Sunday, December 31, 2023

Year's End

I often wake up in the morning with an idea, image, story or sentence in mind that unravels of its own momentum into the Blog post du jour. I imagine many composers have the same experience, hearing something in their head that they need only play or write down to birth it into being. I know Mozart often spoke of taking dictation from some otherworldly Muse and Wagner said composing for him was like a cow giving milk. 


That rarely happens with me in music, but following a practice evolved during the free jazz period, I sometimes just set my hands down on the piano and play a random notes, series of notes or groups of notes. From that impulse, I try to follow where the music seems to want to go. (Very much like “the secret song” activity I’ve written of before). And sometimes I do the same with writing. Begin from zero and just start typing and see where it leads me.


And so here I am, at 10:47 in the last hour plus of 2023. My friends in Australia are well into the New Year, my European friends just waking up to the first day of 2024, friends in New York or New Orleans perhaps still partying past the stroke of midnight, those in Colorado wondering if they can stay up for another hour and 11 minutes. 


For a number of years, my New Year’s routine was to see Paula Poundstone at Herbst (or Norse) Theater, then go on to a party-in-progress, toss some bread dough around in a circle and then go out the door at midnight with the hosts’ collection of Tibetan bells and ring them raucously for a minute or so. 


But no Paula since the pandemic and likewise, no party at the usual house. So stayed at home and watched “An Affair to Remember,” having just seen “Sleepless in Seattle” with the grandkids two nights ago. Both movies held up. And I had forgotten that the heroine in the older movie ended up becoming a music teacher! Sweet!


On Saturday, I drove 9 hours straight from the Palm Springs area to San Francisco and that night felt an alarming dizziness. It stayed with me this morning while I tried to remember how to play piano after a week away, but started to settle while walking around the neighborhood doing errands. Now I thankfully feel back to some semblance of normal.


These days, every superstitious opportunity to make a wish has me intoning “Health, health, health.” I feel mostly in control when it comes to my work, my play, my relationships with others and with myself, but when it comes to the daily news and to health, I feel at the mercy of forces outside of my control. Don’t we all. Of course, I do my part with diet, exercise and such, but none of that is foolproof.


So as turn into the New Year, my main petition to the gods is to grant me continued health so that I can continue to be of use in this broken world. Bring some happiness to others and myself any way and any time I can, be it through music, teaching, writing or simple acts of unasked-for kindness and smiles at strangers. The 2024 calendar is filled with opportunities to do all of that and more, here, there and everywhere, and I look forward to every day of it. Which means I want to be here for it. Please.


And I want you to be also. Forget the diet and the great American novel— let’s just be kind to each other, to ourselves and savor each moment we can of this precious, precious life.


As good a send-off as any to a most marvelous year, with hopes for more to come.


Happy New Year, my friends. 

The Art of Bribery


“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” said Walt Whitman and I know what he means. I speak and write a lot about motivating children to work hard and come out strongly against the old method of punishment—“do this or I’ll hit you!”—and the newer methods of reward—“do this and the class will have a pizza party.” They both imply that “this” is not worth doing for its own sake. Learning then becomes an economic transaction, either paying off the kids with carrots (well, more likely, cookies) or taking privileges away from them, threatening them (and in the old days), hitting them with the stick. I cite Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive which acknowledges the carrot and the stick as still used and useful to get short term results—all you parents and grandparents out there know exactly what he’s talking about as life with children becomes a constant negotiation at the bargaining table. Often at the dinner table— “finish your spinach and then you’ll get dessert!” 


Pink rightly suggests that there is more to the matter. That while we are all vulnerable to short-term rewards and punishments, we also share some deeper drives that motivate us to do our actual best work. One is our urge toward Mastery, the great pleasure of learning to do something well (alongside the great frustration of not initially being able to do it). A second is autonomy, our desire to find our own way to achieve something that fits our way of thinking and doing, allows us to accomplish it following our unique innate wiring. The third is purpose, a sense that we have chosen something (or been chosen by it) that is not only worthy of our attention, but brings something larger to the table, some sense of beauty or usefulness to the greater community. If you organize your teaching around these three insights, you can create a class of truly motivated students who are happily engaged and working hard simply for the pleasure of doing things well. As someone who indeed has taught in just this way, I can testify as to the results. Everyone wins. 


