Creepy

The appalling situation on the sidewalks of San Francisco has always bothered me, but never more so than now when I am no longer a resident of the city. In my current incarnation in a prosperous, clean, safe, and far-outlying East Bay suburb, I am struck more than ever by the sheer magnitude of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. My thrice-weekly commutes into the city require me to walk only half a block to reach my school—but that trivial distance is typically accompanied by disgraceful offensiveness.

My inward trip: drive from Brentwood to Pittsburg/Bay Point BART, then a one-hour ride to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. From there I switch to the Muni Metro system. (For non-San Francisco folks: the Metro is the in-town subway/streetcar system. It shares the downtown stations with BART, so you exit one system and enter the other all within the same underground space.) I take any outbound car on the Metro to Van Ness Station. An escalator wafts me up to the corner of Market and Van Ness. The return trip is similar, except that I take the inbound Metro only to the next stop at Civic Center—the closest Muni/BART portmanteau station. (That strategy increases my chances of a seat on the BART train, since the higher-traffic Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero stations are still to come.)

In sum, my engagement with outdoor, surface-level San Francisco is limited to a mere half-block walk. You’d think that would be uneventful. Consider the situation of the past few weeks:

Yesterday (Monday) morning I emerged at Van Ness and Market on the escalator. Made my usual U-turn so as to reach the corner, whence I turn left twice in quick succession to reach my school. I hadn’t gone fifteen paces before I had to endure the screaming profanities and angry posturing of a whack job who was howling at cars and passers-by. (This at 6:45 AM, mind you.) On the way home, a different but equally scary man was standing right next to the entrance of the Van Ness station; you had no choice but to endure passing right past him to get to the stairs going down.

Last week: On Wednesday afternoon I had a few hours off and, recognizing that I needed a few minor items such as toothpaste and Kleenex for my office, I decided to walk over to Walgreens on Gough and Hayes, about two blocks distant. I hadn’t made it ten steps out of the school’s front door before a dangerously out-of-control vagrant came careening down Oak Street, screaming imprecations and threats. I stood absolutely still and looked carefully away. He went staggering on.

Earlier that week I had crossed Market Street at Van Ness to go to a nearby sandwich shop. Over the course of that brief round trip, I was panhandled at least three times that I remember.

And yet Market and Van Ness isn’t some grisly, scummy neighborhood. It’s not Pacific Heights, mind you. Nevertheless, it’s the gateway to Civic Center. City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, main branch of the library, Bill Graham Auditorium, Davis Symphony Hall, Opera House, War Memorial, SF Jazz, Nourse Auditorium, SF Conservatory of Music, not to mention major governmental buildings such as the central Courthouse, Federal Building, and State Building—all within a few blocks. And yet it’s crawling and overrun not necessarily with just “homeless” (to use the politically-correct term) but dangerous, whacked-out druggies and feral street people. Nor is the carnage limited to that one neighborhood. Such obnoxiousness has spread throughout the city. The ultra-well-heeled residents of Presidio Terrace and the like keep the riffraff out, no doubt, but ordinary middle- to upper-middle-class people can do little, if anything, about it in their less exalted but still perfectly fine neighborhoods.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said ad infinitum already. Everybody is aware of the seriousness of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. But these days I’m seeing it through the eyes of a non-resident, re-sensitized to the pervasive offensiveness. Increasingly my reactions are those of an out-of-towner, a tourist, utterly appalled by the catastrophic condition of quotidian San Francisco. Was it really that bad when I lived there? I endured similar behavior every day, so I suppose it was. I had become adept at shoving each unpleasant encounter out of my mind, ignoring it with whatever mental fortitude I could muster. I was only too aware that it was everywhere and 24/7—meaning right outside my front door, even on my charming little street lined with picture-book Victorians.

Can it be fixed? I have no idea. But it cannot continue unchecked. Throwing money at it isn’t going to do a damn thing, that’s for sure. If anything the extra funds just make it worse. San Francisco is gradually morphing into a third-world city in which the affluent hover high above in their skyscraper aeries or behind the gates of their walled communities, while a writhing mass of addicts, criminals, and derelicts seethes below and around them. Cool Grey City of Love—finis.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Creepy

Things that Go Bump

Recently I read an article about the correlation, if any, between trained musicians’s ears and sensitivity to random noise. The study concluded that musicians aren’t any more bothered by environmental noise than anybody else, at least based on the statistics. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this musician is a great deal more bothered by random environmental noise than your average joe.

In fact, random noise drives me bats. I’m a connoisseur of noise-suppressing devices: high-quality ear plugs, professional-grade ear muffs, noise-cancelling headphones. There were times during my city-living days when I wore Hearos ear plugs (they can cut up to 36 decibels if inserted properly) together with high-end industrial ear protectors (which can douse another 30-ish decibels.) The end result was a nearly hushed environment, although at the price of discomfort, both from the ear plugs—which can make one feel as though one has an ear infection—and the ear protectors, which apply a fairly strong clamping force on both sides of the head.

Nonetheless, it was often the only way for me to maintain my composure at home, when the various noises of the surrounding city had conspired to rob me of serenity. Then again, nobody lives in a city for the serenity. But there I was, living in the city, and being slowly driven to distraction by incessant sonic disruptions.

Even more troublesome, for me, was the nagging fear that accompanied most of my life in a city. I jumped at the lightest thump or creak or knock, given that I never felt safe in my neighborhood. That was with good reason: even if actual break-ins were rare, the little one-lane, one-block street in front of my house was abuzz all the time with passers-by, cars, and later at night, vagrants of various sorts. It was San Francisco, after all, and the Castro—a busy hub most hours of the day and night. I was always on edge about somebody breaking in, or at least causing damage out in front (which happened fairly regularly.) Noise could spell trouble.

A hot summer evening during my last month in San Francisco. I was sleepy and wanted to stretch out on the living room couch with a book and maybe nap a bit. Given the heat, I had one of the front windows open—although that always made me a bit nervous even if the windows were a half-floor above street level. I hoped for some quiet, but alas: as soon as I started relaxing, something always happened. A car beeped as it was being unlocked or unlocked remotely. Or a honk. Or people talking. Or a door slamming. Or bone-grinding bass came wafting by on somebody’s hip-hop infested car stereo. Or a siren was heard streaking along somewhere. Or or or or. Always something. Wide awake and annoyed, I decided to keep track of just how many sudden sound events (like doors slamming or car beepers going off) happened in a ten-minute period. After I had gotten past two dozen, I realized just what an impossibly noisy environment this was. No napping on the couch with this kind of stuff going on.

