Absence

They say it makes the heart grow fonder. I needed to take a little leave of absence last week – a bit of space for myself, so I could maybe come back to writing a little refreshed, or with fonder feeling.

Things have been much busier these last few months than they had been 6 months ago, as my industry slowly stutters to a re-start. A few gigs are getting on the books for late summer, for the fall. Things are nothing close to “normal”, but it feels more “normal” than it has for a long time.

I’ve been having kind of a hard time, though. While it’s great to have performances to look forward to, I’m dreading what that means to my overall quality of life. As much as I don’t want to admit it, the absence of weekly travel and everything that surrounds it has been something of a silver lining in Covid life. And I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to go back to it.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about readjusting to life after the lockdowns – the social anxiety, anxiety about re-establishing patterns of behavior, anxiety about facing a changed world, anxiety about actually putting on pants without an elastic waistband…you get the picture. I’m definitely anxious about returning to the level of travel needed to sustain my work and livelihood.

I’d spent much of the last 4-5 years permanently jet-lagged, exhausted and in a constant state of triage, and as much as I loved seeing the world, making new friends and making great music, it was wearing on my body and my psyche. So I feel terribly ambivalent right now as I begin to see may schedule take shape in the upcoming months, excited for the work but dreading the travel.

Absence did not make my heart grow fonder.

Have you experienced unexpected joy in losing something?

Although I definitely miss sampling local cuisine. This was in Bruges 2 years ago.

Passing

*Trigger warning, I will be discussing suicide

Today is the 20th anniversary of my father’s death. He jumped off a building with a picture of me in his pocket, and just like that, my life was split in two – the beforetimes, and the time after my father’s suicide.

I’ve written about dad a few times, most notable here.

Loss like this leaves a gaping hole in one’s heart, and agonizing questions, the Why did he do it? What could I have done? How could I have not known? and in this case, Why was my picture in his pocket?

Several years after his death I was on an Amtrak going from NYC to Buffalo, and I struck up a conversation with a philosophy professor at NYU on his way to Chicago. It was snowing hard that day – 20 inches, eventually – and the track became impassable (this says more about Amtrak than the actual snow, BTW). We were stuck overnight on a darkened train, somewhere in Upstate New York. The professor had brought a case of wine with him to share with his Chicago family, so he cracked open a bottle and we started really talking.

I eventually told him about my dad, and the endless pool of sadness and confusion about the picture in his pocket, of me and my dad together on my wedding day, right before the ceremony.

How wonderful, said my professor.

Wonderful?

How wonderful that he chose you to help usher him into the unknown, that he took strength from you as he embarked on his journey, he said. You must have been a source of great comfort and love.

The ache of suicide is that those of us left behind will never know, and that we have to find our own answers, or find a way to tolerate the discomfort of open questions. I don’t know if I believe my professor, but I think that may have been beside the point. He reminded me of my own strength, my own compassion, and I drew comfort from that.

They say it gets easier as time passes, but every March 29 I feel grief anew, and I’ve decided that I’m ok with that – it’s a form of self-compassion, I suppose. It’s not easier, simply not as front-and-center as it used to be in the landscape of my life. It will always be there, and I’ve made my peace with it.

I know suicide touches more people than most of us imagine, and tonight I’m sending out my love.

Chin up, girl

Have I told you about the time I was almost expelled from Harvard for plagiarism?

By and large, I enjoyed my time at Harvard, mostly because of the people that I met and the musical opportunities that were presented. It was a generally happy and stable time in my life, though marred by a few truly awful moments; this was one of them.

Let me back up. At that point, Harvard didn’t offer any music performance degrees, and so I was majoring in music composition. My course load included a plethora of music theory and analysis classes, many of which I shared with my then-boyfriend, who was also a composition major.

An assignment for one of these classes required a harmonic analysis of a Chopin work with some gnarly harmonies, and said boyfriend and I sat down to examine the piece together, as we had done countless times before. We found that conferring with each other about our analyses helped us understand the piece more fully, and although we disagreed on some points, we generally approached things in a similar fashion. So, we shared our work, and except for one section of music, we were in harmony (pun intended) with our ideas. We then trotted off to our respective computers to type up our papers, which were handed in to our professor the next morning.

A day later, I was called in by the head of the music department and accused of plagiarizing my boyfriend’s paper.

Let me step back again. Harmonic analysis is an unusual beast. Essentially when we define harmonies, we define them in the context of a key area. When your key changes, harmonies are then defined within the new key. What would be analyzed as a “iii” chord in C major would be a “vi” chord in G major. How you label a harmony – how you “spell” it, as we say – depends on what key you think you’re in. Key areas are foundational in harmonic analysis, and thus determining the point at which the key has changed is a critical decision.

