My Name is Maracujá!: My Interview With Eduardo Mendonça, Part 2

As those in my musical circles are aware, I have a Brazilian name.  I am Maracujá.

Maracujá is the Portuguese name of a passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) native to many South American countries, including Brazil.  It is often used in desserts and drinks (including the caipirinha, a famous Brazilian beverage, as well as bottled fruit drinks, such as depicted in the photo below).  In addition, it is known as a mild sedative, and it is an active ingredient in numerous sleep aids in Brazil.

I love the name.  It means a lot to me.  There is affection and friendship imbued in it, and as you can see it is also relevant to my career and my work.

Maracujá was bestowed upon me by my friend, Eduardo Mendonça, leader of the Seattle-based band Show Brazil!.  During an outdoor festival performance last year, Eduardo introduced me to the audience as Maracujá for the first time.  He also told the crowd that this was to be a christening:  he summoned everybody to shout out the name after him.  Three times a crowd of hundreds of people roared my new name.  All I could do was bow in gratitude and humility.  It was a wonderful experience, and I have Eduardo to thank forever for that brief but profound life moment.  Eduardo has introduced me to our audiences with this name ever since.

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During a recent chat over coffee I asked Eduardo to recount how he came up with this title that is now mine.

MC: As you know, you are the one who christened me with this name, Maracujá, which I hold sacred, personally, and which I appreciate very much. I was hoping you could talk about how you arrived at the name, and what it means historically and culturally in Brazil.

EM: Sure. To baptize you with this name was very much an honor for me, because giving a Brazilian name to someone requires a very strong connection, a connection with what you do and what kind of person you are. To best represent you, I came up with the Maracujá name because of the work that you do, helping people with sleep disorders and making life better, right? That’s very important, you thinking of the well-being of someone. How I could connect that, your work and yourself as a person helping others with a Brazilian meaning that could represent you very well? Maracujá is used in Brazil as a natural medicine to relax people. Some people put in a lot of sugar, even though sugar doesn’t go well with relaxing.  But if you put in the right dose of sugar, it would be fine, and would really create a natural relaxing time and relaxing moment, to help you with sleep, to help you calm down, and that’s how I came up with the name for you. It was not difficult at all to connect it to what you are, what you do, with something in Brazil that is a function that can make things good for somebody.

MC: There’s clearly a deep connection between relaxation and sleep. Is it known in the Brazilian culture that the passion fruit or its derivatives can help a person sleep? Does it really have a sedative property, actually make you drowsy?

EM: Yes.  Of course it depends on the quantity that you have. Definitely I remember my parents, when I was a kid, preparing the passion fruit, the maracujá juice to make a very energetic kid calm down. It helped me sleep. If you give it a few hours before you go to bed, and of course if you don’t have anything else in your body to cut that effect, it definitely helps you relax and sleep.

MC: Again, I’m honored to have the name, and I wear it proudly.  Thank you, Eduardo.

Show Brazil! plays all year ’round, and the summer season promises to be great this year!  Obrigado, Eduardo!

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R.I.P., Phil Ramone

The music world lost a giant today.  Legendary sound engineer and music producer Phil Ramone passed away this morning.  He was 72.

Ramone was born in 1941 in South Africa and raised in Brooklyn, New York.  He became a naturalized American citizen in 1953.  In 1958 he co-founded A & R Recording, a recording studio in New York.  He subsequently became known as an innovative music engineer and producer, and he went on to produce music for dozens of seminal artists from many important genres, from jazz (John Coltrane, Stan Getz) to rock and roll (Elton John, Bob Dylan) to blues (B.B. King) to R&B (Aretha Franklin) to folk rock (James Taylor, Peter Paul and Mary).  He also produced classical music, broadway musicals, large-scale concerts, music for television shows, and movie scores.

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I met Mr. Ramone in early 2011 when he dropped by a recording session at Avatar Studios in Manhattan.  He was incredibly warm and welcoming, brimming with soft-spoken humor and wonderful stories.  We took a break for a couple hours and sat in a semi-circle around him in the control room as he regaled us with stories of coming up in New York, gaining prominence in his field, working with Paul McCartney, producing for Billy Joel (coincidentally, the subject of my blog entry from yesterday), and navigating around the music industry.

So much of the music I love exists because of Phil Ramone.  I hope he’s still making music somewhere.

Sleep Song #2: “Sleepwalking” by Lyle Lovett

I’ve loved Lyle Lovett‘s music for decades. I met Lyle, quite by chance, in 2006 at the Dallas / Ft. Worth Airport International Airport, my layover between the Bonnaroo and the national sleep medicine meetings. He is the consummate Texas gentleman, pure class both onstage and off. It was an absolute pleasure to get to know him.

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Among Lyle Lovett’s many great songs is “Sleepwalking,” from his 1998 album, Step Inside This House. As humorous as this song is (see the lyrics below), Lyle sings with substantial clinical accuracy regarding the mysterious phenomenon of sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism.

