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31 December 2009

Love and Death in 2009 and 2010

It is the last day of the year, so I am compelled to write about what was, and what is to come.

My last post was four months ago, and that is very hard to believe. The autumn of 2009 was a blur. Basically, I became so busy with work and everything else that I missed the autumn -- one of my favorite times of year. Occasionally, I would look up from my computer, peer out of my office window, and notice that the leaves had changed color, or that they'd
fallen off the trees, and that it was getting colder. I went for no long autumn walks. The Mrs. and I were supposed to meet up in New Orleans for some fun in early November, but she came down with the flu and couldn't make the trip. Insult added to the injury inflicted by her own fairly brutal work schedule. And, oh yes, the national health-care reform "debate" droned on, depressingly.

My own time was well-
spent -- I was able to accomplish many good things at work and at least to keep up with things at home -- so I'm not complaining; but it was so busy that my rhythm was knocked completely off-kilter. I was under stress and in a bad mood much of the time. I stopped exercising; didn't have time to go to my yoga class; didn't eat particularly well, and by mid-December I was running on fumes. I've taken a break and it's been nice.

As for 2009 as a whole, however, there were definitely some highlights. The inauguration of Barack Obama and, a few weeks later, his meeting at Capital City Public
Charter School with my 11-year old son and (yes, there's more) he and Mrs. Obama reading to my 8-year old daughter's second grade class. It really was all down hill from there.
Just kidding: Other highlights included a couple of wonderful weeks in Bayside,
Maine during the summer; taking the kids to NYC for their first time and seeing Mary Poppins on Broadway; continuing to play good music with the band and at shul; and seeing Steely Dan in concert in a small venue. Also, during the autumn blur, I took my son to the bar mitzvah of one of his camp friends from New Jersey and we made a side trip to the town of my youth: Livingston. We visited My Old School(s) and the two houses I'd lived in, one of which is now a law office and the other of which is still occupied by the man my parents sold the home to in 1978. It was Halloween on the day we visited. We rang the doorbell and, luckily, Tom was at home. I said "trick or treat" and he remembered me immediately. The three of us had a terrific visit. It's really a story that deserves a separate post, so perhaps I'll do that at some point. Suffice it to say, it was extraordinarily mind-blowing for all involved. My family made and distributed homemade lunches for 60 homeless people on Christmas, as we've done for the past few years. Workwise, as I said, I was able to get a lot of good things done as a judicial educator in my favorite subject matter area -- offender reentry -- and, in that regard, I was able to "move the ball down the field" quite a bit further.

Several well-known people who I admired passed away in 2009. I've already written about Ted Kennedy, but another was the great jazz guitarist Les Paul. Les Paul was to jazz and rock music what Thomas Edison was to electricity; what Albert Einstein was to physics; what Sigmund Freud was to psychology and psychiatry. He was the inventor of the solid body electric guitar and he was a hell of a player too. I'm a drummer and I noodle some on the acoustic guitar, but growing up, even I understood Les Paul's importance. When I was a teenager playing in all kinds of rock bands, the guitarists played either a Gibson "Les Paul" solid body (or, more commonly, a knock-off) or a Fender Stratocaster. So if you loved rock music, and especially if you played it, you understood the importance of Les Paul. Indeed, I and millions of other rock fans and musicians understood that a "Les Paul" guitar was an instrument that, when expertly wielded by the likes of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, could make sounds that would send us to extraordinary emotional places: anger, joy, tears, laughter, ecstasy. The Les Paul guitar is (along with the Stratocaster) the Stradivarius of electric guitars. So, when Les died this year at the ripe old age of 94, I took it pretty hard. Yet another chink knocked out of the armor of my evermore quickly fading youth. Ironically, the "Les Paul" guitar is far better appreciated in the world of rock 'n roll than in jazz, and I'm much more of a rocker than a jazzman. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to remember and to say "thank you" to Les Paul before 2009 becomes history: Thank you, Les!

Like everyone else, I do not know, precisely, what 2010 will bring. I do know that my son will have his bar mitzvah and that we will travel to Israel and Greece during the summer -- a pilgrimage of sorts. Work will be busy, as usual, but hopefully less crazed than last fall. My music will continue with the band and with others. Health care reform legislation will be enacted into law and President Obama will have his work cut out to maintain his congressional majority.

I have some worries, but nothing out of the ordinary for a middle-aged man. The usual stuff: money, relationships, time, gray hairs, my health and the health of my loved ones.

Most of all, in 2010, I want to regain my rhythm.

See you next year!

30 August 2009

Shower the People

Senator Edward M. Kennedy died last week. The outpouring of grief and remembrance has been overwhelming. Twenty thousand people filed through the JFK library in Boston to pay their respects. They waited in line for hours just to pass the flag-draped casket of the senior senator from Massachusetts. I remember that something similar occurred when Reagan died a few years ago; though, frankly, the public response to Reagan's passing, while huge, did not seem as spontaneous and heartfelt.

Compared to Kennedy.... well, I was going to say that, compared to Kennedy, Reagan was a flash in the pan but, certainly, that is not the case. He changed the system so much for the worse and to such a degree that we are still dealing with the mess and, it seems at least, that it will be almost impossible to overcome. If the damage can be undone, it will take years.

Kennedy and Reagan were a package. The former was the antithesis of the latter politically, though my understanding is that the two men became very friendly over the years. That is a concept that I just cannot understand. The two had diametrically opposing views of the role of government, and thousands of people were harmed by Reagan's nonsense. Yet Kennedy became his friend.

I'm not sure what that means. On one hand, it could mean that they respected each other as political giants, as ideological leaders of their parties, and as people who meant well and were each trying to do the right thing in their own ways. On the other hand, it could mean that to each of them -- both, men of privilege and wealth -- politics was a mere business like any other, separated (as they were) from those whom it most affected. It seems to me as though politicians of the stature of Kennedy and Reagan do, in fact, seem to be above the fray and above the law. Still, although Kennedy was a highly imperfect liberal, like the old negro spiritual says, "If we ever needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now."

