Friday, September 30, 2022

Patience, Perseverance and Perspective

I celebrated my daughter’s 42nd birthday by having a marvelous day. I would have been happy to share it all with her, but she is in Portland and I’m in San Francisco, so the best we can do is celebrate by each doing what makes us happy. That I did, starting with a lovely walk with five men in the Men’s Group to the new Tunnel Top park with its panoramic view that sweeps from the Golden Gate bridge to the round dome of the Palace of Fine Arts with downtown in the distance. We walked, talked and lunched and then off I went to a 7th grade class that I co-taught with colleague and mentee Yari at CDS across from Dolores Park. With some time to spare, walked around that park with its different view of downtown. 


From there, to the Jewish Home where I flagged some 40 tunes from the 850 Classical Melodies book with chord changes and played them non-stop with Javier on clarinet. He is such a fine sight-reader, he had no trouble— even with pieces he was hearing for the first time— getting them to sing so brightly on his instrument. I’d play through once with him listening and following the notes and then when he came in, the music was lifted ten feet higher. 

Going through the book in order, it felt like a perfectly planned repertoire that offered the needed contrasts to strum all the strings in the human harp of the heart. Contrasting tempos, meters, keys, major and minor tonalities, styles and more that brought a hush amongst the 30 plus seniors listening with razor-sharp attention and a tangible silence, as if each note was precisely what they needs to hear in that moment to break the chains of time-ticking mortality. 


And so my perseverance to plumb the depths of music even as no performing career beckoned me, to share the fruits of my patient efforts with young people just beginning their journey through organized sound and old people who need to hear the comfort of music they both knew and loved and music they never heard, but could feel the full power of emotion each note invoked. To enter that magnificent house of music through multiple perspectives— kids through song, chant, body percussion, dance, xylophones, ukuleles, stories and more, the adults through the range of rhythms, melodies, harmonies, forms, timbres and textures. Patience, perseverance and perspective have all paid off and the returns keep coming in.


Speaking of patience, driving home I passed the Pumpkin Patch which was open for business. In September! There ought to be a law. Halloween needs to wait for October, Thanksgiving for November, Christmas and assorted Winter Holidays for December. 


Meanwhile, I can think of no better way to celebrate the closing of September than once again thanking my first-born daughter for entering our lives and continuing to be the near-perfect human being we predicted the moment we held her. Happy birthday, Kerala!

This Changing City

I first went to Salzburg in 1990 and the last time I was there in 2018, it was pretty much the same almost 30 years later. The same Merkur, the same empty fields, no new downtown high rises. I spent some time in the early 70’s hanging out in Greenwich Village and the last time I was there around 2017, I ate again at John’s Pizza, walked by Café Wha and heard some jazz at the Village Vanguard. 


Change is the normal state of things, be it in the natural world or cities, but continuity is also to be valued and appreciated. If you stay rooted in one place long enough, you get to witness both, some with nostalgic longing, some with renewed appreciation. When I was recently asked if I still loved the city I lived in or thought it had gone to the dogs, it felt like a good idea to document precisely those changes and continuities. 


And so bear with me as I flip through the rolodex of old addresses (ah, there’s a change! Who uses rolodexes anymore? Or even knows what they are?) to name the old friends passed on and appreciate the new ones who have moved in. If you live in San Francisco or know the city, read on. If not, maybe use this little introduction as an inspiration to make your own list wherever you may live. Here I go!


Gone, But Not Forgotten: 

• Movie theaters—the Surf, the Gateway, the Richeliieu, the Lumiere, the Alhambra, the Coronet, the Alexandria, Parkside, the Northpoint, the Regency 1 and 2, the Bridge, the Clay. 


Bookstores, Record Stores, Video Stores— 9th Ave. books, Cover to Cover, Borders, The Magic Flute, Streetlight Records, Tower Records, Le Video.


Restaurants, Cafes, Bakeries, Ice Cream Stores—Narai Thai Restaurant, Mai Thip, Pasands Indian Restaurant, Yet Wah, Stoyanoff’s, Peppers, Hana’s, Tom Kiang, Pluto’s, Il Forniao, Fog City Diner, Louis, Cliff House,  Heidi’s Bakery, Tassajara Bakery, Tart to Tart, Just Desserts, Xephyr Café, Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream, Bud’s, Gelato.


