Thursday, November 30, 2023

Roasting, Rapping and Rapport

A music teacher colleague of mine wrote a wonderful piece about some recent classes he taught and posted it on Facebook. I commented: “According to today’s standards, everything you did in this class is wrong, wrong, wrong. And I love it! And most importantly, the kids did too!” He granted me permission to share it on this Blog and here it is. Congratulations to Aaron Kierbel for refusing to drink the Kool-Aid and trust his own intuition.

One of my favorite hip hop songs growing up was “Ya Mama” by Pharcyde.

It’s a playfully absurd diss track where each member of the group takes turns insulting each others’ mothers with quips like “Your mama’s got snake skin teeth,” and “Your mama’s glasses are so thick she look into a map and see people wavin’ at her.”

What I love most about the song is how much fun they’re having with each other. Normally insulting someone’s mom would be an incitement to violence but these guys sound like close friends hanging out, laughing and enjoying one upping each other.

They’re not just playing around having a good time — they’re drawing from an African American tradition called playing the Dozens (or the “Dirty Dozens”) a game of verbal dueling where two people go back and forth exchanging increasingly severe insults about their opponent’s character, appearance or family, to the delight of the group watching, until one of them gives up.

Rapper and scholar KRS-One says the game originated with enslaved Africans. They were usually sold one at a time but if any of the enslaved people had a physical or mental defect, they would be grouped in lots of a ‘cheap dozen’ for sale to slave owners. They would go back and forth with each other in front of the group, making fun of one another’s defects until one person would give up or wanna fight.

This tradition found its way into other forms of African American cultural expression, from blues music to Harlem Renaissance literature to jazz and rap. Author Elijah Wald wrote a fascinating book connecting the Dozens to insult duels in other cultures, such as Arabic rhyming duelsdrum fights of Greenland and Flyting from Medieval England.

This was on my mind this past week when I was teaching a middle school drumming class, all African-American students. I had initiated a group discussion about what each student thought their unique talent was. After each kid had spoken, one student wanted to know what mine was. I gave my go-to answer:

Freestyle rapping.

Naturally, I was put on the spot and asked to demonstrate. Without hesitation, I got a beat going and tried to start rapping but the majority of the class wasn’t paying attention. I announced that if they didn’t quiet down I would turn my freestyle into a roast of each kid.

They all immediately got super quiet and attentive, little grins growing on their faces.

I knew exactly what was going on: They weren’t quiet out of fear — they WANTED to get roasted by me! And I knew they wouldn’t settle for a light roast. The insult needed to be based in truth and have the right amount of diss to be funny without being too mean or inappropriate.

And that’s exactly what I did.

With their full attention, I went around to each kid and dished out an insult which rhymed with their name. There was Amani who “looked like old salami”, Royalty who “smelled like fish oil to me,” Marshaun who needs to “put deodorant on,” Marcel with the “old car smell,” and so on. It got the whole room laughing and participating, even the kid who I was roasting.

They were being good sports about it and none of the kids visibly got their feelings hurt or antagonized one another. Sociologist Harry Lefever and journalist John Leland point out that other ethnic groups often fail to understand how to play the game and can take remarks in the Dozens seriously.

The energy in the class felt just like that Pharcyde song.

I’ve never gotten formal training as an educator, but I would assume that roasting your students is not a recognized tool in the teacher toolbox. But in my 15 year experience working with predominantly African American and Latino youth, it’s clear that, if done in the right way, it’s an effective way to connect, engage, and build rapport with the students.

It allows the student to be seen and joked with in a way usually reserved for their close friends/family. It’s a culturally relevant teaching tool that uses African American cultural traditions as a bridge to connect something familiar in the outside world to the classroom.

It also happens to be a really effective way for the teacher to blow off steam and diffuse the stresses of teaching in a creative and playful way. It shows that the teacher is willing to step out of their typical role and participate in the thing middle schoolers love to do most:

Play with the boundaries of what’s appropriate.


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Vertical and Horizontal

Coming of age in the turbulent late 60’s, I was of the “never trust anyone over 30” generation. I fiercely rejected the idea of the old bearded guy in the sky who demanded my obedience and compliance and didn’t do well with the clean-shaven teachers in my high school either. I signed up to help dismantle the top-down hierarchy that sent young people to war, steered them to Wall Street, modelled both sexual and emotional repression. I went from an all-boys high school that was a Country Day School for Young Gentlemen complete with suit-and-tie dress code and calling your teachers “Sir” to a hip college where I attended protests with some of my teachers, backpacked with them and occasionally smoked marijuana together. The energy shifted from top to bottom to side by side, from a vertical hierarchy to a more horizontal connection. I went from college to teaching at a school where the kids called us teachers by our first names, we played together, camped together, cooked together occasionally. 


