Thursday, February 29, 2024

Leap Day

Here we are, granted with an extra day. What will you do with yours? What will the world do? What if we declared it “Topsy-Turvy Day” and did everything the opposite of what we usually do? Israelis and Palestinians cross over the lines and enjoy a day playing board games together. Republicans and Democrats cook breakfast together and share stories about why they wanted to be in politics, what ideals they once held. Billionaires sell their super-yachts and turn the money over to school music programs. Everyone of all persuasions makes a list of everyone who has ever done them wrong and then forgives them all. Why not?

 

Well, probably because we’re the flawed human beings we are and it’s easier to just keep on with business as usual even if it harms us and others. So for some, it will be 24 hours more to savor this precious life and see what miracles we can notice and what kindnesses we can offer to someone. For others, it will be carrying on our self-destructive and world-destructive habits. For some, perhaps a combination of both.

 

As for me, it’s a rainy day in San Francisco, so unless I’m ambitious enough to brave the weather with an umbrella, I’ll have to pause from five straight days of vigorous walking. I have a dentist appointment late morning and a sushi birthday dinner for my wife with my daughter and the rest probably the usual catch up with e-mails and piano playing just for the pleasure of it. Oh, and pick up the new toaster oven at Cole Hardware because ours finally gave up the ghost.

 

One think I know is that there won’t be any leaping today. Feeling it harder to simply tie my shoes and get in and out of cars, it’s clear those days are gone. Happy Leap Day!

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Turning Sixty

It is my wife’s birthday today and no, she’s not turning sixty. More like 74.

 

It is also the birthday of my dear friend Julie (aka Ralf), who was my student when she was twelve and now (I think) is turning 64. 

 

It is also the birthday of my colleague James Harding, who I first met in Bali for ten minutes when he was 23. We met again in San Francisco when, at 26 years old, he came one day to observe me teaching a music class. And stayed for the next 30 years. Even in my retirement, we still teach side-by-side in the Orff summer course. And yes, he is the one turning 60. 

 

To mark the occasion, I sent him an old Chinese poem to remind him that these milestone turning of years is as old as ancient China and both our astonishment and our hopeful reflections seem to be a universal human experience. Here’s what Po Chu-I, a Chinese poet from the 8th century, had to say on the subject:

 

ON BEING SIXTY

Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts. 

Between seventy and eighty, one is prey to a hundred diseases. 

But from fifty to sixty, one is free from all ills.

Calm and still, the heart enjoys rest.

 

I have put behind me Love and Greed; I have done with Profit and Fame.

I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.

Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills.

Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.

As leisure I open new wine and taste several cups.

Drunken I recall old poem and sing a whole volume. 

Meng-te has asked for a poem and, herewith I exhort him

Not to complain of three-score, ‘the time of obedient ears.’

                           (Translated by Arthur Waley)

 

Looking for this poem, I uncovered something I wrote for a performance at an Orff Conference that James and I were involved in. It was from our group Xephyr, a group of some seven Orff teachers who decided to create pieces applying the way we taught kids to our own creative impulses. This year, 1999, we invited other Orff friends and did a show with some twenty of us. One of the highlights was a piece about time that included Heidi Tzortsis, the oldest member of our group who had just (gasp!) turned sixty. Amidst our playing, singing and dancing, she read something I had written, an adaptation of a passage from Sandra Cisneros. As follows:

 

"What they don't understand about getting older and what they never tell you is that when you're sixty, you're also 59, 58, 57, 56, all the way down to 1. You look in the mirror and you see 'sixty' but inside you're still 8 or 18 or 42. You take the ferry and stand up front watching seagulls soar and suddenly, you're 23 on your first trip to a Spanish island with your whole life ahead of you. Or you go to a high school reunion and you're 16 again, palling around with the guys and flirting with Phyliss and Barbara. Or you just sit in your chair on a rainy night reading old journals and you feel your full sixty years, amazed by and grateful for the adventure your life has been.

 

So when you wake up each morning, there's 60 different people you can be! You just open your eyes and think, "What age shall I be today?"

 

That’s why, though wisdom is not guaranteed by the simple addition of years, those who live life with their eyes and minds and hearts wide open have something to offer inaccessible to the younger ones. They may be 25, but so are you, with the additional bonus of 26, 27, 28 all the way on up and all the lessons those years have offered.

