Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Healing Power of Music

Or not. On Friday, I went to the Jewish Home as usual and nobody was there waiting for me. There was some misunderstanding as to the time, so while the nurses went off to bring people there, I decided to warm up with some Bach Partitas. By the time I was on the second, some eight people had gathered and suddenly, in the midst of the Prelude, I heard a ear-piercing, blood-curdling scream from one of the residents. Naturally, I stopped played and asked, “Are you all right?” and she replied, “I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!!!! NO MORE PIANO!!!!” So much for the soothing comfort of music. 


A nurse came and wheeled her away and I thought, “Let’s try a little Mozart. A slow movement.” Perhaps the Bach was just too busy and dense for her and she felt overwhelmed by the barrage of rapid notes. Or she simply was in pain or having a bad day. But it was a good reminder that music isn’t always what’s needed in the moment. Though it’s pretty darn close.


From Mozart I moved on to jazz standards and there was a woman close by mouthing all the words to each and every one, with a look of such sublime happiness. After I played, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” she said, “That was my husband’s favorite song.” Luckily for me, most of the 80 and 90 year-old folks here really know these songs from the 30’s/40’s/50’s and some old enough to associate them with their younger self romances or marriage or night out dancing or washing dishes listening to Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra singing them on the radio. So besides the aesthetic pleasure of songs artfully crafted, there is an extra dimension of being recalled to other times in their lives, some cellular memory of bodies more vigorous and pain-free, of hearts held in the throes of young love or a slowly maturing deeper love. A familiar soundtrack to happier times.


My job is to play a wide variety of music and styles to be able to tap into a large range of human feeling that different rhythms, tempos, keys, scales, themes and lyrics can evoke. I’m always aware of when we need some contrast, moving from a ragtime piece to a waltz to an opera aria to a march to a jazz ballad. It’s also fun to choose songs based on what’s happening in the world. As Friday was the first day of autumn, I played Autumn Leaves and Autumn in New York. Also September Rain and September Song. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a nod to a few smoky days in San Francisco from the Oregon wildfires. When Tony Bennet died last month, I of course played I Left My Heart in San Francisco.Music as commentary on or affirmation of what’s going on outside.


As I get to know the people, I also remember their favorite songs or pieces. So on Friday, I watched Rose spring to life and sing along to her favorite, Moon River, Steve perk up when I played Alfie, Lori start to tear up (while smiling) when I began to play la Paloma.Though I haven’t played to a full house in Carnegie Hall, I can’t imagine a performing venue more satisfying than to try to play the particular songs that have particular meanings for the people listening. 


And back to my screaming audience member (which, incidentally, triggered yesterday’s blog that included “The Primal Scream” and deserves another entry as to how babies and elders are connected), I remember a woman named Betty some years back who also spoke up loudly while I was playing, “Someone get me out of here!” I talked to her and found out she was from Georgia and started to play Georgia on My Mind and after that, I was her favorite. And always told the group, “This one is for Betty” when I played it in future gatherings.


Because of the time misunderstanding, I ended up playing longer than usual, over an hour and a half of constant music without pause. When I finally stopped and walked out, I noticed my primal screamer was sitting in the back, having come back to listen. Perhaps music really does have a healing power. 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Close at Hand

It’s well known that the time of my coming to age in the late 60’s/ early 70’s, was a time of great political unrest. For those convinced that “revolution is the only solution,” there were many paths available— the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weathermen, the Yippies (not Yuppies), the Young Socialists and yet more. All determined to overturn racism, sexism, warmongering, capitalism in the name of expanded political freedom and justice.


At the same time, there was a sense of inner revolution in the air, a refusal of the deadened mindsets and dull consciousness of established religions, narrow psychologies and restrictive social norms. What was the point of gaining political freedom if we remained entrapped in the prisons of our own closed hearts, depressed spirits, rational thinking minds and lost souls? So kickstarted by mind-expanding drugs— LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, etc.— there was a parallel hunger to expand our consciousness. 


In swooped the Indian gurus. Take your pick! Sit at the feet of the boy wonder Guru Maharaji or practice Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Don some orange robes and follow Swami Muktananda, do some physical yoga with BKS Iyengar or try some Kundalini Yoga. Hang out with Bubba Free John or Baba Ram Das or grab your finger cymbals and join the Hare Krishnas at the airport. If India didn’t grab you, you could go the Zen route with various teachers coming over from Japan or get into Sufi dancing or heck, why not just be born again as a Jesus freak? It was quite a spiritual carnival and I watched with some trepidation as various friends and acquaintances danced off down the street with their newly chosen tribe, often to the detriment of their future mental health.


