Saturday, December 31, 2022

Finding My Way Home

I love my granddaughter unconditionally, but as to hanging out with her 24/7, it turns out that that’s conditional. After the third explosive melt-down of the week, this one about how much orange juice she poured (don’t ask!), I had had enough of early puberty 11-year old tantrums exploding unpredictably and wreaking havoc on my age-diminished nervous system. I made the additional two mistakes of trying to discuss it in the middle her heat and mine and the common error of taking it all personally, as if she had betrayed me. So my last sight of her before she awoke at 3:30 am the next morning to fly home was an angry face after two mostly delightful weeks together.

 

And so on the morning of the last day of a most marvelous year, I awoke feeling disgruntled and out-of-sorts. Not the musical “satisfying end” I ask of life and my morning meditation did nothing to alleviate it. (So much for almost 50 years of a zazen practice aimed at Zen equanimity). The five of us down to my wife Karen, my daughter Kerala and me, we packed our bags quickly and drove away at 8:50 am on an uncharacteristically cold and foggy Palm Springs morning, only to turn back six blocks later having discovered the missing second set of keys in Karen’s bag. 

 

On Highway 10 by 9:01, Kerala attempting back-seat sleep after taking her kids to the airport so early, Karen engrossed in a book, me left with my own thoughts and none of them good. They kept riding around on the merry-go-round of "life sucks" and picking up passengers along the way. The entire cast of Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste stuck out their thumb and I foolishly picked them up, adding to my disquiet my fury, outrage and bottomless grief over our history of wretched sub-human beings inflicting untold misery, death and destruction on others with the full sanction of political systems designed to let them do it and still sleep at night and the silent consent of all those kept purposefully ignorant or knowing enough to know better, but refusing to refuse their little crumb of unearned privilege thrown to them by those who grew rich and powerful from the whole mess. Also mounting the horses were my own cast of characters that remind me of all the ways that I’ve failed as a human being and letting me know that I’m not really worthy of the love I (we all) crave to both get and give. Then some concern for these extreme weather conditions that have made all of our plans provisional jumped up to join the gang. It was not an auspicious start to the final cadence of the year.

 

Somewhere around Whitewater, exit 114, the sun broke through the fog and that lifted my spirits a millimeter, but mostly I soldiered on with bad carousel music spinning around in my brain. Deep breaths weren’t helping, trying to talk myself down from the ledge didn’t work— I was exiled from my own sense of well-being and needed to find my way home. Finally decided to listen to some Doc Watson and Erik Satie and both helped bring me back to times when I could fully taste and savor life. Then after a lunch stop, with Karen and Kerala now fully awake, we began to talk about our mutual concerns for this 11-year old girl who can take our breath away with her beautiful spirit and then turn around the next moment and knock the wind out of us—and not in a good way. That helped a lot, as talking often does.

 

Heading up Route 5, the rains began falling, torrentially at times. Then there was a long stretch with gusty winds and tumbleweed rolling across the road like a giant pinball machine game, cars swerving to avoid them or run over them or get them caught in their front end. Some of them were enormous! It was somewhat comical, but also nerve-wracking and I wish I had taken a video!

 

Then more torrential rain and now strangely energized to drive, I stayed in the driver’s seat as we approached the 7th hour, left route 5 for 580 to turn towards San Francisco and suddenly encountered red brake lights as far as one could see. For an hour and half, my average speed was 3 miles per hour. (Still not clear what it was, but I think an accident). Finally broke free for a glorious few miles and then another traffic jam from hell. This one was 45 minutes of snail-like driving, some 15 feet after five minutes or so. For a reason I’ll never know, the freeway between exit 132b and 132a was completely closed, leaving all the cars having to funnel from five freeway lanes into one exit lane. Another brief flight of freedom, then slowing down for some flooding on the right two lanes and finally to the Bay Bridge, miraculously not  backed up.  Gliding into San Francisco with Glenn Gould playing and then Johnny Hartmann singing, still trying to approach some solid restoration. Home after 10 ½ hours of driving, take-out Vietnamese dinner, unpack and me with 30 minutes before my neighbor’s piano curfew. Played some Bach Goldberg Variations, Schumann’s Arabesque and the middle movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G to properly close out the year.

 

What is this life but a constant seesaw of exile and homecoming? There are a thousand ways to leave home or lose your way or get evicted and if we’re lucky, many ways to find our way back. But our home keeps moving its address and what works one time fails miserably the next. Nothing you can depend on to always take you there and no dependable address that is consistently the there that becomes here.

 

These past five to ten years, New Year’s Eve has been a wonderful Paula Poundstone solo comedy show followed by a gathering at a friend’s house where some 20 of us hit the streets at midnight ringing his collection of Tibetan bells. But no Paula show this year, no party offered by the friend, just Kerala reading in her old bedroom, Karen still unpacking and me writing this at midnight Midwest time.  A few text dings of friends in other places reminding me I’m not alone and love and companionship are real.

 

So there you have it. My 365th Blogpost/one-a-day average certainly too-long story to exorcise the little and big demons and metaphorically ring those bells out full-force on this electronic street. May you and yours prosper and thrive— in friendship, in beauty, in Spirit.

 

Happy New Year!