But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” I’m re-reading a sleeper book by Robert Bly titled The Sibling Society where as early as the 1990’s, he warns us of the dangers of dismantling hierarchy instead of replacing it with a more positive hierarchy. As he describes it: 


“Paternal society had an elaborate and internally consistent form with authoritative father reflected upward to the strong community leader and beyond him to the father god up among the stars, which were also arranged in hierarchical levels, called the “seven heavens.” Children imitated adults, and were often far too respectful for their own good to authorities of all kinds. However, they learned in school the adult ways of talking, writing and thinking. For some, the home was safe, and the two-parent balance gave them maximum possibility for growth…”


 Less you worry that Bly is evoking a MAGA na├»ve mentality, read on:


“…for others, the home was a horror of beatings, humiliation, and sexual abuse, and school was the only safe place. The teaching at home and in school encouraged religion, memorization, ethics and discipline, but resolutely kept hidden the historical brutalities of the system.”


The above is certainly why things had to change and taking part in that movement, as I did, should not be a matter for shame. But we need to acknowledge a sense of stability that was lost when babies were thrown out with their bathwater and take a look at how we’re suffering in a different way from the result. Read on.


“Our succeeding sibling society, in a relatively brief time, has taught itself to be internally consistent in a fairly thorough way. The teaching is that no one is superior to anyone else, high culture is to be destroyed and business leaders look sideways to other business leaders. The sibling society prizes a state of half-adulthood, on which the repression, discipline and the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system are jettisoned. The parents regress to become more like children, and the children, through abandonment, are forced to become adults too soon and never quite make it. There’s an impulse to set children adrift on their own. The old (in the form of crones, elders, ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers) are thrown away and the young (in the form of street children in south America or latchkey children in the suburbs of this country) are thrown away. …


What the young need—stability, presence, attention, advice, good psychic food, unpolluted stories, the truth of history—is exactly what the sibling society won’t give them. As we look at the crumbling schools, the failure to protect students from guns (Note: This was published in 1996!!!!), the cutting of funds for Head Start and breakfasts for poor children, cutting of music and art programs, we have to wonder whether there might not be a genuine anger against children in the sibling society.”


In short, the dismantling of the old hierarchies has not gone well for children and is getting worse every year. Bly,  who recently left us at 95 years old, would be aghast, but not surprised at where we are almost thirty years later. Indeed, he predicted it!


“Looking at the decline in discipline, inventiveness, persistence, reading abilities and reasoning abilities of adolescents now compared with adolescents thirty years ago, we must be ready to grasp how much steeper the decline will be thirty years from now. “


The good news is that it is possible to dismantle toxic hiearchies without dismissing the notion of vertical culture. We can cultivate a surface respect of younger for elder "just because" while also nurturing the deep respect that comes from the elder’s conscious work of attaining life-affirming wisdom. We can teach children that they are perfect as they are, but have to put in the work to prove it and that it will require some uphill ascent. When I read the statistics and hear the stories of children’s intellectual, emotional and physical health in sharp decline, I believe it, but don’t see it so much in the actual children I’ve known for a half-a- century. There are plenty of schools and plenty of parents doing skillful work in navigating the horizontal/vertical culture divide. It is possible. But not without being aware of these forces at work. 


A lot of food for thought here. Enjoy the meal. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Measure of Love

20.2 gigabytes, to be precise. That’s how much room on my Desktop my School Business folder took up. When the rainbow ball from hell started spinning every five minutes on my computer, I suspected I needed to free up some space. My helpful friend Veronica from Apple Support affirmed that and suggested it was time to delete, delete, delete. Rather than do it piecemeal, one document at a time, I saw that folder and thought “Bingo!”


Rather than open it and read through it all, I just dragged the whole thing to the trash. After all, I’m three years retired from the school and I don’t really need copies of my 4th grade report cards in 2013 or the revised Holiday Play rehearsal schedule or a snarky note from my ex-boss. All that temporal flotsam and jetsam of the daily round that deserves to be sent off into the ether. Especially when I’m finished with the details of that 45-year enterprise.


So into the trash it went, a satisfying little crunch as I emptied the trash and poof! it’s gone. 

I wish I could report some euphoric release, some sense of the ever-hovering dark clouds blown away, some click of a door behind me that sent me off freely into a new adventure. But truth be told, none of that happened. For three clear reasons:


1) Had I read through or at least skimmed each document first, that would have been a proper farewell. It was too abstract to simply remove a folder I’d barely looked at the last three years.


2) Under my real desk is a big box of school paraphernalia awaiting that rainy day (week? Month?) for me to look through and either save a bit longer, pass on or recycle.


3) I actually moved the whole electronic folder to an external hard drive, so that kind of read- before-tossing time might still await me. If I so choose.

