Not in Kansas. And Not in Oz.

Ozgate.

Hucksterism, yes.  Charlatanism, yes.  Buffoonery, yes.

Now that we have established that, let’s consider how the gleeful campaign to expel Dr. [sic] Oz from his Columbia professorship intersects with the current state of higher education.

Poppy Field Photo by Jon Bunting, via flickr

Poppy Field
Photo by Jon Bunting, via flickr

Budgets, curricula, trigger warnings, competition from the University of Wikipedia.  Societal suspicion of intellection and reflection.  Increasing corporatization.  And let’s not forget human rights.

Professor Oz (yes, that does sound odd) is not the only academic (that too) to have his professorial status challenged of late.  There are others whose livelihoods have been threatened because they hold unpopular political views or have stood up to the man.  Or because they did something as distressingly ill-advised as any of us might have done under the right wrong circumstances.

So, let’s not smoke the poppies just yet.

In 2013, University of Kansas faculty member David Guth was suspended over a tweet that distastefully maligned the National Rifle Association.  (Now, if he had tastefully maligned the NRA, would that have gotten a pass?)  Later, National Public Radio described the Kansas Board of Regents’ introduction of guidelines for social media, which restricted what faculty could say online.  On NPR, State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady had this to say about the incendiary tweet:

“Look, you have freedom of speech, but you can’t go this far,” he says. “I think having a clear understanding between faculty and the board of regents on what’s acceptable and what’s not is better for everyone involved.”

Couture-Lovelady, by the way, is not only a state representative but is also a member of the NRA.

In 2014, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the School of Public Health’s executive director expressed disagreement with the administration’s budgetary plans, which he and others had been told not to oppose in public.  Robert Buckingham’s tenure was revoked.  He was fired and physically removed from the University and was told he was “banned for life” from returning to campus.  Although he was to retire in a matter of months, his retirement benefits were withdrawn.  University Provost Brett Fairbairn’s letter to Buckingham read as follows:

“In publicly challenging the direction given to you by both the president of the university and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the university” [emphasis added].

Some leadership.  Some team.

(Buckingham was later offered part of his job back, and even later, Fairbarn resigned.)

Earlier this year, Steven Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois.  In 2013, he was wooed away from a tenured position at Virginia Tech to accept a professorship, also tenured, at UI’s Urbana-Champaign campus.  The following summer he was informed that his hire had been denied by the University’s Board of Trustees.

About ten months had passed since the initial offer.  The previous autumn, Salaita had proposed to UIUC that he finish up the year at VT, and UIUC had agreed to defer his start date until the fall. However, the Trustees’ vote on his position did not take place until the summer, well beyond the point where he had had to sell his house in Virginia and resign his position at Virginia Tech.  He was already working for UIUC, without a contract, preparing courses for the ensuing semester.  Yet the discussion about l’affaire Salaita circled around his offensive tweets.  (Some faulted Salaita for accepting such conditions, even as they failed to scrutinize the management that expected him to commit, relocate, and begin working before the Trustees voted.)

In March, former associate professor of anthropology Kimberly Theidon filed a lawsuit against Harvard University.  She contends that she was denied tenure in response to her advocacy for victims of sexual assault:

Yes, I was denied tenure in retaliation for my Title IX protected speech and conduct in support of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Theidon says that she was explicitly told not to speak up about sexual assault.  Her tenure case was decided while Harvard was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in regard to Title IX violations.  Theidon, quoted in the Boston Globe, says she was expected to “check her conscience” when she entered campus:

“It’s about the fact that that institution would prefer to deny tenure to an eminently qualified person rather than tenure that person and have her continue to speak out about how much they have failed to protect students, both women and men, on that campus.”

(I remember reading an account—though I do not have a link handy—wherein Theidon reported being advised by an administrator that faculty do not normally undertake advocacy before attaining tenure.  I wonder what sort of explanation a junior professor might offer for keeping silent about violent criminal activity for six or more years.  “Sorry, can you reschedule your assault and PTSD for 2020?  Maybe I’ll be able to offer support then.  That is, if I get tenure . . .”)