It didn’t take long after I moved to an outlying East Bay suburb for me to realize just how raw my nerves had become about sound shocks, because in my detached family house with its excellent insulation and oh-so-quiet neighbors, the sound shocks ceased. They are rare to nonexistent in my new environment. At night the house can be absolutely quiet, the only sounds coming perhaps from a minor gurgle in the refrigerator or the faint tick-tock of a battery-operated clock half a house away. And it stays quiet. No sudden blats or bloops or honks or beeps or whacks. It just stays quiet. And it’s an exceedingly low-crime environment. No vagrants, junkies, derelicts.

With the things that go bump in the night stilled, I have been able to relax at a level I hadn’t really ever experienced save at meditation retreats. Maybe silence doesn’t actually equal safety. But it’s a big step in the right direction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Things that Go Bump

Toybox

The reasons for home ownership are many and compelling. Investment: excellent. Security: you’re immune from rent hikes or capricious landlordish dictats. Flexibility: you can have it your way without having to ask anybody’s permission. Depth: your roots dig deeper and spread outwards. Taxes: it’s the great middle class income tax scam, pure and simple; not only interest on your mortgage is deductible, but so are your property taxes. Monthly: in many cases, the monthly payment is either competitive with rent or is notably lower. Pride: you own it — ‘nuff said.

All of that is very well and good. But all of those many lists of advantages leave out what is undoubtedly the 500-pound gorilla of the bunch.

They never talk about just how crazy fun it is. And Gott in Himmel, is it ever crazy fun. A house is the ultimate grown-up toy. Nothing can compete with it for sheer absorption of time and energy, for heady joy in seeing it grow and develop, for a sense of limitless possibility. It’s the last word in cool hobbies. It’s a Barbie Doll on steroids. It’s the electric train set that stamps finis on all other choo-choos. It’s a friend that responds to every gift with gratitude. It’s a never-exhausted list of intriguing projects. It’s friend and lover, colleague and challenger, competitor and crony, mentor and student. It’s the coolest toybox ever.

My house has come to me after a five-year period of benign neglect. Without a doubt its former owners valued and loved it. But they didn’t clean it very much or very well. And they painted some of it in colors that are several orders of magnitude removed from my idea of good decor. The paint is easy to fix and results in the most dramatic improvements. Cleaning, on the other hand, offers more subtle improvements yet continues unabated, even if I took full possession of the property almost six weeks ago. The basic rule of thumb is: if I haven’t cleaned it yet, it’s dirty. I’m not exaggerating that. Today, while painting the family-room-turned-office, I removed the plastic light-switch plates and electric-socket plates. Each of them needed a run under the faucet and a soapy sponge before I would return them to their niches on the wall. There is no baseboard that hasn’t accumulated a thin crust of gunk, no doorframe that doesn’t need its upper rims given a good scrub, no stretch of flooring that won’t yield up copious amounts of goo and grime. The only clean windows are those that I have cleaned so far. There isn’t a square foot out of its approximately 6000 (counting garage, house, and land) that doesn’t call out for my ministrations.

But that’s part of the fun. For one thing, I’m one of those disturbing people who actually enjoys cleaning. I am particularly partial to persnicketty, itty-bitty household engineering, such as going after a goopy crevice with a Q-tip or doing away with faint lines of gray gunk along the rounded strips of wood that border the floor sills. So a dirty house, while distressing, is not anything I’m going to view with alarm or dismay. I’m going to take it for what it is: a project to be tackled for the sheer fun of it all. And the house gets truly clean, bit by bit, in the process.

I love going to Lowe’s. I love buying stuff for the house, big stuff and little stuff and practical stuff and cool stuff. Oh: I need a pair of pruning shears. Oh: I want to get a nice garden spade and a weed-puller. Oh: I need a couple of rakes and isn’t that a great-looking shovel? Oh: I need plenty of extra screws and nails. Oh: look at those cool hoses! Oh: you know, that room could really use a better lighting fixture. Oh, yeah—a dimmer switch for the dining room and what about a good carpet shampooer? Noticed last weekend that there isn’t enough light for the back deck at night; what to do about that?

Bed, Bath and Beyond: I could ruin myself financially in there. But what fun it is! Oh: let’s try a gray-and-slate motif for the bathroom towels this year! Ah, yes: I have three bathrooms now, don’t I? Which one goes gray? All three? No. The downstairs powder room will be much better in a sand-and-beach motif. But the upstairs bathrooms—oh, yes. Grays and slates most definitely. And then a wild splash of dark green in the midst! Howzabout this matched set of Kleenex cover–soap dish–lotion dispenser–drinking glass?

Target: homelier but homey nonetheless. The perfect place to stock up on supplies for those aforesaid three bathrooms. “Wow, lots of big sizes here,” the checkout clerk said. “Three bathrooms,” I answered with a laugh. So of course I need to buy big shrink-wrapped stacks of Kleenex boxes and 32-packs of toilet paper. Shoe racks. Closet organizers. New alarm clock.

Pier 1 Imports: another place to lose it utterly. Get a load of that beautiful vase, the really high one with the reddish streaks through all that black glass. That would look just incredible in the upstairs hall, wouldn’t it? How much? Hmmm … the Visa card balance isn’t really that high, is it?

Kirkland’s: another paradise. Stuff that looks great that an ordinary person can actually afford. Nice people. Great seasonal stuff. Just wander and let the imagination do its thing.

Paint. Rugs. Wrenches and pliers and brushes and clasps and brooms and mops and cleaners and fasteners and tillers and ceiling fans. Wall hangings and floor coverings. Walking down the floor-tile ailes at Lowe’s, making notes and thinking about how this or that tile might look in the two upstairs bathrooms, which will be getting new floors some time in the not-too-distant future.

Garden aisle. That whole glorious, still slightly mysterious, half-outdoors area at Lowe’s where you get plants and flowers and trees and fencing and ground cover and all that.

Glass cleaners. Wood floor cleaners. Toilet bowl cleaners. Shower cleaners. Bathroom cleaners. Window cleaners. Kitchen cleaners. Oven cleaners.

Paint and brushes and rollers and canvas dropcloths and blue masking tape and detail brushes and detail rollers and edgers and rough-edged cleaning rags.

Stuff to put in vases. Stuff to put on counters. Stuff to put on the walls. Stuff to put on the windows.

Bigger stuff: when to replace some double-paned windows that have lost their seal and suffer from cloudy patches? When to replace the window that has a bad track and doesn’t open properly? Do I or don’t I commit to eventual recarpeting of the whole? What about a major kitchen remodel, or perhaps just have the cabinets re-finished? What about having the hardwood floors sanded down and refinished? How many miles does the water heater still have on it? Roof is good now after escrow-period inspection; what about next year? Remember to call to get a chimney-sweep to come out. What about getting the AC/heating vents cleaned? Professional landscapers for the side lawn that’s full of rapidly decomposing dog poop right now but could turn into something wonderful? When will be the best time to re-seed the dog-scraped patches in the back yard?