 

Friday, December 30, 2022

Vacation Game-a-Thon

It’s the last day of two weeks of family vacation time. Each of the three generations will soon return to their normal routines and mostly with the sense that, “It’s time.” But meanwhile, our vacation rituals that have developed over time have done their job to refresh, connect, stimulate us, to fill the air with great laughter and also tears, especially from 7-year-old Malik’s frustration at being the youngest and not always able to keep up (though he actually does magnificently). 

 

Games— invented, free, bought— have become a huge part of our traditions and besides the fun, are truly great strategies to develop all the various intelligences we hold— linguistic, mathematical, kinesthetic, visual-spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal, with a touch of musical. We decide during the six nights in Palm Springs, each of us would be in charge of the evening activity and that was a good strategy. 

 

For my own memory, and for those curious, here are some of the games we played. (Those with an asterisk are commercial games you need to buy):

 

CARDS: War/ Go Fish/ Trash/ Rummy 500/ Solitaire/ Pit/ Cribbage*/  Five Crowns *

   

MATH GAMES:  Set */ Othello */ Dominoes *

 

LANGUAGE GAMES:  Taboo */ Cards Against Humanity * / Boggle */ Ghost/ Grandmother’s House

 

MISCELLANOUS GAMES: Throw Throw Burrito */ Sorry * / Pig * /Jigsaw Puzzle *

 

BALL AND OTHER GAMES: Paddleball */ Basketball/ Horse/ Poison/ Frisbee/ Miniature Golf */ Cornhole/ Horseshoes

 

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Hike/ Bike/ Swim/ Stroll through town/ Draw/ Cook/ Tell Stories/ Dance/ Sing songs/ Play piano/ Read/ Write/ Watch movies (the latter in SF but not Palm Springs)

 

It has been a busy time! 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Off the Path

As an Orff teacher, I’m a big proponent of getting off the beaten path, entering territory where few have tread before. That’s were things get interesting, as you feel your way through the landscape, trusting your instincts and following your intuitions. That's mostly how I've lived my life and it has worked out well.

 

But if you’re off on a hike with your wife, two daughters and two grandchildren in a canyon that you have hiked once a year (Palm Canyon outside Palm Springs), I don’t recommend it.  Some four miles into the hike, we somehow got off the path and were faced with a short sheer rock dead-end. Some scaled the rock, I climbed the hill to the left (in my “hiking” Teevas), my wife tried the hill to the right, all of us scrambling up loose sandstone that made it impossible to depend on any kind of solid handhold. The gully on the other side of the sheer rock proved to be a dead-end (my choice eventually led me to them) and my wife reported from the top of the ridge that there were no clear paths to be seen. So we all ended up joining her and deciding to descend back to the path we had come. No easy matter, with all those minor avalanches of stones as we tried to ease our way down, both kids with a couple of moments of panic and the adults wondering what kind of rescue services might be available if any of us actually got hurt. 

 

Through a series of minor miracles, we all made it back to the path we had left, retraced our steps to the post announcing the trails and noticed the trail we missed. The name was familiar and off we went, so relieved and happy to be back on the beaten, dependable path. Again, while celebrating the risk of the unknown in some aspects of life, there are many times when it is both wise and wonderful to follow where others have gone.

 

One disappointment is that in each of the three hikes we’ve taken there in the last few years, we’ve hidden a quarter under a stone and then tried to find it the next year. With the help of some photos I took last year, I was mildly hopeful we’d find it this year. But with all the missteps we made, we actually never passed that particular point. Maybe next year?

 

Meanwhile, there was one more tension as some signs indicated that after 5:00 pm, all cars in the lot would be towed. It was 3:30 when we finally got on a solid path, but we had no idea how far it was to the actual parking lot. Turns out it was 1 hour and 26 minutes away— we got to our car with 4 minutes to spare! Eight miles later (impressive for 7-year old Malik!— and 70 plus year-olds Karen and I!), a story to tell and the relief of disaster averted, we were back in the car headed to the hot tub in our Air B&B.

 

The moral? Sometimes get off the beaten path. Sometimes stay on the beaten path. You choose when each makes sense.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Anything Goes

Sometimes the dreams at night are so delightful one prefers not to awaken. Sometimes the day reality that awaits is painful enough to stay in bed. In the big picture, yesterday was but another series of minor earthquakes several Richter scale points below disaster, but still one prefers more solid ground to step on when beginning the next day.

 

It began with son-in-law Ronnie’s hope to finally join his family dashed yet again as he went to the airport for the re-booked flight only to be told, “No dice.” With no phone call ahead of time and no mention of reimbursement for any of the cancelled flights. Then a good friend flying from her new home in Germany to share her new baby with friends and family and her husband turned away because his name was misspelled when booking his ticket. Topped off with my daughter Talia losing her phone that also had her credit card, bank card and driver’s license tucked into the case. Aaargh!!!

 

For seven-year old Malik, still innocent of calendar dates, today is finally Christmas, coupled with a story of how Santa delivered his presents in Portland. On one hand, it has been a good thing to let him and Zadie open one present a day these past three days and savor each one more than they would if all were opened at once.  On the other, I think we’re all ready for Christmas to be over!

 

Someday this will be the amusing story  the grandkids will tell to their children: “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.” According to newspaper accounts, there will be thousands of such stories as people’s plans were cancelled nation-wide. We build our life and culture around the surety of plane flights, the necessity of phones and bank cards and credit cards, all 20thcentury inventions that humanity has done just fine without, thank you very much, for millennium. But now here we are, in the thick of it. 

