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Music has always been a big part of my life. I’ve spent large blocks of time engaged in the art, as a player, a composer, collaborator and always an appreciative consumer. It touches me all the time and is one of the biggest influences on my emotional health.
As a much younger person, I would occasionally do work around music, including a stint as a sound guy for a concert series at the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem, NY. The museum lives in a magnificent mansion that features a great room perfect for intimate events. The artists that perform in this beautiful house range from the exotic – visiting Japanese traditional musicians, dancers, and storytellers to Avant Garde musicians like composer David Amram. Two concerts stand out in my mind, and I think of them – and the lessons I took from them often.


The first mental memento features the songwriter, Bart Howard. He wrote a good number of “standards” that became staples of the cabaret/jazz/smoky hotel club scene. His most popular and successful composition can be heard on recordings by great saloon singers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and by equally gifted singers from different genres, each interpreting the piece in their unique style. The song’s original title was “In Other Words.” It was soon changed to its more recognizable title “Fly Me to The Moon.” Sure, I’ll wait while you sing a few bars…
What sticks in my mind is not so much the song, but the story Bart Howard told. Even more than that, the way he performed it that afternoon. He was getting up there in age, and his voice, soft and polite, was at best passable; he hit the notes but struggled to hold them. He played the piano with elegance and wistful phrasing that painted a whole new picture. It was mesmerizing to hear that familiar love song shared by the person who wrote it, with the inflections and emphasis in places other singers missed. It was genuine, it was real, and it was pure art. I had a brief opportunity to chat with Mr. Howard after the show, and he was as kind, intelligent and engaging as his songs.
My lesson learned – anyone can interpret your words, thoughts, and ideas, but nobody can give it the same true meaning as the original.

Nat King Cole sings the standard, similar in style to Mr. Howard’s rendition.

…and Music

The second concert featured a name that most will recognize, spread across generations. Legendary composer/pianist Dave Brubeck passed along his gifts to his children, including sons Chris and Daniel, who performed their unique blend of sounds in a trio with brilliant jazz pianist Andy LaVerne. The musicianship was stunning, and what took it up a notch was the conversation with the audience, as Chris talked about the music, the inspiration and the unholy alliance of art and science, precision and free-form creativity. During one extended piece, each musician took a turn, soloing around and through the song structure. After a while I lost all count of the time, it was almost irrelevant. Then, as Daniel floated through an incredibly complex drum solo, BOOM – they all came together as one unit and took the tune to the end. After the applause died down, Chris spoke about what had transpired. He described the synchronicity as “catching the one” – meaning that through all the free flight of jazz improvisation, they all could come together on the downbeat – they all found the “1.”
Oh yeah, Dave Brubeck also sat in with his sons that afternoon.

Clip of the Brubeck Laverne Trio from the 1980’s

This lesson comes in handy in more than just musical situations. I look at it as a good reminder that every conversation, every issue, and every complex problem can take on a  fractal pattern, leaving an often morose Michael trying to remember what he was thinking about. Oh yeah – Measure A-18!

I’ve decided to vote in favor of Measure A-18. Coming to this decision was a surprisingly involved and at times confusing process that took me to all corners of the community.


There are legitimate reasons to not like this measure. The tax itself is not, in my view, very fair. Parcel owners will be asked to pay the same amount of additional tax, whether their parcel is empty or full of house. Parcel owners who have little chance of building on their property will be asked to pay for something they may never get to enjoy. People who have multiple parcels will be taxed on each parcel. Parcel owners who do not live in Cambria will have no vote. People who live here and are registered to vote will have the power of the ballot, regardless of property ownership.
This issue, more than any other, held me back from a decision. In the end, I concluded that there might be different ways to split the tax baby, but there is no magic formula that will make everyone happy and whole. As for the argument that renter/residents get to vote to tax others – well, we live in America, don’t have landed gentry anymore, and as citizens, we have the right to cast votes on issues that impact the community we choose to call home. More than that, we have an obligation to use our vote wisely, for the benefit of all as best we can.