When will I get to the garage? How long will it still be filled with boxes? (Answer: it will be full of boxes until I’m damn good and ready to do something about that.)

Game. Challenge. Project. Avocation. Profession.

Sheesh. Anyone who thinks that all you get for your (typically horrific) purchase price is a hunk o’ land with a building on it: wrong, wrong. What you get is the best time you’ve ever had, albeit one with backaches and scrapes and burns and chafes attached.

And you get to live in it—live your life, practice your profession, entertain your friends and colleagues, read and cook and practice and walk and watch TV and listen to music and waste time on the Internet and sleep and wake and eat and dress and bathe and shave and talk on the phone.

So there it is: a toybox for living. Expensive, yes. But worth it. Lordy Hallelujah, how worth it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Toybox

Living in San Francisco: Stuff I’ll Miss

Of late I’ve been inveighing about the many inconveniences, difficulties, and upsets of living in San Francisco. Now that I’m on the threshold of moving to Far Outerburbia and becoming a three-times-a-week commuter into SF, it would be churlish of me not to bring up some of the pleasures of life in San Francisco.

I begin with a simple disclaimer that I’m not going to bring up those aspects of San Francisco that are equally available to resident and commuter alike. Thus I needn’t mention the joy of all the City’s cultural institutions: symphony, opera, ballet, theaters, chamber music. They remain tremendous advantages. I don’t think I really need to bring up the panoply of world-class restaurants, since they remain fully available to me. That’s even true for my lunchtime jaunts into Hayes Valley, within easy reach of the SF Conservatory, since I’ll be in that neighborhood just as much as I am now—i.e., during work days.

Instead, I’m thinking about those aspects of SF life that I will be unlikely to revisit once I’m no longer living here—the sorts of things I have truly enjoyed, but won’t be travelling into the City to experience any more.

The Corona Heights Walk

One of my favorite walking paths, albeit it high-exercise and not soothing in the slightest, is a path leading up to Corona Heights above the Castro district. It’s a stiff uphill clamber, getting from my house to the park that surrounds the Randall Museum, then up around the edges of Corona Heights itself, then out on the other side on Roosevelt Way. Depending on my schedule and remaining energy, either I continue up to Buena Vista Park and huff/puff my way to the top, or else I head downhill via the magical Vulcan Steps down to Ord Court, and then head back up a hidden short staircase to States Street. I cross States and return to the park around the Randall Museum, then retrace my steps—now sharply downhill—home. Lots of great views and abundant flowers and trees along the way.

The World’s Greatest Wash ’n’ Fold

It may sound odd to put something as prosaic as a wash-and-fold laundromat on my list, but the simple fact is that Steve and June’s thriving family business on the corner of 17th Street and Sanchez is one of San Francisco’s jewels. They do wonderful work with my laundry and they’re incredibly fast about it all. I won’t be needing a wash ’n’ fold in the future since I have my own laundry room in my new house. But for the past eight some-odd years, that shiny-clean and well-maintained laundromat around the corner with its expert wash ’n’ fold service has been a priceless time and energy saver for me. Drop off in the morning, pick up in the afternoon. I’ll miss them.

Golden Gate Park

There’s no exhausting of this gigantic park, no amount of time you can spend there that dulls its appeal. You can always find a quiet place in Golden Gate Park, even if that may be farther out towards the ocean. I’ve never been all that attracted to the big park institutions such as the De Young Museum or the Academy of Sciences, but I do love the many meadows, ponds, and out-of-the-way surprises that never end. When I lived out in the Avenues I had a favorite little duck pond I visited almost daily during the summer. Nowadays getting to the park takes a bit more planning, but it’s always worth it.

Outdoor Staircases

Even if I have become a zaftig guy who has to approach physical exertion with caution thanks to coronary artery issues, I still love the outdoor staircases that pepper San Francisco. The Vulcan Steps down to Ord Street are my all-time favorite, but I enjoy many others, such as the Liberty Street steps or that huge multi-block staircase that traverses a big chunk of Twin Peaks and ends near Tank Hill. Even little ones, such as the stairs you encounter along Sanchez at 19th St., can be a lot of fun. I may need to take my time and ascend slowly, but that makes them even better somehow. The views become ever better as you ascend, of course.

Noe Street

I refer here specifically to the stretch between Market and Duboce, lined as it is with fully-mature trees that form a gorgeous soothing canopy, mute the traffic sounds, and bring a general sense of peace & well-being to an otherwise cacophonous and tension-wracked neighborhood. It is also flat, and thus lends itself to casual strolling without having to brace for the usual uphill/downhill orientation of many SF streets. I always enjoy that four blocks or so.

That’s my list for now. I’m exchanging all of them for what I consider to be improvements: safer and better parks, less hilly terrain, my own laundry room, and the like. And it’s not as though I’m leaving the Bay Area; everything that I prize about San Francisco remains available to me, in most cases just as easily as it has always been since I work here a minimum of three days a week. But I will miss some of those nifty out-of-the-way places. I’ll find new ones in my new home town, of course. But memories will remain fond.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Living in San Francisco: Stuff I’ll Miss

San Francisco Stuff I Won’t Miss

Today I took my Camry to the gas station. Time for a fill-up. As usual, the pump asked me to put in my zip code, as a way of ensuring that I am the real McCoy and not some despicable ringer with a stolen credit card. So I entered the zip code that I’ve had for the three decades — after all this time the numbers more or less punch themselves in — and then looked in blank amazement as the pump had the pumpish equivalent of a hissy fit and told me that it wouldn’t give me any gas, no way, uh-huh, nada, zip, bupkis, and would I be so kind as to step over to the kiosk and speak to the attendant.

Then I remembered. I have a new zip code. Although my actual move is yet a few weeks in the future, I’ve gotten the ball rolling with most of the necessary address changes. I’ve always been proactive. Besides, as of August 12, 2015 my legally-defined primary residence is a fine contemporary Mediterranean right in the heart of Brentwood, California 94513. The bank considers Brentwood to be my home now, and so do I, even if I continue to hang my hat in San Francisco for a bit longer. The die is cast and the Rubicon is crossed. I was 94114. Now I’m 94513.

It’s embarrassing that a Chevron gas pump knew it better than I did.

Which gets me thinking about how much I will miss living in San Francisco, as I become a commuter after so many years spent in these 49 square miles.

Frankly, I won’t miss it one damn bit. But there are some things I won’t miss more than others.

