Hi friends, I’ve received several requests about releasing some of my blog posts in audio format, so I’ve started a podcast! Link to the podcasts will be available on each post, and I’ll start experimenting, so check back soon!
Last week I did something that I hadn’t done since February of 2020; I conducted a live-to-film concert. (ie, a movie shown with a live orchestra playing the entire soundtrack. For those of you who have never been, I can’t recommend it enough – it adds immeasurably to the movie experience!)
Live-to-film is my specialty as a conductor, and if 20-21 were a normal performance season, I would most likely have spent 10-12 weeks on these kinds of shows. They are my bread and butter. I can’t express to you how much I’ve missed doing them.
While I really enjoy these concerts as a performer, what brings me true gratification is seeing audience members in the concert hall (or in this case an outdoor amphitheater) who have had little or no previous exposure to live orchestral music. The whole orchestra experience is foreign, and they aren’t entirely sure what to expect. But invariably, when we start to play, people are absolutely thrilled by the glorious sounds emanating from the stage.
And the audience that night was thrilled. The movie was Toy Story, with an absolute delight of a score by Randy Newman. And as I glimpsed the elated faces as the orchestra and I faced the applause, I was struck how much I missed creating moments of joy for others.
Humans are communal creatures, yet 21st century culture has us spending less and less time gathering in person – I often say that religion, sports and music are the last communal activities left to us. And of course the social isolation of the pandemic has exacerbated this separation from each other. We need to be together to thrive.
I’m often told “oh it must be so wonderful to do something you love”, and I don’t deny that making music is deeply fulfilling for myself, personally! But it is also an act of service, because our charge as musicians is to craft moving and meaningful experiences for our audiences. Live music provides the space for celebration, for contemplation, for illumination, and creating this space is both the most essential function and the greatest satisfaction of us artists.
These last 18 months have been an extraordinary challenge on so many levels, but losing these moments of joy and reflection and connection has been by far the most crushing. And to witness this possibility again last week – it’s impossible to express how exhilarating it was for everyone present, both onstage and in the amphitheater. The evening was clear and cool, the film tugged at our hearts, the music was full of life, the energy was palpable. We were together, and for those two hours, everything was right with the world.
Hi friends, and sorry for the spotty posting – real life has indeed become busier and made it a bit more challenging to keep up with virtual life!
That being said, as we all attempt to transition to more in-person activities under the shadow of the delta variant, we’re continuing to experience that same sense of stress and uncertainty that has plagued us (pun intended) for the last 18 months. I’ve been working on ways to support our collective mindfulness and mental health, and I’m delighted to announce the first episode in a YouTube series I’ve been meaning to create for months.
Musical Mindfulness uses music not as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice, but as the focus. As musicians we talk a lot about flow state – a sense of being hyper-present as music continuously unfurls. It’s wonderful when it happens, because of the sense of both grounding and freedom. Musical Mindfulness is an attempt to create a similar experience as we listen to music, by being aware of each moment as we encounter it, and each sound as we hear it.
Check it out below, and send me your comments as I continue to develop this idea!
A thought for the day – not mine, but one I heard on (of all places) an Olympics broadcast. It made me smile, and nod in agreement:
Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment
I was filming an interview a few days back and a questions was posed about the tension between divulging personal struggles and maintaining an image as a public person. Did I ever feel pressure to present a “pasteurized” version of myself?
I rather loved that notion of personality pasteurization – a “process of partial sterilization making the product safe for consumption and improving its keeping quality.” What a perfect description.
What does it mean for any of us to be “safe for consumption”? That we fit a certain mold, that we maintain a sense of decorum, that we keep the more complex and controversial elements of ourselves out of the public eye?
And what do we mean when we talk about safety? Avoiding any possibility of offense? Negating challenging emotions? Keeping ourselves contained so we don’t spill over into someone else’s psychic space?
For many years it was difficult for me to discuss my mental health challenges. To be fair, part of that was because I was often too far into depression to be able to have any sort of objective view of myself. But a lot of it hinged around wanting to appear strong and controlled. Depression felt like a weakness, a flaw.