• Sites and other stores—Fleischacker Pool, the North Beach postcard store, top of the Fairmount Hotel and its outside elevator, Clarion music Center, Lark in the Morning Music Store, Haight Ashbury Music, Keystone Corner Jazz Club, Yoshi’s Jazz Club, Beach Blanket Babylon, Candlestick Park, Community Food Stores


Changed Venues: Mechanical Museum, De Young and Academy of Science, Exploratorium, Castro Theater


Survivors: Yellow Submarine Sub shop, Cole Hardware, Tadich Bar and Grill, Nan King, Café Trieste, Rainbow Grocery, Ashbury Market, City Lights bookstore, Green Apple bookstore, the Buffalo in the park, Day of the Dead and Carnaval celebrations in the Mission, Sea Chanty sings on the CA Thayer,  the California Revels, Zen Center, The Community Music Center, Parks in the city, land preservation in Marin, forward-thinking politics. 


New and Unwelcome: Salesforce Tower, Salesforce Tower and Salesforce Tower; Manhattanization of downtown, cost of housing, rise in homelessness, rise in crime.


New and Welcomed: Trader Joes, Embarcadero, Ferry Building, Fort Mason, Crissy Field, Tunnel Top, Presidio, Conservatory and Japanese Tea Garden free to SF Residents, Moma, Yerba Buena Gardens,  Ballpark, Chase Center, Crane Flat, Dogpatch, Farmer’s Markets, Family-friendly Buena Vista Park, Opera in the Park, Comedy in the Park, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, SF Jazz Center, bike lanes, closed streets (JFK/ Great Highway). 


So there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly mixed together as they’ve always been and always shall be. If I weighed them, I believe I would say yes, I still love this city and its spirit and believe in its resilience and capacity to both survive and thrive. 


Thursday, September 29, 2022

Autumn and the Writing Life

Sat down for dinner last night at 7:15 and was surprised to see that it was dark outside. Still September and time to get out the candles. Autumn is on its way.


Technically, it already arrived one week ago, but unlike Summer and Winter Solstice, the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox get paid scant mind in the calendar of celebration. Why is that, I wonder? Perhaps the drama of the shortest day and the longest day outdoes the two medium days, proving yet again that it is the extremes that capture our attention.


Speaking of extreme, it struck me the other day that three of the most iconic books of the 1950’s-60’s— Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch 22—were pretty much one-hit wonders. Each author waited many years to publish another one, none of which captured the public’s attention like the first. Then I started wondering about prolific authors who just kept churning them out, most of them mystery writers. Certainly Agatha Christie who wrote some 80 books, Eric Stanley Gardner with 82 Perry Mason novels, Stephen King up to some 85 books. Sue Grafton wrote at least 25 and John Grisham around the same. 


So now off to Google to see who was the most prolific writer and the surprise answer? L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, who published 1084 (!!) fiction and non-fiction works translated into 71 languages. Enid Blyton wrote some 800 children’s books, Barbara Cartland published 720 Victorian romance novels, Isaac Asimov wrote some 500 novels. Extraordinary! Though truth be told, I haven’t read a single one of any of them or even heard of some of these people.


But the most astounding of all—and confusing as to why she isn’t named above L. Ron Hubbard— is a Spanish writer named Corin Tellado, who was born in 1927 and died in 2009. She wrote and published romantic novels. 4,000 of them!!!! Really?!!! Since I began in 2011, I’ve written 3,550 pieces on this Blog. But most of them are one-page long. I’m trying to imagine each of them as a full-blown novel—it simply boggles the mind. 


I, like all of us, am fascinated by the extremes. But at the end of the day, a single 17-syllable haiku by Basho may penetrate deeper than 4,000 romantic novels. And since I began this piece thinking I was going to write an ode to Autumn, I should at least end with that seasonal reference with a haiku from Basho.


Deep autumn;

My neighbor—

How does he live?


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Ode to Billy

Browsing at Green Apple bookstore, I stumbled on 

a Billy Collins poetry collection I mysteriously didn’t have. 


I like his work. The way he starts an image here and

          jumps to one               over there,

 like a kid hopping 

             from rock to rock 

                      over a bubbling stream.