But I do like to throw some tasty little carrots into the mix in a playful way. My classes sometimes feel like an ongoing Jeopardy game, as I toss out a question with a point value attached. Some are important things I actually want them to know: “For 75 points, who began his musical career in reform school?” “Who walked 200 miles to hear someone play the organ?” “Who recently read a poem at a Presidential Inauguration?” Some has to do with our own school history. “What was the original name of our school?” “What world famous musicians have visited our school?” “Who was the only child to beat Doug in the Cookie Jar?” *


I change the points according to the difficulty of the question. One time a child asked, “What are these points actually for?!!!” I replied, “I’m not allowed to tell you until after you graduate.” At which point I would say, if asked (I never was),  “Absolutely nothing. Except for the little spark of fun and satisfaction that you got from answering correctly.”


Recently, my little game of offering something in exchange for doing something has been upgraded with my 12-year-old granddaughter Zadie. Zadie is super-intelligent in many ways, but she is stubborn about reading for her own pleasure and her schooling has far too little rigor for my taste. Which leaves her using her great memory skills to sing along with the Eminem songs she listens to. So in my recent visits, I’ve decided to up the ante and use some artful bribes to get her motivated. She has been good at math, but is losing both her interest and her confidence, so when I learned a fascinating math trick, I offered to pay her $10 if she could figure out how it worked. She loves money, so off she went and two days later, figured it out! She wanted an ice cream cone the other day, but I was less than thrilled with the $8 cost. So I agreed to buy it for her if she let me read 8 minutes to her from my new Jazz, Joy and Justice book. Not my choice of how to get her interested in Ella Fitzgerald and Hazel Scott, but hey, it worked! The other day, I played jazz improvisations of American Christmas Carols and offered both her and Malik 25 cents for each one they could name. It was hard for them both, but when I finally quoted a snippet of the actual melody, she got two in a row.


But my finest triumph was buying her Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman book with four poems for Christmas. Not the kind of gift most 12-year-olds would open and shout, “Wow! A book of poetry!! Thank you SO MUCH!!!” But her eyes lit up when I offered to pay her $20 to memorize one of the poems and recite it to me. We went on to spend some five more days in the Palm Springs area together and it seemed like both of us has forgotten about it. Yesterday morning, my wife and I rose early to begin the long drive back starting no later than 8:30 am, while Zadie and family would stay until 2 and fly back later that day. Zadie normally sleeps until 10 or 11 when on vacation, so I was surprised when she told us the night before she’d wake up early to say goodbye. The first surprise was that she did. But the second was simply extraordinary. She was ready to recite “Still I Rise” to me! We stepped outside and she did! The whole poem! 


So no, do not bribe children to learn! Except sometimes. I’d like to think that poem will be useful for her, not only with all she’s going through as a mixed-race pre-teen kid, but as a companion her whole life. Maybe yes, maybe no, but if yes, it was worth every penny of the $20. Teaching, like art, is knowing the rules and knowing when to break the rules. I broke my own rule by paying someone to learn and it may have been the perfect strategy.


Time will tell.

* For those burning with curiosity, the answers to the questions in the third paragraph:

    • Louis Armstrong

    • J.S. Bach

    • Amanda Gorman

    • The San Francisco Montessori School

    • Milt Jackson, Stefon Harris, Bobby McFerrin, Herlin Riley and more

    • Michael Canaveral

Friday, December 29, 2023

My Grandson and Me

From the time I was born until he died around my 12th birthday, I visited my grandfather almost once a month. In that entire period, I remember two moments of direct contact with him. One was playing catch in his front yard for about 10 minutes. Another was playing a few games of Pinochle (a card game). That was it.


So I had no blueprint as to how to be a grandfather, no prior experiences in my tool kit. Add to that a life spent mostly with women— my wife and two daughters, their childhood girlfriends, a school with mostly women teachers, an Orff Association with mostly women teachers and leaders, a proclivity leaning towards the girl students in my music classes who generally were more focused and cooperative (this last shifted over the years). Yes, my sister had three sons and I had some wonderful moments with each of them, but nothing with any of them that felt (or feels) like a deep, lifetime, meaningful bonding. 