Although it took me longer than I would have liked, in the last few years I’ve fully accept that acknowledging every part of myself – even those parts that felt challenging, fragile, less than perfect – was critical in feeling like a complete, integrated human being. The shift was in approaching everything with neutrality, of not attaching any judgment or value. Mental illness is not a failing on my part, simply a reality, something that exists in me, something that I live with, something with which I’ve made my peace.
And so it’s become very straightforward for me to discuss the inner workings of my mind, in all of its intricacy. It doesn’t make me better or worse, or stronger or weaker. Instead, it’s utterly liberating, and I can’t recommend it enough. So my invitation for you today: dare to be unpasteurized.
A few weeks back I was with a familiar orchestra in a familiar hall, a place in which I have spent so much time that many of the ushers know me by name. One early evening, before the doors were open, I was walking the corridors around the hall where ushers were stacking program books and preparing for the audience to arrive (side note – it gives me such immense pleasure to say that – that the audience is arriving – for me it’s a tangible indication that the live music industry is coming back!).
An usher approached, an older man, and his face lit up when he recognized me. Coming right up to me, he asked, “How is your pregnancy going? I hear you were expecting. You don’t look pregnant though.”
There is so much here to process that I’m not sure where to begin, and for a moment I was frozen, uncertain as how to even respond to these comments. First of all, my childbearing years are well behind me and a pregnancy would be a freak of nature or a miracle of modern science. Second of all, what the fuck?
As it was, I told him that I wasn’t expecting, and asked him where he heard this “information”; he indicated that a rumor had been passed around the front of house staff.
To say that women’s bodies are constantly objectified is a statement of the obvious, and I wish this topic would stop cropping up in my professional life. As a public figure, I understand that I give up some of my privacy, and just by the act of standing onstage or posting pictures or attending events or being on widely distributed videos, I’m set up for a certain amount of scrutiny.
But I think that broaching the topic of possible pregnancy totally crosses the line. First of all, that is a private matter for any woman, and none of everyone’s business. My friends with kids tell horror stories about people in elevators wanting to touch their pregnancy bumps, as if a fertile woman somehow belongs to everyone. Second, it is a direct comment on not only fertility but also appearance, and if someone asks if one is pregnant when one is not, one can only wonder if they might have put on a little lockdown weight (I did not, but even if I did, it is absolutely no-one’s business).
The corollary to the pregnancy query is the truly awful “You look great, did you lose weight?”. First of all, unless one was morbidly obese and weight loss presented a tangible improvement in health, this question it totally inappropriate. At best, it’s a backhanded compliment that implies that one didn’t look good before. In truth, it’s a passive-aggressive insult.
Then there is the generic “You’re a beautiful woman” (acceptable from a significant other but not from a stranger). I realize that many view this as a compliment, or a statement of fact. What could possibly be wrong with telling someone they’re attractive? Let me explain. Commenting on a woman’s face or body, indicates that one is judging a woman by her face and body. It says that the face and body are things to be gazed upon and are appropriate topics for commentary. It tells us that those things that have nothing to do with a woman’s intelligence or compassion or talent or power are worthy of discussion. Commenting on beauty is meaningless – you’re basically saying that the genetic material one was born with has yielded a countenance and entity that is somehow requiring praise. We didn’t choose that genetic material. That had absolutely nothing to do with us, who we actually are.
Well, I take some of that beauty-talk back. I think it’s perfectly fine to comment on the individual choices a woman makes about her appearance. “What a fabulous outfit, I love that you added those statement bracelets”, “Your makeup is fire! How do you get the color of that lipstick so saturated?”, “Did you change your hair color? It looks more red. It’s beautiful”, “Those are amazing heels!” (I get that a lot).
These are choices women make about how they present themselves, how they express themselves, how they have developed their sense of style. If you like it, by all means appreciate the fashion choices or the new haircut. It’s an acknowledgement of those individual choices, it’s what a woman does and not what she is.