So it took only a nanosecond for the book to leap from the bookshelf 

to my eager hand and walk with me to the counter. 

     Excited to see what unexpected 

trips he’ll take me on , 


By the time I’ve read one poem, I’m already shamelessly

      trying to imitate his style 

        and the first rock I landed on

                   was his name.




I bypassed the billy goats and the policemen’s billy clubs

And sat down next to him at the Five Spot, where he often

goes to hear Bill Evans (did his friends call him Billy as a kid?)

or imagine that he got to hear Billie (not Billy) Holiday.


Or Red Garland playing Billy Boy with Miles.


And then I remember my cousin Billy

     adopted son of my Uncle George and his wife Aunt Joy

                who he met overseas in Australia.


Joy was anything but, a chain-smoking, alcoholic vitriolic 

      abusive mother who couldn’t have her own kids 

            and then could. 


Once Pam, Wendy and Geoff came along, Billy receded further

       into the background until one rainy night as a teenager,

                he ran away from Long Island 

                         and showed up at our home in New Jersey.


These are the moments when I miss my parents, wanting to hear

       more of that story. I remember he played some jazz and did some art, but 

                neither was enough to save him from a future life 

                         as an alcoholic, still licking the wounds of neglect. 


No one knows where he is now. Perhaps sitting at a piano,

       a cigarette in his mouth and a drink nearby playing

               Blame It On My Youth, with an open book of poetry 

                          next to him by (of course)

                                   Billy Collins.

Here and There

One of the great secrets to a happy life (at least for someone like me) is having a great travel agent. I was blessed to stumble into Connie from Utah, who was magical in her abilities to put together complex itineraries. The pandemic hit just as she was retiring and though she agreed to continue with me as a client as a “preferred customer” favor, it seemed like it was not to be. 

And so I just spent four hours negotiating online how to get to Madrid, Galicia, Istanbul, Barcelona, Kansas City, San Francisco— and it was not fun. The Turkey segment promised to send an activation code that never appeared in either my phone nor my e-mail and one of the cheap inter-European airlines promised a price that didn’t include a seat, confirmation or baggage without additional hidden costs.  And none of them actually sent me anything that can be used as a ticket nor something with a QR code that appeared on my phone after I entered what they suggested. So it’s only a matter of trust and faith that any of these actually worked. Wish me luck!


Then as I mentioned before, the security I used to feel that the workshops arranged were all set to go is far from clear. So if I miraculously actually get on the plane and arrive where I’m supposed to, will there actually be a workshop waiting for me? And are the people clear that I will be reimbursed for the flight cost? Will they pick me up at the airport?


I think I’m happy to resume my traveling and teaching life, but truth be told, it’s pretty sweet to wake up in my home, fix my own meals, stroll through a beautiful park or zip around on my bike, play piano when the mood strikes (which it does every day), go to a school to mentor a teacher and/or teach some kids. Solid. Dependable. Minimum of fuss arranging. No jet lag. Small carbon footprint. 


Of course, I’ve long known that paradise doesn’t require getting out of here and getting to there. Yet it often refreshes me to get a change of view, teach a new group of people, re-connect with old friends I’ve made from all the years of traveling, get out of my routine. We’ll see if the pleasure continues to counterbalance the pain of long hours in airports, sitting for 14 hours straight, spending long hours online trying to prepare it all and an equal number trying to arrange it all with the folks on the other side. 


Meanwhile, anyone know any fabulous travel agents?



Monday, September 26, 2022

Judgment Day

We all would prefer to be accepted rather than judged. Yes?


Well, good luck with that! While I agree that this is the endgame (and one which so few reach), along the way we’re judging people left and right, up and down, inside and out, in every encounter. While we’re smiling and saying hello or talking to them about the weather, we’re secretly thinking, “You’re really wearing that outfit?” “Looks like you’ve put on a little weight.” “You like that song?!!” “Wait, hold on! WHO did you vote for??!!!”


We all think the world would be so much better if everyone thought like us and acted like us and believed what we do and reacted to situations the way that we do. What is wrong with them that they don’t?!! Come on, admit it! I’m sure you have these same thoughts!