Then there were all the new psychologies. Go to a Walden II commune with BF Skinner, a Gestalt therapy workshop with Fritz Perls, a Primal Scream retreat with Arthur Janov or an EST Seminar with Werner Erhard. Or join the Church of Scientology with L. Ron Hubbard. So many choices! 


In the midst of it all, some of us just opted to follow our passion for a craft— be it music teaching, woodworking, immigrant law, pediatrics— and concentrate on doing good work. We blindly entered the severe training ground of sustaining a relationship and raising a family and amidst all the wrong turns and slips near the cliff’s edge and tumbles into the poison oak patch, managed to find some satisfaction in all the small acts of house-holding, from homecooked meals, cleaning up the kitchen together, gathering around the piano to sing or around the TV for a favorite family show or movie. We felt how exercise kept us alert and alive and sometimes combined the solace of hiking in the park or the woods or bike riding on back roads with the mandatory calorie burning. We found sublime beauty in simple things— a sunset, a swim in the lake, a lunch at a favorite café with friends. Without having to blindly follow a charismatic leader who would eventually betray us or disappoint, without letting out a primal scream or chanting mantras for hours or sitting full lotus with pained legs or blindly accepting some group dogma as if it were the pillar needed to hold up our life, we discovered that it's possible to lead a useful, fulfilled and spiritual life simply by choosing to live well. 


Not to wholly discount any of the above. I’ve paid my dues with pained legs and Buddhist chanting and the guidance of a Zen Master I could have given over my life of free choice to but didn’t. But when I think of all the time and energy people have spent thinking “THIS IS IT!!!” and their subsequent disillusion that it wasn’t, it’s worth remembering that what we deeply need is always close at hand. Our own breath. Trusting our intuition about what we actually know we need and being courageous enough to follow it. Breaking bread with neighbors, talking with friends and family. And always, time with trees and plants and rivers and always, some music and song and dance. It’s all right here, right now, available to all and waiting for us.


Friday, September 22, 2023

It's Enough

I just heard a story about a Zen teacher stopping a student passing in the hall and saying, “You know, just to be alive is enough.”


It is a Buddhist tenet that achieving a human incarnation is already a victory of sorts. Which makes it all the more distressing when people squander it. According to the idea of reincarnation, we should be glad we’re not a mosquito about to be swatted or a rat digging through garbage. We have the possibility of an elegant body, a feeling heart, a thinking mind. And yet we lie on the couch drinking bad beer playing mindless video games. 


For “just being alive to be enough,” we have to have some measure of gratitude for the opportunity of a human birth, some measure of determination to accept its gifts gracefully and consciously, some sense of awareness of how precious it is indeed just to breath in and breathe out and be granted the chance to fully savor each moment of our mortal life. 


And so, the senses. The taste of a fresh early-girl tomato, a cool breeze on your skin on a hot day, the smell of early morning coffee or fresh-baked bread, a touch from a loved one or a hug from a child, the sight of aspen leaves dancing in the wind, the song of the red-wing blackbird. Enough.


The body. The thrill of running across a field like a child, the grace of a three-point basketball shot, the sweet exhaustion of a 20 mile bike ride, the joyful release of dancing to Uptown Funk, the harmonious gathering of concentrated energy sitting in the full-lotus meditation posture. Enough. 


Not to mention sex. 


Then the landscape of the heart. Its cozy warm places watching an old favorite movie on the couch eating popcorn, its lifting up with the ascending phrases in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, its burrowing into the depth of John Coltrane’s saxophone. Its tenderness rocking the sleeping infant in your arms, its burst of excitement when meeting the love of your life, 


The mind’s pleasures as well. Solving the puzzle, connecting the dots of historical narrative, the thrill of writing coherent sentences, the power of understanding how things work. The “a-ha!” when a felt intuition finds the right language to become consciously known fact.


Yes, the sense can be assaulted and overloaded, the body prone to pain and gravity’s tugs, the heart broken over and over again, the mind confused and anxious and puzzled. It’s all part of the package when you’ve signed up for the human comedy and tragedy. But throughout it all, inside of it all, transcending it all, is the human spirit that has lived well enough that it can finally proclaim in all sincerity:


“Just to be alive is enough.”


Take those six words with you as you step out into the world today. 



Thursday, September 21, 2023

Kiss the Clock

A small confession. I’m a creature of whimsical little superstitions. Like saying “hares” as my last word on the last day of each month and “rabbit” as my first word the next morning. Holding my breath through tunnels. Knocking on wood. And so on.


