Sunday, September 25, 2011


The gig started out sunny and clear and hot. But by the time we finished our cover of "Miss You," a massive gray cloud had inched over the park. The cloud provided welcome shade. It also looked like it might make our day a little wetter before it moved on. Hard to tell.

"Our next song is 'Rain Dance,'" I told the Pet Rock audience. Glancing up at the sky, I added, "Which shouldn't be taken literally."

We played the song. Immediately thereafter it began to rain.

I looked up at the sky again. "I said not literally!"

Maybe we should forget about gigging and start hiring ourselves out to communities suffering from drought.

Pet Rock

Busy busy busy. I haven't had any time to post about our upcoming gig (starting at 1 p.m. today), and I don't really have time to do it now, either. Fortunately, we have this flyer. Click to enlarge!

That pretty much covers it. The only thing I have to add is that "Pet Rock" is the coolest benefit name ever.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mass hysteria?

Over a thousand people have become sick while working in Cambodian shoe and garment factories. Stricken employees report dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, and shortness of breath; hundreds have required brief hospitalization.

With no concrete explanation for the symptoms, a few people with an interest in such things have leapt to the obvious conclusion:
It's been almost 50 years since girls at a boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were struck by an illness whose symptoms — fainting, nausea and helpless laughter — soon spread to other communities. Or consider the Pok√©mon contagion in 1997, when 12,000 Japanese children experienced fits, nausea and shortness of breath after watching a television cartoon. Sufferers of World Trade Center syndrome, meanwhile, blamed proximity to Ground Zero for coughs and other respiratory problems long after airborne contaminants posed any health threat.

All these are examples of mass hysteria, a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem. For centuries it has crossed cultures and religions, taking on different forms to keep pace with popular obsessions and fears. In our post-9/11 world, it thrives on the anxiety caused by terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation and environmental gloom.

More ...
It's an interesting theory. Far more interesting than the symptoms turning out to be real. Time won't sell any magazines with headlines like "Toxins are Toxic" or "Flu Virus Gives People Flu."

The problem is, hysteria doesn't have any real evidence behind it. Failing to discover a virus or toxin that's making people sick doesn't mean the virus or toxin doesn't exist. It may simply mean we haven't found it yet. Think how many people died of AIDS before anybody knew what HIV was.

Is hysteria a real thing? Do we have any way of finding out?

Here's my challenge to any researcher who backs the mass hysteria hypothesis:

Test it.

This should be relatively easy if you have access to facilities, grant money, and cheap graduate student labor. Bring subjects into an experiment that's ostensibly about something else. While everyone is answering survey questions on an unrelated topic, have numerous confederates (people pretending to be subjects, but who are in on the experiment) fake some kind of medical issue. Seizures, maybe, or fainting.

Then see if the one real subject in the room starts feeling and mimicking the "symptoms."

It took me five seconds to think up this experiment, and I'm not even a psychologist.

I hope some enterprising mental health professional takes up the challenge, because this isn't just a matter of scientific curiosity. Ask people with myalgic encephalomyelitis. When there was an outbreak of the disease in Incline Village, Nevada, back in 1984, the CDC declared it to be mass hysteria despite evidence of neurological problems. 27 years later, the victims haven't recovered ... and most of the scant funding that exists for their disease goes to psychological research.

If patients have to prove that their illnesses are real, then the scientific community should have to prove that mass hysteria is real. It's only fair.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

All-request weekend

KLPX had an all-request weekend this weekend. Which struck me as odd. How many people request songs on the radio anymore?

Requests were a big deal when I was 12 and discovering different kinds of music. I loved calling the station, actually getting through, talking to the DJ, and then waiting by the stereo, hand over the tape player's record button.

Sometimes my song would be played, sometimes not. Either way, I'd get the thrill of the chase.

When I was 12, the Internet as we know it didn't exist. You couldn't buy almost any song that had ever been recorded for chump change. You couldn't do a four-second YouTube search and, more likely than not, listen for free.

I realize, on an intellectual level, that there must still be people in this city who don't have Internet access. I guess I've been spoiled so well for so long, it's hard for me to fully comprehend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Contains adult language

I'm writing a song featuring a romantic partner with a mercurial personality. You may know the type. One minute, he (or she) is a joy to be with; the next minute, she (or he) turns on you. The character is fictional—I've never dated a psycho—but I've heard enough harrowing tales from friends that I think I can get the details right. I'm having a lot of fun with this.

Anyway, there's a line in the last chorus that I want to tweak:
Pile on the weight
'til I'm down on my knees
The problem is "weight." It sounds good, but it's not quite what I'm going for. "Weight" conveys angst, burden. The thing my character piles on is more like the emotional equivalent of manure, unpleasant and absurd at the same time. "Manure" is pretty good, actually, but too many syllables. Hmm. What means the same thing but only has one ...

(Insert moment of realization here.)

Awww, shit.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Elm Place Middle School, I had an epiphany. I needed to learn how to swear.

