Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Time on My Hands

                                                It is deep autumn.

                                               My neighbor. How does he live?

                                               I wonder.

-       Basho


I mentioned before these three incidents of extreme vertigo and many ongoing sensations of light-headedness and dizziness. The bloodwork and MRI my doctor suggested revealed nothing out of the ordinary and I’ve had some periods of feeling mostly normal. 


But this past week has been particularly unsettling, with all that energy swirling around my head keeping me from being fully present in my whole body and mind. I remember one moment on my deck in the sunshine when it disappeared and I thought, “Ah. I am alive again!” But it didn’t last long and today was particularly bad. 


I pushed my doctor to make an appointment with a neurologist and she insists on seeing a head and neck surgery specialist. Sounds alarming, but it could have something to do with a pinched nerve. At any rate, my appointment isn’t until May 13th and meanwhile, this is not getting better.


One consequence of it has been noticing something I never feel— the day is too long. There are too many hours to fill. Usually, with my routines of meditation, solitaire, crostics, piano practice, reading, writing, hiking, biking, cooking, cleaning (never mind the periods of teaching again some 6 hours a day), this is not a problem. But though I can still do all those things, they lose their luster when I’m not wholly here and time becomes something to fill in. I’m noticing that it’s 4:30 and too early to eat dinner, or we eat early and it’s too early to plop myself down in front of TV. It’s a weird feeling. 


Like Basho, I have often wondered, “What do other people do all day?” Of course, here I’m betraying a life of comparative leisure, where demanding ongoing physical labor is not required just to survive and am particularly talking to my demographic of “retired” folks. I’ve been grateful for my list of active and fulfilling activities, that sense of time as something to wholly live in at its center rather than killing it to just get through. If we—the doctors and I— can finally name this thing and come up with something to help manage it, I’m ready to get back to it all.


Meanwhile, I just found a transcription of Keith Jarrett’s exquisite rendering of the old jazz standard, “Time on My Hands.” Might as well play it. 


Monday, April 29, 2024

Hallways of Hope

I’ve never been a big fan of uncovering “the meaning of Life,” but have been on the obsessive side of reflecting on the meaning of my life. Indeed, these 4,000 plus posts plus 52 years of keeping journals has been an exercise is trying to capture that elusive butterfly of meaning in words. So when I find things that others have written that well-describe my own search for meaning, bells start ringing like a Sunday morning in a European city announcing church. 


This happened twice in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, both times from the character Hallie who goes to Nicaragua in the midst of the war to help out and writes letters to her sister. Here’s the first:


“What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination but just the road you’re on, and the fact that you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into and you ask yourself, ‘What life can I live that will let me breathe in and out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?’ I didn’t look down from some high rock and choose this work. This work chose me.” 


I like that image. The road I’m on and that fact that I know how to drive. That this work of making children happy that chose me over a half-century ago is the route I drive almost every day and all my efforts at doing the work better yet are simply my driving lessons and determination to know the territory without any damn GPS telling me where to go. Indeed, it has been all the wrong turns I’ve made and the excursions off the main highway that have been my finest teachers. 

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple…elementary kindness… The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.” 


Another vibrant image—living inside my specific hope of raising kids better than we mostly have done, running down the hallways of that house touching the walls on both sides. 


Today I’m off for the first of three visits helping kids at a local school prepare for and perform a concert, with these images by my side. Thank you, Hallie. 


Sunday, April 28, 2024

God's Couch

On with the Animal Dreams book report. With Earth Day a week behind us, the book is a good reminder that our destruction of our own habitat comes from a narrative a couple of thousand years old. It’s right there in the beginning of the whole book that framed the values of Western civilization— Verse 26 of Genesis:


“Then God said, ‘Let us make men in our own image after our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping things that creeps upon the earth.’  … And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”


In short, we are given permission to plunder, to ravage, to subdue, to take without thought of thanks. And how is that working out? Animal Dreams gives some hints. 