Explained another way, let’s look at Marie Antoinette (didn’t expect that pivot, did you?). When determining the moment she became the Dauphine of France, you would probably say it was April 19, 1770, when she was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France. You could make an argument that the date was May 16, when the ceremonial wedding at Versailles took place, because it was an event more symbolic of the union. The May 16 idea is an interesting perspective; however, technically and legally speaking, April 19 is correct.

In our analyses, the section over which my college boyfriend and I disagreed was the harmonic equivalent of the argument above. He said May 16. I said April 19.

My trial (not officially, but it was called a “hearing”) was overseen by Christoph Wolff, preeminent Bach scholar and German of the old school. (I seem to have a bit of a history with old-school German teachers; Otto-Werner Mueller was my teacher at Curtis.) Our papers made similar points, and the analysis was laid out in similar ways. Clearly, the girl was copying her boyfriend’s paper. It didn’t matter that the two papers diverged on a critical key change.

It didn’t seem to matter that, from a technical standpoint, my analysis of that key change stood on far firmer ground – and was, in fact, called the “correct” conclusion. If I were plagiarizing, what explains this correct analysis?

My boyfriend and I were brought in separately. We both stated the truth; we worked on the analysis together, agreed about most things, disagreed on a handful and then went off to write our separate papers. Our analytical points were laid out in a similar progression because we had gone over the points in that particular order together. But, no. The girl is clearly copying from the boy. That’s the only logical explanation.

I mean, there was no way to view the accusation but as an affront to the capabilities of my gender. Did anyone consider that my boyfriend had copied ME? My (female) TA went to bat for me, brought in other musical opinions from other professors (my analysis came out on top for everyone). If she was incapable of doing her own work, argued my TA, how did she come up with this accurate analysis? Why is she being accused, and not him?

Finally, justice prevailed – after a few male professor vouched for the quality of my work in their classes, and after days of turmoil on my part, Wolff begrudgingly agreed to drop the accusation. I’ve often wondered if it was more that he couldn’t prove that I was guilty, rather than that he believed my innocence .

Plagiarism is an expulsion-worthy offense. I could have been kicked out of Harvard.

I feel fortunate to have been brought up in a post-Title IX world. I feel fortunate that my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, even if it was to pursue a career in which, at the time, there was next to no female representation. I feel fortunate that, thanks to Times Up and Me Too, there is far more enlightenment about the indignities women have had to face for time immemorial.

None of this, however, can ever undo the fact that my life could have been derailed by a single man, because he thought that a girl couldn’t possibly be right.

But I’m here, and I know I’m right. And for those women who have faced sexism (and it’s uglier cousin, misogyny) and have been burdened by the lived trauma of being told you’re not good enough because you’re a woman, I feel you, I support you. We are good enough. And we always have been.

Harvard’s motto is Veritas. Truth.

“A really bad day”

A really bad day.

There’s a bit too much for me to unload here, but let me try, at least for a few minutes. What happened in Atlanta was horrific. Violence agains women is horrible. Violence against Asians is horrible. Violence agains Asian women carries double the trauma.

And while I appreciate the general outcry and the support from a whole host of celebrities, I can only sigh and wonder, did it really take you this long to figure out that shitty things have been happening to Asians for a long time, and that it was exacerbated by President Kung Flu? Does it take a mass shooting to realize that pernicious stereotypes and covert racism have been a part of the Asian experience in this country, and the Asian woman experience in particular, for as long as we can remember?

Don’t tell me that this isn’t a race-driven crime. Don’t tell me the continued exoticization and fetishization of Asian women doesn’t play a part. Since leaving my hometown of Honolulu – where, frankly, 40% of the population is Asian and no-one really cared much what race you were anyway – I have struggled with the trope of the exotic, submissive Asian woman. I’ve been marginalized by male equals and inferiors in the workplace more than I could ever explain. My exotic looks have been weaponized against me. I have been called “young lady” by men a few years older than me, because it’s ok to infantilize Asian women.

And let’s not even get into what women of all races have to face – the violence against us, the fear of being alone on a dark street because some fucking idiot might harm us, and when that happens it’s our fault for being on that dark street. Men, frankly, that’s your problem for creating a society where we women need to change our behavior because you can’t collectively get your shit together and start treating us like equals, not the weaker sex.

I’m angry, I’m tired. It’s been a hell of a week. And frankly, I’ve had “a really bad day”.

I recommend a hearty dose of Pinkerton on really bad days

In the kitchen

Burger King sent out a tweet this morning – “Women belong in the kitchen” – which, while trying to make a larger point about the paucity of female head chefs in the restaurant industry (check out the link), was beyond tone deaf. Happy International Women’s Day indeed!