So when my grandson Malik joined the family some 8 years ago, I was up for the chance to connect with a male member of the family lineage. Not in any self-conscious agenda kind of way, mostly connected to the humanity beyond the gender. But still, it’s different.


It has been a marvelous twelve days spend together, with so many memorable experiences and ways to connect. He’s at the peak of childhood delight— still curious, filled with both humor and wonder, some life-skills that don’t demand our constant caretaking, a voracious intellectual appetite fed by his habit of reading, an impressive physical dexterity that allows for sports of all types together, a capacity to play card games/board games/ group games so he almost can hang with all the adults. 


I hope this next doesn’t come off as showy boasting, but just to give an idea of the myriad ways we spend time together and also document for any future reference, here’s the quick list of activities we’ve enjoyed in the past two weeks:


GAMES: King’s Court, Uno, Five Crowns, Othello, Spoons, Beat That!, Banana-grams, Taboo, Double-Shutter, Charades.


SPORTS:  Ping-pong, cornhole, frisbee, basketball, paddleball.


ACTIVITIES: Hiking (most every day, from 4-8 miles), biking, swimming, baking


CULTURE: Neighborhood Christmas Caroling, the ACT Christmas Carol Play, Panto’s Sleeping Beauty play, three movies (Miracle on 34th St., Sister Act, Sister Act 2)


TOURISM: Visit to the Fairmount Hotel, Ferris Wheel ride at Fishermen’s Wharf, visit to the 

Academy of Sciences, visiting the lights on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park


READING AND STORYTELLING: Reading aloud stories from Isaac Singer’s Stories for Children reviewing some stories from the Greek Myths book, telling him Folk Tales while hiking (The Fire on the Mountain; Salt; Princess Vassalisa and the Horse of Power; The Month Brothers), listening to The Velveteen Rabbit (Audible version) while driving.


Enough? But more important than any quantity is the quality of time spent together, the ease we have in each other’s company, the pleasure we have in our conversations. Occasionally a pouty 8-year old surfaces (he’s not wild about losing competitive games!), but mostly he is easy-going and fun to be with. No matter how our relationship will change as he ages— and hopefully deepen yet further— he has countless ways to remember me. He knows I am there for him and it takes no effort to be so.


In short, to my surprise and delight, having a grandson suits me just fine. (And it goes without saying, a granddaughter also! But that’s another entry.) I will soon return to a welcome adult/retired life free from the constant demands and energy of children (no matter how delightful!) and he will go back to his school and his friends, as he should. Both of us with yet more in our memory banks to remember how much we love each other. How sweet it is. 


One Thousand Words Less

About to set off on our last hike of our Southern California end of the year retreat. A good time to let the photo gallery speak for the grandeur I’ve alluded to. Enjoy!


Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ping Pong

One of my wife’s and mine great failures as parents was not having a ping-pong table in our house. Goodness knows we tried.  Literally bought one one Christmas and brought it home only to realize that there wasn’t a single space in our modest house where it fit. Likewise no place for a basketball hoop. I sometimes wonder if all subsequent family problems (which were and are mild, to be sure) can be traced back to that. 


Alongside the great privilege of vacationing with the grandkids in a place with a pool and a hot tub came the unexpected gift of a ping pong table. We have played every day in every combination of people and it has been a sheer delight. My wife who earlier lamented that she can’t do the same kind of activities with our pre-teen grandchild that she’s enjoyed in the past played a few fabulous ping-pong games with her and that made all the difference. 


In my predictable way of turning every little story into a blueprint for solving world problems, wouldn’t this be a better solution than war? For Congressional squabbles? For marital disputes? At least less destructive and more fun. Of course, the fiercely competitive streaks that some of us have would surface and we might be cursing and hitting the table with our paddle and sulking, all of which I’ll confess too in small doses after daughter Talia beats me game after game. So it’s not foolproof. But mostly fun.