 

The punch line: Happy birthday to all these important people in my life and everyone, please respect your elders! (Including Joe Biden!)

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Cat on a Warm Wood Deck

On a recent plane trip, one of the movies offered was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I vividly remember seeing that as a teenager, this Tennessee Williams story with Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives. My main memory was a lot of adults shouting at each other and some excessive alcohol. I watched the trailer on the plane and it proved my memory to be correct. I decided I didn’t especially want to hang out these people for two hours and chose another movie. I didn’t feel like getting my cat’s feet burned on that hot tin roof.

 

I thought of this yesterday having lunch in the sun on my warm wood deck. There was a cat on the railing also basking in the sun and I had the good sense to observe her. I thought of Whitman’s lines from Song of Myself:

 

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
 
Taking this time to enjoy the sun with the cat, I could feel the return of that self often buried in to-do lists,
 not present when scrolling through the phone, blurred by the stress and anxieties of daily life. The cat’s 
contentment was my own at that moment, both of us just savoring a moment of deep peace warmed by 
the sun. For the cat, it is second nature—or rather, first nature. For us humans, we have to make a special 
effort to remember, to consciously decide to take time like this. Really, we are one confused species! Time
and time again, choosing to be hopping around on a hot tin roof over sitting contently on a warm wood deck.
As Whitman notes, again praising the animals: 
 
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

He got that right! I haven’t had a pet cat for over 15 years now, but I hope the one who wandered into
my yard will come back again, reminding me to sit still and enjoy. 
 

Monday, February 26, 2024

My Carnegie Hall

My relationship with piano performance has been consistently off the beaten path. Though I started playing piano at 6 years old and never stopped, I didn’t dare claim myself as a musician until I turned 60. Even then, the usual choices of concert hall or jazz club didn’t quite fit. Here’s where I’ve played in the last five months or so:

 • The Jewish Home for the Aged, every Friday I’m in town and now tailoring my repertoire toward the particular songs I know particular residents love. 

• SFS Jazz Center, sneaking in through the back door of Family Concerts. 


• Playing 90 minutes at the house of someone consciously dying through Euthanasia. Then weeks later at his Memorial Service. 

 

• Playing the piano in my school music room when I subbed, warming up the space before the kids come in as I did for 45 years. At my retirement, many teachers and kids remarked on how that made such a special start to their day as they walked past the room. 

 

• A house concert with saxophonist Joshi Marshall mixing classical music and jazz. 

 

• Another one-piece performance with Joshi and singer Rhonda Benin as a “palette cleanser” in a concert for two pieces for 12 pianos. In the magnificent acoustic space of Grace Cathedral. 

 

• A “history of jazz” solo piano concert as part of my recent Jazz Course in Sydney, Australia. 

 

Like I said, all unorthodox venues off the beaten path. And then yesterday, meeting my nephew’s 6-week-old son and having the honor of playing the first piano music of his young life. I’m happy to report that after some cranky whining, he immediately got quiet when I started to play and stayed listening attentively until the end. I began with Bach’s Prelude No. 1, then on to Jeepers Creepers in honor of his big wide eyes (singing, ”Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peeper, Jeepers, Creepers, where’d you get those eyes?”). On I went with Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, the jazz tune A Child is Born, one waltz by Strauss and one by Chopin, the tango-ish La Paloma and then ended with an improvised blues. He was with me all the way! 

 

Whether 6-weeks old or a 103 years old, whether playing at a birth (haven’t yet) or a death, a wedding or memorial service or a simple gathering at someone’s house, at a jazz center or cathedral or retirement home, these are my Carnegie Halls, the kind of concerts I was made to play. May there be more!

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Crossing the Borders

I was talking to a colleague yesterday, agreeing that both our daughters had become fantastic teachers. At the same time, lamenting that both seemed to have sipped some of the Kool Aid that we had unknowingly served them— this business of calling out “cultural appropriation” when stepping over some imaginary line their generation has drawn. This disturbing trend that everyone needs to stay in their own lane and that if you’re “white,” you can create a piece about the Potato Famine in Ireland but not Japanese incarceration in the U.S.. If you’re Asian, it’s okay to teach yoga but you can’t say “Namaste” in class unless you’re Indian. (These are two actual examples from high school students). Which, as Black activist songwriter Melanie DeMoore notes, has the Republicans rubbing their hands with delight as the Left sends everyone back to their own corner, back to separate tribes. 

