Limits of empathy

While I was on a gig this last weekend, Paul went camping on Mt. Whitney with a group of our friends. One of them – a highly fit, healthy guy – suddenly felt unwell on Friday afternoon, and within minutes he was having what looked like a seizure. Paul and our friend’s wife rushed him down the mountain, meeting the ambulance halfway. Turns out it was vasovagal syncope, which might have been a result of dehydration and/or altitude.

He’s going to be fine. But his wife was really shaken. I reached out to her, letting her know I wanted to support her in any way I could; as my spouse recently went through an acute and life-changing health scare, I have a good idea of some of the tumultuous emotions and anxious projections she may be processing. But that’s all I have; a good idea.

I often think about empathy – the recognizing, understanding and sharing of thoughts and feelings of another person. It’s the foundation of relationships, enabling prosocial/cooperative behaviors to emerge from within ourselves, rather than a behavior forced externally. By shifting the focus to the internal state of another person, it helps us make moral decisions; by assuming the cognitive state of another, we’re able to see their perspective and thus create deeper connection.

Which is all profoundly necessary and a cornerstone of society, but I am cautious about the notion of “walking in someone else’s shoes”.

My wariness is twofold. The first applies to situations like the one I described above. When Paul went through his acute health crisis earlier this year, I was initially bombarded by a sense of terror and a loss of control. Watching a loved one in what was a near-critical situation can reframe the present and the future in an intense way! I, like so many, live my day-to-day with the underlying assumption of a modicum of stability, and a projection of a long future in which things go basically as planned. One could argue that this is totally unrealistic – we can’t ever discount the possibility of surprises/disasters/scares (Covid has re-taught us of this). But constant fear of possible negative events would certainly gobble up immense amounts of psychic space and be a barrier to living fully and well. So we try to live in the present and hope for the best.

When the worst happens, it is truly earth-shifting, because your sense of what is happening, and what can happen, is suddenly jarred off-kilter; the precarious balance of our sense of reality is threatened, and we’re forced to reexamine our own images of our lives, both now and in the future. And that’s HARD. As Paul’s hospital stay extended on and off for months, the learning curve was steep.

That’s all to say, I have experienced a spouse’s acute health crisis, and so I have a good grasp on the kinds of emotions my friend is now going through.

That is not to say, however, that I “know what she’s feeling”, because I can’t possibly completely put myself in her shoes. To me, empathy comes with the suggestion that we’re able to enter another person’s cognitive state – to actually feel what they feel – and I don’t think that’s reasonable. Even if we went through absolutely identical experiences, we are both separate entities that are an amalgam of our unique genes and experiences. While we may have a better idea of each other’s feelings than someone who doesn’t share our experiences, we can’t feel the same emotions. So you can understand that I’m a bit cautious when anyone uses phrases like “I empathize”.

Sympathy is more accurate. Sympathy indicates that we understand what the other person may be feeling rather that feeling what they’re feeling. This seems a better representation of what I felt for my friend – I appreciated her experience, and could grasp the nature of her feelings, but not try to feel them.

But better still than sympathy is compassion, because it requires neither mutual feeling nor understanding. It’s simply the willingness and desire to relieve the pain and suffering of another. And so
I find the idea of compassion to be the most useful, because we needn’t try to enter into that suffering, and we don’t need to analyze or try to comprehend another’s experience. We merely need to extend a hand. When I’m in pain or grief, the thing I most want to hear is “how can I help”, because even if there is no way to change the situation that’s causing me pain, simply knowing that someone wants comfort me and try to alleviate the pain is enough to ease my grief.

A final thought about empathy. When my dad died, we were all devastated, none more than my mom (at least outwardly). She had never imagined life without a spouse, and on top of reeling from the loss of a loved one, she had little about many of the practical facets of life (she didn’t know anything about health insurance, or where the fuse box was, for instance). She was mired in confusion and desperation and disbelief and anguish. Instead of staying within myself, so that I could extend compassion to her, I took it upon myself to take on her emotions, because it felt like the only way to understand her. That lasted many years, as I kept feeling her anger and sadness, not as an observer, but as someone who was as mired in her emotions as she was. And of course, that interfered with my ability to help her in any way, as I was too wrapped up in her feelings. Empathy, in that situation, was harmful.

And so while empathy may have some place in trying to see another’s perspective from inside of them, in the end, it has it’s limits. “I know how you feel”? Probably not!