Ping-pong is one of my favorite metaphors for good teaching. The teacher throws out a ping, the student responds with a pong and the game is on! Sometimes the student serves, but no matter who first, the volley of ideas and imaginative responses go back and forth. Some don’t make it over the net, some fly off the table, but it’s in the very process of playing that makes it all engaging, dynamic, connected and pleasurable. No pre-set curriculums are possible (“The first serve must go into the left corner and the student must hit it back to the corresponding right corner…"). You simply have to be attentive, wholly in the moment and constantly crafting your ability to both serve and respond. I recently read that Thelonious Monk was a fabulous ping-pong player and knowing who he was a musician, that makes perfect sense. 

A glorious day awaits with hiking, swimming, cooking on the agenda—and of course, ping pong. 


PS Bonus little poem from this morning:


The doorbell rang “Ding Dong”

In its merry sing-song

Two-note musical style


In walked King Kong

To play a game of ping-pong

And hit the ball a half a mile. 


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Story for— well, with— the Grandchildren

My wife Karen and daughters Kerala and Talia both share many interests in common and have our own special passions. But there’s at least three which all four of us equally share:


• We love to cook.

• We love to read.

• We love to hike.


Naturally, we want to pass this on to the grandchildren, but at 8 and 12, the cooking part hasn’t hit either of them yet and we’re one out of two with reading. But with hiking, they’re with us 100%. Yes, the 12-year old puts on a show of carrying the mandatory eye-rolls for her age group of doing something so uncool as hiking in nature with one’s family. But once she hits the trail, she’s a happy camper, 100%. 


So off we went in two cars to the Painted Canyon some 40 minutes away from our Air B&B in Indio Hills, aptly named for its stunning multi-colored rock formations. Arrived at the turn-off and hit our first hurdle—only 4-wheel drive vehicles were allowed on the rutted dirt road that led to the trailhead. Luckily, my daughter Talia’s car fit the bill and we parked our Prius on the side of a wholly deserted road in the middle of nowhere, slightly nervous about its invitation for car thieves or catalytic converter robbers. On we bumped for some four miles and reached a parking lot with some forty other cars. It was 2:30 by the time we set off on the Ladder Canyon Trail, a “moderately challenging 4.4 mile loop hike” and so named for a series of ladders securely roped in at some spots to get hikers up or down some difficult vertical passages.


The first part of the trail was in gravelly sand, a bit of a challenge to walk in and me in my Tivas, with pebbles lodging between my feet and the sandal. Kerala had a GPS map on her phone and after a mile plus, noticed that we had missed the turn-off to begin the loop. No problem, we would simply do it in reverse direction. On we went, surrounding by towering rock walls and the sandy trail many times not at all obvious. We began asking some people coming the other way and one wanted to know if we had lights, suggesting we wouldn’t be making it back before dark. Kerala’s GPS map disappeared when her phone service did, but on we walked confidently. The service came back on and we saw that a dot placed us near the top of the loop, about to turn back the other side. 


On we walked and after a bit, I suggested we looked at the phone again as it didn’t feel like we had turned sufficiently. Sure enough, the dot placed us off the trail above the turn and so we navigated back and found a tiny obscure turn off with a mark on a rock. We started climbing to a most beautiful ridge path, happily walking on the top of the world while the sun began its descent over the distant mountains. 


And that’s where the trouble began. We followed reverse stone arrows on the path and then suddenly came upon this: 

Not a good sign. We doubled back and tried some other options and each one seemed to lead us nowhere. The sun was setting and the clock was ticking. Finally found yet another poorly marked obscure turn-off that had us descending to the canyon and things were looking up as we were heading down. Twisting and turning through narrow paths shoulder-width in some parts, anticipating with each turn the promised ladders that we knew should be there. An exuberant “Hooray!” when we found the first one, quickly turned to “What now?!!” when we came to a place that seemed there should be another. Instead, we scooted down this small abyss holding on to rocks on either side until we reached the next ladder, a scary descent for the 8-year old who was looking worried and now it dark enough that we needed our phone lights to navigate. Had we done the path from the beginning in the correct direction, these ladders would have been fine going up, but were a bit dicey going down and not helped by the darkness and wondering if we would ever emerge or have to spend the night with little water and no food huddled against rocks. At the very end of the maze, there were some four more ladders which were not easy to spot. I became the scout up front and at least twice, I was convinced we came to a dead-end before finding the obscure escape route. By now, it was wholly dark.