 

So if you need to call Talia, call me instead. And let’s see if the kids can actually fly back without their Dad this Saturday as planned. The message is clear— anything goes.

 

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Economy of Disaster

My son-in-law Ronnie is stranded at the Portland Airport—again. He paid the money for Lyft on Saturday to join his family and ours in Palm Springs, only to be turned away from his cancelled flight. Hours of back and forth and he was re-booked on a flight for today, three days later. Weather conditions were improved and off he Lyfted to the airport, but did not get lifted up in the plane. Flight cancelled again due to back-up. There he is, on a long line crawling to the agent, with little hope that anything can be done. He will just miss any semblance of Christmas with his family and not get to enjoy the hard-earned rest and respite in warm-weather that he looked forward to. 

 

The domino effect continues, as he took precious time off from his work to make this happen, one of the two weeks he gets off all year. So now he’s home alone, wasting his vacation time, unable to simply work in the days ahead (as a hand therapist, no patients scheduled) and losing the money for that week. His kids were scheduled to fly back with him from here this Saturday while their Mom rode back with us to SF to see a childhood friend and greet her baby. Perhaps they can still fly alone, but then probably be charged the $100 fee for unaccompanied minors. So alongside all the emotional turmoil is the financial penalty. 

 

Of course, Ronnie is far from alone, as the country is awash in such holiday airport fiascos and on one level, it all is an act of God that one can’t do anything about. Next to drought, pestilence, tornados and such that threaten life and crops and homes and livelihood, all First-World problems. 

 

And yet. Climate change is less an act of God and more a result of human ignorance and greed. “We all sit down someday to a banquet of consequences” said Robert Louis Stevenson and this particular meal is far from delicious or nutritious. And amidst the psychological anxiety and real destruction is an actual price tag measurable in dollars. Money is something our culture understands best and it is damn expensive to send relief to hurricane disasters and such.


And in the other fields of human short-sightedness— the systemic racism, the failures of schools, the assault of media’s violence and program of constant consumption and distraction, the political fiascos, the corporate-sponsored oxy drug addictions— there is a price tag measured in dollars alongside the toll on human health and happiness. It costs a lot of money to break things and then try to fix them. In just one of many examples, California spends more money on prisons than on schools.

 

I think of the bumper sticker “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” So my guiding philosophy as a teacher is “Get it right the first time.” Give children—and everyone— the food, shelter, sense of welcome and belonging, skills to think critically and feel compassionately and tools to help them get up themselves when they fall (always with a little help from their friends), the nurturing, caring community that helps them feel safe, wanted and valued, the arts education that brings beauty into their lives. The progressive school where I worked had a progressively rising tuition, but also the independence to create such a community. In the long run, by giving the children all or most of the above, it perhaps saved both them and the state money by not creating the need down the line for expensive therapies, rehabs, prison and more. 

 

None of this is consolation for Ronnie and all his fellow stranded passengers. Just a thought to consider yet again why it’s important to keep human and planetary health as guidelines for decision-making. We can’t get Ronnie on the plane today, but we can re-double our efforts to pay attention to all that needs fixing and work yet harder to “get it right the first time.”

 

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Caretaker

If withholding praise builds the tenacity and determination to scale a wall higher than one would otherwise attempt, I am a failure as a parent. I just can’t stop praising my two daughters. Younger daughter Talia for her extraordinary genius as a teacher, her physical grit as a marathon runner and her spiritual connection to the natural world realized in constant weekend camping trips. Older daughter Kerala for her breathtaking writing, splendid organization skills and admirable equanimity. And both are excellent cooks!

 

Today I want to heap more praise on Kerala here in our Palm Springs vacation retreat. But let me back up a step.

 

Here is a clear truth: I like to be in charge. Given a choice, I will almost always choose the driver’s seat and in just about any circus I encounter, I like to be the ringmaster. Certainly in my music classes, in school ceremonies, in concerts with my band, in public lectures, I am most at home directing the show— still with plenty of space for other’s voices, but me determining the rhythm, the pacing, the shape and design. 

 

Yet I also love to occasionally go on those Hop on-Hop off buses, take a guided tour or go on the rides at the Boardwalk. Rare moments to completely let go control and just say, “Hey, I’m all yours! Take me away!”

 

And being on vacation with Kerala, that’s a lot of what it’s like. I know how to get around in the kitchen and love to cook, but when she’s in there, I just back off. Likewise, at lunchtime, when she comes out with a tray full of perfectly arranged foods artfully arranged. Every day, we go hike somewhere, but darn if I know where until we get there. I just get in the car and follow Kerala to the site she has chosen. I’m happy to direct some of the games at night (though that’s more Talia’s territory), but Kerala’s organizational skills when it comes to food and hikes and snacks for the hikes  and directions to the hikes and the routes within the hikes are just breathtaking. I feel small pangs of guilt that I’m not doing more (I do wash the dishes!), but I also see how much she genuinely enjoys it.

 

Let me be clear. Kerala adamantly refuses the imposed identity of woman as caretaker. Read her Medium.com pieces about both the imbalanced emotional and physical labor put on her shoulders and her outrage over the patriarchy. She is a strong, independent woman who knows in her bones that her skillset ranges far and wide into all sorts of previously male territory. Caretaking, of course, is probably one of the most honorable faculties any human being can develop, but works best when we choose when and how and how much on our terms. 