We live in a visual society that is obsessed with appearance and a beauty and fitness and diet industry that prey on women’s insecurities about their bodies, an insecurity built from scrutiny, objectification and the impossible beauty standards of airbrushed and photoshopped perfection. We don’t want to be known, to be ogled, to be judged by our bodies. They are merely the vessels that contain the passionate and bright and funny and loving and brilliant humans that we are. A comment about our attributes and accomplishments is always welcome. Please leave our bodies to ourselves.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka has made news these last few days for her refusal to take part in mandatory press conferences at the French Open, a decision which ultimately led her to bow out of the tournament. Post-match interviews are a requirement for players, and she cited her mental health as the reason for skipping them, leading to fines and eventually to her withdrawal.
Of course, she was castigated by those who assume that accessibility is the price of fame and fortune, and this commodification of athletes is exactly what creates the immense pressure that can be so damaging to them. And people too often equate physical strength and seeming psychological fortitude on the court/mat/playing field with immunity from mental health issues. We want our heroes to be heroes, when they are simply humans who can do extraordinary things.
I was delighted to see, however, the level of support she’s garnered, and for the larger dialogue that has been prompted by Osaka’s stance. And it’s a courageous stance, signaling not just to fellow athletes but to all of us that we are ultimately responsible for looking after our well-being.
It’s not an easy responsibility to take, made all the more remarkable that Osaka is 23 – it took me decades into adulthood to be truly able to understand my own mental health needs and to actively advocate for them. It’s a skill that wasn’t a part of my formative years, and a discussion that has only in the last few years been a part of an open national discourse.
Which is not to say those skills can’t be learned! For many of us struggling with our mental health, taking a stand for ourselves often feels too overwhelming – particularly if we are too depressed or anxious to have the bandwidth to think about our depression or anxiety. But centering and the active pursuit of self-knowledge can put us in a place to be able observe ourselves and the sensations we’re experiencing. And this knowledge can help us to make decisions – I need help, I need to step back, I need to step forward, I need create some joy, I need to protect myself from those activities that cause me psychological harm.
The hardest lessons I’ve learned during my own mental health journey have been about my own agency. I’d been in such a bad place for such a long time that I no longer felt that it was a fundamental right to be able to thrive. But through therapy and my own exploration I’ve been able to reach a point where I feel invested in my own wellness, and to act in kind.
In Osaka’s case, it was to remove herself from the media circus of post-match press conferences. For me it was to recommit myself to those things that support me – proper nutrition, sleep, movement, mindfulness and relationships; and to reassess those things that didn’t – addictive behavior, self-blame, psychologically toxic environments, people who dismissed the severity of my illness.
While we may not be able to make ourselves OK, we are able to set ourselves up for a fighting chance to be OK. And for me, believing this is the first and most fundamental step towards wellness is an affirmation of my own agency over my mental health. I believe in my ability to be well, to thrive, to find joy in life. Osaka’s story was a timely reminder that I have this right, and this power. And that the ball is always in my court.
When I initially told my friends about my bipolar II diagnosis, they most often expressed surprise. Which makes sense, because, one; bipolar II often presents in a more subtle way than bipolar I, and, two; because I had lived so many years as a master of disguise. Whether I was stuck in the morass of endless depression, or I was tipping into my brief periods of hypomania, I did all I could to moderate my behavior, to pass for OK.
That disguise marked most of my adult life, but as I have written before, the last several years – after the correct diagnosis and stabilized by an effective medication protocol – have been marked by periods of relative stability. Which is not to say that I don’t still experience depression, or experience mild mania – it’s just that it’s manageable and tempered.
When I explain to people my experience with mental health issues, I’m often asked what my hypomanic states felt like, so I thought I would try to describe them.
Mania doesn’t hit me out of the blue; rather, it’s a barely perceptible ramping-up of what I think of as internal electricity. Initially, my mind feels like it’s working more efficiently – thoughts move with energy, ideas come faster. At this stage, it’s mildly pleasant. I feel, for lack of a better word, “up”.
As that internal electricity eventually externalizes, I begin to notice that my runs become suddenly easier – I can go farther, and faster, for no discernible reason. I find that I’m OK with much less sleep, and even if I wake up tired after 4-5 hours, that dissipates almost immediately. My vision feels altered; the edges of things seem clearer, colors feel heightened, the contrast of light and shadow more marked. I lose my appetite and forget to eat meals, especially when I become fixated on tasks.
