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recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

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I gave a talk at the Grammy luncheon for children’s artists on February 9, in which I asked children’s artists to speak out for gun control. I’ve put the text of it here below. I’ve shot a video and am trying to figure out what to do with it – when I get home from running around the country, I’ll get to work. Until then, here’s some food for thought.

I have been, I am guessing, in over 2000 schools in my time performing and working with children. I have, I am guessing, seen several million children – I don’t even know how to begin to figure those numbers. When I first started performing for kids in school, seven year old girls were in love with Michael Jackson, then the New Kids on the Block, then N Sync, then Brittany, then – well whatever, I guess it’s Justin Bieber and One Direction now – my lps, then my cassettes, then my cds, now my mp3s have lived on the shelves and ipods alongside all those other folks. Their songs said – hurry and grow up – mine said – hey, you’re a kid and that’s okay.

I was singing in a school when the Challenger went down. I sang and told stories all day long in a school in North Carolina on 9/11. But I think the hardest day I’ve ever faced performing was on Monday, December 17, 2012, three days after the shooting in Newtown Connecticut. My pal, Keith Munslow was working in the school down the street from Sandy Hook that day. One of my dearest friends, Len Cabral, was scheduled to perform at Sandy Hook later this spring, and I am having conversations with folks in the Newton area about a series of school appearances later this year. And as many of you know, one of our own, children’s performer Francine Wheeler lost her six year son old Ben in the shooting. All of us who work with and for children feel a particular connection to what happened.

I want to talk about what the tragedy at Sandy Hook has made me think about, and what I wonder if we, as a community can do about it. But let me backtrack a little , or at least put this concern in the context of what our work is.

The work of artists performing for children is unique in the arts world. And I realize that I’m talking mostly to musicians here (reminding you that recordings aren’t just about music…) so I’ll couch it in those terms. Our work is different from most other genres in this sense – our work is about and for not just who the people we perform for are, but also about who they will become. While I believe you keep growing until you die, by and large, art for adult is not about becoming, it’s about being. With art directed at children and the people around them, we’re trying to balance being and becoming. As performers for children, we are also teachers. I actually believe that all musicians are better if they also teach, but that charge is especially true, and obvious, with those who work for children.

This makes our work an interesting mix. Because our work is not just about the way the world is, but about the way it will become.  I don’t believe you can work in children’s music without wanting to make the world a better place, in whatever way you define that. Now, most artists would say that’s what they want to do, too, but I think that in working with children, our work is particularly about growth, and about community. There is a social aspect to it that might be absent in the work of a virtuoso that performs in classical concert halls, or a punk band in the ratskellar of a pub, or the alto saxophonist performing tonight at the Blue Note. They may be about beauty, and passion and rage and hope in the moment. We are about all those things, but we are also about tomorrow.

Our first charge as artists who perform for children and families is to be absolutely the best artists we can be. We need to develop our skills to the utmost of our abilities and challenge ourselves to get better. All of us who work and perform for children have to face the bugaboo thrown up against us that performing for children is somehow less worthy, or somehow indicates a lesser talent. In my weaker moments, I believe this about myself. But this is a lie, and in our heart of hearts we know it.  We need to challenge ourselves in terms of form, and style and content – to seek new ways to reach our audience, bringing the gifts we have to our work. The people we perform for deserve nothing less, and we shortchange ourselves if we don’t be the best musicians we can be, in the context of our work. Our context will be different from others – we won’t be (very often) in major concert halls, and we won’t have reviews (very often) in major media outlets. But if we’re committed to our work, we can’t concern ourselves with that. We have to be as good as we can be.

Second, we have to respect our audience. And never has an audience been more maligned, patronized, or shortchanged than children and families. I am often approached by people who talk about writing books for children, or singing for children as something they are thinking about doing, with the subtext that it isn’t all that hard. But they’re wrong.  It’s hard to do well, though, and specifically, I think it is hard to get the emotional tone right – to speak to children in a way that they can hear, that they know you understand them, and in a way that they know that they are not being patronized. The truth is, being a kid can be a pretty difficult experience. Adults forget. One of the things that adults do most is forget. In my work, I often ask myself if I am respecting children and honoring their emotional lives. Many years ago, I met a great children’s bookstore owner who said that the question he asks about every book that came into his store was, “Does this honor children?” It’s a good question. As far as that goes, I would ask all of us to work towards being more descriptive and less prescriptive in our work – identifying situations that are part of being human, and affirming that that children’s experiences are valid. In doing this, I think we show a trust in their ability to find their own course in life, rather than telling them what the course should be. For I believe that people will find their own way if they have a safe place to take chances – and taking chances is how we learn.