 

As someone who has spent a lifetime crossing borders and bringing back riches to be integrated into a new, larger, more inclusive culture, I find this deeply disturbing. Of course, cultural appropriation is real and damaging and I can give a thousand examples of people with political and economic power benefitting from stealing from the cultural treasures of the poor and disenfranchised. But that is different from cultural sharing, a practice I will defend until my last breath. At the same time we need to give more voice and opportunity for people within cultures to be “culture-bearers” and represent first-hand, we also have to recognize that what we celebrate in other cultures, particularly in the field of the arts, is something both exquisitely unique to the time/place/ circumstance of those cultural creators and also deeply universal, available to and able to touch all. And that simply being born into a culture does not confer that power to represent— it is earned by the long, hard work of tuning into that universal and available to all. 

 

To this point, I just read a powerful few passages in Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem. While so many have dismissed cultures they know nothing about (especially all of us touched by white supremacy), my contacts with people, musical studies and brief immersions in Dzodze,Ghana/ Kerala, India/ Ubud, Bali (for example) often have me romanticizing cultural and artistic practices from these places that have much to teach the world. But over-romanticizing a culture can be as dangerous as dismissing them, as there is not a single culture worldwide that doesn’t have harmful thorns amidst its roses. 

 

The Maasai in Kenya, for example. I know absolutely nothing about them and I’m sure a visit to a village would have me impressed by certain qualities I witnessed. But I do know that some practice a form of female genital mutilation that is not to be excused by the power of tradition and my inability as a Westerner to understand it. In Kim Rosen’s story, she visits a center that rescues girls from this barbaric practice. Many escape their families to travel alone through dangerous country to seek out refuge in this safe haven. Kim was visiting the center and one day, the girls were singing while cooking and then asked her if she knew a song. She recited a poem by Mary Oliver instead and because the girls knew some English, they sat in rapt attention. As described by Kim:

 

“By the end of the poem, tears were running down my face and several of the girls were crying as well. Several of them dove toward me, wrapping their arms around my waist. There was a long silence. Then one of them asked ‘Who is this Mary Oliver? Is she Maasai?”

 

As Kim says earlier in the story, “Within the potent space of public poetry recitation, any and every boundary line we humans draw around ourselves instantly disappears. It is holy without being denominational, political without being sectarian, intimate without being bound by gender, age or culture.” That’s why you and I can read the poetry of Sappho, Rumi, Basho, Mirabai, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Maya Angelou and countless others and feel them speaking to us across centuries, geographical borders, genders, life experiences. That’s why Mary Oliver, a white woman living on Cape Cod and in her 50’s when she wrote that poem, could speak to Maasai teenage girls halfway across the world. If we all go back to our little corners of personal identity and only listen to the music, see the art, hear the stories of people just like us, what hope do we have to become larger? 


The poem Kim recited is titled “The Journey.” Because both our joy and our suffering is universal, it had the power to touch people different—on the surface— in every way from the poet. Once you read the poem below, you can see why it moved them: 


One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice --

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do --

determined to save

the only life that you could save.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Tulips in February

I love San Francisco. Still. While the media loves to take their cameras into the Tenderloin and magnify the depravity, homelessness and drug abuse there, they will never, ever, come visit the Arboretum and show tulips blooming in February. Friends from afar sometimes now comment to me, “Oh, I’m so sorry what’s happened to your city” and yes, while homelessness is real and on the rise and needs to be dealt with, so are the tulips real. And the blooming magnolia and plum trees and the people strolling in the park enjoying them. So are the people playing ping-pong or dancing on roller skates or biking out to the ocean on carless roads to inhale the ocean breeze. 

 

Today I will walk at Crissy Field with its stellar view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a place that once was an abandoned military airport runway transformed into vibrant wetlands and inviting walking and biking paths. It's part of the Presidio that was owned by the military and when they packed up and left, in came the cultural transformation with a live theater, museums, a recently revived Tunnel Top park with a free shuttle to the top of the Presidio where you can enjoy tennis courts, playgrounds and stunning views of the Bay. 

