Monday, October 31, 2022

The Unsung Song

I’m walking through the Barcelona Airport at 4:00 am with a three-foot black-cased lightweight cylinder in my hand. Inside is a Turkish bamboo flute called a ney, used in the Sufi whirling dervish ceremonies started by the poet Rumi centuries ago. It has a beautiful breathy tone. At least when you can actually get it to make a tone.


My friend who gifted it to me couldn’t nor could the other five musicians we were lunching with. Like all flutes, you have to split your air so some goes outside the hole and some goes in, but finding the particular angle for this particular flute seems to be a maddeningly difficult technique. 


And yet I like walking with it in my hand in the airport. I like its heft, its roundness, its announcement that there is another secret song waiting to be sung, but I will have to work much harder than I do on the xylophone. In fact, so hard that without dedicated hours per day, hours of frustration and breathy whooshes, that song will remain unsung.


And perhaps that’s what I like about it. We are—or should be—grateful for the secret songs that have come out of hiding and joined us in our daily life, become part of who we are and what we have to offer. Yet perhaps we should also be grateful to know that there are others that still await us, that might require hours or years of nothing happening and then a single silvery tone might some day emerge. Can we repeat it? And what about the fingering?


And so I carry it with me to the Lisbon Airport, tuck it in the overhead compartment for its long ride back to San Francisco, put it next to my modest instrument collection in my home— and we’ll see what happens next. 


Sunday, October 30, 2022

My Cup Runneth Over

Really. Yesterday I mentioned doubt and confidence and yes, like every human being and my doubt is whispering, “You’re really not that great, you know.” And believe me, after going to some jazz concerts and watching the incredible things people do on Youtube or reading the poems of Mary Oliver, I completely agree. 


But my confidence has always suggested that my unique combination of interest sand skills has a place in the world and when I found the perfect place in Orff Schulwerk, I marched boldly ahead hoping that it could be of use. Naturally, youthful arrogance had its moment, but it seems to have mellowed and matured like fine wine and taken the attention off of me and on to the people, young and old, that I teach. 


So when I sat down to watch the first version of the film a guardian angel made about me, I was naturally terrified to see what that mirror reflected back. I preferred to see the mirror of happy children and adults. And I was right to cringe a little— truth be told, I’m not as expressive in face, body and voice as I wish I might be. And I think I could actually still work on that a bit. But watching the film, I wondered what my long years of teaching look like to someone from the outside, someone who doesn’t know me or the Orff approach or progressive education.


I’ll find out soon, as the film is being premiered at the Orlando Film Festival sometime today. I’m not there, having just finished in Barcelona, where it has also been accepted to a later film festival. But I posted the news on Facebook and some 400 views and 100 comments later, I feel like Tom Sawyer at his funeral. My cup runneth over as I drink in the good wishes of friends, colleagues, former students, former school parents and people around the world I’ve had the good fortune to teach (and study with) in Orff Schulwerk. 


Let me be honest here. I know most of my students have enjoyed my classes, just as I know I’ve enjoyed teaching them. But your never know until you know. The occasion of the film has sparked such fond testimonies from my students young and old and I truly am humbled to feel the love. Thank you to each and every one. 

Pebbles in a Pond

It’s Daylight Savings Time in Barcelona and I was just gifted with an extra hour. Next Sunday in San Francisco, I’ll get another hour. Don’t ask me how this works, but it’s a sweet deal. I’ll take it!


Now there’s no excuse to not try to catch up on the news here. Not the horrendous blather  in the papers, the beyond-belief stories of people carrying legal assault weapons and hanging around the voting booths, the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, the next wave of murders in Iran. The stories that hold hope hostage and send us cowering in the corner wondering why we bother to think that human beings were a good idea in evolution’s plan. 


Instead, simply reporting yet another workshop in Barcelona with 16 strangers instantly friends. The 16-year old neighbor of my host who told him “I want to be a music teacher” and came free of charge to see what that might mean. (Similar to the 14-year old that came in Galicia.) The five people that were coming for the first time to a workshop like this who might look back on this years later and remember, “That was the moment my life changed.”

Then there was the visit from a former student/ now colleague who teared up when she recalled that moment for herself some 12 years ago in a workshop she took with me in Madrid. My host who came up to me at the lunch break of another workshop in Spain who asked where he could study this more and when my colleague Sofia and I told him about our summer course in San Francisco expecting he might consider it for next year (it was going to start in two weeks), he came back after lunch and said, “I just bought a plane ticket. See you in two weeks.” And now is giving his own workshops throughout  Europe and South America.


I meet people like this wherever I go, people I had the good fortune to cross-paths with and open doors and watch them do the rest and assure me that this joyful life-affirming work will continue far beyond my physical presence. That they will open the next series of doors, are already changing people’s lives. It’s a great comfort to know this.