There is a heartbreaking behind-the-scenes look at how mining pumice was destroying the ecology of a small Southwestern town, all for the dubious cause of selling jeans to teenagers that look old and worn. How the copper mining was destroying the river, which in turn was ravaging the trees. How corporate raiders made great profit without having to live in the place where they’d have to face the consequences of their actions. Far away, more ravaging and subduing was going on in Nicaragua (where the heroine’s sister went to help re-stabilize the land and crops), fully funded by Reagan and then Bush and killing innocent civilians as well as destroying the land.  It’s all connected and part of our Western inheritance of “permission to plunder.”


But as the book points out, it’s not the only show in town. It’s the one that gets the big microphones and media coverage, but there are scores of other mythologies that have a very different point of view about our role here on this delicate and fragile planet.  Loyd, Codi’s Apache boyfriend in the book, explains to her the point of the ritual corn dances as a way to make a deal with the gods. The gods  do their part by sending rain and fertile soil and the humans agree to carefully caretake the gift of life, light, land and water. As he describes it:


“We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here and use the utilities and we’re saying, ‘We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and we’ll try to be good guests.”


“It’s a good idea,” Codi said. “Especially since we’re still here sleeping on God’s couch. We’re permanent houseguests. 


“But the way they tell it to us Anglos God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special little playground. But where do you go when you’ve pissed in every corner of your playground?”


There are so many narratives afoot that have created and sustained the horrors of genocide, slavery, ecological catastrophe, patriarchy and all of them in a kind of death-dealing intersectionality. All of them need to be changed. I like the idea of teaching children that we’re sleeping on God’s couch. And that we should not piss in every single corner of the playground. 


Stay tuned for Book Report Part 3.

What Holds Up

Art is a fickle mistress. A film, piece of music, a novel or a poem may move us to tears at one point in our life and leave us cold ten years later. I’m thinking of the drum solo from Inna Godda Da Vida, for example. The work stays frozen in time, but we change and it speaks to us in different ways. 


That can happen in the other direction as well. I heard about Charlie Parker in college and knew I was supposed to be in awe of his music, but frankly, I didn’t get it the first few years I listened. Once I understood the complexity of his artistry, now seen through the lens of my own emerging understanding of jazz and how it works, I could finally appreciate his genius.


And so, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams. I read it back in the early 90’s soon after it was published, then just finished listening to it on Audible and went out to buy a used copy because there were quotes I wanted to remember. (I’m sure I had it on my shelves alongside the other B. Kingsolver’s novels I’ve enjoyed, but must have leant it someone who never returned it.). 


At any rate, it held up. Big time. Memorable characters, engaging plot and a beautiful tightrope walk between political revelation and spiritual values. 


If this was my 5th grade book report, I most certainly would end with “I recommend you read this book!” More to come.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Comfort Food

Today would be my Mom’s 103rd birthday and to honor the occasion, this short note to her:


Happy birthday, Mom! The most important thing to tell you is how you’re still with me and never too far from my thoughts. I see you and Dad each morning in the photo on my desk and every Friday at the Jewish Home, well, there you are. And yesterday Ginny came as well to listen. We thought of you when I played “April Showers” and thought of Dad when I played “Tenderly.”


Today I want to thank you for food. For the 1950’s and 1960’s, you were a step ahead of your time. Yes the vegetables were more boiled than sauteed and we did have a few too many TV dinners in my teen years. But you were into a nutritionist named Carlton Fredericks and our desserts were these whole wheat rectangular cookies framed by little ladders which I used to chew around, there was never soda in the refrigerator nor candy in the house and I remember a line up of some ten vitamin pills alongside my Shredded Wheat or Grape Nuts (not Lucky Charms or Trix) morning cereals. 


You might be tickled to know that I still enjoy a few of the various unlikely food combinations you introduced, which now serve as a kind of comfort food that transports me straight to the heart of my childhood. Amongst them:


·      Milk and molasses

·      Almonds and raisins

·      Apples and cream cheese and poppy seeds

·      Bananas and sour cream

·      Wheat germ and Shredded Wheat


Haven’t had milk and molasses for a while and the bananas are now with yogurt instead of sour cream, but the rest are still with me. Oh and I had a corn soup the other day and that was another bridge to those years oh so long ago. 