 

Meanwhile, thanks to my daughter for the “Ker’-taking. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll plan the hike, make the lunch and cook the dinner. 

Far and Near

  

When I first began keeping a journal at 22 years old, I was attempting to chronicle my first trip to Europe with the Antioch Chorus. Part of my purpose was to write as a journalist (note the word “journal” embedded within), reporting the news of what happened. Part was to express some inner states of being, a map of my emotional and spiritual ups and downs. Part was to say out loud an emerging vision and value system, to bridge the enormous gap between the world as it was and the world as I hoped it might be. All three were present in that first Mead spiral-bound green-covered account of what proved to be a most remarkable and memorable three months. All three continued to thread themselves throughout the 49 succeeding years of keeping handwritten journals, a practice I still keep even as it overlaps with these last eleven years of this Blog.

 

I discovered another power of this discipline, the way I could write myself into the day simply by starting with noting where I was and using language to settle myself deeper into the moment. Simply try to describe what is separate from how I feel about it, a kind of haiku consciousness which removes me from the picture. But not wholly. The very act of attending to the world, the particular things I notice, the words I use to describe it, writes me indelibly into the scene.

 

I miss this kind of writing. Beginning close in, starting with what’s near before venturing out to the far-flung visions. As any ongoing reader might note, there’s a lot of muscular imposition about the way the world should be, a lot of noting the moments when it occasionally is that way (particular in music classes with kids or adults), a lot of attempts to more clearly articulate my Personal Manifesto. But today, without any music classes or new ideas on how to save the world, I wondered what it would be like to return to that earlier version of writing. So imagine that I’ve written none of the above and simply began like this:

 

The sun peeking out from the surrounding mountains, casting shadows and promising yet more warmth in the cool quiet of a Palm Springs morning. Palm trees, barking dogs, wet clothes on beach chairs like still life paintings. My wife, daughter and grandson immersed in the hot tub, three generations sharing the promise of a summer’s day in December. Yesterday’s invigorating hike and last night’s hilarious game-playing still echoing in this old body and spirit, made perpetually young by the company I keep and the things we do together. Malik out of the hot tub into the pool, happy with his new-found skill of sitting on a ball in the water. How little is needed for happiness. 

 

And so the day beckons us to taste its delights. I’m ready. 

 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

What to Put Before Children

 

My granddaughter Zadie tends to sleep late. Which means, I’m usually doing something— seated playing Solitaire or reading a book or typing—when she awakens. And more often than not when she’s visiting, she finds me and wraps her arms around me from behind to say “Good morning.” You would think that at 11 years old and fully arrived at (an early) puberty, this would stop. You would be wrong.

 

She’s had a rough Fall at school, for the first time ever getting into some trouble. A combination of that early puberty and peer pressure and that developmental stage of trying defiance on for size. Something she’s always been comfortable with at home, but thankfully, not at school. So when she came down last week for her Holiday visit, I was steeled to see a new version of my darling granddaughter, complete with constantly rolling eyes, sullen withdrawal and oozing negativity. And thankfully, I was wrong.

 

We rode our bikes the first day and as she has said before, she looked at me with a big smile and said, “I love riding bikes!” This morning, she plunged into the Palm Springs pool and said with exultation, “I love this!” She walked some 7 miles up to Mt. Tam without a whimper of complaint and actually had a super-sweet walk back telling stories to her brother without a single “Stop!!” from either of them. And she turned to me spontaneously in the kitchen the other day and said, “Pop-pop, I love you.”

 

This sense of her intact childlike innocence still alive and well means the world to me. And has a lot to do with my anger at her song choices on the trip down here. (See yesterday’s post.) Though it came across to her as personal, it really was my anger and profound disappointment in a culture that puts so much crap before its children —and purposefully so to make money. Fast food, violent video games, junk TV, addictive social media, misogynist and over-sexualized song lyrics. For example, some lyrics from the Eminem song that Zadie chose to play for me driving down:

 

"My bum is on your lips, my bum is on your lips"
And if I'm lucky, you might just give it a little kiss
And that's the message that we deliver to little kids
And expect them not to know what a woman's clitoris is
Of course they're gonna know what intercourse is
By the time they hit fourth grade
They've got the Discovery Channel, don't they?
We ain't nothin' but mammals, well, some of us, cannibals
Who cut other people open like cantaloupes
But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes
Then there's no reason that a man and another man can't elope
But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
Women, wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus, and it goes

I'm Slim Shady, yes, I'm the real Shady

Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records
Well, I do, so fuck him and fuck you too
You think I give a damn about a Grammy?
Half of you critics can't even stomach me, let alone stand me


So I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst
And hear 'em argue over who she gave head to first
Little bitch put me on blast on MTV
"Yeah, he's cute, but I think he's married to Kim, hee-hee"
I should download her audio on MP3
And show the whole world how you gave Eminem VD (ah)
I'm sick of you little girl and boy groups
All you do is annoy me, so I have been sent here to destroy you
And there's a million of us just like me
Who cuss like me, who just don't give a fuck like me
Who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me
And just might be the next best thing, but not quite me

'Cause I'm Slim Shady, yes, I'm the real Shady

It's funny, 'cause at the rate I'm going, when I'm thirty
I'll be the only person in the nursing home flirting
Pinching nurse's asses when I'm jacking off with Jergens
And I'm jerking, but this whole bag of Viagra isn't working
And every single person is a Slim Shady lurking
He could be working at Burger King, spittin' on your onion rings
Or in the parking lot, circling, screaming, "I don't give a fuck"
With his windows down and his system up
So will the real Shady please stand up
And put one of those fingers on each hand up?
And be proud to be outta your mind and outta control
And one more time, loud as you can, how does it go?

