Monday, October 31, 2011

Jammin' - Music Comes Alive

When you play with a group of musicians, say, a band or an orchestra, you normally rehearse the material you're working on together. It could be the set of songs that you perform regularly, refining over time, or material for an upcoming concert. This can be fun and it can also be a lot of work--or even become routine.

Then, there's the jam session. Somebody wants to play something, calls out the chords, and you're on your way. From the bass player's perspective, it's great because, along with the drummer, you're carrying the music along, and you have to be on your toes for changes. It's structured, but you can improvise as you go.

Last night I had the chance to play with some people I know and have worked with before. After a Halloween meal, we plugged in, tuned up and were on our way. It's a good thing they invented the blues because if you know the key you can step in pretty easily, and that's what I did. The Hayward Odd Fellows Hall rang out with guitars, piano, drums and vocals, and the fun began.

As we put away our instruments later, I knew a good time was had by all--and I was happy I was able to play this way now. It's exhilarating. (Thanks, Kevin, for putting it together).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Which Car Should I Buy?

I was sitting with a friend of mine last night talking about the new cars she's considering buying to replace her 10-year-old Toyota Avalon. She's looking at midsized sedans, so she's already considered the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat, and a few others. I suggested she add a new Korean products - the Kia Optima -- (pictured) to her list, although she wasn't that impressed with it's cousin, the Hyundai Sonata. She's narrowing it down pretty well, having already weeded out several candidates.

Makes you wonder what people really want in a car and how they decide. Here are some things to consider:

Do you need to carry other people? How many?
Be sure you have enough seats so that everybody has a seatbelt. If you need a minivan, get one. They offer all the style, comfort and features of cars now. SUVs and crossovers (tall station wagons) do too, but they may be less fuel efficient, depending on model.

Do you need to haul a lot of stuff ? Any specific oversized objects?
For seriously heavy and dirty stuff, buy a pickup, but many SUVs can handle loads too. If your cargo is, say a large musical instrument, one of today's hatchbacks may surprisingly do the job. I've fit an upright bass in a MINI Cooper and the Honda CR-Z two-seater.

Do you ski or plan on going off road?
You can get all-wheel-drive (it works automatically) in many cars. I especially recommend Audis (luxury) and Subarus (more modestly priced). For serious rock climbing, the Jeep Wrangler is ideal, but for most of us, traction is what it's about. Don't buy a giant SUV if you can do fine with a four-wheel-drive sedan or wagon.

How much do you have to spend?
You can get a new car for 11 or 12 thousand dollars today, but you want to be sure you have what you need in it. Don't suffer with roll-up windows or a crummy stereo if you can afford it. Also, consider a two- or three-year-old low-mileage used car to save some cash. I've found that $18,000 seems to be the place where some nice features come included in a new car. The current crop of economy hatchbacks and sedans are well made, comfortable and plenty powerful out on the highway, including small cars like the all-new Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris.

How long do you plan to keep the car?
If you plan to trade in three years, you want to be sure that the resale value of your car remains as high as possible. That indicates sticking to cars that hold value, including most Toyotas and Hondas, for example. Do some research online to find out. Leasing can save you money and offer a lower initial payment in a three-year period. If you want to keep it a long time, buy the car--don't lease and then buy it. That will cost you more and take forever to pay off. If you plan to keep it a long time, be sure you really like the car and that it will accommodate any changes you may expect (babies?)

New or used?
With a new car, you are not inheriting anyone else's problems and you get that "new car smell." That could enhance your pride and pleasure of ownership, but it will usually mean spending more money. I suggest staying away from any used car over three or four years old or with unusually high mileage (25,000 miles a year). In California, certainly, a used car should look new at two or three years old with no snow or road salt to corrode it. Some cars depreciate so little (example: MINIs) that it's almost not worth buying one that's two years old.

Do you care where your car is made?
This can be tricky. Is it the brand that you're concerned about or the factory location? Toyotas are built in Kentucky and Fords are made in Mexico. The American-built Japanese and Korean brand cars seem to be of high quality and are using 80 percent or higher domestic parts now, so they are essentially American. You can check the label in the car, too. I suggest buying what you like, regardless of brand, but you have a choice, and today's American cars, such as the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, are now very nice and reliable.

What features do you want?
Be sure you get those heated seats or satellite radio if you want them. The first time you use them you'll be glad you didn't skimp. But you don't need to have everything on the options list. Don't worry about the cold start package if you live in Los Angeles. You can still order a car exactly the way you want if you're willing to wait.

Manual or automatic transmission?
Most cars sold in the U.S. are automatics--we seem to like them better than the Europeans. Fuel economy is no longer an issue--some automatics are actually better, but they may cost more. If you're looking for a manual transmission you may be in for a long search (BMW and Mazda can help you, and some bottom-of-the-market vehicles still offer it--on the entry model).

How many miles do you drive typically in a day? Do you ever need to travel long distances?
This question is especially important if you're considering one of the new electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf. If you drive 75 or fewer miles a day you may find the limited range of an electric car (for now) to be no problem. But if you finish your daily commute and then want to head from San Francisco to Los Angeles, your electric won't be able to do it yet. Regardless of powertrain, if you drive a lot be sure your car's seats have a wide range of adjustment and are absolutely comfortable from the start (and get a good audio system).