Edward M. Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate for 46 years -- my entire life so far, plus one year. That's a remarkable thing to consider. For 46 years he was part of the national political process and he had so much influence over areas of public policy that matter to people's every day lives: Labor, education, health care, civil rights, among many others. Compare him to a guy like Senator Robert Byrd, who's served in the Senate even longer than Kennedy but really has done very little for folks outside of his own state of West Virginia. When Senator Byrd passes on eventually, I doubt very seriously whether his memorials will attract more than a few thousand attendees, if that. I suppose we'll have to just wait and see.

Kennedy was able both to bring home the bacon and be a national leader on issues that are important to average people. By all accounts he was a lovely, warm man not consumed by his own ego or status. He was generous with his time, his money, and his professional role. He and his extended family are thoroughly dedicated to public service and have an attitude about it that is very similar to my own. He was an old fashioned, unabashed liberal. I don't know if there are any left int he Senate. Barbara Mikulski? Perhaps. Al Franken? We'll see. Barbara Boxer? Certainly. A handful, perhaps. But NONE who will EVER be of Kennedy's stature or have a similar capacity to do the People's business so effectively.

So, it is a loss. Kennedy's family came to the U.S. from Ireland in the late 19th century. They weren't wealthy and, when they came here, they made lots of money very quickly in part as bootleggers during Prohibition. It was just incredible hard-nosed ambition, smarts, savvy, and hard work. The Kennedy children -- Ted's generation -- were able to take their father's ambition, his private vice, and turn it into public virtue. A familial tradition of public service, whether in government, non-profits, or journalism that is unmatched.

I hope the now-vacant Senate seat that had been occupied for over 50 years by a Kennedy (Ted's brother John had it before him) will be filled by another Kennedy. I just think it's important symbolically to have a Kennedy in the Senate who can carry the left wing torch for the next 20 or 30 years in a way that only a Kennedy can. I would like to be able to grow old and die with a liberal Kennedy still in the U.S. Senate, fighting the good fight.

Thank you, Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

07 June 2009

Artomatic, Love, and the Exploding Brain

My wife and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary this weekend by attending the 10th annual D.C. Artomatic art exhibition. We're talking about something like 275,000 square feet of art gallery and performance space featuring some amazing (and some awful) visual art and live music and performances. And it's all FREE!

The temporary exhibition space is located in one of the new hypercontemporary D.C. office buildings that sits vacant because of the overbuilding that's taken place in Our Nation's Capital combined with the effects of the Great Recession. So, rather than the sterile offices of law firms, real estate developers, consulting firms and the like, there is something like six floors of art and sound, plus adult bevvies and food offered up by the Hard Times Cafe.

For me, this was such a wonderful way to spend my anniversary. Our honeymoon had been spent in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels taking in mucho awesome art. I think our favorites were the Rodin Museum in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. At that time, I knew I loved art but now -- having experienced so much more of life and having learned a lot from incorporating artistic processes into my work as an educator -- I appreciate it so much more. That's an exciting thought because it means that my appreciation will continue to deepen as I grow older. This fact, in turn, is an exciting prospect because it means that there are good things about growing older, even though you fart more and get hair in weird places. So, going to Artomatic made total sense, and it cost us way less than traveling to Europe.

Earlier in the day, Jennifer and I had been sniping at each other over...guess what? Think: What do middle-aged couples with youngish children (read: requiring a babysitter) and summer camps to pay for, argue about? If you answered "money" then DING! you would be correct. So, the freeness of Artomatic was helpful. But we'd really done a number on each other so we kind of headed out of the house rather grudging and glum, trying to shake off our hurt feelings and mutual contempt for the others' bass-ackward thinking about things personal financial. On the subway ride to the Navy Yard, where that heretofore empty new office building is located, we got into another intense discussion about Jennifer's travails at work, which she needed to talk about and I wasn't in the mood to hear. Big Error on My Part. It was so intense, in fact, that we forgot to "de-train" at the appropriate station and had to double back, which gave us even more time to become angry, again, with each other. Doesn't this sound like a great date night? Somebody give me a Stoly, straight no chaser.

So we entrained on the green line back to the Navy Yard, detrained there and headed upstairs at 55 M Street, Southeast to become enveloped by art. After sampling some of the electric prog rock in the deafening, concrete first floor performance space, we shot up to the second floor. That is where we fell back in love. We fell in love with the art and, again, with each other. We remembered who we were and what mattered. Our lives are good. We are healthy. We have jobs and good friends. We have enough money. Our children are wonderful. We are the best of friends. Artomatic reminded us of what is important. Here were a lot of artists, most of whom are just extraordinarily creative and, I gather, quite poor, doing something they're passionate about and (mostly) good at. Blown glass, oils on canvas, sculptures and installations of all types, video, furniture, photographs, performance. Artomatic is everything in life.

And my brain? Well, it simply exploded with ideas and wonder. Neurons danced! I woke up. Cheered up. Got high without any alcohol or drugs. That morning I'd been in my shul (synagogue) reciting the Hebrew mantras and getting humble, reconnecting with the rhythm of nature and rejoicing. Artomatic enabled me to revisit those feelings in a different way. Art enables a person to see and feel things anew by seeing and feeling them through the artist's eyes. The artist sees things in a certain way and presents them to you and you may like them and you may not. The artist doesn't care.

Our painter friend, Pat Goslee had some of her wonderful, intricate, busy pieces on display. The one you see here is "part," one of a series Pat has done exploring "the notion of concrete space. A space that is at once empty and full." This image doesn't come near to doing the piece justice. You've got to just stare at the real thing for, like, several hours. I gave it about seven minutes and it worked on me. On her website, Pat has a quote by the critic Jerry Saltz that says "art is an energy source that helps make change possible."

