Skin in the Game

The first time I ever saw Brentwood, California was on a Saturday morning in late June 2015. I was informed by a sign on Highway 4 that, should I wish to visit downtown Brentwood, I should take the next exit. Said next exit was Sand Creek Road, which turned out to be a spiffy boulevard with landscaped medians and sidewalk strips.

Me being me, one of the first things I noticed was how clean Sand Creek Road was. Debris was at a bare minimum along the medians and sidewalk strips. The grass along the road was mowed, edged, and without weeds or bare patches. The roadway itself was new and smooth. The traffic lights all had sensors and so didn’t just go cranking through their cycles, but adjusted themselves to traffic needs.

I was intrigued, even more so after I reached a major north-south thoroughfare, Fairview Avenue, and decided to make a right turn. Here was another four-lane boulevard with a tree-lined median and gorgeously landscaped sidewalk strips, all of it immaculately clean. I mean, really really clean. I went several blocks without seeing so much as a wadded kleenex beside the road or wedged in the shrubbery. Another big street loomed: Central Boulevard. I coasted on Central for a while; the pavement wasn’t quite as smooth as Fairview but everything was just as clean as it could be, and the landscaping was gorgeous.

I progressed from being intrigued to being a bit enchanted. By the time noon had rolled around I had seen a lot of Brentwood and was having lunch in the charming downtown. By late afternoon as I headed back west towards San Francisco I was certain that Brentwood was going to be my home in the very near future.

And it was.

Upon further exploration, I discovered Brentwood’s extensive park system. There is about one park per 1000 residents. Amazing. Brentwood has gone the suburban route of creating numerous smaller parks that serve their specific neighborhoods, spearheaded by a few larger showcase parks. Since it’s a small city of 60,000 people nothing is all that far away, so one has a wide variety of landscapes and facilities within easy reach. Some parks offer basketball courts, others baseball fields, others swimming pools, others bocce ball courts, others skateboard parks, and the like. There’s something for everybody, including parks that are glorious expanses of grass, trees, shrubbery, and flowers, and nothing else beyond a playground, picnic facilities, and water fountains.

But here’s the thing: they’re all pristine, every one of them. They’re all perfectly maintained. They’re all so clean that a kid’s candy wrapper by the side of the path sticks out like a sore thumb. The grass is mowed, edged, weeded, aerated, and emerald green. The shrubbery is trimmed. Fallen leaves don’t stay fallen for long. The water fountains are shiny, and they work.The trees are healthy. The playgrounds are modern, sturdy, and imaginative—man, I wish there was stuff like that when I was a kid—as are the paths and trails.

To make that happen requires a goodly crew of landscapers and gardeners, and they’re always busy taking care of everything, including those street medians and curb strips. They’re invariably friendly and, as far as I can tell, take justified pride in the quality of Brentwood’s public spaces.

But there’s another reason everything is so spiffy: Brentwood folks really care about the city and its public places. Even after big festivals or holidays the parks here are clean, and I think that’s because they just don’t get very messy in the first place. People here are great about picking up their stuff, including dog poop—and every park and trail has dispensers with free plastic poop bags. Folks use the trash cans. They don’t do anything mysterious and gross with the water fountains. And if anything seems a bit out of place, a heads-up to parks & rec—they even have an iPhone app for that—gets quick results.

Which leads me to think about demographic differences. San Francisco sports spectacular and gigantic parks, but they’re regularly overwhelmed by slovenly users. I’m not even counting the depredations of the pervasive vagrants, druggies, and transients who have so diminished an already marginal quality of life; I’m just thinking about the mess everyday people tend to make in their city parks. (Vide Dolores Park after a sunny warm Sunday.) Nor are they particularly responsible about the streets, parking lots, and the sidewalks.

So why is this? In my opinion, it has to do with the uprooted nature of so many San Francisco residents. They are renters, not owners, people who may live in SF for a while but don’t plan to stay. There aren’t many kids. It’s not a city for families. The people who abuse the parks aren’t vagrants as a rule; they’re residents—at least for the interim between college and marriage/kids—joined by out-of-towners who come into SF for a night on the town or a Sunday bash. San Francisco just isn’t a place where people come to settle, to stay, to raise a family. They have no skin in the game, so if the parks are dirty and/or dangerous, if the roads are full of potholes and lined with blowing trash, if the sidewalks are next to impassable due to dirt and excretion and tents and crowds, it doesn’t really matter. Not their problem.

But Brentwood is a small city inhabited almost entirely by homeowners; renters make up a minuscule percentage. There aren’t even very many condos; it’s almost all single-family detached houses. The people of Brentwood have a lot of skin in the game—they bought, which means they came to stay. They came here to raise their families, or they came here to retire, in a safe and clean environment. The schools are first-rate. The city is filled with big houses on big tree-lined streets, and home builders are industriously adding more new homes in immaculately landscaped new neighborhoods. Brentwood real estate is relatively inexpensive compared to the inner Bay Area, but by just about everybody else’s standards the property prices are sky-high. Settling here is a big commitment, and not just because of the real estate prices—there’s the whopping commute to the inner Bay Area to consider as well. And that line item concerning park and public maintenance on one’s yearly property tax bill serves as a potent reminder that all this order, all this pristine landscaping, all this well-maintained everything, comes at a price. And it’s property owners, not businesses, that pay most of the bills.

Homeowners. Landowners. Families. Retirees. Small businesses that depend on the goodwill of those homeowners, landowners, families, and retirees.

So of course everything is tidy and shipshape. It’s in everybody’s vital interest that it be so.

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Ruminating Whiskey

We get older and our tastes change. These days I’m acquiring a penchant for whiskey, something that never really floated my boat when I was younger.

Maybe it’s a simple matter of control and restraint. At my age, I am happily devoid of the urge to gulp potables. Whiskey isn’t something one drinks in abundance unless one is a sot, and I’m most definitely not. For one thing, I’m far too busy to indulge in sot-dom; for another, I get hangovers disgracefully easily; for another, I have to get up at an obscenely early time on workdays, given my long commute and 8:00 AM first class.

Thus I can offer a few thoughts on some various whiskies that I’ve tried. Zero pretense here about being an educated booze reviewer or any kind of discriminating critic. I just recognize what I like and don’t like. Perhaps I might steer you away from something nasty, or towards something nice. That said, my field of acquaintance is quite small. It takes me a long time to work my way through a bottle of booze, so I don’t branch out very much.