But lo and behold, we finally reached that sandy horizontal trail and were rewarded by the shadows of the full moon on the canyon walls. When we arrived at the parking lot, there was only one other car of the forty plus that had been parked there.


So we rattled and bumped along on the washboard dirt road and Talia looked at her console and said, “It says we have a flat tire.” We convinced her to keep going, certain that it was an electrical failure and worried about arriving at our Prius to see 1) If it was still there and 2) The catalytic converter was intact. When we got to the road, there it was (all of it), but piling out of her car, there is also was —her flat tire! 


Earlier that day, Talia had noted several qualities I have that are untypical of men. Things like reading poetry, publicly crying, asking directions and being thoroughly unhandy. However, I’m proud to report that changing a tire is one skill I have!! And so with some help from Karen and Zadie, I did! And finally we were headed home at 7:00 pm, having walked 6.7 miles of that 4.4 mile hike with a shaggy dog story to tell the grandchildren—except that they were part of it!


I think tomorrow we’re going to hang out all day around the pool. 

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Five Years Later

Facebook coughed up this memory from 2019 and it struck me that I liked it. It pretty much holds up on multiple levels— same exact time, same cast of characters, different house and in fact, different town (Indio), but basically near enough and the same vibe as Palm Springs. I like the sounds of it, the scanning, the sentiment, the humor, the reach for something meaningful amidst it all. So why not repeat it here? With one additional verse. Enjoy!


‘Tis the night before Christmas in our Air B ‘n’ B

With Malik, Karen, Kerala, Tals, Zadie, Ronnie 

The stockings are hung in this house in Palm Springs

Where the night’s filled with stars and the desert wind sings.


And inside the house, generations they gather

For the family vacation where nothing else matters.

But cooking and swimming and readings and walks

And touring and tickling and TV and talks.


Where days they are warm and the nights they are cold

Where grandparents feel young and the grandkids feel old.

Where the jokes they are funny and the music is groovy.

Where we surf Netflix for a good Christmas movie. 


Where no one is feeling down in the mouth

Only wondering if Santa will show up down South.

Where happiness reigns and we shoo out the blues

By vowing each day that we won’t watch the news. 


The presents are gathered beneath the palm tree

Lots for the kids and perhaps one for me

Which suits me just fine, not much do I need

And it’s the right time to downsize on greed. 


For it’s clear that the greatest gifts are both love and time

And music and reason and laughter and rhyme.

The things with no price-tags in this large land of plenty

May all good rise up in the year 2020!


We gather again here, none quite the same,

We’ve grown and we’ve lost but we still know our name.

Please no 2020, of that, please, no more

May we finally know healing in the year 24. .


Hot Tub School

If a magic fairy would grant me a wish to freeze time, choose one year to circulate over and over again, I would choose this year. Not only to save a bit of my own vanity and dignity as I see Time pulling down my neck flab, but more so I could enjoy my grandson Malik in his perfect 8-year old self. Still bursting with a child’s curiosity and confidence and eagerness to inquire into this complex world, while also so physically adept that any game together— basketball, paddleball, wiffle ball, frisbee, tossing a football—is wholly satisfying to play. So mentally adept that we can lock wits in some ten different card or board games, do spontaneous math problems, work on jigsaw puzzles, play some word games (though not quite ready for Boggle) and we’re both challenged. No surprising hormones raging through his body yet, an overall calm character with sincere affection (still morning and good night hugs!). Not to mention a good sense of humor, a love for the old myths and fairy tales I tell him while we hike some five or six miles and his own capacity to just open his mouth and start his own spontaneous story which might take 20 minutes to wind up. I know all of that will change and way too soon for my taste, but for now, I am savoring every moment.


At breakfast, something came up about Europe and he pronounced in his own cocky way that he knew all about Europe. We quizzed him to name a single country in Europe and he chose “Japan.” “I am intelligent!” he protested, and I replied, “Yes, you are, but intelligence requires knowledge. Now you know what you need to know.


So some 15 minutes later, the two of us sat in the hot tub in our Palm Springs vacation Air B&B and I commenced our first lesson in my newly established Hot Tub School. Yes, I know it was double the amount of information a good teacher should introduce, but not knowing if he’s choose to re-enroll, I chose six European countries he should know about and let him know why. Like any good teacher, I had to find a way to connect it with what he already knows, while also giving him some new information. And without going into too much gruesome detail, acknowledge some of the bad alongside the good. 