Which brings me to our last charge, and the purpose of this talk – as adults who work and care for children, we not only have a responsibility for the content that we offer but the context in which we offer it. A safe environment for children to make mistakes and grow. Here, our work is less about what we say to children and families, but more how we can speak for them. While it may not be apparent on the face of it, the most influential ideas in my life’s work are based on non-violence, and the thought and work of Gandhi and King. One of the reasons I work with children is that I wanted to give a voice to the least. And so, while we speak and listen to children, I think that we need to, with care, speak for them, since they are too often voiceless. And we need to be careful, since every legislator and politician and adult thinks they know what children need. We must be better than that, and true to our audience.

With my audience of children and families, my content is not about the national political scene – if my work is political, it is so in an intimate, personal and immediate way. I don’t need to talk about gun violence with an eight year old – that is best left to those around the child that knows her – whom she trusts. My work with my audiences is immediate – about how we treat each other and what is fair – in the faith that a grounding in those experiences will influence who they become and how they see the world as they grow up.

But on another stage – in the adult world – I believe that people who work with children have a responsibility, too. It’s not just the songs we sing. If we don’t speak up about the world that children are growing up in, I think we’re failing as artists.

It is very hard to face the fact that we live in a violent society, but we do. Somehow, we have allowed guns and violence to become warp and woof of American culture. You’ve seen the endless statistics, and we could spend half an hour doing that. But, just as an example – in one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 people in Australia, 39 people in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in the United States.  Or – since Newtown, not even two months ago,  over 1600 Americans have been killed by guns. Everywhere we turn, we see the glorification of guns – in our movies, in our literature, in our video games, in our foreign policy. Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that the ever-continuing arming of a population makes it safer – when in fact, it makes us less secure. If Newtown doesn’t prove that to us, then we are as blind as bats.

I say we have convinced ourselves we need guns, when of course most people in this room don’t believe that. Most of us are saying , “That’s not who we are.” But we are at a point now, especially with the slim opportunity offered to us because of the tragedy of Newton, where it is not enough for us to think this isn’t who we are – it’s time for us to say it, and say it in a way that other people will hear us. I think because of the nature of our work, it is part of who we are to speak out for the banning of semi-automatic weapons and large magazines, and demand background checks for all gun purchases. These are common-sense things, no-brainers,  but they won’t happen unless people speak out.

We are insane, and someone needs to speak out. Shall it be us?

I’m planning on shooting a short video in the next two weeks in which I’ll say some of the things I’ve said here, and will put it up on youtube. I wonder if we, as a community, can find some kind of common response to this. I know we’re all busy. And honestly, I know that we would just as soon that someone else could do this – someone who could do it better, and could better handle any fallout. I don’t really like speaking out – I don’t like people to be mad at me. There are people who like my work who will not like me saying this. People I know.  I wish someone else would do it so I didn’t have to. But then, all I have is me. All you have is you. And all we have is us.

The Monday after the Newtown shootings I was met at the door of a school by teachers and administrators who said “We’re so glad you’re here. We know you’re going to help us through this.” All of us were wounded, but we had work to do.

These are my people. I have spent a large part of my life standing in front of elementary school children like the ones who were shot, watching them listen and laugh and sing with me.  As I stood in front of those three hundred kids that Monday morning, their faces lifted up, smiling and singing, their teachers breathing sighs of relief, for at least a little while, I realized that I had a bigger job to do. I don’t want one more kid to die because we won’t do something about this pointless violence.

In that moment, standing in front of those kids – our future, and my reason for being – I promised myself I would speak out and say enough is enough – that we’re better than this.  As a musician and a storyteller and children’s author, as a person who has spent his life helping children grow up to realize their dreams, I also know it’s my job to make sure they grow up at all.

Which is why I’m speaking out for gun control. Enough is enough.