Is the highest possible fuel economy your goal? Do you want the lowest possible emissions?
The two-word answer to this question is either Toyota Prius (hybrid) or Nissan Leaf (electric--see above for a caveat). Because the Prius recharges its battery as you drive it, and can run part of the time in electric-only mode, it beats other types of hybrids, such as Honda's, which use the electric motor to supplement the gas engine, which is always running (except at stops). Priuses (Prii?) have top ratings in the EPA's Green Vehicle Guide. Of course, the Leaf uses zero gas, but the electricity it consumes is generated somewhere, and that could be a coal-powered plant. There's no free lunch.

There are more questions, but that's the heart of it. I always encourage people to be sure their new vehicle can do what they need it to do, but otherwise I recommend getting no more car than what they really need, for economical as well as environmental reason.

There's always the emotional side--you can't ignore it. It may very well motivate many, or even most purchases, but you can't let that be the sole determiner of what you drive home or you could end up with a Corvette in the driveways and three kids. I've actually experienced that and it's no fun (for the kids, certainly!).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don Mozley - RIP - One of My Heroes

Don Mozley died a couple of days ago, and I am going to miss him. I knew Don over the last couple of decades as a lively and welcome presence at meetings and events with the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ) --an automotive writers group that he helped found 20 years ago. But he was much more than that.

Don was a broadcaster--one of the great ones, starting out at just 21 years old reporting on early World War II events and the atomic bomb tests at Bikini in the Marshall Islands. He covered presidential campaigns in the 1950's through 1960. He then worked for KCBS in San Francisco for many years, including 15 years as news director. His automotive stories, which ran up to this month, include the long-running California Driver series and Don Mozley's Auto Test.

Don was one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He was also quite funny. I have his last email to me from October 18th. In response to the cancellation of a WAJ meeting, Don replied:

"Gee--you didn’t need to cancel it just because I would be in London. Best--DM"

The sad thing is, that trip to England would be his last. Always active, Don died at Heathrow Airport of an apparent heart attack on his way home.

I have long said that I plan to live actively to 90. Don Mozley did that--and had a full life the whole time. That's why he's one of my heroes, and I can't believe he's gone.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Van Morrison's Moondance - Jazz to Pop World

I just heard Van Morrison's exquisite Moondance again and this time, as a bass player, I especially savored the walking bass part. It sounds like it's played on an electric guitar bass, but the sound is definitely upright--like a jazz combo would do. He hits four beats to the measure--each quarter note moving the song along--bum bum bum bum.

From Belfast, Northern Ireland, Morrison, now 66, started his solo career with Brown Eyed Girl, in 1967, but he was heard earlier in Gloria, as lead singer with the group Them. Moondance--as an album--established him as a major artist. We can enjoy Domino too, or Blue Money, Into the Mystic, and on and on.

Morrision has won six Grammys and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he's still touring!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

First 2012 Camry Sighting!

The Toyota Camry is not an exciting car, however, numerous generations of it have been so successful since 1983 that they are everywhere you look. But the 2012 model is brand new and I just saw my first one "in the flesh" yesterday.

It was in the next lane over to the right, so I saw the new taillamps first, then looked at the shaping of the tail and up the sides.I caught a peek at its face in my right rearview mirror. Shortly after, it took the exit and I saw it roll away into the distance.

Although I knew what the new car looked like from photos, it was different full-size in three dimensions. Cars are real things, and seeing them helps you understand better why they were designed the way they were. They're commercial art, and you know that a bestseller like the Camry gets careful attention in the studio. What it normally doesn't get is anything too advanced or wild--but that's not its job.

I've enjoyed "first sightings" since I learned about cars from my father as a kid. We drove along identifying the cars on the road by make, model and year together. I saw the new cars at the dealership (sometimes in the back lot, before introduction) and spent lots of time studying the drawings enticingly laid out in Motor Trend. Thanks to the Internet and spy photography, there are few secrets anymore, but that first sighting is always a little special--even if it's a Toyota Camry (which is much nicer than the photos would lead you to believe).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Honda CR-Z Hybrid--Shift for Yourself

The Honda CR-Z is the first hybrid car with a manual transmission. This makes it more fun to drive, but doesn't improve the fuel economy. Today's automatics are better at driving "green" than we are. I achieved 33.7 mpg, a fine figure for a car, but a number that pales next to the almighty Prius.

The reason is, Hondas use the gas engine/electric motor combination differently from Toyotas. A Prius can run on gas only, electric only, or, normally, a combination. Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system uses the electric motor as a supplement to the gas engine, which runs all the time--except during "Auto Stop," when it shuts off at a traffic light or stop sign. This means the fuel savings come from using a smaller gas engine (a 1.5-liter, 122-horsepower 4 in this case) and from the stops. However, I found that with a clutch, I occasionally ended up shifting into nothingness--outsmarting the automatic-on function of the engine. It was a little disconcerting in traffic.

The CR-Z is the modern successor to the popular two-seat CR-X sold from 1983-91. It was a junior-size Civic. I looked at one in 1986 and ended up buying the Civic Si hatchback instead, because it offered rear seats. The CR-Z, like the CR-X, is strictly a two-seater, with storage behind the seats, but there are rear "panels" that fold down to create a large cargo area--big enough to carry my upright bass. Several people doubted I could do that and were amazed to see the large instrument materialize out of the diminutive vehicle.

