Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Peace out" in the New Year!

Why is it that I always think of peace this time of year? Maybe it's the turning of the calendar. Maybe it's the sappy, sentimental songs that romanticize change. Or maybe it's because I really enjoy change, and I happen to think the biggest change we can affect is peace.

Whatever the reason, this arbitrary, self-imposed turning-of-the-clock has afforded us time to "start anew." And every time I wipe the slate clean I think, "OK, maybe now I can start being less judgmental and start living as an instrument of peace in my family, on my street, in my town, in the world, as a representative of the human race. Maybe now we can learn how to love and forget how to hate." (Help me, I'm quoting Ozzy!)

World peace! That's a tall order. Yet, it can be won -- step by step. And it starts with one simple word and one simple act -- Love. All the great world religions espouse it. All the great spiritual leaders teach it. Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the mystics, the saints -- they all lived it. So, what don't we get about it?

It's the loving of people that matters most, not merely loving the idea of peace. Thomas Merton, the monk and poet, said it so simply:

"Instead of loving what you think is peace,
Love other women and men and love God above all else.
Instead of hating all the people you think are warmongers,
Hate the appetites and disorders in your own soul which are the causes of war.

May you sing peace. May you dance peace. May you be peace in this new year. Now, go out and love on somebody.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Angels shop at Target

Lyda told me an amazing story tonight about how when she was an angel in heaven, she picked Jeni and me to be her parents.

Lyda went shopping one day at the heavenly Target. It was August 13th. She remembers the date because it "felt like August, and it smelled like August. And, well, it really tasted like August."

She found Jeni on the "girl" shelf and me on the "boy" shelf. She picked me first, she said, because she loves me as big as the world. And Jeni and I were kind of like statues, just "heads and shirts."

"You had on a blue shirt and mom had on a purple shirt." (Naturally – our favorite colors.)

Then Lyda went shopping for the rest of our body parts.

"I picked out your bones, and your arms, and legs, and hair, and paint to color your eyes, and some peach-colored stretchy, flopppy stuff for your skin. I even picked out your toes," she said proudly.

"How come you didn’t get me some more hair?" I interrupted.

"Well, sorry," she said, "we were kind of in a hurry and we were really hungry. It was about 5:30 and we had to get back to God’s house to get something to eat."

"What did God serve for dinner?"

"Noodles, of course. We had noodles pretty much every night."

"Did you ever get sick of eating noodles every night?"

"No! God had lots of Parmesan cheese and parsley. And we had milk, but that’s about it."

"You said 'we.' Who else was with you?" I asked.

"There were other angels with me to help me pick you out. Your dad helped me pick you out," she said. "He was the only boy helping me. But, there were about 12 girl angels who helped me pick out mom."

"My dad helped you pick me out?" I asked. "That must have been a long time ago."

"Oh yeah, it was before you and mom were babies. Because you’ve got to start as babies, you know. We took all the parts over to God’s house and he put you together. I helped him a little, maybe this much," she said, holding her thumb and index fingers about an inch apart. "And then God put you in your mommy’s tummy and he put mom in her mommy’s tummy. And then I helped God get you and mom together, but that took a long time."

A long time, indeed, but it seems like we’ve always been together. Now I know why it "seems" that way, because we have been together -- always.

I must say I am comforted knowing that someone as wise and loving as Lyda helped put me together and helped Jeni and me find each other. How cool that she picked us! No need to worry about anything, because it's all part of the master plan.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I can breathe in a small town.

Our loyal fans in Moberly, Missouri, are part of the reason The Hiccups and I love playing in small towns. Of the 14,000 people (26,000 metro) who live in Moberly, about 400 of them came out for the show last Friday night. Pretty impressive, considering that about 100 turned up at our last show in Denver (Pop: 588,349 and 2.4 million metro).

Thank you Moberly! And thanks to the good folks with Parents as Teachers whose hard work is to remind us that we are the best teachers in the world! And a shout-out to the very loud student body at North Park Elementary! Salute!

With the hospitable good will of small towns, comes the challenge of finding a vegetarian meal. There is usually a Subway sandwich or a BK veggie burger or a Taco Bell bean burrito to fall back on, but we can only ingest so much of that stuff. Vegetarians like variety, too.