Save(d) draft

I was wondering the other day what my writing output has been like over these last two years, and my site stats show that I’ve published 182 posts. Which averages to about a post every 4 days (although most of that is thanks to my daily posting at the beginning of Covid). While that was useful, what was more interesting were the 42 posts that were saved as drafts.

Some are nearly complete, but most are a few sentences, or just a phrase that captured an idea I had in the moment. I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere, full of scribble and shorthand as I hastily take down some interesting factoid that I’d come across, or a line in some book I was reading; the Notes app on my phone has lists and lists of random ideas.

I have been a writer as long as I can remember. At 6 or 7 I created my first picture book, a dozen pages in my large, careful, childish hand, all bound together by ribbons strung through holes I punched out with a sharp pencil. From long-hand entries in countless journals, to stories and poems saved on my first Mac (remember floppy disks?), I wrote constantly. In high school I was in a writing club; I even wrote a short novel.

We all have ways of processing the world, and of discovering our authentic selves. I have a friend from back home in Hawaii who is a realtor, but who feels truly himself, and truly a part of the world, only when he’s in the ocean, draped over his surfboard and squinting over his shoulder, waiting for a good set to roll in. My mom is an exquisite cook, and finding the right recipe for the right occasion, perfecting a new technique, creating and conjuring memories through food – these are where she’s most creative, most engaged, most at peace.

For me, it’s been an even split between performing and writing. I’ve told people that being on the podium is the most comfortable place in the world, because I feel so focused and grounded in myself and in the present. But performance is also my job, my career, and so there’s always the sense that it’s not something I’m creating for myself. In fact I like performing precisely because it’s actually about other people; the orchestra in front of me, the audience behind me. Everything I do is in service of them, not myself.

Writing is selfish. And I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. It’s selfish in the sense that I do it for me, in service of me. I work through my heartache, process my trials, celebrate my discoveries through writing. And it becomes a tangible reminder of where I’ve been and what I thought and felt; it’s like looking back at an earlier iteration of myself through the words I’ve put down. It’s clearer than any photo.

Putting those words out into the world, for public consumption – that’s a whole other case. Writing becomes an act of faith. Because while I know that writing is a deeply personal process, I have to believe that this process could be meaningful for someone else. When I write these posts, I imagine that someone, somewhere, reads my words and realizes that there are others who have gone through what they have gone through, who have shared the same emotions. I imagine that someone, somewhere, feels understood. That someone, somewhere feels a little less alone.

I was in Hawaii last week for a set of concerts (and a few stolen hours on the beach!), and an orchestra member knocked on my dressing room door before our final rehearsal. They had been following my blog, and had been touched by my writing, especially about my father’s suicide. How brave you are to put your stories out there, they said. I’ve never really felt brave, I said, it’s just that putting my stories out into the world makes me process my thoughts more clearly for myself, and I hope that I can contribute something to someone else in doing so.

Then we talked about my father’s death and the challenges I’d gone through; we both got a little teary. Then they said, you know, it’s so illuminating to read your posts. I think of you as this glamorous figure onstage, always calm and gracious, but you really have gone through so much. It makes me think of all of the things that we all keep hidden away, they said, and how much more there is to each of us than we could possibly imagine, and how much you’ve struggled to become the person you are.

And with those words, I suddenly felt understood.

It’s funny how writing can come around like that; the words that were borne of my own need to process led to someone else’s reflection, which led me to feel acknowledged and accepted for who I am. And that I’m not alone.

And this is why I write, and will continue to write.


I had started this post several months back, but I was still very much in the midst of Paul’s health scare, and caretaking overtook blog writing. So I’ve picked up the threads and finished the thought.

21 years ago today, my father took his own life. For 21 years, I have marked this day.

On this year’s anniversary, I’ve been struck by the number itself, shuffling into the third decade since his death. I realized that, very soon, my years without him will outnumber my years with him, and that frightens me.

Lately I’ve felt stranded in my past, in reliving the memories and emotions of my younger self. There’s a tremendous longing for that sense of security and wholeness, and for the greater ease from what seems to me a simpler time (knowing, of course, that our minds tend to blur much of the trials of the past – a bit of mental self-preservation!).

When my dad died I had been married less than a year, and was less than two years out of conservatory. I’d gone to university and spent a year abroad before I went to music school, so I wasn’t young young, but I was young enough, and at a stage where it felt like my career and my personal life were finally under way. And into this period of beginnings, where I was figuring out everything anew, came the finite moment of my father’s death.