Sleepwalking represents a series of complex behaviors that tend to arise from arousals from non-REM sleep. Sleepwalkers walk about in an altered state of consciousness, often appearing confused or “glassy-eyed.” Judgment appears impaired. There can be variable degrees of interaction with their surroundings and with other people. Sometimes interactions with others can be inappropriate above and beyond the apparent confusion; agitation or even violence may occur in this setting. In the morning, upon awakening, they are usually partially or completely amnestic of the previous night’s sleepwalking event.

Because sleepwalking and other related parasomnias (the clinical spectrum of unusual movements or behaviors that occur during or out of sleep) tend to occur following abrupt arousals from deep forms of non-REM sleep (called “slow wave sleep“), it stands to reason that people who have lots of deep sleep at night may be particularly prone to sleepwalking. As such, those who are sleep-deprived or who have preceding insomnia (such as the protagonist in Lyle’s song) can be predisoposed to sleepwalking. Other factors that may increase a person’s risk for sleepwalking would include alcohol use; certain medications; previous head injury and other neurologic disorders; travel or sleeping in unfamiliar environments; and stress. In addition to avoiding these predisposing factors, it’s important for sleepwalkers to do what they can to get proper amounts of sleep each night–thus preventing or minimizing sleep deprivation, which leads to increased slow wave sleep–and keep their sleep schedules regular.

Here, now, are the lyrics to this great song. Enjoy!

Sleepwalking
(Willis Alan Ramsey)

Last night you know I couldn’t sleep
I was tossing, turning, and counting sheep
To tell the truth
The next thing I knew
I woke up on the outside
In the middle of the avenue

A policeman spied me in traffic there
In my t-shirt and my underwear
He said, “Son, Son
It sure don’t look good
The way you’ve been calling for your baby
All over the neighborhood”

It seems I was sleepwalking
Again last night
The way I was sweet-talking
It must have caused a terrible fright
Last night, you know when I was sleepwalking

Someone saw me at a doughnut shop
I was sitting and crying on a tabletop
It was not a pretty sight
I was out of control
The way that I was carrying on
About my sweet jelly roll

I said, “Officer please
My baby’s got me down on my knees
Lying in bed
Late at night
Sometimes I just go out of my head
At night
And I go out sleepwalking”

Later on, down at the jail cell
I was hoping things would turn out well
Because I don’t recall
That masquerade ball
And I sure don’t remember nothing y’all
About that blown up rubber doll

It seems I was sleepwalking
Again last night
The way I was sweet talking
It must have caused a terrible fright
Last night, you know when I was sleepwalking

So lately I’ve stopped going anywhere
And I’ve taken to sleeping with a teddy bear
It’s a very full and rich
Imaginary life
And it’s sure enough better than dreaming y’all
About any imaginary wife

No more sleepwalking
No more dreamtalking
No more sleepwalking
No more sleeptalking

“Speed and Sleep:” My Interview With Kristin Hersh

The early nineties were a turbulent period for me: uneasy, scary, and fascinating, one of huge new responsibilities and intense personal and geographic exploration. And through it all, as has always been the case, music was there, providing stimulation, comfort, and light during an uncertain and often dark time.

My home state of Kansas has always been a classic rock, Zeppelin-n-Stones kind of place, but I was always able to find music not heard on Wichita radio. For years, alternative rock to me was electronic (Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk), gothic (The Mission U.K., Sisters of Mercy), or flannel (Pearl Jam, Nirvana). Then one day—I forget where or how—I came upon “Not Too Soon” by a Rhode Island band called Throwing Muses. I found their music totally different and completely compelling: dreamlike lyrics, edgy, unconventional guitar chord structures, tempo changes out of nowhere. Later, in 1994, when Throwing Muses’ cofounder, guitarist and singer, Kristin Hersh, released her first solo album, Hips and Makers, I was smitten. Even now, “Beestung” and “Your Ghost” transport me instantly back to my training days in New England, their delicate, dark acoustic melodies beautifully reflecting the shadows and quiet chaos I lived in at the time.

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So it is with some delight that I can say that in recent years I have become friends with Kristin Hersh. She is as lovely and intriguing as her music. Self-described as shy, she absolutely tears it up onstage. She lives and records music in New Orleans. She is a wife, mom, bandleader, touring artist, and author. She is also an insomniac of long standing.

Kristin’s difficulties with sleep are thoroughly chronicled in her excellent memoir, Rat Girl. On the very first page, introducing her 1985 self to us and upon finding a place to crash for the night: “So I park myself under a sad crucifix and watch tiny blue, green, red and orange bulbs blink on and off. Insomniacs like to waste time.”

Rat Girl‘s depiction of Kristin’s concept of musical creation demonstrates an altogether higher plane of creativity.  She has the gift of synesthesia, in which senses interplay and stimulate one another.  She sees music and melodies in colors; songs are born, and she is their pained, sometimes even reluctant, conduit. Her description of the sensation of sleeplessness is in many ways similar to that of her perception of music: colorful, raw, graphic, desperate, vivid almost to the point of shocking. “Sleep stopped coming, days stopped ending—now sleep doesn’t come and days don’t end. Sleeping pills slow my thinking, but they can’t shut down my red-hot brain. If I do manage to drop off, wild dreams wake me up. So I’m different now; my thinking is liquid and quick, I can function at all hours. My songs are different, too, and when I play them, I become them: evil, charged.”