And of course, the majority of people may continue teaching more or less as they have, but at least with one or two ideas or three or four fun activities and dynamic songs, dances or instrumental pieces. It need not be a sun-breaking-through-clouds moment with a dramatic soundtrack to justify the good idea to spend four to six hours each day having a great time with people willing to play, to laugh, to invent, to recall some buried childlike-self peeking its head out.


I wrote to a fellow teacher recently about diminishing the gap between his doubt and his conviction. It is not easy to wholly own one’s way of being in this world, to stop getting distracted by that nagging voice of self-doubt. And of course, I hear that too and it doesn’t take much to get it blabbing in my ear. But a lifetime of joyful teaching with both kids and teachers has indeed strengthened my conviction that this work matters, that my part in it was meant to happen and is not done yet, that I can’t directly affect the daily news out there, but I can in here and right here and right now as I turn to teach the second day of the course before heading homeward tomorrow. 


So I’ll end with one of maybe ten poems that I’ve written that I still like, that I’ll stand by:


20 years old. Confident, cocky, sure that that boulder 

I will heave into the mainstream

will make a big splash in the world.

Each decade, the stone 

and the river 

got smaller.


At 60, that once-big splash a mere pebble

in a small pond.


But still it makes ripples, tiny rings 

that circle outwards 

and sometimes reach the shore

of someone’s life about to be changed.


Friday, October 28, 2022

I Am We

I filled out a survey recently and it asked “How do you self-identify in terms of race and ethnicity?” There’s a provocative question!


I’m Jewish by blood, Unitarian by upbringing and Buddhist by choice, with a New Jersey small-town childhood brought up by Leave It to Beaver TV and an urban Californian adulthood.. I’m a 71-year old straight cisgender “white” man with mixed-race grandchildren who had a black Orff mentor, a Japanese Zen teacher, a Hindu South Indian drum teacher, who taught for decades with a Spanish woman and gay man and still travels with them both often to Ghana to teach with a Ghanaian musician. We also work together with a Brazilian man, a Catalan man and an American woman living in Germany in an International Orff Course with students from some 25 different countries. I’m an Orff teacher who learned a Japanese children’s game taught by a Spanish-German colleague while teaching together in Estonia with a Finnish teacher, a teacher who has given Orff Courses in over 50 countries and teaches in Spanish throughout Spain and in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Portugal and even Italy, who recently performed  Indonesian-American kecak chant and African American Juba rhythms with Iranian women in Istanbul. Shall I go on?


I live at the crossroads of many cultures. My personal pronoun is “we” and I respond to all from the place of our mutual identity as shared consciousness with distinct and delightful cultural variations available to all who care to take the time to enter the spiritual, musical, artistic, kinesthetic, intellectual and poetic disciplines the world has to offer. Having studied a lot of European classical and American jazz piano, a little of Bulgarian bagpipe, Balinese gamelan, South Indian drumming, Brazilian samba, Ghana xylophone, Irish tinwhistle, American banjo and more, having read the poetry of Basho, Rumi, Hafez, Mirabei, Goethe, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Machado, Neruda, Langston Hughes, Amanda Gorman, having built and sustained my adult body with Thai miang-kum,, Vietnamese bun, Mexican burritos, Japanese miso soup and sushi, Chinese stir fries, Indian curries, Iranian jeweled rice, Middle Eastern falafel, Italian pastas, Spanish tapas, Greek salads, West African peanut soups and more, having listened to jazz piano played by the Japanese Hiromi, Brazilian Elaine Elias, Indonesian Joey Alexander, French Michel Petrucciani, Spanish Chano Dominguez, Cuban Gonzalo Rubalcaba and more. I believe that the flowers (and thorns) of every culture lives inside of each one of us and are available when approached with respect and a willingness to do the work. How else can one explain Joey Alexander, born in Bali, raised in Java, hearing a Thelonious Monk recording at 7 years old and figuring out his tunes on his keyboard and a mere four years later, brought by Wynton Marsalis and others to the U.S. to record jazz, a style completely outside of the Balinese and Javanese culture, at 11 years old?!!


To be culturally responsive is to develop the ability to respond to the invitation to realize our full humanity that each culture offers. To see the universal in the particular and the particular in the universal and celebrate both equally. I reject the tribalism of the right-wing determined to continue a legacy of exclusion, domination and unearned privilege and equally reject the tribalism of the left wing insisting on exclusive identities available only to those born into them and dare you try to join in, the hammer of cultural appropriation will fall swiftly on your head. 