Which all sounds relatively benign. But it rarely stops there; my mental energy progresses to a state in which I become obsessed with those tasks, and with the projects and writing and studying. That focus is not singular, however, and I find myself compulsively working on several things at once. I’ll turn my attention to one thing for hours, and then suddenly I’ll become distracted by something else, which becomes my soul focus for several hours more. In some ways I get a lot done during my manic episodes, but nothing seems to get completed, because of my unstable attention.
I also find myself highly irritable, and the annoyances that I’m usually able to tolerate become almost insurmountably uncomfortable.
And finally, I find myself in a state of mild physical distress. Everything feels uncomfortable – sitting, standing, lying down. I’m fidgety, and if I find myself in this state during, say, a cross-country flight, it feels almost unbearable. Sleeping becomes even more difficult than usual, as my entire body feels constantly restless. Touch becomes sensitive, and I’m acutely aware of any vaguely annoying sensation – wearing slightly snug shoes feels like foot-binding, bumping into anything feels distressing, wearing a scarf or turtleneck feels like I’m being choked.
“Up”, at that point, sucked.
In the past, for many years, these symptoms came in quick succession, over the course of a few day, and then lasted a few days more. I rarely remained in these hypomanic states for more than a week, and they would eventually give way to the deep dive of depression, which was my base state.
Over the last few years, more and more celebrities and public figures have spoken publicly about their own mental health issues, and it’s been tremendously encouraging to have these issues enter our national discourse. While there may be more awareness, however, there’s still a noticeable gap in information and understanding: Depression is always caused by external stressors. Being bipolar is the same as being schizophrenic. Addiction is a lack of willpower. Eating disorders only affect women. And on and on.
And so I’ve been doing what I can to narrow that gap, with the hope that my personal transparency can add to the wider conversation and lead to societal comprehension.
While I haven’t experienced a full hypomanic state in years, I’ve noticed a milder version of all of these symptoms, a subtle “up”, in the last few days. It’s more likely to manifest now as a slight but noticeable increase in energy, heightened sensation, occasional short-temperedness, a vaguely obsessive quality in the way I work. These feelings are familiar, and not as confusing and distressing and out of control as they felt in those beforetimes. But they are still there, a part of me, a part of my present and my future. And the more I understand and accept these parts of myself, the more I’m able to navigate this world with compassion and ease.
I took a week off from writing of any kind; I’ve been swamped lately with writing scripts for my TV broadcasts, writing copy for grant applications, as well as working on a book (more on that in a later post). Words got to be a little much, and a break was needed.
I was on the East Coast visiting my in-laws and seeing some dear friends. Over the years I’ve developed a wide-reaching network of friends and colleagues, and feel lucky to have so many people I love scattered all over the world. I love catching up in person with those friends I’ve only seen at the other end of a Zoom for the past year or course. But there’s also something wonderful to have those friends that you might not really talk to or see for a year or two or three, but when you do finally come together it’s as if nothing had passed, a natural coming back. I’m lucky to have many in both category.
Over the last week I spent a little time looking back at the trajectory of this blog – at this point last year I was still posting daily, which from the prism of the present seems a formidable feat. How did I do that? So many words, although I suppose I have many more words still.
It’s important to look back, I think, to fully gauge from where I’ve come, to see the progress and movement that has brought me to the present moment. The trick is to not be so caught up in that backward reflection that the present slips away.
In any case it’s nice to be back!
As the music industry inches towards recovery after a devastating year, my work, too, is inching back towards pre-Covid levels.
Financially, this is a boon, of course, and it excites me immeasurably to work with the musicians and friends I’ve been missing for these many months. And, yes, being immersed in music, live music, making music; to be completely submerged in sound, engaged in creativity – magical, life-affirming.
That’s not to say that my previous work schedule was necessarily life-affirming. In fact, the 2018-2019 season saw me in frequent breakdowns, jet-lagged beyond belief and completely consumed with traveling, learning music, performing music, packing the next suitcase and traveling again.
