We finished this past weekend. Moving all our stuff took about half again as much time and money as I’d first expected, and of course now there are boxes everywhere needing to be unpacked, and my back is sore, and my new bookcases still haven’t arrived, and there are still a number of two-prong outlets I need to convert to three-prong for the computer equipment, and on and on. But we are done.

Now that I don’t have any remaining need to make the best of it, I’ve been admitting to myself how much I disliked our previous place. Too small for us and our stuff, not much storage space, a tiny yard that the landlord never did get his damn leftover metal pipes out of the back corner of, a leak in the living room roof that the landlord never did repair even after it shorted out the lighting, old appliances that would conk out and be replaced thanks to our thrifty landlord by used replacements that were smaller and older than the ones before. We were forced to move by an owner move-in shortly after my brain surgery, when we had no money and I was still somewhat disabled; friends took up a fund to pay for our move-in, and we took that house not because we liked it better than the place we were leaving but because it seemed like the best we could do with our very limited funds.

The new house is half a duplex. The rooms are about 10% bigger than the old house, and there’s more closet space, and there’s a garage. We’ve already filled the garage with utility shelving and boxes of books and records, plus whatever else we don’t want to deal with quite yet. But the records and a lot of the books will stay there. And I look around sometimes when I’m in the garage and boggle at the idea that we lived with all this stuff in the house with us, in a house that was smaller than the place we’ve moved into.

Thank Goodness We Have Pundits Because I’d Never Have Figured This Out Myself

Let me get this clear in my head. If I understand our punditry correctly:

If I support Obama and I’m black, there are plenty of pundits to let me know that that’s racist, because I’m only voting for him because he’s the same color as I am, not because I think he’s the more competent candidate.

If I support Obama and I’m white, any number of pundits are happy to inform me that it’s still racist, because I’m only voting for him because he’s black and cleancut and that alleviates my white liberal guilt, and it’s not because I think he’s the more competent candidate.

But if I’m one of the 30% or so of Clinton supporters who say in the polls that they’d sooner vote for McCain than Obama, even though the platforms of Clinton and Obama are not all that far apart while McCain is basically running as George Bush III, now it’s all about the competence of the candidates, and the R-word is not even whispered by anyone in the media.

Gee, this politics stuff is hard to keep straight sometimes.

A Little Bit of My History Rolled Away This Morning

A melancholy morning: About 11 a.m. I said goodbye to my piano. The piano is nothing fancy, just a spinet for learning on and practicing on. But it’s the piano I learned on when I was six, so I’ve had it for a long time.

Actually, I didn’t have it for about seven years, from the time I left home and moved to New York City to the time I moved back to California, only this time to the Bay Area, in 1989. Then my parents thought I should have it, now that I was back within a reasonable distance, and they had it sent to me. For nearly 20 years, then, I’ve been schlepping it around every time I move, and never really using it much.

When I’m working on some lyrics for a musical or opera libretto, I use it to hear what the music sounds like. Before my surgery nine years ago, when I was singing a lot, I used it to learn my vocal lines. But really, for those things what I need is a small electronic keyboard I can plug into my computer when I need it and put away in the closet when I don’t. I don’t need a permanent, heavy piece of furniture taking up a big chunk of wall space and costing me money for piano movers every time I move to a new place.

(By the way, AA McCrea Piano Moving in Oakland is terrific and worth the extra money. It’s a show to watch these guys in action, carefully balancing the piano on this or that point like a lever on a fulcrum, so that they’re rarely dealing with its full weight as they take it down the stairs and lift it up into the truck. It’s like piano judo, working with the weight of the piano instead of against it.)

When we moved to the house on Bayview nine years ago, I considered giving the piano away to a school where a friend of mine taught music. But at the last minute Dave and I worked out a way to rearrange the furniture in the living room and squeeze it in. We shouldn’t have; I didn’t use it much and it would have been better to have had a less cramped living room all these years. But of course you hate to let go of things like this because you’re not quite sure how much you’re really going to miss them once they’re gone.

I’m already missing the piano, but it can’t be because it’s going to leave a hole in my life; I’ve used it very, very little in the last nine years. I know I’ll get myself a electronic keyboard when I need it. I know that if I ever want to take up playing the piano again, I can get a new spinet easily enough. And I know I’m very unlikely to want that anyway.