If you live in the DC, then you must make a pilgrimmage to Artomatic. If you do not live here, then you must find art wherever you are, in person, and observe it. Art is all over the place and need not have been created by human hands. Do it as soon and as often as possible. If you're married, take in some art on your wedding anniversary or on a date night. Share it with your lover. When we observe art, we evolve. When we observe art together, we evolve together.
the notion of concrete space. A space that is at once empty and full, where a soul might find peace uncrowded by wars, words, and the opinions of others.the notion of concrete space. A space that is at once empty and full, where a soul might find peace uncrowded by wars, words, and the opinions of others.

11 May 2009

20 Years On

This week marks the 20th anniversary of my graduation from law school, so I want to reflect on that.

Certainly, I have learned quite a lot in 20 years of being a lawyer. I am one of those who disliked law school, even though I fared reasonably well and appreciated the academic rigor, the content, and some of my teachers and classmates. But now, after many years of looking back at that period of my life with resentment, I've begun to remember it with some fondness. Not that I would ever go to a reunion, however. In fact, recently, I received materials related to my class's upcoming 20-year reunion. It was nice to see some of the names of active alums (which, I guess, means folks who've donated) from the class of 1989: my dormmates, roommates, and fellow musicians. It was also not nice to see some of their names: the ass kissers, sycophants, conservatives, brats, and just plain assholes.

There were also the names of several law school classmates who had died. Three were friends of mine: Mark Bregar, Rona Morrow, and Steve Fogel. They were all very different, but they were all very good, smart people. I knew of Steve's death because he had perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I had been unaware of Mark's and Rona's passings, however, and that news certainly struck me. I didn't know Mark well. He was a very quiet, studious fellow, but was very friendly and funny. He had spent several years in the military before coming to law school. He was extremely sharp but very sweet and his politics were great.

Rona was a former biker chick and rock 'n roll singer, at that time in her mid-to-late 40s maybe. I recall her telling me that she had had a serious drug or alcohol addiction (or both) before kicking it and coming to law school. She served with me on the editorial board of the InterAmerican Law Review. She was just very cool. I remember she made me a cassette tape of Lou Reed's then-new album, New York, which is still one of my favorite rock albums. On the flip side she put the Cowboy Junkies with their version of Sweet Jane. I really liked Rona.

I don't remember Steve's politics, but Mark and Rona were strong liberals, like me. At that time, in the midst of Reagan's Republican and Conservative "revolution" (which was, actually, a devolution for which we are all now suffering), there weren't many of us at the University of Miami Law School. We were far outnumbered by the wealthy, conservative, often Cuban American students who had their hopes and dreams set on becoming powerful lawyers, working at big firms, and greasing the wheels of the economy so they could eat their piece of the Pie. That's really all most of my classmates gave a shit about.

I went into law school thinking I'd come out with the opportunity to make a good living, but my goal was to obtain a law degree to do that old-fashioned thing: Help people. I'd spent the two summers before law school working for a personal injury plaintiff's lawyer who represented little guys against the big guys, and he won. A lot. And that felt good and right to me. He fought for the underdog, so that's what I wanted to do too.

I remember very well that this was a theme echoed and reinforced by my law school dean and professors for three solid years. At our orientation dinner, Dean Mary Doyle told us of her experience as a young lawyer investigating the prison riot at Attica in New York State, and Governer Rockefeller's awful response to it and how it had transformed her. I remember that some of my new classmates didn't think much of her speech, but I thought it was fascinating. I wanted to do something like that, perhaps.

In her speech at our graduation ceremony three years later, Dean Doyle said that by becoming lawyers we were going to have a lot of power and we would be in a position to help people who had no power. That resonated with me.

During the period in between orienation and commencement, Dean Doyle's messages were driven home by several fine professors: Richard Hyland, who taught me contracts and that modern contract law was about equalizing bargaining power. Alan Swan, who taught me that the Constitution was structured to prevent concentrations of state power and that the Roosevelt-era and Warren Courts' interpretation of the Commerce Clause permitted the evolution of progressive legislation in two major areas that we now take for granted: regulation of the economy and the protection of civil rights. Irwin Stotzky, who taught me that fourth and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution were designed to preserve individual liberty from the encroachments of the state weilding its police power. Michael Fischl, who taught me that unions were how low-income and working-class people protected themselves from corporate domination. Steve Winter, who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the organization started by Thurgood Marshall. And Jeremy Paul, who introduced me to law and morality through the Hart-Fuller exchange, and the various theories of jurisprudence.

Fischl and Paul were "Crits" -- adherents of the Critical Legal Studies movement -- who believed that law is an expression of power and that those who have access to legal and legislative process (the rich), control society's distribution of wealth and prerogatives. Some called them vulgar Marxists, but I called them smart. They examined the assumptions about human nature underlying the law and, in so doing, pointed out how mistaken most of those assumptions were. All of this reinforced my values and provided greater direction. Maybe they were socialists and maybe they weren't. Frankly, they just wanted the legal system to be fair, and who except the most insecure could argue with that. My Crit professors helped me connect the political theory I'd learned as an undergraduate to the law. And, importantly, they helped me understand that legal education was about the reproductionof heirarchy. That it was, actually, a type of brainwashing and that, if you weren't careful, you were going to get sucked into fucking people over as a lawyer representing powerful interests. Indeed, they were so right: Just look at where most of the top law graduates go. To big firms representing commercial interests who, in turn, dominate the political process and appropriate public space and funds for their private benefit. I owe the Crits very much.

I was fortunate to have been admitted to the editorial board of the InterAmerican Law Review and, in my third year, to be elected Research and Writing Editor. I wanted to write and publish an article, so I chose as my topic the U.S. indictment of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. At the time, this was an unprecedented extension of federal criminal law that struck me as highly political because Reagan wanted Noriega gone after he refused to continue supplying arms the fascist Nicraguan contras and refused to stop shipping cocaine to the U.S. (Noriega was a fascist too, but that's beside the point.) That began another branch of the great odyssey for me. It was, by far, my most memorable and wonderful experience in law school. I enjoyed doing that work and helping my classmates with their articles. I learned so much.