Meanwhile, my old computer is happily humming along again, released of the weight of those twenty-plus gigabytes. And inside those documents is the whole glory and catastrophe of the human comedy and tragedy lived in that little building on 300 Gaven Street. Most of it on the glory/comedy side, but nowhere can one give so much love and attention and commitment to a community without facing disappointment, betrayal and loss. I had more than my fair share, in exact proportion to how much I believed in and loved and dedicated myself to that place, those people and our collective mission. It was a sure recipe for some heartbreak and after a glorious 30 years or so, the last 15 were fraught with the pain of trying to defend the school’s character from a new admin that didn’t understand it and felt threatened by those who did. Inside those 20 gigabytes are the records of more beauty and memorable moments than the average human (whoever that is) can expect, but also the evidence of the swamps I trudged through that tried to pull me down into the muck. And sometimes succeeded. 


Most I have forgiven, but none of it is forgotten. In the strange way that wounds are connected to gifts, it ended up making me stronger and clearer and more sure about what I think matters, yet more dedicated to protecting and preserving and passing it all on. It took me a long time to understand this, but these words by David Whyte helped:


"…to realize that you have always had your life shattered and your heart broken and your faith tested by loving too much and too often and that all along, it was never too much and never too often, and that you were never, ever, fully broken. …” (From his poem Still Possible)


And that was the true full measure of my love for the school, far, far beyond 20 gigabytes. 


PS I got a call to sub there today, but had to turn it down because I’m meeting a student I taught in the early 1980’s who is now a school principal. Haven’t seen him for 40 years, but that’s how deep these connections run.  

Monday, November 27, 2023

Family Matters

If you remember typewriters and 8-track players in the car and ditto machines and such, if you listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson and Joni Mitchell as each of their new albums came out, if you were deeply influenced by books like The Catcher in the RyeOn the RoadCatch 22Cat’s CradleThe Autobiography of Malcom X and more, you might be around my age. And perhaps in those formative college years, you acquainted yourself with a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Gibran was born in Lebanon, came to the U.S. at 12 years old and published this book in 1923 at 40 years old, a book that became one of the best-selling books of all time, translated into over 100 languages.


I haven’t thought it about it for a long time and now am curious about re-reading it and seeing if it holds up. I thought of it this morning wanting to write a bit about my children, since my second daughter Talia just turned 39 yesterday. I remember there was a passage about children and here it is:


 Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not bad, Mr. Gibran! A good reminder to parents with children of all ages. Combined with James Baldwin’s  'Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.' they cover two essential truths:

1. Each of us is born with our own ingrained destiny, our own essential purpose and style and character that is wholly independent of our parents. 

2. That inner sense of our particular genius is also influenced and affected by our parents, both in our rejections and our carrying forth. 

I feel both with my own children. I’m deeply connected with Kerala through our mutual love of writing and the similar themes we write about. Likewise, deeply connected with Talia in our mutual paths as teachers and our leadership in ceremonies and group gatherings. In both cases, the uniqueness of their voice and perspective is clear, coming from their own experience, their female point of view and the influence of their different generation, friends and peers. We all love to cook and hike and read (sometimes the same books, sometimes quite different) and travel and play games, all of which is a great pleasure whenever we gather together. We rarely have a single political disagreement. 

At the same time, despite piano lessons for both and four years of Talia playing sax in high school, neither followed the music path as players and both listen to music much more to the current pop side than the timeless jazz and classical and world music side. Neither sits zazen (though I did do a one-day Zen retreat with Kerala many years ago) nor does Crostic puzzles. Neither tends to go to concerts or jazz clubs or to my wife’s dismay, to art museums. Likewise, she has not been able to convince either to knit or sew, though they both have solid visual art skills. 

You might note the slight edge of disappointment about the above— and likewise with our grandchildren. Zadie doesn’t care to read, though is loving drawing and Malik loves to read and draw, but not sing. Both are athletic, funny and love to play games and Zadie is starting to play my favorite Solitaire game. 

So thanks to Mr. Gibran for the reminder that all of them are their own people, with their own bodies and thoughts and Souls that “dwell in the house of tomorrow” and my job as a parent and grandparent is, has been, and will be to be the mere bow aiming at a target I can’t see and they can, doing my best to shoot the arrows swift and far. 

And so a happy birthday to Talia! Twang! 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Time Well Spent

I have no claims to any enlightenment experiences, extraordinary talents, elevated humanity that have brought me well-deserved and hard-earned fame and fortune. But I have made some good choices as to what I considered important and put in the needed time to accomplish some. They have been proven time and again to be useful, to bring something worthy to various occasions and uplift me in the process. Simple things that any of us can do if only we thought them important. May I suggest you consider them? 

