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On Mental Health

I rarely weigh in here on anything more important than baseball or video games.  But I feel compelled to weigh in on a whole bunch of things I've been reading and hearing over the past two days.

I heard from a psychologist that the profile of a mass murderer is someone who has been significantly depressed for a long time or has paranoid schizophrenia.  I heard some speculation today that Mr. Lanza had a personality disorder.  I also read from someone close to Lanza's mother that she would not have been embarrassed to get her son mental health support, i.e. would not have ignore any red flags.

On the flip side, I've read a lot about the problem of evil.  How God could allow evil like this to exist, to occur.

I'm not equipped to answer questions about guns and certainly not about theology.  But I feel a certain obligation to talk about mental health.  Someone mentioned yesterday that we need better access to mental health.  Indeed, we do.  But as I alluded to then, there's something much, much deeper that our nation needs to face.  For a long time, the idea of America is that we are free, we are equal, that we all have opportunities, and that we can do anything we want as long as we put our minds to it and work hard enough.  We have to be self-reliant.  Now most people on some level know that this idea isn't entirely true.  But it permeates our culture, our communities, and most of us individually.  And if we believe we are self-reliant, why would we seek help?

We seek help when we feel there's something we are not equipped to deal with.  For example, if I break my foot, I know that I know nothing about how to heal a foot.  So I see a medical doctor.  If smoke is coming out of my engine compartment, I am clueless.  So I see a mechanic.  But I am not clueless when it comes to my brain.  After all, I know my personality more than anyone else, right?  A doctor can know for sure what's happening with my foot.  A mechanic can know for sure what's happening with my car.  But nobody can know exactly what's happening in my brain.  So I'm my own expert.  And if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough, I should be able to fix it.

What makes mental health care so difficult to destigmatize is that we're not experts on the brain yet, at least compared to other parts of the body.  It's funny, too, since it's deemed perfectly acceptable to seek a pastor for a spiritual crisis, and I believe Jeff would admit he's no better at knowing God than a psychiatrist is at knowing the brain.  It doesn't help that mental health care continues to be poorly portrayed in media.  Mental health care used to be very primitive.  Asylums could be awful places.  Just the idea of a lobotomy makes me want to vomit.  And many of the drugs that were used in the mid 20th century had horrible side effects.  I think most people know that things aren't quite like that anymore, but I shake my head every time a therapist or psychiatrist is in a television show.  We see a lot of 8-second diagnoses and primitive head-shrinking, with therapists giving advice and telling people what's wrong with them before breaking the code of ethics by either flirting with the patient or giving the patient's information to the police without a court order.  If I was at all hesitant about seeking out mental health care, why the hell would I if I thought I was going into that?

I have no doubt as does the nation that Mr. Lanza needed mental health care.  But you know what?  It may not have prevented this tragedy.  Drugs don't fix personality disorders, and it may have been too late for a therapist to make any headway. What I do know is that Mr. Lanza is not the only one who needs it.  You don't have to be at your wit's end.  You don't have to be crazy.  You don't have to be dangerous.

I may be preaching to the choir, but this is true: we ALL need mental health care.  Most people don't need medications.  But for some, they help significantly.  Most people don't need to do a 12-week cognitive session with a therapist to cope with the fallout from a traumatic event.  But for some, it helps significantly.  But we all have emotions.  We all have stress.  We all live in communities.  We all rely on others.  We should never be made to feel shame or embarrassment for this.  But sometimes we do.

This past summer I saw a therapist.  I wasn't having a crisis.  I didn't need medications.  But I was struggling.  As it turns out, a new job, a new house, a new wife, and a new baby all in an eight-month span can be stressful.  I was lucky in that I connected with the first guy I met.  But had he not been the right fit, I would have sought out someone else.  The thing I valued most about my therapist is that at no time did he judge me.  I truly felt I could express every negative thing on my mind.  See, I'm not very good at dealing with negative emotions like anger.  I am terribly conflict avoidant, especially in my personal life.  I'm still not great in these areas, but I'll tell you what seeing a therapist did.  I was able to explore my mental health without feeling shame or embarrassment.  I was never told what I should do.  His patience, understanding, and encouragement gave me the strength to help myself.

So why tell you guys all this?  I feel like the WGOM is a place where people can feel free to discuss their problems without feeling shame or embarrassment.  Many of you are not educated in mental health, but I believe you all understand that having problems with your mood or emotions is not a sign of weakness, nor is it evil.  It's reality for all of us.  And until we live in a society that understands this, we will continue to have tragedies like yesterday.  I'm not so naive to think this is a problem that will be solved in my lifetime, or probably ever.  But if even a small improvement can save someone's life down the road, it's worth it.

Teach your children that it's normal to feel negative emotions.  That it's normal to want to confide in others.  That's it's normal to rely on others.  Teach them that life is a dance where sometimes you're the one being the rock for others, and sometimes you need that rock to lean on.  Also, as your patience and resolve allows, teach your friends.  And your family.

