Music

Canon #85, Tin

Announcing Canon #85 — “Tin.”

When I started looking for a name for this piece, I thought of the process by which it had come into being. I had spent a week playing with outlines that might help me explore different concepts from my list of things to try in future canons. One idea that’s come up a few times is to write a canon where the voices move primarily in similar motion. Could the voices still sound independent even if they moved in the same direction most of the time? To explore this idea, I created a simple outline with a one-bar lag where each line ascends by a major second, a perfect fourth, a major second, a perfect fourth. Quickly, the outlines spirals up from the low end of the keyboard’s range to the top. While something intrigued me about this material, I put it aside, thinking it was a dead end: too short, and too uniform, to make into a satisfying piece.

I then went on a long digression, abandoning the idea of a similar-motion canon to explore some other ideas from my backlog, and finally arriving at a new outline that I hoped to develop. Except, I couldn’t. I heard potential in the new material, but I couldn’t transform it from its raw state into music. There’s a process I go through that I might liken to tapping on a tin can to see what sounds it can make. The tin can is the outline, the seed, the initial sketch. How resonant is it? What can it do? Where is the sweet spot to strike it? Sometimes a beautiful shiny can makes only the dullest sound. That was my experience as I tested my new outline, “striking” it in different places to find a spot where some music might start coming out, but hearing nothing, nothing, nothing.

In the course of doing this, I tried putting the new material into 7/8 meter and I came up with rhythmic pattern that caught my ear and had a useful quality: within each measure, the two voices never hit on the same beat except the first. I couldn’t get this rhythmic pattern to work with the new material so, on a whim, I decided to apply it to very first outline I had created, the one I had deemed too simple to make into a piece. To my surprise, the music quickly took shape. It was like tapping on a tin can expecting a thud and hearing a long, shimmering ring. I think it was the simplicity and “hollowness” of the initial outline that made it resonate when combined with the complex rhythm.

I found that my initial material could be molded and reshaped in different ways, leading to a piece with three sections that is happily on the longer side for my canons (two and a half minutes). Bringing a canon’s frenzied motion to a stop is sometimes the thorniest part of the composition process. There were two ways I could go here. My first thought was to end the canon in a way that would preserve the austerity of its sound. The canon moves rapidly across tonal centers but now it would need to end in one specific place. How to do that without it sounding arbitrary? The ending shouldn’t be too “clean” or it might sound contrived, but it has to be strong enough to convince the listener that the piece is really over and hasn’t just stopped at an arbitrary point. And it has to maintain the energy and complexity that the listener has gotten used to. To make a long story short, I couldn’t write a convincing ending that seemed totally in character with everything that had come before, while feeling convincingly final, so I explored my second option: an ending that takes the piece in an unexpected direction. I took a little strand of “brightness” that surfaces occasionally throughout the darker tapestry of the piece, and gave that brightness the spotlight at the end. So while the conclusion might sounds like it’s happier or sunnier or just simpler than the earlier material, it still derives from that earlier material. It’s as though the other elements of the piece have fallen away, the commotion has exhausted itself, and now the winds that were tugging against each other have come into tune.

As for the technical details: the piece is in 7/8 and has three sections, each consisting of an ascending half and a descending half. There’s a one-bar lag throughout. The imitation is generally at the fifth, except in the third section where it’s mostly at the octave. Section 2 is an inversion of Section 1 (bass and soprano are swapped). Section 3 is a restatement of Section 1 but with parts transposed so the imitation is at the octave in the ascending section and the beginning of the descending section; ornaments are added here.

 

 

 

Music

Canon #84, Chalk

Announcing Canon #84 – “Chalk.”

Writing this piece has been a week-long journey. I was about to stop working on it before the week was up, and I was going to say that it’s the sort of creation where the finish line isn’t clear. With most of my canons I reach a point where I’m confident that every note is in the right place and nothing should be changed. But with some pieces, like Canon 84, I could change a whole bunch of notes and these edits might not make the piece better or worse, just different (this apparent malleability is what led me to the name “Chalk”). With such pieces one has to declare completion without the feeling of arrival. One has to accept that the so-called “final” version of the piece is just one of many possibilities with merit.

I was thinking this way about Canon 84 until I tried to go in and make some changes. Boy, was it difficult! The canon is dissonant enough that you might think it would be possible to change a few sharps to flats without the difference being apparent, but this piece doesn’t work that way. While I kept the name “Chalk,” I discovered that the piece does not lend itself to easy modification.

One of my main constraints in writing the piece was that the relationship between the lines should be “prickly.” Dissonances are emphasized, particularly the harshest ones, minor seconds and major sevenths. Another constraint was that each phrase should avoid establishing a tonal center. I think of the piece as an experiment where atonality is pursued, but not combined as it often is with other destabilizing elements like erratic rhythms, disjoint melodic contours, and an avoidance of phrasal repetition; instead, the atonal phrases try to be smooth and easy to follow, and they all adhere to the same rhythmic pattern: they’re all variations of the same idea.

To avoid establishing a tonal center I use some basic heuristics like trying to include pitch classes evenly, avoiding note repetitions that create emphasis, avoiding scalar patterns, and being very careful about perfect fourths and fifths as melodic intervals, always trying to cancel out their tonal implications. It’s easier to do this if you allow your melody to be disjoint and chaotic; it’s harder when you seek continuity.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to change this piece after my first attempt to wrap it up a few days ago. I kept noticing little violations of my heuristics for atonality, places where a note is stated one too many times in a phrase, or where a scalar pattern seems to imply a temporary tonal center. But almost every edit I tried to make in search of a “purer” atonality seemed to cause other problems, like introducing a vertical consonance between the lines and interrupting the “prickly” sonority.