The particular things we judge people on says a lot about our own character and our own issues. This one’s too energetic, that one’s too lethargic, this one never smiles, that one seems like they’ve pasted on a fake have-a-nice-day smile. And so on.


So here I confess that one of my judging points that drives me crazy is people who don’t answer e-mails. Or wait five days to answer. As a mostly within- 24-hour- responder myself, I often feel frustrated with people who I’m waiting to hear from. Especially when it comes to confirming a workshop that I need to buy plane tickets for. This is my present reality as the clock is ticking for certain flight bookings and some people organizing my workshops are waffling in the “maybe so” land, a place I can’t be if I front the money for a long plane trip, show up and there’s no class. Or if they cancel a class that was intricately woven into the workshop itinerary I created from that assumption. 


Meanwhile, I’m assaulted with five e-mails a day asking if I approve of President Biden. “Didn’t I just fill out ‘Yes’ an hour ago? Trust me, nothing has changed. Instead of bugging me, can you set up a workshop in Galicia?"


We’ll see how that goes.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The New American

How to change from an anti-American racist to an anti-racist American?


That was the theme of the talk I went to with W. Kamau Bell and Kate Schatz last night. But what do I mean by an anti-American racist? Why, racism is as American as apple pie! A pie made from apples grown on land stolen from the Native Americans, picked by the Latin American migrant workers, baked and served by the African American house servants to Anglo-Americans who did nothing to earn their desert other than be on the right side of a theory of White Supremacy that they made up. A narrative that informed every single year of our country’s history. So how could a racist be anti-American?


But what actually is the defining character of America? A country that was built on a conscious vision, a mission statement of sorts clearly expressed in documents known as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, documents that continue to be the North Star of our navigation. Were the land-owning white males who forged the document flawed products of their time, hypocritical and exclusive in their meaning of who was actually entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Yes, they were. Do the rich and powerful constantly grab the wheel of the ship and steer in the direction of their own profits and privileges, North Star be damned? Yes, they do. Is there a current political party hell-bent on lying and cheating and gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to pushing the moral arc away from justice, even to the extreme of invading the Capitol Building? Yes, there is. 


But those yellowed documents still speak a vision that millions of the oppressed and down-trodden and excluded have valiantly fought to bring to life. Even those who have benefitted from their inherited privilege are waking up to the importance of using their intelligence, compassion and citizen’s duty to turn us in the right direction. Not back on the right track, because history reveals we’ve never been there yet, but in the direction the future demands. Not to just be an ally for those still marginalized, but to be a spokesperson for the only future possible for all of us. Without kindness, compassion, intelligence and a commitment to defend all sentient beings and the very air, water and land that sustains us, there is no future that is viable for our life on this planet. 


To be anti-racist goes far beyond considering the systemic ways in which people of color are denied the same access, rights, freedoms and safety of their fellow white citizens. It requires enlarging yet further to see how similar things happen for women, gay people, Muslims, poor people and more. It means taking a long hard look at our values, especially our obsession with wealth and riches, the foundation upon which slavery was based. It means a radical change in what we value, what we consider important, what we reward with our attention and praise, what we’re willing to work hard for, what we mean by success.


This call for more attention to the truly important things in life is also a part of our American heritage, a cornerstone of the thinking championed by the Transcendentalists back in the mid-1800’s. It included such writers at Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis May Alcott and others. The new Americans we need are a reincarnation of folks like these, now also including Frederick Douglas, W.E. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, Sitting Bull, Chief Seattle, the Grimke Sisters, Mother Jones and a long list of others in the conversation.


Alongside our constant efforts to educate ourselves as to what we’ve done (and are doing) wrong, we need some guidance in what it looks and feels like to do things right. And embed that in the curriculum for every school child. And so, one piece from Ralph Waldo Emerson and a poem by Emily Dickinson for the children—and their teachers and their parents and their pop stars and their elected representatives— to consider.


To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and
the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics and endure
the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one's self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and
sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you
have lived -
This is to have succeeded.   

