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Scaling Back Expectations

August 28th, 2020 by dk

Starved for an audience, a Eugene Symphony string quartet performed for diners last Saturday evening on the Broadway Streatery. The musicians were paid by Downtown Eugene Merchants. Audience members (if you can call them that) were asked only to patronize any of the seven participating restaurants on the block.

The city of Eugene has temporarily closed this section of Broadway from car traffic, allowing restaurants to spread tables (six feet apart) into the street. It’s a marvelous, albeit temporary, adaptation to COVID-19’s health restrictions. At the same time, it’s an acknowledgement that our late summer evenings are incomparably comfortable. That will still be true after the pandemic has passed.

Add the streatery and intimate outdoor entertainment to our continuing series of lessons from the plague that can better our lives.

Stretching this lesson as wide as we can, the coronavirus is reminding us to value diminution and intimacy. Speaking broadly, some things have simply gotten too big to serve their purposes effectively.

You’ve heard this reasoning before, but always from the opposite end. There are just too many people in this world for our systems to operate effectively! Climate change, law enforcement, commuting patterns, voter apathy — all our big problems can be traced to population growth.

Every element of that argument is relevant and correct, but it still doesn’t sound right. That’s when you know you’ve been shaking the wrong end of the rattle.

Let’s focus on the performing arts, even though the insights are relevant across human systems and institutions. A quartet playing for downtown diners is very different than the full symphony playing to a full house at the Hult Center. Musicians are paid less, if they are paid at all. With less rehearsal time, the level of artistry may be diminished or less consistent.

Could we possibly accept less excellence in return for more intimacy? I’m not arguing that we should scale back our expectations. I’m merely pointing out that we haven’t considered the option. If we didn’t reflexively expect the best, could we have more of all the things we want and need — musicians, teachers, government services?

Around 1900, more American homes had a piano than a toilet. Music came mostly from informal gatherings in living rooms and on front porches. Sheet music sold for a penny on street corners. Families began trading pianos for phonographs in the 1920s, and then came radio and television. Evening entertainment became passive only a century ago.

Could we go back? Would we, if we could? Or could we have both? If you know where to look for it, we already do. I’ve attended house concerts all around the area. They’re often midweek, hosting musicians between larger weekend gigs in San Francisco and Seattle. Some add a pot-luck dinner to a minimal (voluntary) cover charge. Chatting with performers over a meal is allowed and expected.

Is a house concert better than an evening out at The Shedd? No. Do most of us now enjoy live entertainment only on weekends and special occasions? Yes. Could we craft a different arrangement for ourselves and our neighbors? Maybe.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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  • 1 Wayne Blankenship Aug 28, 2020 at 10:03 pm

    I really enjoyed your column in today’s R-G, Don.
    As I read your description of some Eugenians’ behaviors and (probably many) Eugenians’ wishes to harken back to “ways of old,” I reflected on several past decades and felt nostalgic fondness for Eugene Celebrations, shopping trips to “the Mall” … I even have to smile as I remember the dozen years that I spent, wiping tables,sweeping floors, cleaning restrooms & emptying garbage cans at Fifth Street Public Market!
    Sadly, some aspects of our Eugene lifestyle seem to have changed, maybe for good. I hope, though, that this community can and will continue to take a 360-degree view at issues that affect us and our lifestyles, then move forward with its “My way and your way too, my friend!” perspective. This inclusive identity is one of the features of those of Eugene that I greatly value and it – like a magnet – holds me as a “loyal citizen”!
    I’ve spent time in a number of towns/cities, in my life, and I swear that none has been as “loose” or as “free-wheeling” as Eugene (not even Reno, Nevada!)
    Thank you for your column, Don!
    Wayne Blankenship