I think many of us get stuck in a moment of time, like an endless eddy where you are sucked back in the moment you think you might be whirling your way out. For me that moment wasn’t the shock of his death itself, or the numb hours following it, or even the funeral. Rather it was the moment I finally arrived home to Hawaii from the East Coast, when my mother ran into my arms and cried “What am I going to do?”

I realized in that moment that I had become my mother’s caretaker.

Mom had at that point lived in the US for nearly 30 years, but her English was, and still is, fairly rudimentary. Enough to get her through daily activities and straightforward conversations, but not much more. In Honolulu, with its large Japanese population, you can still get away with some pretty basic English. Her realm in our family was very precise: Mom kept our home sparkling clean, cooked incredible meals, took my brother and I to our many activities and drilled us in Japanese kanji every Saturday. Dad did everything else, and so when he was gone Mom literally had no idea what she was going to do; she’d never seen a water bill, or understood insurance, or had the tires rotated. So, with my brother, I took over most of what Dad had done for her.

That moment has been on my mind lately. I often think of my past as divided into two discrete eras – the before-times, pre-suicide, and the after-times that proceeded my father’s death. And sometimes the distinction feels less connected to his presence or absence, but to my relationship to my mother, and that moment in which the tables turned, when I ceased to be her child and she became my charge.

And I think that’s the genesis of my longing for security and wholeness, because that was the moment when my life to that point was blown wide open, and when the dust settled and everything fell into its new place, I had in some ways lost both parents. That feeling of quiet safety (the one I can sometimes conjure up during meditation) is the precious memory of our childhood that we hold onto well into adulthood, a warm cozy contented space within us. And as my mother cried in my arms that day, that space within me disappeared.

It becomes contingent on us to find our own sense of security and belonging, of course, and that’s been my challenge during the decades after my father’s death. I felt thrust into a role I was neither expecting nor prepared for in early adulthood, and though I’m more equipped to both understand and fulfill those duties now, I’m not sure it would be easier, or that it would hurt less if he had taken his life in 2022 rather than 2001. And so I keep searching for that small still place within me where I can hold myself as if a child, to recapture that elusive sense that all is well with the world. I know it’s there.

Reasonable failure

I recently pressed pause on a long-standing friendship. It was precipitated by a singular event, but in the clarity of hindsight it was a long time coming. I don’t want to retread the history of the relationship – I’ve spent a long time thinking about it over the last many weeks away from this friend. In any case, the relevant part of this discussion is that aforementioned singular event.

In a nutshell, this friend was going through a very challenging moment in their life, and they were focused on the worst possible outcome. For weeks, all of my conversations with them centered around this possible awful future, and they spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion. As a fellow human being, I’m intimately acquainted with the temptation to catastrophize. I think part of it is that by parsing an undesired and uncertain outcome, we feel that we are somehow controlling it, and this rumination momentarily provides a brief relief. But in the end, when we spend our their energy thinking about potential catastrophe, we are suffering in the present about something in the future. If the catastrophe comes to pass, in effect we’ll actually be enduring the pain twice – once in anticipation, and once when it happens. And if the catastrophe is avoided, well, then, we’ve gone through unnecessary pain regardless.

I expressed this over and over to my friend, with the assumption that they would eventually understand my perspective, and that they would intuit my desire for them to avoid unnecessary suffering. I was met with pushback and the insistence that they had their own way of approaching life, and that’s what they were going to stick to it. And so the conversations about their fear about an undetermined horrible future continued.

It weighed on me, and because it was near the forefront of my mind, I decided to mention it (in passing and anonymously) in a previous blog post, in relation to their fear of the future. Though it was absolutely not my intent, this action (for various reasons that I won’t get into here) deeply upset and angered my friend, and I was, for days, on the receiving end of a a series of late-night texts and emails, full of angry and hurtful words. Despite my continued apologies for this unintentional offense, the hostile and cutting words continued. And something in me snapped, and I told them that it would be better for me to cut off contact for a while.

I’m not writing this because I want to air any personal grievances, and I’m fully aware that a public discussion is a small part of what induced their anger in the first place. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take because it was such a powerful teachable moment for me.