Here’s my partial list:


• Memorizing poems: I’ve chosen some 20 to 30, mostly classics from Shakespeare, Yeats Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Oliver and such. Useful for reciting (not reading) at weddings, funerals, Thanksgiving grace, workshops and more.


• Jokes: Lots of them. If I meet a fellow enthusiast, we trade back and forth, each one suggesting the other. Again, good openers in public speaking and crucial to have some on hand when hanging out with children.


• Storytelling: Some 15 to 20 in my repertoire drawing from fairy tales, folk tales, myths. Perfect when hiking with grandchildren complaining that they’re tired, for bedtime stories and for gatherings around the campfire.


• Songs—Some 200 songs with melodies, guitar chords and words all at my fingertips and tip of my tongue, mostly from the folk repertoire. Again, perfect for anything gathering with children, but good for adults to and a healing experience in the pandemic neighborhood sings I led. Additionally, another two to three hundred jazz songs with melodies and chords on piano (but not always all the lyrics), perfect for my weekly gatherings for seniors at The Jewish Home for the Aged. 


• Children’s games: Again, some 20 to 30 I can call up without much effort to enliven any music class, be in with kids or an adult workshop. Some 15 folk dances can be included here.


• Card Tricks: Have been spending Thanksgiving break with my granddaughter remembering some we learned from a book I gave her and learning some five or six more. Up to maybe 10 on a good day. Good to have at hand stuck at airports when a fellow stranded passenger started showing me his.


Juggling: Useful when a group of Guatemalan children back in 1975 gathered around me while traveling through their town. And other such occasions.


Add to the above skills like leaf-popping and table rhythms and you have the foundation for a life well-lived. And note that all of the above is stored in the muscle-mind-memory and is not dependent on a single electronic device, book or piece of paper. So also good when walking to keep yourself company—especially the poems.


Give it a try! 

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Fibonacci Thanksgiving

1) I

1) am

2) grateful

3) for this chance

5) to gather here now

8) with this beautiful family

13) and the presence of those absent who have shared before

21) the bounties of this grand glorious earth—grains, fruits, vegetables, meats. 

         May we be worthy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Speakling Spelled Syllables

Again, the many-headed hydra of invasive e-mails is increasing—35 out of today’s 35 e-mails, to be exact. But one of them is from one I actually enjoy called “Inspiring Quotes,” which included the above from Victor Hugo. The opening phrase is common knowledge in my field, but the second clause opens up a new perspective. Well done, Mr. Hugo! It reminds me of William Carolos Williams quote: 


“It is difficult to get the news from poems,  yet men die miserably every day  for lack of what is found there.”


Which leads to yet another Victor Hugo quote from his masterwork Les Miserables.


“You are always eager to make everything useful, yet here is a useless plot. It would be much better to have salads here than boquets.”


…the bishop replied, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a moment’s pause. “Perhaps more so.”


I read Les Miserables many years back and have several pages of notable quotes from that extraordinary piece of literature. As a lifelong reader, I’m enjoying many modern authors, but there is a clear difference between fiction and literature. The latter— Dickens, Hugo, Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger— all tell good compelling stories with memorable characters, but go further into reflections on the human condition that ennoble us, open us, transform us. How rare to find that in even the best of today’s authors. (I can imagine some outraged disagreement here and would be happy to have a conversation that proves me wrong!). 


In my pages of quotes, I have various categories and since art, education, poetry, social justice and such are always on my mind, those are some that attracted my attention. More to come. 


• Man lives by affirmation even more than he does by bread. 


• The two highest functionaries of the state are the wet-nurse and the school teacher.


• The true division of humanity is this; the luminous and the dark. 


To diminish the number of the dark, to increase the number of the luminous, there is the aim. That is why we cry; Education! Knowledge! To learn to read is to kindle a fire, every syllable spelled sparkles.


May your spoken spelled syllables sparkle!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Family Time

“Thirty More Years” by Wendell Berry

When I was a young man,
grown up at last, how large
I seemed to myself! I was a tree,
tall already, and what I had not
yet reached, I would yet grow
to reach. Now, thirty more years

added on, I have reached much
I did not expect, in a direction
unexpected. I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.


Though I’m off my old school schedule, it still says with me somehow. Thanksgiving is coming and I feel like I’m on vacation. Maybe not so surprising, as the upcoming road-trip to Oregon to spend the occasion with Kerala, Ronnie and the grandkids announces a change of routine. The next twelve squares on my calendar are blank, another message that vacation is here. Though the days have been sunny and warm, the nights have a chill that proclaims that winter is coming and it’s time to turn a bit more inward. 