I was able to publish the article in volume 20 of the Review and, after I graduated and moved to Washington, it turned out that the article received some attention, which encouraged me to pursue further scholarly research and writing. I became a law teacher at Catholic University and human rights lawyer, doing a little work in El Salvador and Colombia. I received a fellowship to teach and practice in an affordable housing law clinic at Georgetown, representing the District of Columbia's low-income, mostly Salvadoran tenants who lived in the worst slum housing in the city. I learned how speak and read some Spanish. I got my ass kicked by some pretty slick slumlords' lawyers, but I also learned how to kick ass from some awesome poverty lawyers, one of whom people used to think was a nun until she tore them a new one in her very quiet, unassuming way. She saved me from my arrogant, insecure, young self. She taught me that you don't need to be a loud, obnoxious, machoman to be a great lawyer and that, in fact, those characteristics had nothing whatever to do with lawyering. She really saved my life and, by so doing, helped me help others with their lives.

After that, I became an undergraduate government teacher at American University while remaining involved in community work and, eventually, co-founding a course of study at AU called Transforming Communities, where I was able to bring together 10 years of experience. Ultimately, I moved on to my current job where I labor to improve the administration of justice in the federal courts.

So, 20 years on, I'd say things have turned out all right. It has taken all those years for the values that I have internalized, stood for, worked for, and taught about to be publicly vindicated by a President of the United States who is, basically, my age and had strikingly similar professional experiences. After he graduated from law school (two years after me), he chose the high road. Why? Because he knew his law degree gave him power to help those who didn't have it. And he's still doing doing the same thing in a different context and in a way those of us not old enough to remember FDR (which is most of us) have never before seen.

The past 20 years have, at times, been very lonely and depressing for me professionally. For years the little guys got the shitty end of the stick and it just kept getting worse. Those who worked in the trenches got no acknowledgment or credit. But these years have also been extraordinarily rewarding (and that doesn't even begin to describe my personal life). I wouldn't trade them for anything.

And, now, I'm lonely no more. I have a national leader, finally, who believes in all the things I do and thinks the way I do. A president who understands the importance of empathy among those with power, the centrality of community to our sense of meaning, and that material things just don't matter very much. And there is a huge tide of young people who feel the same way, ready to follow in his wake.

Relationships. Love. Caring. Community. Twenty years on, I have arrived.

26 April 2009

Mystic Rhythms

Today I had a wonderful experience. For the first time in my life I taught a group of people about drumming and rhythm -- Middle Eastern drumming and rhythm.

I have been playing all different kinds of drums since I was about 12 years old, and I've been an educator for the past 20 years, but I've never educated people about drumming. I've been passionate about music my entire life, and I've been a passionate educator for almost half my life, but I never put the two together until now. The reasons go beyond the scope of this post but, suffice it to say, they are worth many psychotherapy sessions.

So this was a big deal. A revelation. A major step forward on my life's journey.

I've really only "thought" about drumming for the past few years. Before, it was just something I connected to on a purely visceral level. I loved pounding those drum heads with my sticks or hands and smashing the
cymbals. I've always enjoyed all kinds of music, but rock music is just in my blood. It's simple to play (most of it), and I find rock drumming to be a wonderful way to blow off steam. I'm not subtle enough for jazz and I'm too lazy for classical, though I listen to both quite often and have played drums in both jazz combos and orchestras. Now, in my 40s, I've found a happy medium -- roots rock, country, and folk -- where I can work on my musicianship but not too hard. I can also work on my understanding of how music connects to the American culture that I've grown-up in and identify with.

But I digress. While simultaneously working on the roots rock drumming, I've had the good fortune to be able to explore drumming within Jewish sacred music. Several years ago my family joined a wonderful reconstructionist congregation. It is wonderful for many reasons but, for me, the most amazing aspect has been its' openness to spirituality -- especially through music -- facilitated primarily by Hazzan Rachel Hersh-Epstein. Hazzan Rachel encourages hand drumming during Shabbat morning services, and it is appreciated by those who attend, so I've been able to explore this aspect of my rhythmic self in a way that I never have; an aspect as important to my identity as the American one.

A short time after joining th
e congregation, I purchased a dumbek drum, which is the quintessential Middle Eastern drum. For several years I'd been playing West African and Latin hand drums, but never Middle Eastern drums -- which is interesting, because I'm neither West African nor Latino; but I am a Semite. My ancestors are from the Middle East. So, I've been able to work on my dumbek technique for a couple of years now and it's been going pretty well. The connections for me to the mystical and spiritual side of Judaism are quite strong and, because drumming and music are such a part of my self, the opportunity to put this all together is allowing me to learn more and, therefore, reach a profound new understanding of who I am, life, the world, and my place in it.

Philosophically, I've been able to arrive at this conclusion: The entire universe is based on rhythms. Patterns are occurrin
g all the time, every day, every second, throughout the universe. Think about it: the 24 hours of the day, repeated over again, constitute a rhythm. The beating of a heart is a rhythm; breathing is a rhythm (remember the heartbeat in "Breathe" by Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon?). The calendar is a rhythm. So, for me, the rhythms of drumming are about achieving an an understanding of time and how it moves. Physicists and mathematicians understand time through by studying atoms and constructing equations; members of the clergy -- good ones -- understand time through ancient texts and practices; non-drummer composers understand time through notes and time signatures and keys set out on sheets of paper; drummers understand time through the patterns they play on their drums, in various tones, at various tempos.

Importantly, drums and non-melodic percussion instruments, unlike most other instruments, are highly primitive. As such, they require little to no formal instruction in order for one to begin playing immediately. Similarly, drums are communal. Because anyone can drum, anyone can participate in drumming. That is very appealing to anyone interested in the empowering nature of democracy (which, I assume, is pretty much everyone). In other words: "I don't need to watch you play the drums. I can do it myself, thank you very much!"