 

Later I will play piano at The Jewish Home for the Aged, where my Mom was so lovingly cared for the last six years of her life and every penny paid by Medicare. Nearby is The San Francisco School where I worked for so many decades and is still going strong with its culture of rigor combined with fun, a place where children and teachers are given the invitation and the tools to bloom their happiness. This morning, my daughter will do her monthly seven mile walk to school going through different parks and neighborhoods and almost all of her 24 5th grade students from the SF School will meet her at 5:30 am (!)  knowing the delights that await them and the memories they will carry forever. Tonight, I’ll go to the Balboa Theater, one of the few remaining old-time movie theaters in my beloved city that has suffered from the loss of so many, but is holding on to this time-honored institution.

 

So my friends, don’t drink the Fox News Kool-Aid that San Francisco is a wasteland caused by too-liberal politics. We are alive and kicking still, gloriously green and vibrant and mostly a delightful place to live and raise children. We have to deal with the connected issues of homelessness and too-high rents and mortgages birthed from the dot.com explosion, but name a city that doesn’t have its own issues to deal with. But how many can boast of hundreds of miles of trails to hike in the fields and woods just across the bridge, the ever-increasing city bike paths, the rise in jazz clubs alongside SF Jazz Center, the 7-mile walk through neighborhoods offering burritos, sushi, dim-sum, pho, piroshki, pasta, falafel, fresh crab. Not to mention tulips, plums and magnolias blooming in February.

 

Our once-resident newspaper columnist Herb Caen wrote constant love letters to San Francisco and once said:

 

“When I die and show up at the pearly gates, I’ll look around and say, ‘Well, it looks alright. But it ain’t San Francisco!” 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Joy of Normal

With neither undue pride nor shame, it’s safe to say that my life has not been normal. As a Jewish by blood/ Unitarian by upbringing/ Zen Buddhist by choice who plays banjo, accordion and Bulgarian bagpipe, this is not your typical American upbringing. Add to that my mixed-race grandchildren, African-American Orff teacher, Japanese Zen teacher, South Indian and Ghanaian drum teachers, Balinese and Ghanaian xylophone teachers, Spanish colleague, my travels to some 65 countries and teaching in 50 of them, a lifetime of teaching music in a job that pays me for slapping my body and playing clapping games with children and this doesn’t feel like a typical story. Memorizing some 30 poems, 300 jazz standards on the piano and as many folk songs with guitar, crying in front of people without apology and there’s more deviation yet from the red-blooded American male norm. Throw in growing up in New Jersey, going to a college in Ohio where I got credit for hitchhiking, wine-tasting and canoeing and living, for goodness sakes, in San Francisco out on the physical and cultural edge of the continent and the case is closed. 

 

“Norm” and “normal” are terms derived from a carpenter’s square that measures out right angles. To be normal is to fit into the straight and easily measurable. Good for woodworking, but not always the best for a life. A norm in any culture is a convenient fiction that assumes a certain standard—like the American one of the nuclear family, the straight white male power grid, the 9-to 5 job, the suburban home with the two-car garage— all of which can be—and has been— used against people to show how they don’t fit in. On a positive level, the old norms too casually accepted around race, sexuality, gender, religion and such have been thrown up into the air to enlarge the definition of who we can be and how the culture benefits by the increased diversity of ways we can be. On an a negative level, our adaptability as a species that requires us to accept any behavior that is repeated often enough has us in that most bizarre new norm whereby a former President who told 20,000 documented lies, incited an insurrection, is loyal to no one including his partner Vice-President who apparently could be hanged without remorse, who is indicted for 91 counts of breaking the law he swore to uphold, who has the support of alleged Christians supporting alleged family values while sleeping with porn stars , who boast that he can pass intelligence tests that most 3-year-olds could ace and is still somehow a viable candidate for re-election with the full support of his party—well, this is about as far from normal as any of us could have imagined even ten years ago. And yet the media keeps portraying it casually without an inkling of the “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND??!!!” outrage it deserves. The new normal is a shitshow beyond belief.