With that in mind, here are some cheers and one (loud) sneer. Let’s get the negativity out of the way first.

Sneer: Jack Daniel’s black label

Mein Gott in Himmel, what the hell do they put in this stinky crap. It almost tastes like bottled smoke flavoring. Or maybe they traipsed around rural Tennessee and scooped up all the moldy, wet campfire ashes they could find. Nasty, nasty. Undrinkable, really. I suppose you could dump an ounce or so into a bottled Coke for a cheap buzz. But that’s not what I want in whiskey. Or in a bottled Coke, for that matter.

I have a 3/4-full bottle of JD sitting in the pantry. Why I bought it in the first place, I’ll never know. Maybe I was feeling cheap. My guess is that it will evaporate before I ever use it again. Maybe I should just pour it down the kitchen sink and be done with it. It might dissolve a bit of grease or something.

Cheer: Bulleit Rye

I like rye. It makes the best Manhattan, which is my favorite mixed cocktail, especially in partnership with Camparo Antiqua vermouth and just a whiff of an interesting bitters along the lines of Snappy’s Orange Bitters or good old Angostura. There’s simply nothing to quibble about with Bulleit. Maybe it isn’t one of those super-expensive types that the hoity-toity cocktail crowd fetishes. But it makes a damn good Manhattan, and it’s just fine on its own as a nippy-sippy whiskey on the rocks. If you have Bulleit Rye in your liquor cabinet, you are assured a reasonably pleasurable Happy Hour.

Cheer (Appreciative): Hudson Single-Malt Whiskey

OK, it’s probably more like a Scotch or Irish than a bourbon. But sheesh, is it ever smooth and fine and easy on the palate. It’s best with a bit of ice or a splash of water, but in my humble opinion that’s true of most decent whiskeys. And some bitters are welcome; I particularly like Snappy’s Orange Bitters with Hudson Single-Malt.

Downside: it’s about $50 for a medium-sized bottle. But then again, cheap booze is as cheap booze does. You want something to power the lawn mower, then hie thee to the lower shelf. Hudson tends to be top shelf and behind locked glass doors in most liquor stores, even out here in sweetly domestic Brentwood where the sots stagger unseen in immaculate single-family detached houses. And it’s 92 proof, so mind your sipping rhythm if you’d prefer not to crawl to bed.

Cheer (Loud): Jameson Irish Whiskey

Another light-hued and clear-flavored whiskey, a little less vivid than the Hudson Single-Malt, Jameson’s isn’t all that expensive but I’ve found that I enjoy it as much as considerably more expensive libations. It’s really an excellent basic whiskey to have on hand for all occasions.

Cheer (And a Respectful Salute): Basil Hayden Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey

If you’ve been sipping on some Hudson or Jameson, a Basil Hayden can be like turning up the color on the TV. It’s a rye-ish bourbon with a robust body despite its light hue. It has some hair on its chest, in other words, and a certain depth of flavor despite its overall light-ish demeanor. It’s particularly good with Woodford Reserve bitters, which have enough ka-pow to stand up to its vibrancy.

Cheer (And a Celebratory Woo-Woo Chorus): Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Damn, it’s a good whiskey. Smooth, flavorful, refined. Great color. Lovely balanced flavor. It mixes gorgeously and makes almost as good a Manhattan as Bulleit Rye, albeit a bit sweeter.

You just can’t go wrong with it. Nor is it all that expensive, given its overall quality. I suppose it’s really the desert-island whiskey of choice; you can get it almost anywhere, and it’s reliably good. Oh, it’s not some super-elevated small-batch whiskey. It’s not even as elevated as Hudson, which is about as elevated as I’m inclined to get. But it’s just fine and dandy, dandy and fine, always a pleasure and reliable as the sunrise.

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Conductor Rehash

Of late I’ve been teaching a course called “The Orchestra” at San Francisco’s Fromm Institute. The premise of the thing is coverage of the major orchestras and their most notable conductors, complete with lots of music, stories, and even a bit of gossip here and there as seems appropriate. Berlin, Vienna, Dresden, New York, Chicago, Boston, and so forth — all of the big ones.

Preparation involves a lot of listening to my voluminous collection of recordings, in order to pick the examples for the class, and in that process I have been re-visiting, and in some cases re-evaluating, conductors. For the most part my favorites remain my favorites, but I have also strengthened my relationship with some, and come to admire others anew.

A few specimens on offer:

Artur Rodzinski

The mercurial, paranoia-prone conductor managed to shoot himself in the foot on several high-profile occasions, such as when he stomped out of his directorship of the New York Philharmonic mid-season during the 1940s, or when he was terminated after one season at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Such self-destruction is flabbergasting: there he was, a Toscanini successor at the NY Phil and from all reports doing a bang-up job, and he picked a nasty fight with the administration and left in a huff. And Chicago? In those days following Frederick Stock’s long tenure it was already America’s dream-machine of an orchestra—powerful, elastic, flexible, and sonically spellbinding.

He screwed the pooch with two of America’s supreme orchestras, but earlier in his career he didn’t mess up his decade-long tenure in Cleveland. In those days before George Szell and the quasi-reign of terror that made the Cleveland Orchestra a precision music-making machine, Rodzinski headed up a jim-dandy ensemble that already displayed the sizzling virtuosity that so many people think was Szell’s bailiwick.

The thing about Rodzinski: he was a Szell-like conductor in that he hewed closely to the score, avoided conductorial hi-jinks, and turned in performances that are invariably well-shaped and totally satisfying. He had a lot more musical sex appeal than Szell, that’s for sure.

Even if the Cleveland stuff has become difficult to find (oh, where art thou, Sony Classical, in thine ownership of that sizable catalog via Columbia Masterworks?) what’s out there is clear evidence of Rodzinski’s imagination, his control, and his technique.

I think we need a Rodzinski big box. One that covers him in Cleveland, in New York (although a lot of that is on the 175th Anniversary Set), and whatever else might be lurking out there, such as his period of helping to build the NBC Symphony in preparation for Toscanini’s mighty arrival, and maybe all those nice stereo Westminsters he did with the Royal Philharmonic near the end of his career.