But at either extreme, neither climate change nor pandemic viruses care what identity you profess and hold on to. Survival depends on the “we” pronoun, beginning the conversations that are needed to both survive and thrive. I can testify that such conversations are not only possible, but delightful, held in the recent Collective Trauma Summit online, in the work Keith Terry has done in the International Body Music Festival (hey! we all have bodies and can enjoy slapping them rhythmically!), in the work I have tried to do teaching Orff Schulwerk worldwide. When right-wing Alabama prohibits saying “Namaste” in schools because the Hindu devils will incarnate in the children and when left-wing California prohibits the same unless you’re a card-carrying Hindu Indian (under the flag of “cultural appropriation”), the needed conversations die on the vine. All the more ironic, as Namaste says, “The divine in me greets the divine in you.” Indeed. Let us organize our thinking, our teaching, our living, around this fundamental truth, no matter what identity you claim as “me” or “you.” Pure consciousness knows no race, religion, gender or cultural identity.


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Mix Them! Mix Them!

You carry all the ingredients
To turn your life into a nightmare- don’t mix them!

You have all the genius to build a swing in your backyard for God.
That sounds
Like a hell of a lot more fun.

Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints,
Gathering our talented friends.
I will help you.
With my divine lyre and drum.

Hafiz will sing a thousand words,
You can take into your hands,
Like golden saws, silver hammers,
Polished teakwood, strong silk rope.

You carry all the ingredients
To turn your existence into joy,
Mix them
Mix them!


Another two-day course completed, this with fifty beautiful Iranian people in Istanbul— and that’s exactly what we did. Refused the nightmare ingredients and welcomed the golden saws and silver hammers that built the swing of God. We laughed, shared the blueprints of lesson plans, gathered together as the talented people we were and in the absence of a divine lyre and drum, sang and created fantastic rhythms on the instrument of our bodies. At the end, I read this poem from Hafez, a 14th century Persian poet who lived in Shiraz where most of the participants are from. Quite a loop for his words to travel 600 plus years spoken in English by an American to Iranians (Persians) in Istanbul and translated back into Farsi. And perfect advice to complete our understanding of what we spent these days doing— indeed, mixing the ingredients of joy. 


Amidst the non-stop stream of photos taken at the end (some were definitely double-dipping!), a woman spoke passionately about the things she is suffering in her country where the ingredients for nightmares are still out on the table and began weeping as she expressed the beauty of the kindness, fun and humanity we had just shared. Ten women immediately gathered around her in a spiral of hugs. When she came up to take her photo with me, I told her I am fluent in the language of tears and laughter and understood her perfectly. And I did. 


And what about you, my friend? Which ingredients are out on your table? How are you mixing them? Shall we invite each other to a joyful feast of soup and salad?

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Atlas's Burden

Atlas was a Titan who defied the Olympian gods and his punishment was to forever hold the sky (not the earth, as is often depicted) on his shoulders. Personally, I prefer the Earth image, especially as its current condition weighs heavily on all our shoulders and asks to be shared. When it’s not, we can often feel that we alone are bearing all the weight.


Atlas didn’t like this anymore than we do, so when Hercules needed his help to fetch some golden apples he needed as one of his 12 Labors, Atlas said he would gladly do it if Hercules would just hold up the heavens while he fetched the apples. Hercules had no choice but to agree and while Atlas did get the apples, he also saw his opportunity to be released from his punishment as the deal was that anyone who took on that burden had to carry it forever unless someone else took it away. So Hercules took the heavens, Atlas fetched the apples and then told Hercules “have a nice life!” But Hercules, no fool, said he would gladly bear the burden, but that his shoulders were hurting and he needed to re-arrange his cloak to give him more padding. Atlas agreed to hold the heavens for a few minutes and the moment Hercules passed it on— well, you can guess. He grabbed the apples and ran.


This is on my mind at the moment for this morning I got some news that weighed me down. One was a disturbing family matter, another a disturbing announcement from my former school, one the usual rush of dire mid-term election predictions (minus Michael Moore’s which continue to give me hope) and the last some inside stories about what’s happening in a country where the participants in my Istanbul workshop live. (It feels stupid not to say the name, but these days, one never knows, does one? It might cause some problems for someone.) On top of this, I tested myself for Covid yesterday and am happily negative, but feel like I have an old-fashioned cold that lowers my strength and resilience.


But nevertheless, I persist and after a day of slapping our bodies around, enjoying a fabulous lunch and dinner, loving the smiles and questions and conversations with yet another group of stellar human beings, the sky is not falling on my head. Yet still, oh you bad, bad people that keep causing so much harm and hurt because you can’t find your own beauty inside (and hey, there are lots of us out here who could help you!) and you good people making bad choices and hurting those you love and you committees making dubious decisions based on some weird corporate thinking, can you just stop and help hold up a piece of the sky?