So, back to Oz.  The anti-intellectualism and even magical thinking that feed his success deserve critique, and he deserves censure.  But the reactive craving for his termination, undertaken in the name of reason and science, give pause.  Oz is no intellectual—at least, not in his current incarnation.  However, the mass vendetta that seeks to remove him resembles, causally or not, battles against the very intellectual integrity that Oz-ousters claim to value. The content drives the public discussion, and the form is overlooked.  As are the likely repercussions.

It’s not so far from cries of “Reiki faker!” to accusations of  “amendment thwarter!” Or “insubordinator!” Or “Anti-Semite!” Or “man hater!”

In hawking magic coffee beans and in hosting celebrities who blame themselves for their cancer while promoting their new albums, Oz may do harm.  And so may those who tread the warpath looking to incite his downfall.  We do well to keep our bloodlust in check.

Those who are so invested in Ozgate may consider themselves rational and intelligent and superior.  They may be right.  But they may also be playing with a fire they do not even know is lit.  Some academic voices are touted and amplified, others merely tolerated, and still others are silenced altogether.    The forces that determine these outcomes cannot be seen on TV shows.

Some praise Oz for daring to speak up against GMOs and Big Food.  Others deride him for promulgating wishful thinking through homeopathy.  One need not embrace a rudderless relativism to realize that the verifiability of his claims is not the sole issue at stake.  (Have you never received inadequate advice, based more on personal bias than rational consideration, from a medical professional?  I have.)

Imagine an intellectual you respect, one with a keen intellect, unwavering integrity, and a fierce commitment to the greater good.  Imagine her fulfilling her professional obligations with expertise commitment yet being subjected to claims of inappropriate speech and insubordinate behavior.  Imagine her research, lauded in the field at large, suddenly subjected to disproportionate scrutiny and found lacking by the administration that had previously tenured her.  Imagine her being directed not to speak in public—whatever “public” means these days—about any misgivings she may have about her university’s policies. Imagine her receiving word that she should not, at 11 p.m. of an evening, on the comfort of her sofa, compose an impassioned, impolitic few sentences expressing frustration at gun violence.  Imagine her being told she is not to speak up in support of students who have reported being raped.

That’s why we have tenure.  Or had it.

A little Reiki and unfounded weight-loss advice might not be such an insupportable price to pay for academic freedom.  And who’s so sure we can’t converse with the departed anyway?

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Fourteen, and Fourteen, and Fourteen More

Fourteen Poems of Fourteen Words,
contributed to 14 Words For Love
—Barbara White


Granny_Smith_Apple_02

They say, “love the one you’re with.”
But what if I’m with Granny Smith?


Can’t sell me Love™, but keep on trying.
I’m sure someone else is buying.


256px-Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg,_official_SCOTUS_portrait,_crop

Fourteenth Justice

Ginsburg is better than lingerie.
Congress, in truth, is not always play.
Even today.


Vegetarian Valentine
To South Carolina Senator Thomas Corbin

You call me a lesser cut?
My loin’s too tender for your tasteless butt.


Valentine’s sentiment is but a veneer
To obscure the outrage that we live in fear.


A Song for Keats

Keats was sweet on unheard music.
If only he’d lived long enough to sing.

[Keats’s Grave.  Photo By Giovanni Dall’Orto, via Wikimedia Commons.]


We’ll be ashes before long.
Shall we gasp the Valentine song?
Is that wrong?


If it’s not love, it need not—can’t— do.
Gamergate, Rodger, Rice.  And you?


After Miles Davis

“My Funny Valentine”:
Chromatic inner line.
I’d walk miles to hear that muted trumpet.

[“Miles Davis by Palumbo” by Tom Palumbo from New York City, USA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.]


Billie_Holiday_1949_b

After Billie Holiday

“My man don’t love me;
Treats me awful mean.”
[Repeat first line on subdominant.]


Fourteen
lines:
Shakespeare’s
love.
Quatrains,
couplets.
Five
feet.
Prithee
love
faster:
our
minutes
hasten.

Young_Dorothy_Parker
“One of you is lying,”
Dottie says.
I think her lie
belies her truth.

Buddha Cracks Filter
“Be a lamp unto yourself,”
the pot-bellied sage advises.
Or, unto one another?