And then I spent some time listening to one line of the canon alone, and I wondered if the phrases were too repetitive. I usually consider the sound of each line alone as an important part of the creative product. Sometimes there’s a trade-off between the beauty of the single line and the beauty of the two parts together: you can make choices that hurt the single line while enhancing the two-part whole. It would seem that the two-part whole should be given precedence because it’s what the listener is actually going to hear, but I take it as a matter of pride that the canon’s leader could be played alone, without the follower, and it would still be interesting. In the case of Canon 84, I struggled to edit the phrases so that when played outside the canon, they would sound more like distinct utterances and less like variations on the same thought. And I think I achieved this. I made a beautiful single-part piece with plenty of variety. But I scrapped the effort because the added variety made the canon harder to follow when heard in two parts. I realized that the repetitiveness of the phrases is actually an asset here, serving as a welcome anchor.

So this piece which I thought I could poke and prod turned out to be highly resistant to any kind of reshaping. I caught and corrected a few errors in the strict chromatic imitation this morning, and then decided not only that I would stop working on the piece, but that piece the didn’t want me to work on it any more anyway! The finish line was clearer than I thought.

That’s how I stopped working on the piece, but how did I get started on it? I was looking through some of my earlier canon scores and I remembered that I used to do something in my outlining process which, for whatever reason, I haven’t done recently. Most of my canons begin as outlines where each part is an uninterrupted sequence of whole notes. But I used to sometimes leave gaps or whole rests in these sequences, writing the phrase structure directly into the first version of the outline, instead of waiting till later to create phrase boundaries by adding rests where there had been notes: erasing parts of the outline in the same way you might give shape to a sculpture by removing parts of the original stone block. Leaving gaps in the outline makes the writing process easier because each gap frees you from a bunch of logistical problems. You don’t have to generate new material that seamlessly connects with the preceding material while playing well with the other part.

So I set out to make an outline with gaps, like I used to, and started wondering what I could “do” with those gaps. I came upon the idea of changing the interval of imitation after each gap, so instead of having a “canon at the octave” or a “canon at the fifth” I would would have a canon where each phrase in the follower imitates the leader at a different interval. (I’ve used a shifting interval in previous pieces like Gallium and Palladium, but circumstances were different in those pieces, long story.) I wondered how the effect of such a shifting interval would differ between a tonal canon and an atonal one. I decided to try things out in an atonal context. I gradually developed the core material of the piece, a set of six phrases where the follower (soprano) imitates the leader (bass) a major sixth above, then a minor second above, then a minor sixth above, then a tritone above, then a major seventh above, and finally a minor second above. Having done this, I hoped to extend the piece by inverting the parts, but it didn’t work because I had used a lot of fourths; these turned into fifths which didn’t have the proper “prickliness.” I decided instead to have the piece repeat without an inversion. But I found I could introduce some variety into the repeat through a few transpositions. In the repeat, the follower’s first phrase is transposed so the interval of imitation is an octave, and the third phrase is transposed so the interval is a major seventh. Both transpositions came about through experiment and were selected because they preserved the requisite prickliness. The leader’s final phrase is also transposed an octave higher to increase the tension at the conclusion.

What does the piece mean to me? I find it kind of thrilling to hear an interaction between the voices that is calculated, on the one hand, but chaotic on the other. It’s a loud, sharp entanglement that’s neither an argument nor an embrace. I like how the phrases are “free” from the magnetism of a tonal center but at the same time they have a feeling of direction and drive. The soundscape and phrasal repetition reminds me of earlier canons Flint and Zebra Marble but those are much more tightly patterned than this one.

 

Music

Canon #83, Fulgurite

Announcing Canon #83, Fulgurite.

This is my first new canon in roughly a year. Like all my canons, it’s abstract music that has nothing to do with current events. But the need to get my mind off the pandemic is what motivated me to start work on this piece. It worked. For a few days, finishing the piece was my all-consuming obsession and all the bad news about the virus receded into the background. Of course, those few days of “flow” were preceded by many days of struggling to get started, fiddling around with ideas that seemed to go nowhere. An analogy came to mind: starting a new piece is like trying to start a fire with a few sticks on a rainy day. You keep rubbing the sticks together and nothing happens. You go to sleep cold, having failed to create even one spark. Then you try again the next day. It rains again. The wood is all wet. A few days go by and the routine of futile struggle becomes familiar. You feel guilty about wasting time. You think of other pursuits where you could be more productive. You think of obligations you’re ignoring, messages you haven’t responded to, chores you haven’t done. You wonder if you’re missing something: is it time for a new approach? Is it time to quit? You think of the fires you’ve kindled in the past, and wonder if the magic is gone forever. These thoughts arise because you’re hoping for a shortcut. But there are no shortcuts. The only path that leads to a new fire is the path through discomfort: some boredom, some monotony, some doubt. The only way to start the fire is to show up in inclement weather, day after day, so that at some unpredictable moment, when there’s a window, an opening… when conditions are right for the fire to start, you’ll be there, rubbing those sticks together and making it possible for the first sparks to form.

The names of my canons, which I take from lists of minerals, metals, and gemstones, are somewhat arbitrary, but I do try to find a loose connection between the composition and the title where possible. Fulgurite is a material formed when lightning strikes the ground, fusing sand and soil together. Canon 83 is a dissonant piece where the parts seem to be “fused” together rather than seamlessly blended. Also, I had been hoping for something like a lightning strike, and it came. For those reasons, the title seemed appropriate.