What is our job? A number of years ago, I reread Catcher in the Rye, and there I found a description of who I wanted to be, and who I think we all want to be in our work. I’ll leave you with this.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Can we, as a community, be a whole group of catchers in the rye? I would like to think we could, and I would like to think we could start that right now.

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I’m back from the National Storytelling Festival. For all the confusing issues surrounding the festival and the International Storytelling Center (more on that in some future post), it was an amazing experience for a performer. Those of us who get to tell stories there end up feeling a great gratitude.

In the last session, I recited a poem I had just written. The response was really positive and people asked me how to find it. I just wrote it. But here it is:

Nothing for granted

Let us take nothing for granted
Not the water coming out of the faucet
Nor the smell of bread
Nor the call of the lone crow overhead
Late in the afternoon

Do not take for granted the shoestring that does its job every day without complaint
Nor the way the fingernail clipper responds when asked by squeezing thumb and forefinger
Do not take dark roast for granted
nor the smell of its brewing
Nor chocolate
(Especially chocolate)
Nor the rain predicted with certainty by Eyewitness news
Do not take for granted the leaf, pasted upon the windshield
Its puckered body yellow
Its spidery veins green
Which even the wipers cannot remove

Especially, do not take the venality of those in power for granted
Nor the callousness of those intent upon teaching a lesson to someone else
while not learning it themselves
Instead, be taken aback
And don’t take your indignity for granted either
Indignant at the insensitivity of the privileged
Mistaking their position for their worth
Do not take the hunger of the poor for granted
Nor the drum’s tattoo that summons the dogs of war
Do not assume inevitability
For at this moment things are still evitable
And we do not know what there will be an outbreak of

So, embrace surprise

For it is in our surprise and what comes of it that we embody the possibility of something else
In our surprise we remind the world of what it might be

The trick is to take the moment
Out of the cardboard box
Or picture frame
Or digital byte
Or philosophical system
Or the story we have put it in
The equating of this for that
The alchemy of life into metaphor
When in fact nothing equates with anything exactly
For it is this space between where we think something fits
And what the fitting leaves out
That life breathes

Refuse boredom

Do not let the continuing
Recombination of genetic material
Blind you to the beauty of its expression

In not taking things for granted
We will appear a little daft
Apparently obtuse and dull-witted
As if we are only realizing something
Everyone else has known since the day before the first day of middle school
(The last day to learn something before you were pilloried for your ignorance)

When we do not take things for granted
People will be embarrassed for us
And for themselves

Let us be masters of the obvious
Of what everyone knows but seems to have forgotten
Because they do not name it
And in not naming it, lose it

Let us be known for saying
“The sun came up this morning”
“The stars are coming out”
“The leaves are turning colors”
“The firetruck is red”
“Someone emptied the dishwasher”
“This food tastes good”
“This system is unjust”
“Things will change”
“You are my friend”

Let us be masters of the repeated appreciation
Let us be the masters of the redundancy of affection
Giving more gifts than necessary
Over and over
In the knowledge that the slippage in the universe requires
Us to give more than we think we should have to give
Let us be masters of appearing foolish
Masters of the obvious insight
Masters of the wisdom everyone already holds
Masters of what is known
Only to be found again and again
And delighted in each time at its discovery

copyright 2011 by Bill Harley and Round River Productions

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Len at work....


I must have been on vacation. I think I’m back. Here goes…

I always feel like I have to have a new story or song. It’s almost an obsession, or some character flaw. It can drive me crazy. And new stuff, when it works, is great. But the truth is, the stories and songs we’ve told and sung a million times have a value and purpose that newer material doesn’t have.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I did a show with my good buddy Len Cabral. When we got to the venue we looked at the room and set up the sound system as best we could. By the time of the show, we saw that it was going to be a small audience. We decided to work without the system and had the audience scoot their chairs (and butts) in as close as they could.

Len and I sat on chairs, which seemed to bring things even closer.

Len and I did a couple of things together, and then I did a new piece I’ve been working on. It went fine, but, as new pieces usually do, it had some rough edges. I got through it. The audience went with me, but the performance was mostly about my relationship with the story – trying to get it right and hoping the audience would come along.