                -Ralph Waldo Emerson


If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

-      Emily Dickinson

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Gilligan, Bob and Pharaoh

Though my mother was bi-polar for most of her life, I thankfully have been spared the ravages of depression. The closest I came was a period of a year or so when I was around 16. I was in the throes of adolescent angst and ennui, some sense of lost innocence, of the magic glitter of my childhood fading unexplainably, of feeling disconnected. It didn’t help that I went to an all-boys school where I didn’t feel I belonged and had no contact with girls at an age when I should have. On the positive side, I used my time studying the Spanish verb-key instead of figuring out how to get some beer and pick up girls. That served me later in life. But it probably wasn’t quite as much fun.


How we cope with life’s sorrows, barbs, attacks of lethargy, teaches us as much, if not more, as to how to be more fully human than our happy moments and successes. Robert Bly talks about how the old Norwegians in Viking times understood that some boys would go through a couple of years of lying amongst the ashes. Instead of shaming them, they recognized it as a rite of passage of such and didn’t yell at them to get off their ass and take out the garbage. At least for a couple of years. 


I remember three coping mechanisms and strategies I developed. The first was to shut the door to my room and religiously watch re-runs of McHales’s Navy and Gilligan’s Island from 6:00 to 7:00 pm every night. That bizarre hibernation may or may not have been just what I needed at the time. Definitely not a long-term strategy, but a momentary escape that somehow helped stabilize the emotional landscape. Something I could count on and look forward to and allow to take me away from my body, thoughts and feelings to be immersed in another story. Never mind that they were both as stupid as could be. It just felt like a good idea to get out of my story for an hour at least each day. 


And don’t we all still do that? When our actual story gets too intense to bear, too hot to handle, just flick on a switch and give ourselves a break? Again, not a long-term healing strategy, but sometimes a just-right short-term coping mechanism.


My second strategy was to get into it, try out the persona of the heavy, conflicted artist and find some perverse pleasure in being depressed. My soundtrack was Bob Dylan’s 11:22 long Desolation Row. I memorized the entire song (and still mostly can remember it!) and lived amongst the dispossessed, down-and-out characters at that address in my imagination. If Gilligan and McHale were suggesting to run away from it all, Dylan was inviting me to run toward it and accept it and feel its full weight. It was the beginning of glimpsing how art can transform depression as something weighing down on you to something you can lift up and examine and work with. 


And then came John Coltrane’s Meditations, with its extraordinary section featuring Pharoah Sanders getting sounds on the saxophone that a squeaky beginner might get, but in full control of their timbre. I put that on full blast and felt the red-hot outrage and anger of that screaming solo not only speaking the horror of the nightly news (this was recorded in 1966), but expressing with no-holds-barred the anguish of simply being a human being. The 40-minute Suite is divided into Five Sections: The Father and Son and Holy Ghost, Compassion, Love, Consequences, Serenity, taking the listener through the full journey of exile and redemption, both building up to Pharoah’s solo and then setting you down from it.  


Now this was something else entirely. Not escaping to a fantasy island, not choosing to hang out on Desolation Row, but running full force into the fire and feeling it burn away the dross and bring me to some sense of serenity coming out the other side. Here was art at its most potent, its power to fully express the whole spectrum of human emotion and transform the listener— and even more so, the player. I had already felt the small boundaries of my Leave It To Beaver childhood pushed out by Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles and James Brown, but with Coltrane and that Pharoah Sanders solo, the depths felt deeper and the heights felt higher. And I could hear a specifically American expression that captured the grief of genocide, slavery, sanctioned greed and showed how the lotus could still grow in the muddy swamp, the one they never showed in McHale’s Navy or Gilligan’s Island.


All of this has come to mind because of the news that Pharoah Sanders died today at 81 years old. I actually sat in a living room with him once with a bunch of other musicians casually gathered together, but was too tongue-tied to even know how to talk to him.  I should have thanked him for that solo, asked him what he felt when playing it, told him how I made my 8th graders lie down and listen to it to open up a channel for their own budding adolescent confusion. (I really did this. I wonder if any of them remember it.)


