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Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Capitulations

After almost five decades of making New Year's resolutions, I have decided to take a different approach this year.  I am going to make some "New Year's Capitulations."  A "capitulation" is the opposite of a "resolution."  These are the goals that I am going to officially give up, surrender, and  cease worrying about/hating myself for not achieving.  This might sound like a depressing exercise, but it isn't.  My theory here is if there are fewer things to worry about, I might actually worry less.  Hey, it's worth a try...

So here we go:
  1.  Stop trying to lose that last 10 pounds of excess weight:  My body likes that little blanket of fat. No matter what I do, it sticks to me.  The only time I lost it was when I prepped for my colonoscopy. I am just going to learn to love my chub.
  2. Forget about becoming fluent in a foreign language:  I lost my chance to gain this skill in a natural way when I failed to pursue the goal in my school days days or during my time living overseas.  It takes work, focus and determination. Hell, I am 58 years old!  Those are limited resources at this stage in my life.  Punt.
  3. No hit records for you, buddy:  I used to think that my silly song-writing and blues band shenanigans could actually lead to a song that broke into the public consciousness and made money!  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!  What a delusion!  So I will just goof around with music for my own amusement.  Let other, more talented people strive for musical fame; I am giving up.
  4. No sub-4 hour marathon; in fact, no more marathons, period:  I managed to stumble through the Chicago marathon in 4 hours 20 minutes back in 1992.  I thought I was the next Alberto Salazar.  I set the goal for breaking 4 hours, then gradually improving my performance until I was at the front of the pack in my age group.  Well, I never ran another marathon and my knees scream at me if I run more than 2 miles.  Time to officially stop thinking about this unimportant, unattainable goal.
  5. No CEO job:  I was the CEO of a small company for a short time and it was the worst experience of my working life.  In spite of that, I kept thinking that being the top banana is a worthy goal.  It ain't gonna happen, and that's a good thing, because I am a lousy CEO.
  6. Give up on the idea of having a successful marriage:  I have spent most of my adult life married, to two different women.  It seemed like these marriages started out pretty well, but after a while my spouses started to detest me. I am currently unraveling my second marriage.   I am still in favor of marriage, but I don't seem to be cut out for it.  I will stick to friendships from now on.
  7. Inner peace? Fuhgedabowdit!!:  I have no idea what "inner peace" means, exactly, but my interior life is a bubbling pot of weirdness.  Meditation or cups of tea or large quantities of adult beverages have no impact on this. Time to face it - turmoil will be in my heart forever.
Dropping these seven items still leaves me plenty of stuff to pursue.  I hope that I will move a little more nimbly by dropping some baggage.  

Happy New Year!!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mood Disorders

Like everyone else in America, I have been horrified and saddened by the mass murder of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  I am a parent.  It is an unbelievable nightmare.  And it is tied to mood disorder.

According to studies cited by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 26% of Americans aged 18 and over suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  When you are sitting on the bus with twenty other folks, five of them are probably mentally ill.  Heck, you might be one of the five!

According to the NIMH website, there are 14.8 million Americans with major depressive disorder, 5.7 million with bipolar disorder, 40 million with anxiety disorders, 7.7 million with post-traumatic stress disorder and 2.4 million with schizophrenia. Almost half of the people with mental illness suffer from more than one disorder. Some portion of mentally ill individuals, particularly those with severe mood disorders, slip into full-blown psychosis.

A reminder - psychosis is a general psychiatric term associated with a mental state often described as involving a "loss of contact with reality."  This can lead to everything from mildly aberrant behavior/beliefs ("the police are out to get me") to complex and/or catatonic expressions of very severe mental disorders (hallucinations, delusions, violent/murderous acts).

The vast majority of people with mood disorders pose no threat to others; in fact, mentally ill people are far times more likely than "normal" people to be a VICTIM of violence.  On occasion, however, psychotic people commit murders and other violent acts.  People in the grips of a psychotic episode are often terrified - their emotional recognition system is impaired and people, even people they know quite well, can seem alien and threatening to them.  People with mood disorders, especially people who are psychotic, often lack the insight to realize that they are ill so they don't seek treatment - often, they avoid it.  If you are terrified, in the grip of psychosis, you have to save yourself from that experience somehow.  All sorts of heinous behavior can occur, and seem perfectly justifiable to the psychotic person.

A very small subset of psychotic people fall into the category commonly labeled as "psychopaths."  These are the folks that appear to be sane; they aren't raving or noticeably crazy and they can actually be quite charming.  Psychopaths lack empathy and don't connect to emotions the way most of us do.  Professor Robert Hare has said, "A psychopath can use words like 'I love you' but it means no more to him than if he said 'I'll have a cup of coffee.'"  About 90% of serial killers are psychopaths.

Now here is the thing - in the United States, mentally ill people have the same rights as the rest of us, which is the way it should be, right?  This makes it very difficult to have a severely mentally ill adult committed to in-patient treatment against his or her will.  In addition, in-patient psychiatric care is in short supply.  Since insurance companies don't want to pay for any unnecessary hospitalization, the hospital in-take staff are biased against admitting anyone who shows up with a mental illness.  If an individual is sufficiently disrupted to be taken into the ER by the cops, they can sign that individual in for an involuntary 72 hour assessment.  If the individual refuses to stay after that hold period, there is little that the hospital or anyone else can do short of a court order forcing the person into the psych ward via involuntary commitment.  It is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain these court orders.