Classic Album Reviews: The Pogues — Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985)


By 1985, punk rock was storming off in all sorts of musical directions. There was proto-punk, country-punk, art-punk, dance-punk, and hardcore-punk. One of the more interesting sub-genres was Irish or Celtic-Punk. Irish Punk was thought of as Irish folk songs or Irish folk-inspired songs revved up to a punk like speed. Locally, the band Boiled in Lead was a fantastic purveyor of traditional Irish music with a punk sensibility. Nationally, however, The Pogues were front in center and Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was the album you had to have if you were into Irish or Punk music.

The Pogues were a perfect Irish band: You had the lead singer, Shane MacGowan - skinny, horrible teeth, hard drinking, gravelly voice; a band with upwards of 7 to 10 members, depending on who was sober or healthy at the time, and a bunch of traditional Irish songs. The album was a blast with songs about drinkin', bleak industrial city living, Jessie James, war, lovers who left, and drinking. The album kicks off with The Sickbed of Cuchulainn an Irish romper sing-along. Dirty Old Town is exactly about what the title says: what it is like living in an old industrial-era city that is crumbling around you. The songs open with the classic line: "I met my love by the gas works wall..." You get the picture.

Other favorites include Sally MacLennane which again is fast, fiesty sing-along. I'm sure this was sung at many going away parties. The highlight of the album is The Band Played Waltzing Matilda which describes an Australian's horrifying experience fighting the Turks in WWI. One of the strongest anti-war songs ever written and it makes me think sadly of our soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan with broken bodies, never again able to dance.

The album is a fun, singable, danceable ride. The musicians are top notch and the songs are a great combination of old and new Irish songs. A bunch of these songs would be perfect for any party tape, wedding dance, or just to listen to get the blood pumpin'. For that reason Rum, Sodomy & the Lash I consider a classic album.  What do you think?



2012 Home Run Derby

Why do I keep putting up with Berman, year after year, to watch repetitive batting practice? I think it has something to do with being able to see baseball's best watching on the sidelines, being kids.

Jose Bautista
Mark Trumbo
Carlos Beltran
Robinson Cano
Andrew McCutchen
Carlos Gonzalez
Prince Fielder
Matt Kemp

I will be furiously and shamelessly cheering for CarGo with my first-ever bottle of Sumpin' Sumpin' in hand. I hope you guys steered me right.

Classic Album Reviews: Woody Guthrie — Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)

Released in 1940, many consider Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads to the first “concept album.” Listening, it is easy to see why as the name really says it all: Woody Guthrie with guitar and harmonica singing ballads about the dust bowl, it’s just that simple. These aren’t just songs about the Dust Bowl, however. They about the poor sharecroppers, farmers, and family folk impacted by the dust storms of the 1930’s. Through these songs you can see the dust, taste it, smell it, feel it all over your body. The songs are that powerful. The first song (The Great Dust Storm) tells the story. You see that big dust cloud, you learn how the farmers reacted, how scared they were and you can’t believe how bad the storm was, that it could be related to the devastation wrought by a Hurricane Katrina or the wildfires in Colorado Springs.

Dust Bowl Ballads contain songs that are probably familiar to most, even if you don’t know the names or who even sang them:  Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know You) and Blowin’ Down the Road (I Ain’t Gonna Be Treated That a Way) are so familiar that they’re ingrained in our musical DNA. Pretty Boy Floyd has been covered by so many folk artists, it’s hard to keep count. A musical highlight for me is Do Re Mi, a song about the Okies moving to California and finding out it isn’t the paradise it was advertised as. The fact is that there were so many people moving to California that the local farming communities passed anti-vagrancy ordinances and the Okies had to prove that they either had a job or money (do-re-mi).

Finally one can’t have a song about the Dust Bowl and not mention The Joads.  Woody Guthrie loved the movie Grapes of Wrath so much that he wrote a seven minute song (broken into two parts) that basically tells the entire Grapes of Wrath story (with a riff stolen from an older folk song). It’s just as heartbreaking as the book and movie. If you ever need a seven minute refresher of Grapes of Wrath, you may want to check out Tom Joad I and II.

Woody’s voice is quite plaintive but ironically it’s his voice that really gives these songs their texture. The guitar and harmonica are simple, as are the lyrics. But it’s Woody Guthrie’s gift that he could take complex issues and boil them down to their very core. Very few songwriters have been able to do that and to do it over a whole album and it makes Dust Bowl Ballads one of those foundational albums that everyone should have, regardless of your musical tastes.

Supposedly you can stream the album from the Smithsonian here.  But I couldn't get it to work.

Classic Album Reviews: Weezer — Pinkerton (1996)

As Bootsy likes to remind me, Weezer basically sucks these days.  Sure they’ll have a decent song here or there (Hashpipe anyone?) but one could argue that they’ve been mailing it in for a while (Hurley…really?).  However, Weezer still has a decent fan base, a base built on their first release and ironically enough, it’s follow up, Pinkerton.  At its core Pinkerton is basically about love, sex, disillusionment, and relationships. However it is written from the perspective of a young man struggling with fame and its impact on having mature relationships with the opposite sex.