Herbert von Karajan

I am an unabashed Karajan fan. Maybe that will earn me a few poisonous spiders in the mail, since he remains nothing if not controversial, even after all these years. But he sells—all those gigantic retrospectives from EMI and Deutsche Grammophon and if you think I don’t have them all you don’t know me very well—and his music-making can still knock your socks off.

The big lush sound that is such anathema to some: Dammit, it was the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s supposed to sound wonderful. Did the lever du jour in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë ever sing out with such richness of color and erotic excess? His 1963 Beethoven cycle is muscular, unapologetic: Beethoven for people like me who don’t like their LvanB all twee and dance-y, but want a Beethoven with gonads and heart-stopping beauty and the grandest of grand gestures. Brahms? Wow, whether the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s cycles. His Sibelius, double-wow. Really so much of his work was glorious, whether with the Philharmonia, Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, or even the squally Orchestre de Paris. I am in awe of his abilities, his command of so much music, his overall consistency. I don’t care that he was kind of loosey-goosey with 20th century stuff since for the most part I don’t go for that music anyway. And I really like his Haydn, big-band or not.

Arturo Toscanini

Watching Toscanini conduct, on some of those muddy videos from the late 1940s, is a revelation. How much he could achieve with so little! Despite his fearsome temper tantrums—which were almost certainly never actually necessary given the stellar quality of his orchestras—he was a conductor of surprising warmth once you got past the almost militaristic precision of his rhythm.

I come out of this project with renewed admiration for him as a musician, if perhaps not so much as a man. He was definitely better-read and more intelligent than some of his detractors make him out to be, but he was also a serial philanderer with a long-suffering wife. And he could be an utter bastard when he put his mind to it. I suppose it was the era; conductors had a tendency to be overbearing alpha males in those days. But even by those standards he was extreme.

George Szell

My dirty little secret is that I’ve never much liked George Szell as a conductor. I recognize that the Cleveland Orchestra during his 25 some-odd years was a precision instrument second to none. But to my ear it never had those qualities that make an orchestra lovable as well as impressive: it wasn’t particularly interesting tonally, at least not like Berlin, Vienna, or Dresden; it didn’t have the sheer power and grandeur of Chicago; it lacked Boston’s warmth and civilized French demeanor; it couldn’t even approach the lush tonal beauty of Philadelphia.

But it was accurate, almost inhumanly so. Szell was such a fundamentally unattractive person—his nastiness to the superb musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, his waspishness, his heavy-handed dictatorial attitude—that it can be a bit difficult to approach his recordings, some of which display that same mean-spiritedness. He certainly could show warmth in his interpretations. But I never seek Szell for warmth or interest. He’s more like the lab-test instrument that you use for precise readings of this or that. But when I want to be enchanted or moved or caught up in the magic of it all, I go elsewhere—Stokowski, Karajan, even Bernstein in all his unpredictability.

Eugen Jochum

Almost every time I encounter a Jochum recording, regardless of the orchestra I find myself thinking: “wow, that’s just about as well as that piece can go.” The London Philharmonic? All too often scrappy with a phoned-in, sight-reading quality about it. But under Jochum the LPO produced some of the finest Brahms symphonies in gramophone history. His Haydn symphonies are glorious, as are the Bruckner. Is there any more completely satisfying Bruckner Eighth Adagio than his Dresden recording, with its to-die-for sustained grandeur and sensitivity?

Jochum is on my “I must explore him a whole lot more” list. I have extensive amounts of Jochum in my library—and the big Deutsche Grammophon set is winging its way out here to Brentwood even as I write—but I haven’t given him enough time and energy yet.

Charles Munch

He was a lot more innovative and unpredictable than you might think. Those glorious RCA Living Stereo discs from Boston; they were living-room standards par excellence and for lots of listeners the touchstone performances of various important works—think the big violin concertos with Heifetz. But some of them are downright subversive in their daring tempo choices and almost jarring departures from the accepted norms. Listen to his Boston Eroica again, if you haven’t heard it in a while.

But what really makes Munch for me is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under his direction a splendid thing with gorgeous tone, balance, and technical sheen. Just listening to the 1959 La mer is a continual revelation, not only for the stellar recording quality (it’s like standing right in front of the orchestra, maybe too close for some, but exhilarating) but for Munch’s dead-on pacing and insight into the Debussyean sound world. The best thing about Munch’s BSO? It was lovable, and that’s a tricky and elusive quality to pin down. Truly lovable orchestras are few and far between, but they do make up a certain kind of honor roll amongst the world’s great bands: Boston, Dresden, Vienna. It’s an indication of the importance of the music director that the BSO’s lovability evaporated, first in wisps under Leinsdorf, and then altogether under Ozawa. I have hopes for a future BSO that regains that fundamental wonderfulness.

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Right Resolve

I came across an article written by a 30-something chap who bought a condo at age 24 and wrecked himself financially. Even if the tone is occasionally whiny, for the most part he avoids pointing blame at anybody but himself, which is all to the good, since he’s indubitably the sole author of his misfortunes. He bought in 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble, and he bought with no equity whatsoever and not a dime in savings. He made himself a sitting duck for any downturn in the market, and as we all know, a great big whopping downturn happened within a year or so.

He could have stayed the course successfully — after all, the monthly payment remains the same no matter what the property’s ultimate resale value — but he compounded his foolishness by quitting a steady job in favor of pursuing a freelance writing career, although at the time he was seriously underwater in his mortgage with the break-even point still a good ways off in the future. As his income dwindled, he found himself in the worst situation imaginable: he couldn’t afford the monthly payments, he couldn’t rent the place out for enough to cover the payments, and he couldn’t sell. Whether one calls it instant karma or just the impersonal consequences of actions, the guy kicked himself into his predicament and will have to claw his way out, one way or another.

Which leads me to thinking about something I hadn’t thought about in a while: the Buddhist concept of Right Resolve. This is one of the “eightfold path” precepts that together form the fourth of the Four Truths, themselves an after-the-fact outline of the Buddha’s teachings as formulated by later generations.

Early definitions of Right Resolve, the work of narrow-minded, naive monks, are of little use in the modern world, or in just about any world for that matter. Those old-timey Buddhist monks had a single pat, prim answer for just about everything. Do you need to avoid sexual misconduct? Just live celibately. Are you too concerned about money? Just don’t have any. Are you attached to your possessions? Get rid of it all and live without doodley-squat, not even a proper pair of eyebrows. Do you worry too much about your diet? Just beg for your food, eat whatever you’re given, and don’t save anything.