The Hurdy Gurdy Blues

Galicia has come and gone and outside, it was all rain, grey skies, chilled air and mornings that stayed dark until 9 am. But inside the sacred space of the music classroom, it was bright sunshine all the way, complete with morning birds and refreshing cool breezes. Such a pleasure to dig into the glory of the Orff approach, revealing one delight after another in satisfying sequence with a small group of dedicated teachers happy to let themselves play and challenge themselves to think. The highlight was finally letting them take out their own instruments and playing our Slovenian song we learned on xylophone on clarinet, flute, saxophone, accordion, cello, guitar and joy of all joys, hurdy gurdy! I kept giving solos to the latter, so enthralled by the sound!


We also had a profound moment in which one teacher asked about the child (or adult teacher) shy about expressing themselves in front of the group and how to deal with it. A nice challenge for me to express in Spanish the importance of creating a safe atmosphere that can begin to heal the trauma of schools and teachers and peers that shame kids for giving the wrong answer or doing something the wrong way. I told some six stories from my grab bag of a lifetime of stories of kids who felt shy being praised by me (or my colleagues) for something noteworthy or beautiful they did and witnessing how their heavy doubts drop away in an instant and their face radiates the joy of finally feeling worthy. And how our job as teachers is to actively look for and create the situations where they can feel that blessing.


“For example,” I said to this teacher who seemed to be struggling with this issue herself, “I’m going to give you an allowance of two notes and you can play around with them to hear how they sound.” I then went to the piano and begin to play some blues changes while shy improvised, then raised her allowance to three notes and then five and kept playing as she soloed so well. “How did you sound?” I asked at the end. “Okay,” she said. There you have it.


This turned out to be the very same woman that played the hurdy gurdy! And after she played that Slovenian song so beautifully, I switched to blues for all the instruments and she played a fabulous blues solo on the hurdy-gurdy!!! The first one I’ve ever heard!


After our closing circle and group photo and hugs goodbye, people finally started going out the door, still waving goodbye. She looked at me and ran her finger down her cheek, a little symbol for how sad she was to leave the class. 


My friends, it’s so simple. Why do we spend so much energy judging each other, competing with each other, putting each other down? Why not simply look for the gifts we all carry and let each other know we see them and value them and appreciate them?


Can someone explain this to me? 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Pin Pon Fuera!

I’m really not that interested in water turning to wine, oil burning way beyond its shelf life or deities appearing in trees. The real mysteries and miracles in life are much closer and to me, much more interesting.


For example, trying to rummage through the cellar of my brain and dig out the Spanish rhyme I used to use when I first started teaching regularly in Spain in the 90’s and aughts. The old outlines are still on my computer, but everything before 2004 can’t be opened in my current set-up. Going to Youtube for Spanish nursery rhymes was simply depressing— nothing much but contrived cute little songs with ugly cartoons playing down to kids’ intelligence and aesthetic. I did finally write to my colleague Sofia, who I know will know exactly what rhyme I’m thinking of. But before she could write back, this happened:


After a few days of digging in the dark of the brain’s memory and coming up blank, I was at lunch with my hosts describing my dilemma. They offered a few possibilities, but none rang a bell. Five minutes later, this phrase popped out of my mouth:


“Pin pon fuera!”


It was the first beckoning glimpse of that old memory peeking its head out from its hiding place. I have no idea where it came from or why it appeared at that moment, but was simply amazed that it did. Three minutes later, my companion blurted out:


“A la era verdadera…”


and the game was on! It took only another two minutes for “Pito pito gorgorito” to jump up and voila!, there was the whole rhyme in all its splendor!!!


“Pito pito gorgorito

Donde vas tu tan bonito?

A la era verdadera

Pin pon fuera!”


My friends, the human mind is mysterious and incomprehensible to our daylight-hours-thinking-brain. You can announce the search, but you can’t look directly for it. You just start something churning far below the surface of conscious thought and get out of the way, with some confidence that it will appear. It’s the same process that leads to scientific breakthroughs, artistic inspirations, solutions to your problems.  The conscious, controlling ego hates that it can’t be wholly in charge, but it’s a necessary reminder that the dream life is essential to the conversation, one that takes place in whispered dark corners and runs away from too-bright light and muscular imposition. If we have faith, the gurgling, beautiful whistle (Pito pito gorgorito tan bonito) will arise and come out (Pin, pon fuera!).


After lunch, we did a rollicking body percussion version of the poem that I made up walking back to my class with 12 lovely souls in Ourense, Galicia.  That is the miracle and mystery I am here to celebrate.


Friday, October 21, 2022

Return to the Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher

 It is raining in Madrid. I’m back in my cozy apartment gifted to me by an Orff student (now colleague) of mine who organized four short workshops at two Universities over two days. 

I am here, but part of my Soul’s body is still flying over the Atlantic Ocean trying to catch up with me. As one music teacher once cleverly told me when I picked him up from the airport, “I’m in canon with myself.”