So, all of this has been a beautiful discovery for me and, today, I was able to take it further. Even though I've been noodling around on the dumbek for a co
uple of years and listening to some Middle-Eastern rhythms, I never really took the time to study those rhythms or understand them. Which is why I volunteered to teach this session in Mid-Eastern drumming. It was an opportunity to learn and make deeper connections -- connection with my drumming, with my self, and with my People. My wonderful 11 year-old son participated in the session, which was really cool.

I'm still moving through an intermediate phase of spiritual self-discovery and I'm beginning to take away some heavy lessons in addition to the main philosphical conclusion. In this regard, for now, what I'd like to say is this: If you are a musician, or an artist of some kind, but have pursued as your life's work another profession or occupation, do not cut yourself off from your art. If you do, you will be unhappy. It will be as if your soul has been surgically removed. Your ability to make art is a large part of who you are and it will draw you nearer to everything and everyone if you integrate it meaningfully into your life.

Okay. Enough philosophizing. For what it's worth, here's what I've learned (so far) about Middle Eastern drumming:

Typical Mid-Eastern Percussion Instruments


A tar (Arabic: طار‎) is a single-headed frame drum. The tar comes from North Africa and the Middle East. Depictions of these frame drums date back thousands of years.
The tar is held mainly with one hand, although the playing hand can also play and supports the drum while playing. It has an open tone, and is often either played for accompaniment to other instruments or in tar ensembles.
Frame drums are common throughout the world. There are tar, bendir, bodhran, deff, duff, and many others. Many Native American cultures use the frame drum in ceremony and celebration. These drums seem simple, but are capable of great nuance and sophistication.
Some Frame Drum Players, Demos, and Tunes
Zohar Fresco (Israeli-Turkish) http://www.myspace.com/zoharfresco
Glen Velez (U.S.) http://www.glenvelez.com/

The riq (Arabic: رق‎) (also spelled riqq or rik) is a type of tambourine used as a traditional instrument in Arabic music. Itis an important instrument in both folk and classical music throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It traditionally has a wooden frame (although in the modern era it may also be made of metal), jingles, and a thin, translucent head made of fish or goat skin (or, more recently, a synthetic material). Although in the West the tambourine is generally considered to be a simple rhythm instrument suited for unskilled performers, riq players are capable of great subtlety and virtuosity.
The riq is used in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Sudan, and Syria; in Libya, where it is rare, it is called mriq. It is between 20 and 25 cm in diameter and is now effectively a man's instrument. Descended from the duff (see Daff), like the tar, the riq acquired its name in the 19th century so that it could be differentiated.
Essentially an instrument of music for the connoisseur, the riq, which is also called daff al-zinjari in Iraq, is played in takht ensembles (Egypt, Syria) or shalghi ensembles (Iraq) where it has a particularly clearcut role, going beyond the simple rhythmic requirements of the daff, tar, or mazhar, and exploding in a burst of imaginative freedom to colour the orchestra with gleaming sounds: this is quite unlike the role of the daff. In Sudan, where it seems to have been introduced recently, the riq is also related to worship, as in upper Egypt.
The frame of the riq can be covered on both the inner and outer sides with inlay such as mother-of-pearl, ivory or decorative wood, like apricot or lemon. It has ten pairs of small cymbals (about 4 cm in diameter), mounted in five pairs of slits. The skin of a fish or goat is glued on and tightened over the frame, which is about 6 cm deep. In Egypt the riq is usually 20 cm wide; in Iraq it is slightly larger.
Traditionally, frame drums have been used to support the voices of singers, who manipulate them themselves; but the player of the riq, like that of the doira of Uzbekistan, plays without singing. While the daff and the mazhar are held relatively still, at chest or face height, with the player seated, the riq, because of the use of different tone-colours, may be violently shaken above the head, then roughly lowered to the knee, and played vertically as well as horizontally. The player alternates between striking the membrane and shaking the jingles, and his need for freedom of movement necessitates that he stand up. Students of the instrument are required to master the technical problems imposed by the timbre of the membrane and the jingles, both separately and in combination; aside from developing a virtuoso technique they also need to learn the many rhythmic cycles and the techniques of modifying them through creative invention.
Some Riq Players, Demos, and Tunes
Layne Redmond (Canada) http://www.layneredmond.com/
Dumbek or Darabukka

The goblet drum of the Middle East and North Africa is known by a number of names including dumbek, darabukka (Arabic: دربكة), derbocka, and dumbelek. It is found made from clay, wood, metal, or fiberglass and comes in a number of sizes. All have a single head usually of goatskin, and are traditionally played under the arm. They have become very popular drums in World Music in the West second only to the djembe. There are a wide variety of techniques used to play this drum, that are dependant on the material the drum is made from and the region it comes from. Musical lore says that the instrument is called a dumbek because of the two main sounds of the instrument: the dum, or the deep tone from the centre of the drum and the bek, the tone produced from striking the rim.
Some Dumbek Players, Demos, and Tunes
Levent Yildirim (Turkey) http://www.myspace.com/leventdehollo

Alex Spurkel (U.S.) (demos of basic rhythms),

Examples of Contemporary Music Containing North African and
Middle Eastern Rhythms

U.S. & UK Pop & Jazz

“Desert Rose” by Sting featuring Cheb Mami (Algeria), on Brand New Day (1999)
“His Master’s Heart” by Ara Dinkjian featuring Zohar Fresco, on An Armenian in America (2008)

Israeli Pop & Jazz
“So Far” by Habanot Nechama on Habanot Nechama (2007) (pop)
"Gypsy Soul" by Bustan Abraham on Pictures Through the Painted Window (1994)

Jewish Sacred Music
“Lechay Olamim” by Hazzan Richard Kaplan (U.S.), on Life of the Worlds (2003)

Listen! Watch! Play! Enjoy!

07 April 2009

On Second Chances....

Do you believe in redemption? If you are the type of person who asks yourself "What would Jesus do?" how serious are you about answering honestly?