My red tester, with a crisp light gray interior, drove smoothly and quietly along all roads and didn't feel as small as it looked from the outside. A few people commented on its cute appearance--it got more comments than most other test cars.

My tester priced out at $23,310 in the EX level with a navigation system. Prices start at $20,295 for the regular model. An automatic transmission is available.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Things My Mom Gave Me

Today, I'm using my 300th blog post of 2011 to thank my mother for all the things she has done for me. She was born on this day 81 years ago.

Of course, the first thing she gave me was life itself. And after she did, she breast fed me--the only new mother on the floor in the hospital to do so. She ignored the "modern" method of the day to do what was right. That gave me immunities (and closeness) that have made me a very healthy person my whole life.

Mom gave me time and attention. She stayed home with me, and didn't go off to work until I was a teenager. It was the times, of course, but it was good to have her there. As a teenager, I'd visit with her at night when she was resting from work and we'd talk about things, too.

Mom gave me the gift of music. She played the cello as I was growing up and filled the house with chamber music. I didn't know it then, but it would be something I'd love doing as an adult. For the last five years, I've played in a community orchestra and in chamber music workshops, just like she did--only my instrument is the bass--in the same string family.

Mom also bought a stereo system for our house, and not long afterwards, brought home Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band when it came out. This not only showed how cool she was but also supported and expanded my love of the Beatles and guitar playing. Today, I play bass in a four-piece band, Red Paint, as a direct result.

Mom has shown me how to deal with loss and move on. After my parents' divorce, she found a new person--the love of her life--and even when she lost that person (who died too soon), she went on living a full life full of friends and activities. She has lost much of her hearing--and the music that comes with it--but she studies lipreading and sign language, still actively participating in life.

I treasure the time we spend together, and hope we have lots more.

Thanks, Mom, and happy birthday!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chevrolet Turns 100

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ford Motor Company back in 2003, but now it's that other American icon's turn to hit the century mark. Chevrolet is running fat advertisements in the car magazines (and probably everywhere else) to let us know that the Heartbeat of America is still going strong.

Nowadays, with the enthusiasm for German engineering (BMW, Mercedes, Audi) and respect for quality. economy and reliability (Toyota, Honda) and rise of the Korean brands (Hyundai, Kia) some folks may have never actually driven an American car. This could be when they start, however, with truly worthwhile daily drivers such as the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu for starters. The quality and desirability has moved into the the compacts how, with Chevy's new Cruze taking honors for top seller in the segment. The Ford Focus is finally more or less the same as the highly prized European model.

Chevy is definitely selling the historical imagery now, with the iconic 1955-7 models, Corvettes (pretty much any), and the beloved Chevy trucks (Like a Rock, remember?). My family had several Chevys when I was growing up, including a 1960 (first year) Corvair four-door sedan, 1961 Brookwood wagon, 1963 Corvair convertible, 1964 Corvette (Dad, after divorce) and 1968 Malibu (Dad, after remarriage). Of course the metallic blue Corvette was the most exciting, but because it was extremely impractical, it wasn't around very long.

There will be a lot of new cars from Chevy in the near future, including the subcompact Sonic (out now--unrelated to the burger chain) and the even smaller Spark, which will have an electric version. The plug-in hybrid Volt is probably the best representative of "today's Chevy," and although it's a niche vehicle for now, the brand will be pushing in every way to stay relevant to today's and tomorrow's car shoppers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mozart Rules

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the best known and most loved composers in the classical world. He wrote great, accessible music. It's supposed to be good for your kids to listen to it. He started very young and died much too early.

Playing Mozart is an amazing thing. It's an exercise but also a blissful release, when you contribute your part to the orchestra as it moves along through fast and slow passages, the dynamics roar or whisper, the notes pour out or sing solo in delicate beauty. You have 40 people participating with instruments and hundreds listening and it becomes an event--an altered state of mind.

Today, the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra, of which I am a member, played three Mozart pieces along with two other amazing works. The program went very well, thanks to fine conducting by Josh Cohen, our leader, as well as guest conductors Todd Wetherwax, Sandra Noriega and Tom Baker, who all stepped in and kept us moving and playing the pieces effectively. Mr. Baker had the distinction of composing one of our pieces, conducting it, and also playing viola and piano (not all at once, of course).

Community orchestras bring the pleasures of classical music to the public at very reasonable prices, and give amateur musicians a chance to work on important and valuable works and grow as performers.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween Means Pumpkins!

The first sign of Halloween is always the arrival of bags of small candy bars in huge piles near the entrance of Safeway (they get an entire aisle at my local Walgreens too). Sadly for my waistline, this year I have been a regular customer of said product for weeks already.

Another sign of Halloween, besides witches and goblins and creepy spiders, is the arrival of pumpkins! I've seen them stacked in front of the aforementioned Safeway, and imagery of them is abundant. There's was even a pumpkin-carving contest announced a couple of days ago at work.

The best way to celebrate pumpkins, though, is to go to drive to Half Moon Bay (California), where many of the large orange vegetables are grown. It's best to go on a weekend that does not contain the annual Pumpkin Festival itself. Traffic is bad in and out of the small coastal town during all of October, but we simply avoid that big weekend.