The piece is in 5/4 and continues a series of canons I’ve been working on that explore odd meters. The subdivision pattern (3+2 vs. 2+3 vs. 4+1) switches from measure to measure. Imitation is at the octave with a two-bar lag. Dissonances like major seconds, perfect fourths, and minor sevenths are emphasized on strong beats; however, the tonality of each line is fairly centralized around A minor and doesn’t stray too far afield. So the piece explores how a dissonant sonority and an anchored tonality can happen together.

When I first started work on the piece, I thought I would experiment with extreme ranges, with the leader confined to the lowest end of the keyboard and the follower confined to the highest. That experiment will have to wait for another piece; it didn’t quite work out here. However, the piece does start with the leader quite low, entering on an A2 and returning to that note repeatedly, while the follower stays relatively high. And the piece did get me thinking about range in some new ways. A major second sounds very different from a major second plus an octave, a major ninth, but what about a major ninth versus a major sixteenth? Do we consider those compound intervals as equivalent or are they different experiences, with the intensity of the dissonance reducing as the distance between notes increases? How might this reduction of intensity with each added octave change one’s contrapuntal choices?

In working on this piece I found that the soprano and bass interplay only “worked” for my ear when those parts were separated by several octaves; move them closer and they didn’t sound right. However, when I inverted the counterpoint to create the second half of the piece, the opposite was true. The inverted voices did not make sense to my ear when separated by multiple octaves, but when I moved them closer so they almost touched, I was delighted by the result. Why? I’m not sure.

The second half of the piece is not something I could have ever written from scratch. It only came about by my writing the first half, then inverting it, then experimenting with the range of the parts, and finally making a few modifications to avoid certain jarring coincidences. The second half straddles the line between order and chaos in a way that I really like. The voices are hard for the ear to untangle, but they still assert independence, making clear, assertive gestures that the ear can latch onto. It’s chaos, but it’s controlled chaos; it’s noise but it’s purposeful noise. I wouldn’t know how to sit down with a blank page and compose that kind of purposeful noise directly, but I was able to discover it in a rearrangement of the components I had already created for the first half of the piece.

Life

Practicing Optimism

Earlier in my life, in those occasional moments when I’ve felt really dejected for one reason or another, and a friend, listening to the litany of my troubles, has suggested I simply need to have a better attitude, that I should look on the bright side, I’ve usually muttered something to the effect of “You don’t understand.” When I need commiseration or catharsis, it may feel like an insult to be told that I should be more optimistic. Such advice overlooks the details of what’s troubling me and implies that I bear the responsibility for my condition: my real problem isn’t out there in the world, but rather in my mind. If I would just think differently, I would feel differently, and if I refuse to do that, then my suffering is in some sense my own fault.

It’s easy to chafe at such advice, and to reject it, particularly when you feel that the person giving the advice doesn’t really “get” what you’re going through: the confluence of factors outside your control, the unreasonableness of other people, the inescapable thorniness of happenstance.

But whenever I’ve bristled at the idea of looking on the bright side, there’s been a tinge of epistemic hubris in my position: I’m absolutely convinced I’m seeing the truth. The truth is ugly and that’s why I’m sad. To be cheerful at such a bad time would require willful ignorance. Being sad, in this view, is almost virtuous in that it involves a refusal to look away from reality, however grim, and an unwillingness to be duped by happy fantasies. Being sad is being honest.

My stance regarding “positive thinking” has changed in recent years. I’m more open to it, less likely to resist it as I’ve just described. That’s not to say I’m able to transform my perspective from gloomy to hopeful at will, but that I respect those who can pull off such a feat and I believe there’s something for me to learn here.

Here’s an argument I accept: if you walk into a room, you may think you’re seeing the full truth of the room, but of course you’re only seeing the few parts of the room you’re looking at. You could take a photograph that shows light coming in through the windows, and someone viewing this image would sense an airy, welcoming place. Or you could take a photograph that shows dust and cobwebs in an abandoned corner, and someone viewing this image would think the place is cramped and dirty. Is one photograph more honest than the other? No, they are both honest but partial depictions of a complex reality. It’s like this with any situation: where you point the lens makes all the difference. When we feel dejected it’s often because we are pointing the lens at those things that are most troubling to us, ignoring or discounting the possibility that we could point the lens in other directions too.

Photography requires skill that can be developed through practice, and likewise we can practice and improve at finding perspectives that emphasize the hope and promise in difficult situations as opposed to emphasizing only the pain. We can be kinder “photographers” of our circumstances. We can be more receptive to what might be beautiful or inspiring, and less obsessed with showcasing what’s ugly or upsetting. We can do this not by denying reality and embracing fantasy, but simply by changing what aspects of reality we concentrate on.

From those last paragraphs, you might conclude that I have consumed the Kool-Aid of positive thinking, and maybe I have. What made me do it?

I’ll mention one of the moments that brought about a shift in my attitude. It was when a critical care nurse who had just taken my blood pressure, reviewed my medical chart, and interviewed me about my various concerns told me that I needed to be more optimistic to be more healthy. I was not in an ICU; rather, I had signed up for a course in stress management and mindfulness at my local hospital, and I was having an intake session with this nurse, who would be teaching the class. So perhaps it was predictable that she would have said something about positivity. Nevertheless, it was shocking, in a helpful way, for me to receive optimism as a prescription, written by someone I viewed as a medical authority, the same kind of person who would tell you to take an antibiotic twice a day for the next two weeks, and you’d do it without question because you trust her to know what’s best for your physical health.

The nurse gave me an explanation of how thoughts can trigger a stress response or a relaxation response, and how those bodily responses in turn affect our fitness, immunity, and overall well-being. I’d heard such stuff before, but I was ready to be reminded. When a friend blithely tells you to be more positive you can be miffed that they’re not really commiserating with your pain, but when a healthcare practitioner tells you the same, quoting research and invoking the weight of a lifelong medical career, the advice carries a different weight. Where I had always viewed the tension between optimism and pessimism as private matter, a question of personal philosophy, something an individual could reasonably ponder throughout their life, this was the first time anyone suggested to me that one of those stances was an essential component of health, and the other was not.

