Saturday, September 30, 2023

Swimming Upstream

As promised in my "Bye Bye Bots" post, the following posts are pieces from my daughter Kerala, who just turned 43 today. I've separated them into six different posts because each one deserves moment of reflection. I wish I could give her the birthday present of publishing her book (I actually could, but Pentatonic Press is not big enough for what she deserves), but instead, encourage you to subscribe to her work and read more by clicking this link:  subscribe to her Substack publication, "Mom, Interrupted." 

Raising Healthy Children in Our Toxic Culture is Like Swimming Upstream

                                                                            - Kerala Taylor

We live in a society that not only fails to protect our children's health, but actively makes them sick


I’m another exhausted parent, and no one wants to hear it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s tiring to raise children, we get it, enough already.

But actually, people don’t really get it. I know this because it only clicked for me very recently, and I’ve parented three children, starting with my stepson 18 years ago. I know this because what’s most exhausting about parenting is something we don’t really acknowledge.

It’s high time we did.

There’s no question that the early years of parenting are tiring, to say the least. It’s an acute, intensive exhaustion, like a leg cramp that hurts like hell but we know will eventually pass. 

Some parents wax nostalgic about these early years, and I am not one of them. Whenever I see young parents schlepping diaper bags and chasing after toddlers, I feel hugely relieved that my family can venture into the world without three dozen carefully packed necessities and without fear that a child may escape our clutches and dart into an oncoming car.

On the other hand, I understand the nostalgia because in those early years, we, the parents, are our child’s entire world. Maybe there’s a daycare provider or a nanny or another family member who spends time with our child, and we meticulously prep these interlopers with a long list of said child’s bowel rhythms, naptime preferences, and dietary requirements. As young parents, it is inconceivable to us that our child will one day consume things that we didn’t select or approve. It’s not just food they will consume without our knowledge. They will also become their own consumers of media, messages, and things.

And most of it will be very bad for them. Toxic, really.

If we care about our children’s physical, mental, and emotional health — which I would venture to guess most of us do — parenting becomes one long protracted fight against our cultural defaults. If we’re not consistently vigilant, it’s all too easy for our kids to stop moving their bodies in any context outside P.E., to develop rampant cravings for things that are decisively bad for them, and to focus obsessively on all the ways they don’t measure up to impossible physical standards.

This fight comes into much sharper focus during the adolescent years when kids lose their natural sense of self-assuredness and start to become obsessed with being “normal.” According to my adolescent daughter, it’s “normal” to subsist on a steady diet of junk food, to drive instead of walk places, to fall asleep watching TikTok videos, to spend weekends at Costco and Target, and to have a flat belly that you can show off with the crop tops that are apparently once again in fashion.

It’s not normal to eat wheat bread, to walk on the weekends, to own a phone with no apps, to shop mostly and only occasionally at thrift stores, and to have a healthy amount of body fat.

I have no desire to be one of “those moms” who forces her children to abstain from the birthday cupcakes because they’re not allowed processed sugar. But on the flip side, if I consistently go the path of least resistance and default to “normal,” my children stand a frighteningly high chance of developing depression, anxiety, diabetes, an eating disorder, an unhealthy body weight, or any combination thereof.

We live in a culture that not only fails to protect our children’s health, but actively works against it. It’s up to us, as parents, to swim upstream, with our often resistant children in tow.

That, my friends, is the crux of my exhaustion. And these, my friends, are the five central forces against which I am continually fighting:

Swimming Upstream: Sugar and Processed Foods

1. Sugar and processed foods

“Everything in moderation” is my dietary motto, and I make a valiant attempt to put this motto into practice in my own home. My kids are allowed one reasonably sized bowl of chips after school and one reasonably sized treat after dinner. We convene each evening for a generally balanced and mostly nutritious home-cooked meal. I don’t make too much of a fuss about nutrition labels because I don’t want to model this behavior for my daughter (see: body image), but I am intentional about what foods we bring back from the grocery store.

Still, sugar finds a way to seep into our house, or if not our house, my children’s mouths. It’s friggin’ everywhere. It’s in the chocolate milk that our public school district inexplicably makes available to its students. It’s in the bags of gummy bears that a church uses to try to lure my kids to Jesus while they’re walking home from school. It sails from floats at parades and explodes from birthday piñatas and lurks in Gatorade at sports events and bursts through the seams of paper bags on Valentine’s Day.