 

That’s a taste of what my 11-year old granddaughter is listening to. That’s what the culture is putting on her plate. 

 

The songs that I chose— In My Life, Teach Your Children Well, Don’t Worry; Be Happy, Dancing Cheek to Cheek and more— have a very different kind of message to impress itself upon the 11-year-old mind. As does the first movement to Beethoven’s 5th which I put on her for her while she joyfully and unabashedly danced to it in the living room. And the melody to Joplin’s Entertainer that I’m teaching her on piano.

 

I understand that her adolescent development will require some separation from me and her parents as she searches for what she thinks is “her own” music (though much is what her peers and marketers convince her is important). I understand that pop culture and low brow has a place in the ecology of the imagination. What I question is the percentage and the proportion and yes, the need to be clear about the limits of what’s appropriate.

 

I know, to my great sorrow and sadness, that both her schools and her mediated life will neglect the artistry of Art Tatum and Hazel Scott, will never ask her to recite Emily Dickinson or W.B. Yeats, will likely bypass Shakespeare and certainly bypass the extraordinary power of West African music and dance. Her saving grace will be her parents, aunt, grandparents determined to reveal that which is truly worthy of her attention and her effort. That counts for something. But it’s all the more powerful when the whole culture lines up together—schools, churches, friends, neighbors, media— and agrees on the non-negotiable things that we need that brings comfort, safety, beauty and positive life values to our children. 

 

You know the list. We all do.


And for my money, Eminem is not on it.

 

 

 

Merry Christmas?

It was not a good day. In fact, it qualified for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. At least, by First World standards. It began with a too-early morning rushed exit from San Francisco to drive the 9 hours to Palm Springs. Zadie, Karen and I in one car, Talia, Kerala and Malik in the other. 

 

It started off promising. No traffic to get over the bridge and after the first 45 minutes or so, 11-year old Zadie wanting to listen to some of her music. This felt like a good opportunity to find out what she’s listening to, so we struck a deal that she could play two of her songs and I could play two of my mine and we would alternate. The only ground rule was that the lyrics needed to be appropriate. Off we went, me gritting my teeth through Eminem’s assault on my musical senses, with a couple of F bombs I let slide. Then Rihanna starting with something that actually approached a melody well sung before de-generating into some male rapper yelling at her. I offered the Scott Joplin piece I was teaching Zadie on the piano, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Collins singing “In My Life” and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Teach Your Children Well.” Back to Eminem and when he let loose with a series of F explosions, I had had it. As the T-shirt shows, my patience was on empty. I shut it off and my adolescent granddaughter started yelling at me and though I actually don’t take medications, this exceeded my limits. We called the other car and demanded an exchange of children.


 

In came sweet 7-year-old Malik and listening together to an Audible version of “The Rats of NIMH,” I began to calm down. (Though feeling somewhat guilty and hypocritical about celebrating these rats and mice when we left poison in our house for the one little mouse that recently dared to invade our kitchen). When we met the other car for lunch, both Zadie and I had restored our good relationship and had a conciliatory hug, with a promise to discuss later what happened in the hot tub. 

 

But then on the next leg of the journey, Kerala called to let us know that her husband Ronnie, who had to work all week in Portland and planned to fly down this day, had gone to the airport only to find out his flight was cancelled and the nearest available one was on the 28th, two days before our Palm Springs time was over. Devastating! The kids looking at Christmas without their Dad and Ronnie looking at spending it alone and missing his much-needed break from work. (As of this writing, still trying to figure this out with the airlines.)

 

Finally arrived at the rented house, our 4th in four years and what looks to be the least attractive, in need of some sage and Feng-shui. Yes, there’s the requisite pool and hot tub, but the kitchen ill-equipped, the d├ęcor unattractive and as I entered (the first car had already arrived), there was Zadie playing Mortal Kombat on a big video game machine. On the night celebrating the magic and mystery of the Prince of Peace’s birth, it was not to be a “silent night” as the sound of kicking, punching, karate chopping echoed through the house. And when I stepped outside to consider a peaceful soak in the hot tub, a neighbor had some throbbing disco playing. I really need to buy that red T-shirt!

 

And back to “the art of lying.” Ronnie had Santa’s presents up in Portland that he was going to bring down, so for the moment, we’re pretending that Christmas is actually on Tuesday. A dubious strategy, but the best we could come up with at the moment. 

 

So there you have it. All First World problems, but still some sadness made yet sadder by the pressure of making yesterday and today (when I write this) match the expectation of memorable excitement, magic and love. We’ll get by fine and tell stories about it later, but it still is not what we hoped for. And naturally, I will write more about what we put before children (Eminem, Mortal Kombat) that feeds their worst selves and is good for exactly no one. 

 

But meanwhile, Merry  Christmas?

 

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Art of Lying

There we were, in our neighborhood Chloe’s Closet store, looking for some decent second-hand clothes for our grandson Malik. We found two promising things he wanted/needed— a pair of pajamas and a swim suit. They looked good and the price was right. But there was a problem— Malik was with us.