Number’s Up

Fourteen, and fourteen.
Fourteen more.
Spent am I.
Time to stop, sleep, and snore.

 

All Hail Motherhood!

“Be her motherfucker.  She wants you to be her motherfucker.”
Not quite Anonymous

Norman Rockwell • Saturday Evening Post • 1943

“Girls are fully nurtured by society in their journey to adulthood. Girls understand that when they show leadership, integrity, and self-respect, they are honored as total motherfuckers.”
Not quite George McEncroe

“As we head in opposite directions, he politely inclines his head toward me,  leaving a respectful space between us, and congenially says, ‘Top of the mornin’, fellow motherfucker.’ Humbly, asking nothing in return, he keeps walking, and I stop dead in the middle of the street, hoping someone else just saw two motherfuckers meet in delight.”
Not quite Emily Heist Moss

Consumer choices define the especially iconoclastic figure known as the “Marvs Mofo”: she supports the economy by patronizing Trader Joe’s, Michael Kors, and Starbucks.   There is a complex daily ritual of exercise, support of the arts, self-nourishment, and spiritual practice.  First comes yoga class, making sure to hydrate with tequila (brand of choice) while listening to Ariana Grande (a cult figure, no doubt).  Grounded and energized for the day, our Marvs Mofo changes into elegant jean shorts and moves on to eat artisanal flatbread while sampling craft beer.  This is followed by a dessert of locally sourced organic froyo and a peaty, imported single malt.  Then comes a late-night trip to Chipotle—and, in the morning, brunch.  Due to the highly secretive and selective nature of the Marvs Mofo sisterhood, is not yet known whether the typical—not that there could be such a thing!—Marvs Mofo cultivates friendships, makes a living, or attends church. Howevs, appaz she considers the esoteric, underground art practice known as Instagram totes crazy!
Not quite Kara McGrath

“No one would expect a motherfucker to quell her ambitions for the sake of others’ pettiness and envy.  That would be like asking her to gobble up dung with an incongruous smile, and why would anyone want her to do that?  It’s be as if she were pretending to be small so that  others could feel bigger.  What a fucked-up idea.”
Not quite Jessica Valenti

“Moving At the Speed of Thought”—Or, A Drop of Liquid Sunshine

[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013

[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging.  Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won.  But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]

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Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.”  He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion.  He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles.  I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.

[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]

Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).

[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard.  The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression.  And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later.  I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]

Turtle-300x225

Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”

[Indeed.  One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma.  I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess.  My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—

—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]

Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward.  He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.

There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential.  “What would equality look like?  What would it sound like?”

Co-opValues-e1364834965182-224x300

Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts.  She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma.  I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.

Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules  in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended)  that  the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around.  One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”

[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.”  Perhaps its exit is also messy.  I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine.  I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work.  I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format.  Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma.  I have had enough bleeding for now.  Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]

BerlindEmptyFiltered-300x200

Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.”  The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.”  Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.

Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach.  Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about.  He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.” 

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It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated.  Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all.  Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year.  I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.

These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”

March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness.  Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating.  The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while.  I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly.  Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together.  I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit.  Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.

Gangplank-225x300“The speed of thought”: the speed of my thought, I see, is slow, its path recursive, its destination hidden.  Sometimes it feels less like a path and more like a gangplank.

March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world.  Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists.  It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.

April 1: a good day to post at face value.  Time to listen to the birds, head out,  and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.

chant_smoky_lotus-copy

*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs.  “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.

 

What is Classical Music’s “Women Problem” Problem?

Chewing on the many issues raised by
“What Is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” by 

Formerly posted elsewhere by Barbara White, October 11, 2013

Thank you for calling attention to this issue, for covering it with nuance, and for including counterexamples. This eruption has an all too familiar shape: there is the A theme (inane offending statement), the B theme (understandably outraged response), and . . . well, not a lot of development. Recapitulations abound though: Twenty-five years ago Rolf Smedvig, trumpeter with the BSO, claimed that women lacked the equipment to play brass instruments, and there was outcry; in 2013, despite certain improvements in circumstances, the nature of the discussion itself has not changed all that much.

