Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wisconsin--Beleaguered but Great

It was a comment that nagged at me, though perhaps “statement” is a better word, since Susan had written it and not spoken it (though I’m absolutely sure she’d be willing to say it, as well). But she had written, “I think the man is a psychopath,” and she was referring, yes, to the current governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

It was interesting, I felt, on many levels, not the least of which was that when I was practicing as a psychiatric nurse—OK, three decades ago—the theory then was that true psychopaths are so rare that you might spend your professional career in psychiatry and never meet more than a handful of them. How rare was psychopathy? Well, am I wrong in thinking that we actually renamed the disorder as something like, “antisocial personality disorder?” I could look it up, if it mattered….

Oh, they were out there, and we were told: Beware of any friendship between a borderline personality disorder—of which the population was saturated—and that odd psychopath. Because the mix was supposed to be deadly. Here’s the way it might play out:

Borderline (to be known herein as “B”): Oh Jack, I know I can trust you, because you’re the ONLY person who understands me! (This was called splitting: setting one person up as the savior, versus the whole wide wicked uncaring world). And you’re so smart, and so kind (manipulation). And I feel so alone, and so helpless (play for empathy). I’m just so helpless, and I’ll never get better! That’s why I going to tell you: I’m going to KILL MYSELF (drama queen!) Yes, I’ve been cheeking my meds, and now I have enough! So between PM and night shifts, I’m GOING TO SWALLOW THEM ALL!

Psychopath (“P”): OK

Here, it’s not what happened but what didn’t happen, since the borderline was on a completely different train—and track—as the psychopath. Because the borderline assumed that the psychopath would run straight, although covertly, to the nursing / medical staff, to alert them. Then, the borderline would swallow the pills, arrange herself like Violetta in the last act of Traviata, and wait for the tenor—garbed in scrubs or whites—to come in at the last scene.


So I had been aware, in my forays through TED talks and YouTube, that we had all been seeing psychopathy wrong. Now… well, consider this quote:

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person's psychopathic or antisocial tendencies.  It was developed in the 1970’s by Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian professor and researcher renowned in criminal psychology, who has spent three decades studying the concept known as the psychopath and based partly on Hare’s work with prison inmates in Vancouver.

For those interested, there’s a documentary below. And so I watched it, since a novel is looming on the horizon, the central question of which is whether there is higher than normal levels of psychopathy in conservatories, and if so, why? And how does it play out on both the faculty and the students?

And I knew that there were some professions that attracted, or maybe selected for, psychopathy. And that’s adaptive, in a sense: Confession—I give injections very well, to the point that I have had to show the empty syringe to the patient all to convince them that, yes, I gave the shot, though he or she didn’t feel it. I do this by caring not in the least about the patient, or whether he or she will feel it. Oh, and I absolutely do NOT say: “Now this is going to hurt, so take a deep breath, and I will tell you when I’m going to give the injection….” Duh, guys?

So am I a psychopath?

Wrong question, according to the documentary, since there are very few pure, 100% psychopaths: It was Ted Bundy, if I remember correctly, who got “only” 39 out of a possible score of 40. So maybe I would score a 1 or a 5 or even a 15: It doesn’t qualify me to play in the big leagues.

Well, one of the researchers interviewed in the documentary was actually from the University of Wisconsin, so that meant my problem was solved, right? Hey, just call the guy up—people in Wisconsin tend to pick up the phone, or at least answer message (might be that lingering duty towards the Wisconsin Idea…)—ask if Walker was a psychopath, and report in to all you Concerned Readers. Whew—my job done for the day! Beach time!

This tells you, perhaps, that my psychopathy is limited to piffling affairs like giving shots, because it took me several games of Sudoku (during which I mull things over) to realize: No amount of tenure would be enough to get a shrink to diagnose anyone he hasn’t met over the phone to a stranger. Oh, and if the patient is Governor Walker? Well, in his case, I fear that we’ll never know if nice guys finish last….