One of them that my children taught me is “kiss the clock.” When all the digits are the same—like 1:11 or 4:44— you kiss the clock (in a car, kiss your hand and touch the clock)— and make a wish. (This works much better with digital timepieces!). I’m surprised how often it happens that I happen to glance at the clock and it’s ready to be kissed.


What do I wish for? These days, just one thing only. Health. I feel confident I can take care of the things I can control— perseverance, aiming for eloquence, working toward musical coherence, creating instant communities when teaching. But for me, so much of the above depends upon a body functioning in robust health. 


I often read about notable creators who suffered from poor health their whole life. The composer Chopin, the poet Rilke, the philosopher Nietzche, for starters. I don’t know how they did what they did while battling illness and pain. I don’t think I could. 


And then I looked up celebrities battling health issues today—chronic pain, diabetes, lupus, Lyme’s disease, Parkinson’s, depression and more— and was surprised by some of the people on the list—George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Venus Williams, Michael J. Fox, Michael Phelps and more. My hat’s off to them all.


Meanwhile, I’ll keep kissing the clock as I can— but writing this at 8:15 in the morning, I’ll have to wait until 10:10. 


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Skating Up the Chakras

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.” —Frederik Backman: Beartown(Ch. 35)


I never imagined I would enjoy a book about hockey, a sport that leaves me (pun intended) cold. But Frederik Backman, author most known for A Man Called Ove, managed to hold my attention in his book Beartown.A teen hockey club in a small town is the setting for the story and the book fulfills my requirements of interesting characters and page-turning plot. But I particularly enjoyed his one-paragraph little philosophic inquiries that often open each chapter. Like the one above. 


I’ve often thought of Don Juan’s (remember him from the Carlos Castaneda books?) quote that “it takes the same amount of energy to make yourself miserable as to make yourself happy.” It’s a good reminder as to where and how to direct our finite supply of energy and attention. But now I wonder if it’s true. Because, as Backman suggests, it seems a helluva lot easier to hate than to love. 


From the Hindu perspective, our animal drives live near the base of the spine in the first three chakras— food, sex, power. These are granted for free to us all and is the reason why the media constantly seduces us with sexy, violent images and ads for fattening salty, crispy and sugary foods. 


But the fourth chakra of the heart is where the raw sexual instinct transforms to love. The fifth in the throat is where the might of the pen overrides the muscle of the sword and the sixth in the middle of the forehead is where food for the body becomes food for the Soul and Spirit. To arrive at these three upper chakras, we must make a conscious effort, climb vertically against gravity. That’s why so many of us choose to stuff ourselves with fast food, become obese in body fat and starving in spirit. Why we immerse ourselves in the constant violence of the super-hero/ horror/ thriller Hollywood fare and quickly scroll through the PBS adaptation of David Copperfield. That’s why we surf the porn sites instead of have  courageous conversation with a loved one. That’s why love is hard and hate is simple. 


“So many of us” is really all of us, at different phases in our life and for different amounts of time. What is inspiring is those who resist the easy way and make an effort to be better. To understand things more clearly, to feel things more deeply, to work harder to improve ourselves and help heal the world. What is deeply disturbing is those who keep feeding their laziness and are encouraged to do so by those who profit from it, be it through money or power. Those who get duped into thinking that their ignorance is as good as anyone’s understanding, their refusal to face themselves and do the work to improve is as good another’s determination to do better, their hate is as good as anyone’s love— and it’s their right to choose it. Backman’s second paragraph.


"So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe—comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is the we dehumanize our enemy, take their names away from them."


Once you find yourselves in the crossfire of some internet name-calling, that’s your cue to jump ship. You cannot converse with someone imprisoned in the first three chakras. Better to spend that energy rising higher into your own upper three. And don’t forget the seventh at the crown of the head, when you realize your unity with all consciousness and you connect with the divine nature we all equally share, but don’t equally realize. 


Just to be clear, Backman doesn’t suggest that hockey, one of the more violent and male-aggressive-testosterone sports on the block, is the path to your divine nature. But even in the midst of whacking a little puck around, body-blocking your opponents, hitting them on the head with a stick if they piss you off, some luminous moments can arise. With current day politics resembling a hockey rink more than a polite debating society, we might keep this in mind. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Child Is Born

Amazing! It happened! After a long, sometimes painful pregnancy, my book Jazz, Joy & Justice is finally published! After two years of patient perseverance. I’m walking around singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and his For Unto Us A Child Is Born! As I was walking the grounds of Monticello on September 15th,  I got a call from something called TV Spotlight asking for a 10-minute Zoom interview to promote it (now scheduled for October 24th). That’s how I found it that it actually came out on the promised date. Hallelujah!