So thanks for both some nutritious habits and tasty combos. Amongst the other thousand things I’m grateful that you gave to me—life, for example! I’ll skip the report of life on planet Earth. The same combination of grand delight and deep despair, shimmering hope and WTF! news. The wind keeps blowing, the rain keeps falling, the sun keeps shining, the kids and grandkids are soldiering forth into their various futures and as the song I played yesterday says, “Life is just a bowl of cherries” though sometimes we’re mired in the pits. 


Loving you forever. 

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Xephyr and Zephyr

Back in another lifetime, I helped start an adult Orff performing group called Xephyr. We decided that the way we taught and helped kids create, improvise and compose was too good to just be limited to kids and decided to treat ourselves as teacher/artists to the same processes. The first meeting was a freewheeling one-hour long improvisation involving body percussion, vocal percussion, improvised singing and movement, getting sound of any objects in the room. We six Orff teachers listened, responded, responded to the responses and finally the experiment came to its own conclusion. We then sat down and talked about which parts were interesting and might be developed further. And then we did. Eventually creating collective multi-media compositions that formed into our first public show. 


Why "Xephyr"? Because our first meeting in 1992 took place in the Zephyr Café. We liked the image of the West wind blowing a fresh breeze both into the Orff world and the performance world and into our own creative lives. We took it one step further by changing the first letter, with the X doubling as a unique spelling and a reference to the xylophone.


We met every Thursday night for some fourteen years.  And also continued to perform, both in rented spaces in San Francisco and at Orff gatherings in Carmel Valley, Dallas, St. Paul, Seattle, Phoenix, Long Beach and Salzburg, Austria. Our last show was in Salzburg in 2006 (the first had been in 1995, a second in 2000) and then we formally disbanded. 


Why am I thinking about this now? Because Spring has come with a vengeance to San Francisco. Our four seasons are simple—Summer/ fog, Fall/ sun, Winter/ rain, Spring/ wind. And windy it was today, around 23 mph to be exact. Not pleasant for walking and terrible for bike riding. Especially heading west. 

In the old Greek myths, Boreas is the North Wind, icy and wild and tearing up trees and piling up waves. Notus is the South Wind, so heavy with moisture that water drips from his tangled beard and he spreads a leaden fog over land and sea. Eurus is the East Wind and is considered unimportant and non-descript. But Zephyr, the West Wind, is the gentlest of them of all, sweeping the sky clear of clouds and making all of nature smile. *


Maybe in Greece, but not in San Francisco!


·       These descriptions from D-Aulaiers’ Book of Greek Myths.  

Elders and Youth

Michael Meade, that wise elder constantly looking at which story we’re living out both personally and culturally, had this to say in his recent Podcast (#380):


Traditional tales from many cultures show how youth and elders are opposite sides of a psychic pairing in which each is necessary to understand the other. Despite cultural gaps between them, youth and elders are secretly connected, and each holds an essential piece of the human inheritance. The eternal youth in each soul carries the original dream of our life, while the old sage in each heart has the wisdom needed to find and follow paths of meaning and purpose.

Beautiful. An important insight as to why I feel compelled to still teach young people, both personally energized by their exuberant spirit and their ability to care and giving something in return as I throw out the breadcrumbs that lead them to “paths of meaning and purpose.” After this week of taking care of business— money, dentist, doctors and such—I’ll return next week to a local school helping them prepare for their Spring Concert. I can live an okay life without the constant presence of children, but truth be told, it feels like some colors are missing from my palette when I do. 


Meade goes on later to hit another bullseye in the target explaining what feels important to me and why:


In traditional cultures, elders do not simply exercise power and authority, but rather are expected to remember the essential values and the enduring truths that people keep forgetting. Genuine elders lead by remembering further back than others as well as by seeing more clearly ahead. They serve as seers who can see behind and beyond the politics of the day and perceive ways to bring people together and plant seeds for a meaningful future. In traditional cultures, elders were considered to be a valuable resource without whose guidance whole societies could lose their way.


Boom! That was so clearly my role in The San Francisco School, standing up for the character of the school that I didn’t create, but lived out and enlarged and articulated for over four decades. Values the new admin folks who took over the last 15 years didn’t clearly understand and the school community (though not the veteran teachers) was on the cusp of forgetting. I paid a high price for my self-appointed role of “Keeper of Community,” suspended twice and put on probation for a year for the audacity to speak out. But once I more clearly understand that these were not personal or political issues (though that leaked in, as they do), but matters of principle that I was defending, I could wear those suspensions as badges of honor. 