When Pinkerton first came out in 1996 it was considered a big disappointment. Fresh off the heels of the “Blue” album, which included the novelty hit and video Buddy Holly, Weezer’s second album seemed to fall into the sophomore slump category. There wasn’t a quirky hit like Buddy Holly or The Sweater Song and the first released single, El Scorcho, was musically hard to listen, sing along, or dance to. The whole album had a harder edge to it and some of the songs seemed to be in a minor key, which also made it difficult to immediately embrace.  In fact Rolling Stone readers voted it the 3rd worse album of 1996.  The album’s negative reception was hard on the band (mainly Rivers Coumo) and it took five years for Weezer to get back into the studio.

The love/relationship songs on Pinkerton are written from the perspective of someone immature in handling relationships. As young men, instead of showing vulnerability, we tend to act cocky, acting like it doesn’t matter, that there’s always another chick to conquer. The singer is befuddled, as men usually are when dealing with the opposite sex, but it’s covered by boastfulness. Tired of Sex is a classic example. The song is about how much tail he’s getting and that it’s all soooo boring. He’s both boasting and wanting something more. Getchoo is a song about a guy who has done his girl wrong but now is surprised she’s not coming back. Why Bother takes it one step backward: He knows he’s going to get hurt in the end, why even start the relationship?  It’s just not worth it. It’s a tact many young guys take when deciding whether to enter into a relationship or continue to hang with their bros.

Vulnerability does sneak in toward the end of the album. Across the Sea is about a fan in Japan who would be a perfect girlfriend if she didn’t live so far away (plus there are some bonus mother issues thrown in to boot). Pink Triangle is about falling in love with someone who is unavailable (in this case a lesbian). This song contains the classic line “Everyone’s a little queer, why can’t she be a little straight.”  Finally in the album’s second to last song the singer finally finds someone he can settle down with.  But it’s a little nerve wracking, he doesn’t want to get his heart broke. The last verse really sums it up:

I'm shaking at your touch/I like you way too much/My baby, I'm afraid I'm falling for you/And I'd do about anything to get the hell out alive/Or maybe I would rather settle down with you.

Despite its initial negative reaction, the album has grown in stature over the last 16 years and is now considered a classic and regarded as Weezer’s best album.  In 2002, Rolling Stone readers, just six years after saying it was the 3rd worse album of 1996, voted it the 16th best album of all time!  Other music publications have placed it in their top albums of the 90’s lists.  Unfortunately for their fans, Weezer has not reached the heights suggested by Pinkerton and are more than willing to put out albums of lesser and lesser quality.

Classic Album Reviews: Let’s Go Scare Al — Gear Daddies (1988)

Besides having the coolest name ever for an album (well maybe one behind The Replacement’s Tim) and having the saddest, scariest looking clown to ever grace an album cover, Let’s Go Scare Al is a classic album full of countryish songs about loveable losers, drinking, small towns, heartbreak, drinking, and drinking. An album like this could only be performed by Minnesotans: Its unpretentious, simple, self-deprecating, and chock full of meaning behind its sparse vocabulary.

I almost included both Let’s Go Scare Al and Billy’s Live Bait as one review because they are similar albums covering similar stories. The music doesn’t change much between the two albums nor does the subject matter. But I landed squarely with Let’s Go Scare Al, because of the album name (especially as a debut album) and because it really introduced the Gear Daddies to a broader audience (they had been playing in local bars for a good year or so before this album came out and demo tapes were being passed around left and right). Now some 25 years after it’s been released we still look forward to the occasional reunion show by the band.

As I mentioned above, musically these songs are pretty simple. It’s basic country rock with no outstanding guitar or vocal work. Structurally the songs are pretty simple as well with the time-tested verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, bridge, verse 3 (or repeat verse 1) and chorus organization. What makes the songs special is the songwriting. Even if you haven’t actually lived what’s being described in the song, you can identify with what the singer is saying. For instance Statue of Jesus opens with this verse:

I’m sittin’ downtown cryin’ ‘neath the statue of Jesus
Both of us so lonely and cold, hope no one can see us
I know I’m drunk here but I don’t think that he cares
Surely he must understand these crosses that I bear
So I’m sittin’ downtown cryin’ ‘neath the statue of Jesus

Now, I’ve never sat under a statue of Jesus crying, but if I ever did, I’m pretty sure that song would sum up pretty how I felt. Heavy Metal Boyz is another song that describes perfectly what it is like being a teenager living in a small town, whether it’s a rural area or a suburb. I’m sure there are many, many women who can identify with Boys Will Be Boys and tell me one person who hasn’t Drank so Much that They Just Feel Stupid?

After all these songs of too much drinking, lives gone astray, broken hearts, and shitty jobs the singer hasn’t given up. The last song, Strength, has the singer asking for strength to do what’s right, to “change this fucked up life of mine.” Surely if the singer can still want to change things, to make things better, so can we. We don’t know if he’ll get there but at least he’s trying.