Fortunately, Right Resolve is amendable to interpretation by more discerning minds. It can be understood more broadly (and with considerably more application to contemporary life) as the determination to avoid actions that are harmful to oneself or to others, regardless of one’s current lifestyle.

And that’s clearly where this guy tripped up big time. The resolution itself needed to be considered much more closely than it was, whether it was buying a house, a car, or a bag of groceries. He even flirts around the edges of the issue in his article, pointing out his many reservations about the purchase even while his parents were encouraging him and offering help.

It appears that many of his reservations were about himself, more than the financial commitment or the market, and had he listened to himself more carefully, he might very well have avoided an action which threw him into financial disarray for the next decade and will likely continue for a good while longer. He knew he wasn’t and might never be emotionally or fiscally ready to buy property. He knew that the market was over-inflated. He knew that his income was insufficient, and that he lacked job security. He knew all of it.

And yet he acted, acquiescing to what he considered the better sense of his parents. Even that should have been a siren-level warning to him: any 24-year-old who is that easily swayed by his parents needs to limit his financial decisions to calculating a server’s tip.

Thus Right Resolve would seem to imply being to thine own self true. Along with its companion Right View, Right Resolve is a kind of mental gymnastic, the strengthening one’s own will and the slow acquisition of clear thinking under stress. It begins with basic information (which he had) but then leads to the implications of that information.

The author of the article seems to be picking that up in hindsight. His last paragraph addresses the common observation that many millennials aren’t buying homes. “Maybe they just know what they’re doing,” he says. Hmmm: there is no “they” there in the broad sense that he’s implying, at least in my opinion. Some millennials are buying homes, after all, and presumably they know what they’re doing as well. One should refrain from a massive purchase like a house or condo if one lacks fiscal discipline, has a low salary, has no savings, and has questionable job security.

Hell, that doesn’t even need to be given such a fancy label as Right Resolve. It’s just good old common sense.

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And Gladly Teche

Some musicians teach in order to support their performance or composition habits. That’s not me. I teach because, well, I’m a teacher. Awareness of that simple fact came early.

I was the class tutor for my 8th grade French class. Somehow our French teacher had figured out that I had a knack for explaining things. (I honestly don’t remember how that came about.) She asked me to tutor a chap who was having problems. We scheduled an after-school time in her classroom and got to it.

I still remember the visceral thrill that accompanied picking up the chalk and writing out the conjugation of devoir on the board, and then drilling my pupil until he had it memorized. We tried it in sentences, we talked French, and all went well. Before long his test scores had improved remarkably. It was a good gig.

By the 9th grade I was teaching some private piano lessons, although I have to admit that piano teaching has never really been my thing. I’m much more attuned to classroom work, and in particular I’m happiest when delivering lectures and explaining things to groups of people.

Pedagogy classes never meant much to me, nor do the dictates of “educators” who strike me as assemblers of glutinous verbiage rather than folks with anything concrete in particular to offer. I can’t recall ever benefitting from anything in a how-to-teach book, no matter how humble or how fancy-pants.

Teaching really isn’t something that you can learn out of a book or in a classroom. Like making a good loaf of bread or fashioning a clay pot, teaching is acquired by doing. It’s a practice, in other words. You get better over time as you find what works and, even more important, what doesn’t. Most young teachers of energy and imagination boil over with ideas and theories that they want to try out. And they should. But the older, wiser birds tend to simplify and streamline; we know by now that directness and clarity are the thing, combined with tolerance, humor, patience, repetition, and (as much as is possible) an ego checked at the door to one’s classroom or lecture hall.

If my calculations are correct, those afternoons at the French class chalkboard would have occurred in about 1968, thus getting on to 50 years. That’s a long time to practice. I have been a professional teacher for over 40 years. And just maybe I’m starting to get the hang of it, but every year invariably something will happen that makes me feel like a blundering novice all over again. That’s good. The day I start thinking that I’ve got this thing mastered, that’s the day to start the retirement process.

And the day that I write scholarly articles containing anything along the lines of: “Effectuated strategies for establishing hegemonic group technologies resulting in incentivized targeted learning outcome assessments”?

Shoot me, just shoot me right then and there.

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Year Three Begins

I celebrate an important anniversary on August 10, in honor of the lifestyle change I made in August of 2015 as I left San Francisco and moved to a sizable contemporary Mediterranean in the outlying suburban city of Brentwood, out in the general region of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I took possession of the house with substantial equity from the get-go—no FHA mortgage for this kid—and have glided onwards ever since as a homeowner in a modern suburb with all the amenities thereto. Having spent 40 years in a city once celebrated for its arts and freewheeling lifestyle, but nowadays more likely to be held up as the poster boy for misplaced progressivist policies that have resulted in third-world contrasts between glittering wealth and appalling squalor, I am now happily ensconced in a town filled with children and families and retirees and lovely homes in carefully-planned and well-landscaped developments, all surrounded by farms, orchards, and vineyards. Brentwood has its pockets of poverty and its instances of crime, but the pockets are tiny and the crimes are low voltage. It’s safe here, and it’s clean. The schools are tip-top. Shopping is abundant and convenient. This is a city of well-maintained parks, athletic fields, swimming pools, hiking trails, bike paths, senior centers, golf courses, tennis courts, and more. It’s no place for trend- or thrill-seeking urbanites, first-nighters, hardcore foodies, freelance musicians, starving artists, or anybody who requires close proximity to a major city. But for everybody else, life is good, whether farmer or parent or kid or retiree or professional single guy like me.

My happiest discovery has been just how well suited I am to single-person homeownership, responsible only to himself for all matters home-related. Voices can be heard out there in the big bad Internet that condemn the entire venture—never buy a home, they say, since you’ll pour money down a rat hole and spend all your time repairing and fixing stuff. I suppose that might be true for some people. It sure isn’t true for me. I consider the money and time well spent. And as for my house being a money pit—well, it has increased in value by at least $100K since I bought it, and that’s not even taking my plethora of upgrades and improvements into account.

As for repairs, I’m reasonably handy with hammer and screwdriver, but most importantly, I know what I can and can’t do. For example, I can replace a wonky power outlet easily enough, but not long ago the GFCI outlet that controls the power to all three bathrooms started acting weird, flipping open and cutting off the power to the bathroom outlets for no discernible reason. It had seen its day and needed replacing. Although I could have probably run down to Home Depot, bought a new GFCI outlet, and installed it just like any other, I decided to have a professional electrician do it just in case there is something about GFCI outlets that I don’t know. Yes, it cost an order of magnitude more than fixing it myself, but I consider the money worth it in peace of mind. And the power stays on in the bathrooms now.