Before sharing my lessons, here’s your homework assignment. (Yes, I know it’s Christmas Eve, so it has a flexible due date). What would you choose to say to an 8-year-old about England, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Greece? (No insult intended to the other 44 countries, but to my thinking, these six bear the most direct connection to an 8-year-olds’ American experience. I originally intended to include Ireland, but that’s when he said “I need a brain break.”). Could be interesting to compare yours with mine. Ideally, everyone could chime in and we could compare results. 


Or you can come visit and we can discuss it in the hot tub.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Old Fashioned

Yesterday I was struck with a strange, raging headache that laid me out for much of the afternoon. I tried to read the book I’m currently reading, one a trusted friend claimed as deeply moving but had yet to touch me. I managed to crawl out of bed for dinner and on the night’s grandchildren entertainment/ education list was a re-viewing of the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. By the end of the film, I felt wholly healed, genuinely touched by the story, its imagination, its moral compass and characters who I loved hanging out with. It had been many years since I’ve seen it, but it held up and then some and I now place it alongside It’s a Wonderful Life as not only one of the finest Christmas movies, but one of the great American classics of all time. 


Then I decided to begin to re-read Dicken’s Great Expectations instead of continuing with the modern book and within the first three pages, I was wholly embraced by Dicken’s exquisite language and memorable characters and engaging images and soon-to-be-unfolding intricate plot. Then, of course, there’s Bach, who exhibits more heart, soul and intelligence in any one of his 1,128 pieces, all penned with feather quill and paper, much by candelight, than in the entire output of today’s pop stars. 


So I’ve become a crotchety old “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!” old man, thoroughly old-fashioned in my tastes and preferences. Of course, I listen to a lot of contemporary music (ie, jazz) and read mostly books by living authors and see all of the worthy new films and TV Series and yes, there’s good work still being done in all genres. But truth be told, it’s rare to find the depth, the soul, the extraordinary intelligence, of many of the old masters. “Old masters” meaning as recently as the Keith Jarrett Trio, the Coltrane Quartet, the Miles Davis Quintet, James Baldwin, Mary Oliver, JD Salinger and back. There is so much that was wrong about “the good old days” in terms of the norms around race, religion, gender and such, but within that turmoil of confused thinking were some visionary artists and thinkers touching the full depth of humanity and sharing it through their images, words, notes, dances and more.


And so while attending the latest Disney fluff with the grandchildren, I’m determined to at least expose them to movies like the above, Hitchcock, Singing in the Rain, Stormy Weather, Charlie Chaplin, read Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows, listen to Ella and Billie and let them dance in the living room while I play Bach on the piano. I know it doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to me, but I hope to infuse them with at least a touch of the timeless and universal art that has shaped my life so profoundly. 


Our last night in San Francisco before heading down to Palm Springs and they’re restless after their five-mile hike in Muir Woods (another timeless and universal activity), so time for a relaxing in-between fluff and classic film, Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg.


Pass the popcorn.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Darkest Day


The California Academy of Sciences, with its aquarium and African Hall and other exhibits, was a favorite place to visit with my children. Just seven blocks from our house and a perfect outing on rainy days. But when it closed in 2005 and re-opened in 2008 with a $40 per visit price tag, I stopped going. Until yesterday.


In the third straight day of rain with the grandkids going stir crazy in our house, we bit the bullet and decided to go. The white alligator was still there (though the two-headed snake was gone) and the taxidermied lions and tigers and such, but otherwise, a lot had changed. The rainforest walk, with live screaming macaws and fluttering butterflies, was impressive and as I read about the exquisite eco-system where each bug, bird, plant and animal has its appointed role in sustaining the greater organism of the forest, I was reminded yet again of the nature’s divine plan. And while sitting in the planetarium as we went from a full ceiling view of Golden Gate Park and telescoped out to the farthest reachest of the Universe, I was again reminded of how infinitesimally small we are and how it is a miracle beyond our comprehension that amidst trillions of celestial bodies, our tiny Earth is the only one we know of that is made to sustain life. Extraordinary doesn’t begin to describe it.