Right, so that wasn’t happening. And then I began to mull what I began to think of as the theory of historical inevitability. I give you the old question: How could Germany, the center of culture and scholarship, the homeland of Goethe and Schiller, have fallen prey to Adolph Hitler?

There’s one answer—and no, by the way, I’m not comparing Walker and Hitler—and that is that if it hadn’t been Hitler, it would have been somebody else, just as bad, just as totalitarian. The period—with its humiliation over the defeat in World War I, its massive inflation, it anti-Semitism—selected the dictator. And his name happened to be Hitler.

I’m on the fence on this, but it did stir me to wonder: Why did Minnesota, a state so similar to Wisconsin, go one way, while Wisconsin went the other? OK—let me rephrase the question: How many people know the name of the governor of Minnesota, versus the governor of Wisconsin? I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t, until Mary Jane, a very nice woman from Minnesota told me: The name is Layton, he’s very unassuming, completely inept at giving glib answers, and totally committed to the state. OK—maybe we now do know about nice guys finishing last….

But was it just coincidence? I had figured out that the rise of Walker coincided with the subsequent boom in fracking sand mines in Wisconsin, and who had put Walker in office? Right—The Koch brothers, and so I had written a post last year, entitled something like “Oil Barons Buy the State of Wisconsin.” But the question still nagged: Why Wisconsin, not Minnesota? Just bad luck?

Then it dawned on me: What are the characteristics of the victims of psychopaths, and could a state be a victim, as much as an individual? Here, I have no answer. But the documentary made very clear: Psychopaths are predators, who study their victims as a lion studies a herd, looking for the weakest victim. And here I checked on the website—and could I make this up?—and discovered what I had suspected: Victims tend to be trusting, loyal, caring, sentimental, and committed to helping others meet their goals.

Sound familiar?

And so I resolved another problem I had been having, since I’ve been feeling massively guilty about having elected Walker in the first place—true, a bit irrational, since I’ve been living out of state for 25 years, now—and especially guilty about possibly inflicting him on the rest of the country. Because guess what? Victims of psychopaths feel guilty, much like abuse victims. Gee, wonder why that could be?

Right—so I’m working on it. All of the things that made Wisconsin go for a good guy like Fighting Bob La Follette also made us perfect victims for Joe McCarthy and Walker. What makes us great makes us weak.

Oh, and the theory of Historical Inevitability?

…think I know which way I’m leaning now! 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Conservatory Days

For one reason or another, I spent the weekend pondering the education of classical musicians, since at one time that was what I wanted someone to do to me, and at another time, it was what I had to do to myself.

Here was the standard thinking: Music was a demanding art, requiring the highest discipline, and very, very few of us would do much of anything except, if we were lucky, manage to get into an orchestra. There, we would scrape away or toot away or bang away (can’t forget the percussion guys) for forty years at the standard repertoire, which meant that we would have memorized Beethoven’s Fifth. All of this for the delectation of blue-haired ladies who had dragged their husbands—all yearning for the golf course—to the concerts.

So it was a schizophrenia that was almost ordained. We were being trained for something that we would never be. We spent enormous amounts of time in practice rooms, where we learned pieces that almost none of us would ever play. I have memorized, for example, over 10 concerti, each one lasting about 30 minutes. So that’s five hours of music, but how many minutes in my life have I played them with an orchestra?

Forty minutes, since I won a concerto competition in high school.

So we were learning pieces that we would almost certainly never play in careers that we would almost certainly never have. That bad, but hardly the worst of it. The real problem was that our teachers were professionally obliged to stifle any innate kindness or altruism, and instead assault us in ways ranging from the subtle to the outright abusive. Why? To toughen us up, since it was a dog-eat-dog world out there, and only the tough survived.