Another thing that’s affected my outlook is that I’ve gathered enough years to look back on now, more than forty of them, and I can see that my bad moods never got me anywhere, even though in each case it seemed like being sullen was an act of protest, a way of sending a message to reality that I did not approve of its course. The message was never received, not once. I can only conclude that sullenness is not a great way to effect change.

During the nurse’s class, I wrote down my own summaries of points that were made. I’m reviewing them now as I look for wisdom to apply in the time of COVID. On one piece of notepaper, I wrote this:

Contentment comes from believing there is meaning in life and always working to find that meaning. The ability to find meaning is something that can be practiced: you get better at it the more you try. When you’re down, it’s because you’re overemphasizing negatives and ignoring positives – you’re turning away from sources of meaning – it’s that simple.

Is it really that simple? I’m not sure, but I do recognize that the times when my life has seemed the most suffused with meaning are the times when I’ve felt the happiest. I’m intrigued by the idea that a sense of purpose is not a static quality that a person might have or lack but that it is something we can cultivate as an ongoing practice.

I’m tempted to think that “looking on the bright side” is advice that applies to normal times, when you’re basically OK; in times of extreme stress, it might not be practical or reasonable to be optimistic. But I remember that the nurse who taught the class also works with cancer patients, some of whom are at late stages of disease: with only a few months to live, she would say, it’s still not too late to embrace a more optimistic outlook, and doing so could help you make the most of what time you’ve got left. Even if your day was spent struggling with the side effects of chemo, there might have been a moment when you laughed at something or appreciated a kind gesture from a friend. Focus on that moment, and savor it. Give the good things more airtime than the bad things. Doing that can only help you.

As COVID rages, there is a lot to practice. We are cut off from so many of our most natural and familiar sources of meaning. Where we find meaning in physical togetherness, gathering with friends, camaraderie, public celebration, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in travel, adventure, novelty, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in live performances, plays, concerts, sporting events, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in shared meals, we must now eat alone. We can move some of these activities online, but it’s not quite the same. As we lose the social rituals that keep us feeling connected, we may also be losing whatever economic security we have worked to achieve, fearing for our own health and those of our loved ones, and hearing daily reports of illness, death, and systemic dysfunction.

The idea is not to ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening. The idea is not to artificially think cheery thoughts. Rather, it’s to experiment with “photographing” this situation in different ways, holding the camera at angles we might not often think to use. What beauty is still transpiring in the world even as the pandemic expands? What lessons can we learn from the experience before us? What opportunities for growth and change does it present? What meaning can we find in it? Take the time to list possible answers to these questions. Even if you’re not persuaded by those answers, see how many you can come up with.

And now I come to the challenge of practicing what I preach. I will try to list a few things that have been making me feel good or giving me hope in the past few days, and I’ll try to crank the list out in ten minutes, so it’s going to be unpolished:

I’ve had some really good phone conversations with friends and family, especially my mom, over the past two weeks.

I’m glad I developed an exercise routine before the pandemic because it’s serving me well now.

I’m getting reacquainted with my music collection, listening to some albums that I haven’t heard in years.

I’m cooking every meal at home. This is the first time in my life when I’ve sustained a practice of 100% home cooking. Now that some ingredients are hard to get, I’m appreciating each meal more than I otherwise might.

I’ve still got a job. A home. A partner. A life.

I’ve watched some good movies this past week. For whatever reason, I never developed a movie streaming habit; maybe now’s the time to partake (even though, alas, streaming has a hidden environmental cost).

I’m sleeping well again.

My musical collaborator just sent me some fantastic clavichord recordings of some of my new canons. I’m eager to keep working with him and write more canons. Also, to record some of my songs. And start some new musical experiments.

Listening to those few leaders who project competence, composure, and respect for science.

I remember that by staying home, the average person is not only protecting their own health, but the health of all of us. Our isolation is a social gesture, an act of solidarity. We’re saying inside for each other.

My ten minutes is up.

Journal

March 22, 2020

Taking stock after nearly a month of isolation. My last social activities were on the first weekend of this month. I got together with some neighborhood friends for a musical jam on Feb 29 and then joined a neighborhood singing group on Mar 1. I went to the supermarket on Mar 2, voted on Mar 3, and went to the supermarket again on Mar 9. I took a short walk yesterday. Other than that I’ve been in my house the whole month. I’m over the initial wave of panic that shook me from the 12th through the 15th, and am starting to settle into life in my little cocoon. I picked my exercise routine up again this morning for the first time after completely exhausting myself with frantic calisthenics on the 12th.

In some ways, not much has changed in my life yet: I’ve been working from home and practicing my other pursuits largely at home for years. Now I’m just spending more time in that same familiar place. But it all feels different when you’re trapped there; when you don’t know when you’ll be able to see friends and family again; when you don’t know if you or someone you love might get sick; when the world is collapsing around you.

I’ve heard some people joking that for introverts, “social distancing” is a way of life whether there’s a pandemic or not. But as an introvert, I can say that nothing about today’s requirement for social distancing feels comfortable or natural. I may not want to socialize as often, or for as long as an extrovert would, but socializing is just as important to me.