And yet in the midst of this fragile gift, we squander it, contaminate it, poison it, pollute it. We destroy the delicate balance of the rainforest to graze cattle for McDonald’s, we hurl bombs at each other because we have different names for divine presence, we sit passively by while companies get rich selling assault rifles and our own, precious, innocent children are randomly murdered in schools while the politicians send their “thoughts and prayers” but refuse to regulate guns. If we ever stopped a moment to think about this tiny, tiny planet amidst the vast reaches of uninhabitable space, to consider how the tiniest bug is part of a living chain that brings food to our table and breathable air to our lungs, we would fall to our knees in shame, and then again, in proper gratitude.


But we don’t. We wake up and repeat the same old mistakes and choose to get upset that dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh is racist and the clown cars crashing into each other in Congress is all we can expect from our governing bodies. Shall I go on?


Any reader of this Blog knows I lean heavily toward faith in humanity and our inherent goodness. But not always. Sometimes the whole shit-show comes crashing down on my head and I wonder, “Why bother to imagine we can change? Let’s just give the real estate over to the cockroaches right now and be done with it.”


It is the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, so here is my own darkness I’ve kept at bay. To turn to the light, all I can suggest is to lie down sometime and minus the $40 price tag, look up at the stars and consider. Look down at the bugs and consider. Listen to the call of the birds and look at the flutter of the butterflies and consider. We have to do better.  

Monday, December 18, 2023

Thank You, Mrs. Lutz

A young woman having a farewell dinner at a restaurant with her friends before heading off to a new life in London. A young man visiting from Chile who had his notions of America changed. The trombone player in my jazz band with his family. All three (and more) moved to tears from the simple act of some 50 people, from 2 years old to 80, Christmas caroling around the neighborhood. Alongside the other joyfully astonished people at Pasquale’s Pizza Place, Lavash Persian Restaurant and the local Tattoo Parlor grinning from ear to ear as we surprised them with our tuneful serenade. Likewise, the people we lured away from their TV’s to come to their windows or step out their doors, phones on video mode, to listen to the old holiday chestnuts and even sometimes sing along. A few even left their houses and joined us. 


It was the 41st neighborhood Christmas caroling, an event my family started in 1982. Only six or so of the original participants still with us, but new blood carrying it for forth. Many of my daughter Talia’s 5th grade class, some folks from the neighborhood pandemic singing gathering I started back you-know-when, people from my wife Karen’s bike group, alum students Karen and I had taught (some with their kids)and some folks I didn’t even know who were friends of friends or just had heard about it. One of the biggest groups we’ve had and also one of the most tuneful. Sunday night on Irving Street was so much less bustling than the night before, so the singers always outnumbered the folks sung to. But to give that young woman nervous about leaving for London a most memorable send-off, to change the Chilean man’s perception of our self-obsessed, narcissistic, non-community-based American culture— that was enough. Not to mention the feeling of over 50 people, many of whom didn’t know each other, feeling instantly connected through song, getting a rare chance to sing without going to a Karaoke bar and traveling through their personal emotional landscape as each song carried its own associations from their past— again, more than enough. To top it off, a way for kids of all ages to do something meaningful and fun alongside adults. Truly, it doesn’t get much better than that.


The grandkids have arrived (my own deep pleasure in sharing this all with them) and the house is again filled with their buzzing energy. The games are off the shelf, a new leaf on the table to fit our reunited family as daughters Kerala and Talia, my sister and husband Ginny and Jim, joined Zadie and Malik for a delicious dinner my wife Karen had prepared. As she does, Talia suggested a moment where each shared something they were grateful for before we began the meal. In the light of the past few weeks, I chose to thank Mrs. Lutz, my childhood piano (and organ) teacher. 


So let me speak directly to her here. 


“Mrs. Lutz, neither you nor I could ever have imagined where my piano and organ lessons with you would lead. To a lifetime of personal refreshment with Mr. Bach and Beethoven and Brubeck and beyond, all of whom you introduced me to and have remained my lifelong friends. Joined with all the years of teaching kids and adding some basic guitar, you helped give me the tools to lead groups of people to joyful communion, be it in school classes, old age homes, neighborhood sings, family gatherings, weddings and funerals—wherever people might gather and need a song.