I think it’s grief for the fact that I once thought playing that piano was going to be an important part of my life, and it never turned out to be so. When I was six I started piano lessons with a teacher I really loved — I can’t remember her name now — and I think she could tell pretty quickly that I had interest in learning how music worked but wasn’t likely to ever be much of a performer — things that I didn’t even learn about myself till much later. Along with the practice, she gave me bits of information about basic music theory — the circle of fifths, stuff like that — but didn’t press me too hard about my playing.

At the age of seven I “composed” my first piece of music and proudly showed it to her. It was twelve bars long, I remember — it was all about twelves, in fact: four three-note chords in each measure, and the four chords in each measure had no tones in common, so that the twelve notes of the octave appeared exactly once in each measure. In my foolishness it didn’t occur to me that I should play it on the piano and hear what it sounded like as part of the process of “composition”; I just chose combinations of three notes in such a way that they were spaced more or less like the chords in the music I was learning and so that they used all twelve tones an equal number of times. At seven, I thought this must be how people composed.

My teacher was very amused by this. It was another 15 years or so before I learned about twelve-tone music in college and realized why she had been chuckling.

After about a year and a half, though, my teacher moved somewhere else, and I changed to a new teacher. She never told me anything about the circle of fifths or what the different kinds of chords were; mostly she just criticized my playing and drilled me on scales and etudes and even said a few bad things about how poorly my previous teacher had taught me if she had let me get away with such careless playing. Finally, after four years of weekly unhappiness, I asked my parents if I could give it up, and one of my great regrets about childhood is that I didn’t have the awareness to realize that what I really needed to ask for was a different sort of teacher, one who would teach me more music theory. That was what I had found fun; I never really cared all that much about performing. But at 10 or 12, I didn’t know enough to ask for that.

Might I have become a composer? I doubt it. Since college I have studied more music theory, in an on-and-off, haphazard way, and I’ve always found it pretty slow going. I was talking with a composer friend of mine some years ago and he said he always thought he would write words for his own songs as well as the music, but writing the music always came pretty naturally to him and writing the words was painfully hard and slow. And I laughed and said it was just the opposite for me; I’ve always wished I could write my own music, but writing the words has always come pretty naturally and writing the music is difficult, and then the music isn’t even much good when I’m done with all that work. Not that there hasn’t been a lot to learn about writing words to be sung, too, but I’ve always picked it up pretty quickly and absorbed a lot just from studying lyrics on my own and taking them apart and seeing how they’re put together, and that’s always been fun for me, but doing that with music has always been hard work.

So I figure you’ve got to keep focused on what you’re best at, where your talents are. And I’ve had a pretty good career as a writer and editor that I’m sure I would never have had as a mediocre musician and composer. But there’s always been a part of me that really wishes I could have been a good composer instead of a good writer.

One very good thing about my early piano training that has been of lasting benefit is that I learned to read music at the age of six, so that it became almost as natural to me as reading words. This was a hugely useful skill when I started writing words for songs and musicals and operas later on.

Later on I joined a chorale and discovered to my surprise that I was a pretty good singer, and I learned to sightread and took part in madrigal groups and sang some small roles with Berkeley Opera and a couple of other small companies in the Bay Area. So I’ve been able to pursue music just for fun in other ways. And I’m thinking now it might be fun to learn to play guitar and have an instrument I could take places and accompany myself on.

But when I saw that hardly used piano loaded on to the moving truck this morning, I started to cry a little. Not because I’ll miss the piano. I think I was crying for that seven-year-old kid who lost something he loved a lot when he had to change piano teachers. I was crying because I want to go back with my adult knowledge and do it all over again and this time articulate what it is that I want from a new piano teacher so that my parents will know how to help me find the right one. But hanging on to that piano isn’t going undo what happened or get back the kid I was back then and turn me into somebody I’m not.

I’m giving the spinet to my friend Brent, who is excited to be getting it and who I know will get far more use out of it than I have in many years. And it’s better for a piano to be used regularly and cared for, too. So this ought to be an improvement for both of us.

Even so. (Sniff.)