The very question, “Why aren’t there more female conductors?” shapes the discussion by implying that there is a clearly identifiable cause for underrepresentation and that the interviewee himself possesses a sophisticated and worthy understanding of a complex societal problem; this invites him to express his unconsidered biases and just make something up. When posed to a (specific) male figure who, it appears, has had no incentive to consider his male privilege, and who does not care about the underrepresentation of women in his field, the response is more a script than an exchange: a man exposing his inadequacy by claiming (yawn) that women are “weak.”

Consider a different question: “How do you go about fostering equity and respect in the workplace to make sure that the profession can ascend to the highest possible level?” I don’t for a moment think the esteemed gents cited here would start waxing poetic about diversity and inclusion, but it would take a step away from these unwitting invitations to proclamation one’s incomparable virility: “Why no women? Because my penis rules! Only I can wield the wand!” (Yawn again.)

And why is this called a “women problem”? (I know this may not be the author’s title.) Could NPR instead dare to title this article, “Gender discrimination persists amongst prominent male conductors”? Or, “Misogyny hinders excellence in classical music”? Or, “Male privilege still enjoyed by highly paid time-beaters?”

It is heartening to read, “I would like to hear the women in our community speak up as well, without fear of embarrassment, contempt or retribution.” And there are those of us who do speak up and write about such matters; I am only one who has done so. But the sad reality is that, in addition to the necessary burden of some of us (some women and a few men) taking on a second shift by addressing and resisting unequal treatment, those of us who advocate for equity do experience retaliation every day. And women are socialized to downplay the intransigence of inequity, encouraged instead to internalize the Ayn Randian notion that those who are tough enough will succeed and those who speak up about discrimination are just whiners—to focus on individual will and determination instead of systemic mechanisms that render some more equal than others. Ask a woman in a male-dominated field whether she has experienced discrimination (another one of those cocked questions), and see whether she checks the box yes or no. It’s another script, and a reply of, “No, no, not at all; I’m too strong for that” is positively reinforced. So, inviting women to speak up without fear is laudable but may—although this is absolutely inexcusable—cause even more harm to women. Even in 2013.  Sad but true.

For example, here is another prominent conductor speaking on the dearth of women in the field, ten years ago: “I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!” Who was that? Marin Alsop. It was posted on her site in 2003 as part of a
reply to the question, “Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?” It’s still there.

When Live-Saving Turns Life-Threatening

The wound and the eye are one and the same. From the psyche’s viewpoint, pathology and insight are not opposites—as if we hurt because we have no insight and when we gain insight we shall no longer hurt.
—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1975.

First, a recollection:

About seven years ago, I began taking an anti-cancer medication, Tamoxifen, after months of fretting about whether or not to do so. I had learned that in a very small percentage of patients, it could kindle or worsen depression.  Although it was very rare for that to happen,—my surgeon had never seen a single case, my oncologist maybe one or two—I was indeed one of the “small percentage” to be felled.  It took me some time to identify what was happening, but it really hit me that January when I caught a bad cold and had to stop my vigorous daily exercise routine. That habit was likely what had been keeping me afloat, and the sudden need to forgo it was devastating.  After a period of perilous despair, during which I felt increasingly disinterested in the next week, day, and hour, I realized that the medication I was taking in the hope of staving off a life-threatening illness was itself life-threatening. For me. (Those last two words are crucial.) Fortunately, my doctors understood this and supported my choice to discontinue the medication. Any doubts I had ever had about the chemical aspect of mood were dispelled that January. There are so many debates and opinions in the offing about whether medication is necessary, helpful, virtuous, and so on. Having had such a severe depressive episode instigated by medication—the inverse of the usual—proved once and for all to my bodymind that chemistry can drive mood. I was not as in charge as I would have liked to think. I could not just repair my mental state with talk, toughness, or the right course of action. Sometimes there is no best course of action available. Sometimes one engages in revivifying exercise and finds it helps. And sometimes one gets a cold and realizes that the bank of endorphins has been used up for the time being. Sometimes Whole Foods runs out of fish oil.

think what you are

Next, a reflection:

It’s easy to think we know what depression is and to think we have wisdom about what is best for another who has experienced despair and anguish. But we know little. As many point out, the casual of the use of the d-word,—“Maleficent isn’t playing any more?! I am so depressed!”—hinders understanding. The mysterious and “yin” nature of the disease does too. Its darkness is powerful and seductive. It’s resistant to illumination. Even those who spend their lives experiencing mood challenges, and treating them, acknowledge the limits of their understanding. Some say that those who die of suicide are selfish, or that they failed to ask for help. Some say that pharmaceutical companies are agents of the State, that their medications are designed to break down the body’s natural chemicals, and that they will inevitably lead to a cure worse than the disease. (Tell that to someone who’s planning to take her life this week. A decline down the road might not be a bad alternative.) That one may eschew the word “suffering” and choose spiritual practice over medication, as long as one meditates in the “right way.” These are all things I have read this week, and I have been especially disheartened to hear some who identify themselves as spiritual practitioners reveal such self-satisfaction, such a lack of humility and compassion. I remember when I was diagnosed with and treated for cancer, dealing with (some) others’ responses was infinitely more difficult than accepting my own morbidity and eventual mortality. I’ve felt similarly pained by much of what I have read this week.

I cannot help but think that the persistent misunderstanding of depression and other mental health conditions relates closely to the fear of decline and death that is so evident in US culture. There are so many claims about superfoods and antioxidants and kale. (Oh, right, kale has been dethroned; is that right? Oops!) However, such apparently “positive” possibilities to engineer über-health inevitably reveal a dark side: all too often, such a desire to be well conspires with a similarly American rush to judge others and to express opinions that arise less from knowledge than from unconsidered attitudes—and, I suspect, from fears. Why else would one police another’s kale consumption? I see this in the discussion about cancer as well: the notion that one can outrun it in one way or another, that it can be cured. I have yet to hear anyone besides me ask in response, “And then what? No death? A better one? Worse?”

I find it hard to imagine that such a “police state of mind” is good for anyone’s mental or physical health. Yet there continues to be a cultural emphasis on the transaction: do this, and you’ll get this. Thing is, there is not always a thing to do, and if there is, it is sometimes comes with a heavy tax. Risk more cancer? Or risk suicide with a drug designed to fend it off? Fortunately, I had a reasonable alternative available. But not everyone does.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (1926)

An invitation:

For those who have not had the “opportunity” to experience depression personally, or to look into its eyes in some other way, might you consider acknowledging your unknown knowns? Might you be able to tolerate the not knowing, as in Keats’s notion of negative capability? Might you emulate my doctors, who understood that their vast experience did not grant them omniscience, and who were able to accept that, even though it was statistically improbable, a life-saving medication could cause life-threatening side effects? Had they not, I might not be here to be wondering about this.

Here is the invitation, should you choose to accept it: For every opinion you express about depression, or other mental-health issue, read one article or essay about it. Or better yet, talk to someone who has lived with mental-health challenges, and instead of nursing your own opinion about how they should handle it, ask them about their experience, choices, and outcomes. It might be good for your own mental health too.

There’s No Map, But—

Below are some links that regarding mental health, depression, and well-being. They do not all agree with one another or with what I write above. I don’t always agree with myself either.

These two posts from The Belle Jar are especially informative:

When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

Life as a Mountain Hike (Guest Post)

HuffPo Canada Living has had some good articles this week:

Arti Patel, Robin Williams’ Death Reminds Us Of The Impact Of Words Like ‘Sadness’ And ‘Depressed'”

Shannon Fisher, “Suicide Isn’t A Product Of Not Trying”

Spiritual Practitioners Discuss Depression

Lodro Rinzler, Meditation Isn’t Enough: A Buddhist Perspective on Suicide

Krista Tippett discusses her experience of depression (among many other things) on The One You Feed” (podcast)

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

― Stephen Fry

—Posted by Barbara A. White

From One Egg To Another


It’s nice to see you here in the æther, Brad, and to read your “We Are What We Think.”  It’s been a while, and we do not really know one another, yet I’ve always thought you a fellow good egg, so I shall presume to speak freely, as one egg to another.  When I read your comment, I begin to dream about what it might be like to think of gender issues as simple and as something that could be gone beyond.  The thing is, I don’t have that luxury.  Indeed, #SomeOfUs, at some times, might experience the inverse: as if every mince of meat in the pie is wrapped within a tight crust of gender socialization.  All the veggies and spices are held in check; it’s hot and uncomfortable in there.  I observe how frequently constructions like, “it’s not just gender” come up.  (Again, socialization: I myself included a formulation not entirely unlike this in my earlier text.)  If I had a dollar for every time I read, “it’s not just gender,” I’d have . . . $0.73 on the dollar.

think what you are(I’ve had this détournement on hand for some time.)

