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

Achy breaky

I conducted a full concert last Friday for a live broadcast, Musical Menagerie, the first full program I’ve conducted since I was in Tulsa in October (I’m shaking my head as I write this. I mean, under pre-Covid circumstances I would have had 50 concerts in the last 11 months, not 6. I digress). It was amazingly awesome to work, and to be playing such a huge role – I conducted, hosted, played the harpsichord during the performance and helped to script and produce too, offstage. If you want to see the fruits of my labor, check out this link to the Minnesota Orchestra website; you’ll need to create a sign-in but it’s totally free!

It was also the first time in a while in which I was waving my arms around for hours a day, and running around the stage and hall in 5-inch heels during the broadcast (I know they’re not the most comfortable thing, but I love my heels and I love being tall!). Conducting is actually quite a physical pursuit, and I’ve been really mindful of keeping my arms and shoulders in good shape with weight lifting and functional workouts. No workout quite duplicates an active conducting week, however, and now, a few days post-concert, I find myself with unusually achy shoulders, upper back and neck.

At its core, pain is helpful – it informs us that something is awry, and that we need to do something differently. Our survival as a species is predicated on our pain response. But pain, in any form and to any degree, is uncomfortable, and it’s a very human reaction to attempt to alleviate discomfort as fast as possible; I’m certainly reaching for my ibuprofen. I think most of us have experience periods of physical pain that are resolved over time. It’s unpleasant, but we can prevail knowing that there is most likely an endpoint.

What’s more challenging is chronic pain. Many of us live with that as well. Roughly defined as any ongoing pain that lasts over 6 months, it’s most often the result of injury or illness. Inflammation or nerve damage/dysfunction is the most often diagnosed cause, but the science of pain is complicated. Generally, we think of it in terms of being controlled but never fully cured; pain management as opposed to pain elimination.

Chronic pain is all about the management of expectation and the tolerance for discomfort. In my case, an early-teen surfing incident (I grew up in Hawaii) cause acute nerve compression and minor nerve damage (it was an L4-L5 issue). It hurt like hell for a few months, and then gently faded to a general ache. I assumed it would fade further, but it didn’t. For decades I’ve carried with me the chronic ache in my lower back and right leg.

It generally doesn’t dramatically affect what I do; I’m certainly more careful about the area in my lower back and keep the muscles around it strong. I do have days when it feels worse, and I’ve learned to be flexible in my approach to my body when it’s not at optimal function. It’s always there, and it’s most probably never going to go away, so I’ve learned to tolerate it.

Easier said than done. As I said, toleration of discomfort is not our natural human tendency. We would rather run away from it, wish it weren’t so, make it go away. And when none of those things happen, we feel a level of desperation, of being caught in a sensation not of our choosing, an unpleasant feeling. I know all about that.

What helped me early on, and still does now, is mindfulness, and a conscious focus on not the actual feeling of pain but the feelings around the pain. Pain is a physical sensation that can precipitate an emotional reaction. The trick is being able to separate sensation from reaction.

Here’s an exercise that has helped me from day one. Identify the source of pain, and go to it. Your back, your wrist, your hip. Examine the sensation of the pain; is it stabbing? throbbing? burning? dull? sharp? What color does it evoke? When you close your eyes, do you see it taking any sort of shape or form in your mind’s eye? I often think of it as looking at a sculpture in the middle of a room, walking around it, taking it in at all angles, finding all of the details of it.

Then: what does the sensation make you feel? anxious? angry? What feeling does the color, or the shape, evoke in you? disgust? confusion? What are you emotions around this sculpture in the middle of a room?

Of course, to be able to examine both the pain and your response to it, you need to remove yourself from both. And it’s in that removal from the source of discomfort, of being able to face it for what it is that takes away its power. My own pain is blue and squeezing; it makes me feel sullen, slow, resentful. And in facing it and naming it, the pain just becomes something that is simply a part of my experience of the world and of myself, something that is known, not mysterious and frightening. And that makes it tolerable.

As with most things in the world that frighten me, when I face it and walk towards it, its power diminishes, and mine grows.

For those of you with chronic pain, I’d love to hear about your own experiences and coping mechanisms – it’s always useful to add ideas and approaches to our arsenals – share your thoughts!

Breaking point

I often find myself powering through things – everything from long runs when my legs feel like lead, to weeks when I’m working on 4 hours of sleep. I’m generally pretty good at being aware of my limits, but when I’m less than aware my body and mind will in no uncertain terms let me know that I need to stop – with persistent injuries and mental burnout, respectively.

Many of us have been powering through this pandemic. Frankly, it’s already broken me a few times; at some point in late May, after Pinkerton’s accident, I was on the precipice of not being able to cope at all, and again in late August I had a massive breakdown when I realized that concerts were mostly going to be canceled through the end of the year and life was absolutely, definitely never going to be the same again. I’ve made it through those low points with patience and compassion towards myself, and with the unwavering support of friends, family and particularly my husband.

He has had a LOT to power through. He was been my sounding board and cheerleader, a source of strength and consolation. He remained stoic in those first few months, slowly growing his nascent business in the midst of a pandemic as we saw my earnings plummet to zero. He powered us through Pink’s injury, financial pressure, the death of a client, my major depressive episodes, the implosion of my management company, our constant worry about elderly parents and the continuous blows to the industry that is my livelihood.

I knew that something was going to give at some point. I just didn’t think it would be the Super Bowl. I came home from a pre-game walk to find him sniffing, puffy-eyed. “The Super Bowl broke me,” he said ruefully.