Consider this: If you're a middle-aged or older adult, think back to your teenage and young adult years and all the dumb things you did that could have resulted in your being arrested. Did you smoke pot or snort some coke or do some freebasing? Did you buy dope or sell it in any quantity? Did you live or "conspire" with folks who did? Did you ever drive while under the influence? Did you shoplift? Did you engage in "statutory rape" (meaning, when you were a "man" of 18 did you sleep with a "girl" of 17 or 16)?

What would life be like for you today had you been arrested for and convicted of any of these things? What if you're poor, African American, Latino, or Hispanic and you're arrested for one of these criminal acts? Is the process and result qualitatively different than if you're white and middle-class or rich? Yes.

We have a major problem in this country that we are finally beginning to acknowledge: Our extraordinary rate of incarcerating people and putting them under probation or parole supervision. Here are the facts: According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, one in 31 of all Americans are either incarcerated in state prisons or are under probation or parole supervision. As of 2008, 2.3 million individuals were incarcerated in the United States. In the federal criminal justice system, which is separate from the state systems and is the single largest criminal justice system in the country, over 200,000 individuals are incarcerated and about 100,000 are either on federal probation or are serving terms of supervised release in the community.

Notably, approximately 27% of the population of the federal Bureau of Prisons consists of non-U.S. citizens. So, in essence, U.S. taxpayers are forking over about $25,000 per person per year to house something like 54,000 non-U.S. citizens. Do the math: That's $1,350,000,000 per year. The budget of the Bureau of Prisons is $6 billion and they're asking for more in fiscal year 2010. And what are most of those non-U.S. citizens in prison for? Duh: such outrageous immigration crimes as returning to the country after having been deported. Or, crossing the border illegally and carrying illegal drugs as part of the deal for being brought over by a coyote. These mules weren't coming to deal drugs. They were coming to work backbreaking jobs in restaurant kitchens, food processing plants, hotels, farms, and rich folks' homes so they could send money back home to their families. Are there non-U.S. citizens in the BOP who are gangbangers? Certainly, a few. Are some of them in prison for identity theft? Yes, but not because they wanted to steal millons from unsuspecting citizens; rather, because they needed IDs to get jobs. I'm not excusing this behavior; it is wrong, but is it worth up to two years in federal prison at $25,000 per year that we are paying?

During the past 25 years or so, the U.S. decided that the answer to our most pressing social problems was the criminal justice system. Addicted to illegal drugs (especially if you're poor)? You should go to prison. Need to come to the country illegally to work because there's no way you'll ever get a visa? You should go to prison....that is, unless, you are Salvadoran and came here illegally during that country's long civil war that was sponsored by....you guessed it.... the United States. You'll recall that, during the 1980s, the American People were sold a bill of goods by the Reagan and Bush administrations that "the communists" sponsored by the USSR who were taking power in Central America were going to invade the United States if we didn't do something about it. What we did was arm right-wing governments or political opponents who came complete with death squads (but who were favorably disposed toward U.S. corporate interests in their countries). So, if you were Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Guatemalan and you arrived in the States illegally, you were entitled to Temporary Protected Status which, eventually, became permanent. Now that Mexico is apparently in a civil war with drug gangs -- at least if you watch CNN that's the impression -- maybe we should give Mexican undocumented immigrants Temporary Protected Status too? That would legalize them and eliminate a reason for arresting and incarcerating many of them.

But my point is that prisons are probably the worst antidote to addiction, immigration, and poverty. As for addicts, about 55% of federal inmates were convicted of drug-related crimes. About 45% came into the system with addiction issues. Some are receiving treatment while in prison; many are not. Most are not receiving effective treatment because they are either not eligible to enter the Bureau's 500 hour residential drug treatment program, or they must get on the long line to be admitted since the program is underfunded and can't serve all who are eligible.

So, here we are: We have locked up drug addicts and immigrants. The vast majority of offenders are male and a disproportionate number are African American and Latino or Hispanic. Many are young adults and are being sentenced to long terms of incarceration. Most are poor. So, basically, they're screwed for the rest of their lives. By locking people up like this, we're making them worse when they come out of prison, which they ALL will. If you've got a criminal record, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a job that pays a living wage, get a public housing voucher, and receive other federal and state benefits. I could go on, but you get the picture. It's ugly.

Our government has perpetrated a fraud with which we've gone along because we've rationalized that "criminals" are different from us: The government told us that locking all these folks up would solve our problems and we happily believed it because, again, we've dehumanized "criminals" or "offenders" or whatever we call them except "people." Crime rates have, overall, gone down in recent years but even as they've gone down, incarceration rates have continued to go up. So, we've created a new problem: How do we reintegrate the more than 600,000 offenders returning to our communities from prison each year?

At long last, beginning -- go figure -- with President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address in which he acknowledged that offenders are entitled to a second chance, criminal justice policies are changing. The awful economy -- really a 21st Century depression -- is helping to move the ball forward because, as noted above, prisons are expensive to build and maintain and states don't have the money to do it anymore. So they're contemplating or already engaging in major changes in policy that will lead to the release of thousands nonviolent offenders.

In 2008, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen and senators passed, and President Bush signed, the Second Chance Act, which is the first-ever comprehensive federal offender "reentry" legislation that authorizes the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to facilitate the successful reintegration of inmates back into the community. But, the funds are merely authorized. The Act has only been partially funded. We'll see whether full funding comes in the next fiscal year. My sense, however, is that the Act will be fully funded and, more than that, that in the coming months and years we will see enormous changes in our correctional systems. In addition to the Second Chance Act, there are many, smaller "under the radar" types of things happening in state and federal criminal justice systems that give me hope.

As for the interesting things happening in our federal courts, check out this article by Nick Phillips from the St. Louis Riverfront Times about some innovative treatment programs. For now I'd like to say that I think we're just beginning to come to terms with what we've done to people. Vulnerable people. Often ill people. People who've known nothing but poverty in their lives. We've put them in prison them for being vulnerable. For being sick. For being poor. For being young and stupid.

