Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Paging Dr. Sacks

Paging Dr. Sacks

Oliver Sacks, the physician and author (“Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”) also wrote the fascinating “Musicophilia,” a series of case studies about people who have profound “musical misalignments” that cause them to hear and experience music in a way that is vastly different than that of the average person glued to a pair of ear buds.

One of the more unusual disorders Sacks describes is Cochlear Amusia, which manifested itself in a patient he identifies as Jacob L.  Jacob was a composer in his late 60’s, who, after a month’s period of relative inactivity, found himself with the stunning realization that the rather good piano he was playing was grossly out of tune in the upper register.  Or so he thought, because when he returned home that evening and worked on a synthesizer, where pitch is perfect, the same anomalies appeared.  Once again, the upper registers sounded out of tune, when they clearly weren’t.  Even more distressing, while the “mistuning” was always sharp, the degree of sharpness varied from octave to octave and sometimes from note to note, leaving him without a linearity he could have compensated for.   Jacob visited his audiologist (like many musicians, he had previously experienced some hearing loss) but there was no obvious cause, and worse, no treatment.  The problem seemingly wasn’t in his ears, but in his head.  He no longer heard notes, even amplified notes, at the same pitch “normal” people did. For a composer and conductor, this was devastating, and led Jacob to consult with Dr. Sacks. 

I thought of Jacob’s affliction when I read of two seemingly unrelated political situations, the first regarding the New York City Mayoral race, and the second, the steadfast conservatism in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, the home of (to me) of that paragon of obstreperous weirdness, Congressman Steve King.

Let’s start with New York, where Bill de Blasio is, as they say in the business, just killing it.  Recent polls put him so far ahead that his opponent, Joe Lhota, is in danger of being lapped.  Why? I could give you a lot of reasons, starting with Dante’s Afro, running through Bloomberg fatigue, to Lhota’s lackluster campaign, but it still wouldn’t come close to explaining the extent of deB’s lead. In truth, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever on the merits.  This is not to say that a Democrat (almost any Democrat) doesn’t have some built-in advantages.  But the fact is that Lhota is competent and experienced (although dull) and de Blasio, is, well, quite the dreamy Progressive. 

And yet, if Lhota didn’t keep his headlights on, de Blasio wouldn’t even see him.  He’s winning because people are listening to his music. Yes, deB is too liberal for many (me included) and yes, Lhota has a good track record as a manager.  And yet, the outpouring of (often very eager) doom and gloom predictions from everyone on the Right doesn’t seem to fit the circumstances. On issue after issue, people hear the notes of criticism, but they don’t register. de Blasio is going to curtail stop and frisk.  OK, maybe crime will go up a bit, but it does not necessarily follow, as has been opined, that soon we would all be experiencing a replay of “Escape From New York.”  de Blasio wants to keep the current cap on charter schools and charge them rent.  OK, even assuming that charters provide a better option for neighborhoods with failing schools, he’s not sending in the National Guard to root them out, and children will not be forced to march ten miles through deep snow (with no shoes carrying fifty pounds of potatoes on their backs) to get an education.  de Blasio wants to provide universal Pre-K.  So does Joe, but de Blasio wants to pay for it with a tax of ½ of 1% on high earners. Joe opposes the taxes.  So, let’s say that deB is able to convince Cuomo and the state legislators to raise the tax—a highly debatable proposition.  Lhota and his allies have been predicting a Conestoga wagon train (in Porsche Cayennes?) of the wealthy, eyes filled with tears, leaving behind their Park Avenue digs.  Presumably to be followed by squatters muscling past doormen and bringing the unwashed (literally) to the very doorsteps of privilege. Possible?  Maybe, but even if you make gigantic amounts of money, would a tax of ½ of 1% cause you to decamp to, say, Mississippi?

This doesn’t mean I agree with any of the above de Blasio proposals.  I just don’t buy the proposition, as many conservative opinion-makers insist I must, that within six months New York will become another Detroit.  And, given Mr. Lhota’s poll numbers, it seems that many New Yorkers don’t buy it either.  He is just not playing our tune.  If I were his campaign director, I would very much like an etch-a-sketch moment and start all over again, because if Bill de Blasio wins decisively, it will mean that Joe Lhota booted away a very real chance.  Bill de Blasio was not inevitable. We are more left of center here in New York than most of the rest of the country.  But we are not irrational.

Meanwhile, in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, the estimable Steve King, noted crazy person (he of the cantalouped immigrants calves, strange visit to Egypt, enduring passion for dog and cock fighting, Obama-baiting and other restful and relaxing pastimes) may be exploring a Presidential run. Set yourself a moment after you read that.  King won last time out by a relatively narrow margin, but it’s very clear that he has the bedrock support of the same sort of rural conservative voters who have elected Republicans, and Tea Party types, all across the country.  There’s an interesting piece by James Stewart in the New York Times, “In Rural Iowa,Spending, Not the Shutdown, Raises Worry.”  King’s district abuts rural Minnesota and Nebraska to the North and West, and this area breeds a certain type of person, with just as distinctive a personality and political views as we have in New York.  Enough of them are Steve King people to keep sending him back to Congress to do that thing that he does so well. They do so because they share his social values, they share his views on immigration, on guns, and on government spending.  They may think Steve can go a little overboard at times, and sometimes they question his tactics, but, in the main, they hear his song, and they cut him some slack.  And, just to be clear, those hardheaded farmers who work twenty-hour days are not irrational either.

How does a gigantic democracy such as ours reconcile Bill de Blasio and Steve King?  Especially when they may hear the same music but not the same notes? Right now, if you have been watching the appalling comedy in Washington, not all that well.

Still, I have hopes.  Jacob, Dr. Sacks reports, made some small headway against his affliction, using all his training, and the brain’s plasticity, to compensate.  It enabled him to keep going, although with great effort. Then, Sacks received a note from Jacob, saying the condition had largely abated. Jacob had received a commission “to write a score for a large string orchestra and several solo instruments, which largely called twelve tone semi-dissonant techniques…” It was tremendously difficult, given his problems, but he persevered through composition, studio work and rehearsals.  And one day, he noticed his Cochlear Amusia started to improve. Not every day, and not linearly, but steadily to the point where he had regained almost full function.   

In Sacks’ words, “Jacob’s brain has literally reshaped itself.”

Now that’s cool.  Maybe Bill de Blasio hangs with Steve King. From dissonance comes harmony?

Or maybe Dr. Sacks makes House calls?