After three short workshops at Autónoma University yesterday, I went out for a lovely dinner with my friends Carmen and Isabel. Great food, spirited conversation and in the way of Spain, dinner wasn’t over until 11:30 pm. In bed by midnight and wide-awake a 4 am. Two hours of puttering around and back to sleep by 6 am. Awakened by my telephone and Carmen greeting me with, “I’m downstairs.” My next course at Cumplutense University was to begin at 10:30 and I had slept until 10 am!!! Five minutes to brush my teeth, splash water on my face and run to her car, ten minutes to prepare the class in this new space and off I went at 10:30 sharp— with some 100 plus University students!!!!


Needless to say, we had a great time! They were a bit nervously chatty and with over a 100 it made a bit of a buzz, but I was able to keep my sense of humor and be strict at the same time. When there’s music playing, that background chatter is like nails on the blackboard or static on the radio. As always, when you explain the reason for a rule or demand or strong suggestion, it helps a lot, whether you’re 19 or 9. They got more comfortable with the activity, got better at putting away the chatter and we ended up with some energetic and joyful music and dance.


I began this trip wondering if the old pants tucked away two years in the back of the closet still fit. And here’s my confession that will surprise no one— they do! Perfectly! And I love wearing them again! And while I enjoyed the four 90-minute classes with an age I don’t get to teach that often,  I’m looking forward to digging in a bit deeper with two six-hour days in Ourense, Galicia. 11 students instead of one hundred, so less of the Lone Ranger galloping in and riding out anonymously into the sunset and more digging in and working in the garden together. 


Without jet lag, please.  

A Word From Michael

Right after posting "Local Politics," I read the next in Michael Moore's fabulous series of posts called "Tsunami Truths." (This one #24). Since the upcoming Midterms are the time to move more toward saving the world rather than merely savoring it, I highly recommend you read all of them! Such a relief from those trying to get people to vote from fear— here he simply reports what’s really happening all across grassroots America and states unequivocally that if we get people out to vote, there will indeed by a blue Tsunami. May it be so! 


Anyway, I was struck having just written my little thing about Local Politics— the timing was perfect. His posts are so much richer, so here is part of #24 as a guest blog. Again, read them all! And pass them on in all available forms— social media, direct e-mails, dinner conversations with Uncle Fred. 


I’ve spent all my time here on the Tsunami of Truths focusing on us winning the House, the Senate, and some Governors’ races. 

But as one who himself was elected to local office at the age of 18, I’ve neglected to point out that all change begins at home — meaning right there in your neighborhood, your ward, your borough, your school district. It is there where the crazies are trying to ban Maya Angelou. Where the Right is trying to stop affordable housing from being built. Where the Chamber of Commerce is trying to eliminate environmental regulations. Their mission is to stifle debate, to put a halt to change, to lock things down so that the big money in town calls the shots. That’s where the Ted Cruzes of this world get their start on the road to perdition. And if we don’t stop them there, they will one day become the next Marjorie Taylor Greene……………

So while I don’t have the time or resources to cover all (random guess) 14,577 city, township, local judge and school board races across the country next month, I can humbly beseech you to do a little research to find out who these candidates are and make the right selections. It’s harder to do that these days, in large part because our local media has been decimated — radio is dead or racist, print is “what is print?“, and civic groups like the League of Women Voters are, in many places, a shell of their former selves. 

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whip-smart local bartender (AOC) running for town council, or a middle school principal (Jamaal Bowman) on the ballot for County Commissioner or a local activist and mother (Cori Bush) seeking to become the township clerk. There are hundreds of these good people running across the country and it will feel good to find them, meet them and vote for them. The bigger changes that we seek nationwide begin right here in Our Town. 

As the t-shirt says above, the mayor in Jaws — the political hack who at the behest of the local business community demanded that the sheriff open up the beaches for that all-important tourism money-maker known as the Fourth of July weekend (even though a mad shark who had already killed a skinny-dipper was still lurking offshore) — by the time “Jaws 2” rolled around, this bastard was still the mayor! Proving unequivocally that if you don’t pay attention to your local elections, if we don’t do our duty as citizens, even in the “smallest” races on the ballot, there will be no night swimming left for any one.  


Local Politics, Local Pleasures

“Sit and sweep the garden—any size.” 


This the advice Gary Snyder’s Zen teacher gave to him and it’s a bit like my C.S. Lewis quote in my little bio, opening the conversation between enjoying the world and saving the world. Of savoring the world and attending to its joys and pleasures and sustaining the world, caring for it in service to both the present and future. 


I love the addendum— any size. Following the thoughts of the last posts, our youthful motivations were reaching for mind-expanding Zen enlightenments or LSD-induced fireworks. Now in a more mature phase, simply fully tasting a ripe early-girl tomato is pleasure enough. Back then, it was a lot of talk about revolution and bringing down the whole corrupt system. Now it’s about writing postcards reminding people to vote and alerting people to the importance of keeping a road in the park car-free. 