 

Half the point of presents is the surprise. That’s why we bother to wrap them. To prolong that moment between anticipation and fulfillment. If we celebrate Christmas, there they lie under the tree and if you’re a kid like any kid, you might lift them up to feel their heft, try to peek through the wrapping paper, try to guess from the shape— a book? A game? A big box that could have anything inside— roller skates or a basketball or…? The anticipation builds to the release of the revelation. 

 

So the dilemma was how to balance Malik’s approval of the gift with some element of surprise. I pretended I didn’t have my wallet and asked the clerk if she could hold them for us. Yes, she could, but only for a day. The deal was made and Malik, Karen and I walked two stores down to meet up with Zadie and Talia, doing their own used-clothing shopping at Crossroads. While Malik was busy looking at things there, I snuck out back to Chloe’s Closet and bought the two items. I hoped Malik would just forget about the whole thing.

 

Fat chance. At the end of the next day, he asked if I got it and I feigned shock. “I’m so sorry! I forgot and now they’re closed! Aargh! But maybe she held it for one more day. I’ll check in with her tomorrow.”

 

Naturally, the next day, he reminded me, “Don’t forget!” So my choices were:

 

1) Ruin the surprise.

2) Have him upset with me for two days because I blew it.

 

And thus, the art of lying. I compromised and told him the items were gone, but she expected two more exactly the same to come in next week and I would mail them to him no later than the first week of January. So his disappointment was tempered by the promise of getting his wish, just a bit later.

 

And hopefully erased altogether by his yet deeper surprise when he opens those packages on Christmas morning! I believe his excitement will be doubled. Or not.

 

I’ll keep you posted. 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

50 Years

It was a glorious day on Mt. Tam with my wife, two daughters and two grandchildren. We bundled up for the cold, but the sun came out and warmed us as we hiked 8 miles round-trip to the West Point Inn. A place alive with echoed memories of the retreats we took there with four other families. Those retreats began in the mid-80’s, our snow trips to the Sierras. Some skied, some snowshoed, some sledded and all of us gathered around roaring fires made merry by hot cider, delicious dinners and endless games of Hearts, jigsaw puzzles, chess games. So it continued year after year until the y2k scare of 2000 (remember that?) and then the little kids now in college and spread out far and wide. Perhaps we did another four or five years after that in the snow with whoever was available, but then switched to the closer, less cold and less expensive West Point Inn. Now with kids of the kids and the same traditions continuing— and the same people winning in Hearts! Up until 2017 or so.

 

Regardless, simply seeing the cozy big room in the Inn evoked all those memories and happily so. I think we all hope to reunite there again some day. As the song says, “Through the years, we all will be together, if the Fates allow…”

 

Zadie and Malik were great hikers, happy to be outside looking out over the whole Bay Area, playing horseshoes outside the Inn after lunching at the picnic tables and even a rare moment of them walking back together happily, Zadie telling Malik a story and no fight in sight! 

 

Coming home over the Golden Gate Bridge, I remember the first time I ever crossed that bridge and set foot in my future home. It was the summer of 1972, riding in a VW bug with my sister, brother-in-law and my sister’s friend, having driven clear across the country. And in thinking about that, it struck me forcefully— 1972. 2022. 50 years since I first came to San Francisco! A half a century! How can that be? I mean, really, how can that be?!!

 

But hey, I’ll take it! This city that stole my heart and still does, while also breaking it (homelessness, Sales Force Tower, another store or favorite restaurant closed). For some 50 years the Fates have allowed us to be together and though I can’t say, “Here’s to 50 more!” I can express gratitude for each and every one of them that has passed and each and every one still to come.

 

And so I do. Thank you. 

Broken Promises

How many times have you said, “In the face of what’s happening to others, I will never complain about this again!”? We read a book like What Is the What or any truth-telling account of the brutality of American slavery (like my current read Caste) or simply dip into the news and are awakened to how care-free and blessed our life is by comparison. How so many things we make a big deal of— like me furious yesterday that the bank Versatel machine swallowed a check that it neither returned nor credited to my account and I had to spend over an hour sorting it out— are so small in the face of the way Life puts its foot firmly on people’s neck and keeps pressing down without relenting. We are upset that we got a cold and then hear of a dear friend diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s. 

 

And so we vow to be more compassionate, more grateful for each moment spared life’s horrors, less outraged by life’s small transgressions. And we mean it. At least until the next annoyance comes along and all our good intentions are thrown out the window.

 

Take my earlier blog “Heater Wars.” Here I am,  grumpy about the cold 40 degree weather in San Francisco, while friends in Minneapolis today face minus 7 degree weather, in Denver, minus 14, in Edmonton, minus 24! And one prediction in northern Minnesota was -59! The mind boggles. My 40 degree discomfort is literally almost 100 degrees warmer!!

 

So I promise I won’t complain again about San Francisco’s freezing weather. At least until it hits 35.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Christmas Carol Revisited

I’ve seen four different versions of the filmThe Christmas Carol. I’ve gone at least three times to the ACT Theater annual production of the play. I wrote and put on four different versions of the play for 3rd through 5th graders throughout my years at The San Francisco School. Yet strangely, though I’ve read everything Charles Dickens wrote some three or four times over, I had never read the story. 