Ever since kindergarten, I'd occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. I was the kid it was OK to be mean to. I was the kid you couldn't be nice to even if you wanted to, because then everybody else would be mean to you too.

The most frustrating part was, when the abuse came, I couldn't do much but take it. Witty comebacks weren't my strong suit. If I'd known how to hold my own in a verbal duel, really hurt my tormenters, they probably would have left me alone in the first place.

Swearing would solve that problem. Anytime somebody started in on me, I could just curse at them. The strategy wasn't as good as improvising clever, cutting remarks, but it was better than nothing.

So I incorporated a few four-letter words into my vocabulary and let loose. And the results were amazing.

Don't get me wrong. My fellow seventh-graders didn't slink away with their tails between their legs. I was still their easiest prey. Regardless, it felt pretty good to have something to say when they singled me out. Even if "suck shit" (my stock phrase) wasn't particularly clever, it conveyed what I considered useful information:
  1. I am a badass.
  2. Your pathetic taunts don't bother me in the least, because I am a badass.
  3. Also: suck shit.
* * *

Swearing didn't come naturally when I began my campaign. I was a total goody-two-shoes, very obedient, and hadn't indulged in the habit since I was four and my mother forbade me from repeating some of the more interesting words I'd picked up from older kids in the neighborhood. To say the S-word or the F-word at all, much less in front of other people, I had to push past a deep-seated sense of taboo.

But I kept at it. I conditioned myself to swear without internally flinching. And I made an unexpected discovery:

Curse words are fucking awesome.

Seriously. How had I gotten by without them before? They were like salt on scrambled eggs. They made everything better. And more emphatic. Now when I bitched about something, people would know I really fuckin' meant it.

As cool as it was to swear at my enemies, it was way cooler to swear alongside my friends. (Other kids could safely be my friends as long as they were in a different grade or went to a different school.) We were slick and tough and grownup, slipping profanity into as many utterances as we could while acting as nonchalant about it as possible.

One friend, Lisa, opined that people shouldn't make such a big deal about swearing. Words were just words. There was no logical reason that a select few should be placed in a different category than the rest. I agreed with her in principle, but not in practice. If "fuck" had no more power to shock than "darn," what would be the point of saying it? We had to collectively pretend it had magical offensive properties or it didn't work.

* * *

Walking down the corridors of Highland Park High School, I came to a realization. The whole swearing thing was kind of played.

My original reason for learning to do it had evaporated. High school kids were nicer. Most of them left me to my own devices. And while four-letter words were still great fun in their own right, they were also victims of their own success. What good were they for emphasis if I used them in every other sentence?

With a little sadness, I decided to dial it down. Keep it clean most of the time. That way, when I dropped the occasional F-bomb, people would know I was serious.

* * *

Here's the funny thing. Although I grew to love profanity in everyday life, I never cared for it in music.

My first exposure to explicit lyrics came courtesy of Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain. Specifically from one of my favorite songs on the album, Laura:
Here I am
Feeling like a fucking fool
Do I react the way exactly
She intends me to?
Even though the album debuted in what was probably the early stages of my pottymouth phase, that caught me off guard. It's one thing for me to say "fucking" and entirely another for Billy Joel to sing it.

I understood why he wrote it that way, mind you. His narrator didn't feel like a freaking fool or a flipping fool or even a goddamn fool. The word he wanted was "fucking," and he wasn't about to weaken his point by sanitizing it. On reflection, I respected the choice.

And yet, I knew that if it had been me writing that song, I would have chosen something else.

The problem is, no matter how well a particular swear word works in terms of semantics and phonetics and rhythm, it tends not to flow seamlessly with the rest of the lyrics. A swear word calls attention to itself. That's its entire purpose. Drop one into your song, and instead of being carried along by the story, suddenly your listener is thinking, "Ooh, the F-word."

* * *

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that it took 66 songs before I encountered the "best word is a bad word" dilemma as a songwriter. But I still need to resolve it, so ...
Pile on the ______
'til I'm down on my knees
"Shit" really is perfect in terms of meaning and singability, but for all the reasons above, I'm just not going there.

"Crap" would fill in the blank, but it lacks something. It sounds too much like what I really want to say is "shit," but I'm censoring myself. Even if that's true, it's not what I want listeners to notice.

Looks like we're back to "weight." It's not absolutely, precisely what I want, but it doesn't stand out or sound wrong either. Sometimes you have to settle for good enough. In this case, doing so will make for a more balanced song as a whole.

The song, by the way, is almost finished. When we have an arrangement together and we have time to record it, I'll post it up here.

You'll like it. It's the shit.

* * *

Editor's note: I hope I haven't offended anybody with this piece. I try to keep this little blog family friendly most of the time, but the words are what they are, and I hate that asterisk bullsh*t. If you are not offended by such things and have ever wondered why certain words have the power to offend, read Why We Curse by psychologist Steven Pinker. Turns out Lisa and I were both wrong.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Viola surprise

Today's rehearsal was a little different. A violist named Rose sat in and jammed with us. On viola.