There were clear missteps on my part at several points. The primary one involves my assumption that if I presented a reasonable point of view that might save them some suffering, my friend would of course adopt it. I thought I was helping, but it wasn’t the kind of help that they actually needed at the time. What I was hearing was an obsession with worst possible outcomes. But perhaps what they were trying to do, in retrospect, was spitting the bile of fear out of their system by constantly talking about the most disastrous future. What I heard as compulsive catastrophizing may have instead been an attempt to expunge fear. In effect, what I was offering them was sound advice, but not advice that was meeting them where they needed to be met. They were trying to face a challenge in one way, and I was asking them to change their thinking without fully understanding their motivations and perspectives.

My takeaway is twofold. First – and this is one so fundamental that I feel sheepish in admitting that I seem to forget it all the time: you cannot change anyone else’s mind. Second: reasoning, no matter how sound, can be unhelpful if it doesn’t fit the task at hand, or if I don’t fully comprehend the task at hand, or if it’s offered at the wrong time.

But it goes further. As much as I depend on my own sense of compassion to guide me through the world, I also rely on my beliefs in what I perceive to be the truth. In my mind, ruminating on an unknown, terrible future is tantamount to creating one’s own suffering. I contend that life throws enough challenges our way, and that we shouldn’t needlessly add pain.

But maybe by adopting this position, I’ve closed myself to different ways of understanding. Perhaps there is merit in taking a deep dive into suffering. Perhaps we as a society – and I as an individual – demonize fear and suffering, and there is something to be learned in the darkest of our thoughts. Perhaps suffering can teach us about ourselves, even if we are the ones creating it for ourselves. Or perhaps my friend simply needed to vent, over and over, as a way of shedding light on their fear.

Challenges to one’s belief system are, well…a challenge. And it’s a hard pill to swallow when we mean well, and come armed with compassion and reason, but fail to improve a situation. In this particular situation, I still don’t think that my belief about self-created suffering is entirely wrong, but rather it wasn’t necessarily the most helpful concept in that particular circumstance. Even more, perhaps it wasn’t pertinent to my friend’s situation at all. I was simply insistent on a concept I thought might be helpful, and it just wasn’t.

Lesson learned!

Gratitude, abundance

This has been the longest hiatus I’ve taken since starting this blog nearly two years ago , and I feel a bit rusty. I’m pretty constantly writing even when I’m not blogging, but these last 6 weeks have been a notable exception.

Paul was finally discharged from the hospital a few days ago, where his combined stay was nearly a month. There were some genuinely fraught moments, and there is still (straightforward, laparoscopic) surgery in his future. But far more importantly, he was able to avoid the (complicated, emergency, major) surgery that we were beginning to fear was the only way through. He’s recovering at home now and finally eating on his own, and it’s an enormous relief to be moving forward.

Emergencies and illness and infection and complications – those things that are life-threatening are also life-altering. The clichés about truly appreciating life after experiences like this of course hold true, and I’ve been reminded both of the fragility and the privilege of mere existence. But more importantly, for me it has been a reminder that even given a frightening and challenging experience, I can choose to navigate through it with clarity and a sense of abundance, and that ultimately this is what makes everything ok.

I had a conversation not too far back about the idea of being “wired for” either lack or abundance – another way, I suppose, to look at the glass as half empty or half full; but there’s a little more specificity there that spoke to me. Pessimism and optimism feel like broad and impersonal terms; lack and abundance, to me, speak of fear and acceptance, and these I can better grasp and internalize.

When Paul was rushed to the hospital while I was thousands of miles away, preparing for a concert, my immediate reaction was fear. Fear of losing him, fear of our lives changing, fear of not knowing what the future would hold. Discipline and a knack for compartmentalization got me through the concert and onto the next flight home, but that fear, and the sense of loss of control, were prevalent and overwhelming.

For me, fear leads to catastrophizing and imagining a worst-case-scenario, and this can be absolutely devastating, because when we obsess about a possible terrible future, we create present suffering. For so many of us, it’s hard not to contemplate all the things that could go wrong, even though it makes us feel worse than we need to. And by allowing ourselves to be guided by fear, we make a bad situation even more untenable.

I have a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery within nearly the same timespan. Now as they await pathology results, their focus is on the 50% chance of needing chemotherapy, how horrible chemo is, how sick it will make them, and how terrible they’ll look. And while I have remained deeply sympathetic of their pain, it has been difficult to watch them create their own suffering, to watch them practicing fear. It has led me to contemplate the alternative.