I will paint a bedroom or the family room or the kitchen or a bathroom myself. But for a complete paint job of the house exterior complete with transparent stain on the back fence and opaque stain on the deck railings, I hired professionals. Ditto a full landscaping of a side yard. I could probably do it but it’s just not worth the time and bother, and besides, I’m not exactly a 25-year-old any more. On the whole I’m more inclined to hire out than do it myself, neither out of extravagance nor laziness but because I’d rather not have to live with the consequences of botching the thing.

At the start of my third year I can take well-justified pride in my stewardship of this property. My house is easily the best-kept on my cul-de-sac of contemporary Mediterraneans on about five different floor plans. It’s freshly-painted in a subtly contrasting two-tone scheme. All is trim, ship-shape, meticulous. Its already pronounced curb appeal is enhanced by a dandy front lawn—velvety emerald, soft and welcoming, mowed and edged weekly. My back yard has morphed from a scraggly expanse of dirt and random grass tufts into a fragrant floral sanctuary with an inviting soft lawn. The mature but originally scruffy rose bushes flourish in superb health. Even the north side yard, formerly an expanse of weeds and dog poop, is now a desert gardenscape with sages, lantanas, butterfly bushes, and other high-heat, lower-water plants all flanking a curvy walk made of decomposed granite with flagstones and entered via a lovely redwood arbor. All in all, the grounds exude unpretentious prosperity and well-being. And I made them that way, bit by bit.

Indoors the situation is comparable. It’s airy and light, nicely if economically decorated, and scrupulously clean. The kitchen appliances are fine new Bosch and Samsung models. Lighting is all LEDs now, with instant-on fluorescents in the bathrooms. Quite a bit of the interior is repainted—with more to come—and all of the door and bathroom hardware is freshly-installed antique bronze. Soon to come are re-tiled bathrooms and front entryway. Next summer will be window replacements—and hopefully a French door in place of the current patio door—and new chandeliers in living room and entryway. At some point a thorough kitchen re-do is in the offing, but I have to save up for that one. The house sports a classy modern HVAC system that combines quiet operation with energy efficiency, in place of a high-quality but aged original model. I tend to be proactive rather than reactive, more inclined to replace rather than repair. Nothing creaky or quirky or eccentric is allowed.

In short, my house is a work in progress but dramatically improved from its August 2015 incarnation, when it was a well-designed and solidly-built home that had suffered from several years of benign neglect and the depredations of two oversized and overly athletic dogs. It is still well designed and solidly built but as of August 2017 it positively hums with robust health. That isn’t to say that everything is perfect—far from it. The fact is that it’s a 25-year-old house with all that implies. Stuff wears out. Fashions change. My list of potential projects and improvements remains very long indeed. But I think it will be always so, since I never run out of ideas to tweak this, improve that, add or remove something else. And it’s a house, a living thing, and not something encased in lucite or frozen in amber. Problems can and will arise.

But the house is a joy, an adventure, and a constant source of fascination as I enter Year Three. Thus when August 2018 rolls around, unless the fates deem otherwise I expect to post another solid progress report.

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Gimme That Old-Time Piano Playing

Even if I don’t play in public (or private) much any more, I’m still a pianist. It’s sort of like being a Texan. It doesn’t matter how long since you’ve left the place; born there, you’re it, period and forever always. Ergo, I’m a Texan. Ergo, I’m a pianist.

As part of preparing for a session on Chopin for my class “The Early Romantics” at San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, I put together a comparison of a number of pianists playing the first two phrases of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. It’s a familiar piece, possibly a bit hackneyed by now, but nevertheless a gorgeously well-written bit of aria-like witchcraft for the piano. In listening to newer pianists and older pianists, I was struck anew by how much we have lost by generations of beady-eyed piano teachers cudgelling their students away from certain “bad habits” that, to my ear, are anything but bad.

Item: “breaking” the hands, or playing the melody note (typically in the RH) just a fraction of a beat after the accompaniment. It’s generally condemned by piano teachers—sometimes for good reason if it’s merely the result of inattentiveness—but actually it’s quite an effective way of getting around the piano’s inherent percussiveness. It’s also a time-honored practice, not only on the piano, but on the harpsichord as a method of bringing out a melodic line.

Item: right-hand (melody) dragging behind the left (accompaniment). Stock in trade for pop singers everywhere, it’s a classic method of keeping a melody from becoming too square and too resolutely attached to the underlying beat. Just a bit of lingering behind the beat can work wonders. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to Frank Sinatra. Listen to just about everybody. And then listen to masters like Rachmaninoff do more or less the same thing.

Item: arpeggiating left-hand chords. We’re dealing with that pianistic percussiveness again, and rolling a left-hand chord ever so slightly can work wonders to ameliorate the piano’s fundamental brutality. Instead of three notes going BANG all at once, spread them out a bit. It’s like spackle over a hole in the drywall. Some later piano composers such as Scriabin wrote in deliberate polyrhythms as a way of filling in all those gaping holes left by the piano’s inability to sustain in any way other than descrescendo.

Item: taking as much time as you want for melodic ornamentation. At some point during the 20th century pianists changed their overall focus from the melodic line to the underlying beat. They started spouting zero-sum crap along the lines of: if you slow down somewhere, you have speed up somewhere else to make it up. What utter tommyrot. It’s not accounting, you know, and the rhythmic books don’t have to balance. There are no rhythmic books. If Chopin writes a 22-note ornament over three beats, for heaven’s sake don’t get all weird and try to play a perfect 22:3 polyrhythm to an unruffled steady tempo. When Chopin writes something like that, he’s telling you to indulge yourself. Just play it however you want—and if that means adding extra beats, or extra beats plus some unfathomable extra portion of another beat, then you just go right ahead. Let those 22 notes sing out as you will, and to hell with the beat.

Item: bending and changing notated rhythms to suit yourself. Boy, is this one a hot tamale. But many of our great pianists of the past did precisely that without the slightest worry. Again I offer the example of great pop singers. The rhythm is more or less there, but they’re not rigid automata about getting everything spit-spot to the notated score. It’s a melodic line, not a dictation exercise, in other words.