People with psychophysiologic insomnia (a clinical form of insomnia, associated with excessive worry and frustration from not sleeping well) can easily relate to this portrayal of the sleepless mind. The urgency of her music further exacerbates her problems when birthed at night: “If I fall asleep, the song wakes me up, whispering, chanting and shouting, suggesting bass lines and backing vocals, piano parts and guitar solos. It’s that—the clattering noise of the thing, louder and louder, first whispering, then gasping with its own impact—that’s so upsetting, so overwhelming. A sickening frenzy.” Finally, conjoined with her insomnia, Kristin’s diagnosed bipolar disorder is also an important, recurring theme in her book; compromised sleep, particularly in the “manic” phase, is in fact a hallmark clinical feature of bipolar affective disorder and a primary contributor to the “red-hot brain.”

I checked in with Kristin recently and asked her some questions regarding her long struggle with insomnia.

MC: How long have you had your insomnia, Kristin? How has it changed or evolved over the years?

KH: I stopped being able to sleep reliably when I was a teenager and experienced my first manic episode. I could no longer fall asleep at night and songs came to me at 4 a.m., so I was only sleeping about fifteen minutes at a time. After that, life on the road, sandwiched between four pregnancies and subsequent sleep disruption due to nursing babies, was difficult to distinguish from that caused by manic and depressive episodes or even blood sugar imbalances.

MC: How has your insomnia affected your life? Like your thoughts, your songwriting, your relationships with others?

KH: It is the number one problem in my life (and in my husband’s life, though he has never experienced it himself!). Not only is it caused by bipolar imbalances, it also can trigger them. It reduces immune function and is so isolating that it imbues my worldview with a sharp loneliness that is very difficult for me to shake. I think my songs would be a lot less melancholy if I were healthier.

MC: How does the insomnia change, if at all, when you’re on tour?

KH: Crossing time zones shakes up any healthy pattern I’ve been able to implement but it also offers a handy scapegoat when I’m already out of balance! Sometimes it actually allows me to start over and clean up my sleep act. Additionally, playing music every night is such a release, there is very little tension or mind chatter left to keep me awake. That said, living without a schedule is difficult. The availability of meals and beds and showers and exercise is unpredictable at best.

MC: Have you found anything specific that has reliably helped you?

KH: Acupuncture helps immensely, but sleep medication doesn’t seem to work; it makes my brain more buzzy. Exercise helps and adhering to a strict schedule and diet help. 5-HTP and melatonin when I’m crossing time zones help temporarily.

A huge thank-you goes to Kristin for helping raise the awareness of insomnia and the effect it has on people’s lives.

I’ll conclude with Kristin’s perfect description of Throwing Muses music from Rat Girl, a book I recommend without reservation for its wit, honesty, and importance in the world of modern music. “Some music is healthy, anyway. I know a lot of bands who’re candy. Or beer. Fun and bad for you in a way that makes you feel good. For a minute. My band is . . . spinach, I guess. We’re ragged and bitter. But I swear to god, we’re good for you.”

R.I.P., C. Everett Koop

It’s with a heavy heart that I write this brief piece in tribute to C. Everett Koop, our nation’s former surgeon general.  He was born October 14, 1916.  He passed away peacefully yesterday at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire.  He was 96.

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Dr. Koop was born in Brooklyn, New York.  He completed his bachelor’s degree at Dartmouth College, his medical degree at Cornell, and his doctor of science degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  For decades he served as surgeon-in-chief at the world-famous CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia).  He was also a professor at Penn.  He was well-published and he developed numerous important surgical procedures.  Then, in 1981, he was appointed by Ronald Reagan as deputy assistant secretary for health and, shortly thereafter, surgeon general of the United States.  He remains the one U.S. surgeon general whose name I consistently remember.  During his tenure he steadfastly championed several important health and social issues, including AIDS awareness and the importance of smoking cessation.

Following his service as surgeon general he eventually returned to Dartmouth, where he held professorships and founded the C. Everett Koop Institute at what is now called the Geisel School of Medicine.  I met and spoke with Dr. Koop following his lectures while I was a resident there.  His personality was as colorful as his bow ties.  I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with him and hearing his thoughts regarding the direction of medicine and the politics of the administration of health care in this country.  These issues were not otherwise routinely taught to us postgraduate trainees, and no one at the time could have dreamed about how important an awareness of health care administration would be now in the 21st century, a genuine health care crisis looming as it now is.  It was abundantly clear to me that Dr. Koop honestly cared about the welfare of all Americans.  I loved his enthusiasm and his ongoing interest in teaching, despite his advancing age.

I believe the United States would benefit from more physicians like C. Everett Koop, those who have the courage to stand up for what they believe in and what they believe to be right.  He will be missed, both in the Upper Valley and way beyond.  Sleep well, Dr. Koop.