So for the last month and a half, I have made it my charge and challenge to face every day with a sense of acceptance and abundance. And while I haven’t always been successful, it has been an eye-opening experience. Because when you choose abundance, you’re able to see the small beautiful things that are knit into the fabric of life.

The furrow of concentration as a nurse adjusts an IV line, and the crinkle of compassion as I thank her for her care. The first tiny green blossoms on the cherry tree down the block, because time passes and spring arrives even when life seems confined to a hospital room. The texts of support from colleagues I haven’t seen for years, because the extraordinarily close-knit network of musicians means new travel quickly. The comfort of the simple activities of everyday life – loading a dishwasher, stacking the mail, watering a parched house plant. The glory of watching Paul take a sip of apple juice, the firs thing he’s been allowed to eat or drink in weeks.

And by cultivating abundance, even throughout the constant turmoil of the last month, I’ve been able to maintain a sense of gratitude – for access to healthcare, to the extraordinary efforts of the nurses who largely cared for Paul, for the unflagging support and love of our friends and family, for the colleagues who jumped in to cover for me when I had to bow out of work. And with that sense of abundance and gratitude, life is far more navigable – and I feel ok.

We live to keep learning, and we learn to live. I’ve certainly learned a lot over these last six weeks, and for that I’m grateful.


For those of you following me on social media, you may know that my husband, Paul, was hospitalized last week; he’s doing much better and I hope to have him home later this week. It’s been a rocky time for sure. I hope to write about it when I have a bit more perspective, but for now, I thought I’d share the post that I’d been working on before Paul’s hospitalization. Hold your dear ones close, my friends.

A few weeks now into 2022 I’ve finally had a moment to catch my breath. The holidays never seem to be as relaxing as I want them to be, partly because the period from mid-November to New Year’s Day tend to be the busiest on any musician’s calendar, and partly because of the panoply of post-vaccination family obligations.

I managed to keep my New Year’s Eve and Day free, thought, which was just as well because we were exposed to Covid and lightly quarantined until we tested negative twice. So we managed to have a quiet holiday at home, just me, Paul and Pinkerton, a bottle of champagne and Anderson Cooper getting drunker by the CNN segment.

We’re taught early on to treat the turning of the year as an opportunity to turn a new leaf for ourselves, to make those ubiquitous New Years resolutions; this year I’m finally joining a gym. This year I’m finally going to begin writing that book. This year I’m finally going to lose 10 pounds/stop drinking/get my online degree/take my dog to obedience school/learn Chinese/sell my collection of gramophones (all things friends and acquaintances have mentioned over the last months)

While I love this sense of renewal – renewed efforts, renewed energy – I’m also wary that by tying it so closely to a particular time of year, it overshadows the possibility of renewal at other times. 

Symbolically, New Year’s provides us all an opportunity for a collective pause, reflection, and re-setting, which in itself is wonderful. But as all of those lapsed gym memberships, misbehaved dogs and gramophones continuing to collect dust will attest, a single push to renew our lives seldom leads to lasting change. And while we tend to confine that to the beginning of the year, I would argue that we have the opportunity to start anew every moment of our lives. 

The main focus of any mindfulness practice is to learn to truly inhabit the present, each moment as it unfolds into the next. And each one of those moments is a chance for renewal. I’m reminded of my experience early on in the pandemic, when the fear and uncertainty was overwhelming. Projecting into the future and seeing only the possibility for dread, for quite a few weeks I felt locked in what felt like an unchangeable reality.

Weeks in, when I was able to face my fear and to release the expectation of certainty, I was able to ground myself in the situation at hand, the present that I inhabited. And when I let go of my desire to try to control an uncontrollable reality, I was brought back to the notion that if I lived each moment as it passed, a world of possibility opened before me. Each moment was a renewal, a possibility for change, a chance to come to a new understanding, an opportunity to expand into the space around me.

And then things didn’t feel so difficult, or frightening.

I challenge myself daily to be fully aware of each moment, to welcome the every-changing present, to open myself to the notion of constant renewal and change. And life becomes that much bigger. Forget those New Years resolutions and resolve to explore the wonder of infinite renewal.

Thundering Tristch-Trastch

Happy New Year, friends, and here’s hoping that 2022 has a better trajectory in the not-too-distant future!

My own holiday season was busier than I’d have liked; on the flip side, I’m grateful to be working so much, and grateful to be able to travel to see my in-laws.