And when I returned home to San Francisco, there was a box with my 20 free copies, posters, flyers and bookmarks. The first time I got to hold this baby in my arms. Sweet.


Now comes the next part. A child is born— and now I have to raise it! Meaning advertise, promote, make available, sell it, hopefully give readings at schools and bookstores. So let me encourage you, my dear readers, to order a copy and pass the word on! You can go to


(If you do and want some background music, don’t play Handel’s tune, but go with Thad Jones’ jazz song A Child Is Born.)

Monday, September 18, 2023

Scrolling Through Love

I made it to Washington DC and now two hours to “be here now” before the return flight to San Francisco. Naturally, a quick peek at Facebook and then decided to scroll through the names of the people who liked the photo of my daughter and I all dressed up for the recent wedding. As I sometimes do. 


And it always warms my heart. Each name I read calls up a person I’ve shared a little piece (or in some cases, a lot of pieces) of life with. I see their face in my mind, remember a bit of when our paths crossed and call up the memories embedded in my cells. In this case, I knew just about every one of the 382 people who pressed “like,” mostly folks I’ve known in the world of Orff workshops, many from The San Francisco School, a few from college and even high school or neighbors or family friends. It’s like sending Christmas cards and pausing as you address each envelope. Each person one facet of a glittering jewel, each with their own quirks and gifts and ways that they are refreshing the world with their presence. And ways in which my little world has been enlivened by the privilege of knowing them. It’s like scrolling through the many faces of love.


This is time in the airport well-spent. Thanks to you all and see some of you again on my next Facebook post!

Ram Dass in the Airport

“Attention. There is a slight delay in your 8:00 pm flight. New time is 8:30.”


No problem. I’ll just be here now, enjoy some time to read my book.


“Attention. New time is now 9:00.”




“Attention. New time is 9:30.”


Hmm. Feeling a little hungry. Think I’ll search out some food. 


“Attention. New time is 9:45.”


I guess I’ll write a little blog post about my food search.


“Attention. Your flight has been cancelled. New time is 8:30—tomorrow morning.”


Why? Because for whatever reason for the delay (they never told us), it meant that the crew had worked the maximum hours allowed bv the FAA and must complete a mandatory period of rest before departing. Well, I’m happy they get to rest, but what about me? Guess I’ll stand in line to ask how United will get a hotel for me. 


“Okay,”said the person, “I’ll meet you all downstairs to rebook flights and book a room.”


Some 25 of us go downstairs, line up— and there we stand for one hour without any of the two attendants letting us know what’s taking so damn long for a simple hotel booking. I was number eight in line and didn’t move one inch in a full hour. Breathe. Be here now.


But my body and nervous system were not with the “be here now” program, accepting it all with equanimity. Finally I just walked straight up and said, with ill-concealed frustration, “Can you just let us know what’s going on and why it’s taking so long?” No one answered. “I’ll take that as a no.” 

The line began to move, though still way outpaced by any snail. When I finally got up front at 11:00 pm, the man printed out a hotel voucher and then had me take it to the other woman, who put it in a pile and called the hotel, asking for my name, address, phone number and e-mail to give them. Meanwhile, seven fellow passengers were ready to go waiting for the shuttle and when the shuttle came, she was still talking to the damn hotel giving them my information. “Please let the shuttle know to wait for me,” I implored and then stood there watching it drive away.


Be. Here. Now.


“Oh, it’s only five minutes away. The driver will be right back for you and the others (another seven people).”


Tick-tock-tick-tock. Five minutes, Ten minutes, Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. By now it’s 11:30 and I’ve been at this airport for six straight hours. Ten more minutes and the shuttle comes. Then another line at the hotel to check in. The person in front of me deciding to buy some food before at the counter before completing the check in. Tick tock. 


At five minutes past midnight, I finally fall into bed. To awaken at 6 the next morning. Back on the shuttle. Back to the airport. Back through security, who asks for the new ticket they didn’t give me and no one at the United counter. Calls the supervisor who approves and lets me through. Through the security machine and my body image on the screen is lit up in five places, including “sensitive” areas. The guard has to tell me where he’s going to touch me and pat my down. Trying to breathe through the echoes of my impatience with machines that don’t work and systems of dealing with problems that are as broken as the problems themselves. 


So now it’s 8:06 am in the morning and they’re telling me I probably need to check my carry on bag. Oh, and did I mention that my rebooked flight from Washington is three hours after I arrive? 