In my kitchen, my husband does the vast majority of our cooking. It was an arrangement borne of necessity; with me on the road for most of the year, he needed to feed himself. And when I was home, I was often too exhausted or too busy getting ready to leave again to take care of any household chores. Fortunately he’s a fantastic cook who can whip up everything from a Six Seasons pasta recipe to Pépin’s Chicken Galantine to Nagoya-style Japanese chicken wings. I was happy for him to take up this particular mantle; this woman needs not be in her kitchen.

Our understanding has remained largely intact throughout the lockdown. I have a larger repertoire of Japanese dishes (my mother taught me to cook quite young – she herself went to cooking school so she would make a more suitable wife – a story for a later time), and so when I’m in the mood for one of them, I’ll take over kitchen duties. But most nights, it’s my husband in the apron (and yes, he wears one!). And on most mornings, it’s he who empties the dishwasher, runs the vacuum, starts the laundry – before settling down to his own full day of work (which often starts at 6 am, before the market opens). It might not be the most conventional arrangement but it works for us.

Things have always been a little unconventional for our little family; for most of our marriage I’ve been the major breadwinner. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that almost 30% of American wives in heterosexual dual-income marriages earn more than their husbands, it still feels like it upsets traditional gender norms. My old-school Japanese mother, she of the cooking school, still has a hard time wrapping her mind around the fact that at several points in our marriage (going back to school, starting a new business) I was the sole income earner.

The pandemic has been particularly tough on women. It has precipitated the steepest decline in the female labor force since World War II, with a projected recovery that is at least several years behind that of men. In September, when school resumed, 80% of those who left the workplace were women. The increased burden of uncompensated care – cooking, cleaning, taking care of children – has disproportionately landed on women.

I’m ridiculously lucky to have a partner who has been overseeing all of this unpaid care – the practical running of a household – for the last many years. It’s not that I don’t participate; it’s that I’m not in charge, and that makes an unimaginable difference. And it’s one of the most significant factors in my career success, because I simply couldn’t have done both. To be able to fly around the world for 36 weeks out of the year, and be buried in score study in the weeks I was home – impossible, without a husband who could take care of every other aspect of my life, and of our lives.

So, in a slightly ironic twist, this International Women’s Day, what I celebrate most is the great man behind this great woman.

And his great food!

Up, down, forward

It’s March 1st, and we’re fast approaching the one-year mark of the Age of Covid. It feels like a lifetime ago, and like yesterday. Time is funny that way.

Anniversaries are opportunities to take stock, and I’m starting to look back at my earliest blog posts. How little we knew! I was writing about a 21-day shelter in place mandate which I hope would be lifted, which seems hopelessly naive, although there was no way we could have predicted the outcomes. There was a lot of fear back then, anxious anticipation, a head-first plunge into something utterly unknown.

I feel for the me that wrote those first few posts, and I want to tell her that while things will get far, far worse, and that she’ll be more frightened and angry that she has ever been in her life, she’ll get through.

I would also tell her that her depression would dive deeper and the hypomania would become less frequent. Looking back, the base state of my bipolar cycling sank a bit for those first few months. And the hypomania wasn’t the vaguely pleasant, highly energized kind, but the kind where your skin tingles and your ears ring and your brain buzzes and you can’t be still, any time, anywhere. Not fun.

I would tell her that joy came in unexpected places, from a child’s chalk drawing on a sidewalk to the endless possibilities of an empty new apartment. That beauty could be found in the small, still things, the quiet times, the in between times.

I would tell her that there are wonderful human beings around her.

I would tell her to keep doing the hard work of making peace with uncertainty, of accepting each reality as it arises.

I would tell her that she will persevere. That she will inexorably move forward, although the steps seem imperceptible at the time.

What would you tell yourself?

Heartland

My heart is heavy today. Peter Ostroushko, gentle soul, extraordinary musician, passed away this morning. It was an immense privilege to know him, to work with him, to make music with him. His “Heart of the Heartland” is forever the melody that will hold his memory in my heart.

Conductor in a Covid Word

Episode 3 just hit my YouTube channel this week, a reflection on a holiday concert I produced and conducted in December. It was the first time I had conducted the Minnesota Orchestra – who I work with monthly during a regular season – since last March. It continues to be challenging on the live-music front, but there are slivers of blue sky peeking through. I’m just keeping focused on the things I can do right now, and seeing where the future leads us…

Feelings

Just a thought for you today, from a marvelous book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain :

“Emotions and the feelings are not a luxury, they are a means of communicating our states of mind to others. But they are also a way of guiding our own judgments and decisions. Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason.”

António R. Damásio