Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Adventures with El Maestro Buffoono

The doofus rube without a clue (that'd be me) shuffled up to the stage yesterday for a public display of wretched orchestral conducting in front of 4,000 people.

It may have been the most fun I've had while humiliating myself in years. I've done some odd things in my career at The Herald — flown with the Blue Angels and the Canadian Snowbirds, interviewed royalty, sat through a Papal Mass — but this one takes the cake: I was a guest conductor for the Monterey Bay Symphony at its Memorial Day Concert at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It got off to a bad start; someone had stolen my conductor's baton. But I was able to improvise with a pair of chopsticks I happened to have with me.

Fortunately, the orchestra and the folks at the symphony were gracious and indulgent. They were, in fact, very sweet about my public embarrassment.

Many thanks to the symphony, to Ron and to the musicians. And I apologize to music fans, to the Arts Council and to the Naval Postgraduate School for klutzing my way through "Stars and Stripes Forever."

To witness the carnage yourself, see the video produced by Peri Basseri and BigTime Productions at www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRG1HRIX35A

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Call Me Maestro

A sign that the Monterey Bay Symphony is in deep trouble: They've asked me to be their guest conductor for tomorrow's Memorial Day Concert at NPS.

From the concert advertisement, quoting my email to the symphony: "I'm not sure how long you'd want a tenuous rube from Prunedale on the podium embarrassing himself and undermining the symphony, the spirit of Memorial Day, our integrity, (and) The Herald's credibility, while springing horror upon the audience, the musicians, the Arts Council and the impressive cast of sponsors . . . (but) I'm really looking forward to this unprecedented opportunity to humiliate myself publicly. I've done it in so many routine ways, but it's always nice to find new and unique vehicles for grandstanding embarrassments."

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Community Works

I was honored to attend three inspiring events this week, events that cemented my recognition that we live in a special community.

Tuesday morning I was up at dawn for a fundraiser for the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. The place is struggling in the current economic environment, but it's a resource worth saving and I'm happy to say that the invited guests donated generously.

Wednesday morning was the American Red Cross tribute to local heroes, which is awesome beyond belief. It's always impressive to learn about people who are willing to step up, who go above and beyond to save a life or to improve conditions for those who are less fortunate. And it's comforting to know that the Red Cross will be there for us in times of trial.

And Thursday was very special for the three dozen graduates of Genesis House, the drug and alcohol program in Seaside where miracles happen every day. The event at the Oldemeyer Center in Seaside honored those graduates in recovery. Genesis House is operated by Community Human Services; it's a place where lives are changed, where hope is restored and where the human spirit prevails. Congratulations to all graduates. I love you, Josh.

Censoring phantoms

I've lately been charged with the mortal sin of committing censorship for deleting comments on this blog.

I'd feel much worse about this if I knew who I was censoring. In fact, if the phantoms who lurk on the web to spew cheap shots had the courage of their convictions to identify themselves, this wouldn't even be an issue. I would happily undelete their comments. But they won't. They'd rather hide behind the wall that encourages cowardice.

Of course, I'll be accused of hypocrisy and inhibiting public debate. The Herald will be accused of stifling the free flow of opinion.

In truth, The Herald has been much too lenient about the spew it allows to foul the comment section of its Web site. For the most part, we don't remove comments unless they contain excessively foul language or are dangerously racist. Every random coward can say any random thing in the comments section of the Web without fear that they'll be identified as the source of the spew. And so they do.

I've never understood why newspapers allowed this degeneration of public discourse, other than in their desperation to crank up their Web hits.

But if deleting anonymous twaddle is censorship, newspapers have been doing it for years. In the newspaper, we don't allow random cranks to share their opinions in letters to the editor and commentaries without attaching their names. We don't allow people to share obvious misinformation, to get away with venal below-the-belt cheap shots.

I will continue to allow random cranks to spew anonymously on this site -- and I will grant much leeway to those who identify themselves. But I won't allow gutless creeps the opportunity to drag my family into the deal.

Monday, May 18, 2009

DUI, or Didn't He

There appears to be a publisher in Carmel who believes that driving under the influence is not such a big deal. This same guy has apparently created a policy on behalf of The Herald which, he asserts with frothy indignation, it has violated with its coverage of the Marvin Biasotti situation.

First off, I make the following declaration: If the executive editor of The Herald (me) is ever popped for driving under the influence or for any other crime, the popping will be duly noted in the pages of The Herald. I hope it never happens. But if it does, The Herald has a responsibility to report that the leader of a community institution acted irresponsibly by endangering fellow motorists. And I have a responsibility to own up to it.

I'd like to believe that Biasotti accepts the same responsibility. Biasotti, the superintendent of the Carmel Unified School District, was stopped and arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence several weeks ago after returning from a district function. Biasotti drew attention to the entire matter himself when he sent home a letter of apology to parents and ran the letter on the district's Web site. (Cynics suggest he brought attention to the matter simply because he knew the high school newspaper would be running a story about the arrest, but . . . )

Anyway, the hometown weekly righteously avoided mention of the arrest and the resulting dudgeon within the district, then had the gall to whine indignantly about The Herald in an editorial last Friday. The weekly's publisher believes that our coverage is overblown. He believes DUI arrest is a "relatively minor event." In Biasotti's case, no property was damaged, he argues, no lives were lost. No harm. No foul.

This from the same paper that once invested a major Watergate-style investigation into some poor schlub who left town without paying her hotel bill.

Oddly, in the same issue as the snippy editorial excoriating The Herald and its coverage of Biasotti, the weekly reported that Biasotti was indeed arrested for driving under the influence, that the superintendent takes full responsibility for his lapse in judgment, and that the school board is tripping all over itself trying to figure out what to do with Biasotti.