So here’s the photo of the small rally (again—any size) I mentioned in the last post, along with a photo and the echo song I wrote and led. (Note: JFK Drive is the name of the road we want to keep car-free.)  If you’re in San Francisco, don’t forget to vote yes on Proposition J and no on Proposition I! If you’re somewhere else, consider this model of not only closing some roads to cars, but enlivening them with painting, sculpture, pianos, beer gardens and more. Balancing what doesn’t work so well these days with what does. 


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

They want cars back on JFK

So we are gathered here today

To stand together and say “No way!”


2) We love this space to take a walk 

And hear each other when we talk

We love this road to ride our bike

Skateboard, roller blade, take a hike.


3) We’re using too much fossil fuels

That’s what we teach the kids in schools.

So here’s a chance to mean what we say

Keep a car-free JFK.


4) If we vote and pass Prop J

All the kids will say “Hooray!”

If we don’t and they pass Prop I,

All of us are going to cry. 


So we’ve come together, you  and me

To keep JFK (clap) car-free!

To keep JFK (clap) car-free!

The New Age— Again

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”


“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”


I came of age in the tail end of the turbulent 60’s and early 70’s. From Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22 to Manchild in a Promised Land and Autobiography of Malcolm X, from Smokey Robinson, James Brown and Peter Paul and Mary to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Incredible String Band, from the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball to Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, from A.S. Neil to Jonathan Kozol and John Holt, I was led word-by-word, note-by-note, step-by-step to the profound realization that my parents’ generation had screwed up. Politically and socially, they had kept women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, blacks in their segregated places, children locked in repressive schools and soldiers back out to the killing fields to keep Capitalism king. It was wrong, wrong, wrong and I aligned myself with the protestors out in the streets and in the classrooms learning the history no one ever taught me in my schooling.


But alongside the political shortcomings was simply the feeling that this generation had not lived well. That their only advice to the next generation was “Plastics” ( see the movie The Graduate). They chained themselves to a drab American dream of dull work in the office cubicles, lived in milk-toast suburbs, watched hours of mindless TV and got ugly-drunk at the bar when the pressure was too much. The coming revolution was not just political but cultural.The counter-culture I identified with chose the more mellow and peaceful marijuana over the vomit-in-the-gutter hungover angry alcohol, the electric mind-expanding LSD over the suburban mind-numbing Valium, the body-awakening rhythms of rock and jazz over the soporific elevator music of Guy Lombardo, the liberation of free love over the repression of stilted Puritanism. We were discovering vegetarianism and organic vegetables, yoga and Tai-chi and Zen meditation, traveling more to India and Bali than Paris and Rome. 


In his book the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, author Tom Wolfe chronicled the next generations anthem of freedom that followed Kerouac’s On the Road. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters roamed the countryside in a bus attracting young people seeking something different than their high school guidance counselor’s advice. They coined the phrase “you’re either on the bus”— living the colorful, cool, free, ecstatic life”—or “off the bus,” in the square grey world of Middle America. While Martin Luther King exhorted us to live a more morally correct and compassionate life, the Black Panthers challenged us to stand up to defend our rights “by any means necessary” while feeding children in need, the white middle-class hippies and yippies were exhorting us to live a more joyful life. 


And here we are some 60 years later and here I was the other day walking through Golden Gate Park and suddenly feeling some re-flowering of all that energy. Biking with my grandchildren through the park, we passed the playground, carousel, hippie hill drummers, a rock band, people playing volleyball, frisbee, tennis, pickleball, tables with free library books, blooming dahlias, paintings on the street, Adirondack chairs, little tables with a coffee vendor, roller skaters, swing dancers, a three-dimensional whale sculpture in the middle of the car -free road, a picket-fence beer garden, a performance by Circus Bella, a piano (I played), an old car picnic, ending at a rally on the Great Highway to keep that JFK drive car-free. Some people spoke, I led a song and then folks spread out to knock on doors to encourage people to vote. 


So here I still was, side-by-side with a counter-culture with over a half-century of practice in living better, still politically active, still choosing a collective celebration of life with more color, more pizzazz, more fun! Free love had matured to committed relationships, marijuana was now legal and used more sparingly than indulgently, the rabble-rousing chanting of the anti-war protests had its place still (a la Women’s Marches during the Trump Error), but balanced with door-knocking, postcard writing, responsible voting. 


My 21-year self could only dimly imagine my 71-year old self sharing it all with my grandchildren and would be shocked at all the backsliding away from the peace, love and justice we envisioned. And yet, as I felt in the bike ride through the park, it is all with us still and feels like the pendulum is swinging upwards again in spite of the dinosaurs fighting against their necessary extinction. Let us hope so. Let us work —and play— to give wings to those feet. Feet that will both walk and fly on skateboards and scooters down a car-free JFK drive!


Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Density and the Dazzle

“A society that puts an exaggerated premium upon youth is gravely sick. Of course, any culture needs the leaven of youthful irreverence and drive, but it also needs mature judgment. 