Wind Chimes

I have had a charming, responsible, and altogether fine neighbor to my immediate south for the entire three decades I have lived in my current house. Everything about her is exemplary, from her tidiness to her fine cooking (which she shares sometimes) to her quiet life to her adorable dog. But I will not miss her $@#$! wind chimes. She’s potty for wind chimes. Upon my heartfelt pleading, she did away with one particularly egregious specimen that sounded like two saucepans being flung together. But several others remain. Every time there’s a puff of breeze I brace myself: more dingy-dingy. Her wind chimes are metal, not bamboo, and are pestered with particularly nasty overtones. I can’t really gripe about them. She tolerates my stereo system, after all, and even though it’s a super-duper audiophile system that I use to play high-quality music, it’s still got to bug her sometimes.

It has bothered me so much that I wouldn’t have bought a house in Brentwood with a wind-chime-toting neighbor. I checked before I bought. Carefully.

My Zip Code

Although 94114 is a “cool” zip code by San Francisco standards, I have never liked it. That’s because I tend to remember numbers by their scale degrees. Try singing “94114”, just try: it sucks big time. Those two “ones” right there in the middle create a rhythmic trainwreck and, furthermore, the stupid thing has absolutely no harmonic outline worth remembering. That wan “4” at the end renders it ending on either a predominant or a dominant seventh chord. Creepy.

But 94513: now there’s a nice little tune for you. It creates a respectable perfect authentic cadence, albeit one with a slight anticipation of the ending tonic with the “1” in the penultimate position. Musically it has it all over 94114—just as Brentwood has it all over San Francisco as a place to live.

Gray

Maybe it was romantic once. I doubt it. I told myself that it was oh so cool that San Francisco is so gray. Cool gray city of love and all that. But dammit, it’s gray. The skies are gray. They lighten up midday and then just as often go right back to gray in the early evening. I’m sick and tired of waking up in a dank, cold, and gray house. I want to wake up with sunlight, with color, with birds that twitter merrily instead of huddle miserably on a chilly and damp tree branch.

Close Encounters with Bicycles

San Francisco is not set up for bicyclists and motorists to share the roads. That’s especially true when the cyclists tend to ignore the rules of the road, as they do here. I don’t mind bicycles in the abstract—in fact, I’ll probably buy one for myself once I’m settled in Brentwood, where there are bike paths galore. But I do mind dealing with careless and arrogant bicyclists on crowded city streets.

The Castro District

This is a vow. The day I move to Brentwood for good I will never, ever set foot in the Castro District again. Ever. Fortunately I don’t have any friends living there. A few in the hills above, but that doesn’t count.

OK; I’ll stop there. I haven’t even mentioned the big-ticket items, but need I? Stepping over urine puddles and/or human excrement, cringing away from whacked-out lunatics and drug addicts, trying to drive two blocks while maintaining my composure and/or sanity, shying away from aggressive activists brandishing clipboards, paying ultra high prices for everything, putting up with casual everyday rudeness, etc. Besides, I ranted heartily about all of that in an earlier posting. No: right now I’m looking forward to abundant morning sunshine, a singable zip code, no bicycle terrorists, no wind-blown dingy-dingy, and above all, no Castro.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on San Francisco Stuff I Won’t Miss

A Vow of Lower Middle Class

Early in my senior year in high school my father and I had a brief but critically important conversation. With auditions at various conservatories scheduled and impending, he asked me straight up if a life in music was what I really and truly wanted, and if I thought I could make a success of it. Despite my own private misgivings about just how professional a caliber of a talent I actually had, I made the commitment. My answer was a firm yes to both questions. With that, my dad committed to my goal as well. I was lucky in having a dad with such vision and compassion. He knew perfectly well what an enormous risk I was taking, but he was willing to honor his part of the bargain. And he did.

As did I. Bumps and bruises happened, of course. I came very close to screwing the pooch altogether at one point. Fortunately it was early enough in the process that I was able to right myself and stagger onwards. I made it out of grad school and into the profession, however weakly and however tentatively. I never sought employment outside of music. Every penny I made, I made in music.

Early on I was acutely conscious of the professional musician’s vow of poverty. And yet I was never altogether ready to accept such a vow or live by it. A big part of that had to do with my intense need for privacy and domesticity. As early as my sophomore year in college I had my own cozy one-bedroom apartment that I had lovingly painted and furnished with all the necessary accoutrements: sofa, chairs, tables, bedroom set, bookcases, stereo, TV, kitchen appliances. Everything was hand-me-down and some of it was almost threadbare, but it was a homey little place nonetheless. I’m no Martha Stewart who creates visual masterpieces out of my living spaces; I tend to decorate with bookcases and let one halfway decent piece of furniture anchor a surrounding fleet of el-cheapo stuff. But my homes have always been inviting, clean and well-maintained, no matter how modest. And save one short period sharing living space with a housemate, I have lived alone. King-in-his-castle privacy is as necessary to me as air and water.

Then there’s my idiosyncratic approach to the word poverty, which I define as: a state of living in worry about having enough money.

Not having enough to make ends meet: that’s poverty, as far as I’m concerned. The actual amounts don’t matter. My definition could apply to even presumably well-off people, I suppose.

Wilkins Micawber’s farewell advice to David Copperfield became an early talisman for me and has remained in the back of my mind ever since. Annual income 20 pounds; annual expenditure 21 pounds. Result: misery. Annual income 20 pounds; annual expenditure 19 pounds. Result: happiness. Mr. Micawber was speaking from personal experience, since he was being transported to Australia for—guess what—excessive debts. His advice was as simple as it was priceless: don’t spend more than you make. Better, spend less than you make, no matter how much or little that is.

I knew damn well that I would not become rich at music. Even comfortable affluence was pretty remote. I figured the best I could do would be lower middle-class respectability, but given that I would be living a life of satisfaction and fulfillment, that would be more than sufficient. So instead of a Vow of Poverty, I took a Vow of Lower Middle Class: the basic necessities of life would never be in question, with enough left over for the occasional inexpensive treat, but all would be at an exceedingly modest level.

My vow turned out to be worth its weight in gold, or at least in dimes. I was fortunate in that I landed a solid, if extremely low-paying, teaching job early on. A deep conservatism about money and expenses took root and never left me. If I was bringing in only $400 take-home income in a month (distressingly low even in the 1970s), I ensured that my necessary expenses never rose above $300. I wasn’t very good about saving the remainder; generally speaking I spent it on my twin passions of recordings and books. I lived in a cramped but rent-controlled ultra-cheap apartment until I was in my early 30s. I lived without a car until I was about 35 or so. I took no vacations to speak of; I did not own a piano; I dressed and ate cheaply.

