If you want to hear the conversation and not the introduction, you can fast forward to 12:45.
But you won’t do that, right?
Really, though…I appreciate and love everyone who has recorded with me, and honestly you’ve brought me to the point where a thing like what you’re about to hear could happen. I needed time. Apparently like 2.5 years. Also, I needed the equipment. A good recorder, headphones, and microphones. And, apparently, the perfect evening with a friend with whom I’ve never had this deep a conversation before.
Today, you’ll meet my friend Jason, and you’ll travel with us through an insightful, hilarious, important conversation.
This will take about 4 weeks.
Please listen, and comment, and share.
I present to you, “Goodnight Irene (Del Norris, pt 1).”
In my world, there is a path from 0 to 100 as we serve people. We start with a screening, move through assessment, diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, further treatment or dismissal.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of assessment and diagnosis is the distinction between a disorder and a difference.
Disorder = disease or abnormal condition.
Difference = a point or way in which people/things are not the same.
Now, a person with a disorder is most certainly contending with a difference.
But, a person with a difference does not necessarily have a disorder.
A simple Google search: Speech Language Pathology Difference Disorder, yields plenty of results highlighting a huge cultural blind spot. That is, we over-identify typically-developing children for whom Standard American English is not a “mother tongue” as being disordered.
We identify children who, linguistically and communicatively, are different than what is conventionally deemed “typical,” as being disordered. Broken in a way that requires prescriptive therapies.
Let that all sink in.
Furthermore, certain non-standard English dialects and non-English accents serve as de facto social diseases.
Case in point? Black English Vernacular. (BEV) [also referred to as African American English Vernacular]
The African-in-America experience, beginning with chattel slavery and travelling up through this very moment, has created a legitimate non-standard dialect that has 20+ differences from Standard American English. (SAE)
Before continuing, I should communicate a simple fact: Very few Americans actually speak Standard American English. Politicians and media talking heads generally do, but even then it’s rarely textbook SAE.
Additionally, very few Americans speak BEV using every possible indicator of the dialect.
All dialects exist on a continuum. I happen to be a fluent speaker/writer of SAE and, in certain, professional situations, I’ll produce nearly flawless SAE. I’m also moderately fluent with BEV given various experiences and relationships across my life. I can code switch depending on the person in front of me. It’s what we all do, to some extent.
Again, Black English Vernacular is a perfectly valid non-standard dialect. A person can speak/write 100% BEV and be equally intelligent, cohesive, and/or artistic as a person speaking/writing 100% SAE.
Black English Vernacular = Standard American English…from a purely neuro-linguistic perspective. That’s…equals. The same as. I want to be very clear here.
But we don’t live in a lab, do we? We live in homes, with families, in communities. We work and play in a variety of milieus, encountering various dialects, languages, and cultures. And across much of the United States, Black English Vernacular (a.k.a. Ebonics) is considered inferior to Standard American English.
You can try and fight me on this, perhaps because of who you are or because of your family/community…and I’ll not try and tell you that YOU believe one dialect to be superior to another. But generally, across history and environments, the assertion holds true.
When we mislabel a difference as disorder, and then set in motion all of the social, pragmatic, emotional, therapeutic, systemic, and educational assumptions that follow the mislabeled person, we are both wrong and unethical.
And when we consistently diagnose particular dialects as “disorders,” we’ve taken that very personal mistake and contributed to systemic supremacy.
Two simple phrases:
X is different than Y.
X is superior to Y.
In my above example, X = Standard American English and Y = Black English Vernacular.
However, X and Y are variables and the equation can be completed using a variety of particular nouns.
And here is where I’d like to shift to a bit of a primer on racism, and several other isms for that matter.
I’ve mentally collected thousands of examples across in-person interactions and the myriad media available, and I’ve arrived at the following conclusion: Most people don’t know the definition of racism. And it’s actually quite simple. Racism is #2 in the above social algebraic equation. That’s it. The belief that one group is superior to another group. That’s racism.