It Adds Up

The next issue that held me back is also tax-related. $62.15 a year does not seem like a big deal. But it is $62.15 on top of already meaningful taxes and assessments property owners pay. Utility rates have risen, and additional rate increases are on the table for consideration. The Health District struggles to remain solvent, and they are discussing another tax initiative to go before the community. This cost must be viewed as a part of a broader challenge.
My thought here is simple; we have to make a decision on what is in front of us now, and accept that the other two potential levies are not formed and not immediate. This decision has a deadline of June 5th.


The third issue that I struggled with was determining the real need for the staffing that this measure will fund. There have been very strong and very weak arguments made on this critical issue. I spent most of my time sorting through this one. People I know and respect oppose the measure, and people I know and respect support the measure. I decided to go back to basics, follow my usual process and dig into each bullet on the list, from both sides.


As my journey progressed, I was able to get face time and phone time with multiple people involved in the Emergency Services business that protect Cambria and the surrounding region. I asked what I believe to be tough questions – my own and those raised by various community members. I looked at statistics, read reports and visited with both Cambria Fire and Cal Fire. I spoke with CCSD staff and several elected Directors. I engaged in a detailed back and forth via email. To ensure I was as fair and unbiased as I reasonably could be, I asked a trusted friend to review (with permission) my discussions with the involved parties. I challenged the agencies, and suggested areas for improvement in their communications. They argued their points, adjusted their thinking, and built better arguments. Their initial efforts were not strongly formed or articulated, making their battle tougher than it needed to be.

Fair or Not?

The back and forth led to a few realizations. First, why has it been left to the line troops to fight this battle? It seems unfair. Secondly, they are firefighters, not politicians or lobbyists, yet they are acting in those capacities and taking the shots that come along with those roles.
In spite of all that, they continued with their efforts. The arguments improved. Communications were polished. They actively engaged and listened, responded with reasoned, fact-based information, and maintained their composure and their dignity.

Live and Local

Finally, the second community town hall convinced me that the firefighters’ positions are valid, the needs they have are legitimate, and the support they have received from other agencies, specifically, Cal Fire remains strong.

Beyond the Bullets

The speakers focused on the relevant theme – time and resources. They did a good job of taking the discussion beyond the top-level bullet points and drilled deeper into how the staffing model impacts not just fire response but all the other tasks and duties they perform. They provided real statistics on the decline of the “volunteer” force in Cambria and across the country. They defined – finally – what a volunteer is, and what is required of them to be eligible to serve in that capacity. They cited the law that made extensive training and certification mandatory. A point that they underplayed, but which caught my attention, was the overall effect of losing the three existing firefighter positions. It is an important point that becomes clearer when put into the context of what Cambria Fire and Emergency Services across the country face.

Quick Math

The current reality is that CFD engine is generally staffed with a captain/paramedic, an engineer, a firefighter and a reservist (the equivalent of a paid volunteer.) The reservist pool is pretty shallow, with two in-town qualified and trained people who may or may not be available to respond or pull shifts. With out-of-town reservists, that pool expands to 9 people, who may or may not be available when needed. So,if you subtract the third professional firefighter, then add the uncertainty of reservist availability, it is possible that the engine response team could be just two people. A likely scenario – no. A possible scenario – certainly.

And So…

The community members who attended were engaged, perhaps under-informed, but interested in hearing the arguments from all sides. I thought about the anger over the “fear tactics” being used to influence the community. At the end of the night, I sensed that given the realities of our environment, maybe a little fear is warranted. As I listened to the presenters and the attendees, I went through my list of questions, objections, and arguments and asked myself – were they addressed and answered successfully? For me, an overwhelming number of them were.

So I finally, after a lot of work, the issues came together and resolved in my mind. I “caught the 1.”

And now on to the next exciting movement. Maybe something in a waltz.