May I confess that as a kid, the highlight of my lesson was grabbing some candy from the bowl you kept in your waiting room, something forbidden in my home. Sometimes I would dig into my pocket during the lesson and pretend to cough as I slipped a piece in my mouth. Naturally, I never fooled you. You once told me that a little birdie reported that I practiced a lot that week and for a while, I would open the front door when I practiced hoping the bird would hear me and report back. I quit my lessons with you in 8th grade, but went on to play the pipe organ in my high school and butcher Beethoven on my piano at home, listening to Horowitz and then thinking I could go right to his tempo and technique without actually taking the time to practice the details. I missed your guidance there.


You might be interested to know that I’m still impatient with mastering the details and far prefer to just play through getting a feel for the piece. But in my ripening old age, I’m getting a bit better at playing things slower before getting to the correct tempo and even occasionally stop to work out the fingering to a tricky passage. And may I also let you know that I appreciate now the Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein songs you helped me learn alongside the classical warhorses. That has certainly born fruit as I’ve delved deeply into the Great American Songbook. And though you never taught me the blues, you did introduce me to Dave Brubeck that last year with you, with the little blues section in Blue Rondo a La Turk.


So Mrs. Lutz, thank you for it all. It all paid off and then some. Perhaps you are now the little birdie listening outside my window as I play. I’ll open it up so you can hear better."


Sunday, December 17, 2023

4,000 Steps to Kindness

This post marks the 4,000th entry since I began this Blog twelve years ago. That’s a lot of writing! And for what? 


Mostly from some inside need to both fully experience this life, with all its glory and difficulty, and to reflect on that experience, to give it a shape and meaning. In my private journals, it's mostly letters to future selves trying to remember what happened and how I felt about it. With the Blog, it’s a public sharing in the hope that there are some universals hidden amongst the particulars that resonate with others. 


Whether re-reading old journals or old Blogposts, it’s clear that the same issues and ideas and challenges and successes keep circulating around like the painted ponies on the carousel of time. Doesn’t matter which one you get on or when, the ride is pretty much the same, changed only by who else is riding with you and how the rider (me) might feel things just a bit differently. 


Though so much stays the same, we notice different things as we age or give more attention to the things we’ve always noticed. Lately, the word kindness has a new resonance for me— and the culture at large. Driving to the airport this morning to pick up the grandkids, I passed a billboard with Dolly Parton reminding us: KINDNESS- PASS IT ON. There are little posters I stumble on in social media that say things like: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” There is the Dali Lama’s well-known quote: “My religion is kindness.” There’s my new favorite poetry anthology The Paths to Kindness  (edited by James Crews), which includes Naomi Shihab Nye’s powerful poem Kindness. And on this Sufi holiday commemorating the poet Rumi’s reunion with the Divine Beloved, there is this excerpt of a poem above. 


Then there is my name—Good-kin. A lifelong invitation to be a good relative in the family and the unspoken invitation to make that family larger and larger, far beyond my blood relatives. (My Aunt Flo chose the name Goodkind and that is yet more explicit, that name probably changed at Ellis Island when my grandfather emigrated from Belaruse back at the turn of the century). That daily reminder to be both good and kind and a good kin to all.


Truth be told, this was rarely consciously on my mind as I improvised my way through this life trying to figure out who I am and what I have to offer. Just followed my nose, had a great time making music with people of all ages and began to notice is was a lot more fun for all of us if I was nice to them and appreciative, empathetic to both their glories and struggles. But certainly in the last 12 years of this Blog, each report of what the day brought to me and what I brought to the day in some ways was another step down the path of kindness, in all its simplicity and complexity. Perhaps, at the end of it all, it is as Ms. Nye suggests in the poem mentioned above:


“…  it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

Only kindness that raises it head

From the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for

And then goes with you everywhere 

like a shadow or a friend.”


So on the occasion of this 4,000th Blogpost, I believe she’s right. What this traveling music teacher is confessing to is the power and beauty of kindness. It is kindness I pack in my suitcases with each trip far out into the world, that I put in my pocket in my local jaunts, that I keep by my side here at the desk as I write. 


May it be forever so.