 

Until now. Reading it to my seven-year old grandson Malik. Granted, some of the language is over his head. Like in the opening paragraphs:

 

“Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.”

 

My simple solution is to skip parts like that and cut to the action and the conversation. But sometimes I don’t, wanting Malik to feel what it’s like to be immersed in the expressive language of a master and just feel the rhythm and the lilt of it without explaining each word. For example, in describing Scrooge:

 

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blues; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

 

Now Dickens was a masterful storyteller with an extraordinary capacity to create memorable characters. Both the character of Scrooge and the story of redemption from his greedy, hard-hearted self make this tale one of the highpoints of all of literature. Both of which can come through magnificently in the mediums of live theater and film. 

 

But what is missing is Dicken’s expressive language. Those muscular verbs above, gathering power in the rhythm of the sentence and the evocative imagery of flint, steel, oysters, paints a portrait as vivid, if not more so, than an actor on the stage or screen. We can feel the cold down to our bones as it freezes, nips, shrivels, stiffens and ices.  This is a large part of what makes Dickens different from John Grisham, elevates him from mere fiction to literature. 

 

Equally, and perhaps more so, is Dickens’ humanity shining through in his stories, his horror at the workhouse conditions of his Industrial Age, the greed, ignorance and malevolence of his fellow human beings, always balanced by his hope of redemption, the pure-hearted amongst us, the kind and generous. As in this little exchange between the Ghost of Christmas Past as they visit a dance party put on by Old Fezziwig for his apprentices Dick Wilkins and a young Ebenezer Scrooge. Revisiting the scene, Scrooge’s closed heart bursts open and the Spirit plays Devil’s advocate to drive home the point that generosity of spirit exceeds coveting money in the scale of human values.

 

“The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig and when he had done so, said:

 

‘ … Fezziwig has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money…Is that so much that he deserves this praise?’

 

‘ It isn’t that,’ said Scrooge, heated by the remark and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self; ‘It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

 

Bam! Dicken hits the nail straight on the head and not the dead one in the doorway, but the one that pieces together the parts of ourselves that we can use to construct a decent human being. We all have the power to render ourselves—and others—happy or unhappy, to feel our work as light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. We all can daily choose the words and the looks that lift other's spirits and comforts their sorrows. 

 

While Hollywood continues to churn out the wham! Bam! superhero crap or the macabre, image haunting violence in films like The Menu, we also have the power to choose or refuse what we read and watch. These tales of redemption— It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, You Can’t Take It With You, just about all of Dickens— are worthy to share with our grandchildren and to visit (or revisit) ourselves. Malik and I are about halfway through, but he’s 100% with me and I hope he’ll remember snuggling up on the couch with the tree lights sparkling, immersed in this wonderful tale of considering what’s important in this life. 


Thank you, Charles Dickens.

 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Holiday Newsletter

It astounds me— and happily so— that some friends and family far, near and wide, still send out Holiday cards, photos and/or little newsletters in stamped envelopes. Now when the mail comes through the slot, it is so refreshing to see them nestled between the bills/ ads/ pleas that go straight into recycling. We keep them in a silver bowl and always read them once more around the New Year, sometimes keeping some to cut up for future gift  tags. 

 

As mentioned many posts ago, I was responsible for the annual Holiday newsletter with some decorative border copied at Kinko’s, my wife often made the image for a card (also Kinko’s printed) and we spent a labor-intensive evening signing the cards, addressing, stamping, return-addressing and then stuffing envelopes, drawing from our old handwritten mailing list of friends and families, updated in our address books. It was work, but a good kind, going slow enough to take time to remember each person and often write a personal handwritten note to select people. Some ten or so years ago, I switched to the e-mail version and though I still take a moment to savor each name on the list, it doesn’t have the same resonance. That old Faustian bargain of trading efficiency for intimacy. 

 

Still though, better than nothing to take the time to look back over the year and share the news with those whose paths you were destined to cross. Somehow the spirit of communion can come through even on brightly lit screens. And now the electronic version can hold many more photos than the printed ones and larger ones at that. 

 

If you’ve read this blog all year, no need to go through the news portion that gathered together all the highlights. But I’ll share my opening and closing paragraphs in hopes that they might, as the Quakers say, “speak to your condition.” Hanukkah just begun, Solstice a sunrise away, Christmas around the corner and Kwanzaa right on its heels, wishing you all the happiest of the Holiday Season.

 

No Virgin Birth or oil burning beyond its shelf life impresses me more than this miracle— that if I’m sending this and you’re reading it, it means we both are still here one year since the last Holiday newsletter. Alive and breathing and (as far as I know), still walking and perhaps jogging or biking or keeping up with yoga or Pilates. And most importantly, awakening each morning with the possibility of feeling yet deeper the gratitude this life deserves, inching one step closer to the person we were meant to be, nearing that possibility of forgiveness and healing and coming more fully into the love we’re worthy to both give and receive. Hooray for it all! It is enough…

 

(Here some two pages of news. And then…)

 

Back to the opening. Just to be alive is enough— but it helps to keep actively engaged! To feel the world respond, to admire and praise and be inspired by the active engagement of others (all of you!), to give thanks for the blessings of health and friendship, to feel the world’s hunger to stop the hurt and harm and turn more decisively to the help and the heal. So to quote the poet W.H. Auden as we turn to the New Year, may we “stagger onward rejoicing!” 