Len told the Gunniwolf. If you tell stories to kids, there’s a good chance you know the story. It is a perfect story in many ways – repetition and rhyme, imminent danger and escape. I love telling it. But I really loved watching Len tell it – something happened in the middle of it that seemed transcendent to me. The story was a good one, but it was the relationship he had with the audience that made the performance wonderful.

There are three things in a performance – the performer, the audience, and the material. Depending on the kind of venue, the kind of performer, the kind of audience, and the kind of material, different things happen. In Len’s performance of the story, he was completely present with the audience, and the story was the medium he was using to develop the relationship. The kids and parents were waiting to find out what happened next, but mostly, they were being present in the room with Len. I have heard Len tell the story a number of times, and know where it’s going, but how it got there was truly delightful.

Because Len knew the story so well, he was completely relaxed in it and completely attentive to the audience. He asked questions of the audience, and demanded responses from them. When a kid gave an answer he praised them with words and a smile. I watched kids smile back, feeling honored. Len barely had to ask for participation – because he was fully committed, they were committed, too. It was as if Len was giving them permission to participate, rather than begging them to do so.

Len told me afterwards that when he can, he loves sitting in a chair, with people sitting as close as possible. His sitting in a chair is no sedentary experience – it’s an active intimacy.

One of the goals of my performance is to build a community, in that space, at that moment. The material – the song or story – is the vehicle used to accomplish that goal. The content of a piece can be important, of course, but the very act of being present with each other has its own purpose and value.

Too often, we demand something new and different. I want new material because it keeps me alive and active. But if the performer can keep an old story or song fresh and vibrant, things happen that won’t happen with new material.

There is a constant tug in performance, as in life, between being and becoming. New material honors becoming. An old tale, well told, is about being.

And it’s a good place to be.

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-from Tackling the Problems of Appalachia, Theatrically, in the New York Times


Last week there was a great article in the New York Times about a professor at a community college in Kentucky who got sick of reading reports about poverty and social problems in Eastern Kentucky. Rather than issuing one more report or one more set of statistics, he decided to write and produce plays about the communities there and the problems they faced. You can read it here (if you’re not over your Times limit). It’s really inspiring to see how someone has put people’s lives in a context that they can understand, using song and story, and community people as actors.

The articlemakes me think about the many uses and purposes of art. In particular, I was stuck by a quote at the end of the article by Robert Gipe, the professor:

“Somewhere along the line, artistic validity became associated with everything ending in a mess,” he said. “But if you articulate what’s best in us and put characters in front of people who don’t resort to their basest instincts, that’s real, too.”

What Gipe is saying, I think, is that you make a choice about your aesthetic, and the way you view the world, and how you present it artistically. He wants to uplift people, and that influences how he approaches his art. Some artists would say that art shouldn’t have to have a purpose – it just is. Gipe and others (including me, usually) think their art does have a purpose. It’s to show the world in a way that people look at it anew. And it’s to offer hope.

There is a tendency among people who view themselves as artists to not want to make things happy at the end, and a tendency to dismiss something with an uplifting ending as sentimental and cheap. As a result, artists can tend towards the cynical, or dark side. This is a strain that runs through art, and it is something every artist has to deal with. One reason, I think, is that art with positive endings tend to be more marketable, and artists tend to worry about whether they are commercial. Most artists want to be non-commercial and successful (if that seems like a paradox, there it is…) So, if a commercial art errs on the side of uplift, “serious” artists may err on the side of darkness.

The other reason artists shy from positive message is that that kind of uplifting image really tends to reinforce the status quo. “See? Everything is okay!” uplifting art seems to be saying. It’s what sets our teeth on edge with the American movie industry and the Disneyfied portrayal of conflict. “It’s all just individual effort,” such art says. “You can do it!”

And of course, that’s a lie. It is you, but it’s also the world you face. People have their own abilities and will, but they also are handed a set of circumstances that are sometimes overwhelming.

This tension runs through all art. Most artists who labor on their work in the end are concerned about three things: 1) speaking the truth as they see it 2) exploring their craft and artistry 3) making a living. There’s enough tension in those things to keep you up late at night. Believe me.

But the work of this theater group shows the false dichotomy in saying you can’t be uplifting and produce serious art at the same time. I think particularly of the work of Liz Lerman, who goes into communities and has them tell the stories of who they are through dance. It is uplifting and real at the same time.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the world, but I also don’t want to say there’s no hope. That’s my aesthetic. When I get it right.