So, does this imply that we should not punish people for breaking criminal laws? Of course not. But first -- and this is my plea -- can we take a look at the laws they're breaking? Should we have laws that criminalize addiction? Should we have laws that criminalize entering this country illegally because of economic desperation? Should we have laws that criminalize the possession and sale of marijuana? Second, -- my plea continued -- can we please have an honest discussion of what constitutes "punishment"? I would posit that sending people to prison is taking the easy way out. Easy for us and "easy" for some the folks we're sending to prison. Forcing people to truly take responsibility for their actions... if they've harmed other individuals or clearly harmed the community... and to make them whole.... now that's difficult. Do we do that in our systems of punishment? Mostly not. We do have systems of restitution but they're not particularly effective even if the order is complied with. Some jurisdictions are engaging in "restorative justice." That's more like it, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

More on all this next time. Peace.

01 April 2009

What on Earth is He (President Obama) Doing? (Part 2)

So, today we discuss the POTUS on foreign policy, which is appropriate because, as we speak, he is in London for the G-20 meeting.

Of course, the commentariat have already declared that the POTUS will fail to achieve his so-called primary goal: getting all the other developed countries to do a combined stimulus. How, exactly, that became his "primary goal" I'm not sure, but they seem to think it is. Sometimes, in Washington, when one news agency reports that something is the POTUS's "primary goal" all the other news agencies start to glom on to that story and all of a sudden it becomes the "primary goal." So, if the POTUS doesn't achieve the "primary goal" he has failed. My point is this: To narrow down such a major foreign trip to a "primary goal" and then, to say that if the goal isn't reached, the whole trip is a failure is preposterous.

Let's think about this very clearly: This is the POTUS's first foreign foray. He's an impressive dude and will impress everyone with his knowledge, erudition, and vision. All the other countries wish they had him because their guys (and gals, in the case of Germany's Angela Merkel) are so unbelievably boring (Gordon Brown, Hu JinTao, etc.) or pompous (Sarkozy) that it's almost embarrassing. Contrast this with when W. would go abroad. Americans wanted to hang their heads in shame every time the guy opened his mouth. He was hated by pretty much everyone everywhere overseas and, therefore, we were hated.

So how does the POTUS start this trip? First, with outreach to Iran and a meeting between Richard Holbrooke and his Iranian counterpart to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Second, with outreach to Russian president Medvedyev to discuss issues such as the proposed NATO missile defense, nuclear assistance to Iran, and new strategic nuclear weapons negotiations to further reduce the number of nuclear weapons owned by the two countries. Third, a joint statement with Gordon Brown that the U.S. and England are sticking together and are seeking unity on issues regarding both stimulus and financial regulation. He may get less of the former than the latter from our allies and China but the latter is pretty damned necessary. So, let's get real. The POTUS is all over this. Failure? I think not.

After London, the POTUS is going to Strasbourg for a big NATO meeting where he'll get some of what he wants on Afghanistan and a lot of what he wants on everything else because, by that time, the other NATO leaders will feel like they can trust him and that he understands their interests. Then he goes to Turkey -- a Muslim country and important U.S. and European ally and member of NATO that is sponsoring talks between Israel and Syria. That will be a great move and the Turks will love him. Why? Because he undersands them.

I imagine he'll visit the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well, though that's usually a secret until after the fact. Speaking of Iraq, the POTUS has recognized that 16 months for a pullout was too ambitious so he extended it to 18 months and we're gonna keep several thousand troops there indefinitely. That could change if the situation in Iraq gets better and Iran changes its ways. As for Afghanistan, the strategy is brilliant because it's not just about Afghanistan: It's about that country, Pakistan, and Iran. The POTUS says they're all linked and he's right. Iran wants us out of Afghanistan, but if that's gonna happen they'll have to provide security guarantees which they're in no position to. Pakistan is a major problem. I don't know how that situation will ultimately be worked out. I'm not sure anyone does; but they've got nukes so they need to be watched closely and having tens of thousands of U.S. troops within striking distance of Islamabad is probably not such a bad thing right now.

Relations with China? The POTUS and Hu will get along well because the POTUS won't disrespect Hu by lecturing him about human rights...which in light of our recent history torturing people we're really in no position to do anyway. Besides, China's got us by the shorthairs because they hold several trillion dollars of U.S. treasury bonds. It's been that way for many years and there's not much we can do about it except pursue policies that make the Chinese investment in the U.S. more valuable. Sorry.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict. Fugghetaboutit. Perhaps if the U.S. makes headway with Iran, this will eliminate a major obstacle in the way of peace, but I just don't seen anyone in the new Israeli government willing to seriously negotiate. They're major right-wingers.

There's more to discuss... Suffice it to say, for now, that the POTUS is doing fine on foreign policy and, as the first POTUS in the truly multi-polar world, he has an opportunity to lead in a new way.

31 March 2009

What on Earth is He (President Obama) Doing?

OK so what's the POTUS up to? There's been so much speculation and criticism about so many of his decisions during the last 70+ days that it's been really hard for me to try to make sense of it. But, since in this blog we discuss public policy along with everything else, I'm going to try to give it a shot. Writing helps me work out my thoughts. Today, we discuss domestic policy.

On domestic policy, obviously the POTUS is concerned primarily with our economic crisis (duh!). Here's what I think he's doing: First, he's attempting to clean out the bad assets from the big banks while propping them up in the process. Why prop them up? Because if they fail, there is a strong likelihood of a worldwide depression and panic, the likes of which only those who are really around 80+ have ever witnessed. Of course, in 1929, you'll recall, there were no nuclear weapons or global terrorist organizations, etc. Why is this important? Because it's not entirely clear that several countries that possess nuclear weapons are stable enough to withstand an worldwide panic (e.g., Pakistan) and it would be a bad thing for nukes to get into the hands of fundamentalist terrorist organizations who would like to take advantage of the situation. Maybe that is farfetched, but there's certainly another, more practical, reason: We would all prefer not to lose any more of our life savings. That would happen if a big money-center bank failed and panic and depression ensued. No thanks. So, the POTUS has taken the good advice of his financial team and tried to leverage taxpayer money with private money from hedge funds and other big investors to clean out the bad assets. Is it a risk? Of course. Welcome to investing. Would it be a bigger risk if it was all taxpayer money. For taxpayers it certainly would be.