Nevertheless, R.I.P. Pharoah Sanders, I hope the Father, Son and Holy Ghost —and the Great Mother—will welcome you and celebrate your acts of compassion and love and grant you the serenity you deserve. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Crossing on the Ferry

Every month, my parents, sister and I drove from New Jersey to Long Island to visit the relatives. That meant crossing over on the Staten Island Ferry ride. I can still remember the smell of the crisp, ocean air, the distant twinkling lights of Manhattan, the taste and texture of the warm soft salted pretzels we always bought, the wave to the Statue of Liberty as we passed by, the game my sister and I had of guessing which of the seven ferries we would get—the Hamilton, the Hudson, the Verrazano, the St. George (and three more I can’t remember now). Later, the efficiency of the Verrazano Bridge overtook the sensual delights of the ferry ride, a dubious trade that our culture chooses time and time again.


Yet in spite of the bridge, the ferry soldiered on and in my senior year in high school, my friend Mark Murphy and I used to drive to Staten Island, park and ride round-trip on the ferry as passengers. For the astounding price of 5 cents! And this was in 1969. 


There we stood on the deck and grappled with life’s large questions as only 17-year-olds can. Got off in lower Manhattan and walked around for a while, then the return trip home. Perhaps we had some vague notion of meeting and picking up girls— we were 17, after all— but that never happened and we never seemed to mind too much. It was enough to just feel the freedom of the adventure, the comradery between us, the sensation of those distant twinkling lights and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty inviting us into our unknown beckoning future. 


And for me, a little bridge backward into that magical sense I had in a childhood when the world glittered just a bit brighter before the hormones kicked in. Alongside the delights and freedoms of growing older we always longed for as kids— driving in a car with no adults, having a little pocket money (though I could have afforded the 5 cents as a kid!), exploring the complexities of sexual longing, came the harsh realities of a war raging in Vietnam, the aftermath of horrific assassinations, the police beatings in Chicago and riots throughout the country. 


But we were young and still innocent in so many ways, hopeful for a brighter future that included hair length of our choice, free love, legal marijuana, organic vegetables, great music and end to violence, racism, greed and war. As we boarded that ferry, our adolescent confusion, faith in ultimate goodness and excitement about what lay ahead for us in the blank pages of a life yet to be written, came with us. And the pretzels still tasted delicious.


My friend Mark Murphy dipped a bit too far into drugs in his college years at Princeton and then came out the other side to be a born-again Christian, got married, had kids and worked as a chaplain for the Navy. We crossed paths briefly when he visited San Francisco in 1981, he met my wife and one-year old daughter and we had a civil conversation while aware of how differently our lives were unfolding. We didn’t keep in touch after that and years later, I learned that he had died by drowning and suicide was suspected. 


Meanwhile, marijuana finally became legal, as did mixed marriages and later, gay marriages,  rock music declined (in my humble opinion), free love now had the more sensible price of actual relationship, farmer’s markets are on the upswing, we’ve had a black president and mixed-race woman vice-president, racism and police brutality continued, but instead of accepting it as “the way things are,” a large upsurge of white people (though far from enough) finally agreed to wake up and insist “Black Lives Matter.” Some of our adolescent dreams crossing on the ferry indeed set in motion ideas of sustainability, kindness, courage to speak out and more. 


And yet wars still rage worldwide, climate change is demanding payment on the bills we keep ignoring, and it’s still not clear if that psychopathic narcissist who brought us to our knees with the full support of far, far too many people desperately clinging to their unearned power and privilege will be held accountable for his treasonous crimes. There is more work ahead, more dreams to keep dreaming and bring into life.


But here’s the amazing news. A ferry that costs 5 cents in 1969—what does it cost now?


And the surprising answer. It’s cheaper! It’s free! 


PS Too long to include here, but a good companion piece to this post is Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Extra credit for you if you read it.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Listen and Sing

Some six years ago, a friend announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As you might imagine, it was a devastating blow for all of us who know him— and of course, much more for him himself. Yet for the first five years, it unspooled in slow motion so that it was hard to see the effects. During that time, he was the person we knew , just now with an extra label. But if in the first five years, he had Parkinson’s, in the last year, Parkinson’s had him. Seemed to be chipping away at his memory, nervous system, physical presence and sometimes stealing him away so that he was hard to recognize. It was hard to witness. And again, harder yet for him to wake up each morning and struggle to re-locate himself. 