A football game is fixed – the date, the exact time. It’s meant to be experienced simultaneously by everybody. It’s celebrated together, not just with family and friends, but with millions across the country. It’s a “this is happening now” kind of event, and for my husband it was a more metaphysical “this is happening now” epiphany that tumbled him into tears.

It’s hard to have the carefully constructed scaffolding that is holding us up, come crashing down. It’s hard to come to realizations of the changes in the world (some more permanent than one wants to admit), to the time we’ve lost, to the loved ones we’ve not seen. So many of us spend so much time and energy simply trying to be OK that we keep pushing that grief below the surface.

So. We talked, we laughed that it had taken him this long to have a little breakdown. We discussed the things we needed to do for each other moving forward. We agreed that things just fucking suck right now, but we’ve got each other’s back.

We’re just hoping to be able to make this for a huge gathering of friends next year:

Civility

While its current definition implies courtesy and politeness, its roots go deeper:

Late Middle English: from Old French civilite, from Latin civilitas, from civilis ‘relating to citizens’. In early use the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. 

Oxford Languages

Civility isn’t a benefit of society, it’s the basis of society.

Civility has been sadly lacking lately, and there’s a level of animus inflaming online discourse that’s a little frightening to witness. I generally try to stay out of the fray; my interest lies not so much in proclaiming my beliefs (and therefore opening myself up to animosity), but more in trying to find a commonality in our shared human experiences. That being said, we’re all different in our approaches to life, to writing, to blogging, and that’s part of the wonderful diversity of humanity.

Anyone who puts their life online opens themselves up to critique and I accept that reality. It’s a price we must pay to inhabit this virtual space. Some people are not going to agree with what I say, or not like it. I would hope that anyone who visits this space feels free to express their disagreements, to have an open discourse. And if you just don’t like what I write, you’re totally under no obligation to read! No, really. Click away from this page! We’ve all got different tastes. I get it.

All that being said, I don’t really think “Suck it up, buttercup. Life goes on” is any way to start a conversation.

I’ve been a public figure long enough to know that there will always be haters – I’ve had some hurtful words thrown my way. And I know that, regardless of my intentions of kindness and openness, there will be those who don’t share my world view. It’s fine if you don’t. And, for the most part, I’ve learned not to take any of it personally.

So, reading the “buttercup” comment in response to a blog post (this was on a different social media platform, BTW) just made me sad. Not for me, but for the person who felt they needed to assert themselves through an act of hostility. Sad that strangers strive to anonymously hurt each other. Sad that a level of incivility has become the norm.

Please don’t take this post as a plea for sympathy – I’m a big girl. There are no hurt feelings. I’ve gone through more of this than I ever want to talk about. It’s just that I take these moments of unexpected meanness as a reminder of my responsibility, to my friends, my colleagues, my community – as a human – to do what I can to connect rather than divide, to show compassion in the face of antagonism. And I hope you do too.

Fashion

Fashion is best when it’s not so much about adornment, but about self expression. The clothes we wear can be merely practical of course (although that in itself also tells us a great deal), but it’s definitely more fun to express a point of view, a personal aesthetic, a cultural or political stance, a commentary on the world, a reflection of what one holds dear.

These pandemic days, stuck at home, there’s little reason to dress up, and I confess I’ve spent a majority of my time in leggings and oversized sweaters (all in black – my husband calls me “comfort ninja”). I do, however, put a little bit of thought into my masks. Between my friend the talented seamstress, gifts from friends around the world and what I’ve picked up on my travels, I’ve amassed quite a collection. Here are a few of my favorites.


Repurposed Aloha shirt fabric onstage in Dallas
Grogu! Yes I’m a Mandalorian fan
Plain black for a birthday get together in the park. Yes, that’s special Japanese toilet paper. My brother has a quirky sense of humor
Golden Gate jaw! Love this one with an embroidered skyline of my home base.
KN95 for the plane. I’ve been double masking lately
Tropical vibes, and reversible. Satisfies the Hawaiian girl in me.
An RBG tribute – this one was made by a friend of MN Orchestra violins Deb Serafini.

Covid brain

So…I apparently forgot to write a post on Monday, and didn’t realize it until today. Pre-pandemic Sarah would not have let something like this slip, or would have at least noticed a day later. That was when I actually had some executive function in my prefrontal cortex. Nowadays – not so much.

A few weeks back, meeting a friend for a walk in the park, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen her for ages. She laughed and reminded me that we had gone on a bike ride just the week previous. I’ve become so forgetful with my packing that I have a checklist taped to the front door so I don’t leave without Pinkerton’s leash and my concert shoes.

I’ve heard the term “Covid brain” tossed around a lot – it’s probably a function of being lost in the groundhog day of pandemic life, as one day slides into another. It’s hard to be sharp when time feels like a puddle.

More importantly, many of us have neither the kinds of interactions with others nor the daily activities that kept us on our toes. Human beings, as much as we like our comforts, thrive on novelty and surprise and the little serotonin bursts they bring. Lacking this stimulation, it feels like our brains become sluggish.

I had a difficult time with memory in the worst of my depression. Part of it was because I felt so dissociative, few things registered as “real”, and so I had little recall of them. My mind always felt sludgy, and focusing on anything was a tremendous act of will. Covid brain feels different – rather than being stuck in a muddy bog, it’s like being in a pool of tepid water, neither here nor there, just not wanting to move.

So. Apologies for my brief absence. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep to a …. what was I talking about again?