I’ve been washing my hands so much that the skin around my knuckles is getting red and cracked. Perhaps all this washing is overkill because I’m not going out, so presumably my chances of having the virus on my hands are slim, but I’m still receiving packages, and handling the things from inside the packages, and with reports that the virus can live on surfaces for several days, I find it hard to judge the right level of precaution. There are articles that say you can’t get coronavirus from a package and other articles that say the virus can live on cardboard for a day and plastic for three days. As for my skin, I was going to order some moisturizer but I remembered I have two jars of coconut oil in the cupboard so I started using that and it’s helping.

I think I’ve gotten pretty good at not touching my face. When I don’t rub my eyes at all throughout the day, they feel dry and start stinging, and there can be an accumulation of goop. Showering in the morning is now the one time I really touch my face and that has become such a highly anticipated and relieving moment.

My meals these days are made from the ingredients I can order. It feels lazy to click some buttons online and have food brought to my door, but I feel better about it than I do about going to a crowded store, being closer than six feet from other shoppers and wondering what I might be inhaling.

Not everything can be ordered. It’s probably impossible to order a large sack of rice right now. I tried ordering a package of soap bars but the order was cancelled due to supply issues. Ditto with Tylenol.

I did have the foresight to place a large order of dried beans at the beginning of the month. And a few days ago I received 10lb bags of amaranth, lentils, split peas, and farro. And yesterday I ordered a 23lb bucket of rolled oats and a 32lb bucket of teff (indeed, all the rice buckets were sold out). I suppose cooking is one of the few things about the pandemic that I actually feel prepared for. I love lentils, grains, and beans, and now is the time to savor them. While I’ve always tried to buy staples in bulk as opposed to in little plastic bags, I haven’t always been consistent about it; now I’m finally doing it.

I’m running through paper towels like crazy with all the washing and hand-drying I’m doing, so I ordered 100 cheap cotton handkerchiefs and I’m planning to use them instead of paper towels from now on.

In my household, in normal times, having avocado toast for dinner would probably be considered as just a little bit of a disappointment; the kind of dinner you make when you’re in a rush, not as satisfying as cooking a full or “proper” meal, and not as fun as going out. But my partner and I had avocado toast for dinner the other day, and I wondered if we might look back on that meal as a rare luxury. The avocado came from Mexico. Are we really going to keep being able to get these delivered to our doorstep as the world shuts down? The Mestemacher rye bread came from Germany. It comes in sealed plastic bag and it has a long shelf life, so you can keep it in the cupboard for times when you’re out of fresh bread. It’s a good staple for a pandemic. But it’s selling out — last time I tried to order it, only one bag was available. The tomatoes came from Backyard Farms in Maine. They’re fresh produce and I didn’t know who handled them so I washed each one with soap. We added some mashed yam to our avocado toast. I’m not sure where the yam came from but apparently lots of US yams are from Louisiana. How easy is going to be to have yams magically appear on our doorstep as the pandemic continues? We added garlic powder, salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and dried onion flakes. It won’t take long to run out of all these things. Our humble avocado toast just might be one of the more extravagant and widely-sourced dinners we eat in long time. Or it might not. Perhaps the food supply chain will keep humming along as everything else shuts down, and all these ingredients will remain easy to get. Who knows what’s going to happen?

I spent an hour today putting together my next large grocery order. When I was ready to checkout, the system asked me to select a delivery date before I could continue. There were two delivery options: 1) Today: NOT AVAILABLE, and 2) Tomorrow: NOT AVAILABLE. Since I couldn’t select either of the options, I couldn’t continue. Dead end.

In a way it’s kind of refreshing for the system that promised us unlimited options, unlimited convenience, immediate gratification to break a little bit and let us feel what it’s like to not be able to click some buttons and promptly get what we want. Musing on this for a few moments, I was about to abandon my order but I decided to refresh the webpage, and when I did that, a new delivery window appeared like magic in place of “Today: NOT AVAILABLE.” Now it said “Today: 6-8pm.” So I selected that and my order showed up in two hours. And there I was in my kitchen, washing the tomatoes and rutabaga and bottles of kefir with soapy water.

My soundtrack these days has alternated between news and Gregorian chant. I’d probably be happier if I just stuck with Gregorian chant.

My neighbor, a retired cop, was out on his deck today playing soft rock on the radio, grilling, and chilling. He has a bubble machine that he likes to bring out. I could see the bubbles floating over to my deck, some of them even bursting against my window. It occurred to me that bubbles are made of soap and soap “kills” the virus. It actually breaks the components of the virus apart. So maybe if every person on the planet got a bubble machine and we all just blasted bubbles out in every direction for a few days, carrying our bubble machines with us wherever we went, maybe that would end the pandemic? Well, I can dream.

 

Journal

March 15, 2020

I got a good night’s sleep but I felt my anxiety returning this morning. I did some deep breathing and it helped. The key, I think, is to be conscious of the inhale and exhale, to make them slow and smooth, and to let the inhale fill the belly. It’s easy to believe you’re doing that when you’re not. In the past few days I’ve tried to use deep breathing to calm down, and it seemed not to make much of a difference. Why? Isn’t deep breathing supposed to be the most effective thing you can do for stress? I was probably too agitated to realize that my “deep breathing” consisted of shallow inhales and quick exhales. I was making enough noise to give the impression that I was doing something deliberate, when I was really just expressing panic through my breath. This morning I found it easier to concentrate on my breathing, slow it down and make it smooth, and I experienced a more calming effect from it. It works if you really do it.

I came up with a meditative exercise for this time of social distancing that completely changed my mood. Here’s how I would teach it to someone else: stand up straight. Notice your posture and adjust it until you’re standing up with comfort and confidence. Focus on your breathing and make it slow, smooth, deep. Close your eyes and reach your hands out to your side as though you were holding hands with a circle of people who you care about. There’s one person on your left and one on your right. Feel the warmth of their hands. Concentrate on this warmth until your hands feel warm too. Imagine different people from your life entering the circle. Imagine everyone is singing the same note in unison. Or imagine everyone is joining in an affirmation: “We’ll get through this together.”