I think we also think what we are.  Moreover, depending who holds what sort of power and how much, we are effectively what others think we are, whether or not we think so.  One could run around like a chicken with her head cut off if she continued to be and think this way.

This is my vantage point: rather than nibbling on the gender aspect as the chicken in the soup, I drink it in as the stock.  It’s always there, hydrating (or drowning) the rest of the ingredients, and it has caloric, if not always measurable, effects.  I often refer to the “second shift”—a term that has been used to describe women’s domestic “homework,” completed after returning home from the workday.  But the shifts are more than two: as “the gender” (a term a colleague applied to me once), I have a second shift in managing the chromosomal matters that come up from day to day.  On the occasions when issues of equity threaten to affect my performance and/or well-being, my third shift—seeking remedy—commences.  The price for all this is high.  Often the dishes go unwashed.  For days at a time.

I am intrigued by what you write in your 2007 essay, and I am sorry it was not embraced for more traditional publication.  I especially appreciate the inward-lookingness, which is all too rare in the contexts and culture(s) you describe.  Many of your stated concerns intersect with my own.  Along these lines, I have been conceiving of a project to do with the intersection of ethics and the arts—perhaps less frighteningly described as values and the arts.  My dream is to foster more attention to the implicit habits of mind that stock our soup and thus to the more explicit, if still unquantifiable, fruits and poisons of those habits.  Perhaps there is more discussion to be had on this topic.  Ironically, although gender is one of the main factors—if not the only one—that led me to reflect on values and ethics as related to artistic activity, the requirements presented by my many shifts preclude my moving forward on this endeavor at the moment.  It’s too bad, because I think such a project would contribute much to the field and its culture, and I would like to make such a contribution.  Maybe someday.

I remember that Paul told me about your blog when I was diagnosed with cancer, and I think we were experiencing life-threatening illness at the same time.  Perhaps there is something to the notion that such an experience can clarify and distill one’s values and goals.  Although that sounds cliché, for me one aspect of such reorienting may be that clichés cease to feel so clichéd; that values feel more urgent, more communal, less rarified.  Of course, I do not know whether this was your experience, so I would be curious to know.  For my part, I fired up the still and started on the moonshine some time before my diagnosis, so I was already under the influence of thoughts about impermanence before I met my tumors.  As I get older and continue breathing, I debate whether I want to spend my remaining years stirring against the current, or whether it would be more useful to twirl over to the blender to make gazpacho instead.

You mention “the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity.” #NotAll would choose to reflect, and openly, on this sort of privilege and its effects.  I suspect we might have some similar thoughts about the current political, cultural, and academic climate.  My eyes have been opened of late as I have learned more about the experiences of adjunct faculty across the country, as well as of tenure-track and tenured faculty who teach at institutions that permit less hermetic luxury.  And there are the recent threats to academic freedom, which seem to be arising at regular intervals.

As a fellow presumed good egg, perhaps you will be interested to hear that such a sense of safety and ease is is largely foreign to my experience.  My sense is of disenfranchisement and exposure to the elements—so much so that my saying even this much may well open me to professional risk.  Even though I am a full professor with a distinguished record, I do not believe my tenure to be secure.  I know that I do not have access to academic freedom.  My environment is not insular; on the contrary, I travel largely on my own, outside the clubhouse.  This is a shame and a shock, for such stability is one of the great perks of knocking oneself out as a junior professor (the others, of course, being able to work at home in pajamas, and having good health care if and when the overwork catches up—if that is, one thinks materialistically about such matters).  And I fear not only for my job security, livelihood, and wardrobe, but for my overall well-being and my very survival.  Stirring against the current takes a toll.  Again, it is an unquantifiable one, but it can be deadly in various ways, both literally and metaphorically.  I’m only joking about the pajamas, of course: it’s the vocation itself that draws me.  And so I am sorry to find that, even after paying my proverbial dues—plus the gender tax levied on top—I am hindered from “contributing to the field,” as we say when we advocate for our mentees in all those letters of recommendation, thwarted in my efforts to share the wisdom I have gained along the way.