Truth be told, I don’t always do well with too much “free time,” preferring the rhythmic routines that sustain me. Here in San Francisco that has come to include daily walks (8 miles yesterday!), piano playing, cooking, a bit of teaching, lunches with friends and such. I do enjoy the shift that the break in routine offers, but start to feel a bit restless. 


At 72 years young, I still feel very much on the path of “becoming” and I suspect I always will. But there is wisdom in leaning a bit more towards “being,” to consider the downward gaze into the grasses even as I keep looking up at the heavens. To balance the willful energetic climb up the mountain with the graceful letting go and falling like an autumn leaf. To enjoy the busyness of my daily business, but equally feel at home with time stretching out with nowhere particular to go. 


Not that Thanksgiving with the extended family will feel like blissful navel-gazing. There will be the explosive energy of the kids, games, games, games, the bustle in the kitchen, some hiking out into the wintry air of Bend, Oregon. A different kind of routine, none of which will add to my resume, yet one I’ve always valued and enjoyed. Family time. 


Any English majors amongst you will notice a great confusion of themes not clearly related in the four paragraphs above. Though it deserves some re-working, hey, I gotta pack. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

Reverse Resume

 The folks hosting my Australian Jazz Course in January asked me to send them evidence of my qualifications and demonstrated excellence in my field. Before sending the real thing, I had fun sending this (which is actually true and real as well!). 


• Got a C in music on my 3rd grade report card.

• Took organ and piano lessons from 1st through 8th grade and then quit both.

• Failed the High School Glee Club audition.

• By high school graduation, couldn’t read a simple chord chart, improvise or dance.

• Got a B.A. in Education from a college that gave me credit for hitchhiking, canoeing and wine-tasting. 

• Never got a Masters or Doctorate Degree.

• Never got a teacher accreditation. 

• Got hired by a school whose interview procedure consisted of camping with 60 kids for a week. 

• Was teaching a preschool music class that ran out of the room and down the school hallway. 

• Got fired from The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 

• Got suspended twice and put on probation for a year from the school where I started a music program and taught there for 45 years.


If that doesn’t impress them, I don’t know what will!

Sunday, November 19, 2023

105th Heavenly Birthday

Dear Dad,


These days on something called Facebook, people are wishing their deceased parents a happy Heavenly Birthday. (FYI, Facebook was just starting up the year you left us in 2007). Using their old Earthly Birthday as a reminder to keep in touch, give thanks, let people know how they still live on in us. Or would it be more accurate to say, “Happy 16thHeavenly Birthday!” noting the number of years you’ve been gone rather than the 105 you would be had you stayed with us. (Not impossible! Our— Ginny’s and my— Zen teacher lived until 108!).


At any rate, you don’t look one bit older in the two photos of you on my desk that I greet every morning. One with you and Mom in Sausalito and the other of you and me playing cards, you kind of laughing and me smirking like my hand is about to beat yours. Likewise, the lovely painting you did back in 1963 of a canal in Belgium, probably modeled on a National Geographic photo, still hangs in our hallway as vibrant as it was back in our New Jersey home. When I pull a pair of pants off the back of my chair and coins fall onto the floor, I exclaim without pause “Dad!,” in memory of my childhood practice of running into your bedroom when the same thing happened to you and swooping up the coins that you let me keep if I got to them before you. And of course, there’s the Crostic puzzles you taught me how to do late in life that I used to mostly reserve for plane rides and now, like you, do one just about every day. You see how much you are still with me.


As for the report from planet Earth, things remain the best of times (particularly in my personal life) and the worst of times (the rest of the damned, demented world). The Mideast is yet again in crisis, the summers are getting hotter and the winters colder, an entire political party is certifiably insane and certainly clear traitors to the Constitution and all the hoopla about how electronic media would connect us turns out to be not only making us lonelier than ever, but giving permission for the worst parts of ourselves to blather our ugliness in public, often causing great damage to innocent sensitive souls like our children. You and I mostly have shared the perception that “the world is being shaved by a drunken barber” and felt like we didn’t need to read about it every day. But of course, I need to keep up with a certain amount when staying “informed” feels important, even as it tries to extinguish any flame of hope. 


As for the family news, Ginny is still teaching some dance, recently resigned from the Mt. Baldy Zen Center Board and came for the first time to Lake Michigan last summer!  Jim is still working part-time and decided recently to stop playing golf. Karen continues happily in her manner to do everything with small groups of women friends. The biking group, hiking group, sketching group, sewing group and beyond! Talia continues to be 5thgrade teacher extraordinaire, still running marathons and backpacking every chance she gets. Still unlucky in the love department and about to turn 39 in one week, not looking promising for her to b e a mother. Not that everyone has to be, but still some sadness there. Kerala keeps churning out her great writing, but hasn’t hit the sweet spot of getting published—yet. Ronnie is switching from being a practicing hand therapist to being a teacher of occupational therapy at a college, which I think will suit him well. Your great-granddaughter Zadie, who you never have met, turned 12 yesterday and great-grandson Malik is 8. So sorry you didn’t get to meet them nor they you.