We went there today, a week after the festival. Years ago, we took our younger son and some friends of ours with similar aged kids, but since my "baby" is 19, that's out. Luckily, the next generation has arrived, so this time my three-year-old granddaughter (with my older son and daughter-in-law) got her first taste of the pony ride, train ride, giant slide, face painting and other activities. We managed to avoid the congested roads and escaped afterwards up Highway 1 for a tasty lunch at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company in Princeton-By-The-Sea. The beer was a perfect accompaniment to the day.

Nothing scary about that at all, but it could be frightening what happens to my girth if they don't get that tempting candy out of the supermarket soon. And I'd better be careful with the pumpkin pie, too.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Barbie Gets Inked--Tattoo Controversy Erupts

I was fascinated to read yesterday about a new Barbie version (there have been thousands over the last half century). This one has permanent tattoos, pink hair, and a doggy in a cactus suit. The article in the Salon online contains the usual parental outrage and a very nice image (left).

I don't care much about Barbie in general, growing up a straight boy, but my wife enjoys some of the special (gorgeously dressed) Barbies and has dozens of them. There are all kinds of them, so this is just Barbie reflecting her times. Many people are tattooed today, including this writer, so it's no big deal.

The only problem could be if this were to generate thousands of nine-year-old girls seeking out places to get permanently inked. The law in California says you have to be age 18--period. Parental support and approval makes no difference. I know from personal experience that impatient teenagers become impulsive teenagers, so this could be a bad thing. You don't think long term when you're young.

But Barbie's new ink--what they show of it, looks like the fanciful images of Sailor Jerry--mermaids, cherries, hearts, (well, pistols, brass knuckles and knives are part of that aesthetic, too) and all the other images you see in Tattoo magazine every month. Nothing too odd or objectionable there.

Parents will have to deal with this. Images of tattooed movie stars are everywhere, so it's just another place where patience, calm and perspective will counter any ill effects of Barbie's new style.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kia Optima Turbo - Impressive!

The Kia Optima is all-new for 2011, so I've taken the opportunity to drive all three flavors: "regular," Hybrid and Turbo.

I drove the Kia Optima Hybrid recently and although it was very pleasant and got great environmental scores from the EPA, the fuel economy, 27.5 mpg, seemed low for a hybrid. I just tested the Turbo this week and while it exhibits all the positives of the other two--stunning styling, apparent high quality interior, a smooth ride, near silence, this time, I had power too.

In urban life, most acceleration takes place at freeway onramps, and the Optima Turbo was happy to oblige. Even in quick corrections on the highway, or bursts during in-town traffic, this Optima gives a feeling of being in control.

All three Optimas use a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. The standard car gets 186 horsepower out of it while the Turbo boasts 274. That definitely makes a difference. The Hybrid mixes a 166-horsepower version of the engine with a 40.2 horsepower electric motor.

My test Turbo Optima got 22.5 mpg, notably less than the Hybrid, but felt much more muscular on a day-to-day basis.

You make the choice. The four-cylinder feels like a six but definitely pays off at the pump. And the car's aggressive good looks grow on you. Optimas start around $20,000.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Rocker than Rocking Chair

This year, the leading baby boomers turn 65. Think Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but also Bob Weir (the youngest Grateful Dead member turned 64 three days ago) and millions of other people who are waking up and saying, "What happened?"

During this time of seemingly sudden seniority, we can see the marketing taking form. There are manly gray-colored Depends for when the male plumbing starts to fail. Ads for Viagra and Cialis are there on every evening news show (who else watches the news these days?).

But my favorite now is an Anthem commercial showing a grandpa rocking out to Steppenwolf's 1968 Classic, Born to Be Wild. We'd all like to think we're still youthful. In the commercial, grandma and grandpa are going to switch (online, of course) to Anthem for their health coverage. But grandma can't hear their conversation, so grandpa goes to "take care of the music" from the granddaughter's noisy band practicing down the hall. We think he's going to shut her down, but instead, he grabs the guitar and rocks out!

What's the lesson--or the intent? Well, first of all, we're not really old--it's just a number. We can still be active. This is very true.

Another message is that we actually have something to share with our grandchildren. From what I could tell, Amber wasn't playing Born to Be Wild when grandpa arrived, but she and her bandmates dance along happily (and gratefully), while grandma arrives in the background at the end of the ad and dances along too. She's not a fogy either, it turns out.

It's easy to be cynical about this, but health providers know who's going to be visiting them the most in the coming decades--aging baby boomers--and these messages are perfect for them (us).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cubees - For Kids and Cuteness Enthusiasts

I saw today that my office neighbor had a collection of Disney themed Cubees. These little cube-shaped toys sit alone or you can stack them. Push the buttons on their tops and they flip the little door on their "face" and play music.

The trick is to stack them together and then they harmonize (well, in a manner of speaking).

My neighbor is a grown woman. My wife, upon seeing a video on YouTube of these in action, thought they'd be too babyish for our three-year-old granddaughter. But the box says for ages 6 and up. What do you make of that?

Mighty cute, but could be potentially annoying if the buttons were pushed frequently.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How Small? Isetta Did the Job

Having recently sampled the diminutive Scion iQ (coming soon to your Toyota dealer), I thought about how small a car could be. The smart car (they prefer the initial lowercase "s") is smaller than the iQ--but going back a bit, how about the Isetta? Made by BMW (originally by ISO Spa) in the lean years after WWII, the tiny bubble car is about a cute as it gets and served the needs of the times for extremely economical transportation.

