Numbers

Apologies I missed my Monday post – it was a travel day and things got away from me. I have to say it felt like I’d broken some sort of seal, because I haven’t missed a planned post since the pandemic started – but here we are. So, on to today’s topic!

I was born in Tokyo – my mother is Japanese, my father was American – and still have a huge family there. So it’s only natural for me to keep up with the news from across the Pacific. My preferred news outlet is NHK, which also has a huge library of on-demand content; for a soothing escape from our everyday woes, I suggest the slightly-hobbyist but always charming Japan Railway Journal.

I catch the news most mornings at the top of the hour, and of course it begins with the latest Covid update. Usually they announce the daily infection rate from the previous day. Yesterday’s new infections tallied up to 623.

To put this in perspective, in the US yesterday 62,751 new cases were reported.

The population of Japan is 126.5 million; the US, with a land mass that is nearly 26 times larger, has a population of 328.2 million. The larger metropolitan area of Tokyo has a population of over 37 million on its own.

To save you from doing the math, this means the infection rate per million is 4.9 for Japan, 191.2 for the US.

There are myriad theories surrounding Japan’s relative success in this pandemic, despite what should be strikes against it – crowded cities, the most elderly population per capita in the world. I won’t go into all of them, but for me two factors stand out; an extant culture of mask-wearing, and a tradition of valuing the good of the many above oneself.

I spent at least a month in Tokyo through my early childhood, up to my teens, and have visited at least once every few years throughout my life since then. And every winter, without fail, the masks come out.

It’s a given that you’ll wear a mask if you’re feeling even slightly under the weather and need to be out in the world. And it’s also common for healthy people to wear a mask when they know they’ll be in a crowd. Part of it is also an old-fashioned belief that a mask will prevent illness by keeping out the damp chill of winter air, but the end effect is the same. Despite the crush of humanity in Tokyo, people generally don’t get sick at nearly the rate one would assume, as has been the case with Covid.

Then there is the idea of valuing the greater good – one’s community – above oneself. This is tricky for Americans, with our emphasis on individual freedom and the advancement of self above others, to understand. I think it’s partially explained by the fact that Japan is a racially homogenous nation – less than 3 percent of citizens are not of direct Japanese descent. To be frank about basic human bias, it’s easier to care about the welfare of people who look like you. This is a whole other, very complicated and emotionally fraught topic that I’ll leave for now.

It is, however, also a culture of sacrifice, and of the idea that there is virtue in surrendering one’s wants in service of the need of the collective. There’s a strong notion of honor, and much of that honor is doing what needs to be done even if it is uncomfortable or difficult for the individual. That a mask might be vaguely annoying, or not a preferred fashion choice, or whatever, matters not, because it might help someone else.

While I would never want to give up that very American prerogative of self-determination, a little self-sacrifice goes a long way.

I’m frustrated. If nearly every scientist in nearly every country agrees that masking can help prevent the spread of a virus, it’s just common sense. I mean, if someone told you that taking a simple action would help the outcome by X%, even X% is better than nothing, yes? But for too many of the citizens of this country, no. And don’t even get me started about how this common sense is being senselessly politicized.

What I will say is that in Tokyo, life looks more like it did pre-Covid – the subways are crowded, the Kabuki theaters are welcoming audiences, there are (socially distanced) crowds at sporting events…

There are orchestra concerts.

In the US, most orchestras can’t play to any kind of audience. Many orchestras aren’t playing at all. Many musicians of all genres aren’t playing at all. The industry – and everyone in it – languishes. Because it would be irresponsible to create a gathering when things are still so out of control. Because we as a country are so behind the curve.

And yet, people crowd in bars, in rallies, in events on the White House lawn. And people get sick, and die.

It’s very unlike Americans to ever take a page from anyone else’s playbook (I mean we’re “the best” at everything, right?), but I wish we could look at those countries who took lead, who contact traced, who put in the work, who made the necessary sacrifices, who unified behind a common good. Because it’s never too late to learn. Because 223,000 is not just a number. Because we are nothing unless we look after each other.