Historically, and this is headed back to 1492, Europeans generally believed themselves to be superior to all non-European cultures encountered through the period of mass exploration and colonization. And in the 1600’s up through the 1800’s, as hundreds of thousands of Africans arrived in the Western hemisphere as chattel, European Americans believed themselves to be superior to Africans. Fast forward and we arrive at: White people are superior to Black people.
A few additional populations that we can place in those equations:
Christians/Non-Christians (religious dogmatism)
Straight people/Gay people (homophobia)
The reason I place African Americans, women, non-Christians, and Gay folks on one side of the equation is because these groups have generally been in powerless classes, while historically white, Christian, straight, men dominate the powerful classes.
Racism: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
X is superior to Y
But also, and this is the even bitterer pill to swallow, X (as a population) is different (as a rule) than Y (as a population) also fits the definition of racism.
See, once we start at a premise like, for example, Black people are athletically inclined…we’re already 9/10ths of the way toward: Black people are athletically superior.
But it’s all racist.
Neither true nor false, bad nor good, just racist.
We can discuss value judgements later, but we must begin from the same premise, the same definition…which is the definition.
No alternative facts.
X is different than Y.
X is superior to Y.
(X is X) as (Y is Y).
X is Y.
What is different, superior, or inferior…is how society conceives, treats, and legislates X and Y.
I don’t mean…are you afraid of the dark sometimes?
And not…have you ever been creeped out showering after having watched Psycho, or sleeping in a forest-embedded tent with the Blair Witch swirling around your consciousness?
No. None of that commonplace, perfectly valid, ultimately temporary, situational terror.
I mean…have you ever experienced something that rocked you to your core, literally took your breath away, triggered reflexive prayers to whatever gods were available, caused you to reconsider your perception and beliefs, and left you unsettled for a very, very long time?
What I’m about to relate is a single, chilling conversation with the supernatural, my perception of the paranormal, and an unequivocal “I think I just shit my pants” experience. Take that with a pound of sea salt and read on.
But just in case, you’d better leave the lights on.
For as long as my memory stretches, I’ve been a fan of monsters. Halloween remains my favorite Holiday and the lead-up to October 31st fills me with more excitement than a Catholic child on Christmas Eve. The first novella I ever read was Stephen King’s, “Thinner.” The titles that stand out strongest to me from my earliest cinematic memories include, “The Elephant Man,” “King Kong,” “Psycho,” the Abbott and Costello monster movies, and just about anything with Vincent Price. Later, I’d become obsessed with the likes of Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, Leatherface, Candyman, and Pinhead. My Mom tried like hell (…ha…) to intervene when the movies veered hard R, but I found them anyway. Perhaps in a universal, karmic message to my family, my Grandmother took me to see, “The Shining,” having…NO IDEA…what Stanley Kubrick had in store. I was 6. It wasn’t until the nude woman exited the bathtub of room 236, hugged a crazed Jack Nicholson, and melted into a horrifying, devilish witch-creature, that my Grandmother slapped her hands over my eyes and walked us out of the theater. “I can’t believe they allow that smut.” But by that point I was slack-jawed with a Kubrick education that perhaps only Danny Torrance would understand. And Tony.
It all got branded on my brain.
In sixth or seventh grade, I wrote a short story, along with graphic illustrations, depicting a murderous, masked, seemingly immortal monster slashing his way through a handful of teenagers. One scene, I remember clearly, had the Voorhees knockoff hiding under a bed, pushing a sword through the mattress, and skewering the unsuspecting teen above. I used-up half of a red crayon for the illustrations. I submitted all of this in my English class as an example of my creative writing. I was stoked to hand it over. Get feedback. Thank the universe and whatever higher power exists that my teacher knew me, understood me, and had the wherewithal to simply call my parents in and discuss my creativity, my talents, and the fact that they might want to steer me in a more culturally appropriate, less violent, direction. I wasn’t punished. I wasn’t deemed broken. Wasn’t medicated. Nobody worried about me…though, perhaps they should have. I don’t know. Point is, my macabre interests were not indicative of mental health disability, and everyone acted according.