So we have this massive epidemic of mental illness, and the severely ill folks can avoid treatment if they wish.  The state of knowledge of psychiatric illnesses is quite inadequate; psychiatrists and therapists are usually making educated guesses about their patients (if that).  The old saying is "Psychiatry is to medicine as astrology is to astronomy."    I have spent a lot of time over the past few years interacting with mental health professionals as I tried to help loved ones with mental illness and I totally agree with that saying.

Now let's overlay the mental illness epidemic on top of the American gun culture.  Regardless of where one might stand regarding Second Amendment rights, it is easy to see that we have a problem.  The surprise isn't that psychotic people will commit murder on occasion.  The surprise is that we don't have a lot more murders committed by psychotics. It is as easy as pie for an undiagnosed psychotic individual to get a gun.  This demonstrates again that the overwhelming majority of folks with mental illnesses are not violent.

And while we do have a problem, it is also important to put the risk in perspective.  There were 14,748 murders in the U.S. in 2010 and a fraction of those killings were committed by mentally ill people; there were 32,788 people killed in automobile accidents. All parents need to remember that, statistically speaking, our children are much, much safer in school than they are in the backseat of a car. We fear automobile accidents, but we dread random murders committed by crazy people.   Dread is not subject to the rules of logic - we obsess over things that are very unlikely to happen, whether it is random murder or a jet crash. Dread is a lot worse than fear.

Having said all of this, I can't for the life of me figure out why any regular citizen of the United States needs to own an assault weapon; it seems to me that the threat to public safety outweighs the "right to bear arms." When the Founders wrote the Second Amendment, I don't think they anticipated that they would be protecting the right to own a weapon that can spray 400 rounds per minute.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tony Caviglia

The older  trumpet player with the beard in the midst of a teenage trumpet section is Tony Caviglia. Mr. Caviglia is a graduate of Julliard and a long-time stalwart of the East Bay Area music scene in Northern California.  Tony is no spring chicken, but he is still playing concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area last time I checked.  He is also a long-time music educator that has changed the trajectory of many lives, including mine.

I met Tony Caviglia in September 1967 when I entered John Muir Junior High School in San Leandro CA. Tony was the instrumental music instructor for the school. Back in those glory days, California schools were top-notch, and the John Muir Junior High music department had fine facilities and equipment. We were just a 2-year institution (8th and 9th grade), but the music department included a concert band, a symphony orchestra and many smaller ensembles.  The most meaningful group for me was the "stage band."  This "swing era" term was still used used in the 50's and 60's for big jazz ensembles.

The John Muir Stage Band was an extracurricular activity.  Rehearsals convened an hour before the first class - that would be 7:15 AM.  This is not a natural hour for 13-15 year old people to be awake.  Tony Caviglia had the type of intensity and charisma that could motivate a bunch of teenage punks to do unnatural things.  He also was able to coax real music out of a bunch of beginners.  We started out playing some fairly easy, schlocky tunes that were popular when our parents were young ("Sentimental Journey" by Glen Miller, "Woodchopper's Ball" by Woody Herman, etc.).  As time went on and the band grew in skill, Mr. Caviglia began feeding us more challenging stuff - Count Basie tunes (those classic Neal Hefti arrangements) and Charles Mingus (a killer big band version of "Better Get It In Your Soul").  We began to sound pretty damn good.

But we were still rotten punk teenagers.  On some mornings, we were not easy to teach.  In mid-winter, on a wet, dark morning, the whole band was surly and uncooperative.   Mr. Caviglia was laboring mightily to settle us down.  After 30 minutes of chaos, he was done. "Alright fine!" he yelled.  "I am not getting paid extra for this.  If you kids don't want to be serious and play this great music, I'm done.  This band is dis-banded!" and he stomped out of the music room.

Well, the music room fell silent for a about half a minute.  We were all surprised and dismayed.  We decided to head to our classes.  Mr. Caviglia will cool down, and we will be OK in the morning.  We will get back on track.

But when we showed up at the music building the next morning at 7:15, Mr. Caviglia wasn't there.  The custodian let us in and we set up and waited.  No Caviglia.  Somebody said "Well let's rehearse since we are all here."  Somebody called the tune, another kid counted it off and we started to play.  We even stopped and worked on the rough spots.  There was no chatter; we were very focused, and worried that Mr. Caviglia would never lead us again.

As the rehearsal hour wound down, Mr. Caviglia showed up.  He stood in a corner near the entrance as we played and we didn't notice him. We kept playing and finished one of the tunes - it sounded pretty good.  We were startled by the sound of one man clapping.  We looked over and saw Mr. Caviglia applauding.  His eyes were wet.

"I will see you kids tomorrow at 7:15.  Bring your 'A' game."

So we went off to our classes and returned to rehearsal the next day.  We never got rowdy after that.  And that year, we won the Festival Grand Prize at the Reno All-Star High School Jazz Festival.  We were one of three junior high bands at the fest.

Seriousness of purpose, joy in teamwork, and self-discipline were the lessons Caviglia taught me.  I am not much of a trombonist these days, but I still use Caviglia's lessons every day.