But I always had some disposable income—no matter how minuscule—and at least a few month’s expenses sitting in my bank account. I remember a person I was dating who made about four times my income, but who was always short of funds due to overspending, even to the point of being flat broke the week before payday. It was a given that I would not be a source of loans. No. I might have been largely devoid of any financial savvy, but I always had enough money for my oh-so-slender needs. Always.

That held even when I quadrupled my monthly rent after a short period with a housemate in a lovely Victorian flat. He left and I stayed, determined as never before to live in solo privacy and to sustain the peaceful, comfortable home life I so need in order to function. It was frightening to see my basic expenses flare up like that. I remembered a pompous twit in 1960s TV who would intone solemnly: the only way to be secure in these uncertain times is to have at least six months’ income in your insured savings account. I developed my own variation on his recommendation: have at least six months’ rent in my bank account. Before long I had a full year’s worth of rent. Along the way I had increased my income by various tactics, including negotiating a raise and taking on some extra responsibilities, all of them solidly in music. I relaxed into my higher standard of living, but I committed never to allow my necessary expenses to approach 50% of my take-home income. Cut expenses if necessary, increase income as needed, but that 50% became sacred.

And it still is, despite having some time ago renounced my Vow of Lower Middle Class for a life of that comfortable affluence I thought I would never achieve: beautiful spacious house of my own in the suburbs, high-quality new car, good clothes, good food, vacations, retirement funds. But I have never lost sight of those critical determinations that have sustained me throughout: keep expenses well below income, no matter what, and don’t ever sell out by working outside of music.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A Vow of Lower Middle Class

Bye-Bye Baghdad

I have lived in San Francisco for forty years. Now I’m leaving. Even if a few yet remaining variables render my exact moving date TBA, the simple fact is that by the third week of September 2015 at the very latest I will no longer be a resident of San Francisco. I’m remaining in the Bay Area, however.

This is not some sad tale of having been squeezed out by ballooning housing prices. Far from it. My lovely and spacious two-bedroom house in the Castro district has been an affordable jewel for years. I could stick around and continue benefitting from its feather-light budgetary impact and the trivial commute it imposes. It’s a pure gingerbread Victorian lady, strikingly attractive, and at about 1200 square feet quite large for city living. Yet it is a Victorian, built in about 1903 as a humble workman’s row house. It wasn’t intended to last this long, and it’s feeling its age down to the marrow. Floors sag. Doorways lean. It lacks central heat and is poorly insulated. The electrical system is a hodgepodge and woefully inadequate for modern living. There’s practically no kitchen counter space. Closet space is limited. The minuscule single bathroom was renovated 15 years ago but needs a makeover. Even after extensive sewer repairs, there’s still something a little fishy going on down below. The roof’s OK for now but unlikely to sustain for long. The house throws up a lot of inconveniences, some minor, but some quite substantial.

It’s also a comfortable, sweet, human, and immeasurably dear old house. I have always loved it and I always will. But I’m letting it go. I’m taking on greater expense and, most significantly, a whopping bruiser of a commute that will suck up about three hours a day MWF, and about half that T/Th.

Am I crazy? No.

My state of mind as I anticipate leaving Baghdad-by-the-Bay? Relief. Joy. Happiness.

We once had a registrar at the Conservatory whose sustaining mantra was: We can stand ANYTHING for a year. My version: I can stand anything until September 20. Deliverance could well arrive sooner than that.

San Francisco, a.k.a. America’s Vienna, has been extraordinarily good to me. This marvelous career of mine has been made possible by the people and the musical institutions of San Francisco. I am grateful to this city, to its stellar musical community, and to its generous and supportive audiences, with every fiber of my being. And I’ll continue to work and practice my career here as always.

My dandy new house is more than reason enough to leave. I’m exchanging life in a quirky Victorian for a modern 2300 square-foot Mediterranean on a 6000 square-foot lot, 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, 3-car garage, central heat and air, two (gas) fireplaces, deck, front and back lawns, and all the modern bells and whistles including first-rate appliances in both kitchen and laundry room. And everything in spit-spot condition to boot. As of Friday, August 21, 2015 it will be absolutely and exclusively mine; my name on the title, my house, my property. That’s a powerful inducement. Brentwood, sunny Delta farm town turned affluent suburb, has won my heart and tugs at me almost as strongly. The irresistible attraction of house and town together make the long commute seem immaterial.

But I’d leave anyway.

For a long time now I have been deeply disenchanted with San Francisco as a place to live. I’m seriously out of sync with the city, despite having spent my entire adult life inside its borders as a resident. When I first arrived, the sheer cool factor of “living in San Francisco” sustained me—although I spent my first decade out in the Sunset District, where glamour is in very short supply. Over the past three decades my stellar living situation, accompanied by warm rapport with my neighbors, has kept me pinned in the Castro district, a neighborhood that I have always found unnerving and nowadays consider barely tolerable, despite my location on an oh-so-charming one-lane street lined with pretty Victorians.

The city’s appalling physical condition upsets, disconcerts, and even revolts me—the filthy sidewalks, the horrendous roads with their endless construction blockages and massive potholes, the ever-increasing numbers of feral street people, out-of-control lunatics, drugged-out vagrants, aggressive panhandlers, and petty criminals. Even the everyday, non-street people of San Francisco bother me: why are so many people so dirty? This is a city of unwashed hair and grubby clothes, of poor-to-nonexistent grooming, of unpleasant body odor and bad breath. It’s almost as though the grime creeping upwards off the sidewalks has attached itself to the inhabitants. Every time I return here after a visit elsewhere I am shocked anew by San Francisco’s prevailing low standards of personal hygiene. Nor is that just my imagination: visiting family members have been disturbed by it as well. Of course there are exceptions galore, but overall, it’s a dirty city filled with dirty people.