I turned down a New Year’s Eve concert to give myself a little bit of breathing space, so it was a year without the usual panoply of Strauss gems. I’ve always been partial to his polkas, which I adore. They practically play themselves, and need just a quick prod and a sly look from the conductor for most professional orchestras. I’m a big supporter of getting out of the players’ way and not trying to micromanage – orchestral playing is collegial, and I like to foster an atmosphere of agency for everyone.

Here are two of my favorite performances of some of my favorite polkas. The first, the inimitable Carlos Kleiber showcases his elegant charm with Unter Donner und Blitz Polka; the second features the great János Ferencsik in one of the most delightful examples of minimalistic conducting out there. Hope that your 2022 will hold similar wonders!

Carlos Kleiber

Link to János Ferencsik HERE.

In hot water

I was born in Japan and spent the first few years of my life there before my parents moved to Hawaii (half way between their respective hometowns of Tokyo and Berkeley). Dad had learned Japanese to practice law in Tokyo and so we all spoke Japanese almost exclusively at home. Mom made us take Japanese lessons to learn our kanji, taught me traditional Japanese dance and took us back to Tokyo for long visits yearly. I was brought up, culturally, very Japanese.

I’ll save the complicated conversation around culture and identity for a future post; for now I’d like to extol the soulful pleasure of a traditional Japanese furo, or bath.

I’m not talking about anything fancy. It’s the tub you’ll find in any Japanese home (and in every apartment, no matter how small) or in a public bath house (sentō), a deep soaking tub filled with piping-hot steaming water. Unlike Western baths, the Japanese furo is not for washing; to enter the bath, whether at home or in public, one washes oneself outside the tub, either at a sitting shower or using hot water brought from the tub. One steps into the tub only when squeaky clean, ready for the serious business of soaking.

I have always loved a good furo. There’s of course the physical delight of the heat seeping into tired muscles, of the buoyant lightness of a body in water. In a sentō there is also a deeply communal element of people coming together, unclothed, literally stripped of any identification of class. Everyone is equal in the sentō – a naked body is a naked body – a bath is a great leveler, bringing us back to our basic physical selves.

Even when I’m bathing alone, I have a sense of being part of a long tradition, seven centuries of history and ritual. And while I most often am in a Western tub, I have my own rituals – showering before (if at all possible), sprinkling in a generous handful of bath salts, and sliding down until I’m completely submerged, save my head.

When I walk into a hotel room, the first thing I look for is a bathtub, and it’s always a thrill to come across a particularly big one. I look forward to my bath all day; the tub in my Minneapolis hotel (now nearly a home away from home) is particularly spectacular and makes for a satisfying soak.

Daily I read about the continued chronic stress as Covid draws out in a never-ending sequence of surges, lockdowns, quarantines. The ends of our nerves feel frayed, our bodies in a state of constant tension. We are anxious, we are tired.

Sitting in hot water won’t solve the worries of the world. It will, however, soothe taught muscles and invigorate the skin. It will give us a few moments to yourself, stripped of the efforts of the day. It will connect us to our fundamental physical self – simply a body feeling warmth and comfort. And when we arise, let us wrap ourselves in something soft, and perhaps we’ll be able to face the world with more awareness of our cooling skin, our loosened limbs, calmed minds.

Get yourself into some hot water.

Yes, me too

In early 2020 the trial of Harvey Weinstein was well under way, and the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement was still a major factor in the larger cultural discourse. Then of course, Covid hit and all previous conversations were abruptly back-burnered. Then came George Floyd’s murder and civil unrest, and our focus shifted to the continued racial inequity and injustice that have plagued this country since its inception. And while this issue is rightfully at the forefront of our current cultural conversations, I’m a bit sad that those movements centered around women have been pushed to the sidelines. After all, half of all the citizens of Earth still live with the inequity, misogyny and gender-based violence that we’ve dealt with since time immemorial.

To be clear, I’m not in any way making comparisons, merely mourning the fact that the gender conversation felt cut short, and that there is still so much work to do.

The pre-Covid movement hit a nerve for me. Fortunately, unlike Weinstein’s victims, neither harassment nor abuse have been a part of my professional life; as a conductor, I’m the general marshaling the forces – the buck stops with me when I’m on the podium. So ostensibly, it is me who has the power to abuse, rather than the other way around. As a female conductor the worst I’ve survived are the occasional condescensions, some snide remarks about my appearance, a subtle resistance in accepting my authority, and the microagressions that any woman has experienced. My colleagues have mostly been civil, and I’ve certainly never felt unsafe around the men with whom I worked.