And speaking of great-grandchildren, there are a lot suddenly from Ginny and Jim’s side~ Ian’s two children, Kyle just became a father (imagine that!) a few months ago and Damion and Roxie are expecting in January. The Goodkin clan will continue, though a bit sadly, none with our last name!


As for me, so much has happened in these last sixteen years! Up to ten books, a CD, a movie, continued world travels teaching, this Blog, still playing piano at the Jewish Home, something you never witnessed but Mom enjoyed so much. At 72 years young, I’m close to the age you were when you moved out to California to spend you last 15 years close to your children (and we are so grateful that you did). The short story is that I feel at the peak of my powers—mentally, physically, artistically, spiritually—and though I could do without the neck flab and need to finally get a hearing aid, I’m simply grateful for it all and savoring it while it lasts.


So Dad, that’s the report from Planet Earth. I’m not expecting a return letter and what/where/how/who you are is far beyond my feeble imagination. But if indeed our remembrance of you keeps you alive in one form or another, I’m happy to report you are lovingly remembered and will continue to be for as long as I’m still here. Happy birthday!


Your loving son,



Pre-Teen User Model

 Rarely have adults made so much fuss about a 12-year old’s birthday! But having posted two entries on the subject, I’ll share one more, written by daughter, the birthday girl’s Mom.  It is so satisfying to feel my daughter and I both as writers (and my other daughter as well, when she has a moment free from teaching) so exactly on the same page with our perceptions, our concerns, our values. But not our styles. Though I could be jealous that for my money, she is the more artful writer, I’m not in the least. My predominate emotion around her writing, after the smiles and “a-has!” and “ Yes’s!” is frustration that the publishing industry hasn’t swooped her up and included her in the Anne Lamott/ David Sedaris genre. Anyone out  there care to be the one who “discovered” a bright new talent?” if you need convincing, read on:

A User Manual For Your New Pre-Teen

By Kerala Taylor (published on and Substack)

Please remember, there are no refunds or exchanges

Congratulations on your decision to upgrade from a cuddly Child to a prickly Pre-Teen! If you don’t remember making this decision, that’s because your Child has been recalled, and we are sending you this mandatory upgrade free of charge.

Don’t forget to register your Pre-Teen to access maintenance tips, video demos, and a 24/7 scream hotline designed to help you vent your frustrations. In the meantime, please take a few moments to read this manual and get acquainted with your Pre-Teen to ensure the best performance.

Be advised: Results may vary.

Assembling Your Pre-Teen

Your Pre-Teen is fully assembled, but some parts may appear to be malfunctioning. This is normal. A Pre-Teen is not designed to be fully functional. Though a full wardrobe is included with your Pre-Teen, items in it will frequently disappear, develop mysterious stains, or be found wadded up in the back of the closet reeking of mildew.

Programming your Pre-Teen

Your Pre-Teen has two settings: HOT and COLD. Pre-Teen guardians are unable to control which mode may be activated at any given time. Signs that your Pre-Teen is in COLD mode include frequent eye-rolling, sensitivity to human touch, and a proclivity to recline on couches or beds while staring listlessly at the ceiling.

Signs that your Pre-Teen is in HOT mode include dramatic gestures, exasperated groans, and excessive references to things and people “sucking.” Your Pre-Teen may toggle between HOT and COLD modes multiple times in the course of a single hour. If your Pre-Teen gets stuck in HOT mode, they are at high risk of entering the DANGER ZONE. (See Important Safety Instructions below.) Proceed with caution.

Cleaning Your Pre-Teen

Your Pre-Teen is designed to be self-cleaning, but many guardians report that their Pre-Teen still frequently smells. Pre-Teens are highly sensitive and guardians should not, under any circumstances, draw attention to any unpleasant odors that may be detected. Unwanted comments may cause your Pre-Teen to enter the DANGER ZONE. (See Important Safety Instructions below.) Proceed with caution.

Care and Upkeep of Your Pre-Teen

Proper Pre-Teen care consists of four essential elements: 1) positive affirmations, 2) validation, 3) space, and 4) breakfast cereal. It is important to keep an abundant supply of breakfast cereal on hand at all times, as some Pre-Teen models may require up to one box per day. A shortage of breakfast cereal may cause your Pre-Teen to enter the DANGER ZONE. (See Important Safety Instructions below.) Proceed with caution.

