4 June 2019 : Dang, Leon Redbone Died

Yup, that’s me, age 17.

I was 17 years-old in 1980 and somewhat of a loner. I worked as a clerk in a bookstore that summer and briefly dated a freshman in college on a gymnastics scholarship. I had stopped imbibing in the whiskey and vodka available at the weekly poker parties at a friend’s, something that distanced me from most of my closest friends. High school seemed like a waste of time but it never occurred to me that I could just quit and do something else.

The third of three boys being raised by loving and hard-working parents in a middle-class suburb of Seattle, I found myself in the shadows cast by my academic all-star older brothers. More often than I can remember, I was referred to by one of their names by teachers they had impressed, one teacher going so far as to admit his surprise that I might have thoughts of my own.

In other words, it was hard to find something that was solely mine.

Enter Leon Redbone.

I was channel surfing one night and saw him on some program, probably a Saturday Night Live rerun. I was smitten. Mostly at that time I listened to what others were calling punk rock, although my interests were never as hard-edged as that. While I was drawn to the emotion and anger in punk, I liked things a little more melodic. I sang along with Elvis Costello’s ballad “Alison” more than anything by The Damned, for instance. And while my brother was wearing out his copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks,” I’d just as soon listen to “Sh Boom” by The Crew Cuts as anything by The Sex Pistols.

Watching Leon that night, it was like someone had made this moment for me. Here was a musician who sang old songs with respect and talent, but with an overall irreverence that I think was what drew me to punk. To borrow an overused phrase, he was singing my tune.

The next day I went to Tower Records in search of Leon Redbone records and found two, “On the Track” and “Double Time,” available in the “Nice Price” section, meaning they were on sale. I bought them both and hustled back to my bedroom at home, anxious to drop the needle on the vinyl. “Sweet Mama, Hurry Home or I’ll Be Gone” is the first track on that first record of Leon’s and thus began my introduction to what turns out to be dozens of classic songs from the American songbook.

Just 17 years old, I hadn’t heard of most of them, so imagine my surprise when my mom overheard “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and made reference to it. She said something to the effect of, “That’s a strange version of that song.”

Later that summer, my paternal grandparents came to visit and I put “Double Time” on in the family room. My grandfather, who would die of cancer two years later, making me think this was the last time I saw him, was both confused and amused by Leon’s version of “Sheik of Araby,” which I remember thinking was as much a random recording of sounds as anything done by a punk rock band.

September came and the start of my senior year, which to my delight was delayed by a teacher’s strike. My girlfriend returned to college and we drifted apart, letters not being enough to sustain the relationship. I upped my hours at the bookstore. My friends kept up the drinking and I went to fewer and fewer parties.

I read somewhere that Leon Redbone was coming to Seattle, scheduled to play the Showbox on First Avenue, not far from Pike Place Market. This is the same venue where a year earlier I had seen my first show, Squeeze, with a group of friends. My eyes had been opened to downtown Seattle street life at night that included scantily clad women in picture windows beckoning passersby. Excited to attend the show and nervous to go by myself, I tried in vain to find someone to go with me. Ultimately, I bought my ticket and the night of the show drove across the floating bridge alone into Seattle.

Sticking out in my memory is that I drove what was considered to be my mom’s car, a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. I remember this car as being the first front-wheel-drive car I had driven and, having a 4 cylinder engine, having no punch. Looking back, it was probably the perfect car for this 17-year-old suburbanite to drive into the heart of the big city to see Leon Redbone perform. I remember having to parallel park and then walking to the venue.

This was the first time I had walked by myself at night in Seattle. Other times, I would be with friends or family so I felt both small and grown up at the same time. I also recognized that this experience was mine alone. Those big brother shadows, which by now I learned I could also hide in, were nowhere to be found. I arrived at the Showbox, past the beckoning women in windows and x-rated theaters, to find a line forming outside. I took my place and soon a brown paper bag was being passed up and down the line. Clearly, the bag held a bottle and the camaraderie of the concert-goers involved sharing. When it reached me, I passed it along rather than drinking from it, something I’ve often thought about since.