Conductor in a Covid World

Hey friends, thanks for reaching out last week, over various platforms, both about Pinkerton and about my retreat into my mind. Pink is recovering with the same imperturbable equanimity as he did his emergency spinal surgery.

I’m fine too. I think creating a little quiet space inside yourself and protecting your psyche from the constant assault of the outside world is probably pretty healthy and adaptive. I don’t mean to worry anybody, although some people apparently do!

So, I’ve been working on a project since my gig in Dallas – I took a lot of videos! – that provides an insight into the process that orchestras are putting in place to be able to perform live music during the pandemic. Each organization follows their particular set of protocols (in alignment to local/state regulations), so it’s a highly varied process.

I’m calling it “Conductor in a Covid World”.

My first video went live today – part travelog, part reflection, part Covid testing handbook – I hope it provides a glimpse into the kinds of things we musicians are experiencing as we slowly move forward to some sort of “regular” performance schedule.

In and out

I’ve been living inside my head lately. It’s not that I’m isolating myself from the world, or not being socially active. I’m still doing all of the activities (and then some) I’ve been doing for months. It just feels like I’m sitting in a deep well in my mind while everything spins around me.

I’ve skirted along the edges of dissociative disorders for years, so it’s a familiar sensation. It’s not that I’m not interacting with the world, it’s just that I feel very much separate from it.

I imagine that disconnecting from reality is particularly attractive these days. And certainly we’ve all been using the usually suspects – the 3rd glass of wine, Netflix binges, YouTube rabbit-holes, Ben & Jerry’s, extra trips to the dispensary – small escapes from a chaotic world.

Every coping mechanism has its utility, I suppose, if it doesn’t become a problem unto itself (like a 3rd bottle of wine). But sometimes I find myself not needing anything external to take my mind off of the problems of the world. I simply slip into myself and stay there, not bothering to peer from the inside out.

I suppose that it’s my mind’s way of saying, come and get me when all of this is over. But of course it doesn’t work that way.

The other shoe dropped

I thought there couldn’t be any more, yet here it is.

Pinkerton was attacked by an unleashed dog who punctured him in two different areas. He’s had surgery again to close the lacerations. What a wretched year this has been for my poor innocent guy.

Better

I try to be really careful on this blog to avoid politics. It’s not that I don’t have political convictions; it’s just that politics is polarizing, and all I want to do here is to share and support.

So please understand that I’m not taking a political stance saying what I’m saying here. I simply cannot stand by and see this happen.

It is never acceptable to mock someone’s struggle with substance misuse. It’s even less acceptable to weaponize the struggles of a son against his father.

Addiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, substance misuse is most often the manifestation of other issues – underlying mental illness, trauma, brain injury. Identifying and treating these issues themselves takes patience, compassion, support and resources.

Addiction is not a character flaw; it’s a flawed coping mechanism. Addiction affects 21 million Americans, yet only 10% receive treatment. Addiction causes immeasurable pain to loved ones.

Roughly 20% of Americans who have depression or an anxiety disorder also have a substance use disorder.

Ignorance and mean-spiritedness accomplish nothing. Rather, we need to educate ourselves. We need to find compassion for each other. We need to do better.

Certainty

…or the lack thereof has been at the forefront of my mind lately. I was listening to a podcast during one of my lengthy walks, and a line struck me, something about the fact that difficulty tolerating uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of anxiety. It describes me all too well.

I’m racked with anxiety every day. A great deal of it is job insecurity – I don’t know what’s going to happen with my industry – and I can only assume that getting back to the level of work that I had pre-pandemic will take years, if it ever returns. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

(And don’t get me started about the uncertainty surrounding November 3.)

There is a grinding nature to chronic anxiety; I know the feeling too well. I spent years and years feeling like this every. Single. Day. For weeks, for months. When people learn about my long-standing mental health struggles, they always express surprise – I always look like I have my life in order! I tell the that I’m a high-functioning mess.