Monday, December 19, 2022

Old Wine, New Bottles

When we moved into our house in 1982, we soon met our neighbors through a tree-planting project on 2nd Avenue. From that first neighborly connection, we began an annual ritual calendar of gathering— an Easter egg hunt for the kids, a 4th of July picnic, Halloween pumpkin carving and a Christmas caroling party. 

 

All gradually fell away as the kids grew older and most of the original neighbors moved to other neighborhoods. But the one tradition that stayed intact was the caroling party, the neighbors who had moved away reuniting again alongside the new people that joined in. We met at our house for socializing around mulled wine and Holiday goodies, then gathered in the living room to sing through the Xeroxed songbook (words only) of all the songs in alphabetical order, me at the piano and occasional sound effects from jingle bells and such. Then out to the streets we went, me now with a guitar or accordion, spotting lights on in houses and singing until folks opened their doors. In the early days, there was a house for sick children, another for woman recently released from prison and they both were some of our most spirited and meaningful audiences. Once, I spontaneously led the group onto the N-Judah bus (without paying) and rode for seven blocks singing to and with the passengers. Then got off and sang a bit at Yancey’s Bar and Grill and Pascuale’s Pizza and other places. One year, two different bus drivers refused us entrance. Bah, humbug!!

 

Of course, no Caroling Party in 2020 (you know why) and in 2021, we met outdoors outside the Arboretum and worked our way backwards to our house, from 9th and Irving to 2nd (by which time there were only 10 or so of us left). This new version saved my wife from the eight hours of stress she endured each year getting the house ready for the party and her pre-pandemic announcement that she was done with that! So this saved the day and though I miss all the folks in our house, the clean-up is much easier!

 

This year, we met at the SIP Tea Room near 9th and Lincoln and sang around the piano there before hitting the streets with the guitar. The same old crumpled song-sheets, a few of the people that have been coming for 40 years and a new welcome bunch— kids in my daughter’s 5th grade class, the neighbors we met during the pandemic sings I led, my own grandkids and nephews, some old school kids we taught now with their children and a few who just heard us and joined in.  The old sacred wine of beautiful music that called up each person’s own childhood and gives the comfort of continuity, now flowing in the new bottles of the changed venue, the changed group, the old group in a changed stage of their life.

 

We sang for some two hours, making ourselves and all the people we sang to so happy. Special kudos to the enthusiastic cooks and waiters at Pascuale’s Pizza and the generous owners of Lavash Restaurant distributing candy to the kids.

 

Old wine, new bottles. This is how we carry on.

 

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Wedding Night

In the long overdue move to acknowledge the many faces of Spirit, many have moved beyond the CHRISTMAS!! and Hanukkah December Holiday duo. (The font reflecting their traditional status in American culture). Though it doesn’t seem to have gained full traction, most people at least know about Kwaanza and there are a growing number of people who prefer to simply celebrate the Solstice. Diwali is gaining ground, though mostly celebrated in October and November, as is the Chinese Moon Festival. Few in the U.S. beyond a few diehard Zen students pay mind to December 8th, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day and fewer still to a holiday known as Shebi A-rus, a day celebrated by the Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam—on December 17th. That’s today.

 

The day commemorates the death of the poet Rumi in 1273.  Because he often talked of Spirit as “the beloved,” his death marked a reunion with the Source, a “Wedding Night” with his beloved. In Turkey, an Sufi order known as Mevlevi and commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes, will perform their sacred spinning dance while reciting/singing some of Rumi’s quatrains. 

 

Rumi’s birth name was Jelaluddin Balkhi and he was born on September 30th(my daughter’s birthday!), 1207, in Balkh, Afghanistan, which at that time was part of the Persian Empire. His family fled the invasion of Mongol armies and settled in Konya, Turkey, an area known as Roman Anatolia, from which his new name Rumi was derived.  His father was a mystic theologian and when he died, Rumi took over his duties. In 1244, he met a mystic named Shams who turned his life inside out. Rumi began to spontaneously compose poetry, sing, and dance and fortunately for us, a scribe named Husam began to write down the dictated poems.

 

In the 1990’s, Coleman Barks translated much of Rumi’s work, freeing it from the previous stiff English translation and Robert Bly (who also tried his hand at translating Rumi) and Michael Meade began reading much of Rumi’s work out loud at various Men’s Group gatherings. Though few people in America are aware of or are celebrating Rumi on December 17th, many people are now familiar with his soul-awakening poetry. 


Some seven years ago, I taught in a music retreat in Turkey with half of the students from Turkey and half from Iran (formerly Persia), both of whom rightly claimed Rumi as one of their own. In my closing remarks, I quoted a poem from Rumi that Coleman Barks translated and had one student re-translate it into Turkish and another into Farsi. That was quite a moment!

 

I mentioned yesterday the news of an alum school parent’s passing and today, I’m on my way to a Memorial Service for another school parent. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rumi was quoted. And this poem would be a good choice.

 

On the day I die, when I'm being carried
toward the grave, don't weep. Don't say,

He's gone! He's gone. Death has nothing
to do with going away. The sun sets and

the moon sets, but they're not gone.
Death is a coming together. The tomb

looks like a prison, but it's really
release into union. The human seed goes

down in the ground like a bucket into
the well where Joseph is. It grows and

comes up full of some unimagined beauty.
Your mouth closes here and immediately

opens with a shout of joy there.

 

 Happy December 17th!