Change Happens, Sure, But Enough Is Enough

I haven’t posted much for the last month, mostly because I’ve been busy and exhausted. A big project at work that I’m in charge of — the complete reorganization of one of our lines of books — has turned out to be much more complicated than expected, something like four or five times as much work as we’d originally planned (I know, I know, that’s probably true of half the big projects in the world), and yet at the same time it’s very time-sensitive — every week longer the project takes costs us money in sales, and if we’re much later finishing up than mid-March, we will miss our window of opportunity for six months’ of sales altogether and it will cost us a huge amount of money. So there’s been a lot of pressure to keep the workflow moving, which has meant some overtime, a lot of extra stress, and very little energy and time left over for blogging. Fortunately all of that is almost finished.

As if that weren’t enough, Dave and I have been crazy enough to pick February as the month to move into a new house — a duplex this time, actually. So a lot of our spare time for a month now has been spend packing and schlepping boxes of books and dishes and books and clothes and books and computer equipment and books. I think between Dave and me, our books are filling up something like 200 banker’s boxes (10″ x 12″ x 15″ boxes).

There has been a fair amount of furniture to move, too, and some of it heavy and/or very awkward. But the books are what’s taking up the most time.

Then there’s stuff at the other end to do — bolting bookcases to the wall (I have read Howards End twice, not to mention the liner notes of several albums and CDs of the music of Charles Alkan, and I have friends who had bookcases topple during Loma Prieta, though fortunately with no damage to humans — nearby furniture was another matter — so I’m a bit jumpy about the possibility of being flattened by an shower of books in an earthquake, and I bolt all my cases, and anything else that’s tall, solidly to the wall); changing some of the old two-prong outlets to properly grounded three-prong outlets, so we can plug in our computers somewhere other than the kitchen counter and the bathroom; figuring out carefully with tape measure and squared paper how the furniture is going to fit in the new space; re-figuring everything on the fly when the bookcases turn out to be an inch and a half too large to make it around the corner in the hall, no matter how many different angles and orientations we try; mixing up some plaster to patch the place where we made a dent in the wall in the hall trying to squeeze a bookcase around the corner; and of course unpacking stuff, including all those books, and finding new homes for it all.

Looks like we’ll be done in one more weekend, though. Sure hope so — I’m bushed.

All I Know Is What I Haven’t Read in the Papers

I just posted this at another blog.

Concluding that someone you’ve never met personally is arrogant, or any other adjective, on the basis of one magazine or newspaper story is pretty naive. To go even further and publically scold someone you’ve never met personally on the basis of that one story is just silly and presumptuous.

Journalists often make up their minds about what story they’re going to tell very early in the process, pick the quotes that support their take on things, and insert running commentary of their own to glue it all together and make sure the reader knows what story the writer is trying to tell. All too often the writer is hellbent on telling a story, imposing some kind of mythic structure he or she is often not even conscious of, that isn’t really justified by the material.

“Flying in the face of conventional wisdom,” the writer writes, “Smith believes that X is almost always Y. ‘Sure,’ Smith said in a recent interview, ‘once in a while X is Y.’ But others disagree. ‘X is only occasionally Y,’ pooh-poohs Jones …”

And even if that’s not what’s going on, people are complex and a story has to reduce them to a few main traits. So making up your mind about someone whom you only know through the filter of the perception of someone else whom you don’t know at first hand either, is a pretty foolish thing to do.

As a for-instance, Dave was just recently interviewed by a local paper about Cody’s Books move to downtown Berkeley and how it would affect other bookstores in the area. Well, Dave’s store is a genre bookstore (mostly science fiction and fantasy), and Cody’s is a general bookstore, and having several bookstores with different characters in the same area, if they aren’t carrying the same kind of stock (and one of them isn’t some huge corporation that’s able to handle losing tons of money in the short run by deep-discounting bestsellers in order to drive the others out of business and take over the field in the long run), generally helps all the bookstores, because more booklovers, including those from further away, will come to the area to visit three or four different stores in one trip than will come to visit just one.

Yet the lead-in to the quote was more or less like this (and I’m repeating from memory but this is close, it really was just about this bald): “Other downtown bookstores see Cody’s new store as healthy competition. ‘I don’t see Cody’s as competition at all,’ says Dave Nee, owner of The Other Change of Hobbit….”

Same sort of thing has happened more than once to me, too. It’s just very hard to tell — and on the basis of a single article, pretty much impossible –the extent to which what you’re reading has been bent to conform to the writer’s agenda.