Would I have exploded if I had taken a sip?

The line began moving and after showing my ticket at the door I found myself inside. I remembered the venue from the Squeeze show and having recently seen Devo there, but this was different. There was no stage and the floor had a few dozen metal folding chairs scattered about. That was it. People were taking seats so I did the same.

After what seemed like a long wait, the “opening act” appeared, someone who I swear I had seen busking on a street corner outside just moments before. He played a few songs and then the “second act” came on, a band I don’t remember at all. After that, there was a bit of a break. And then onto the floor came Leon.

Wearing dark sunglasses and a fedora, along with a thick mustache and sideburns, he held a guitar in one hand. He paused halfway across the floor, then turned to the audience, doffed his fedora, and said hello, or what I thought was a hello. Throughout the night, he more mumbled than talked. I decided he had a speech impediment and that I shouldn’t question it. Besides, he was a great showman and I was absolutely mesmerized by his guitar playing. Halfway through the show, he paused to take a picture of us, the audience. I still remember the flash of the camera bulb and wondering if he kept a scrapbook of pictures like this.

I don’t recall how long he played but I know I didn’t want him to stop. Seeing him in person and alone was something more than a little perfect in my life at that time.

Leon was mine.

This morning I learned that Leon Redbone died last Thursday. I’m sad about it, recognizing the passing of someone who marked a leap forward in development for me.

Thanks, Leon. You came into my life at just the right time.

21 May 2019 : The Tao of Kindness

I’ve long been drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the Tao Te Ching, or the Tao. It consists of 81 short verses and includes such well known phrases as “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step.” The lessons are pithy and the meaning often elusive. As such, it is often translated and interpreted.

I trace my interest in the Tao back to 1982 when I was living in a radio station in Alaska (yes, that’s a story unto itself). One of the two TV stations I had to watch was WGN out of Chicago and on Sunday nights they aired episodes of the 1970’s TV show “Kung Fu.” It was from watching that show that I got interested in eastern philosophy, something that has stayed with me since.

Each week, I’m adapting one of the 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching into a kindness-oriented poem. I stress that I am adapting the verses, not translating them, although it would be equally valid to say I’m writing kindness poems inspired by the Tao.

I started posting these on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram every Friday a few months ago, and an online friend publishes them on her publication called “Change Your Mind, Change Your Life” on Medium. I also archive them on the Kind Living website.

What prompted me to share this is it seems the poems have started getting a following. People on Facebook pass them along and share with me that they look forward to seeing them each Friday. Hits to the Kind Living website have a tenfold increase on most Fridays.

Included below is a recent poem that got picked up by the curators for poetry on Medium, meaning it was featured on their site. As such and because of Medium’s system of paying authors, I’ve made over $5 for it!

So how about that?! I’m a paid poet.

20 May 2019 : Drawings For a Kindergartner’s Lunch

Heartman was my alter ego, the superhero part of myself that would go on with his day while my real self, “a small man,” missed Melinda. When our oldest daughter, Chloe, was a kindergartner in 1998/99, I brought Heartman back.

Each morning I quickly drew on a Post-it note a comic involving Heartman and put it in Chloe’s sack lunch. Each image had something to do with what I had recently done, often with Chloe, and with Heartman waving to her and saying, “Hi, Chloe!”

The school Chloe attended had a policy in which students were not allowed to share items in their lunches, nor were they allowed to throw anything away. The idea was for parents to have a clearer sense of what their children were and were not eating. It also meant sorting through some nasty lunch remnants at the end of each day.

On the positive side, most of my Heartman comics made it home each night. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out with the uneaten apple wedges and sandwich crusts. Instead, I stashed them away.

Several years later, I found a sandwich bag filled with the drawings and created a scrapbook of them. If nothing else, I would have them as a reminder of the sweet project. It turns out that the drawings serve as a great reminder of what was happening in our family’s life back then. I also thought that Chloe may want them some day. Given she’s about to complete graduate school and has been hired to be an elementary school counselor next fall, you’d think they’d be right up her alley.