I cried at the end of that. I did some singing practice against a drone, and it helped too. I have an Indian digital “tanpura box.” I switched it on for the first time in a while, and I just held a steady C against its C. I could hear my pulse in my voice.

Another thing that helped today was to think about adaptive perspectives, ways of looking at the situation that make it easier to cope. One of the most paralyzing aspects of the current situation is its novelty. Most of us have never experienced anything like this and never expected we would. There’s a tendency to think it’s somehow wrong or unfair, that it “shouldn’t” be happening, or that it wasn’t “supposed to happen.” Reality itself seems like it’s gone off course, and we want to steer it back to where it was. But resistance makes it harder to move forward. I actually find some comfort in the thought that pandemics aren’t novel. They’ve been happening throughout human history. The first recorded one happened in 430 B.C. Skipping ahead, the sixth cholera pandemic started in 1910, followed by the flu pandemic of 1918. There were other major flu pandemics in 1956 and 1960 and of course there’s the ongoing AIDS pandemic. I’m leaving out H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and so on. And there are enough viruses out there to cause pandemics for the indefinite future. So although coronavirus is turning our lives, and our expectations about life upside down, this is far from the first time people have gone through something like this. The headline of the Seattle Daily Times on Oct. 5, 1918 blared “Churches, Schools, Shows Closed: Epidemic puts ban on all public assemblies.” When we were born into this world, no one gave us a certificate saying that we’d never have to experience a pandemic. This too is a part of life for humans on this earth. I’m not sure how much comfort that will be if I or my loved ones get sick, but it’s at least comforting to me now as I read the current headlines and feel like the world is falling apart in a way that’s never happened before. Actually, this has happened before and will happen again.

One thing that compounds my anxiety about any situation is the expectation that I simply won’t be able to cope. But somewhere, sometime in the past few years, I heard it said that we often underestimate our ability to cope. We’re better at coping than we think. This observation stuck with me and has become one of the most useful items in my mental toolbox. Presented with a difficult situation, most people will find some way to deal with it. If you’re reading this now, it means that every challenge you faced in your life so far, you found some way to survive it. Every day, whether a pandemic is raging or not, brings a chance of death. But we should all assume we’ll find a way to get through this day, and the next, as we have so many days before. To reach this point, we’ve all demonstrated a capacity to deal with the unexpected, and we will again.

I’ll conclude with a photo. On 2/7 a friend of mine gave me an Amaryllis bulb. It came in a box with a plastic pot and some compressed soil. I followed the directions, adding water, planting the bulb, and waiting. By 2/23 it had done this. To take this photo, I put a piece of black cardboard behind the flower, adjusting the position so that the sun could still illuminate the petals from behind.

RudiSeitzAmaryllis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journal

March 14, 2020

Since I started this blog in 2012 I’ve avoided a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ve tended to post here only when my thoughts on a topic are fully formed and I can present them concisely. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic shaking the world, and the imperative for “social distancing” keeping me from seeing friends in person, I’m looking for ways to feel, and be, more connected to the people I know, as well as to readers “out there” whom I’ve never met, so I’m going to experiment with a more personally exposed, informal style. Some posts like this one will have a date as their title and they’ll basically be personal journal entries that I’m making public. Here goes.

Thursday the 12th was the day when my mounting anxiety about the pandemic turned into full-scale panic, where I could feel myself physically trembling all the time. The thought of getting sick, or witnessing a loved one get sick. The thought of hospitals being overwhelmed, people dying without care. The bungling, confidence-busting response of the current administration. The unknown: when will this end? The thought of friends losing their livelihoods. Businesses going bankrupt. The thought of losing what I’ve invested over the years. The soul-crushing cancellations: concerts, festivals, plays shut down; museums closed; schools closed; sporting events called off. The confusion about how to respond, how to prepare. The fear of contagion: is it safe to go out? Do I need to wash everything that comes into the house?

I’m not someone who has frequent panic attacks but I’ve experienced them a few times in the past, so I’ve looked into strategies for diffusing them. On Thursday, as I was feeling a surge of adrenaline every few minutes, I tried to draw on the mental model of anxiety that I’ve gathered from a stress management class I took at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital and from other material I’ve read about mindfulness and health:

Anxiety is energy. When I’m anxious, my body is giving me energy to respond to a perceived threat. My brain is keeping me fixated on the threat so I don’t get distracted from what I supposedly need to do: fight or flee. These automatic mental and physical processes are kicking in to help me escape a tiger that’s chasing me. These processes are “trying” to be helpful. Except it’s March 2020 and what I need to do is not run from a tiger but rather stay home, practice social distancing, cancel all my plans. The energy for fleeing a tiger doesn’t help with that.

So I had a bright idea. Why not do some exercise whenever that trembling, queasy sensation comes on? I started doing pushups and sit-ups to diffuse the anxious energy. Throughout my life I’ve taken long walks to relieve stress, but I had never done calisthenics for that particular purpose. It felt good. The relief was temporary though, and every hour I’d start to feel that tingling sensation on my skin again and my thoughts would return to catastrophes that might arise in the coming months. Cases doubling every six days. Not enough ventilators. Everything shut down. I’d do more pushups and sit-ups and squats and I’d feel better for a while. My stamina was great. I probably did more repetitions of each kind of exercise than I’d ever done before.