Any one of these scenarios on their own, of course, is not that big a deal. But the compound effect is not negligible. We live in a country where nearly 20 percent of children aged two to 19 are obese and where diabetes in youth under 20 is expected to surge by 700 percent over the next few decades.

I occasionally attend birthday parties for one-year-olds, for which the parents have invested considerable energy into baking some kind of well-intentioned sweet potato cake because their baby’s body is a temple into which only breast milk and whole foods have flowed. I wonder if I should warn them about the tidal wave of sugar that is poised to engulf their precious bundle of joy. 

But I don’t want to be a spoilsport on their baby’s Big Day. Unfortunately, they will find out soon enough.

Swimming Upstream: Built Environment

2. Built environment

Of course, it’s not just our diets that contribute to childhood obesity. It’s also the built environments of the neighborhoods where most of us raise our families.

When my family moved to our current hometown of Portland, Oregon, we fastidiously researched the Walk Scores of every house we toured because we didn’t own a car at the time. Our house’s score of 82 is far above the national average of 49 — and would also be far out of our price range today. Though most Americans want walkability, that’s not what most Americans get.

In fact, even though the 1990s found many of us disenchanted with the car-dependent, consumer-fueled suburbs that had been continually sprawling over the prior decades, they still kept sprawling. The frenzy resumed in earnest at the dawn of the 21st century, with suburbs growing three times as fast as cities during its first decade.

At the dawn of the century’s third decade, Realtor Magazine reported that “the number of home buyers shopping nationwide for suburban homes has jumped 42.1% since the pandemic began.” With the rise of remote work, the gutting of downtown office buildings, and increases in violent crime, the suburbs just might be staging yet another comeback.

Which, unless we dramatically reimagine how we build our suburbs, is too bad for us and even worse for our kids. They grow up with the notion that getting from point A to point B automatically involves a car. And, of course, they spend a lot of time sitting in said car.

Even in our eminently walkable neighborhood, my kids were two of only a dozen children who walked regularly to elementary school. And while I can’t say our kids have ever been enthusiastic about our “weekend walk” tradition — that is, until we start our walk, at which point we tend to all thoroughly enjoy ourselves — the vehemence of my daughter’s protests has reached new levels of intensity.

“Normal” families, she says, don’t walk places. And they especially don’t walk just for the sake of walking.

Swimming Upstream: Screens and Social Media

3. Screens and social media

There’s another reason why you rarely see kids out and about these days, roaming around in packs or playing in front of their homes. It’s because more and more of them are inside glued to screens.

Years ago, I watched my stepson, now 23, fall down a social media rabbit hole and, with some nudges from his mother’s Trump-supporting family, emerge on the alt right side of things — with a fully realized depressive disorder, to boot. My partner and I didn’t have much of a say as to when he got a phone, or how much time he spent on it, but we also weren’t quite yet aware of how evil — because really, there’s no other word — social media had become.

My stepson and his peers were the user testers, the generation of children who proved how easily young minds could get hooked on this stuff — and how much money there was to be made.

But now we’re so deep in, it’s hard to know how to claw our way out. My daughter has made repeated claims that she is the only one in her sixth-grade class without a smartphone. Independent research, conducted by me, has found this to be not entirely true, but it’s close. She says everyone spends recess talking about TikTok dances, and she feels left out.

GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher and I probably don’t see eye to eye on much of anything, but when he recently called TikTok “digital fentanyl,” I had to agree. Lest you think I’m exaggerating here, take it from Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke:

Social connection has become druggified by social-media apps, making us vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption. These apps can cause the release of large amounts of dopamine into our brains’ reward pathway all at once, just like heroin, or meth, or alcohol.


Like nearly all other social media platforms, TikTok is designed to leave the user continuously craving more; it bombards users with short, disparate pieces of information that destroy our ability to focus; and it serves up content based on what an algorithm has decided you’re most likely to respond to, regardless of whether or not that content may cause you harm or has any relationship to truth.

It’s partially about the intentionally addictive nature of social media, partially about the potentially harmful content, and partially about the social isolation endemic to its usage. This potent trifecta has devastating effects.

One study found that the 33 percent increase in depression amongst 8th through 12th graders between 2010 and 2015 “correlates with smartphone adoption during that period, even when matched year by year. In the same period, the suicide rate for girls in that age group increased by 65 percent.”