If this is a test to see my capacity to be fully in the moment, to be wholly here now instead of wishing I was somewhere else then (like my home), I confess. I’ve failed miserably. Here’s hoping I can get home today. And then, finally, I can be here now. 



Sunday, September 17, 2023

Police Benignity

After a long overdue visit—14 years!— with an old college friend in his beautiful country home in the Shenandoah Valley, I drove a couple of hours on Rt. 81 in Virginia for the third time in three days. Arrived at the Roanoke Airport and the entire procedure of returning the rental car, getting my ticket and getting through security took about 15 minutes. Total. Things were looking good. 


That is, until my 8:00 pm flight was changed to 8:30, then 9:00, now 9:45. Meaning I miss my connection in Washington DC, but will get a bonus (?) night in a hotel room there. Meanwhile, I was counting on some food and in this small airport, all is closed. One place was dark, no people, but a cooler with yogurts and a bowl of bananas. So I reached in  and took one of each just as a policewoman strolled in.


I asked, “Do you know of any way I can pay for this or just leave some money on the counter? My plane is almost two hours delayed and I’m hungry.”


Her reply? “I can’t tell you what to do. All I can say is I’m walking over this way.”


And she turned around and walked away, with an understood wink between us. 


Sometimes kind people, even in uniforms, do the right thing. 

The New Monticello

Book banning. Forbidding truth in history classes. Trash-talking wokeness. The Repugnantins are showing their terror that their unearned privilege is in danger when people finally learn the real story of what’s gone down in this country. They’re backpedaling toward ignorance as fast as they can and not enough of us are putting up the barricades to halt their hurtful actions.


And yet, I’m happy to report that there is a sizable momentum pushing the moral arc towards truth and justice. The Monticello tour, for example. When I took this tour some 12 years ago, the entire focus was on Jefferson’s impressive Renaissance-man qualities— not only President and the one who so eloquently articulated the inspired words of The Declaration of Independence, but an inventor, a scientist, an architect, a voracious reader of philosophy and history, a farmer and a prime force in creating the separation of church and state. I remember leaving the tour inspired by his accomplishments.


The story on yesterday’s tour did not belittle those qualities, but included the larger story. Owner of 607 human beings who allowed him to pursue his interests on a large estate by working for free, cruel punisher of any who transgressed, someone who used his power and privilege to have relations with Sally Hemmings, a 14-year old enslaved girl (who happened to be his wife’s half-sister—it’s a complicated story), father of four children by her whom he “freed” according to an agreement he made to coerce her to return from France with him back to Monticello, but never spent time with any of them, someone who publicly professed slavery as “an abomination” but failed to include black people in his notion of “all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.” And yes, he was a product of his time, but story after story, I couldn’t help but feel, “Tom, you could have done better. Didn’t you ever lie in bed sometime and think, ‘What am I doing here?’ And while you probably justified it all as necessary for upkeep of this large estate you inherited, why didn’t you build a more modest house that you and a few paid laborers could keep up while you pursued your worthy interests? (Turns out that even with 600 people working for free, Jefferson was still always in debt.)


I was so pleased that the tour finally was dealing with these questions and I particularly loved one perky elder guide who engaged us with her questions, getting us to reflect deeper on the contradictions and not so easily excuse him. And equally impressed with the 30 people on the tour who didn’t seem defensive or offended by having to consider some of the truths DeSantis and his ilk are trying to suppress. This guide confided that when she first started giving tours in the 1970’s, she was expressly forbidden to talk about Sally Hemmings. Yes, my friends, the moral arc is leaning in the right direction.


And again when visiting the University of Virginia campus where there’s a beautifully grassy area enclosed by a wall telling how enslaved human beings built this campus and were the property of many of the professors. I hope a little walk around it is required for freshman orientation. 


So, friends, we should be alarmed at the number of states trying to legislate the suppression of truth, but also encouraged by the signs that people are ready to hear the real story and begin to change the white supremacy narrative by understanding what it is and how it works and why it shouldn’t work. It’s up to us to carry forth Jefferson’s words into the realities he was incapable of realizing. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Right Question

It feels like the problem with us flawed humans is our capacity to give the wrong answers to life’s persistent questions. Answers that someone else plants in our brain for their own profit and power and we too easily acquiesce. Answers that we ourselves generate and are willing to settle for, even as some part of us knows that they make us smaller and less kind and less happy. Answers that we cling to desperately just for the sake of having an answer, unable to live comfortably with the questions. 


But now I’m thinking that part of the problem is asking the wrong questions. That if we only met on the common ground of the right questions, our conversations, our time shared together will be less contentious, less oppositional, less spiteful or angry or jealous. That the North Star of the right question could guide us through all the temptations, wrong turns and head-on collisions. 