IMG_0078

In the stream of your self-reflection, you write, “I could also hide behind the tired excuse: ‘I’ve already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?’ Been there. Done that.”  That is another difference.  I  sweat in the heat but am denied the license to get out of the kitchen.  I do not have the luxury of choosing not to be bored, or electing not to bore you.  As with life-threatening illness, one cannot take a break from gender disparity and disrespect.  Moreover, crafting a productive response to counterproductive circumstances is much harder than writing a dissertation or compiling a portfolio for promotion.  (Hmm—perhaps we could give tax credit to junior professors for gender duty?)  I’m damned if I cluck and damned if I don’t.  Instead, in order to survive, I must continue to cough up eggs even as my limbs are being chopped off.  How long before there are none left to sacrifice?  It’s like The Giving Tree, which I cannot but call “The Tree of Codependence.”  Or like the Monty Python’s disembodied knight.  (He perseveres, armless, to scoff at his opponent: “Chicken!”)

I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is worse than cancer.  Much worse.  I strode to my mastectomy, but I trudge to the concert hall.

In regard to the nature of the concert hall and thinking outside the box, I believe this matter too to be deserving of attention and inquiry.  I agree, in 2014, about the restrictions you identified in 2007.  But I have to play prep cook first and ask, whose box is it?  And how do those who have yet to make our way in step outside of it?   (By the way, hasn’t the fantasy of “thinking outside the box” become rather boxy itself since 2007?  Funny how that happens.  Times have changed.  Do you agree?  Should we at least ask the chicken’s name and make sure she’s got room to stretch?)

Do I remember correctly that when you came to the Princeton conference some years ago you performed solo, something kind of folky?  I remember having a resistance to that, in a way that will not surprise you given what you write/wrote in your essay.  And that’s a good experience to have.  I would not have the same response today, I bet.  What  might it mean that “something folky” is what puts someone off in the concert hall in the ivy?  (Or perhaps that was someone else.  It’s been a while.)

Fast forward to 2014, last night’s gig: I was ticket-seller for the Thursday-night Ceilidh here in Cape Breton.  There is a sign at the entrance to the Sessions Lounge that says, “Beer Belly Boulevard.”  Local musicians, mostly amateur, and (“and,” not “but”) supremely skilled and devoted; their music is moving and inspiring.  I got a $5 tip!—from a hulking, very drunk man who called me “sweetheart.”  I tried to refuse the money, suggesting he reallocate his funds to the bartender who was working for minimum wage and tips, but he firmly pushed the bill into my hand.  (Given his disinhibited state, I didn’t think it would be productive to undertake a discussion on his unwanted largesse.)  A fleeting moment, but neither simple nor beyondable: a physically intimidating man refused to accept that I would not accept his money and assumed license to address me with a term of infringement.  I toyed with the thought of disclosing to him my salary, whether the $0 per Ceilidh I get for taking tickets or the vast sum I receive for my multiple shifts at the university.  (In an immaterial sense, I am no longer sure which is more lucrative.)  Instead I took the colorful fiver and bought my duo partner a Bud.  Then I joined in the weekly jam session and played some jigs and reels on my bass clarinet, swimming along with the circle of generous and welcoming local virtuosi.  At ease.

And now, I must take my leave.  There is a very nice man across the room who has just cooked me an omelette.  (It’s actually French toast, but sometimes you gotta break an egg to make sour-grape lemonade, eh?  If I can’t catch a break, I’ll take poetic license.  With maple syrup.)

I am curious: how have your thoughts crystallized and/or shifted since your 2007 essay?  Anything new?  And to the larger—here I use such a word advisedly—issue: how is your health?  Good, I hope, in all ways, small and big.  (And let me know if you do not self-identify as a good egg; it’s not for me to say.)

—Posted by IAmNotMakingThisUp