But I’ve known fear – and I’ve felt unsafe, in an intimate relationship that should have been a haven for security and safety. And it’s an all-too common scenario; in fact, current statistics show that 1 in 3 women have experienced some from of physical violence within a romantic relationship. I am part of that 33%.

My college years were spent at Harvard, where there were opportunities abound for the study and performance of music. In my junior and senior years I was dating a fellow musician, a fellow conductor, in fact (mistake #1; never date a fellow conductor. Too much type A energy in a relationship). He had a big personality that could sometimes tip into overbearing control, often over utterly innocuous and inconsequential things. An example; he didn’t like that I wiped my mouth after rinsing the toothpaste out of it, and would berate me constantly for doing so. He would become frustrated that I continued with this “unacceptable behavior” and his anger was obvious. (Mistake #2; don’t ignore a mild god complex.) He was angry because I was doing it wrong, I wasn’t doing it his way. There were subtle warning signs, to be sure.

Towards the end of our junior year, the unthinkable happened; his stepfather shot and killed his mother, then turned the gun on himself. The resident tutor in my boyfriend’s dorm encouraged me to accompany him back to his hometown to help him deal with the aftermath, which in retrospect doesn’t seem appropriate at all, but this was the 90s, a different time. I wanted to be the good, supportive girlfriend. So I went.

We flew to his hometown and were immediately faced with the shock and the morgue and the house and the funeral arrangements. His high school girlfriend was still there, and he went off with her one night, leaving me at the friend’s house in which we were staying, not returning until the next morning (mistake #3; never ignore callous disregard for your feelings.) As I said, there were warning signs.

Back at school 10 days later, his behavior became more erratic, and his grief, transformed to anger, was directed towards me. His putdowns were frequent, and mean, and they imperceptibly began unraveling my confidence. But his aggression was covert and verbal, hissed at me behind closing doors, so few people saw the potential for disaster.

Summer break gave me time apart and some respite, but when we returned to campus the next fall, we continued our relationship, and the aggression and tendency towards abusive behavior became more apparent. He would snap at me out of the blue. He would belittle my work. He would say that he needed a break from me, and hours later be publicly making out with another girl – letting me to know that I was expendable, that he held the power. He became demanding and dominating during sex, often ignoring my discomfort.

And then one night we were in his room studying when he picked up his reed knife (he was also an oboe player). He gazed at it for a moment and then turned his eyes to me. “I could probably kill you with this, couldn’t I?”

I left the room. He promised to see a therapist, although I wasn’t sure that ever happened. And yet I stayed, because I wanted to help, I wanted to change him, because our social lives were entwined and I was afraid of his fury.

The proverbial back-breaking straw would come months later, as I coped with his volatility in private, in fear. But it finally spilled over into our public lives. His late mother, who had also been a musician, owned a harpsichord, and in the spring of our senior year he had it sent to him. I’m trained on the instrument, and as a harpsichordist one needs not only to know how to play it, but also how to tune it and how to perform basic maintenance on this unpredictable instrument. I was tuning the instrument and making an adjustment to a plectrum.

We were with a mutual friend, a violinist who is, surprisingly enough, also a conductor (side note: my class at Harvard produced 4 professional conductors, which is highly unusual). My boyfriend didn’t like the way I was tuning his mother’s harpsichord, didn’t like that I was shaving the plectrum to make the action lighter, didn’t like anything I was doing. Sighing and rising from the bench, I told him that I knew what I was doing, and that he didn’t. Please leave me alone.

In one movement he grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall behind me. And then he pushed up, his other arm crushing my chest, his face against mind, contorted in rage. My feet were not entirely on the ground.

Our friend, whether out of nervousness or because he thought it was a joke, laughed. I’m still haunted by this, and by the fact that when I was released and my boyfriend stormed away, the friend didn’t ask if I was OK. He simply left the room as well. We still cross paths professionally every now and then, that friend and I. I don’t think he remembers that night, a night seared into my memory, and seeing him brings back that moment of terror.

My boyfriend was eventually contrite, but wrote it off as just an argument that got a little heated. I knew better, and I finally had enough. A few days later, I worked up the courage to tell him that I was done. That night he spent nearly an hour banging on the door of the suite in which I and my 6 roommates lived, demanding to see me; he left only when we threatened to call security. The saga of the aftermath deserves a blog post of its own.