So, typically while in Moberly we visit Rick's Americana Grill for some veggie pasta or grilled fish (Jeni and I both eat fish for various reasons I’ll explain some other time). Because it’s one of the few full-service restaurants in town, it usually takes a bit longer than we have for a pre-show meal. We branched out and tried the Santa Fe Mexican Restaurant this time and we were pleased. What do we eat at Mexican restaurants? Lots of beans (that is, those not prepared with lard) and Jeni goes for the chile rellenos. Great service, good prices, and hearty beans and rice. Our waiter was from Mexico City and the guy who cashed us out was from Playa del Carmen. When asked how they managed to end up in Moberly, they both answered, "The job."

Since Moberly is called "The Magic City," it sure would be nice if we could -- POOF!!-- hocus-pocus ourselves a good vegetarian meal sometime. We'll wave our wands on the next go round.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kid's Grammy nods are in!

OK, so I’m a bit late in acknowledging the Grammy nominations for the Best Musical Album for Children for 2008. There are some fabulous entries this year. And although my Upside Down album was on the ballot, it didn’t make it. So it goes.

First of all, I’m thrilled that there were no puppets or cartoon characters nominated this year – only humans. That’s progress. And only one big label nomination!

The nominees are:

Beethoven’s Wig for “Beethoven’s Wig 4: Dance Along Symphonies.”

Brady Rymer and The Little Band That Could for "Here Come Brady Rymer and The Little Band That Could."

They Might be Giants for “Here Come the 123s.”

Trout Fishing in America for “Big Round World.”

Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony for “The Shoe Bird.”

Without going into great depth, here are my two cents…

Beethoven’s Wig 4: Dance Along Symphonies: About the cleverest lyrics you’re going to find anywhere, paired with, well, some of the best classical music ever written. It’s a great shtick and well-executed. The compositions have great adult appeal because of the classical connection, and we get the overall wittiness. However, most of that is lost on the kids, and, at least in our van, it becomes tiresome pretty quickly for their young ears. Give them a couple of years and they’ll dig it.

Here come Brady Rymer and The Little band That Could: Hands down one of the best albums of the year (duh, it got nominated) in our house. Excellent song writing and bright compositions make for a winning combo. Even after about 86 spins in our player, this upbeat music never grows tiring for the adults or the kids. Brady’s got a pleasing earthy voice that reminds me of Arlo Guthrie on a good day. (I’m not sure if that’s translates well). All around an awesome entry!

Here Come the 123s: It’s zany and kooky – what more could we expect from the Giants? They were in Kansas City this year for the Jiggle Jam and they rocked the place. Great musicianship and funky lyrics are perfect for kids who are used to that kind of stuff from 80's-influenced parents. I like the quirkiness of it, but a little goes a long way. And some of it is just plain weird. We all know weird sells.

Big Round World: We love Trout in our house! And you won’t find two nicer dudes (other than me) in kid’s music. The consensus here is that it's a hit, even though it's not our favorite TFA album -- yet. Keith and Ezra are stellar musicians and seasoned song-writers who rarely, if ever, miss. And there are some songs on here that came from their student song writing workshops. An all-around fun album that gets plenty of air time on our road trips.

The Shoe Bird: This is a gorgeous reading of Eudora Welty’s fanciful children’s story about how a flock of bird buddies went from winging about to walking about – in shoes! It’s artfully narrated by Jim Dale who does the Harry Potter audio books and backed by the Seattle Symphony and a stellar children’s chorus. Whereas this is a beautiful piece of art, it really belongs in the Spoken Word category and not the Musical Album category, but, hey, I’m not on the selection committee. Great for kids who dig great storytelling.

So, for me and my girls, it’s a toss between Brady Rymer and Trout Fishing – both of whom will be at Jiggle Jam 2009 over Memorial Day weekend!

Brady and his crew, being the newcomers, might not be given much benefit, thus giving an edge to the seasoned Trout duo who have been generating clever, fun music for families for more than 30 years. I’ve never been too lucky on selecting winning horses, so I’ll leave it at that. Either way, we win!!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Heavenly Challah

Every week Ray bakes bread in the kitchen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. He bakes lots of bread. Forty-eight loves this week – 64 last week. And it’s not just any bread. It’s “heavenly challah” sent to him as a gift by his lovely departed wife Frieda – in a literal and spiritual sort of way.