In the summer of 2013, Melinda and I had the opportunity to visit some friends in France. One afternoon we visited the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and saw a Keith Haring art exhibit. I was inspired by the exhibit to scan my little drawings and present them online as a way to preserve and share them.

That fall, I created the Heartman Comics blog.

I posted the drawings on the blog in the order in which I drew them, something demonstrated in how the later ones are much better than the earlier ones (ever see those first animations of the Simpsons?).

In total, there are 112 drawings plus two bonus drawings when Chloe tried her kindergartner hand at making Heartman comics of her own. All in all, it’s a pretty darn sweet collection of day-to-day parenting.

9 April 2019 : Ask For What You Want

In 2010, I asked Matt Harding, whose “Where the Hell is Matt” video has been viewed over 50 million times on YouTube, to come meet my students. You’ve probably seen the video:

Back in 2010, I know I had seen it, as had pretty much all of my students at Puget Sound Community School in Seattle. Learning that the creator, Matt Harding, was in Seattle, I wrote to him to see if he’d be willing to come talk to them.

In fact, here’s that actual email thread:

From: Andy Smallman
Date: May 18, 2010 11:41:13 PM PDT

You’re in Seattle and I started a hip nonprofit middle & high school in Seattle. One thing we do at our hip school is expose our students to interesting people. You qualify. Care to come meet some students and talk about your life? You don’t even have to dance. Hell, talk about video games for all I care.
That’s all.

Andrew Smallman | Director


From: Matthew Harding
Date: May 20, 2010 12:25:18 PM PDT

Hi Andrew

Sure. When would you like me to come?



From: Andy Smallman
Date: May 20, 2010 5:01:31 PM PDT

Wow!! Really?! That’s wonderful! Thank you!

By chance, would Tuesday morning, June 8th, around 10am work for you?? We’re in the International District at 7th & Dearborn, not far from Uwajimaya.

And I think you’ll appreciate knowing that I shared your video with the students & staff at the end of the school day today and then shared your email response below (part of my “lesson” on asking what you want), and the room erupted with excitement.

Thanks again! I look forward to hearing back from you.



From: Matthew Harding
Date: May 21, 2010 3:20:53 AM PDT

Sure. I will put it in my calendar. But please send me a reminder a day or two before, just in case. I forgot one morning and slept in, leaving kids waiting for 45 minutes and I felt TERRIBLE.

I like that lesson. Glad I could help show your students that sometimes it’s that easy 🙂



From: Andy Smallman
Date: May 21, 2010 3:18:17 PM PDT


Outstanding! And I’m happy to remind you. Consider this your first reminder:

WHEN: June 8, 2010, 10–11am
WHERE: Puget Sound Community School, 660 S Dearborn St, Seattle 98134
DIRECTIONS: http://www.pscs.org/directions.htm

Go for what you want. Ask for what you want. Be bold! That is THE lesson of our school. Imagine a school based on that, or in which that and its manifestations becomes the operative purpose and you’ll start to understand us. We just had a local band onsite performing and they invited students to jam with them. It was magical. We had a guy from France in last September who is walking around the world and happened to be in Seattle. One of our students interviewed a MacArthur Genius Award recipient (kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley) for a project.

We surround our students with cool and interesting people and let the chips fall where they may.

See you on the 8th!



Matt was a great speaker. He talked about his work as a video game designer and how he started the little dance routine that became an Internet sensation. And, yes, he did invite the students to do his dance with him; in fact, he filmed it. Learn more about what Matt’s up to these days on his website.

The lesson here is to be bold, to ask for what you want. The answer often is yes.

When you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

27 March 2019 – Poised Between the Known & Unknown

(This article was first published in September, 2017 on the Center For Courage & Renewal website. Since then, I’ve stepped down from PSCS and relocated to the Bay Area with Melinda, my focus on working to promote kindness, cheerfulness, and positivity. For those interested in the Courage on the Threshold workshop referenced below, Karen and Emily, the facilitators, are offering it again this summer at the same location.)