I tell you all of this to let you know that while I scare easily, I generally walk straight into the flames of fear, crave the sympathetic nervous system response of dilated pupils, increased heart rate, and the faux feeling of nether-region dampness that only a wonderful scare can provide.
I dabbled in silly pre-teen séances, obsessed over Harry Houdini and Edgar Allen Poe, got my chubby little fingers on some illicit VHS tape of “Faces of Death” or some similar depiction of “actual” (…and in some cases, actual…) mortality.
And in 1988 or ’89, perhaps for Christmas, I got my first Ouija board. By this point Hasbro was producing them. I would have loved to have received some vintage, allegedly haunted device. But we were poor and not particularly cultured people. So what I got was the $9.99 board game version. I would soon enough learn that it didn’t matter how ancient, how spirited the actual board. Rather, it was something about the people connecting around that extra-large guitar pick of a pointer with the plastic magnifying orb in the middle…hovering over an alphabet, a “yes” and a “no,” and the ubiquitous stamp, “Made in China.”
I lived in an old, quite small apartment. To get to the basement (…yes, there was a basement…) one had to lift a door that served as part of the kitchen floor, a la Sam Raime’s “Evil Dead,” and crouch down to enter the earth covered basement. On the walls were various…I don’t really know, kind of spooky cave-art done in black light paint. Eyeballs and stars and angles and lots of shit that, now looking back, could certainly have been ceremonial for some nefarious purposes. It scared me, and I absolutely loved it.
My neighbor to the right was Marie. Across the street were two kids about my age whose names escape me, much like my wits that one Summer evening. Christ, I can’t even remember their genders. Let’s call them Brian and Jen Dalton. Good, solid 80’s names.
I brought my Ouija board across the street to the Dalton’s front porch in the cooling July dusk and, with Brian and Jen, we settled in to seriously contend with whomever, or whatever, might communicate with us.
It’s important for me to state up front that I was, and remain, convinced, that nobody on that porch moved the pointer intentionally. The pointer moved, and we all felt…something…but we were, all three of us, convinced that it was not any one of us. There’s really no way for six hands atop of flimsy plastic tripod pointer with felt stoppers to fluently create the experience I’m about to report. (Sure there is, Greg.) I know that. You take from this what you will. Believe me. Don’t believe me. But know this…I am telling the truth as I experienced it.
I was a serious kid. Anxious and earnest. Brian and Jen were enthusiastic and, if memory serves, also approached the experience seriously.
We settled in to our spots, and I spoke. “Is there anybody there?’
“If there is anybody who would like to communicate, please move the pointer.”
I’m not sure if this is precisely what I said, but I know this: the second time I requested a response, the pointer began shifting smoothly in a circular or figure-eight pattern.
Christ, my heart rate is racing as I write this.
“Please tell us if you will talk with us.”
“Are you a ghost?”
“Do we know you?”
“Are you a demon?”
“What do you want?”
“What do you want?!” a bit more forceful.
And here the damn thing began to spell.
I want Marie’s soul.
“You can’t have it,” still me.
Then. I’ll. Have. Yours.
Honestly, I don’t remember much else about what happened immediately after that. At some point, however, I stood up, packed the fucking thing into its rectangular box, and I went home.
I don’t think any of us ever talked about that experience. I never told Marie anything.
I walked into my kitchen, found one of those stick lighters, walked back outside, sat on the corner where the sewer drain opened, lit the board and box on fire, watched them until they were quite inflamed, and kicked them down the sewer. I stomped the shit out of the plastic pointer and kicked it in after.
And I went in my house.
I never walked into that basement again.
You may be wondering, “What’s the basement have to do with any of this?” I think it represents two things, one of which is entirely understandable and the other, well, is just as implausible as what I just described to you. But then, who am I to argue with implausibility.