 

But why title this “The Joy of Normal?” Because as Maria Montessori so wisely said:

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

 

I mentioned a day of doctor’s visits trying to figure out why I’ve had two extreme episodes of dizziness and now an ongoing chronic light-headedness. That included getting some bloodwork back and a scheduling for an MRI. The bloodwork results came back today and in 8 out of 8 categories, the results were all within the normal range. That’s the place where normal is to be celebrated! 

 

Not so happy with the audiology test I took the same day but not surprise that I have significant enough hearing loss that it’s time—as many people have told me—to get a hearing aid. I’m below the norm and though somewhat normal for people my age—especially musicians who have played Balinese gamelan indoors and Bulgarian bagpipe—I wish the results were better. But this is a new normal I’m willing to accept. 

 

The moral of the tale? Sometimes it’s good to be normal. Sometimes it’s better not to be. Apply as needed. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A Modern Fable

Our hero, such as he is, was born in another era. A time of paper and pencils, of TV’s with three main channels, of letters written and received in the mail. There were phones that took a some 10 to 15 seconds to dial and if you wanted to talk to someone far away, be prepared to pay a lot of money. Most of the time there was something called real conversation, live and in the moment, with eye contact and two people who could actually follow a common thread of thought. Along with the words came the posture, the facial expressions, the tone of voice, all of which enlarged the actual communication. 

 

So it was with trepidation mixed with a measure of kicking and screaming that our hero was dragged into our present hyper-speed and media-saturated culture. He organized Turn Off TV weeks at his school as early as the 1980’s, wrote on a typewriter until 1990 when he got his first Mac SE Computer for free, as payment for doing an Orff workshop with a group of Apple Systems Managers. He wrote five books on that old machine before reluctantly switching some 11 years later to that big-hooded Macintosh—and 11 years later to his laptop. He actually was one of the first on his block to get an i-Pod, a welcome change from packing tapes and CD’s in his suitcase for his various workshops. He was one of the last to get an i-Phone, holding out until 2018 and finally getting one to make spontaneous videos in his music classes. 

 

Being a product of his time and having that time roaring by like an unstoppable river, he could only swim upstream for so long. Following his motto of “whatever it takes” to get to pursue his passions of teaching and music and teaching music, there was no choice but to follow the “latest, greatest” way to conduct business. But not always happily so. 

 

And to set the record straight, in his workshops, it’s still the ancient time-honored practice of creating vibrant music and dance with the most essential tools— our bodies, voices, imagination, simple percussion instruments and Orff xylophones and occasional recorders. Still he mostly uses a white board if he needs a text or rhythm written (which he rarely does) and occasionally shows videos of the kids that he took with that i-phone or some relevant rare clips from Youtube. It’s the way that the people inviting him conduct business that has changed so drastically. And that brings us to our tale.

 

Preparing to be a guest teacher at a University next month, he received an e-mail with a link to all the paperwork that must be filled out. By now, standard procedure. First obstacle was not being able to write directly on the document. So an e-mail back asking for help and the advice to press “Continue.” Done and now it was working. Name, address, identifying numbers, the usual. Then came the invitation to upload a copy of his Driver’s License. Thought he had such a thing on my computer, but of course, he didn’t. 

 

Here's where things get complicated. That old laptop from 2012 finally crashed and the only way to rescue it was to take out the hard drive, restore it and re-install. But of course, it wasn’t that simple. A friend had given him her laptop from 2014 and he tried to get everything migrated over to that, but no dice. That story is way too complicated, but the upshot is that he’s now using two computers. The new one is not yet connected to the printer or able to scan from the printer. So he scanned his driver’s license into the old computer and planned to e-mail it to the new computer. But the document he was working on was one he got to through his e-mail and he was worried that he couldn’t sign on to his e-mail with one computer when it was open with the other and didn’t want to close out the other for fear of losing the document. Following?

 

So in a moment of inspiration, he realized he could take a photo of his driver’s license and air drop it to the new computer. Brilliant! It worked! But… the form said it was too many megabytes to send by e-mail. And then, because survival is the name of the game and human beings are infinitely adaptable and he was a human being, he took a screenshot of the photo and lo and behold, it was sent!!! He reflected how lucky he was to use these labor-saving devices that save so much time.