And of course, to us it made sense. We had practiced five hours, but Betty? She had done six, and that last hour would make the difference…or so we thought. And perhaps it did, if Betty believed it, and if it made her more secure for the competition, the recital, the concert or—especially and most dreadfully—the audition.

So Betty would sail into the audition, sit behind the curtain—that essential if make-believe pretense of impartiality, since everybody knew what Betty was playing, as well as what everybody else was playing—and perform magnificently. She had done her work, she had braved her teacher, whose preferred way of receiving whatever Betty had brought into her lesson was to sit in utter silence for one or two long minutes, after which he would light a cigarette (you could do that then), and tear into her.

I now know—he was probably an unhappy man, this teacher that we all (perhaps most of all himself) put on a pedestal. In my case, the teacher had been one of a family of musicians, had performed early on with the Chicago Symphony, and then had gone—without a degree—to teach at the university. There he had stayed for forty years or so, turning out students, only a few of whom had made their careers in music.

No, I suspect he wasn’t a very happy man, because here’s the thing about classical music: For some reason it’s OK to be a good doctor or a good lawyer, but a musician who is simply good? Who is a serviceable cellist, but not Yo-Yo Ma or Rostropovich? Well, he’s second best at best—often he’s just a hack.

So he was unhappy, and he was teaching us as he had been taught, which was to play despite an unceasing flood of negative commentary. Which meant that for a student to be “good,” he had to be hard on himself. For an overachiever like me, that meant variously swearing at myself or biting myself. Oh, and curiously, I had this little problem breathing: I held my breath until anoxia forced me to gasp. Nice metaphor—right? I was being strangled, though only my body knew it at the time. My brain thought I was just being weak.

Right—so into this mix was added the instruction: If only I would “relax,” I would play so much better! So the “work” then became to “relax,” and what was wrong with me, since I was trying really, really hard to get those shoulders down—they had been tickling my ears for a decade or so. Anyway, I was working so hard on the shoulders that I was actually forcing them down artificially low, which was causing its set of tensions, so that accounted for my own thin, strained sounds, whereas Betty—well, she seemed immune to any tension whatsoever, and her sound? Rostropovich would have melted!

It wasn’t Betty, of course. Or rather it was, since she was a girl, and girls didn’t come in for quite the same level of toughness that boys did. Since I was going to have to make my living, but Betty? Guys, this was the 70’s, but even now it’s the same. She could have a career, yes, or she could play chamber music and let her lawyer husband support her….

And we all knew—Betty had an instrument to die for: Not a Strad, but a gorgeous Italian instrument from the same period. So she was rich, which is a nice cushion for the arrows that might come her way, as she made her way through the forest primeval. So Betty had never quite got the toughness the rest of us got, and she had that ease of dealing with people that people with money have.

Betty went on to do well: I did not. Or did I? Because at last, I conquered the inner voice, I learned to “relax,” which was just the opposite of what I had been trying to do. And along the way, I had been a nurse, been a teacher, repaired antiques, done construction work for a summer, moved to a foreign though domestic land, learned another language, and written a book. To a classical musician this is dilettantism, the most awful face of amateurism. But is it?

He had a technique I’ll never have, that teacher of mine. He undoubtedly had the skills to pass the auditions I never could pass. And now, he is old, a professor emeritus even without a degree. He has, in short, gone far beyond me.

Or has he?    


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Wisconsin Practice

I didn’t want to write about it for a couple of reasons: The New York Times had come out two days ago with an op-ed piece about Governor Scott Walker and his attempt to reinvent the Wisconsin Idea, which is often expressed by the maxim, “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Walker proposed changing this with some gag-inducing talk about meeting the needs of the work force, with the clear implication that it was time for all of those dreamy-eyed professors to set aside Plato and Shakespeare and get to the real job at hand: Teaching coding, perhaps, rather than the theoretical mathematics that would allow for the creation of a computer, or artificial intelligence.  And so if the Times had spoken, what had I to add?