“For fifty years I was married to the most wonderful woman in the world,” says the 85-year-old Ray with a glint in his eye. “Every Friday she would make fresh challah for our evening meal, and every week the kids would tell her, ‘Mom, this is the best challah you’ve ever made.’ This went on for 30 or 40 years.”

Twelve years ago Frieda passed away and left Ray broken-hearted. He shuffled around for the next several months grieving and feeling sorry for himself, until the day he decided to do something about it. He looked around and spotted her recipe box in the kitchen.

“I wondered if there was something in there that I could make that would help me feel close to her,” says Ray. “I came across her challah recipe and thought, ‘This is it.’”

He knew how to cook, but had never baked anything, not even a box cake. He went to the store, gathered all the ingredients, and gave it a go. The bread turned out perfectly.

“So, I started to bake. And I felt like she was right there helping me.”

Ray was active in his synagogue in St. Louis where the challah was delivered each week at increasingly exorbitant prices. He volunteered to start baking it for the congregation. The bread was a hit and people started asking him to bake bread for their families. A woman in the congregation offered to buy a commercial mixer, and Ray increased his output.

Fortunately for the folks at Beth Shalom, Ray moved to Overland Park earlier this year. And now he dons his oven mitts every week and embarks on his volunteer labor of love. The challah is used in services every week and is sold as a fund raiser for the congregation preschool.

“If it weren’t for this bread, I’d be a tottering old man,” he laughs as he leans over and pulls another four loves out of the oven.

After it cools, the bread is sealed in bags and labeled with a sticker that proudly reads, “Frieda’s Heavenly Challah”.

And it tastes like heaven. I got a warm sample right out of the oven, and I brought a loaf home for lunch. Between Jeni and me, we ate more than half of it. If you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and buy some for yourself. Ray will thank you and Frieda will bless you.

Footnote: Many thanks to Judy Jacks Berman (the groovin’ director) and the awesome staff and rockin’ kids at Beth Shalom's Rose Family Early Childhood Education Center. It’s always an honor and a treat performing there.

Monday, December 1, 2008

An antidote for a crazy world.

I'm sorry, but I just have to take a moment to digress from the generally easy-breeziness of this page and pause...

Like many of you, I found last week's news disturbing and infuriating. The insanity of hatred staining the beauty of life in Mumbai and Congo, and the gluttony of our consumer culture scraping new lows on the blackest of Fridays has left me profoundly sad.

But even amid the sadness there is hope and good news -- if we let it in. We can triumph over hatred and evil. All it takes are overwhelming acts of love and good will. I think we've got it in us...

One of my musical idols Pete Seger has a banjo inscribed with his motto, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." I love that. It's simple and doable. For those who roll their eyes and think this pollyannish, I challenge the effectiveness of smart bombs and preemptive strikes to the overwhelming power of truth and nonviolence. Even though they're dead, I'll stand on the side of King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Jesus any day, rather than with the saber-rattling ideological hawks of any era.

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it." Martin Luther King, Jr.

And I find sad and twisted irony in Friday's tragedy on Long Island. A truly bleak and ugly picture of our collective selves squeezing and clawing our way through the doors of a mega-box store, for what? A $9 Incredible Hulk DVD? I can't imagine pitching a fit if a guard asked me to leave because someone lost his life in the mayhem. I can't help but hurt for that man's family and send nonstop prayers. A dark day, indeed. And it happened at Wal Mart. Need I say more?

There was something far more positive and compelling observed last Friday -- National Listening Day. And Lyda participated. It was a very cool and meaningful new tradition. Instead of shopping, we practiced our interviewing skills and then sat down with Grandma Bobbie and Grandpa Joe to ask questions and listen.

Lyda started with the basic "favorite color" and "hobbies" questions, which opened the door for stories from her grandparents' childhoods. The sessions were brief, yet at times laborious due to her copious note-taking, letter-by-letter (How do you spell blue?). It was beautiful and a peaceful respite from the news of the day.

Read more. Play more. And listen more.