Because he is a member of our Men’s Group for the last 32 years, we’ve huddled to consider how to respond. One idea was to have two of us each week spend much of a day with him and give his wife the opportunity to get out to hike the way she loves—and needs—to do. I had the idea of having him come to my house so I could play piano for him as I do at the Jewish Home. But it soon became clear that even a walk down the stairs to the car, a drive across town, a walk up the stairs and sitting in my house was simply too much. 

So onto Plan B. I went to his house with another friend and with no piano there, brought my guitar and banjo. Both of them had been parents in the school, so they knew some of the repertoire I developed from 45 years of singing with kids five days a week. And off we went.


Well, it wasn’t the same as wrapping him inside the notes of the Goldberg Variations, but perhaps even better, as he actively sang along and the guitar is a more intimate, connective instrument than the piano. After an hour of singing, we lunched in his garden on a perfect temperature day and then he read some of his poetry from some three small books of poems he published. I read a few from a book I brought and when I asked, “Enough? Want to take a nap?,” everything in him responded, “Yes!” 


This horrific disease, with its sense of loss and deep sorrow, certainly qualifies as a trauma, but at Larghissimo tempo. Not as immediately devastating as a catastrophic one-time event, but with some similar qualities. And notable differences. Going over to his house, I thought about a poem from the book I’ve been enjoyed called The Path to Kindness. In it, Patricia McKernon Runkle gives some sage advice in her poem “When You Meet Someone in Grief.”

Slip off your needs

And set them by the door.


Enter barefoot 

this darkened chapel


hollowed by loss

hallowed by sorrow


its  gray stone walls

and floor.


You, congregation of one


are here to listen

not to sing.


Kneel in the back pew,

Make no sound,


Let the candles,



 Yes indeed. Yet when the loss and sorrow is spread out over six years, the trauma chips away slowly rather than flattens one like a boulder dropped by above. And though yes, though it’s always a good idea to listen, this could also be a good time to sing.


 And it was.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A Tale of Two Keyboards

Though I often complain of my childhood piano teacher’s methods—opening the door to the 88 keys of the piano (beginning with yet more on the organ) through the portals of Trudy Treble and Bobby Bass ushering me in on the printed page—I really have to take a moment to thank Mrs. Lutz. I redecorated the house of music in ways she couldn’t have imagined, opened the windows and found new doors to invite others in and new ways to make them feel at home— and even had to re-do the shaky foundation of black dots on paper without any singing or dancing. But in spite of it all, that first lesson 65 years ago set me out on my life’s work and the fact that I still spent an hour or three a day still working my way through the intricate neighborhoods, complete with hills that require the full measure of my effort to ascend and winding streets that demand my full attention if I’m not to get lost, is something worthy both of astonishment and gratitude. 


It wasn’t until I turned 60 that I finally consented to call myself a musician and the last two days playing at Flower Piano and Friday at the Jewish Home confirmed that audacity. After playing for over an hour yesterday with my new friend Javier on clarinet, continually asking if anyone else wanted a turn or whether I should stop and the growing audience of some 50 people unanimously encouraging us to continue, it was clear that we were connecting with the people in a way that only true musicians can. The range of our music— from ragtime to opera arias, bossa nova to Latin jazz to swing, Strauss to Sousa to Saint-Saens to Sullivan (Gilbert’s partner), jazz ballads next to Mozart’s sonata’s and even a free improvisation on Old McDonald for a shy little girl who told me her favorite song— we toured the crowd through world after world of sonic pleasure on a beautiful Fall day. As we were playing The Swan from The Carnival of the Animals, a flock of Canada geese swooped down to the grass to join the audience. 


When we finally stopped, a young woman came and played—by memory— the challenging third Prelude and Fugue of Bach in its impossible key and continued with a tour-de-force Chopin Sonata that I had never heard. In both cases, her considerable technique speeding past me like a Maserati zipping by an old jalopy. But no need to compare and despair, they both have their place on the highway. It’s not a race, after all, and my growing ability to feel the full vibration of each note and sent it out to a listening audience like unrolling a red carpet to remembrance is my contribution from all these years of playing. I’ll take it.