But it nagged at me, since I had grown up very much with the Wisconsin Idea, which in our Madison home came in the form of radio waves. Wisconsin Public Radio, it now is—in my day, it was WHA, and the slogan, “the oldest station in the nation,” still rings in my years. Was it? Perhaps not, but it was among the first, and a very improving and wonderful thing it was. On the coldest of winter days, you had the consolation of hearing directly from the weatherman or the station manager in Brule, Wisconsin, that Madison was a mere climatological skip away from Miami Beach. You had concerts broadcast at you by University of Wisconsin faculty, and lectures as well. Books were read at noon, and the opera arrived on Saturday afternoon from the Met. And was anyone listening? Well, I was, and I can tell you that someone else in the state was too, since Milton Cross, the announcer since forever for the Met, once had a question from a listener in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The problem? I never heard the question, since I was laughing too hard at the wonderful—and most operatic—change in pronunciation from the Wisconsin “BARE-a-boo” to “bar-AH-boe.” I swear, Cross even rolled the “r.”

So the Wisconsin Idea was something very much around—no idle talk, for all the “sifting and winnowing” that got thrown about. Some of the fruit took a while to ripen: I heard the soprano Bettina Bjorksten analyze Die Winterreise years before I was strong enough to listen to it and appreciate it, but that didn’t matter. It was on my list of music I was going to get to, even decades later.

What I didn’t know, until Walker tried to gut it, was how much more the Wisconsin Idea was, nor how widely it travelled and how extensive was its impact. It was the intellectual foundation of the Progressive Movement, and Robert La Follette, Sr., took many of its ideas and made them reality. Here I give you Wikipedia’s summary:

    Primary elections, allowing the rank-and-file members of a political party to choose its nominees rather than caucuses usually dominated by political bosses.
   Workers' compensation, allowing workers injured whilst working to receive a fixed payment in compensation for their injuries and related expenses rather than forcing them to go to court against their employers, which at the time was extremely difficult and had little realistic chance of success.
   State regulation of railroads in addition to the federal regulation imposed by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
   Direct election of United States Senators as opposed to the original method of their selection by the state legislatures, eventually ratified as the Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
·      Progressive taxation, where the wealthier pay a higher rate of tax than the less-affluent, made possible on the federal level in part by the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

For a Wisconsin governor to wage war on the Wisconsin Idea, then, was to go much further than to change the mission of the university: It was an attempt to rewrite the state’s history, to deny it, and ultimately to reject it.

So the Times had weighed in on Walker, the Washington Post as well, even Bloomberg, which was an eye-opener, since it revealed that:

In the late 1980s, eight public universities ranked in the top 25 nationally, according to the admittedly imperfect U.S. News and World Report assessment. The top one, the University of California at Berkeley, came in fifth. Today, Berkeley remains the top-ranked public university, but it has fallen to 20th place overall; two other public universities barely made the top 25.

And where is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the flagship of the system? We are a shameful 47th nationally.

So what are we seeing? Can anyone really believe that this is an assault on state universities, and a cynical one at that?

Right—so others were saying it, but why was it nagging me so? Why speak when so many others with louder voices than mine had been raised? There was something I needed to remember, but what was it?

The back burner came through, or was it hearing the oboe solo in the Barber Violin Concerto? Because that led to Emily Auerbach, since before she had emerged as a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, she had been an oboist in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, which after almost fifty years has enrolled over 5000 kids from around the state to make classical music, and if that’s not the Wisconsin Idea, well, it’s damn close. But Auerbach—who could have rested on her laurels after writing a book on Jane Austin which won praise from, among others, Margaret Drabble—decided to start the Odyssey Program, which is nationally acclaimed as a trend setter, since it is more than just a year-long program for thirty students, many of them mired in poverty, addiction, homelessness, and problems that Walker and I and too-few others can only imagine. You don’t learn on an empty stomach, so there’s food—real food—before class. And what about the kids? Right—so there’s day care.