And so, when I re-read a poem from the anthology called The Path of Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy, I was hit right between the eyes in the way that a good poem can. Appropriately titled, The Question, the poem begins:

    “All day, I replay these words:

    Is this the path of love?

    I think of them as I rise, as I wash dishes,

    as I drive too close behind the slow blue Subaru, Is this the path of love?…”


The poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, keeps asking the question throughout her day, notices how those “six words become compass, the new lens through which to see myself in the world.” When we gather together, when a proposal is being considered, when a decision is to be made, how different it all would be with this six word mantra for guidance. What would happen if all teachers came to staff meetings armed with this powerful inquiry when they’re asked to jump through the hoops of some bureaucrat far away? If all corporate employees dared to ask that out loud when the next machine designed for addiction is being proposed? If workers at the voting booths reminded the citizens to interrogate themselves before voting? Is this the path of love?


I read this poem at the end of yet another Orff workshop overflowing with joy, laughter, comradery and permission to trot out one’s extravagant quirky self. And during every minute of the non-stop five-hour fun fest, my answer to the question was, “Yes! Yes! And again, Yes!”

Given a choice, who would not choose to walk on the path of love? Sometimes it's as simple as asking the right question.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The Depth of Friendship

Here’s a confession. Sometimes in San Francisco if I want to go to the movies with a friend, I can’t think of who to call. Yet in my travels around the country, indeed, the world, I meet with friends and am so uplifted by the depth of our conversation, connection and conviviality. People who I don’t text or e-mail very often, but the moment we’re together is the next moment of the last time we were together, be it ten months, ten years or even more.


For example, 50 years ago I stepped out of a car at a school in the North Carolina mountains where I came to work for six months. Anticipating my arrival, several middle school kids came up and warmly greeted me, including one 12-year old girl with a captivating smile who announced, “Hi. I’m Ralf!” 


In the short time we were together, Ralf and I became best buddies, laughing at the same jokes, playing music together with recorders and guitars, talking about the books we loved in the library and cracking up over one titled, “My Darling, My Hamburger.” We decided that Groundhog’s Day would be our mutual most important holiday and often over the years that followed, would wish each other a happy day when that holiday came around. 

Ralf moved around a bit after graduating 8th grade from that school and came to San Francisco in the last semester of her senior year in high school. There we re-connected and I went on weekly walks with her bouncing a rubber ball and sharing my favorite spots in the city. She later confessed that this was a difficult time in her life and my effortless enjoyment of our time together ended up giving her some needed comfort and encouragement. 


In the 40 plus years that followed, I’ve seen her maybe ten times and the last time may have been as long as 8 or 9 years ago. So when I asked if I could visit her on my way to a workshop I’ll be teaching some two hours away from her Charlottesville home, she happily agreed and generously offered her house. Within the first five minutes of the car ride from the airport, it became clear what I suspected— here we were again, so instantly connected and at ease in each other’s company. We sang a few songs last night and played some piano/guitar pieces, caught up on mutual friends and let the conversation unfold naturally, as it often has when we’re together. At 63 years old, she’s one of the older people whose relationship with me began as teacher/student, but even way back then, her 12, me 21, it never felt like a formal relationship. 


Today we both shared our mutual love of walking in the woods and took a beautiful path that landed us at Jefferson’s Monticello. We didn’t take the tour (but will tomorrow) and the conversation naturally turned to politics and justice and race and we both discovered that the same book, Manchild in the Promised Land, opened up new understandings for both of us, revealing what the culture then was trying to hide or dismiss— and is at it again. Ralf became a 3rd grade teacher, like me, now retired, like me, loved working with kids and trying to teach them what they actually need to know to be a functioning citizen, a decent human being and a happy person. 


Back at her house, two guitarists and a fiddle player came over for over two hours of jamming to old jazz tunes, me on piano, Ralf (who everyone else knows as Julie) also on guitar. The music was flowing and the air charged with the happiness of the Great American Songbook. From there, we walked to downtown and had dinner with another music teacher student of mine who I taught 20 years ago in Salzburg and her 10-year old son. The highlight was teaching the boy how to pop leaves and get an explosive sound, a unique skill I cultivated in my New Jersey childhood. Few people can do it, but he persisted and started to get it! My first disciple. Bid farewell to them and strolled down the lovely carless promenade of this impressive city, dipping into two bookstores and enjoying an ice cream on a perfect temperature summer night. 


