Jesus, Buddha, Kwannon, Rumi, the poets and dancers and musicians, your loving grandmother and the kind stranger who helped you yesterday. Teach them the stories that will move us away from greed and hatred and toward love and belonging. Then, and only then, might we get out of the ditch we have dug and back on the right road. 


But there’s more.


What's Happening? The Political Side of the Matter

How did we get to where we are? Is our time an anomaly in a country that used to be fair and democratic or a logical outcome of our political choices throughout our history? 

Here I defer to Robert Reich, a person well-qualified to shed light on the particulars of the last 50 years or so, having living through much of it as a player in the halls of power. He served under three different national administrations and has an insider’s view of how the frog of civility and shared purpose was boiled to death through gradual increases of temperature that few noticed until the water was boiling. In his book The Common Good, Reich outlines some seminal events that changed the political climate and opened the doorways to the thought, action and legislation that works against the “common good.”


Reich defines the common good as “our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society— the norms we voluntarily abide by, and the ideals we seek to achieve.” He reminds us that our very Constitution was designed for “’We the people,’ seeking to ‘promote the general welfare’— not for ‘ me the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth and power as possible.’” In a chapter titled “Exploitation,” Reich lists 50 different scandals and seminal events between the Pentatonic Papers of 1971 and the Wells Fargo Scandal of 2017, each of which raised the temperature of the boiling water so the new norm of “Forget the public trust. Just do whatever it takes to win!” became both the  unspoken and spoken narrative driving American politics. 


In the next chapter, he highlights three structural breakdowns:


1) Nixon’s Watergate, Robert Bork’s hearing and whatever-it-takes-to-win politics.


2) Michael Milken, Jack Welch and whatever-it-takes-to-maximize profits.


3) Lewis Powell’s memo, Tony Coelho’s bargain, Wall Street’s bailout and whatever-it-takes-to-rig-the-economy.


The combined effect of all three brought us exactly to where we are today, a place we seem surprised by, but if you follow the threads, it’s precisely the place we logically would end up. The super-yachts of the Wall Street moguls, the “Stop the Steal” lies of a President who couldn’t accept defeat, the dark money of the Koch Brothers and the like, the imprisonment of black teenagers stealing candy from a store while the corporate raiders walk free, all of it makes perfect sense in the chain of events the book lays out. As summarized by Reich:


“Whatever-it-takes politics removed all constraints on gaining and keeping political power. Whatever-it-takes-to-make-big-money eliminated all checks on unbridled greed. Put them together and what did we get? We got money pouring into politics in order to change the rules of the game in favor of big corporations and the wealthy, so they can rake in even more.”


The super-rich are—and have always been— a good-ole-boys club who exchange favors entirely independent of values, moral standing or any sense of the common good. When the Supreme Court declared that “money is speech” and “corporations are people,” the presence of big money running the politic show changed from 10% of all contributions to 40% and beyond. Wonder why the NRA continues to thrive in the face of daily mass shootings? Check out who they donate money to. 


To give one bizarre example of how quid pro quo works, a famous businessman once donated $25,000 to a political candidate who then decided not to investigate him for fraud. The business man? Donald Trump. The candidate? Hilary Clinton!!!!


Government— particularly democratic government— depends on the checks and balances that keep politicians and corporations accountable. No matter what your view on the inherent goodness of people, it is beyond debate that that goodness begins to disappear when money and power enter the picture. And so we need systems in place that keep things honest. Rules and laws that limit power, taxes that give back some of the personal wealth to the greater economy, unions that keep greedy bosses in check and so on. The gradual erosion of those checks and balances in both politics and business is the hidden story that must now be clearly revealed, with the hope of restoring and/or creating new needed restraints. 


“What to do?” is the cry from so many I know who are not happy with this new (yet present throughout our history) world of unchecked greed and turn towards grabbing power, fair voting be damned!, that marks the current political scene. Action is essential, but is most effective when the background of how this came to be is revealed so that we can recognize the next seminal event that moves us yet further from the common good and try to stop it in its tracks. Specific suggestions will come in Part V. Stay tuned. 


And meanwhile, if you're curious about Robert Bork, Michael Milken, Jack Welch, Lewis Powell, Tony Coelho and a large cast of other villains, read Reich’s book. 



Wednesday, July 20, 2022

What's Happening?


          “You know something is happening  here, but you don’t know what it is,

          do you, Mr. Jones?”                        - Bob Dylan: Ballad of a Thin Man


“What the hell is happening to our country?!!!” Ah, there’s a question.  One that has been thoroughly examined since forever and answered expertly by barbers, taxi drivers, mansplainers and just about everyone who has an opinion. Which is everyone.


But in light of the January 6thhearings, the recent Supreme Court decisions, the continuing epidemic of mass shootings and the continuing refusal to take the most basic steps to deal with the situation (as so many other countries successfully have), it is a question that is more on our minds than usual. Which means it deserves some serious thought a few yards beyond “opinion.” Something attentive to reality (no conspiracy theories, please), tied to facts, historical data and actual thinking. A carefully crafted point of view that shines light into the dark corners of things we haven’t wholly considered or have been purposefully hidden from us. 


To that end, it’s helpful to look at the question from multiple angles. Here I offer four different perspectives of a complex question, none of which alone can explain what’s happening or offer guidance as to what we might do next, yet each of which is worthy of consideration and further investigation. It is in the conversation between the four that we just might move from where we are stuck, get the wheels rolling and the moral arc leaning again in the right direction. 


You see, I’m already claiming a right direction and some might take issue with that, that I’m not following the Fox News motto (ha ha!) of a “fair and balanced” report (a motto dropped in 2017, not because they finally owned up to the bullshit, but because they needed to distance themselves from founder Roger Ailes when he was caught in a sex scandal). So let me be clear. The “right direction” is based on the following: 


1) It is better to serve and celebrate life than to cause death and destruction.

2) It is better to love than to hate.

3) It is better to promote the highest values of the Constitution than to tear them down.

4) It is better to serve people over profit. 

5) It is better to speak truth than tell lies.

6) It is better to win fair and square than cheat.

7) It is better to be educated than ignorant.

8) It is better to support a point of view with facts than insist that whatever you believe is true because you say so.

9) It is better to include and welcome people than exclude and put them down.

10) It is better to hold people accountable to the law regardless of wealth and status.

11) All American citizens should pay taxes. 


You get the idea. 


What that in mind, a brief overview of each of the four levels:


1) Political: What precisely has happened in the last 50 years to lead us to this place where one party does nothing but try to block any bills proposed to help American citizens improve their quality of life, to protect them, to safeguard the guarantees of the Constitution? 


2) Sociological: What are the spoken and unspoken narratives that drive these hurtful actions, that justify them, that create the spin that makes them palatable and acceptable to a gullible public?


3) Psychological: What are the collective psychological traumas, wounds, complexes, attitudes that make people vulnerable to political decisions that work against their own interests, that makes them willing to give up their own power to despots, tyrants and fundamentalist easy-answer thinking?


4) Mythological: In the greater world of archetypal energies that have always been and will always be, what myth are we living? Where are we in the cycle of collapse and renewal?


Stay tuned for the five-part series.