On the other keyboard, the one on which I type this, I feel a bit more at home, but with the same hope of connecting to a listening audience and occasionally reminding them of things they either knew and had forgotten or didn’t even realize they knew and had forgotten. The past two days, I sent back to my oh-so-slow new publisher the final edited version of my Jazz, Joy and Justice book written in the Fall and was happy to see that it is precisely the type of book every author longs for—one that he or she is delighted to read. The rest of my time writing was spent answering e-mails, trying to arrange some four or five upcoming courses in Spain and Turkey, writing a syllabus for a Jazz History Course I’ll teach at a local university in the Spring, taking my first test since my driver’s test some fifteen years ago proving I completed the online Mandatory Child Abuse Reporter class so I could sub at various schools— and being so pleased with myself that I scored 90%! And so depressed about the state of child-raising as seen through the statistics. 


So thanks to my Dad for buying that Hammond organ and Baldwin piano, those gifts that have kept on giving. To my first teacher Mrs. Lutz for introducing me to Bach, Beethoven and Jerome Kern. To my Mom for insisting I take some typing lessons before going to high school. To all my English teachers who gave me the tools of the writing trade (though interesting that none of them saw any promise that deserved the kind of mentoring I described a few posts ago. So I’ve just kept going with my own conviction unconfirmed or blessed by the elder). 


Last night, I heard Brad Mehldau’s solo piano concert, a contrast to Hiromi’s, though both have complete command of their instrument and both played the Beatle’s Blackbird. Per my agreement with the neighbors, I can’t play piano until 10 am, but am eager to try out some of the ideas I heard in his unique style of interpretation. And then, I’ll probably write about it sometime. 

My life on two keyboards. 


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Flowers and Pianos

It is September 18th and it’s raining. This is only worthy of comment in San Francisco, where rain never comes until November. The twelve pianos in the Arboretum are not happy about this, nor are the people who hoped to enjoy a stroll through the gardens listening to music in the annual Flower Piano event. For all our ability to seemingly control the world so that it fits with our plans, we are still at the mercy of the weather. 


Yesterday was the first live local Orff workshop in two and a half years and what a pleasure to gather again and meet some of the folks who have been singing, dancing and playing like this, some for 40+ years (!!) and some there for the first time. It was lovely until I started talking to an elder colleague about her nightmare at her school where all her 20 years of celebrating diverse cultures through music and dance was being shut down by the Diversity Police under their misguided rubric of cultural appropriation. Not that appropriation isn’t real and worthy of attention— I’ve spent a lifetime on that subject. But it is not a simplistic set of mandated Do’s and Don’ts minus the needed conversation about what is appropriate to share and with whom and how. The trend seems to be moving toward tribalism, calling into question my right to sit Zen meditation, chant in ancient Sino-Japanese, play my Ghana xylophone or Bulgarian bagpipe, go to San Francisco’s Chinese New Year’s celebration. Just at a time when we need the confluences of the beauty, power and intelligence of each culture, invite each other in and figure out how we’re going to move forward together sharing life on this planet, these disturbing stories seem to be aiming to putting everyone in their own corner with a “Not Welcome”: sign on the door. Just as we’re fighting the very real battles of the Right’s exclusion, we’re coming up with our new versions from the Left. Aarrgh!!


The way that I am, I felt the need to write a long article about it all, not in a white mansplaining privileged voice, but as a person grappling for a lifetime with these issues who might have a valuable perspective to offer. I know it would take me a few hours to wrestle that complex, tangled web into coherence and by the end, how many would read it? How many would care? What effect would it have? And after all, it’s Sunday and in some traditions (not mine), it should be a day of rest.


The rain suggests beginning a new jigsaw puzzle. Or perhaps call my grandchildren as I missed their call yesterday. Chick Corea playing in the background his mix of Mozart and Gershwin, Scarlatti and Jerome Kern, Chopin and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Scriabin and Monk (Hmm. Does he have the right to play all that music, not being Austrian, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Brazilian, Russian or African American? How dare he!) suggests I continue my own new idea of playing each Bach Prelude followed by a jazz tune in the same key. These are worlds that bring me pleasure, that find me assembling pattern, bringing meaning and order to a chaotic world in ways that I can control. If it stops raining and I can play some of the above at Flower Piano, it might brighten someone else’s day. Ranting and raving sometimes has its place, but maybe not today. Rain and pianos are more appealing, with their capacity to refresh a thirsty world. 

And both are wholly free for the taking.