Otherwise, it will be all dazzle and no density.” — Stuart Holroyd


 The grandkids have come and gone. A whirlwind birthday present to their parents, as they can now fly from Portland parent-free. As usual, their grandparents and aunt planned event-after-event in the way that we do. Some were the things we know they’ll enjoy—  children’s playground, soccer/football/ basketball/ paddleball and cornhole, a “classic” movie (Tin Men)with popcorn, long bike ride topped off with ice cream. Some were things we think they “should” be exposed to— Diego Rivera at the MOMA, Faith Ringgold at the De Young Museum, a short rally to keep JFK Drive in the park car-free and a trip to the Jewish Home to listen to Javier and I play clarinet and piano music.


Malik was giving a little pushback to the latter, even though he had gone once before and enjoyed it. On the way there, I made clear to him and Zadie that while I generally hoped to offer activities I think they’ll like, it’s not always the main reason. In this case, there were three more important reasons:


1) I want them to hear live music, to be exposed to the beautiful tone of the clarinet and how it fits with the piano, to be exposed to a wide, wide variety of musical styles, most of which their peers won’t share with them or they would choose on their own.


2) I want them to understand how their mere presence amongst elderly people isolated from young people will brighten the elder’s day. 


3) I want them to see how their grandfather offers his skills to make others happy, as a model for them to consider their whole life long.


And so they came. Along with my wife, who hasn’t witnessed this scene since my mother passed away some 9 years ago and later, my daughter Talia stopping by on the way back from school. They mostly drew while we played, but occasionally sang along with the songs they knew and at the end, Zadie played a Chopsticks duet with me. Driving home, I asked them how much they enjoyed it on a scale from one to ten and they both said five and I said fine. Even if they had said “one,” I didn’t care. 


Part of our mistake in raising children in the progressive circles in which I run is constantly asking kids if they like something and giving them the power to make us apologize if they don’t. But if we adults understand why it’s important in ways that they cannot yet understand, we can hold firm to our decisions. I think of the old ways, kids visiting the grandparents on the farm and helping out with the chores without any questions about “Would you like to…?”


The above obscure quote comes from a Crostic puzzle I did. A quick Wiki search reveals that the author is British, born in 1933 and still with us at 89 years old. He apparently wrote much about spiritual matters, from a book about Krishnamurti to ones about extraterrestrial life. I like his perspective of balancing irreverence and drive with mature judgment, with a bit more weight to the latter. Of warning us of life that’s mere dazzle (the entire entertainment industry!) and not enough density. 

 Lest I’m coming across here as the “expert” on child-raising, let me be clear that convincing my grandchildren that my mature judgment counts a bit more than their momentary dazzling desires is a work in progress. And though they most definitely would often choose Sponge Bob Squarepants over a Hitchcock film, Beyonce over Bach or Bird, Pringles over papaya salad, they seem to get what a visit to the grandparents means and not only accept it, but ultimately enjoy it and look forward to it and appreciate it. While still being given the time, space and respect to be wholly 7 and 11 years old. 

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Where the Light Shines

Put a toilet in a house and it simply is utilitarian. Put it in a museum with a spotlight on it and suddenly, it’s art.


Set the timer for 4:33 to cook your hard-boiled egg and it’s a useful signal. Gather people in a concert hall for the John Cage concert and it becomes music. 


Listen to your crazy Uncle Tucker spouting off at the Thanksgiving table and it’s a reminder never to invite him again. Nobody should have to listen to such vitriolic nonsense. Put him on Fox News and it suddenly becomes our national discourse.


Where the spotlight shines matters. Who gets to choose where it shines matters. How we pay attention differently when something is lit up matters. 


And so part of the needed change ahead is making better choices as to who controls the spotlight and where it gets to shine and what is deemed worthy of notice. Engaged for a lifetime in work that I consider worthy that no news station will ever cover, that even Terry Gross and Oprah pass over, that Random House and Hollywood ignore, part of my work is to shout out, “Hey, over here! Take a look at this!” A tiny squeak in the roar of what gets shown or heard, but nevertheless, I persist. 




Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Selfish Selflessness and Meaningful Mitzvahs

“Mizvah: Literally a commandment. A good deed done from religious duty.”


I began playing piano during visits to my Mom when she entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in 2008. Once or twice a week, for an hour or so. It was simply a good way to be with her when the words had run out, which they mostly had in her growing dementia. Other people began to gather around and I grew to know their names— Ben, Bernice, Rudy, Patsy, Cyril, Deborah, Edie and Fran, who knew all the old jazz songs and sang them all with me.14 years later, not a single one of them is still with us, but now a new delightful group gathers round as I volunteer there still every Friday. I’ve never been paid a penny for it and never considered I should be.