It’s education—yes—and the students get six credits from the University of Wisconsin, but it’s much more than that. As you can see below, it’s a fight for the students' soul, a fight to get the student to believe that yes, he or she can do it. And so a kid who grew up with his mother addicted to crack cocaine turns into a cop, and is in turn visiting schools with the message: You can turn your life around.

And the program seems both academically rigorous and effective: All 30 students graduated in May of last year. But the telling detail was—did I imagine it?—thrown away in a clause that went something like, “the faculty, who donate their time, come from….”

Yes, yes, these are apparently those lazy, do-nothing professors, about whom Walker suggested that more might be expected of them. What are they doing on Wednesday nights? Teaching in a library on the south side of town, since that’s where these people live. And all this home-cooked food? Why do I really feel that it’s far more likely to have been cooked in a west-side-of-town kitchen, and brought in in the professor’s car? Mind you—just a hunch….

In what may be the most telling paragraph of a recent article on the program, the costs of the program are discussed:

Costs for each student, including tuition and books, while in the two-semester Odyssey course is about $4,200. Expenses to support alumni are about $140,000 to $160,000 a year, Auerbach said.

Say what? It costs only $4,200 to give this experience? This experience that so many of its alums say has changed their lives? Why in the world aren't we sending 30,000 of these guys into programs like this, all across the state? But here’s the answer, which I bring to you as a graph:

Right—what’s this about? Here’s the header:

Rates Of Black Male Incarceration By State, 2012

Happily, we live in our electronic age, so I can tell Governor Walker quite easily what his prison system is costing him: 800 million bucks in 2012, with an average cost of 37,994 dollars per year per inmate. And I could tell him to forget ideology, to forget noble principles, to screw any worry about human cost and suffering and families torn apart and poor women going by public transportation to visit their sons and husbands and boyfriends. Oh, and the baby was often on the woman’s lap—I know, since I took in Puerto Rico the same mionivan  that stopped at the prison—and so the woman would hand the baby to a stranger, get out of the car, and we would all matter-of-factly pass the child—one after another of us in the sweltering van that held 12-if-anorexic or 8-if-normal-sized but that never left until, in fact, there were eighteen. Oh—plus the baby. All of this, governor, is quite extraneous.

But I could tell you—having worked for the biggest bastard in town, a small company called Walmart—that no businessman would think twice about the numbers: the risible 4,200 bucks that we would have to spend to change somebody’s life around (oh, and by the way, become a productive member of society, thus paying taxes) versus caging them for a year at 37,000 bucks a year. Oh, and what is the average prison sentence, and the rate of recidivism?

Yes, governor, I could tell you all this, but I ask myself—I who no longer live in the state, who no longer need to care about the state, who have a beach to visit and a cello to play—yes, I ask myself. I could certainly tell you, but…

…would you listen?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Our Kids

Whoever they were, and whatever they thought, it can certainly be said that there were enough of them: 200,000 according to the organizers of the affair, and each and everyone one of them was out there defending the family, since its most recent attack is something called “curriculo de género” and if the Puerto Rican family doesn’t survive this onslaught from the government, well, it won’t be because they didn’t try. There were loud speakers, whistles, vuvuzelas, home-made placards, and some more slick affairs, the most arresting of which was this:

Yes—it means what you think: No Books, Let’s not damage our children.

Because it was all about children—children whose innocence was going to be robbed from them, as you could have heard by going to YouTube and listening to the video published by Heartbreaking to hear the little voice lisping, “Mami, why are3 they taking away my innocence?” Who could not be affected?

So 200,000 people came to my town to protest this outrage, and shouldn’t I figure out what it is? But it was difficult, since here’s what the secretary of the Department of Education has to say:

Enfatizó que el nuevo currículo y la carta circular sobre perspectiva de género aún no están listas. Asimismo, reiteró que no se comprarán libros porque “es un tema que se incorporará de manera transversal en los ofrecimientos currículares de todos los niveles escolares y se implementará de acuerdo con la edad y el nivel escolar”.