The miniscule Isetta has only one door--and it opens in the front. The steering column comes with it! You can park it nose-in to the curb and step right out onto the sidewalk. Its 13-horsepower engine is adequate for moving it down the road at up to 53 mph.

I actually rode in one back in the late 1950's and it was fun--what I can remember of it.

More than 161,000 were made, and you can still see one today--especially if you visit a microcar event.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chamber Music Rocks--to Play and to Hear

I've just come home from two days of bass playing with my chamber music pals. Put on by the Chamber Musicians of Northern California (CMNC), the event went apparently without a hitch. Not only did the two pieces I worked on end up sounding good, but I made some new friends--and got lots of exercise walking all over with my bass in tow. The coaching we got from the experts each day was not only tremendously valuable, but delivered with much humor.

I've spoken of these workshops before, as I did in my May 28th, 2011 post. A bunch of people sign up, get placed into groups and assigned interesting chamber music (classical pieces for small groups) at an appropriate playing level. Few, if any, of the participants are professionals, but there's a pretty high level of ability for most, and once a group settles in with its assignment, there's lots of give and take as the piece begins to sound better and better. At the end of the day, you play a section you've worked on for some of the other attendees and everyone gets their moment in the sun.

I enjoyed working on Louise Farrenc's Nonette and Beethoven's Septet. So, I was either with eight or six other musicians, who played strings (violins, cellos, etc.) or winds (clarinet, bassoon, oboe, horn). It's like being part of a mini orchestra, where each player carries his or her own part.

The "dessert" of the Saturday sessions is hearing a high level, professional ensemble perform, and this one was a real treat. We got to hear Trio 180 play music by Frank Martin, Brahms and Piazzolla, plus the Suk Elegy as an encore. The trio, who have been together more than a decade, is made up of three teachers at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California: Sonia Leong on piano, Ann Miller on violin and Nina Flyer on cello (they're in the photo).

Wow, is all I can say. After working all day doing your best it's inspiring to hear how it's really done--while not taking away from the great effort and enjoyment of being an amateur. I got a chance to meet and talk with them on Sunday, too.

I'm happily waiting for the next session, which will be March 3 - 4, 2012 at San Francisco State University.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pom - Wonderful Way to Start the Day

I used to drink orange juice with my breakfast. Perfect for washing down the vitamins and adding appeal to the blandness of my cereal. Well, now, I drink Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice instead.

I just pour a half to three quarters of an inch in a short glass and fill it with cold water. It's so strong, you can drink it diluted -- actually, you really should.

I've had the original flavor, but you can have it with blueberry--or others if you take a peek at their website.

I remember, as a kid, that actual pomegranates were very red, and very hard to eat. And there was so much pulp, too. This way is much easier.

The little Pom bottles looked like two pomegranates stacked on top with a slim waist. Now, the big bottles come in that shape too. You can't miss it in the store--look for it in a cooler, though. It isn't sold on a plain shelf.

By the way, if you go to, you'll find a parking meter company in Russellville, Arkansas. Really.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How Terribly Strange to Be 70

Paul Simon turned 70 yesterday. His original singing partner, Art Garfunkel, is right behind. How did this happen?

In the song, "Old Friends," from the 1968 album, Bookends, they sing the words that are contained in the title above.

I've followed Paul and Art since 1965, when their giant hit, Sounds of Silence, hit the airwaves. The two started out as a pop duo in the 1950s--Tom and Jerry--and become folkies in the early 1960's with Paul's sensitive, poetic lyrics matched with an acoustic guitar. When the record company decided to add electric tracks to their acoustic recording of Sounds of Silence, the two singers weren't even around, but they found out soon enough that their song had hit the big time. Folk rock had arrived, and the 1960s were the heyday of Simon & Garfunkel, but after A Bridge over Troubled Water came out, they separated.

I was pretty broken up about it. After all, the Beatles disbanded around the same time. And Paul's early solo efforts were good, but sounded empty without Art's high harmonic voice. But Rhymin' Simon turned out to have staying power, and as I fell for Kodachrome and the Hearts and Bones album, the best was yet to come--Graceland. That may be his best work ever.

Recently, a new album arrived, So Beautiful or So What, and a brand new, specially selected collection is arriving in a week or so called Paul Simon, Songwriter.

Paul recently sang Sounds of Silence at the dedication of the Word Trade Center Memorial. It was great to see him, but it would have been nice to see Garfunkel there, too.

But I guess I have to face the fact that if Paul's 70, I'm no longer a teenager myself--I'm not that far behind him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Do You Erhu?

I was discussing music, particularly bass playing, with my cube neighbor, Jane, when she happened to mention that she played the erhu. Huh?

The erhu is known as the "Chinese violin," although it has a hexagon-shaped box for a sound body and only two strings. These strings are tuned in a fifth, and are the same as the two middle strings of the violin. Unlike a violin, there's no fingerboard--the player presses the string between his or her fingers.

We went to YouTube to see an example of erhu playing. We saw a dignified older gentleman playing and then found something really exciting. An eight-year-old girl played an astounding "horse racing" piece that was completely riveting. I'll bet she's been practicing hours a day since she was old enough to hold the bow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Honda Civic Si - A Little Extra Oomph

The Honda Civic Si is the performance version of the popular compact--and has been so for decades. My experience with a loaded up 2012 model proves that it's still got what it takes to entertain--while going easy at the gas pump. My Rallye Red coupe earned over 28 miles per gallon--admittedly spending more time on the freeway than it should. This is a car made for taking the entertaining roads.