First, that Ouija board experience etched a mark in my life. It ended a section of my autobiography, firmly and abruptly. The previous chapters were the playground of a naïve child attracted to the macabre. All chapters since are stamped with a weary, fearful, experiential respect for whatever lies beyond our human perception. I don’t play with shit that isn’t playful. Not anymore. I steer clear of most religious iconography, but particularly those bits…and this is the baptized Catholic speaking, perhaps, but certainly the boy who believed his soul was momentarily endangered…that lean evil. Ungodly.
And second, I’m not unconvinced that whatever followed me over to the Dalton’s porch was generated by some previous occupants of my house. Occupants who maybe, in that earthy, dank basement, played with spiritual shit that, as I mentioned just above, is unequivocally NOT playful.
I never played with a Ouija board again. (There’s that word again. Played.)
It’s not a game.
I promise you, it’s not a game.
And so if you ask me, “Do you believe in ghosts? Demons? Spirits? Heavan? Hell? The goddam Bermuda Triangle?” My answer is a firm, confident, certain, “I don’t know.”
I’ll take Freddie Krueger’s snark, Pinhead’s psychopathic joy, or a slow-moving Romero zombie over the seemingly earnest evil lurking just beyond perception. Any day.
Thus started five centuries of colonization and unrelenting, unapologetic, religiously anointed, systematic dehumanization.
White male supremacy…maintained through violence, rape, murder; governmental policies, religious doctrine and dogma, “scientific discoveries,” and the very words of our (and many a) constitution.
I recently learned of the esteemed father of gynecology, J. Marion Simms…and how he used slaves to experiment, without anesthetic because it was, and still is, abeit perhaps to a lesser extent (Don’t believe me? Try this on for size) believed that black skin was thicker, nerve endings perhaps less sensitive, and thus black people tolerated pain differently than white people. One woman, Anarcha, endured over 30 surgeries in 3 years to repair a fistula between her vagina and anus. No anesthetic. Simms was the first physician to have a statue erected in his honor. One is in Central Park, NY. His revolutionary techniques help women to this day. Yet, barbaric experimentation on enslaved women brought us to our safer, more humane, technologically advanced world.
I’m going to write that again.
Barbaric experimentation on enslaved women brought us to our safer, more humane, technologically advanced world.
This is the story, writ specifically but aligning generally with that of the United States, and much of the Western World.
We are where we are today because of unimaginable horrors leveraged on native populations, African slaves, and any community deemed “savage,” “ungodly,” or “uncivilized” by colonizers, slavers, and ordinary white citizens.
What is done…is done.
But not forgotten.
And to be honest, it’s not really done.
In fact, I am certain we find ourselves where we find ourselves (…do I need to explain myself? I can if you need me to, but I hope you don’t need me to…) because of the strong, continuous, undercurrent of white male supremacy. And I see, on Twitter and Facebook and various digital, cable, and print media outlets…white men, and too many socioeconomically elite white women continuing to pontificate, opine, argue, and explain to oppressed communities why they remain degraded and how to become powerful. (Notably, this typically involves being compliant, subservient, assimilatory, quiet, and most importantly, THANKFUL for the paternalism.)
Do you see the problem there?
It is time to relinquish the mantle of oppressor and hand over the reins. Yes, I am here to resist. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I would like to take a leadership role in shifting toward inclusion, multi-culturalism, humanism, and whatever term you might affix to the opposite of the bullshit happening currently. However, it’s my time to be an enthusiastic passenger and not a driver. It’s time for leadership and change emanating from marginalized intersectional communities. It’s time for the people who have persevered for the longest time to determine their futures.
And in the process, ours.
Most white men are afraid that those who were/are oppressed only know oppression and, when leadership shifts to them, will oppress either as retribution or natural course.
That is…white men becoming the minority means white men will be oppressed.
And…non-white folks becoming the majority means non-white folks oppressing.
But that’s our fear, because of our behavior.