For now, my daughter has a not-so-smartphone, one that allows for texting and calling only. But still, I feel like I’m caught in a losing battle, not sure how much longer I can keep drawing the line.

Swimming Upstream: Consumerism

4. Consumerism

It’s not only smartphones that make empty promises to improve the user experience of our lives. There’s always something new we can buy that will make everything better. 

Unlike a “normal mom,” I don’t buy much, partially because I hate spending money, partially because I care about the environment, and partially because we have a small house that can only hold so much.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, I know better. I don’t want my kids to become frenetic materialists who measure their self-worth through the quantity and quality of their things.

I distinctly remember thumbing through friends’ copies of Seventeen back in middle school, then setting aside the magazine and feeling overcome by an acute desire to go out and buy stuff. This was particularly unusual for me because I was a particularly unusual kid in that I didn’t care much for stuff. While writing my list for Santa, I used to sit and stare at the blank piece of paper, wracking my brain to think of a single thing I really wanted.

But marketing is powerful stuff, particularly for a 12-year-old who is suddenly feeling insecure and questioning everything she thought she knew. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes for those glossy pages to convince me that all my problems would be solved with just the right exfoliating face wash or hydrating shampoo.

My own adolescent daughter never struggled to make a list for Santa; in fact, at age seven she asked him for $90,000 and 100 pieces of jewelry. (Incidentally, seven was also the age at which she stopped believing in Santa.) 

Even though she rarely watches commercials, gets most of her clothes second-hand, and sleeps in the same bed I slept in growing up, our culture’s rampant consumerism has managed to seep through the cracks. My daughter’s dresser is somehow lined end to end with all the latest and greatest products that some YouTube video she at a friend’s house has convinced her will lead to lifelong fulfillment. She is intent on buying her way to self-worth, obsessed with the so-called problems that money + Target can supposedly solve.

And no matter how many “life-changing” things she manages to collect, she will always be hungry for more.

Swimming Upstream: Body image

 5. Body Image

Of course, the quest for products and things is intricately tied up in a culture that tells us we are never good enough. It was in middle school that I first began spending lots of time frowning into the mirror. For my daughter, the frowns began crinkling her brows at age 10. That’s when she made her first comment about being “fat,” even though she was a lean five feet of solid muscle.

But she was already sizing herself up, comparing herself to impossible standards of beauty, worrying about what others thought. I saw in her the slow grasping of “not good enough,” the pursuit of perfection she would never attain.

With AI-generated images and social media “glamor filters,” impossible standards of beauty are only getting more impossible. Studies show at age 13, 53% of girls are “unhappy with their bodies,” a percentage that grows to a staggering but unsurprising 78% by the time they reach 17. And by age 20, 13.2 percent of females will experience an eating disorder.

It all kind of makes me want to flee with my family to an off-grid community with a herd of slightly feral kids who never look in mirrors and entertain themselves with rocks and sticks.

They say we’re overprotective, parents these days, and they are largely right. But we protect our children against the wrong things. We’re worried about letting them walk to school—which actually contributes to their physical health and helps them learn vital life skills—when they face far more risk in their own homes.

If we’re not vigilant, it’s far too easy for them to be exposed to ads that convince them of all the things they absolutely can’t live without, to filtered images of unhealthily skinny women who chirp on about thigh gaps, to bags of processed sugar-filled loot that came from who knows where, to druggified apps that make them feel shitty and lure them away from outdoor play.

What would parenting look and feel like if we didn’t have to work so goddamn hard to fight upstream against all the toxic behaviors and messages that our children swim in daily?

Well to start, given that every single trend cited here has become measurably worse since my own childhood, parenting might look and feel a little more like it did for my parents. That’s not to say my parents’ generation didn’t contend with its own challenges, but the fact that our children are getting progressively sicker is a telltale sign that something is very, very wrong.

If you compound this with everything else that’s gotten harder —for instance, finding childcare, affording shelter, and ignoring climate change — it’s no wonder that today’s parents are exhausted. 

I know, no one wants to hear it. But I’m going to keep talking. And I hope other parents will join the fray. 

Check more of Kerala's stories and subscribe to her Substack publication, "Mom, Interrupted." 


Bye Bye Bots

I don’t really know what the hell a bot is or how it works and frankly, am not that interested in finding out. But a few years ago, when I had a big four or five day spike in the number of people who theoretically read my Blogposts, people told me it was probably bots. So when it started to dramatically rise at the beginning of the month, I didn’t pay it much mind. 