But I didn’t sleep well Thursday night. I was exhausted physically but my mind was still racing with the kind of fears that pandemics are so good at triggering. There were moments when I would stop trembling and could sense sleep coming on. It felt so gentle and good. I thought to myself, this is “sweet sleep” arriving, this is where the phrase comes from. Most nights I’m not aware of sleep’s onset, but Thursday night I could sense its blissful approach. I might liken it to a religious experience or to the very few times I’ve been on an opiate painkiller. A unifying calm would start to sweep over me, mollifying my agitated thoughts and making my muscles feel warm and loose. But then some kind of alarm in my mind would start ringing: you shouldn’t be sleeping now! Emergency! Then the soothing, enveloping blanket of sleep would abruptly withdraw, leaving me fully alert and focused on what might be the end of the world as I know it. So “sweet sleep” approached but never came.

Friday I was totally exhausted and more panicked than before. With no meetings on my calendar for the day and no urgent deadlines, I had trouble focusing on work. I kept turning to the news to try to make sense of the situation and figure out how I should respond. Reading articles online gave me something to do, and that felt better than being left with my own thoughts, but the articles were all horrifying, particularly anything written by or featuring a real epidemiologist, someone who studies pandemics for a living. These folks have done the math and you don’t want to hear the math.

I started feeling a mild burning sensation in my chest or lungs (I wasn’t sure how to locate it specifically) and when my partner mentioned, unprompted, that he was feeling something similar I began to wonder if both of us were experiencing the early symptoms of coronavirus. Checked my temperature. Normal. Felt I should try doing something productive so I started making an emergency checklist. What happens if I or someone close to me needs to go to the hospital in the coming months? How do we get there? What would I bring? What instructions would I leave for family and neighbors? I started making a supply checklist for the next few months. But it wasn’t a great idea to work on emergency preparedness while I was panicked and exhausted as it had a compounding effect on the panic.

The only time I’ve felt the same sense of dread at the possible impending collapse of the world was right after the 2016 election, but then it was about things that might possibly happen in the coming year, and now it’s about things that are happening at this moment: more than a hundred cases in my state of Massachusetts, some of those right here in Boston, and we’re told that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Fauci says the current numbers are like starlight – it’s not light from “now,” it’s light from however long ago it took to reach you. In other words, the cases we’re hearing about today are the ones that were created weeks ago; the number of cases today is larger by a possibly staggering amount.

I got decent sleep on Friday night, and today I’m feeling calmer. I wish I could report that some technique I had used on Thursday or Friday was particularly effective at getting through the panic. Every technique did something but nothing “cured” it.

The mental model of “anxiety as energy” is helpful, I think, as a way of separating the physical sensation from one’s ideas about the sensation. The feeling of anxiety means your body is trying to be helpful. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. So when you feel the skin tingling, the tremor, the queasiness, don’t let it freak you out. Don’t let the sensation persuade you that something’s wrong with you, or that things are worse than they are. Helpful advice, yes, but it might not be enough to make the sensations stop — they might continue all day no matter how maturely or wisely you interpret them.

Exercise is effective, I think, but Thursday’s lesson was: don’t overdo it. In a state of extreme anxiety you might be tempted to exercise a lot more than you probably should, especially if it keeps bringing relief, but if you don’t get good sleep afterwards you’ll be doubly drained the next day. Moderation.

Deep breathing has been helpful over the past few days but at many times I’ve just been too agitated to stay focused on it. I wonder if I just needed to go through two days of shock and mental upheaval to get adjusted to a new normal. Today I puttered around and didn’t do much of anything. No shaking sensations.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal introspection when keeping a journal. I kept a private one from 1998 through 2010 and then it tapered off in the following years. One of the reasons I stopped is that I got tired of talking about myself to myself. Those kind of discussions can easily end up following anxieties down a rat hole. I’ll try to do something a little differently this time around and always mention a few simple things that made my day brighter, even if by just a little bit:

Oatmeal breakfast was comforting as usual.

Good weather, a few hours of sun.

Played a bit on my new instrument – a banjo — learning my first tune on it, “Shady Grove.”

Did some composting.

Took a look at our garden beds and thought about spring planting.

Wore more layers than I needed (it wasn’t particularly cold) and enjoyed the feeling of being bundled up.

Time with partner.

Life, Society

Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

Leaving Facebook

Exodus Complete

Yesterday was January 12, 2020, the day my Facebook account became unrecoverable after a thirty-day purgatory, beginning with my deletion request on December 13, 2019. So I did it! Thanks to readers who have followed along with me through this process and thanks especially to Wade Roush who set an example to follow, and who gave me the chance to participate in an episode of his Soonish podcast on leaving Facebook.

So what am I going to spend my time trying to extricate myself from now that I don’t have Facebook to struggle with? Well there’s no shortage of things, but my eyes are on my cell phone. Wouldn’t it be nice if data brokers hadn’t captured my location history over the past decade, didn’t know every place I’ve been and how long I’ve spent there, weren’t profiting from this extreme privacy invasion, weren’t applying the stolen data to opaque purposes, and weren’t still collecting it with impunity? How do I know my location information has been compromised? Well, I don’t really, because there’s no way to find out who might have it, so there’s no way to see what they have, and there’s no way to ask for it back. But my freaking out is not unprompted. I was persuaded to freak out by the One Nation Tracked series in the New York Times where they show how data brokers have amassed enough location pings from “leaky” mobile apps that it’s possible to track the minute-by-minute whereabouts of secret service agents and senior pentagon officials and celebrities, not just folks like me. They talk about how this data, bought and sold by political campaigns, governments, and malicious actors could be used for blackmail, election influence, and other stuff that compromises democratic life. So you might want to read the article. I’ve been keeping my phone in airplane mode more often, and otherwise trying to keep location services off, with no illusions that this will make a dent in the problem — but it makes me feel good!