“Remembering further back than others” particularly struck a bell as time and again, I both remembered and told the stories of “how it used to be.” Always acknowledging that it wasn’t naively “the good ole days,” that in many ways that I could both count and name, the school continued to evolve and get better. But without that clear sense of the essential unwritten values, ideals and ethics that lay behind each decision, things could run aground. 

There are new people steering the ship since I left and they seem to be somewhat righting the course and that is a great pleasure to witness. Meanwhile, I have gone on to other voyages and am independently continuing that work “to bring people together and plant seeds for a meaningful future.” 


Without having to go to a single staff meeting. Yeah! 

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Plain Talk

I stumbled on a file card where I had scribbled advice for my Level III students after their Practicum Teach. Part of graduating from our summer Orff Certification Course involves teaching a 15-minute lesson drawing from a piece in one of  Volumes of Music For Children that Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman wrote. I said “advice” above and it could be, but in reality it was a summary of how they actually taught that was so clearly effective. I can give them this list before they teach, but it wouldn’t mean the same as modeling the list in my own teaching with them, naming what seems to make each activity both pleasurable and effective and then letting them loose to teach in their own voice, their own style. The quality of the teaching showed that they got the memo and this summary list was both an affirmation and a reminder.


What I like about it is its simplicity, the way it plainly says what it means without spilling into the fancy educational jargon (“the zone of proximal development and scaffolding theory”). I’ve often thought about publishing a small book with these kind of simple suggestions that actually can change your teaching forever— and for the better. Though aimed at Orff Schulwerk music and movement teachers, these suggestions apply to all of teaching. 


Here's the list:

·      Have fun. 

·      Teach in your character.

·      Teach from your culture.

·      Begin in the body and voice.

·      Keep the engine running.

·      Leave space for the student’s creative response— you give a ping, they give a pong and the game is on!

·      Have fun.

·      Adapt, change, modify, add, subtract what’s on the page.

·      Make yourself memorable. Make the class memorable. Make the students’ participation memorable. 

·      Have fun. 


Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Conditions for Change

Amidst the photos of breakfast and cute cat videos, sometimes something profound sneaks into Facebook. Like this:


What inspires people to change?


1.    When they hurt enough that they have to. 

2.     When they see enough that they are inspired to. 

3.   When they learn enough and they want to. 

4.   And when they receive enough and are able to.


Yes, yes and again, yes. Life takes care of number one, but education is in charge of the next three. 


2.    The teacher is the model for an authentic life—or at least an embodiment of their particular subject that inspires and motivates. I’m thinking of my daughter’s 7th grade science teacher who had a peculiar passion for the dung beetle and infected his students with his enthusiasm. 


Likewise the extraordinary authors, artists, athletes, warriors for social justice who we see whose very accomplishment sends us back to the practice room with renewed vigor and determination. 


3.    The teacher is the model, but also the messenger offering the information and knowledge needed to give the students what they need to know to effect change, both in themselves and the world at large. As I say to the young readers of my Jazz, Joy & Justice book, “Now that you know these stories that have been ignored or purposefully hidden, what will you do with this information?”


4.    When the teacher looks for the hidden talents and particular genius of each child taught, they offer a strength and courage far beyond mere information. They offer a kind of blessing that helps the students understand that they are worthy and capable and powerful enough to meet the challenges of change. 


And then back to number one. All the ways all of us have fallen short, have failed to meet our promise, have given in to brainwashing, addiction, distraction, fitting in at the price of our authentic self, accepted other’s abuse, accepted our own self-abuse— all of these are potential steps to our own renewal when we finally hit rock-bottom and decide “Enough!” No other place to go then up the golden staircase and yes, it’s hard, but nothing’s harder then living in perpetual hurt. 


Change in ourselves and change in the greater world are both intimately connected and deeply needed. And so we would do well to consider the above, to reflect on what inspires change and begin to walk towards our better selves. 


Thanks to the person who posted this.