The Canadian-built Civic stretches out significantly longer than the 1986 model I owned. That was the first year of the Si. It still had some connection to the tiny, MINI Cooper-sized hatchback Civic of the 1970's, but with more sharply-drawn lines and a rear window that dropped off like a cliff. The new Si comes as a much roomier coupe or sedan.

Putting 201 horsepower under the hood (a 22 percent boost over last year) makes the car a quick performer. My '86 featured 90 horsepower--which was about 50 percent more than the standard Civic that year. Today's car offers a six-speed manual transmission, versus the, for the time, advanced five-speed in my car.

The new for 2012 Civic is an upgrade on the radical look of the previous generation, with the kinds of shapes you'd expect on BMWs. The interior retains the two-level instrument panel and in the Si, a sporty character with lots to move the eye. The plastics feel a little inexpensive and there is a lot of "rice paper" pattern surface.

Priced at $24,475, my Civic is positioned to give VW GTIs and other sporty compacts some serious competition. The reputation alone, on top of the sharp new look and upgraded power, should be enough to keep the Si popular.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Stunning Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago

Chicago, known architecturally for its brutal 108-story Sears Tower (Willis Tower now), now has a gentler but still imposing new building to show off. It's the 81-story Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, which opens November 1. It's the first Radisson Blu hotel in the United States, and the tallest tower in the world designed by a female architect.

Jeanne Gang, of Studio Gang Architects not only came up with an amazing looking building for her first skyscraper, but made it energy efficient, too. The undulating, irregularly-shaped balconies not only convey the rippling of water but also work as solar shades for the room or apartment below. The shapes also interrupt the wind flow off Lake Michigan, so there can be usable outdoor space up high in the air.

The hotel takes up 18 floors of the tower, has 334 guest rooms and suites, and flaunts an 80,000-square-foot green roof and recreation deck.

I probably can't afford to stay there, but when I go to Chicago, I'll definitely want to check it out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Three Beatle Weekend

What a musical/Beatle oriented weekend! Saturday night, I watched both parts of the Martin Scorsese special on George Harrison, Living in the Material World. In it, Scorsese features interviews with those who knew and loved him, including the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as both of his wives and his son, Dhani, who resembles his father a lot. Racecar champ Jackie Stewart spoke of George, too. George, besides spiritual activities, was a racing enthusiast. You may not have known that. There was significant footage of conversations with his friend Eric Clapton and fellow musician Tom Petty (from the Traveling Wilburys period).There were many photos I had never seen, and we gain more insight into George's post-Beatle and nonmusical activities.

Sunday, October 9th was what would have been John Lennon's 71st birthday (imagine an elderly John), which I commemorated by playing "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away in front of a party crowd with my band, Red Paint. The 9th was also the day that Paul married his third wife. We'd gotten word of this in the Spring. I wish him happiness, and things appear to be good so far.

Fab Four forever.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Doing the Right Thing -- Liberty Mutual Ad

As I was folding my laundry this morning I happened to look over and see an ad for Liberty Mutual that touched me. It showed how people witnessed the example of someone helping someone else -- and were inspired to do the right thing themselves later. From the man removing the obstacle from the blind woman's path to the woman helping the businessman whose papers fell from his briefcase, it spread from one person to another. And then--it came full circle. Beautiful.

Now, this company is selling insurance--a form of protection that you provide to help others. But this thoughtful way in presenting themselves makes me like the company, even though I know essentially nothing about them. Now THAT'S good advertising.

"Every day, millions of people choose to do the right thing..."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Battle of the Dads Bands - Everybody Wins

Today, my band, Red Paint, competed against five other bands in the Battle of the Dad Bands. It all happened on a tennis court of a local athletic club on a beautiful 70-degree day. We didn't win but it sure didn't feel like a losing proposition.

What is a musical competition, really? Sure, there was a prize, but how to compare a band that plays faithful covers of famous bands' songs with Red Paint, whose 7 songs included one cover, which we "painted red?" What makes punk rock better or worse than blues? It's all good.

It came down to votes, and we didn't have as many as at least one of the other bands--the winner. I heard them--and they were plenty good--playing blues. The bottom line was that the event raised nearly $1,000 for the Susan G. Komen foundation to find a cure for breast cancer.

We had a fine time, enjoyed our two free beers (no free food tickets though) and I got a kick out of talking with some of the other musicians. If they'd been giving away, say, a car or a contract for 12 paid gigs, that might have gotten the musicians into more of a fighting spirit. But part of being a "dad band" in the first place is in realizing that we have full lives to live, which include music. We're not on the road as professionals. "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs," says the famous bumper sticker (and T-shirt).

Two treats--I got to see my old friend Clyde after many years. He and I were in high school together and both picked up the bass at same time--our 50th birthdays. I also had a high quality Beatles-centered conversation with Drew Harrison of the Sun Kings. They bring the Fab Four to life with their note-for-note recreation of this "classical" music.

Music brings people together, even if it's a battle, and everybody wins.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Time Travel Online - the Fourth Dimension

Yesterday, I took a trip back in time--online. It all started because I received a real estate listing that I was idly interested in (I'm not planning on moving) and it showed nothing of the outside of the house. Curious, I went to Google Maps and found their photo of the exterior. The outside of this Eichler house was so unassuming that I'm guessing that the agent found the beautiful and nicely staged interior to be more sales worthy.