Seven miles of walking later, we got back to her house, where she showed me two fantastic magic tricks, her son’s impressive culinary Youtube videos of food in Bangkok. I shared my daughter’s writing about raising children in a toxic culture and a few videos related to my jazz, Joy and Justice book due to be printed tomorrow (fingers crossed). I taught her how to play the card game King’s Corner, she brought out some of her favorite games, we went to her book shelves where she had arranged her most influential books in the order they came into her life. All of this in one day!


Reading, walking, teaching, music, caring about justice, deep conversation and humorous banter, alongside the memorable stories of our shared history— so many points of connection, so effortless, so satisfying. I’ve felt the same kind of instant connecting with others I see once in a blue moon—my college friend Gretchen from Maine, my Orff friend Rodrigo from Germany, Debby in Vancouver, Margie and Paul in Australia, Kofi and Prosper in Ghana. It’s a long list and forgive me if any of you on that list are reading this without seeing your name! 


But you’re probably not, as our kinship is not based on reading what I write, but knowing in our bones how much we simply enjoy each other. So thank you, Ralf, for today’s blessing and looking forward to yet more tomorrow. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Green Beans Parable

At dinner last night, someone passed on the most valuable life lesson his mother taught him. Growing up in the 50’s, his mother often served those terrible canned green beans at dinner which he (justifiably) hated. It was always a struggle for his mother to get him to eat them, but because it was the 50’s and not today, she was clear about who was in charge. No promises of desserts or long discussions about the nutritive importance of vegetables (not much in those canned versions!). Just “Eat the damn beans!”


But the mother was compassionate enough to offer some advice which stuck with her son throughout his life. 


“Son,” she said. “You have two choices. You can save the beans to the end and spend the whole meal fussing and fuming about having to eventually eat them. In which case, you will ruin any pleasure you get from eating the parts of the dinner you actually enjoy. 


“Or you can eat them first and get it over with and spend the rest of the time having a good meal.”


“That really stuck with me,” he said. “Get the unpleasant things we have to do in this life out of the way first so you can savor the things you actually like to do.”


“Ah, that’s a good story,” I affirmed. “But there is a third choice. Your mother could actually have learned how to get fresh green beans at the market and cook them well, perhaps lightly steamed and then sautéed with olive oil and garlic.”


There are often more choices than we imagine. 


Tuesday, September 12, 2023


At the half century mark (or close to it) in so many parts of my life, continuity is on my mind. Moving to San Francisco, my marriage, Zen practice, Orff practice, jazz piano practice, The San Francisco School— all these essential pillars that have held up my life and held up during  my life. 

And amongst them, almost 50 years since I first came to this cottage on Lake Michigan. A place, alongside the nearby town of Frankfort, that has barely changed in the best of ways. The land untouched by constant new development, nearby Watervale and Camp Lookout carrying on, the library, the corner drug store, various restaurants continuing on in Frankfort and most miraculously, the Garden Movie Theater still intact.


And so it was a special pleasure to have the movie made about The SF School and my life in Orff that included my wife and house and a little bit of jazz showing at the Garden Theater last night. And an extra pleasure to share it with my in-laws and wife’s old family friends who know me from hanging out at the beach and playing games at night and now got a peek into that other life I lived— and continue to live. 


As my daughter testifies in the movie, I’m not a fan of rapid change, especially imposed from without for the wrong reasons. As I say in the movie, when you’ve got a good groove going on the bandstand, you don’t suddenly switch it up because the band next door has a different one. When something is working, you stick with it and dive down deeper and let its echoes ripple out further. “Working” meaning that it is true, authentic, life-giving, filled with the dynamic energy of beauty and refreshment. That’s what the best traditions offer and yes, they need to stay open to changes with circumstance and people and place, but the best changes are incremental adjustments. 


Of course, continuity as a value in itself means nothing. There is nothing whatsoever to celebrate in the continuity of 400 years of slavery. That’s a horror that “worked” for some and not for others and even those who benefitted and profited did so at great loss to their own soul. Working as defined above must include everyone. 


So hooray for the Garden Theater and hooray for the SF School still carrying on beyond my presence (though it looks like I may be subbing there this month!) and hooray for not trying to fix what ain’t broke. (He says close to the end of the 12th year of this blog.)



Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Simplicity of Eloquence

With a build-up unlike any I have witnessed that involved building a huge temporary deck sheltered by a tent, with couches, bars, trees, flowers, a stage for a band and more set up inside, some 150 people attending and fireworks at the end, the grand hoopla of my nephew’s wedding came and went and it was a grand affair. But amidst all the beautifully crafted extravagance, the real heart and soul of it was the extraordinary eloquence of the speeches. All with sincerity, humor, great stories and moments of stirring emotion.


