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Archive for March, 2013

Music Everywhere

Every year, usually in March, I take the Temple Israel Confirmation Class (15 – 16 year olds) to New York to experience the depth, history and variety of Jewish life there. I have just returned from this year’s trip. Every year our some of our nighttime activity includes something from the unique entertainment in New York, a Broadway show, comedy show, concert – something to round out the students’ experience while in New York. This year that included a show called “Stomp.”

How to describe “Stomp?” It is a unique presentation by a group of musicians/dancers. They create rhythmic music out of all kinds of odd items. The opening “number” starts with a single man on stage sweeping with a broom. His strokes take on a rhythm. Soon others are on stage with brooms, adding their own rhythms to the original one. The result is an amazing kind of music created by every day sounds. As the show progresses, the items used become more interesting. Some of the vignettes tell a little story. There are no words spoken, just expressions, sounds, and movement. The most interesting centered around a man trying to read a newspaper. Others join him. One begins to cough and sneeze (all in an interesting beat). The shuffling of the newspapers, as people read, adds to the layers of sound. Rather than just being an unorganized cacophony, the sounds become a pattern, with each person’s contribution adding to the beauty of the overall sound effect as well as adding to the story line.

Why all of this made an impression on me is simply this. It forced me to think of the sounds we hear every day, every place we go, not as just random noise, but as the potential for music. The vignettes of “Stomp” were not an aural version of a Jackson Pollack painting – all random colors splashed without a visible sign of forethought or order. Rather, each taught that our seemingly disorganized sounds are the basis of rhythm – the rhythm of life itself. The use of mundane articles, garbage cans, brushes, sticks – you name it – teaches that there is music in every mundane action of life. Whenever we make a sound, it contains the potential for music.

Further, the vignettes in “Stomp” were a reminder that we live our lives in rhythm. There are patterns to what we do every day. These patterns often involve noise that could be the seed of something musical. Think about brushing teeth, for example. The brushing can make a rhythmic sound, create a pattern. The opening and closing of our mouths change the tone. Out of that simple act music could be born.

I think that our challenge is to hear the world not as random noise, but as a musical pattern. Every person is part of a grand orchestra. The noise we make is a symphony. Perhaps part of our satisfaction with life comes from being able to discern the music in the world, and hear our contribution to the rhythm of life. How sad for the person for whom life is just noise.

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The following stream of consciousness was started by a comment/observation by Bill Maher on his last installment of “Real Time.” Maher was talking about how the insatiable appetites of investors, pointing to Wall Street’s reaction to Apple’s last quarter earnings report for 2012. When Apple posted its last quarter earnings, a profit on the order of 13 billion dollars, it was the largest profit ever posted for a business not an oil company. Same for its year end profit of 42 billion dollars. Yet, Apple stock has declined since the report came out. Why? Because investors were predicting even larger sales, and even more distribution for Apple products. Never mind that Apple continues to dominate Iphone and tablet sales despite the presence of quality cheaper alternatives. Because the investor class expected more, wanted more, its stock performance has no relationship to the actual strength of the company. Maher showed headlines predicting doom for Apple. And he asked the question, “Can Americans ever be satisfied?”

I know that many people ascribe to the old Gordon Gekko line that “greed is good.” Certainly competition is good. The drive to compete, to do better and better motivates businesses, which increases prosperity, provides jobs, and provides ever improving products. I have been in business. We took a lot of pride in what we produced, its quality, and yes also in the profit we made. We strove to satisfy our customer. Competition forced us to try to produce more efficiently, to be more creative in our product, and to build lasting relationships with our customers. As we grew and became more successful, we employed more people and provided a good living for our family and theirs. All of this was the result of productive competition. So I would say that competition, that is the free enterprise system, is good.

But there is a difference between the motivation that competition brings and the greed of investors looking for ever increasing killings through financial manipulation. Greed, the kind that causes a disconnect between productivity and profitability on the one hand and perceived value on the other, seems not so good. Greed, I think, causes a distortion in how we order our values. It is greed that pushes us to try the get rich quick schemes that have proven so destructive not only to our general economy but to many individual lives. Remember the scheme to flip real estate that so many bought into during the years before the real estate collapse in 2007? That was born of greed skewing people’s common sense so that they bought into what was essentially real estate Ponzi schemes. To believe that greed is good is to believe that we can never have enough. Greed can twist our thinking so that we devalue good hard work, creativity and real risk – all ingredients in building a successful business. Greed takes what is positive in our competitive nature and turns it to narcissism.

But I believe that we can have enough – at least enough physical stuff. More importantly, while we can all agree that earning money is important to take care of our needs, to enjoy some comforts and to give some tzedakah; greed causes accumulation of money to become an unhealthy obsession. Here is where I love the approach of Jewish tradition. There is nothing in Judaism that teaches we should not try to be as successful as possible. There is nothing evil in making a lot of money through our occupations or businesses. Yet, our daily prayers urge us to temper our drive and find a level with which we are satisfied. In the ninth blessing of the daily Amidah, the blessing for a year of prosperity, we pray that what we produce be bountiful, that it be of the best of years. But we also say the words “may we be satisfied through Your goodness.” In other words, at some point we should realize that the bounty we enjoy is enough, and we can feel satisfied.

So when is enough, enough? Perhaps it is the point when one can look at their lives and ask that very question, “Do I have enough?”