I suppose I make light of it because I don’t want anyone else to feel burdened the way I’ve felt burdened, but the truth is that sometimes it hurts a little to think about it. The fact that I was able to build my career and have a life despite the generalized anxiety disorder/major depression/minor mania/undiagnosed bipolar is a testament to discipline. It’s just that I can’t help but wonder what I could have done if 80% of my energy wasn’t sucked up by managing and mitigating my mental health. What would life have looked like, what would it look like now?

Thankfully, I’ve been in a place now for a few years where the worst of the depression and anxiety are largely muted, and I remembered what it was like to feel “normal”. So I suppose the meager silver lining of Covid-19 is that it wasn’t Covid-17, because I don’t know how I would have coped. As it is, I’ve been relying on my rediscovered sense of “normal” to keep me vigilant of when anxiety and depression begin their dangerous dance.

These continue to be bewilderingly painful times. Anxiety and depression are touching those who have never previously experienced mental health crises. And for those of us who have been in the trenches for many years – I ache for you, my friends. Mindfulness, social interaction, focusing on the present, good nutrition good sleep, good exercise. Easier said than done, I know. But I’m trying, and I hope that gives you the energy to keep trying as well. I support you. And that, at least, is something I can say with certainty.

Labels

That America’s dividedness has become a prominent topic of discussion is evident. And it’s probably a good thing. But somehow I feel this is wrought with misunderstanding, and that lies in the assumption that division – our “otherness” to each other – is somehow a new development.

It has always been there, my friends, it just hasn’t been at the forefront of the national psyche, forced there by the events of this summer (brought into agonizingly sharp relief by the murder of George Floyd) and the daily onslaught of crude, inflammatory rhetoric from those who should be uniting us (this needs no explanation). And so people tend to retreat to their corners, operating under the safety of the company of others who share the same label.

Labels are interesting. They shift, go in and out of acceptance, change as those who suffered under an external label strive to self-identify. And this self-determination inspires me; everyone should be called what they want to be called.

Then there are other labels that are imposed. Not what we want, but what they want.

The sign of a woke person in this day and age is to be up on your acceptable labels. Latinx, for example. Inclusive, gender neutral. Ok great. But do people seem to care that, as of a 2019 Pew Research Center study, less than a quarter of those who identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of this term? And that only 3% would label themselves Latinx? Is it perhaps a label that serves the labelers more than the label?

Then there’s BIPOC. For those of you who’ve not yet encountered this term, it’s an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Advocates of this label argue that Black and Indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionate injustice in the US, an observation with which I would absolutely agree. 

But then there is the big lump of us POCs – Asian,  Pacific Islander…Latinx. Each with our individual experiences of prejudice and discrimination, huddled together under the same umbrella. I understand the desire to simplify an acronym, and the challenge of finding terminology to be as inclusive as possible, but…

And then, did you know that the US Census Bureau considers people from Southwest Asia, the Middle East or North Africa to be “white”? 

I’m going to let you chew on that for a while.

And then there’s the whole notion that BIPOC represents everyone who is non-white. I realize that this is a distinction meant to point out both the white majority and the history of white privilege. BIPOC has an implication of “otherness”.

Did you know the that very same US Census Bureau projects that by 2045 white Americans will no longer be the majority, but will become “minority white”? Do they then become NPOCs – Not Persons of Color?

I don’t mean to add instigation to a topic that already stirs up emotion, but I think these conversations are important. And labels attempt to simplify the complex, because it’s easier for us to consider a person by their label rather than the complicated amalgam of race and culture and language and self-identification that makes a human whole.

I, for instance, am half Asian. Growing up in Hawaii, that literal melting pot, I was largely shielded from labels. But when I moved to The Mainland (what we called the continental US) for college, I became acutely aware of my “otherness”. And the fact that I’m not one identifiable race makes my case even more complicated – I defied labels, and that sometimes made people unsure how to approach me.

And I’m not going into the challenge of being a (half) Asian woman and the cultural baggage that carries, because that’s a whole discussion in itself.