In any case, that little part of the brain that "surfs" the Internet thought, "I wonder how the houses I lived in years ago look today?" Easy enough--type in the address, click the photo in the upper right, and there I was.

The thing is, after spending the last few days seeing assemblages of the late Steve Jobs' deterioration, it was amazing to see how easily people can deteriorate yet how well preserved my old houses and neighborhoods were. They looked nearly the same. And these are houses I occupied in the 1950s and 1960s.

Out of curiosity, I clicked the little circles to move forward and managed to "walk" the several blocks from my old house to my old school where I attended the fifth grade. It still looked the same. And at the top of the street, at a familiar corner, I found my crosswalk.

It's one thing to look at photos, but memories live forever. That was where the crossing guards worked--student volunteers with white regalia--a crossed white shoulder bar and belt--that they wore when on duty. I had a chance to fill in once and had intended to be part of that elite unit in the sixth grade--but my parents moved me to the next state over the summer and I never got to do it. It's hardly much to me now, but it exemplified the taste of 10 years old--and the other times I had to move in the summertime. And it all came back to me thanks to this "modern technology."

Even though the house and neighborhood looked about the same, surely there many incremental changes, and of course all the cars were 50 years newer. I also understand that it's likely that the interior of my old house is completely different. Not only is my family long gone, but time has passed and stuff does accumulate. Last year I had the chance to visit the home I occupied from 1965-69 for the first time SINCE 1969. It was the same rooms and windows but nothing was the same. That's the fourth dimension--time travel.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs - Follow Your Heart

Steve Jobs died yesterday. We all knew it was coming, but somehow, the news hit me hard. Age 56 is just too early to go (and way too close to home).

I love my iPod. I would love to own an iPhone someday, and a mac. Steve led Apple, with his vision and refusal to compromise, to give us sublimely elegant solutions to what we needed--or learned we needed. The world has changed forever.

What I am thinking about today is what made Steve Jobs the man he was--and what that means to you and me.

I just watched Steve's 15-minute 2005 Stanford Commencement Address again. Although there is irony in it now--he tells the students that his pancreatic cancer had been removed and he was fine--he made three points that we all can consider as we live our lives.

First, he talked about connecting the dots--which you can only do in retrospect--to see that when you follow your heart, it can lead you to where you need to go. The genius we attribute (rightly) to Jobs is that he followed his own path and trusted in himself that it was the right way.

Second, something that might seem at the time to be tragic or horrible (being fired from the company you founded was his example) can be the best thing that happened to you. You can start fresh and lightened of burdens, take a new path. The important thing is to not lose faith.

Third, he talked about death, calling it life's change agent. If today was the last day of your life, would you do what you're doing? If not, then it's time to think about what is most important to you and find a way to do that. Jobs was convinced that life is precious--and limited--and that you should find what you love--and never settle for less.

He ends by evoking Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog--"Google on paper," and their final words: Stay Hungry Stay Foolish." The best way to remember Steve Jobs, I believe, is to try to live more like him--and follow our own visions for our lives. There's no time to waste.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Arturo Marquez - Renowned Mexican Composer

When our conductor introduced us to Arturo Marquez's music, it was obviously very different from the Mozart pieces that are the heart of our upcoming program. But one listen to Danzon No. 2 convinced me that this was going to be a big crowd pleaser.

Marquez, born in 1950, is a big name in Mexico, and his music is now widely played. He grew up with musical influences from his father and grandfather, and besides studying multiple instruments in his youth in Southern California, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and earned his MFA in Composition at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. He has won many awards, including the prestigious La Medalla De Oro De Bellas Artes de Mexico, the Gold Medal of Fine Arts of Mexico.

The music has the Latin rhythms that pulsate and move the piece along. The challenge for an (American) amateur orchestra is to give it life and keep it moving. Our dedicated band of about 35 players sunk our teeth into it again last night and our performance is improving. I'm hoping we have it ready to roll by concert time in three weeks. It's a beauty.

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra's concert on Sunday, October 23 at 2 p.m.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Scion iQ - Small Outside, Big Inside

Just from a quick glance, you'd say that the new Scion iQ is Toyota's version of the smart car. It's got very little in front of it's windshield and a vertical hatch in back. But it is no smart car.

Before looking at the numbers, all I can say is that when you're driving the iQ (nice take on "smart" name, right), it doesn't feel small. That's because it's not little where it counts. The seating is high, legroom is plentiful, the windshield stretches far forward, and truly, when you're driving a larger car you don't see the hood or trunk anyway.

The iQ may be small--10 feet long--but it is 14 inches longer than a smart, on a 5-inch longer wheelbase. It also is almost five inches wider and weighs about 300 pounds more. It's powered by a 1.3-liter four cylinder engine under its diminutive hood that puts out 94 horsepower through a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The smart has a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine in the rear that produces 70 horsepower through an odd "automated manual" transmission.

The iQ actually offers rear seating, something you won't see on a smart. With the dash pushed far forward on the passenger side, you can fit an average-sized adult in back. Really. Behind the driver, there is zero legroom, unless that driver is very short of stature. Normally, I left the rear seats folded down for a handy cargo-carrying space.