In 1994 my wife, Melinda Shaw, and I founded the Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), a Washington state approved private school with an extraordinary philosophy based on trust that serves middle & high school students. At the end of June 2017, Melinda stepped down from the position she held at PSCS for 23 years. For the school and for me (not to mention Melinda), this was a huge change.

To assist me with this transition, that summer I participated in a retreat offered by the Center for Courage & Renewal, one called Courage on the Threshold: Embracing Life’s Changes with Integrity & Grace.

Upon arrival at the retreat at the incredible St Andrew’s House in Union, WA, I was greeted by Karen Harding, one of the facilitators, who gave me directions about how to find my room. I set down my bag and set up my bed, then went downstairs to meet some of the other participants. We sat on a deck looking out over the Puget Sound, iced drinks in hand.

From this first informal interaction to when the retreat ended about 48 hours later, I was immersed in an environment of care and support that is unfortunately rare for adults to experience. Karen and her co-facilitator, Emily Chamberlain, held the space through their planned activities, all of which began with us considering and then reflecting on a relevant poem, along with their compassionate blend of empathy and encouragement.

My favorite activity was led by Emily on Saturday afternoon. We gathered in the main meeting room to find that Emily had placed a number of photographs in the center. After a centering exercise, Emily asked us to take a closer look at the photos and select one to which we felt especially drawn. Upon inspection, it was clear that each photo had some kind of threshold or passage. I spent a lot of time looking, allowing myself to move from an impulse to just select something in order to complete the task and not take time away from others, to a form of conscientious surrender Emily and Karen had been encouraging us to allow. My experience became a partnership between me and the photo I would select. It may sound crazy to say, but it was both me finding the photo and the photo finding me.

It happened almost as if a bright light shone down on the photo I was meant to choose. The picture was of a thin red door to a small white building. A sign on the door said “Please enter in silence,” yet the door appeared to be held closed by a padlock. The way the photo was taken, I couldn’t tell how one would access the door. Was there a porch, a front step, or something else?

I considered the photo for quite a long time, then, following Emily’s directions, I wrote what I was thinking and feeling about it. As I wrote, a calm came over me and I realized that what the photo held for me was meaning having to do with being locked out from something safe and loving. As I reflected, I realized that I had been creating conflict in a situation that needed to be handled with a partnership mentality. Recognizing this, the padlock broke and I saw myself entering through the red door to a room bathed in warm light, my closest friends and family all present to greet me. It had both the symbolism one might associate with death, like entering heaven, or birth, like an incarnation into community.

I returned to the meeting room, glowing from the experience. The next task was to share it with a partner. As it turned out, I was partnered with facilitator Karen. We took time sharing our stories with each other while walking around the amazing property, both that at St Andrew’s House and that next door. Karen’s ability to listen and simply hold my story without judgment allowed me to grasp it in a more concrete way.

The selection of the photo, the time to consider the image, and the sharing of one’s experience, each of these components of the activity were necessary for me to discover meaning that carried to my actions at PSCS several months later. This is no small thing.

The retreat concluded early Sunday afternoon with an opportunity for participants to share our feelings and reactions to the three days worth of activities. As I thought about what to say, an image of something I had recently discovered in my neighborhood in Seattle came to my mind, a little patch of land with a sign dubbing it the “Give and Take Garden.”

On the manicured ground around the sign were a number of trinkets and toys, things I decided a child had placed hoping some would be taken while inspiring passersby to give other items. In the closing circle, an idea I long held, that giving and taking, or receiving, are each part of a necessary system.

One can’t give unless someone else is willing to receive. In receiving, one is giving the giver the opportunity to give.

Put simply, what I experienced at the retreat was a form of giving and receiving at a core human level. One fed the other to the point of becoming the other, then to the point of them being the same thing. The system was fundamental all weekend, from the way Karen and Emily invited us to participate to how the participants treated each other. The giving and receiving included the location and the food that was lovingly and mindfully prepared for us.

As part of our closing ceremony, the facilitators gave us a token with the word “Courage” on it. I held mine in my hand as we wrapped up, clear that after I got home I would place it in the Give & Take Garden. I wonder who has it now…