Item: juicing things up with a few extra bass notes here or there. Well and why not? Even if the piano had been outfitted with 88 keys from the very beginning (absolutely not the case), I see no reason why not to indulge in a little highlighting here or there, if you really think it will help. Hell, even if you’re just feeling expansive at the moment.

Item: “swing” à la Viennese waltz lilt (giving just a bit of English to the 2nd beat of 3/4) or à la Polish hesitation style (that same English applied to the 3rd beat instead). Once so common as to be almost ubiquitous, it has almost disappeared from today’s performances. I’ll allow that the “Polish” rhythm can become a dreadful mannerism, in which 3/4 almost becomes 4/4 due to the lengthening of the 3rd beat. But then again, here’s where taste and careful listening come into play. Do it for musical effectiveness, and don’t let it become an unconscious mannerism.

Item: “preluding” a bit before short pieces. Just a tiddly bit of improv to establish the key, and then you’re off. Josef Hofmann was partial to it even late in his career. How did it happen that pianists—who were once composers as well—became so averse to even the slightest hint of personal creativity? Stop making it up!! I heard from various teachers. Well, why the hell not? Somebody made that piece up originally, after all. I believe the term public domain might have some relevance here.

Now then. Sergei Rachmaninoff is often cited as being a pianist who planned everything out, played precisely, and all that. And yet: just listen to his recording of the Chopin E-flat Nocturne, and be prepared to be shocked if you’re expecting the last word in musical probity and conservatism. Hell, he rolls chords and breaks hands and drags RH behind LH and fiddles with the rhythm and takes his sweet time with the ornaments. And it works, man does it work. Listen to Moriz Rosenthal to hear constant breaking of hands (effective), or Josef Hofmann to hear the nocturne played with a clear Viennese waltz lilt, the second beat just a bit longer than the first or third.

And listen to Alfred Cortot play it—either from the 1920s or 1940s; he was pretty consistent. His performance could be cited as a litany of everything piano teachers inveigh against—breaking of hands, arpeggiating, re-writing RH rhythms, taking time for ornamentation, juicing things up here or there. But it works, and it works gorgeously. I’ll take that any day over certain more modern performances that seem to consist mainly of projecting the RH melody out to the rafters, almost as though shouting to the audience, mostly in perfect time throughout with just the slightest hint of a tapering off at a cadential point, all with brittle but well-projected sound.

No. Play it as though you wrote it, I used to hear from certain piano teachers who weren’t aware of the irony of the statement they were making: i.e., play it as if you wrote it and you’ll kill anybody who modifies so much as a millisecond of it.

Here’s a gloss on that statement: play it as though you’re writing it, right now, here in this moment that will never come again.

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Profound Logic

Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, contemporaries and polar opposites on the surface, likely had more in common than not. They took divergent stances on symphonic composition, however. Sibelius recalled an exchange: “I said that I admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs … Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’”

I cheerfully classify myself in the Sibelian camp, although I’m in no wise an anti-Mahler type. I find a great deal to admire in Mahler’s symphonies and other works; naturally I enjoy the glittering orchestrations and massive sonic effects—I’m as tickled by spectacle as the next guy—but many of my favorite Mahler passages are relatively restrained, such as the contemplative lyricism of the 6th symphony’s slow movement, or the grandly-conceived sonata form of the 9th’s first movement. I’ve journeyed far since my first aghast and repulsed encounter with Mahler; all I heard was narcissism and psychotic grandiosity. Both those characteristics can still unnerve me today, but with time and (some) familiarity I’ve been able to move past some of my earlier aversion. Das Lied von der Erde, a work that brings me no end of pleasure, fascination, and admiration, had a lot to do with that. Das Lied was my entry ticket to Mahlerdom.

But my heart is with Sibelius and his ilk—i.e., composers who practice profound logic, which is to say, composers who believe that the highest expressiveness comes from using the least amount of material, and not the most. That I’m not alone in this regard is witnessed by the composers who belong in this category: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others, including Sibelius.

Profound logic is on my mind these days, not a surprising state of affairs considering that I have once again given a series of lectures on the Mozart G Minor Symphony (No. 40) to my classes at UC Berkeley. This time around I have three Music 27 classes, thus three times through the same lecture in the same week. You’d think after 27 years teaching this course the piece would have become old hat by now, something to teach on autopilot. Not a chance. The first movement of the G Minor serves as the general introduction to sonata-allegro form but I choose to elaborate significantly by describing, and demonstrating, the brilliance of the thematic and harmonic design. Mozart practices his own version of developing variation—usually associated with Brahms—in his deriving all his thematic materials from two simple seed elements. The first is a descending semitone (E-flat to D); the second is a simple three-note rhythm (cha-cha-CHA; i.e., two eighths and a quarter.) The skill with which Mozart carries out this task boggles the mind, but more importantly, it stirs the heart in that it creates a movement in which everything seems utterly inevitable, as though every note has to be there, as though it must be in that particular place at that particular time.

Perhaps most miraculously, Mozart’s striking economy of means isn’t necessarily audible on a first hearing, nor does it call attention to itself. It simply is, and the more you delve into the movement, the more resonances you find with those original paired seed ideas, pitch and rhythm. Even the final chords (three of them in augmentation of the original eighth-eighth-quarter pattern) refer back to the opening theme and its source materials. Everything is organized and developed from those initial ideas, but there’s nothing sterile or static about it. Surely this movement exemplifies Brahms’s admiring statement that “It is a real pleasure to see music so bright and spontaneous expressed with corresponding ease and grace.” Especially because, pace Herr Johannes, it isn’t the slightest bit spontaneous—even if it manages to seem so.

Shortly I’ll be presenting the Beethoven C Minor Symphony to the same class. I hope that the Mozart presentation will have paved the way for them to understand and appreciate Beethoven’s magnificent spinning out of those famed opening four notes into the materials of not only the first movement, but into unifying threads throughout the symphony as a whole.

Profound logic runs through so much music that I cherish. Not long ago I performed the B-flat Major Partita by Bach; as part of my study I noticed the pervasiveness of lower-neighbor motions and a frequent reference back to the opening figure of the prelude. The C Minor Partita offers numerous references to Bach’s signature 5-1-2-3 figure, heard so often in his instrumental and vocal works. (Think Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion or, in a major-key dialect, the Resurrexit from the B Minor Mass.) Or the way Bach generates the fugue subject of the B Minor Mass Kyrie from a single interval (a rising step) and, by so doing, creates the entire movement. Or the countersubject of the Fugue in C Minor from Volume I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, created from the melodic outline of the subject.