Important Safety Instructions

It is recommended that guardians agree on a safe word designed to help warn one another when a Pre-Teen is approaching the DANGER ZONE. Signs that your Pre-Teen is approaching the DANGER ZONE include theatrical proclamation-making, extravagant foot-stomping, and unnecessary door-slamming. While in the DANGER ZONE, your Pre-Teen may repeatedly express a desire to have never been born.

In the event that your Pre-Teen reaches the DANGER ZONE, place them immediately in a quiet room and close the door to prevent short-circuiting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I upgrade my Pre-Teen?
The next model in our series is the Teen, and we believe it is in your best interest to wait until the upgrade becomes mandatory.

Is my Pre-Teen under warranty?
No. Your Pre-Teen cannot be repaired or replaced.

What if my Pre-Teen has a manufacturer’s defect?
Guardians must take full responsibility for any defects detected in their Pre-Teens.

How can I provide feedback?
If you have any feedback you’d like to provide about your Pre-Teen, please keep it to yourself. Pre-Teens are impervious to your input.

Again, congratulations on joining the millions of guardians around the world who have welcomed a Pre-Teen into their home! Guardians unanimously report that their Pre-Teen is “life-changing” and there is “never a dull moment.”

On behalf of our entire team, we wish you the best of luck. You are going to need it. 

Life As a Verb

The one thing no one ever tells you when you get in line to be born or decide to have children or get married is that the moment you get used to who you are and who your kids are and who your partner is or who your family and friends are, it all changes. Now you have to get to know an entirely new set of people. There’s a vague sense of a noun gathered in your name and the face in the mirror, but the real truth is that you are a constantly changing and flowing verb, conjugated time and time again with each passing of time. Just when you learn to love one version of it all, it changes. Sometimes dramatically so and irrevocably so. 


How often have we wished we could freeze this moment, keep our kids a perpetually fresh and curious and funny six-year old that can also set the table and watch a few of the same movies with us. How often have we wished that we ourselves could return to that 28-year old traveling around the world or 36 year old sharing the magic of Bali with his wife and two daughters or that 52 year old teaching in the first Special Course at the Orff Institut in Salzburg. Truth be told, I’d be quite happy to stay this 72-year old in peak mental, physical and emotional condition. But linear time has other plans.


Of course, there are many periods in our lives when we’re grateful for the changes. Certainly as kids, always anticipating with delight the next stage of growing up. Except for a few wistful glances 8th  graders in my school would give watching the preschoolers running around in their underwear getting squirted by their teachers with a hose on  a hot day, we eagerly awaited each next step in growing independence. As parents enduring the rolled eyes of the child who once looked up in loving adoration, we are eager for the years to pass by just a bit faster. And in our own lives when life’s insistent foot on our necks drove us to despair, depression, divorce, what have you, we wanted a new incarnation of ourselves. 


All of this on my mind with my granddaughter Zadie’s 12th birthday. I confess to some nostalgia for her earlier versions, cozying up with a book or laughing over silly things or watching an old Hitchcock film without a whimper of complaint about it being old and in—gasp!— black and white. Zadie hit puberty way too early at nine years old, so her pre-adolescence has been with us for a while and the explosive moments we’ve had when I shut off Eminem while driving in the car have not been pretty. She’s always been an explosive child, but now the detonation happens faster and with more force. I find myself eager for her to be 15 with the beginning of a new maturity. Though with some sense of anxiety about “be careful what you wish for!”


I fully understand—well, maybe not understand, but accept— Nature’s insistence that kids on the road to independence need to “go through” a phase of separation from parents/adults, obsession with peer popularity, short grunts when asked questions about their day, a reduction of can-do confidence and increasing self-doubt. I also recognize that these thorny paths are different for boys and girls (and yet more complex for trans). In his book The Sibling Society, Robert Bly notes:


“Before adolescence the wild part of a girl, the feisty, opinion-filled part, can remain connected with the more socialized “favorite girl” part. But around 5th grade, trouble begins. After fifth grade, girls often split up with their old best friends. The question of popularity arises. If a girl is seen as a drag or a nerd, her girlfriends may abandon her for the friendship of more popular girls. Even worse, she may abandon herself. It’s very difficult for a girl, particularly in our culture, to keep the two parts of herself in balance. The pressure will be to suppress the wild part and become utterly engrossed in attractiveness, femininity, passivity and popularity.”


All well and good. Well, not exactly good, but real. But it gets worse. Bly then quotes Mary Pipher from her book Reviving Ophelia:


“In America in the 1990’s, the demands of the time are so overwhelming that even the strongest girls keel over in adolescence–Sexual and physical assault on girls are at an all-time high. Now girls are more vulnerable and fearful, more likely to have been traumatized and less free to roam about alone. This combination of old stresses and new is poison for our young women.”