Top of the line were the vows spoken under the huppah by my nephew Eren and his now wife Maya. Both were poetic far beyond my expectations and spoken directly from the heart. Later were speeches by moms and dads, Eren’s sister and his aunt, my wife Karen. Again, all that’s needed to surpass cliché is to speak what you know, what you love, what you live. Doesn’t matter how cleverly you put sentences together. But because I write every day and she rarely does, Karen gave me the raw material and I put it together in the speech she read. Of course, not knowing the people referred to here, the reader here might not be interested, but still I hope it evokes a model of how to speak one’s love not only for people, but place. 


Welcome to “The cottage!” I’m Karen Shultz Goodkin, Eren’s aunt, Barclay’s sister. I’ve been asked to say a bit about this beautiful place to help you understand why Eren and Maya chose this as the place to begin a committed lifetime together. 


The best place to start is to bring Eren’s grandparents Pam and Ted Shultz into this gathering. How they would have loved to be here to witness this moment. I’m sure they’re smiling somewhere, not only in delight and amazement that their little grandson stands here as a grown man with a bride at his side, but that the whole thing is happening here in this place they loved so much. On this land where they built this cottage in 1974, next to their best friends Mark and Joan Wehmeyer who built theirs two years later. So many years spent walking this beach looking for Petoskeys stones, climbing the Sugar Bowl or Baldy, canoeing to Watervale for breakfast, cooling often in these refreshing waters on the hot summer days, sitting on the deck, drink in hand, watching yet another gorgeous sunset. 


And sharing it all not only with the Wehmeyers, but so many friends and family members—Pam and Ted’s parents and Pam’s sisters and all the Prudens and other nieces and nephews and yet more, invited to join them in paradise. Each summer, reconnecting with their children John, Barclay, Karen and soon Doug and Lori and then a new generation of grandchildren— first Kerala, Talia and then, in 1991, the fourth Shultz male with the initials EBS makes his appearance—Eren Barclay Shultz. A lot of pressure on those tiny shoulders to carry the lineage forward— especially the art of fly fishing—and we all can testify that he did not disappoint.


Not that his early years weren’t challenging. Much of his views of the cottage came through the window of the Volvo where he was sent for a time-out. One year, he spent a week at nearby Camp Lookout, but it might as well been Siberia. He spent the whole time looking longingly at the path that led back to the cottage, a five minute walk away. But in between his activities of pulling legs off frogs and torturing his little sister Zoey (the 4th and last grandchild of Pam and Ted), he would spend hours fishing with Pop-pop Ted, berry-picking with Grandma Pam, joining in the family frolics at the beach. This place seeped into his soul, as it has for so many of us.


I have loved watching Eren grow from the mischievous boy to an energetic, resourceful, visionary young man who shakes life by it shoulders and moves from project to project with such intelligence, skills and determination to make things happen. He is a doer, who follows every idea with a trip to Costco or order from Amazon and gets busy making things happen. From making a deck in his San Francisco apartment deck into an outdoor dining area with a large table, benches, planter boxes filled with vegetables and a heat lamp to making an outdoor kitchen in his Sonoma County place, building a chicken coop, selling eggs and cooking chickens whose necks his own hands had wrung, ordering a tiny house that was later delivered to his current work in Washington, where he is putting together a new business that involves frozen fish and transportation. It’s hard to keep up with it all!


And then during Covid, he and Maya sheltered right here— and the cottage has never been the same! In came the Internet, new chairs for the deck, a retaining wall, new pots and pans in the kitchen and sharp knives that can actually cut a tomato— it’s a long, long list.


How perfect that this is the place where we get together to celebrate this momentous occasion, here where three generations have gathered, where unlikely romances involving cousins and best friends have blossomed (Steve and Pam, Roy and Suzie), where so many friends and family members have frolicked for some 50 years. Look around you. We are all together to witness and welcome this next memorable chapter in our shared story, this formal joining of two beloved people who have already loved each other for nine years. But not just us. The ore boats have come to peek in, the waves are applauding and if we’re lucky, the bald eagle will soar overhead and give its blessing. All of this. 


Maya, we are so happy that Eren found you, a powerful, intelligent woman with your own can-do confidence, deep caring about this world and power to make things happen. And Eren, I think you’ve already figured out that this project cannot be realized through a trip to the hardware store or lumberyard and building with hammer and nails. This requires a different kind of building— of trust, humility, of honest communication, of walking together the thorny path of love and marriage. And Maya, remember that if Eren ever falls short, there’s always the time-out in the Volvo to set  him straight.