 

 

Criticism

Free Will

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d take fifteen hundred words to describe my position on free will.

We make countless choices each day, and we feel that these choices are ours, that they originate inside the self, that they depend on personal volition, which is to say that we are free to decide one way or the other — it’s up to us — so the outcome belongs to us. But what does this mean?

If I can make a choice by flipping a coin, or I can make it for cause, where does free will come into play? If my choice is made randomly, it is an act of chance, not one of will. But if my choice is made deliberately, for specific reasons, how is this different from saying that my choice is determined by those reasons? The choice is not up to me, it’s up to the reasons! Some of those reasons, of course, may be internal ones, aspects of my unique self, but the things that are unique about me are not things I asked for. I have judgement, but I never went shopping for judgement, picking a model that I liked off the shelf — it’s the sum total of the experiences I’ve happened to have and the qualities I’ve inherited.

If we are both invited to a party and you go but I stay home, do our differing behaviors show that we exercised free will? Perhaps I declined because I’m an introvert and you accepted because you’re an extrovert, so our choices depended on our individual personalities for sure. But if we didn’t also choose to be introverts or extroverts, where’s the freedom?

True, I can step outside the constraints of my personality and do something uncharacteristic, but when this happens, it’s for a reason too, and that reason itself has a reason which I probably didn’t choose. If I overcome my reluctance and go to the party after all, because I hear that John Doe is also going and I want to see him, then John Doe’s decision to attend can be said to have determined my own decision. My personal affection for John Doe may have been a factor here, but that affection is not something I chose to possess: it’s determined by preferences that I didn’t choose to have, and attributes of John Doe that I didn’t choose for him to have. I may have been on the fence about going, and when I finally decided to go I may have been unsure why I did so, but my own lack of insight into a wavering decision doesn’t mean it was free. Surely there were reasons that swayed me without my knowing.

How can we reconcile the feeling of freedom, the sense that we are making our own choices, directing our own lives, deciding which parties we will attend, so to speak, with the awareness that our choices are determined by things that we did not choose, and that every chain of causality – the reasons behind the reasons behind the reasons why we decide one way or another – followed long enough, must extend outside the self, into the realm of what we cannot choose?

If this is a conundrum that appears unsolvable, that’s because we forget that freedom is relational. I cannot simply be free. I can only be free in relation to something that might possibly constrain me. If the party was on a Saturday, and my boss doesn’t control my weekends, then my decision to go or not go was made freely with respect to my boss. He could neither have forced me to go nor stopped me from going. But it might be true that my friend Gary insisted I go, threatening great upset if I didn’t, so my choice was not free with respect to Gary. In the country where I live, I may possess something like freedom of speech, but that freedom only exists with respect to a government that could possibly constrain my speech; at the same time, I might be tightly constrained in what I say by customs I follow, agreements I’ve made with friends, contracts I’ve signed with employers, the language I speak, and the person I happen to be. Remove all possible constraints, all possible factors that could limit or control my speech, and I would be left howling, not exercising freedom.

And yet when we think about free will we think of it as an independent quality, something that exists on its own, something we either have or don’t have. We desire free will, or claim to have it, without specifying what it is free with respect to. Did I exercise free will in going to the party? To an observer who focuses on my boss’s influence, my choice will have seemed free; to an observer who focuses on my friend Gary’s influence, my choice will have seemed constrained. The appearance of freedom depends on which circumstances the observer knows about and considers important.

Still, we are bothered by the thought of an omniscient observer, an alien possessing superior cognition who could understand all the circumstances affecting our choices and use this knowledge to predict the outcomes. Where our behavior seems free to us because our understanding of its causes is limited, perhaps it would seem deterministic to a being that knew everything about us, a being who could see the causes that are hidden to us, a being whose viewpoint was panoramic where ours is narrow. And if our deepest, most intimate decisions could be predicted by an omniscient being, even just a hypothetical one, then our sense of freedom must be illusory, right? We insist that our actions make sense, that we have good reasons for what we do, that our behavior is coherent, on the one hand; on the other, we wish for assurance that no being could guess our next moves, even in principle. Our identity is bound up in the conflicting convictions that we are both rational and unpredictable.

What is undeniably true is that we have the experience of freedom, whether that freedom is real or not, just as one may have the experience of communion with God whether there is one or not. It feels a certain way to make choices. The feeling ranges from one of open possibility and even mystery, when external constraints are few and we’re not sure which way we’ll go until the moment of decision, to one of greater confinement when we’re pressured by circumstances to act one way or another, and the chance of resisting what’s prescribed seems slim. This feeling of freedom, in all its variations, affects our behavior: we may love and seek the experience, or we may fear and avoid it. An alien who sought to predict our behavior would have to understand our emotions, including those surrounding freedom itself. This leads to something of a paradox, because if the experience of freedom depends on our limited comprehension, our ignorance of predetermining factors, how could a being with unlimited comprehension really know what that’s like?

So my position on free will is this: freedom requires a point of reference. Absolute freedom is incoherent as a concept. To say we don’t have absolute free will doesn’t mean we’re missing out on something available, unless one thinks we’re also missing out on empty cups that are full or sunny days that are cloudy. At any moment, our will is free with respect to some things and constrained with respect to others. The factors that constrain our will are different from choice to choice, moment to moment, and this swirling, ever-changing multiplicity of factors is often so complex as to be, from our mortal perspectives, unknowable. If we’re bothered by the possibility that a being with superior cognition could guess our next moves, we should remember that the experiences we hold dear, including that of freedom itself, depend on our obstructed viewpoints, on our partial ignorance. We might wish for more knowledge, but having too much would deflate the experiences that give us meaning.