Every now and again I'll be writing a song and think, "This would sound better on acoustic guitar than piano." Or, "We could really ramp this part up with bass." Less frequently I'll think organ, electric guitar, maybe even cello. I do my best to come up with a decent arrangement on keyboard for live performances, and I file away the arrangements I hear in my head for when we record and bring in some session players.

Up until a couple weeks ago, I'd never thought, "I wonder how that would sound with viola."

But Rose heard us at our last gig, liked us a bunch, and asked if we'd like to play on the album she's recording. She also said that if we had any songs we thought she could contribute to, she'd be happy to do it.

So, viola. Viola? OK. I pondered everything we've written and made a list of songs that could maybe ... possibly ... be enhanced by that particular instrument. Couldn't hurt to try.

We did. Wow.

Viola, it turns out, adds a beautiful, rich texture to piano and drums. I guess I knew that already from listening to other people's stuff, but I'd never thought it could work for ours.

The jam reminded me of how, once you write a song and release it to the world, it's not entirely yours anymore. It can do things you never thought about, go in directions you hadn't imagined.



Monday, September 5, 2011

Evil deeds and common ground

The media is continuing to churn out articles about how a few beleaguered psychiatrists have received death threats from patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis. The psychiatrists, who claim they can treat ME with talk therapy and exercise, say these patients are angered by any assertion that their disease is psychological.

In response, Dr. Malcolm Hooper has written a letter offering more backstory and a reality check. It begins:
No right-minded person condones any campaign of vilification against psychiatrists but equally, no right-minded person can condone what psychiatrists like Wessely have done to the UK ME community over the last 25 years.
There's a lot of good stuff in that letter. Stuff about how ME—a neurological illness that attacks the immune system and leaves many sufferers completely incapacitated—is not in any way psychological. But the thing that stands out to me is that first sentence. Before he goes on the attack, he states in no uncertain terms that death threats are bad.

That's been the response I've seen everywhere in the ME blogosphere. While most patients and advocates suspect that these psychiatrists are exaggerating their claims, everyone has taken care to say that IF the threats are happening, they shouldn't be.

* * *

In related news, the public was recently treated to a first-person account by Simon Wessely, a primary target of the alleged death threats. I could spend several pages debating his main arguments, but I'll set them aside for now and focus on this statement:
Our critics have devoted much energy (irony intended) to denouncing us as pawns of the drug or insurance industries. I have been called a new Dr Mengele, the next Dr Shipman ... I am frequently accused of having thrown a CFS-suffering child into water to see if he would sink or swim.
Ah yes. The kid in the pool.

Dr. Wessely is referring to Ean Proctor. At age 12, Ean was taken from his parents and placed in an institution. Those responsible for his care believed his symptoms of near paralysis weren't real. To prove it, they threw him facedown into the deep end of a swimming pool. Their experiment failed, and they had to rescue him when he couldn't move his limbs to save himself.

Wessely almost certainly didn't pick up Ean Proctor with his own hands and toss him into the water. I've never seen anybody accuse him of doing so. What he is accused of—what is a matter of record—is his involvement in Ean's case. As a senior registrar in psychiatry, he declared Ean's disease to be psychological and recommended that the boy be removed from his family.

* * *

The "death threats" story, presented unquestioningly in article after article, has become a source of frustration for ME patients and advocates. As one sufferer noted in a comment to my last post on the subject,
The truth of the situation is that even if death threats have been sent, it is by a tiny minority of the hundreds of thousands of people with ME in this country - yet it's the whole community who is being attacked here. And of course, the whole story just increases people's belief that we're somehow psychologically unbalanced.
Which leads to an interesting question: How would psychiatrists react if the tables were turned?

ME advocates can cite a number of cases where children and adults with ME were forced into institutions for believing they were sick. Do all therapists think this is appropriate or helpful? Hopefully not. But what if a series of articles were published describing what happened to Ean Proctor, Sophia Mirza, Brian Nicholson, Ryan Baldwin, the child from Spain, and others in gory detail? What if these articles referred to "psychiatrists" who pushed for such measures without mentioning any of them by name?

Psychiatrists who do not agree with such measures might feel unfairly singled out.

* * *

In a 1994 lecture, Simon Wessely said, "I will argue that ME is simply a belief, the belief that one has an illness called ME." He and others in the "Wessely School" have since backed off of that proposition, arguing instead that ME is a genuine, serious disease with a psychological component.

The ME community still disagrees with this watered-down version of the psychiatric perspective. That said, the watering down has significant real-world implications. If ME is fully psychological, then you can make an argument for institutionalizing people whose "illness beliefs" have rendered them completely dysfunctional. If ME is a real disease with psychological factors thrown in, then forcing patients into a psych ward because they believe they have a real disease doesn't make a lot of sense.

So here's my proposal.

ME advocates will publicly oppose death threats, harassment, and abuse, as we have done from the beginning.

In return, psychiatrists will publicly oppose the involuntary commitment of ME patients into psychiatric units.

What do you think, psychiatrists? Do we have a deal?