But then it kept going. I mean from the usual 50 to 100 readers a day (at best) to 4,000 per day! For some three weeks in a row! Was it my sudden fame as a movie star? The anticipation and then publication of my new book? My ship finally coming in?


I mentioned it to my daughter and she suggested I look on the blog to find out more. I did find something that looked suspicious. An operating system called Android and some 95% of the hits coming from Singapore. A place where I’ve actually done a lot of work, but not enough to suddenly become famous there. 

So oh well. It was a fun brief fantasy that that many people might have cared about the kind of ideas and stories I share here. But as today’s count shows, the party’s over. Back to 10. 


Meanwhile, it’s my daughter’s birthday today and I thought my gift for her would be to reprint one of her recent pieces while the readership was high. Which I still will do in the hopes that you’ll agree that she’s a wonderful writer with important things to say and a great flair for saying them. And that perhaps you’ll subscribe to her Mom, Interrupted series on Substack.


Meanwhile, it looks like the Androids in Singapore are going to miss it. Their loss. The rest of you humans, stay tuned. 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Hallway of Balloons

Here’s a sweet story that came my way:


Teachers at a school  gave every student a balloon, with instructions to write their name on it and then throw it in the hallway. Once the hallway was packed with balloons, students were given five minutes to find their original balloon. Not a single student could do it. 


The teachers then told students to pick up the balloon closest to them and give it to the person whose name was written on it. Less than five minutes later, every student was holding their own balloon. The moral? Those balloons are like happiness — we’ll never find it if we’re only just looking for our own. If we take time to care about other people’s happiness, we’ll find ours as well.


The story reminds me of another Chinese story. 


What’s the difference between heaven and hell?


In hell, everyone is seated at a sumptuous banquet and given a long pair of chopsticks. As each grabs the food in their chopsticks, they discover it’s too long to be able to get the food into their mouths. All that delicious food in front of them and they’re not able to eat any of it.


In heaven, they pick the food up in those long chopsticks and reach across the table to feed their neighbor. 


I’d love to encourage my teacher daughter to try the balloon thing— nothing like a concrete experience to drive a point home. However, I worry that it would be ecologically wasteful to use all those balloons. Any suggestions?

Driving the Firetruck

Before going to the screening of my film, I took a walk around the lovely town of Larkspur. I’ve had a lot of short interviews lately about the film and I don’t worry too much about preparing, simply trust myself to speak from the heart about what I know and what I’ve lived. But knowing there would be another post-film interview, it was a bit on my mind.


I walked past the fire station and there were two smiling firefighters talking with a woman and gesturing toward the firetruck parked inside. I looked inside and there was a mother with her two-year-old child sitting in the driver’s seat, the boy’s face lit up with the fireworks excitement of it all. “Starting them young!” I quipped and we all laughed.


So of course, I had to connect this with music education. Start them young, teach them how to sound the bells and whistles, give them the training and the tools to quench the dangerous, destructive fires raging in the world, show them their power to help others and the need for them to show up where and when most needed. Teach them to tell the difference between the fires within that provide warmth, that fuel passion (Yeats: “I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head…”) and those that indiscriminately destroy everything in their path. The fiery Cuban salsa rhythms or Balinese gamelan or hot jazz trumpet solos, all forged in the crucible of life-giving form and discipline are good. The random burning of emotion on the rampage— bad. Feed one, get out the firehose for the other. 


Well, maybe not the most potent image or metaphor and I didn’t end up using it in the interview. But fun to think about. And the generosity of the adult firefighters letting the kid sit in the seat is exactly what’s needed, us elders collectively inviting the children into their duty and pleasure as future citizens. Encouraging them, in the words of the old song, to “light their fire” and also tend it, keep it under some measure of control. That’s what music can do. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Simple Harmony

Some algorithm tagged me for “Inspiring Quotes,” yet another thing to try to keep up with in the daily electronic barrage. But sometimes they have some good ones and today, this one hit home. Excusing the gender-specific and exclusive practice of the time, the message well describes my experience in these past few weeks— indeed, years and even decades.