This is all to say that labels attempt to simplify, and while that may be fine for efficiencies’ sake, we cannot, must not, forget the nuances. Indigenous people have suffered horrors that are different from the horrors of Black history in America. Latinx (yes, I know, I’m using a label that I have conflicted feelings about, but, hey, as I said, the uncomfortable compromise of efficiency…) face their unique discrimination, and the growing xenophobia aimed at Asian-Americans is quite frankly frightening (I’m telling you, if I hear “kung-flu” one more time, I may be thrown into an uncharacteristic rage).

And I will leave you with this; my mother is Japanese, and my father was an American mutt – grandparents on one side emigrated from England, and the other side is French and can be traced nearly to the Revolution. I have always danced between those two identities, even as a majority who look at me would label me Asian. Whenever I fill out any government forms I check “other”, because nothing applies to me.

That same Pew Research Center study I referenced above shows that “mixed race” will constitute 4% of the population come 2045.

Maybe I’ll have a label then.

But until then, I suppose the important takeaways are: be aware of what you call people. Those very labels can influence the way you feel about them. Be aware of what people want to be called. Because those labels influence the way they feel about themselves. We are all unified both in the uniqueness of our experiences, and by the similarities in our experiences. The answers aren’t easy. Let’s just keep asking questions, of ourselves, and of each other.

The extraordinary label/title that artist Barry X Ball gave to one of his sculptures

Omissions, and an addition…

…to last week’s list.

Omissions:

George Floyd was murdered, and Minneapolis, my former home town, went up in flames.

California went up in flames and the sky turned a Martian orange.

My agency, Columbia Artists, one of the oldest and largest management agencies, went under.

Addition:

RBG. To say that I’m heartbroken can’t even remotely capture it.

Adding it up

2020 so far:

I sold my childhood home.

I moved my mom out of said home and into a condo.

I drank wine. A lot.

I came out as bipolar to both my colleagues and an audience of 1,800 at a concert that I curated about music and the mind.

Covid struck, erasing 6 months of work and plunging my industry into chaos and an uncertain future.

I washed my hands. A lot.

As the primary breadwinner or the family, said erasing of work plunged my family into financial uncertainty.

I spent a lot of time in bed, reading news on my iPad and trying not to throw up from anxiety.

I ran. A lot.

I bought a ring light, signed up for Canva, set up my mic, pulled out my keyboard, mastered iMovie and taught myself how to be me in a totally different way.

I helped create one of the earliest virtual orchestra projects at the beginning of lockdown.

Pinkerton sustained a traumatic spinal injury in a freak accident – my amazing friends set up a GoFundMe to pay for the heart-stoppingly expensive surgery.

I cried. A lot.

I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary.

I connected more frequently with friends far away, through Zoom and Marco Polo and texts and old fashioned phone calls.

I connected more frequently with friends close by, through weekly walks, socially distanced hikes and outdoor happy hours.

I brought groceries to our elderly neighbors and checked up on immunocompromised friends and worried endlessly over the health of our parents.

We ran some financial projections and came to the realization that we could no longer to afford our apartment – 5 days later we signed a lease on a new place, and 2 weeks after that we moved.

I continued to run. A lot.

The unexpected unemployment gave me ample time to really flesh out some vague ideas I’d kept in the back of my mind – the skills I’d learned allowed me to create a vibrant presentation – I’m developing a project with some really creative people that may take my life in a new direction.

In another unexpected twist, I was brought on board to host TV broadcast/livestreams of live concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra.

I reflected on my life. A lot.

You could look at this all in different ways. On one had, the pandemic is a shattering disruption to life. On the other, it’s a universal pause and, hopefully, a reset. I’ve never been so anxious and depressed in my entire life (and I’ve been through more than most). I’ve also never felt so grounded in compassion and connection.

If you added everything up, the good, the bad, the ugly, it may be a zero-sum game. But right now that very neutrality is allowing me the footing to move forward, in directions I never thought I’d travel, and in the work of being myself. I’ll keep seeing where it takes me.