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I’ve taken a break from the blog for the past month or so – hope you all didn’t leave me. We’ve had a great summer – proved by my lack of productivity. It’s good to be back.

I was talking with a good friend and he mentioned that his father was always sending him jokes over the Internet. I nodded – it’s a common practice today. “What’s weird,” he said, “is that it used to be that whenever I talked to my dad, he always had a joke to tell me. Now he never tells me any. He says he can’t remember them.”

I don’t think it’s just old age – I think it’s the nature of digital memory and the way we relate to each other. I remember a discussion I had with a young accountant on airplane. When I told him I was a storyteller he shook his head. “I can’t even remember a joke, ” he said. He, too, noted that he gets hundreds of jokes over the Internet, but can’t remember any of them.

And how many people don’t tell jokes because they say, “I just can’t tell a joke”?

This all got me thinking about the nature and function of jokes. Jokes are the grease in oral conversation, and seem to be a bit of a dying art form. They are, in fact, something you have to practice a little, and they are less common than they were a decade or two ago.

The problem with jokes on the Internet is the assumption that the joke’s main function is to make us laugh wherever we are, even when we’re alone staring at a screen.

That’s wrong, I think.

Jokes are, mainly, about relationships and the social setting. A joke read alone on a computer has little social function. It’s only in the company of people that they serve a purpose.

Telling jokes bear great relationship to the telling of stories. What are jokes for, anyway? Here’s three things:

First, jokes are a mid-point between a greeting and a conversation. Because they are structured, they are little set pieces in which the teller and listener get to play more formal roles – there’s less at stake, since nothing deep is being required. The conversation is going to go deeper, hopefully, but jokes serve as a way to spend time before the conversation goes to another level. They’re like talking about the weather and sports. We can say that they’re meaningless, but those placeholders have a function in conversation.

Second – jokes define the group we belong to (even if it’s as broad as the human race). Knowing the right joke to tell is critical – it shows a sensitivity to the setting and the people. We’ve all been in a place with a group of people where someone told the wrong joke. Oh boy, I’ve done it myself. My wife rolls her eyes. There’s a stony silence. Whoops. The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group. A joke says “You’re like me – you’ll think this is funny.” So men tell jokes they wouldn’t tell in groups with women, and vice versa. Teachers tell jokes about teaching and students, accountants tell jokes about accounting (if they can remember them). Republicans, Democrats. You get the idea. When you tell a joke to someone and it works, you’ve established a connection that says, “We have this kind of humor, we think this way.” In that way, it’s a deepening of a bond – more so than talking about the rain last night. And if you miscalculate, you drive a division between yourself and the listener. A joke is a little bit of a risk, too.

Third – jokes do make us laugh, but it’s not just laughter for laughter’s sake. Laughter drops our defenses and makes us more open to the people we’re with. Laughter and humor are important steps in a relationship, even if it’s with a person you meet on a plane or train, or standing in line. Jokes are a way of breaking down walls.

So when I hear my friend say that his father, a life-long joke teller just sends jokes and doesn’t tell them, I know something’s being lost.

And as for those who say they can’t tell a joke – well, some people have a better sense of timing and all, but mostly it just comes from doing it. A joke is rarely well told the first time – around the seventh or eighth try, it gets into shape. Saying you can’t tell a joke is a little like saying you can’t sing. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

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If I were to design a test for the effectiveness of schools (and I won’t), one of the questions that everyone (teachers, students, administrators, staff) would have to answer would be, “How many people can you name?”. The more people everyone can name, the better the school.

Faceless and nameless doesn’t work in a learning environment, and when you read about the consolidation of schools to save money, you know it’s going the wrong way. The more people, the fewer of them you really know. When you know the people around you, and you feel part of a community, you care more about what happens.

There’s an editorial in the New York Times yesterday talking about the success of small schools in NYC. When large high schools were broken up to smaller theme-based schools, student performance went up (and not by some shaky test measurement, but by attendance and graduation rates).

Of course, this makes me think, “Well, duh”. It’s so obvious we shouldn’t have to say it. But it needs to be said. You can put all of this under the heading of “Things we know, but don’t pay attention to”.

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