Ah, the 1990’s! Talk about wanting to freeze time. Compared to today, that was a Golden Age before social media multiplied everything by a thousand. The stress and fear and vulnerability is more poisonous than ever and I fear for that innocent granddaughter I once knew. The Portland Schools are on strike at the moment and it’s not happy for kids, parents or teachers, but how disturbing that part of me feels, “Well, at least she’ll have a little vacation from the stresses of being in Middle School.” Not a good situation.


Finally, I got to talk to Zadie on Facetime (the price we pay for increased electronic connectivity— is it worth it?) and I read out loud to her the letter I posted yesterday. And am so happy to report that she listened with rapt attention and not a single roll of an eye. She reminded me that inside of this roiling, swirling, confusing verb of her present 12-year old self, her tender and wild self is still alive and well, even if it needs to hide in the corner for a bit. She sincerely seemed to appreciate the love I already felt for her on her first day of life and hopefully took it in to feel its forever embrace. 


One more look at the subject coming up from my daughter’s perspective, with her usual superior writing style, sense of humor and hitting all the nails square on the head.


Saturday, November 18, 2023

Love Letter to My First Grandchild

I was in Portugal teaching Orff workshops when the news came— I was now a grandfather. 

On this day many years back, Zadie Taylor entered this world and my life. I was sitting in a Fado music club when the news came and grabbed a napkin and wrote her a letter. 


And now she’s twelve. To mark the occasion, I will read this letter out loud to her on the phone. Interesting to note the things that I hoped to share with her that I actually have— all but the foreign travel. Also interesting to note that I suggested we might take such trips together as early as her age today! Not in the plans at the moment, but could be. Or I’ll wait until fifteen, hoping that some of which I’ll mention in the next two posts will have passed.


The letter: 


Oh, Zadie, you are only one-day old, but you’re already changing my life. I’m sitting in a Fado club in the Barrio Alto of Lisbon and thinking that I’m going to take you here some day. When you’re 12 or 15 or some such age, we’ll go to Europe and take the cable car up the Lisbon hills and go to Club Luso. We’ll sit at our table, enraptured by the beautiful sounds of the three guitars and the sensuous singers whose words we might not catch, but whose meaning is clear: “This life is full of beauty and wonder and sounds, dances, songs that grew in Portuguese soil, but can touch anyone’s heart.” Maybe they’ll invite me up on stage again as they did tonight holding a wreathed arch and I’ll do tricky little dance steps that will surprise the musicians and impress the tourists and maybe you’ll be proud of your old Grandpa and not roll your eyes the way my children were required to do. We’ll take a cab back and chat with the amiable and knowledgable taxi driver who will tell us, as mine did tonight, how the ukelele came from Madeira to Hawaii and how Music, Mathematics and Metaphysics are the three most important things in life. Then we’ll walk into the Hotel Opera, where two men will be singing arias in the lobby and you’ll think, “This is definitely not the Ramada Inn!”


The next day, we’ll walk along the river looking at the bridge so much like the Golden Gate Bridge and if the future unfolds as I would like it to, I’ll show you where the monument to Columbus used to be until people finally decided to not pay homage to such a cruel man or celebrate such a greedy bid for power and money that caused so much harm. Perhaps we’ll go to the coast and I’ll tell you the story of how your great-Aunt Ginny and great-Uncle Jim slept on a beach in a sheltered cove in their newlywed European year abroad and then were awakened with water lapping at their sleeping bags, realizing just in the nick of time that the tide was coming in and narrowly escaping. 


Or we’ll head north to Galicia and I’ll show you the park where Grandma Karen, Aunt Talia, your Mom and I had a perfect picnic lunch on our journey through Spain, close to the spot where I abruptly stopped our rented car and jumped out to see the Galician bagpipers and then show them my Bulgarian one. Who knows? Maybe by the time we take our trip, I’ll have actually learned how to play that thing decently. 


You see what you have done? Given me something new to dream about and made me giddy with anticipation of sharing with you all the things I love in this world. The trip to the Cherry Bowl Theater in Michigan will have new meaning with you in the back seat ready for your first Drive-In Movie. I can’t wait to take you on my favorite bike ride in Salzburg or ride the Staten Island Ferry after visiting my old home in New Jersey or go see the elephants at the Pooram Festival in Kerala, the place your mother was named for.


I’m reserving tickets at the Castro Theater for the Sound of Music Sing-a-Long, anxious to show you the Calaveras Big Trees where we all used to camp with 60 SF School kids, ready to take you to the chicken place in Madrid after a day in the Prado. Oh, the places we’ll go and the sights that we’ll see! 


So little Zadie, hope your first day was a happy and healthy one. Drink your milk, get plenty of sleep and grow up to be big and strong and ready to travel with your Grandparents. Maybe if your Mom and Dad are nice to us, we’ll let them come along too.