 

Consider. In the old days, someone would have mailed him a contract with a copy in an envelope , sometimes with an SASE inside. (All you LOL texters probably don’t know what an SASE is. Go to the library and look it up! :-)) He would have signed both copies and sent it back. Done. No photo id’s needed and no sexual harassment videos to watch or DEI statements to sign or 55 page handbooks to read through. If they invite you, it means they’ve seen your work or read your books and trust that you’ll do your work. If you say something edgy at the workshop, it’s the grounds for something called conversation. One that might potentially enlarge both parties understanding. Live conversation with eye contact, body language, voice tones, facial expressions. 

 

Review the layered steps of electronic forms/ scans/ photos/ screenshots/ etc. and compare to signing a piece of paper, putting it an envelope and dropping it in the mailbox. Compare the old-fashioned communication options of live conversation, phone and letter with group e-mail/ personal e-mail/ text/ Facebook message/ Twitter/ Instagram/ leave a message on the phone because no one picks up to actually talk anymore and you see that our devices have not simplified our lives the way it promised.

 

Yes, our reluctant modern man agrees, he appreciates writing this Blog, getting his dopamine rush when 300 people like his Facebook post, sending a workshop announcement with a group e-mail list instead of designing a flyer, pasting some images on it, getting it copied at Kinko’s, folding three hundred by hand (later paying Kinko’s to do it), printing out address labels (earlier all by hand!), sticking them on plus a stamp plus stamping a return address. That was a lot of work! 


And yet, our hero recalls almost nostalgically, there was a ritual pleasure in the process, a slowed-down way to remember each person on the mailing list and imagining them attending the workshop, a way to draw the family together and get them to help with some promises of ice cream. And a grand satisfaction taking them all to the mailbox and watching them drop in and then receiving in the mail the little clip-off part of the flyer with name, address and phone number with something called a check inside and watching the list of attendees grow. There was a sense of full presence in the process that he doesn’t necessarily miss, but maybe just a little.

 

And now, he sends this whisking off into the ether so you, dear reader, can nod your head with agreement or in sleepiness reading about this boring subject. Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes or shaking your head in disbelief thinking how you could have solved his form-filling problem. But our hero will never know because you and he are missing the real live conversation. So call him up and ask him out for a beer. I promise he’ll answer his phone.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Footprints in the Sand

Conventional wisdom tells us that life is temporal and that for so many of us, our legacies are like footprints in the sand, washed away by the next tide in the ever-changing flux of time. But we humans endowed with living memories and the ability to leave footprints more durable through our recorded words or artwork or stories passed down have the possibility of keeping our loved ones alive even as they depart. 

 

So it is that I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of two more stellar human beings who have crossed over into the unknown places awaiting us all—Wolfgang Liebelt and Danai Gagne. 

 

Wolfgang was a neighbor who, with his wife Linda, lived two doors down from us and welcomed us into the neighborhood with a tree-planting project. That Mayten sapling we planted in 1982 is now just outside my window, some 20 feet high and waving in the breeze as I write. That same year Wolfgang and Linda helped us plan our first neighborhood Christmas Caroling, offering their house as an after-singing gathering place. When my three-year-old daughter Kerala and her best friend Ariel somehow managed to topple their Christmas tree and break some precious family ornaments, they forgave it all and still offered their house the next year with stabilizing twine attached to the wall—and for many years after that. When they both moved out of the neighborhood, still they always came back for the caroling party, that has continued on to this day. Already suffering from Parkinson’s and then cancer, Wolfgang couldn’t make the last party, but we called him and Linda on Facetime and sang Oh Tannebaum to them both. 

 

Wolfgang was an extraordinary handy-man, who time and time again generously helped us with various house projects, sometimes for money as he built that cabinets that hold my CD’s (to my right as I write, a solid footprint he left) and often for free. His mark is everywhere in our house and yard. His day job had to do with some city finances and his temperament could not have been more different than mine— a man of few words with artistry in his woodworking and later photography, but no music or dance or poetry inclinations. But there are many ways to be in this world and many ways to contribute and he reminded me that one could be a wonderful neighbor without having to be a best friend. I’m grateful that this last Spring, our old upstairs neighbors Ken and Carol, Karen and I and Linda and Wolfgang had the good sense to enjoy a wonderful lunch together, equally enjoying reminiscing about the neighborhood and discussing our current lives. 