Brahms and the opening four notes of the D Major Symphony (No. 2)—a lower-neighbor tone followed by a downwards leap of a fourth. That lower neighbor becomes an upper neighbor to create the last joyous outburst in the brass that brings the symphony to its conclusion. The major-minor duality of the Third Symphony.

Well. I could go on and on and on; the instances are common and numerous. Nor are they restricted to only the greatest of composers. During the Viennese Classical era such resonances and organic unities were well-nigh built into the prevailing practices of the time.

Profound logic inspires my admiration far more than an all-encompassing embrace of everything. Perhaps I am reflecting my overly rational outlook, in that profound logic is quite possible to achieve whereas embracing everything is unachievable hyperbole. Perhaps I am reflecting my many years analyzing compositions and teaching about musical form. Perhaps I am reflecting my age, inasmuch as I’m much less likely to be moved by sensation than I once was. Perhaps I’m just being snotty. Whatever the underlying causes, that’s where I am with my musical aesthetics: I’ll take profound logic over being like the world every time. I’m not interested in being like. I’m interested in being.

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A Guy and His Hobbies

Platitude of the day: everything changes. Petunias bud, wax, and wane. Ice melts and water evaporates. Even the most seemingly solid and immoveable objects—think mountains, think diamonds—change in time.

Even me. I just might change my hobbies.

Consider my most passionate and involved hobby of the past several decades: record collector to the nth degree, bonafide whack job about completions, ready to pounce on the latest box set of Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Reiner or the Southwestern Orchestra of Northeastern Saarbruckersteinerbach. I bought CDs like no tomorrow. Eventually my hobby expanded to encompass a brief but exhilarating fling with vinyl LPs, then went seriously retro with an even more brief fascination with shellac 78s.

Concurrent with that came waves of audiophilia, not a steady-state infatuation by any means but periodic. When you get right down to it, once I had achieved pleasing sound quality I stopped caring. It didn’t hurt any to eschew the pornographic audio fantasies of industry mags such as The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Besides, I never could really afford audiophilia, and I’m far too rational ever to sign on to its many absurdities. True audiophilia requires taking leave of your senses. I mean that literally: you have to ignore what your senses are telling you, namely that you can’t hear one goddamn bit of difference between a $3000 amplifier and some audiophile-blessed $45,000 jobber. A willingness to believe that 2+2 does not equal 4 is part and parcel of the whole audiophile gig.

It all came to an end. I lost interest in having all the latest classical CDs, stopped haunting whatever few brick-and-mortal stores are left standing, and ended my daily visits to eBay, ever in search of that elusive je-ne-sais-quoi recording by some pet artist or orchestra. Desire for chic audio gear faded.

Yet the urge towards hobby remained strong. I may practice an altogether satisfying profession, but just like everybody, I need my hobbies. When you think about it, CD-collecting is only marginally a hobby for a professional musician. Anything I can take as a tax deduction isn’t really a hobby.

I acquired—by drift and not by design—two new hobbies. Neither of these has any connection to music as can be attested by their utter non-deductibility. Can’t take a sous for either of them.

Hobby No. 1: gardening. Perhaps it’s a sign of encroaching age, as musician-turned-duffer putters around in his back yard, tut-tutting over the worms in the dahlias and patiently plucking ficus-tree sprouts from between the rows of impatiens. Well, allow this duffer to putter as he will. Gardening costs a mere fraction of CD collecting—let’s not even talk about the price differential with audiophilia—and offers demonstrably greater joys. There’s something just so dang satisfying about watching some piddly sprig of green take root, take flight, and morph into a gracious congeries of flowers and leaves. I have taken a father’s prideful interest in observing a bed of begonias slowly rise to cover almost half of a garden Buddha, joined in by encircling impatiens that by now render the Buddha as looking as though he floats amidst a cloud of flowers.

Trivia: according to the suttas of the Pali Canon, at the time of Siddhatta Gotama’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (itself a species of ficus, just like the trees in my garden), the tempter Mara shied rains of arrows in his direction, all meant to distract him from the magnificent achievement just about to occur. Siddhatta knew those arrows for what they were, and the power of his concentration turned them into cascades of flowers. And there sits my garden Buddha, floating amidst the begonias.

It’s a pip of a hobby.

Now for Hobby No. 2: cycling. That one might be a bit of a surprise to anyone who has known me for any length of time, because athletic stuff just isn’t my forte. Yet cycling is indubitably physical. It actually builds up muscle tone over time. Imagine that. To date cycling is the only hobby I’ve ever had that could conceivably result in weight loss.

Whether or not my current hobby of recreational cycling, a.k.a. puddling about aimlessly, will act as a gateway drug to more involved or ambitious riding remains to be seen. I do tend to go in for the pound over the penny, so it’s not beyond possibility that I might eventually drape myself over some sleek carbon-fiber contraption and zoom hither and yon in an unquenchable quest for speed and distance. But not now. For now I’m the master of the down-shift. I sit upright on my “city comfort” model, looking around and enjoying the endless charms of the great outdoors.

I never would have picked up cycling when I lived in San Francisco. There’s a reason for all that grim militancy surrounding San Francisco cycling. It’s a lousy goddamn place for cyclists: the streets are narrow and pocked, the drivers inattentive or borderline homicidal, the winds chilling, the hills troublesome.

It was the move to the Delta region that encouraged me to take up cycling. Out here the streets are wide, the traffic light, the hills almost nonexistent, the breezes soft and inviting. Riding around East County is joyful and relatively safe. All of the main streets in my home town have bicycle lanes, and even the smaller ones that don’t are wide enough to allow for easy riding. And there are miles and miles of pathways and trails to be explored, some smoothly paved, some a bit more rustic, but all enjoyable and endlessly fascinating.

So I ride. I have become less maladroit about basic cycle maintenance although I remain a bumbling neophyte nonetheless. I can carry out a few simple fixes. Anything else requires a trip over to the bike shop.