Second, as for the larger economy, the POTUS understands that the old model of industrial organization is dead and has been for many years. In many respectst the corporations did this to themselves, with plenty of help from unions. Over the past several decades, our country has been deindustrialized and deunionized. The major heavy industries have been offshored to countries with very low labor costs (like China, etc.), unions have shrunk to less than 10% of the workforce, and the remaining big unionized industries in this country simply cannot compete with deunionized industries both domestic and foreign. That is why GM -- the weakest of the Big Two U.S. car companies -- is going to, basically, fold. The POTUS knows this is the case and that is why he fired Waggoner and hired a labor expert to help distressed auto industry communities to transform. The GM of the future, if it survives at all, will be a much smaller company that is structured much differently. So, there will be one large U.S. auto company -- Ford -- and two fairly small ones that may, eventually, fold (GM and Chrysler). Personally, I don't think the country can support two or three large auto companies. At least one of them, and probably two, will have to go. Obviously, this is major, major, major not only for the economy but for individuals, communities, and the national psyche. As the POTUS said in his address to a joint session of Congress earlier this year, "the day of reckoning has arrived." He is merely preparing us for the inevitable.

Has the POTUS made mistakes on handling the economy? Certainly, but they've been darn small compared to the mistakes that Bush was making. He inherited a bunch of bad decisions and a few good ones and has to make lemonade out of a lemon. He needed to be more proactive on the stimulus with Chris Dodd, the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, who is in the pocket of AIG. The POTUS's congressional liaison (Senate side) failed him on that. That's really, quite honestly, the only major mistake I think he's made. Otherwise, I think his work on the stimulus was stellar. I know many disagree, but they're wrong. There's this thing we have in our country called the legislative process. It's ugly and hasn't been used very much over the past several years so folks forget what it looks like. It's republican government at work and we should be OK with that.

Perhaps some of his economic team appointments are arguable. I'm not sure I would have appointed Geithner as Treasury Secretary. I would have called upon Warren Buffet or Bill Gates to be a figurehead TS for a couple of years and have Geithner serve as deputy, or something like that. Elevate him later on if he does a good job. Fire him if he doesn't. Oh well, we got Tim and he'll be alright. Obviously, the Daschle nomination turned out to be a mistake, which is too bad but, unfortunately, Daschle is the ultimate Washington insider and that's what you get when you get too cozy with folks like that. They are, in many ways, very out of touch. In retrospect, this will turn out to be a good mistake because Governor Sibelius is fantastic and brings a sensibility to the health care issue that Daschle doesn't have. Plus, I'm sure he'll work his magic behind the scenes and be helpful. Anyway, I'm straying from policy into politics, which is another issue, albeit related certainly.

On a myriad of other domestic issues, the POTUS get's a B+/A- so far. Here's my summary:
Stem cell research: Great.
Closing Guantanamo: Great.
No torture: Great.
Criminal justice policy: Very good.
Drug policy: good/fair.
Education: Great.
Health Care: Great.
Environment: Great.
Budget: Great.
Governing philosophy: Great.
Use of First Lady's Office for Outreach: Great.

What am I missing?

Next time: Foreign Policy.

22 March 2009

On Prayer and Physical Health

I don't think "a" prayer can help your physical health, but I do think the act of prayer (or meditation), done consistently, can. I'm sure there's a study out there somewhere conducted by some mind-body scientist that shows (or attempts to show) the connection, but to me, it just makes sense. Here's why:

Prayer is about spirituality; about reaching inside yourself to get outside of yourself, thinking about and feeling bigger, transcendent things. It's a way of calming oneself and so, therefore, it seems to me that this has got to be good for you in terms of positive body chemistry. Now, if you pray (or meditate) a lot and purposefully, but then you eat lots of red meat and ice cream equally consistently, my thinking is that prayer aint gonna do a whole lot for you physically. BUT, if you do the prayer/meditation thing and do other things right, my sense is that you'll not only have a long life but one that is generally free of unnecessary suffering. Note, I didn't say free from suffering...just unnecessary suffering. After all, life is suffering... and your amount of suffering is largely a matter of degree and can be somewhat controlled by you... right?

My prayer practice is somewhat inconsistent and I'm still working on it... which is why I guess I refer to it...borrowing again from Zen... as practice. I try to wake up before dawn five or six days a week. My practice consists of either (1) handwriting three pages of stream-of-consciousness (an idea from "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron); (2) reciting the morning blessings and Shema from my Jewish prayerbook; or (3) meditating for 20-30 minutes. On Saturday mornings I don't wake up with the dawn, but I attend the Sabbath service at my synagogue, which is extremely soulful and lovely. On Sundays, taking a cue from Lyle Lovett, I usually sleep-in with my wonderful wifey. Every other Friday morning I go to a yoga class, which is just amazing and very spiritual. There's really no direct payoff from my practice, but I think overall it provides me with peace of mind. Whether it'll help me live longer, I don't know and I don't really care. I do know that I'm afraid of death. I hope that when my time comes, it's from old-age and it's fast.

14 March 2009


Welcome to It's All Connected from the Sherman Office.

The title says it all. I believe that everything is connected. We are all connected. So, this blog is, basically, about everything (as opposed to, say, Seinfeld :o) ).

We'll discuss art, public policy, law, economics, music, literature, education and schooling, film and movies, travel, religion and spirituality, science, TV, the media, technology, the environment, children, parenting, health (mental and physical)....EVERYTHING.

My son, Sam (Shmuel Zavel
שְׁמוּאֵל), is 11 years old. Today he wants to interview me about spirituality -- an assignment from his synagogue Torah school teacher. I think the main question will be something like "Do you believe that prayer can aid physical health?" I definitely have some thoughts about that great question, but I'm gonna hold onto them for now.

What do you think?