It’s got to be over.
At some point the bully has to stop punching.
(And indeed, sometimes the bully gets punched back. Looking at you, Richard Spencer.)
But ultimately deciding to cease bullying is the right choice.
Allowing the bullied to communicate their concerns and desires is the right choice.
Relinquishing even the power to allow is the right choice. (Marinate on that thought for a few extra seconds.)
So I am here. I am ready to listen. And follow. I will offer my expertise when asked and appropriate.
But I know the next steps are not mine to define. If we honestly desire to expose, dismantle, and move beyond white, male, heterosexual, dogmatic theistic supremacy…then the leaders of such a movement must be from communities negatively and consistently impacted across the past five hundred plus years.
Just…people hurtling through space on a tiny, insignificant, human hospitable rock trying to find equilibrium.
The world lost an exceptional musician and educator this week.
I certainly feel the loss.
From Deane Root, Chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Music:
We are deeply saddened to report the passing of John Goldsmith on Thursday, February 2. John joined the music department faculty in 1989 and served for a quarter century as the beloved director of the Heinz Chapel Choir and teacher of musicianship. He was the advisor for undergraduate music majors for many years. John is an indelible part of the lives and memories of thousands of Pitt students, faculty, staff, and alums.
Immediately upon his arrival, he set about rebuilding the role of the Heinz Chapel Choir in the University. He quickly restored it as the University’s preeminent student ensemble through superb musicianship, resulting in packed concerts and international attention for the University. John led the students on singing tours of Europe, South America, and Asia, sharing news and photos through daily Internet updates. A native of Westerville, Ohio, he is remembered for his wit, his passion for the ensemble, as well as for the many ways in which he shared his superb musical talents. He will be greatly missed.
One never knows how much one will miss another…until the other is gone.
One rarely appreciates the impact and influence of another…until the other is gone.
I now know.
I miss him.
And, his impact and influence on me was immense and immeasurable. I am a competent, confident ensemble singer, soloist, and musician because of him…and him alone.
I stood among stellar vocalists, myself simply serviceable, entirely unaware of how lucky I was, and created aural art so powerful that audiences wept.
That’s John Goldsmith’s legacy.
Please spend a little time with me, and with the Heinz Chapel Choir, and with a group of HCC alumni who serenaded Mr. Goldsmith just days before he took his final breaths in this lifetime.
This is a journey into sound, a journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new values, and a new experience…stereophonic sound.
Early photos of me show a chubby, uncoordinated, but still generally happy human. I liked cartoons, copious amounts of cereal, and Stephen King books. I was not the athletic type. Nonetheless, I played little league baseball through elementary school, and I hated every minute of it. My only distinct memories of baseball, two of them, occurred at the same game.
I had…never…gotten a base hit in my life.
You have to understand the significance of this. I’m not being hyperbolic. I played little league baseball for several years, and I’d never gotten a hit. I’d been hit. But never gotten one.
However, on this day, I stood at the plate. It was late in the game. My last at bat. First pitch. I closed my eyes (…I always closed my eyes in preparation for hitting. This is NOT a promising tendency…), swung for the fences, and was shocked to hear the crack of the bat. I’d launched the ball to the opposite field…in the direction of the distracted, disinterested fat ass from the OTHER team. The ball predictably got by him, and I ended up with a stand-up triple. It should have been a homerun. But I was overjoyed. And…completely out of breath. (Have you ever watched a football game when a thick defensive lineman picks up a fumble and rumbles like 70 yards, looking like the most obvious target for lions hunting the weak gazelle? Yeah, that.) I never made it home, and we lost the game…but I got a freaking triple!
I was so confident, or perhaps oxygen-deprived, that as my parents and I went for the post-game meal (…the ONLY thing I liked about baseball…) I asked if I could quit. And to my surprise and utter relief, they agreed.
In one evening, I got a triple AND permission to quit that shit once and for all.
Back to fifth grade I went. Fat, awkward, and happy.