Thus I shift one pair of hobbies (CD collecting/occasional audiophilia) to another (gardening/cycling.) A moment’s thought reveals the underlying reason for the shift: I moved from city to suburbia. My old hobbies were distinctly city-dweller hobbies, dependant on having a supply chain and big-city resources such as high-end stereo stores. My new hobbies are distinctly suburban, requiring as they do the access to lawns and gardens, and an ample supply of safe bike trails and paths. Not to mention a more salubrious climate.

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A Kid’s Book with Teeth

Surely I’m not alone in my habit of re-reading books that I have loved. Somehow they get better with repetition, instead of becoming dreary and predictable. Perhaps that’s because the books I have loved tend to be the sort of books that can withstand re-reading—i.e., I don’t get all gaga about the latest Dan Brown thriller, but instead have a tendency to take more substantial items to heart.

That’s not to say that I make a yearly pilgrimmage through Madame Bovary or The Education of Henry Adams. I’m neither egghead nor litterateur. I have zero patience with “literary” novels— those jobbers that the English lit profs always seem to admire and everybody else ignores. I used to make the occasional stab at slogging through some of those, but the process was akin to my sometime forays into the music of Anton Webern or Pierre Boulez, dutiful attempts at self-improvement that offered neither reward nor enjoyment. Or improvement for that matter. So nuts to Thomas Pynchon and John Barth and Virginia Woolf. My choices are prosaic, even bourgeois, but they’re my choices and that’s all there is to it: James Michener’s Hawaii and Centennial and Chesapeake and The Source, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, many of the big Dickens novels such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son. The occasional science fiction classic such as the original Foundation series by Isaac Asimov or the Arthur C. Clarke standbys such as Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars.

One set of books you’d really think I would have cast adrift long ago are the “juvenile” novels by Robert Heinlein, products of his early career and stalwart companions of my teen years. The first of the series, Rocket Ship Galileo, has not withstood the test of time but was good enough to become a decent early 1950s flick (George Pal’s Destination Moon), and sold well enough to kick off an entire series of science fiction novels aimed at teenagers—well, to be absolutely clear about this, teenaged boys. Nobody questioned the science gender gap in those days, so it was assumed that the only target audience for such books would be males. The books are correspondingly male-oriented with a vengeance, although female heroines began to show up later in the series, particularly Podkayne of Mars. (Starman Jones contains a vividly engaging female character who eventually reveals herself as smarter than, and as scientifically savvy as, the eponymous hero.)

But to me, and probably to any kid who was floored then elevated by these books, it’s Space Cadet that wins the gold. Second in the series, it came out in 1948, sold well enough, and wound up exerting an extraordinary influence over subsequent science fiction writing. Anybody who has read Space Cadet knows all about Star Trek’s Star Fleet and Star Fleet Academy, both clear descendants of Space Cadet’s Space Patrol and its Academy. Both are essentially the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, just tweaked a bit with nuclear- and chemical-powered rockets (or Warp and Impulse drives) in the place of sail and steam.

I’ve re-read Space Cadet a number of times, but during a recent go-through I was newly impressed by Heinlein’s careful realization of an alternate future in which World War Three actually happened, and the Patrol stands at the vanguard of humanity’s slow crawl back to civilization. Heinlein doesn’t beat the reader over the head with any of it. In fact the implications were probably lost on most of the original readers, just as they were lost on me, given Heinlein’s skill at weaving background into narrative. Consider a scene in which cadets Matt Dodson and Oscar Jensen are enjoying a shore leave on Terra Station—a city-sized space station in geosynchronous orbit, used as a docking station for interplanetary craft and shuttles up and down to the surface.

“They took the slideway half around the Station, through crowds of gorgeously dressed and hurrying people, past rich and beckoning shops. Matt enjoyed it thoroughly. ‘They say,’ said Oscar, ‘that this is what the big cities used to be like, back before the Disorders.’ ‘It certainly doesn’t look like Des Moines.’”

An ordinary city street with shops and shoppers—but a novelty to our two cadets.

Or an earlier scene, in which Matt Dodson looks out of a viewport from orbit as an older cadet directs his gaze:

“‘Over there—see?—is the crater where Denver used to be. Now look south—that brown stretch is Texas; you can see the Gulf beyond it.’”

The crater where Denver used to be. Hmmmm…..

The Patrol is anything but a bunch of Dudley Do-Right do-gooders. It has resulted from a United Nations-ish resolution to protect humanity from itself via a chain of orbiting nuclear bombs, each capable of wiping out an entire city. (Ergo Denver.) The idea here is that any nation foolish enough to start up trouble again can be eradicated should it become necessary. That’s what the Patrol is for, and its officers are charged with the authority over those orbital bombs. Heinlein even implies that the Patrol is well-nigh autonomous.

Matt Dodson goes through a spiritual crisis concerning that very autonomy. The prospect of bombing his own home town unnerves him and brings him close to resigning from the academy. But his academic advisor sets him straight:

“If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called on to carry out the attack is equally slight—you might be away on Mars. Taking the two chances together you have something close to zero. But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Some of this should sound familiar. It’s the basic background to the entire Star Trek franchise, which postulates the idea of humanity hauling itself up out of a disastrous nuclear world war and reinventing itself, via a Federation that takes the power out of individual nations’s hands. Star Trek is a considerably more enlightened, to be sure. For example, its women are fully empowered and equal whereas Space Cadet contains precisely one female character, a scatterbrained 1950s sitcom housewife with the apparent intelligence of a marmoset. Space Cadet anticipates Star Trek by treating racial differences as trivial—white and black and brown and whatnot all commingle together without strain or stress. And of course Star Trek benefitted from advances in scientific knowledge during the 1950s. Some of Space Cadet’s science is outdated—Venus is a hot, swampy jungle planet with a breathable atmosphere. Nor does Space Cadet postulate faster-than-light travel.

Nevertheless, Space Cadet packs a lot of ideas into its breezily entertaining 200-ish pages. It’s worth reading just for the fun of it all, but underneath its gee-whiz mancave bonhomie lies a surprisingly sophisticated and all too plausible foundation. That we didn’t wind up with a “crater where Denver used to be” is one of the imponderables of the Cold War era. Of course books like Space Cadet and its spinoffs—the Tom Corbett books and TV series, Star Trek, some aspects of Star Wars—didn’t do anything to head off that grim and all-too-possible fate. But it reflected the thinking of the time, and took humanity’s worst nightmare as its starting point. Not bad for a book aimed at teens.

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