 

We got a message a few days ago while we were in Portland that Wolfgang was on the way out and would we come visit him? We planned to go this Monday when we returned to San Francisco, but he passed on Saturday night. I’m sorry to miss that chance to say goodbye, but happy that we shared both our deep appreciations and funny stories at that lunch last Spring. (Wolfgang in the middle below).



Danai Gagne was an Orff colleague who lived in New York. She was born in Greece and was in the very first class of students at the Orff Institute in Salzburg when it opened in 1961. I mostly got to know her as we crossed and criss-crossed paths at the American National Conferences, a few Orff Symposiums in Salzburg and a one-day workshop she did for our local chapter. She came into the Orff approach through dance and was well-loved, respected and admired by all who knew her. I hadn’t known she was ill, so was surprised to hear the news of her passing last week. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to tell her directly how much I appreciated her, but as we attended each other’s workshops and enjoyed chatting in the halls, I believe she knew. Last year, six or seven iconic teachers from that first generation of American Orff teachers passed and here we are again. It is simply the way of this life and sobering to find myself closer to the front of the line. But so it goes and so we go.

 

This morning, I gave special attention to the end of my Heart Sutra chant:

 

Gya te gya te hara gya te hara so gya te bodhi-sowaka Han ya shin gyo

 

Which roughly translates to:

 

“Gone, gone beyond, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening. Hail the goer!”

R.I.P., Wolfgang and Danai. You both have left so much more than footprints in the sand. 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Lake Wobegon Up North

Though for obvious reasons named Ron, I would never ever, ever, think of moving to Florida, the fact is that I’m a winter wimp. While my daughter just came back from snow camping and a friend recently joined the cold plunge craze, here in Portland I can think of nothing but cozying up to the heater vent in the wall. San Francisco winters I can tolerate, but Portland these past few days have been in the late 30’s and early 40’s, with both wind and rain. Though I know people in Minnesota or Finland are smirking and thinking, “You call that winter?!!!”, still it’s cold for me. 

 

But the frigid air is balanced by the warmth of renewed contact with family and friends. Watching my grandkids play basketball, visiting my son-in-law at his new University job, helping my daughter take 75 books to Powell’s bookstore (my Mecca!) from her closed physical office and getting $85 in credit. Today I’ll have brunch with old college friends, an afternoon with my nephew and his kids, tomorrow brunch with an old friend from our Kerala, India days (45 years ago!) who we haven’t seen in a while. The other day was lunch with the man who has supplied instruments to our course for decades and finally getting to see the warehouse where they all live. We know a lot of people in Portland!

 

My daughter and husband left yesterday to drive to Seattle to have some rare time alone while my wife and I are on full-time grandparent duty. Besides being tourists in a city they’ve never visited, they’re going to a Madonna concert! Son-in-law Ronnie has long been a fan, so why not? 

 

That’s the news, such as it is, where indeed the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children above average. *

 

*Malik scored 22 of his team’s 30 points yesterday! Zadie showed us a report card of mostly A’s! Grandparent pride! 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Buddha at the Basketball Game

Often people have asked, “If you could have dinner with any historical figure/ artist/ musician/ writer/ etc., who would it be and what would you discuss?” An intriguing question to be sure. But why just dinner? What would it be like to play “Capture the flag” with Jesus and his disciples? Make some playdough sculptures with Plato? Play Parcheesi with Emily Dickinson up in her room?

 

Today, I would have liked to have seen Buddha cheering on his son at a basketball game. This thought triggered by going to my granddaughter Zadie’s basketball game and feeling the full spectrum of feelings—anger at the ref for unjustly calling a foul on her, body contortions every time she shot wishing the ball to fall through the hoop, fists in the air when it did, sympathetic sadness when her team lost and she felt she played badly. You get the idea. Would Buddha just have sat calmly through it all with that slight smile on his face?