I loved only one “special” at school, and that was Music. In particular, when we’d sing.
Not long after I walked away from baseball, a friend mentioned that she sang in a large choir.
The Sounds of Freedom.
(I know. We definitely rocked the 1s and the 3s like a suburban Neil Diamond cover band.)
“They’re having auditions next week.”
I got in.
I had my new sport…and I loved it.
Similar to baseball, I was neither naturally skilled nor particularly inclined musically. But what I didn’t have in genetic talent, I supplemented with attention, motivation, and, as they say about getting to Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice.
I sang in elementary school.
I sang in middle school.
I sang in high school.
But…I never did learn to read music.
I developed my ear though, and because my high school director challenged us with 4-8 part arrangements, I learned how to sing in an ensemble. I would never have considered myself a singer, let alone a musician. I was a happy hack hanging on and tagging along.
Two men changed that for me. The first is RJ. He is a peer and he constantly communicated to me that I had talent, that I’d developed a great ear, that I’d put in the work, that I was…a musician. I’ve spoken about (and to) RJ many times in the history of Driven2Drink. I love him and he remains on my Mt. Rushmore minus two.
I recently learned that my other musical mentor and hero battled cancer valiantly for 10+ years and has finally entered home hospice care.
John Goldsmith was the director of the Heinz Chapel Choir at the University of Pittsburgh.
When I entered Pitt as a Freshman, in 1992, I resolved to continue singing even though I couldn’t read music. Thankfully, I had confidence enough to sign up for and show up to auditions for the HCC.
John intimidated me from day 1. I’m not sure he meant to (…tbh, I think he did…) but I was intimidated.
He obviously heard something in my voice and ability to sing melodies and note-sequences by ear, because rest assured when he handed me sheet music, and I begged him to NOT make me try it, but he still did, I made up some wretched atonal shit. Whatever I did, he accepted me.
And for the next 4+ years, this competent singer became a confident musician.
JG was tough, could be a right asshole. He praised only occasionally, gave authentically positive feedback almost never. A person with just an iota less self-esteem than I might have emotionally perished under his guidance.
In high school, my choir director was good, and tough, but was also a counselor.
Goldsmith was no counselor.
It was his drive to make a ragtag group of singers, many of whom could not read music, into a polished, professional, impressive choir.
He did that. Year after year after year.
It got to the point where a person couldn’t get a seat to our Christmas concert if they didn’t jump in the queue early.
It got to the point where people started making counterfeit tickets. (You know you’ve made it when folks organize a hustle on your behalf. “Yo…I got two for Saturday night! You down with HCC?” Yeah, you know me.)
It got to the point where the HCC became a jewel in the crown of the university.
I left the University of Pittsburgh a musician, but I also left quite angry at the man who made me that.
If you’ve read any of my posts on here, you know that I lean toward anger and grudgery. You also know that my emotions are ultimately as fragile as thin, old, cracked crystal. And like my Mother, when I decide something…goddamit that thing is decided.
I decided, after leaving Pitt, that Mr. Goldsmith was bad.
I will neither delineate details nor will I relate stories justifying my judging, jurying, and executioning. Just know that I went many, many years carrying resentment for John. I skipped reunions and avoided concerts.
And then several days ago, I was invited to do a singing valentine at JG’s home. As I mentioned before, I learned that he recently shifted to home hospice after years battling cancer.
I knew…none of it.
And it all hit me in the gut.
Water under the bridge, in which I always seem to be drowning, can have a strong, strong undercurrent.
I went to his house. A substantial and multi-generational choir accumulated on his small, quiet street and serenaded a man who had made each of them into better musicians. I recorded what you’ll hear this weekend when I release the next podcast, so please come back for that.
I forgave John, and, perhaps most importantly, myself.
If there is any moral to this story, it’s this: Don’t let yourself drown in water under the bridge.
Also: We have made music.
Memoirs and musings of an anxious, sometimes inebriated, truth-seeker.