Everyday living in San Francisco imposes the death of a thousand cuts. Running errands can become an ordeal. If it isn’t nastiness on the streets and sidewalks, it’s impossible traffic and/or parking conditions. It’s incompetent, careless, aggressive, and appallingly rude drivers. It’s seemingly arbitrary road closures and detours. It’s gritty, crowded, dignity-sapping public transportation. It’s overcrowded stores, casually rude clerks, and the overpricing that accompanies skyrocketing commercial rents. It’s freezing cold winds. It’s bone-chilling rain that’s blown sideways instead of down, making an umbrella well-nigh useless. It’s vampires rummaging noisily (and sometimes messily) through the garbage the night before trash pickup. It’s cigarette butts on the front stoop and burns on the stairs from some street rat the night before. It’s having to double-padlock the little cubby underneath the front stairs so it won’t be used as a stash. It’s having to wear gloves and use tongs to collect crumpled cans or bags or cups or God only knows what, such as the half-eaten, half-cooked chicken leg I found on the driveway just this morning. It’s the stench of rotting human urine or worse. It’s spending an afternoon trying to remove a painted graffiti scrawl on the sidewalk. It’s never leaving the front door open for ventilation without standing guard because some vagrant is likely to walk right up the stairs and panhandle or steal. It’s regretting having a robust Meyer lemon tree in front because of the target it presents to riff-raff and passers-by who beat it with baseball bats or break branches to dislodge fruit. It’s being assaulted day and night by incessant construction noise while trying to avoid the smelly porta-potties on the sidewalk as tech types buy the old Victorian houses on the street and have them gutted. It’s being obliged to ferret out the careless contractor whose pickup truck is blocking the driveway, or having to call towing about some other offender. It’s being rudely awakened at 2:00 AM by a bunch of drunks returning from a night at the bars and continuing the party on their back porch—where the noise is amplified by acoustic reflection off the back of everybody else’s houses. It’s dank gray mornings followed by brief humid middays followed by frigid nights. It’s sirens constantly wailing. It’s obnoxious loud-mouthed people traipsing up and down the street at all hours of the day and night. It’s feeling like a frightened small animal huddling in its cage.

And it’s all for what? To have a cup of overpriced lukewarm “artisan” coffee on Valencia? To sunbathe on the (dog-pee soaked) grass in Dolores Park? To play frisbee on the Marina Green? To walk down Castro Street while being panhandled, jostled, offended, and annoyed by clipboard-bearing zombies with painted-on smiles? To take in the picture-postcard beauties of Alamo Square? Yes, the views are pretty. But considered solely as a park, Alamo Square sucks big time. Ditto Alta Plaza and its ilk. They’re all pretty sucky. The restrooms are closed or filthy or dangerous; the parks tend to be on steep slopes and are thus unsuited for a relaxed stroll; those lovely views come with blasting winds attached. And on the weekends the most popular parks are almost as crowded as a rush-hour subway, and with disturbingly unhygienic people.

Why have I put up with it for so long? San Francisco’s attractions remain the same whether I live in the city or not. For me, it’s mostly the music. Restaurants don’t matter all that much; I’m quite a good cook and, besides, my culinary pleasures run more towards traditional fare. I reserve the more esoteric, trendy stuff for the occasional night out. I find many SF restaurants to be pretentious. Not to mention ear-shatteringly noisy. Not to mention having no parking. Not to mention being stratospherically overpriced. Frankly, I’m just fine with dinner out at Black Angus or BJ’s Roadhouse. Mostly I prefer to eat at home.

When you get right down to it, for me San Francisco means the SF Conservatory, Davies Symphony Hall, and the Fromm Institute at USF—my three teaching venues. The rest is either no big deal—I’m fundamentally a homebody—or easily available in vastly-improved versions elsewhere.

So I leave with a bone-deep and heartfelt sigh of relief. My only regret is that I waited this long—but I had to reach the point at which my dissatisfaction trumped the attraction of my SF housing situation.

I’ll commute in to teach at the SF Conservatory and the Fromm Institute, to lecture at the SF Symphony, to visit. And when I’m finished I’ll leave and return to Brentwood.

After 40 years of being a stranger in a strange land, I’m going home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Bye-Bye Baghdad

This Is It

We all have our characteristics, tics, mannerisms, habits, and the like. Without being altogether aware of it, over the years I have acquired a consistent behavioral pattern when it comes to making major purchases such as cars, high-end stereo gear, and in this case, a house.

I’m a planner and researcher type, a consumerist iceberg. All but a sliver of my action is hidden under the surface. I enter the endgame with the larger decisions made, so typically I do little in the way of shopping in the usual term. Consider my modus operandi with last year’s automobile purchase; I thought about it for months, researched and looked and thought, then took an extended test drive via a rental of pretty much the same make and model I sought. When the moment came to buy, I had already picked out the very car from the dealer’s inventory web site. With the money end all settled, I swooped into San Francisco Toyota in a 2003 Honda Civic and swooped back out in a 2014 Toyota Camry XLE. Game and match.

However hasty such shopping may appear to the casual observer, it is actually neither impulsive nor impetuous. We have here yet another manifestation of a professional musician’s credo: no matter what it takes, even if it damn near kills you, make it look easy and spontaneous. Dolly Parton’s dazzling quip to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show comes to mind: honey, you have no idea how much it costs for me to look this cheap.

I was right in character when it came to my current enterprise: Scott Buys His Dream House. The idea had been percolating for years, taking on various manifestations along its journey to full realization. Then came an extensive seeking out of the where. I set four non-negotiable requirements, or tests, the failure of any one mandating the failure of the whole:

  1. It must be a sparkling suburb that expresses the classic American Dream in all its considerable glory
  2. It must be a plausible commute to/from San Francisco
  3. It must offer well-made, recent-model separate family homes that are affordable to the upper-middle/professional class
  4. I must like it. (More or a less a given provided it passes Tests 1–3, but you never know.)

San Francisco itself, mind you, scores solid zeros on all but No. 2, which warrants about a C- due to frequent MUNI meltdowns and crowding, nonexistent and/or insanely expensive parking, walking through chilling zephyr winds while avoiding obnoxious panhandlers and feral street types, grime and filth everywhere, etc. So it was out into the greater Bay Area for me.

Plenty of inner Bay Area communities pass Tests Nos. 1, 2, and 4. But they flunk Test No. 3 big time as the poisonous miasma of San Francisco’s surreal property prices spreads far and wide. Buyers are fleeing outwards in droves. A million dollars for an unhabitable hovel in Berkeley: obscene. The situation has spread even to older upscale areas such as Walnut Creek. Thus one must expand one’s gaze outwards.

By definition any area in plausible distance from a BART terminus station scores well on Test No. 2, since it makes commuting to San Francisco possible without excessive traffic angst. Travel times on BART aren’t all that much of an issue since you’re just sitting there while the train rolls. The longer the travel time, the earlier you start. So consider the terminus stations—i.e., those at the end of their respective lines—as bases you drive to or from. Here’s what my researches, travels, and the like have taught me about that:

  • You can forget about the SFO terminus since it encompasses the peninsula and abuts Silicon Valley. Total failure of Test No. 3.
  • The Fremont terminus achieves a solid B on Test No. 1 (depending on where you go from there), but it’s about a D on Test No. 3.
  • The Dublin/Pleasanton terminus gets an A on Test No. 1 (also depending on where you go from there), but only a C-/D on No. 3. The Amador Valley area is pricey, albeit not surreal.
  • The Richmond terminus fares better than you might think, despite Richmond’s sickening failure of Test No. 1. That’s because the Richmond terminus allows access to Martinez and Vallejo, both of which earn about a C- on Test No. 1 and a D+ on Test No. 3. Both, however, come close to failing No. 4.
  • The Pittsburg/Bay Point terminus earns a potential A+ on both tests No. 1 and No. 3. The areas nearest to the station score poorly—Pittsburg flunks both Test No. 1 and (especially) No. 4. But the eastern edge of Contra Costa County, within the outer periphery of Pittsburg/Bay Point’s sphere, goes gold across the board. In a few years the terminus will extend to the Hillcrest station, thereby shrinking driving time in favor of BART time.