 

Of course, I hate to disparage his extraordinary achievement of spiritual enlightenment and the legacy that followed. But from one point of view, Buddha was a deadbeat Dad. Left his wife and son to follow his own quest and never looked back. Named his son Rahula, translated as “impediment” to his spiritual progress. How many years of therapy would one need to be thought of as an impediment by one’s father? And needless to say, Buddha never went to a single one of Rahula’s basketball games. 

 

But if he had, I would have liked to have been sitting next to him in the stands. Seen if he cheered him on or got emotionally involved in the game or could feel the pain of his son’s disappointment when his team lost. Just curious. 

A Love Letter to Scam Artists

I'm of the belief that more people in this world are simply hurt and lonely, than are actually mean-spirited.   – Benny Green; Jazz pianist

 

It’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air—or at least should be. I haven’t received any little Valentine’s candies or roses or love letters. Just some eight different scam Paypal requests for my money. 

 

My lesser self wants to say to scam artists: 

 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!!!! Is your life so pathetic that you have nothing better to do than prey on innocent people and try to scam them with this, that or the other thing? If you do manage to cheat someone out of their money, does it bring you satisfaction? Does it fulfill some fantasy you have that people are dumb and deserve to be cheated and look how clever you are? Instead of earning an honest dollar and actually doing some worthy work that contributes to the world and might even help others or make them happy, you are using the precious gift of a human incarnation and using your intelligence to hurt others whom you have never met. Please read that first sentence again.”

 

But because it’s Valentine’s Day and Benny Green is asking me to step up to a more compassionate view of the situation, I’ll simply say to you:

 

“I’m so sorry that you have been somehow hurt. That you haven’t found—yet—the way for your best self to contribute. But don’t give up. It’s never too late to flip all the energy and intelligence you’re using to hurt people and learn how to help them—and yourself as well. If you look hard, I imagine you can find someone—or remember someone—who was kind to you, who saw your better self, who perhaps even loves you. And if that inspires you to learn to love yourself as you deserve, then of course, you wouldn’t want to cause anyone else harm. Since I never met you, I can’t offer you an authentic personal love, but I can say that I understand how hurt people often hurt others and also have witnessed how hurt people have gone in the exact opposite direction to help and heal others. I just finished Maya Angelou’s 3rd out of 7 volumes of her autobiography. If you need an example, I suggest starting with her and her first book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

 

Meanwhile, Happy Valentine’s Day. And would you please be so kind as to stay out of my Paypal account?” 


PS The above is also addressed to UPS fakers, Nigerian princes and the folks from "Netflix" who offered to make a movie of my Jazz, Joy & Justice book and pay me $400,000. Any real Netflix people reading this, that's a darn good idea!

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Goodbye Mitch Lerner

The San Francisco park system offers the possibility of remembering a loved one by purchasing a bench with a plaque in one of the city parks. A lovely idea. (Though sobering when I discovered it costs $10,000!). 

 

There is a bench in the Fragrance Garden of the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park that I particularly enjoy sitting on. It’s dedicated to someone named Mitch Lerner. I never met him, don’t know anything about him other than that he was born close to my birth year and died too young. But after all these years of sitting there, I’ve felt a certain bond with him, a kind of imaginary friend who I greet by name each time I go there to sit.

 

So today I bought some new shoelaces and thought, “I’m going to go visit Mitch and put on my new shoelaces on his bench.” Imagine my shock when there was a brand new bench there with someone else’s name on it! What happened to Mitch?! Gone altogether or moved somewhere else? In either case, why?

 

So I went to the Arboretum library to see if anyone could answer my question. No, but they gave me the phone number of the head of operations. I called him and lo, he actually answered the phone and was very polite and sympathetic to my question. He said it’s likely that the bench was too old and their replacement policy was to open the space to a new bench and dedication. He was also willing to text me another phone number of someone who might know more.

 

Off I went, deciding to shelter on a cold day in the De Young Museum CafĂ© and weirdly, my wife was there! I sat down and told her the story and the man at the next table chimed in. “We have a bench in the Arboretum. I can probably answer your question.”

 

“Please do.”

 

The scoop is that when you buy a bench, it is good for 15 years and then can be renewed or not. I suspect that Mitch’s time was up. 

 

So long, Mitch, it was good to know you. And in case you’re wondering, I don’t think I’ll bond with your replacement. I’ll just find another place to sit.