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Last week my wife, Audrey, and I attended a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Village Square and the Tallahassee Democrat concerning gun issues as they relate to school safety. The conversation among the panelists ranged from what the local schools do to insure school safety, to statistics on gun ownership, to what does the second amendment really mean, to what exactly IS an assault weapon anyway. These are all useful topics, I am sure. But it was the clergy on the panel, Reverend Brant Copeland, who was the only person who tried to steer the conversation away from the minutia of gun types, or trying to parse the second amendment, towards a larger conversation about what are the values we want our community to reflect? What is the kind of society we really want? From Pastor Copeland’s perspective, if we can have that conversation, then our policies on guns, the 2nd amendment and school safety measures will become self evident. I agreed with him and thought he had nailed the problem – at least I thought he did until my wife and I discussed the event over dinner afterwards.

Audrey felt that the whole conversation was the wrong one, or more accurately, the less important one. She has the perspective of someone who worked as a school counselor serving difficult schools and students in Philadelphia (before we moved to Tallahassee) and working for almost 12 years for a department of FSU that does experimental reading programs in schools and pre-schools serving diverse populations. She has observed many pre-schools and elementary schools in our area of the panhandle. In a nutshell, Audrey believes that schools are the incubators for the next Adam Lanza. Why? Because children are not being socialized properly. Our education system is producing an ever larger population of automatons.

It begins in kindergarten. When I attended kindergarten, it was all about playing with others, listening to classic children’s stories, doing art projects – often very messy but with great latitude for creativity. The picture album I have from kindergarten shows a classroom with the tables in a jumbled fashion, lots of toys and art supplies. We dressed in costumes at Halloween and put on a Christmas play for our parents. The only evaluation my parents received was a hand written letter at the end of the school year, giving the teacher’s observations on my growth as a human being. This was a public school in West Virginia, by the way – not exactly a bastion of liberal, far out educational philosophies. It was just plain common sense. Kindergarten was where a loving, caring teacher gave you the first taste of school, with a focus on creating a love of coming to school and playing well with others.

The kindergartens Audrey observes (this year in Gadsden County) are sad descendants of my quite happy experience. The children are ordered into neat rows. There is little or no play. The emphasis is on inculcating obedience and cramming a pre-determined set of facts into the children’s heads. These are 5 year olds having to take spelling tests. By second grade, they look beaten, the love of school, of the experience of learning, wrung out of them. This reflects a situation found in schools all over the country. Everywhere, we see art, music and drama eliminated from schools. Teachers have less and less freedom to formulate how they wish to instruct their children. All that matters is to score higher on a test that determines the funding fate of the school. All of this comes at a tremendous cost to our children.

By now you might be asking the question, “What does this have to do with school safety?” My response is that there is no short term answer to preventing disasters in schools. Any policy, any law, any measure including posting guards at the doors, will not be an iron clad guarantee that the next shooting will not occur. A far better use of our resources would be to construct an education system that fosters love of learning, provides basic skills, teaches basic morality, inculcates creativity and creative thinking AND provides an environment where children can play together, be children together, and learn to interact with each other in positive and productive ways. By creating better, more emotionally healthy citizens, we reduce the prospects for the next mass shooting. Yes, it will take a generation or two, but we need to focus on long term solutions, not short term reactions to the disaster of the moment.

The next question is how to create these schools. I will tell you that they already exist. There are many successful models, but one is right here in Tallahassee – the School of Arts and Sciences – which is a charter school. A large number of the children from my congregation attend SAS, and as I work with them either in bar/bat mitzvah training or my Confirmation class, I can see the positive results of a loving and creative learning environment. Why cannot every child have this opportunity? Rather than spend resources on countless wasteful programs, I believe that no expense should be spared to create schools of excellence in every community.

Part of the money we invest in schools needs to be for what John Hankiar (a member of the discussion panel who is in charge of school safety for Leon County Schools) called “resource officers.” I am not really sure what he meant by that term. I would think they should be trained professionals who can spot the troubled, outcast child, and work with him/her. This professional should be engaged with families, attentive to domestic difficulties and provide resources to parents. While schools usually do have guidance counselors, they are far too few in number and overburdened by paperwork to properly serve their school’s population.

Further, if one looks at the countries with the most successful school systems (South Korea and Finland), there are some commonalities American schools need to adopt. First, they pay teachers on a level that attracts the best and the brightest. Too many of our teachers are mediocrities who cannot even speak proper English. (Audrey walked by a classroom one time and heard the teacher say, “Class, let’s sound out the word ‘air-o-plane’” actually breaking the word into 3 syllables!) Let’s elevate the teaching profession to an exalted level. Let’s get the best and brightest to want to teach. Second, every child, no matter where they live in the United States, should be learning the same material. The school board of Kansas should not have the right to deny science and the state of Texas should not have the right to edit history. Third, full programs of art, music, and drama should be part of every school’s curriculum. Often children having difficulties with the standard subjects respond to the creative stimuli the arts provide.

Yes, we should have a national discussion about the role of guns in our lives. Police departments have legitimate concerns about curbing criminal activity and 2nd amendment advocates have questions about how to safeguard constitutionally guaranteed rights. But none of this addresses the long term, root problem of creating well adjusted, secure, educated citizens who will lead our country to a better place. Isn’t that what all of us really want? Focusing on the guns just won’t get us there.

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