So that was that: East County it will be. The actual town, whether southeastern Antioch, Oakley, Brentwood, or Discovery Bay, wasn’t as critical. They’re all pretty nice. Nevertheless, Brentwood—with its gorgeously landscaped new developments that complement, rather than obliterate, a cozy long-established Delta farm town—knocked Test No. 4 out of the park with an unconditional A++. Oakley took a strong second place with a big fat A.

So: the house. That was easier. Real estate resources such as Zillow and Realtor.com eliminate a lot of the spadework that used to take so much time and energy. Nevertheless, you still need to get out there in person; statistics, a description, and pictures can tell you only so much. But you can do a lot of the critical stuff—neighborhood look and feel, upcoming changes, crime statistics, etc.—on your own without taking up an agent’s time. Then you get yourself an agent and mortgage pre-approval, and you go to it.

That’s what I did. After pages and pages of Zillow listings, I got my pre-approval taken care of and scheduled a house-viewing day with a real estate agent. For about a week preceding our first trip out I revised, edited, and pared down my list of houses. (A few houses sold themselves off my list. So it goes.) The final five included two A+ choices and three A-/B+ models. If none of the five panned out, well, tomorrow is another day.

Out we went. I kept my notebook handy. One A+ house dropped to F very quickly, according to my notes. awfully lived-in for 10 yrs old. smoker on the front porch! butts in ashtray. animals, pets? messy cat and dog dishes on driveway. carpets? pee and smoke. home-installed security camera? wires all over roof. ICK paint colors inside; have to paint everything. Carpets tired. Kitchen SUCKS (underlined heavily). Appliances NO. Paved over back yard—???? All cement?? ACKK (also underlined heavily.)

So much for that house. Besides, it was too big.

I downgraded a more modestly-priced B+ house to a B: lovely neighborhood! pretty! kinda small. small. bathrooms like apartment. too small. nice kitchen.

Another slightly higher-priced B+ house suffered the same fate: gated community. pretty streets. too small (underlined twice). kitchen??? (as I recall, it was elegantly appointed but uninspiring.)

The next page says nothing about the house, but it says plenty about the deposit, the warranty, and the cost of the escrow-period inspections. Then follows one simple, circled annotation:

This is it.

I had already gone there twice before to give it a quiet looky-look and scope out the neighborhood. I had read its Zillow page repeatedly, obsessively. I had consulted Google Earth. I had studied neighborhood/city statistics, crime statistics. I even dreamed about it one night. All this had me about 90% sure that it was, in fact, the one. Once I got inside, and saw that it was an order of magnitude better than I had even dared to hope, I knew.

My canny and wise realtor helped me to fashion a strong offer. It was in the seller’s hands the next morning. They accepted it a day later.

This is it. Brentwood, California: here I come.

wpid-la7974f45-m4r1-2015-07-20-08-06.jpg

A realtor’s pic (slight wide-angle lens distortion) of my new living and dining room

wpid-IMG_1246-2015-07-20-08-06.jpg

My pic (no distortion) of part of my new back yard, seen from the stairs leading off the deck

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on This Is It

I Just Don’t Get It

My musical interests are broad and eclectic. I’m happy with Renaissance composers, Baroque masters, Classical, Romantic, 20th century folken. I have stuffed a lot of music into my noodle over the decades. But I’m neither indiscriminate nor happy-go-lucky inclusivist in my enthusiasms. I have little to no patience for music written to agendas (as is the case with the bulk of serialist music) nor do I have much truck with flimsy stuff meant for quick entertainment—i.e., most early-Romantic concertos, bel canto operas, or hardcore nationalistic jobs along the lines of Frederika’s Magic Dirndl.

Without question I’m a traditionalist; my heroes are Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Debussy. I have a long-standing fascination with Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich, Handel, Vivaldi, etc., etc. My tent is big. My passions are intense.

But there are some composers whose music simply does not engage me, or at least the bulk of it does not. I’m going to limit myself here to those composers who are not part of some lock-jawed movement; hence, I will not be taking a cudgel to the usual serialist villains. As far as I’m concerned those guys cerebralized and agitpropped their way out of any proper consideration as composers. Nor do I intend to pick on the mediocrities who have wandered into my auditory radar. No. My targets are real composers who were writing real music and who have their place in the mainstream, but whose work I just don’t get. I’ll make a few stabs at understanding why, but in all likelihood there is no why. Like attraction, like love, like food vendettas, it just is.

Albert Roussel

Roussel was a B-list composer at best, but he has his well-heeled and well-trained enthusiasts, including master conductor Jean Martinon. I’ve tried, really I have. I gave some hard attention to the symphonies and ballet scores. Can’t remember a note of any of them. Recently I picked up the Martinon/Chicago Symphony recording of the Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2, probably Roussel’s most popular piece.

Despite a spectacularly fine performance, recorded to a T by RCA Red Seal, it leaves little impression save an overall sense of needless complication overlaying colorless banality. My problem with Roussel is that he’s neither fish nor fowl; somewhat modern, somewhat Debussy-ish, somewhat Romantic. But nothing ever snaps into focus. To my mind he belongs on the same shelf as those mostly obscure chaps who cranked out quasi-Debussy/echt-Les-Six “concours” pieces for the yearly juries at the Paris Conservatory. Come to think of it, Roussel was one of those chaps.

Franz Liszt

I may be a pianist—well, sort of—but I just don’t get Liszt. I find his concertos ridiculously fustian and overbearing, the tone poems unfocused and boring, the religious music glumly uninspiring. I’ve never cared for any of the piano music, especially not those gut-buster jobs that so many pianists seem to yearn for with a lust that I find frankly inexplicable. What, on earth, is even remotely attractive about the Spanish Rhapsody? Do these same pianists enjoy watching Andrew Dice Clay videos? Do they think it’s funny when old ladies fall down? Do they swoon in ecstasy over Wayne Newton? Crass is as crass does.