Today I saw The Secret Song film at the Lark Theater in Larkspur, California, my ninth viewing and only two weeks after my eighth viewing at the Garden Theater in Frankfort, Michigan. Though I have memorized some of the dialogue, the infectious smiles of the children throughout the film still make me happy. It was fun to be interviewed afterwards by local celebrity Michael Krasny and especially satisfying to hear the testimonies from the audience about how the film touched them. Walking back to the car, I passed a restaurant where eight women were seated outside and they clapped! Sweet to be a minor celebrity! And at my age, it’s not any ego satisfaction, but the pleasure I feel knowing that they were enticed by the film to care about the same things I do— happy children, the power of music and the surprise of uncovering one’s own “secret song.”


When I first saw the film, I was terrified to see the honest mirror it would reflect back and the real possibility that my teaching wasn’t as good as I felt it to be on the inside. But it turned out that none of it was cringeworthy and instead, simply affirmed the fun I thought I was having with the kids and their happiness in us playing together. For better or worse, it is an authentic and honest portrait of what I have cared about, loved, worked hard to get better at and that indeed, there was no distance between the person I am and the life I’ve lead and continue to lead. I hope that’s true for all of us, but I know that such simple harmony is rare. Which makes me all the more grateful for all the seen and unseen forces that brought this to be. 


The release of the new book gives me the same feeling, the concert I soon will give at SF Jazz also the same, alongside the continued music at The Jewish Home for the Aged, workshops for music teachers. All these distinct parts of my life have converged together and are starting to reach out further than they ever have. Again, the only proper response is gratitude. And hope that it will keep on keeping on.


Getting up on that wheel of public appreciation and numbers of likes or readers or audience members has its own euphoric sense of dazzle— I’d be less than honest if I didn’t own that. But I understand it can be a slippery slope and needs to be balanced by yet more simple pleasures— playing poker with a group of men last night, cooking dinner with my daughter, walking in the park. It’s all part of the same continuum, the harmony between the me I want to be and the life I want to live. May it continue!

The Demon of Distraction


I stumbled into this Blogpost I wrote some three years ago and found it worthy of repetition. See if you agree.


Buddha was a prince who renounced his royalty to become a spiritual seeker. He sampled all the spiritual practices of the day and found them all wanting. And so he sat himself down under the Bo Tree and vowed not to arise until he found the truth he was seeking. During his meditation, he was assailed by demons feeding his fear, by three beautiful women trying to seduce him into the world of desire and refused it all, finally achieving what became known as his enlightenment. And thus, Buddhism was born and a meditation practice began that continues over the long span of some 2500 years to my morning zazen sit on my zafu pillow. 


It was the demon Mara the Tempter who tried to throw Buddha off of his game and failed. But now Mara is reincarnated and has a new strategy of temptations— the i-Phone. I wonder if Buddha could have resisted.


Imagine if Buddha’s story began today.  The Noble One is deep in profound meditation and his phone is dinging with texts. Should he stop and check them? When he takes a break from meditating, should he check Facebook to see how many responded to his Group Event Lecture? Should he look up his breathing ap to see if he fulfilled his quota of 10,000 breaths during the day’s contemplative work? Should he download the Upanishads on his Audible Account and listen for a bit? Could he indeed have resisted all of that? 


I think not. I also think that Newton wouldn’t have discovered gravity checking his messages while sitting under the apple tree and completely ignoring the dropping fruit. Moses would have missed a few of the Ten Commandments when he told God, “Hold on, I need to take this call. “ Thoreau would have missed out on his love affair with a scrub oak while on hold with the IRS trying to explain why he didn’t pay his poll tax. 


And so I’m thankful that we had a few thousand years without the Demon of Distraction. 

I wonder if I can post this from my i-Phone?

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Learning to Play

If “playing to learn” is  the child’s way of frolicking towards understanding with or without an adult by their side, then “learning to play (music, that is)” is the music teacher’s job description. As noted yesterday, teachers who not only understand the importance of the playful playing of music but embody that spirit of play themselves can engage, motivate, inspire their students.


I always begin by playing a children’s game as close to its natural habitat as possible. Simply the fact that it’s indoors in a music classroom that runs by schedule and led by an adult already is quite removed from the street, field, playground with a bunch of kids of all ages just playing and the younger ones learning by watching and doing. So though I often break down learning into some useful sequential steps, I generally just jump in and start clapping and singing, in confidence the kids will join in as they do, using the right hemisphere of the brain to gulp it all down at once.