Today, was another delightful day teaching with and mentoring my friend Yari with 7th and 8th graders. My 10th class or so since September and though I believe our proposal to formally pay for my mentorship was just approved, I came each week with no guarantee that it would be. But today, in a conversation with Yari, I made it clear that this is not altruism. This is not duty. This is my own selfish pleasure in not only keeping in touch with young people and their marvelous minds and quirky spirits and edgy hormones, but the happiness I felt planning today’s lesson and the yet greater happiness I felt in teaching it. I’m simply being selfish, grateful for a chance to offer up that which gives me so much pleasure and feels like worthy and needed work in this world. 


As with the Jewish Home, this is not a kindness done from obligation, an obeying of a religious command, a reluctant acquiescence to do my duty, a philanthropic favor. This is me being selfish while being selfless, finding an inner meaning in the mitzvah far beyond any external motivation. Though I’m happy to get paid if people want to pay me, the value is not in the dollar but in the delight. 


Of course, there are things I do more out of duty than pleasure. Nagging people to get out to vote. Paying my taxes. Occasionally reading a newspaper. But in general, I refuse the Puritan (or Old Testament) notion of acting out of obedience to someone else’s command, being nice because I have to or else be damned to eternal hellfire, being politically aware out of sheer obligation. Actually, I do believe in the last, but even here, I want some uplift in the needed education about social justice. Hence, my new book (getting closer to publication drop by drop) Jazz, Joy and Justice. The three deserve to be together.


So here’s wishing that your mitzvahs be meaningful and your apparent selfishness be actually selfless. Do good and have fun!


Lesson Planning


Don’t report me to the Zen community, but truth be told, I often used my morning meditation to plan the day’s classes. Seated in that posture with slowed breath, I could enter more deeply into the plan, fully imagining it before the actual teaching so that I had already lived the class once before the teaching.


Years back, I wrote: “All things are created thrice.” It’s a subject that doesn’t come up very often in the teacher training in my field, but for me, it has been essential. The practice of teaching the lesson three times:


1) In your imagination, as described above. (In my early days, I used to close the door to our front room and literally teach the class out loud to my imaginary students!).


2) The class itself.


3) The reflection after the class, scrolling back to see what worked and what needed adjustment. When I had two classes back-to-back with the same lesson plan, that scrolling happened in the short interval between the first class leaving and the second class entering. 


I wonder how my teachers consciously go through these three steps. I’ve witnessed some teach a class that had problems and then teach the identical class to the next group. Not good. I’ve witnessed others in which the teacher seemed to be figuring out on the spot what to do next, having not prepared the class in the imagination ahead of time. Also not good. 


I arrived at this practice intuitively, but I wonder if these are trainable skills. I think they are. You don’t need to sit cross-legged on a pillow, but you do need to cultivate the discipline of pre-imagining the class, dreaming it ahead of time before it takes a physical form.


My most profound experience of this happened on a four-hour bus ride in Ecuador. With plenty of time on my hands, I began to think about a concert my students were scheduled to perform at an Orff Conference in Las Vegas. I pictured the pieces we would share, ending with a piece sung by Will, an 8th grade student who began singing Broadway Show Tunes when he was three years old. I pictured the Orff band behind him swinging through Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, changing the tempo in the last phrase to a slow, kickin’, bluesy few measures with Will's hand raised as he belted out his full-bodied final note “MOOOOORE!!!” and 1500 music teachers from around the country jumping to their feet in a roaring standing ovation. In just dreaming it, the effect was so powerful that I was wiping tears from my eyes. While riding on a bus in Ecuador. 


And when the actual moment came some five months later? It was exactly as I had pictured it. And it still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. 


All things are created thrice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Life Before Social Media

Well, yes, I am showing off my increasing mastery of 1,000 piece puzzles. But also an intriguing theme. I’m not convinced that eradicating social media would “Make America great again!” At the same time, its claim as the “great connector” was from the beginning overblown and at the end of the day, things are probably just as bad—or good—as they were before it entered our lives. Hoped for the puzzle to speak itself, but the lighting is wrong, so I’ll re-list the points, going down the columns from left to right. Which do you agree with?


• More of the great outdoors.

• Less duckface. (Not sure what this meant, but looked on Google and it’s the pouting lips-look people do for photos sometimes.)

• More peace and quiet

• More face-to-face conversations.

• More anonymity. 

• Less casual stalking.

• Less existential dread. 

• Less dogs that are influencers.

• Less photos of food.

• Less horrific opinions.

• More realness.

• Less fake likes, more proper likes.

• More innocent vegetables. (My daughter had to explain this one to me.)

• Less FOMO (fear of missing out for you oldsters)

• Less infinite scrolling.

• More living in the moment.

• Less ghosting

• Less nonsense.


Don’t forget to like this post on your Facebook page, with pictures of your lunch. (Unless it’s eggplant).