For the record, The Herald does not run lists of all of the unfortunates who are arrested and cited for driving under the influence. We once did that, printing a big long list in agate type at least once a week, but stopped about two decades ago for a variety of societal and practical reasons.

But that doesn't mean we have a policy of ignoring all drunken driving arrests. Biasotti's case was a no-brainer for us. Biasotti directs a school district with a zero-tolerance policy, a district that sponsors terrific "Don't Drink and Drive" programs around prom, a district that promotes teachable moments. Not only that, Biasotti himself stepped forward, publicly admitted an error of judgment and mea culpaed his way around the district.

If a high-profile community leader doesn't want his reputation or career damaged, he should befriend a sober driver to get him home from the fancy party.

And if a high-profile weekly publisher chooses to ignore legitimate news that captured the attention of the entire community even before it landed in The Herald, he ought to at least avoid the preachy screed.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends

So I found myself in a big pickle several months ago when I innocently attended a Salvation Army function.

It was a terrific event, a fund-raising luncheon to kick off the Salvation Army's Red Kettle Drive before Christmas. Altruistic people poured money into big pots and folks were buying auction items at prices that far exceeded the values of the items. It was the auction that got me in trouble.

I had been somewhat interested in several of the auction items, but sat back quietly when bidding started on what was termed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to conduct a symphony orchestra. The "opportunity" at hand was the honor of serving as guest conductor for the Monterey Bay Symphony during the annual Memorial Day Concert at the Naval Postgraduate School.

When the bidding started, I couldn't imagine who on God's earth would bid on such an item. And I was surprised when the bidding moved apace quite briskly.

But I was even more surprised when a gentleman at my table, Ron Weitzman, a fellow I once thought of as a friend, jumped to his feet to announce he would bid an unmentionable amount of money if Joe Livernois agreed to conduct the symphony.

Every eye in the room turned to me, of course. And the look behind all those eyes seemed to indicate that it is so so wonderful that I would assent to such a thing. All that smiling. All that nodding. Put on the spot, I really had no choice. I agreed to lead the freakin' symphony.

But the thing is this: I don't know a damn thing about conducting a symphony, other than what I learned while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons about 40 years ago.

But I am a gamer. Dr. Carl Christensen, the symphony musical director, told me I'd be leading the symphony through "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which seems like a spirited selection (without, thankfully, any potentially embarrassing time changes).

And I've been practicing a lot lately, to the bemusement of my family. I've pulled down a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein, yanked a couple of versions of the song from iTunes, and rented the appropriate tails. And I believe I've done a credible job during my personal rehearsals in the living room, even if I'm using a chopstick in place of the conductor's baton.

Aside from witnessing my own public humiliation, the rest of the concert should be terrific. Joe Meyers, a tenor who bills himself as the "West Coast King of the High 'C's'" will be there. Caitlin McSherry, a violinist with the Monterey Symphony, will perform traditional American fiddle music. And Rep. Sam Farr will narrate the "East of Eden Symphony."

Gates open at 10 a.m. on Memorial Day, May 25, and the concert starts at 2 p.m. It's free -- and I guarantee you'll get your money's worth from me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When the Allegations are Sexual

The Herald has taken its fair share of hits recently from among Dr. Carl Bergstrom's patients who complain that he is being "tried in the press." We are told that Bergstrom is a great and caring physician who works tirelessly with his patients.

Bergstrom is accused of sexual assault -- the sort of allegation that is difficult to extricate oneself from even if acquitted. At The Herald, everyone involved in preparing news stories about the allegations and the court proceedings are well aware of the implications of the charges. We do not take the presumption of innocence lightly.

At the same time, the fact that a high-profile citizen of our community has been charged with such a crime is not something The Herald can or should ignore. The Herald did not file the complaint against Bergstrom; that is the job of the District Attorney. In cases like this, we must presume that prosecutors have what they believe is a case they can try -- and now it is up to a judge and a jury to decide whether the DA can provide the evidence.

In looking back at the stories The Herald has published about the case, I believe we've actually been quite circumspect. We are not splashing sordid details all over the front page. We will continue to cover the case. And we will certainly report the ultimate resolution.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Biting the Hand That Feeds Her

When last I saw Arianna Huffington, she professed a deep respect for newspapers. A featured speaker at a Monterey Peninsula College event not long ago, she told the crowd she reads newspapers voraciously and hinted that those who don't are blithering idiots.

She was called upon the other day to testify at a Senate committee looking into whether newspapers and their readers would benefit if they operated as nonprofits, sort of like the print versions of NPR or PBS.

Unfortunately, her testimony displayed an odd lack of understanding of the role news gatherers now play in the over-tech world of information management. Not to mention her own reliance on true journalism to propel the Huffington Post.

"Can anyone seriously argue that this isn't a magnificent time for readers who can surf the net, use search engines, and go to news aggregators to access the best stories from countless sources around the world -- stories that are up-to-the-minute, not rolled out once a day?" she asked the senators.

"No, the future is to be found elsewhere," she continued, seemingly inopposition to the nonprofit idea. "It is a linked economy. It is search engines. It is online advertising. It is citizen journalism and foundation-supported investigative funds. That's where the future is."

Like several successful "news" blog sites, Huffington's Post utilizes a mix of news from legitimate sources with a healthy diet of blathering opinions written by blowhards with little more understanding of the issues beyond what they've read in the newspapers.

Granted, this is my own blathering opinion, but . . .

If news-gathering businesses go away, from where would Huffington pull the stuff that has made her blog so successful? And if news gatherers disappear, what context would the bloviators have from which they can form their blathering opinions?

And Americans would be better served because all we would ever know about an issue will come from the blathering blogging bloviators we've bookmarked? I doubt it.