How about the MINI Cooper? Well, the iQ is 26 inches shorter, although the width is almost identical. The MINI's wheelbase is 18 inches longer--which is why that legendary box can carry so much. The MINI is about 400 pounds heavier too. So you can see that the iQ is pretty small. But--it doesn't feel that way.

The iQ is very nicely finished, even in the pro-production model I had the privilege of testing for a week. Handsomely detained surfaces and thoughtful touches make it seem much more than an econobox.

Fuel economy: The iQ is rated at 36 City, 37 Highway. The smart gets 33/41. The MINI is 29/37.

Pricing: While the smart claims to have a $12,000 car to sell you, the iQ should start at about $16,000. The MINI is more like $20,000 plus.

The iQ was just delightful, with its strong, full Pioneer audio system, surprising road presence, and, as previously stated, perceived roominess. The only thing is, it's too short to carry an upright bass, which is the only possible reason I have for not ordering one immediately.

I dubbed the iQ the Nash Metropolitan for today.

The iQ will arrive shortly on the West Coast of the U.S., and elsewhere over the following several months.

Monday, October 3, 2011


October is when the year gets serious. Sometimes, in the morning, you feel a nip in the air when you're walking the dog. And those walks, morning and night, are starting to require the flashlight again.

When you're in school, October is when you're far enough along to know who's in your class, which teachers you like (or don't) and those projects and tests are around the corner.

Late September and early October is the traditional time when the new cars are introduced. That has been a ritual I've participated in since I was 10 years old. Something new, something changed. Visits to dealerships to claim brochures. Spotting the new models on the road for the first time. Sometimes it's something all-new, but incremental changes can be exciting, too. It feels different today, both because the automotive industry has changed and I've grown up, but there's a remnant of that October excitement that remains. This year, the long-awaited new Beetle represents this annual event for me.

October contains my half birthday. That was most important the year I got my learner's permit, but it still is a little private marker of time passing, which it is doing much too quickly now.

October (sometimes September) contains the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It's the starting point for Jews who follow the tradition. I don't, particularly, but I still think about it, and it gives this time of year a sense of renewal rather than fading into autumn, leaves falling, and melancholy.

Apples. Now's the time to get 'em fresh and crisp.

For sports fans, it's time for the culmination of the baseball season with the games leading up to and including the World Series. For basketball fans, the NBA season begins at the end of the month. Football is in full swing. Sports Illustrated is a fat publication in October.

And all of it is rolling inexorably into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, with all the accumulated memories of turkey, tree decoration, family dinners, gift giving, and suddenly--a new year.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Propel - New Way to Get Alternative Fuels

I was driving along in a familiar spot a couple of days ago and at the Valero gas station, I saw a little "mini station" at the corner with a green sign that read "Propel." Curious, I stopped in.

Propel is a new concept in supplying alternative fuels--biodiesel and E85 ethanol--to drivers. Rather than setting up their own stations, they lease a small area from existing stations and in partnership, offer the fuels in a separate, but very compact, "clean fuel point." For the established fuel provider, it's turnkey--they lease out the space and get a profit while Propel builds, supplies and maintains the mini station. This sounds like a brilliant idea. And Propel says that these clean fuel points are built in an environmentally sensitive way and with their small footprint, are highly efficient.

The station I visited was a few miles from my office, but when I took the information card from the rack on the spotless pump, I saw that there are several places to obtain the fuels not too far from my house, too. These other clean fuel points were partnered with 76 and Chevron stations, so dealers from at least three major oil companies are participating in this new idea.

Today, Propel offers plant-based E85 ethanol for flex-fuel vehicles that can run on this fuel as well as gasoline. They also offer biodiesel. The blend of fuel sold (5%, 20%, or 99%) varies depending on location. Any Diesel car can use 5% and the 20% blend is being promoted as usable by most Diesel cars. The full-strength fuel may require some preparation of your car, and some new Diesel vehicles may not be able to use it.

Propel is actively looking into future alternative fuels from waste, algae and other sources, too.

By making alternative fuels easily available at existing, familiar locations, Propel is helping to move us to toward the cleaner energy we need to improve the environment and reduce our dependency on imported oil.

The next time I'm driving a flex-fuel or Diesel car, I'm heading in!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Playing Beatles at the Farmer's Market

It's been a while since I put out the guitar case and earned my supper. But that's what happened this morning when my musical friend Frank and I took our Beatles duets to the Hayward Farmers' Market. (The photo is not of us--just representative, although we did have a tent like that and an open guitar case in front.)

Not only did we enjoy ourselves (time flies, mysteriously, when you're playing music live), but we learned which songs will need a bit more attention and which ones are in good shape. At a farmer's market, the crowd tends to be moving, so you attract many visitors, some of whom linger and drop a buck in the pot. Many applauded and waved.

We worked our way through the early catalog--From Me To You, Hard Day's Night, etc. to One After 909 and a few off the White Album and Sgt. Pepper. The music is everlasting and universal. One little girl of about 8, came by with her dollar. It turns out she's a bass player (!) and I gave her my card so she could send me an email. Gotta get them started early.

When you play Beatles material, it keeps the spirit of the band alive. It's something more than catching Hey Jude on your iPod or wearing a John Lennon T-shirt. Not that there's anything wrong with those things, but for me, playing brings the songs to life--even if we have to move some to a lower key to sing them.