My ennui in regards to Liszt was an early indicator that I wasn’t temperamentally cut out to be a full-time virtuoso pianist. Even after all these years, I go flat fast around Liszt’s music. I have never performed a note of Liszt in public. I have presented exactly one piece of his, and that was his woefully lackluster Hamlet as part of a session on tone poems based on Shakespeare. To say that the Liszt Hamlet compared poorly with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is the understatement of the year.

Frank Martin

On those vanishingly few occasions that I willingly listen to a Frank Martin piece, I have the same reaction as I do to your typical resentment-soaked Berkeley store clerk: hey there sonny, is that blasé indifference of yours real, or merely a defensive mechanism? Is there a living, breathing human in there somewhere?

Martin seems to attract more than his share of pompous twits—you have been warned—so God help you if you don’t give his last name the proper Frenchified pronunciation. Mahr-TAN, never MAR-tin. I don’t know if plain old Frank is OK, or if you should go for broke and christen him Frahnque.

Not a composer to warm up to. Chilly isn’t the half of it. Frigid is more like it. Everything coiffed and arranged. Not a note out of place. Nary a lip left uncurled. Frostily elegant, punctilious, supercilious.

If I’m listening to a Martin piece while home alone, I like to fart as loudly as possible, or if the plumbing won’t cooperate, then see if I can conjure up a nice loud belch at least. Balance.

Edgard Varèse

I won’t go on very long about this guy. I don’t like ugly music. And, nom d’un chien, did he write ugly music!

His music may not really belong on this list. It’s not that I don’t get it. I just don’t like it. I really, really don’t like it.

Frédéric Chopin

The Grand Finale is also a Big Surprise—yes, that Frédéric Chopin. A super-duper A-plus composer winds up on my “meh” list. Chopin just doesn’t float my boat. Hoist Chopin up my flagpole, I don’t salute. I don’t find any of his music actively repellent or anything like that, but he just doesn’t fluff out my sails. (Oh, all right. I’ll ix-nay with the orny-cay etaphors-may.) I haven’t played a Chopin piece in, oh, twenty years. I never listen to Chopin when I’m at home. A lot of that has to do with my overall aversion to solo piano music: I just don’t like it. (There’s another little tip-off that a life as a full-time piano virtuoso wasn’t in the cards.)

I don’t really know why. But there it is. Chopin’s writing does not reach me at any personal level. It passes through without making much of an impression, neither good nor bad, sort of like steamed tofu or your typical episode of Antiques Roadshow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on I Just Don’t Get It

Wall

In the wake of same-sex marriage being legalized across the board in the United States, the community of religious conservatives is ruefully contemplating its collective navel. A particularly regretful screed comes from Rod Dreher, who supplied a distinctly bitter article for the June 26 issue of Time. Here’s the critical paragraph:

…we have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist. To be frank, the court majority may impose on the rest of the nation a view widely shared by elites, but it is also a view shared by a majority of Americans. There will be no widespread popular resistance to Obergefell. This is the new normal.

This is the new normal. And it’s going to become more and more normal as time goes by. Traditional Protestant Christianity has been on the retreat for generations and is not about to surge back. This just isn’t a lily-white, church-going Protestant nation any more. Not that it ever really was. That’s why the First Amendment reads as it does.

Consider how long it has been since Sunday mornings were set aside for church attendance. In the late 1950s, Rodgers & Hammerstein spoke of Sunday bliss in their musical Flower Drum Song:

Sunday, sweet Sunday,
With nothing to do
Lazy, and lovely,
My one day with you.

Hazy, and happy,
We’ll drift through the day.
Dreaming the hours away.

While all the funny papers
Lie and fly around the place
I will plant my kisses on
Your funny face!

Dozing, then waking,
On Sundays you’ll see,
Only … me.

Hmmm … nothing there whatsoever about going to the local church. No services. No Sunday school for the kiddies. No church social afterwards. As far as I know nobody picketed the St. James Theater in protest of the blasphemy implied in those lyrics—i.e., that Sunday was dedicated to snuggly lovemaking rather than attendance to matters ghostly. Yet those lyrics were written for a character who is a thoroughly Americanized Chinese woman. Flower Drum Song is all about assimilation into American culture, but nowhere does it utter a peep about church-going as a component of that process. There’s plenty about playing baseball and dancing the cha-cha and going to nightclubs and listening to Perry Como sing La Paloma. No church. By the late 1950s church didn’t matter all that much. You could assimilate just fine without it.

Flower Drum Song is only a musical comedy, and a pretty threadbare one at that, but it does point in the direction the wind was blowing even as long ago as the Eisenhower administration. Getting dressed up and going to church isn’t obsolete by any means, but it is increasingly a quaint custom, and not only amongst the educated elites.

Somewhere along the past decades America crested through one last fling with Protestant triumphalism—think Jerry Falwell—and then rapidly lost interest. In a country that has become progressively more pluralist and inclusivist, those old-timey Protestants seem like cultural dinosaurs, grimly hanging on to Brylcream and braids and Buster Brown shoes. I am fully aware of how utterly unreasonable and unfair such a view actually is. Protestants are, in and of themselves, every bit as pluralist as the rest of America. It isn’t that they necessarily are such ostrich-brained reactionaries. It’s just that they’re perceived as such, and by clutching to their notion of a mythical Christianized America, they reinforce rather counter the stereotype.

Which suggests that they really need to get over the whole sexuality issue, get their noses out of people’s lives, and start concentrating on actually being Christians—i.e., generous, compassionate, intellectually engaged, concerned with the beam in their own eyes rather than the mote in their neighbors’. That’s asking a lot, given Christianity’s doleful history of persecution, repression, and bigotry. Dreher’s article is most emphatically not a step towards détente. In fact, he describes “orthodox” Christians as exiles in their own country. I’m not altogether sure what he means by “orthodox” but I’m guessing that his definition includes neither Episcopalians nor Catholics. He calls for an insular, monastic approach—i.e., for his brand of Christians to huddle together in defense against the depredations of the secular world all around them.

I rather like the thought of a little orthodox Christian community tucked in a corner of the city, bound by certain streets, with its own markets and community centers. Dreher tells us that:

It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”

…Last fall, I spoke with the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Nursia, and told him about the Benedict Option. So many Christians, he told me, have no clue how far things have decayed in our aggressively secularizing world. The future for Christians will be within the Benedict Option, the monk said, or it won’t be at all.

Hmmm. “Benedict Option” sounds quite lofty and fine. But English already has a fine word that describes a population that is insulated from the larger society by its own walled neighborhood.

The word is ghetto.

Consider another fine English word that is equally appropriate to the situation at hand.

That word is karma.

And one more word.

Irony.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Wall