If you’re like me, you’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with challenging times. Many of those coping mechanisms may have actually come into play during the lockdowns. That was certainly the case for me as well, but I would say that for the most part, those new behaviors supported my mental and physical health. My habits from my crazy-travel days were another matter.
Constantly crossing time zones is tough on the body, and my solution to perk myself up when I was exhausted, or put myself down when I was sleepless, was coffee and wine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either, in moderation, or even in the occasional extreme. Rather, I was reliant on both to keep me going, and that was a troubling trend; I reached a point in which I couldn’t even begin to wind down at the end of the day without a glass of wine, or three. It felt compulsive.
My eating schedule, by necessity, was chaotic, but I would often make it worse by skipping meals, or delaying them dramatically. Because I like to have a meal after performances, I pushed back my food intake more and more, and by the time I ate I was so hungry that I would consume everything in sight. As a recovered anorexic and someone who has struggled with disordered eating for much of my life, this led to periods that felt dangerously close to bing-restrict cycles, and it made me miserable. Yet I felt powerless to break the cycle.
Exercise and I have had a complicated relationship (I’ve lived with orthorexia and exercise addiction on top of the EDs). And in my busiest of times, one the ways I exerted control over the chaos of my schedule was to adhere to an ironclad fitness regime. This often entailed hitting the hotel gym at 4:30 am, running in the midst of a snowstorm, or bowing out of social engagements so I could squeeze in my obligatory workout. Ultimately, not healthy behaviors!
Because of my prolonged absences, my social life became an afterthought, and I rarely had time to connect with my friends at home in San Francisco. Neither did I really have time to hang out with my friends in cities around the world, because I was frankly too tired, and I found myself isolating myself more and more. And the more I stayed away from an active social life, the harder it felt to socialize at all. I felt stuck.
I’ve been reading articles about the maladaptive coping mechanisms that many people have adopted throughout the darkest days of the pandemic, and while I feel deep sympathy, I realized that I didn’t share those particular experiences. Ironically, the many months of lockdown subtly shifted many of the behaviors that were hindering me.
While those first few months of lockdown were fraught with uncertainty and fear, it did force a certain mindfulness; I was home, 24/7, and with time to really revisit every daily activity and the reason I did the things I did. And that led to shifts to those bad habits.
Coffee, while delicious, need not be constantly consumed, especially when I got enough sleep. And even if I didn’t sleep well, coffee didn’t need to be the only crutch I turned to – stretching in the morning, some gentle activity, or a 15 minute rest in the afternoon fit the bill. When I didn’t consume gallons of coffee, I was more apt to be tired when sleep time rolled around, so wine didn’t feel like a necessity. And after spending several weeks without my nightly glass, I realize dhow much better I slept without alcohol in my system.
Exercise became more mindful. Without a gym to go to, I started exploring other ways to move my body. During the lockdown, I certainly kept up with my running, but I scaled down, and as I only had the option to run outside, I mostly stopped the high-intensity intervals I did indoors on a treadmill. Rather, I started finding interesting places to run throughout the city, enjoying new scenery and discovering new neighborhoods. HIIT and heavy weight sessions at the gym were replaced by long walks with friends in the neighborhood, and Zoom yoga with friends far away.
And, despite the forced physical separation, I’ve never felt so close to so many people. Friends I hadn’t spoken to in years, and those to whom I was close but only talked to a few times a yea…I spoke to and saw (on screen) so many of them, rekindled relationships, and developed an intimacy borne of the shared challenge of these unimaginable times. I spent much, much more time with my in-town friends on long, socially-distanced walks and hikes, then picnics, and eventually evenings on outdoor decks. I’ve felt more deeply connected with the people I love than I have in a long time.
This is not to say that the pandemic didn’t bring with it a slew of new questionable habits (like my addiction to watching Love Island on Netflix nightly). But by and large, the new behaviors seemed an improvement on, or at least progress from, my past bad habits.
What are your bad habits? Have they changed over the course of the last 14 months?