But I don’t stop there. Once we’ve played the game, this Orff trained adult teacher will extend it into variations beyond what the kids in the playground often do. As mentioned yesterday, strategies like changing the tempo, partner clapping with eyes closed, creating a body percussion interlude as students leave their partner and move to find another, become useful musical exercises, a kind of etudes for techniques and understandings without losing the spirit of play. In stark contrast to dutiful Hanon scales, the music and playful spirit stay at the forefront in the way just right for kids'—and adult’s— preferred method of learning.


But there's more. Some games lead directly to instrumental arrangements of the melodies and accompanying rhythms. Georgie Porgie leads nicely into Haydn’s Surprise Symphony theme, Boom chick a Boom teaches jazz drumming on the trap set, O Mochio introduces the hocketing beat/offbeat shared by two players in Ugandan Amadinda music or Balinese gamelan. Learning to play by playing to learn is not just fun, but supremely effective in achieving musical skills and understandings. By meeting the child in the child and keeping in touch with the child in the adult, the teacher helps nurture the adult in the child and the adult in the adult. A great strategy not only for success in music class, but in helping cultivate children who are wholly children to climb slowly into the maturity and responsibilities of an adult. 


So much havoc in this world is cause by children who were never allowed to be children or were never led consciously into adulthood. So instead of a childlike adult who can both joyfully play and show adult restraint, intelligence and wisdom, we have childish adults throwing tantrums in the halls of Congress, bullying, pouting, teasing, huddling in their hallway cliques excluding others. Failing to create schools where children play to learn and learn to play can have some dire consequences.


Let’s get to work and play!

Monday, September 25, 2023

Playing to Learn

A friend told me about a wonderful class she was taking called “Drawing to Learn.” Boom! For someone like me always searching for the perfect phrase, the reversal of “Learning to Draw” was brilliant! I’m definitely going to borrow (steal) it to describe what sets the Orff approach apart from most music education. 


“Playing to learn” well describes much of the way we make learning music so fun, so joyful, so effective. Every class I teach, every workshop I give, every book I have written, begins with games, the child’s (and adult’s!) preferred mode of learning. Inside the games are just about all the skills, techniques, understandings, stylistic characteristics that any music teacher would be thrilled for their students to know and master. No fancy equipment or instruments or notated scores needed— just voices, bodies and a circle of people of any age willing to play. 


By starting with the game, we connect the group, relax the anxiety of playing notes correctly, release our forever-child’s delight in playing. The air is charged with excitement, laughter and gleeful participation as speech, song, gesture and movement combine and re-combine in artful variations—do this partner clap with your eyes closed/ switching partners each phrase/ fast as you can/ in slow motion as if you’re underwater. The ”out” games provide the needed motivation to be more alert and attentive, the partner-changing games feeds our pleasure in socially mixing, the rhythms energize and coordinate our muscles and nerves, the sung melodies open the heart and join us in harmonious vibration, the movements exercise the body and oxygenate the brain. It’s win-win-win all the way around and back again.


It has now been three years since the pandemic when I began singing on the streets once a week with my neighbors and their children. Even when the pandemic was over and many had moved away to nearby neighborhoods, we still met once a month or so to keep connected with song. The kids kept growing and the song repertoire became our community connection. New friends and neighbors joined in and now each meeting attracts some six or seven different families with kids from 1 to 11 years-old. We met yesterday for the first time since June and I strangely found myself less enthusiastic than usual about sitting around singing the now familiar songs. 


And so I decided not to bring my guitar and play games instead. What a great choice that turned out to be! There were three new families and I essentially gave a music class, starting with a name game in a circle and going on from there to draw from my repertoire of some 40 games of all kinds. Clapping games, quick reaction games, chase games, counting games. The kids were in heaven, but the adults even more so as they let their long dormant inner children out to play with a refreshing zany energy. While the kids were playing to learn, the adults were re-learning how to play. 

We adults have so many worthy groups in our organized meet-ups— singing in choir, speaking Spanish, sketching, line-dancing, exercising, taiko drumming (like the group of over 60 years old women I saw at a street fair yesterday!). But I’ve never heard of a group of adults getting together to play children’s games. Is this my new retirement project? Trust me, it would be a fabulous way for people to get together, in fact, combining in one place just about all of the above! Song, texts in other languages, choreographed dance, exercise, rhythms, drawing shapes and images with our whole bodies, socializing and yet more. 


Would you sign up?


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.