On one hand I tell this story because I feel that too many people have mistaken assumptions about abusive relationships, and are too often unaware that even if everything looks fine on the surface, intense distress can be quietly concealed on the other side of the door.

But in all honesty, I tell it mostly for myself. Because for years I looked that time with regret – months of constantly being on edge, the unremitting undertone of fear, the simmering potential for violence – and with shame for not having the wherewithal to extricate myself from an abusive relationship. It had to reach some sort of crisis point for me to turn away. And, typical in abusive relationships, I blamed myself – I must have been doing something wrong, it must be my fault, I just wasn’t enough.

Over the years I’ve come to terms with the reality of the situation, and that my helplessness was a heartbreaking but all too common response. Many have been in my situation, and worse. We don’t stay because we’re inherently weak. It’s just that when you’re told that you’re lacking, when you’re treated as if you’re lacking, you doubt yourself. And when you doubt yourself, your power and your agency are slowly drained away. And and when those things are drained away, treading water and hoping that things don’t get worse is the best you can do. There is no shame there, just sadness.

And it’s only recently that I’ve been able to look at that Sarah from decades ago – locked in an untenable situation – and respond not just with cool sympathy, but with tenderness, with compassion. I feel sad for her, of course, but I understand more deeply, more profoundly, that she was trying to use all the tools she had gathered in 20 years of life, that she was trying to figure it out, that she was doing the best that she could. You did OK, I tell myself. You are OK.

Plan B

There’s a little Japanese supermarket and diner a half-mile from our apartment where onigiri, Japanese rice balls, are made fresh every day. As an occasional treat, when my husband returns from his PO box close by, he’ll pick up a few for us. I always give him my first, second and third choices of flavors, knowing that because the shop is so small, some may not be available that day, or may have sold out. Sometimes, if it’s late in the day, I’ll even give fourth and fifth choices, to his bemusement.

I’ve always been a contingency plan kind of girl; I like to know that if my original intentions can’t be met that I have some other options in play. Occasionally I’m chastised for being so pessimistic about outcomes, but that’s not really the way that I look at it. To me it’s a matter of practicality and a way to manage my own expectations.

I was listening to a podcast during my run this morning, an interview of Julia Galef, co-founder for the Center of Applied Rationality (how marvelous how such a thing exists!), and one topic she touched upon was what success or failure for any given situations looked like for each of us. In her discussion, this distinction was part of the larger idea of then having systems in place to prevent self-delusion, but it got me thinking about what constitutes success.

In some senses, success is simple; the realization of a desired outcome. I set out to run 4 miles today; I ran 4 miles today. Success! Early on in my career, I knew I wanted to reach a point at which I could choose where I live, rather that be tied to a single job; we were able to move to San Francisco 6 years ago. Success!

Yes it’s a simplification – it’s usually not so binary, and I suppose that’s where the complications lie. And that’s where my love of establishing multiple acceptable options comes into play, because the creation of alternative plans expands the scope of expectation. If we can’t have X, Y is also an acceptable outcome, and Z will do in an absolute pinch. And thus we’ve given ourselves three possible paths to success, rather than one.

But isn’t one then settling for second or third best, you might say? It depends on what “optimal outcome” might mean, because it’s subjective. I have a friend who was house-hunting and whose starting point was a long list of criteria, which could most probably not be met completely. But he was clear about which criteria were non-negotiable, and figured that if he could find a place that ticked enough of the other boxes, that would work for him. He’s found a place, and feels like his search has been successful even thought he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. He chose satisfaction over perfection through an expanded definition of optimal outcome.

“Optimal” is self-determined. What falls within the realm of “acceptable” is self-determined. What if we decided to become comfortable with a variety of scenarios, rather than the one that we absolutely want right now (which we might feel differently in a few months/weeks/days)? If we can decide that we absolutely must have something, or that we absolutely need certain conditions to be met, we lock ourselves into a limited window of happiness. If we gently expand the scope of our wants (and/or our perceived needs), the possibilities for an increase in agreeable outcomes and the opportunity for success – or satisfaction – grows considerably.

In the end, I suppose that what I believe to be true for myself is that the more I enter into any situation with an openness to alternative outcomes, and make peace with Plan B (or C), the more I enhance my opportunities for joy and contentment and ease, and that simply makes life better. And that feels like the greatest success of all.

Believe it or not, Pinkerton was not a Plan A