Short translation: the new curriculum and the letter announcing it isn’t ready yet, nor have any books been bought. But that was a problem for the protesters, who had this to show on their website:

Right—so the book is called Nuestra Sexualidad, and supposedly it has pictures that would make a marine blush. True, the book, according to the Department of Education, was meant for the teachers only, and was recalled months after having been distributed…but could anyone seriously believe that lie? Of course not!

So various leaders of various churches herded up the faithful, and they were sent out to clamor for the innocence of their children. And then there was the meeting with the governor, who gave up an hour and a half of his time; one of the organizers of the event, a cardiologist named César Vázquez who is spokesman for Puerto Rico Por la Familia, had neither heart nor stomach for the meeting, and stormed out of the meeting after five minutes, and then announced to the waiting press that the affair had been that most atrocious of things: una falta de respeto,

Well, the governor didn’t think it had been, and claimed that at the end of the meeting, the other members of the groups organizing the march had asked the Gov to take selfies with them, since degenerate and innocence-robbing or not, hey …he still the governor!

The ironic thing is that a number of my Facebook friends were all in support of the affair, since they are evangelicals as well as parents. So I can tell you: These are wonderful people, good people, people who would be appalled at any injustice done from hatred or malice.

Which makes it hard for me, since another Facebook friend had this to say:

Just sub out "education on gender and sexuality" for "gay marriage" and "kids" for "gay people"

Well, yesterday was a hard day for me, since having 200,000 fundamentalist Christians on my doorstep was daunting, and could the computer do any better? Of course not, since I was absorbed reading about the guy in Denmark who killed two people—apparently, according to The New York Times, he wasn’t really radicalized, just pissed off, and isn’t that nice to know!—and then the twenty Christians that ISIS beheaded, and then the 250 Jewish graves that got desecrated in France. Oh, and the day was grey and rainy, which didn’t much help.

Nor did it help when the social networks published the picture below:

Right—the first time I saw it, I found it chilling too, though it was years ago in a Catholic church in a very good neighborhood. Still, just as there are some images that you cannot use, there are certain gestures you cannot make. So half of the Internet was publishing photos of German crowds gesticulating in a similar fashion in the 1940’s, and the other half of the Internet was claiming that only a pervert couldn’t see that they were raising their hands to GOD!

Well, I suppose I brought it on myself—at least partially—since didn’t all of us gay people press the buttons? After all, we were out there marching, raising hell, going off to pour blood on the Reagan White House lawn, doing die-ins. So now the other side, alarmed into activity, is streaming in the streets. Did I expect anything less?

I suppose not. But now I’m thinking that it’s time to move on, time for the next big fight, time to declare that the fight for marriage equality has been won, and that we, as gay people, need to look to what is and has always been more important. And at the risk of sounding evangelical, that’s our…


Yes, since every one of those 200,000 people out there yesterday has kids, nephews, nieces, grandchildren…and what is their reaction going to be when one of those kids comes home and tells his mother / father / uncle or aunt that he or she is gay? Why am I not hearing the sound of champagne bottles popping?

Which is why, somehow, the news that this Chinese film has had more than one hundred million views is particularly cheering. Here’s what David Badash had to say:
"Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, and in the early 2000's it was removed from the list of mental illnesses," THR (The Hollywood Reporter) writes. "But there is a deeply held Chinese belief that children are required to marry and bear offspring to continue the family line, which means homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized. Because of this, the Chinese New Year family gathering can be a harrowing experience for gays and lesbians."

Well, we all came out, and it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Now we have a harder job in front of us, since it’s too easy to dismiss 200,000 people as religious crazies. Even if they were, what would it matter? The gay community has to realize: Those 200,000 people are raising—some of them…

…our kids.