Words, Music and the Art of Staying (Moderately) Sane

I deal in words. I start off the day with the New York Times crossword puzzle, read the New York dailies online, and browse Facebook, Twitter and my email. That’s all before 7 a.m. I write and edit for a living, and then most nights I spend a few hours on my laptop, working and chatting. For fun, I read. (At the moment I’m still trying to get through the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and “Passage of Power,” Robert Caro’s third volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson.) I fall asleep playing “Words With Friends” on the iPad. Then it starts again the next morning.

Invariably, at some point during the day my head starts to hurt. First I thought I needed new glasses, but that wasn’t the case. After ruling out several other possible but unlikely causes, ranging from having three children to having a brain tumor, I concluded that it was word overload. It made sense. Imagine words swirling around you all day like mosquitoes. Eventually, the buzzing starts infiltrating your brain until you can’t hear yourself think. That’s where Yo-Yo Ma (pictured above) comes in.

Today is Yo-Yo Ma’s 57th birthday, so this morning I started searching on YouTube for videos to post in his honor. I love Yo-Yo Ma — he has his own playlist on my iPhone — so I took my time looking for just the right ones. I ended up getting lost in the music the same way I get lost in words, but without the accompanying headache.

The selection shown above, which is different from the two others I posted on Facebook, happens to be my all-time favorite Yo-Yo Ma performance. It’s from his 2003 CD “Obrigado Brazil,” and the song is “Doce de Coco” by Brazilian composer Jacob do Bandolim. I invite you to stop reading and take a listen. If it’s at all possible, make sure the room is quiet. Pour yourself something soothing to drink. Even if the room isn’t quiet and you’re not drinking something soothing, the rhythm and sensuality of “Doce de Coco” will transport you. I dare you. Try it.

For me, at least, that’s the thing about “Doce de Coco” and Yo-Yo Ma. If words are my swarms of mosquitoes, Yo-Yo Ma is the bug spray that silences my inner noise. Works every time.

It’s not just Yo-Yo Ma. The same goes for jazz, standards, cabaret, the timeless and intelligent stuff of the “American Songbook” that Jonathan Schwartz plays on Sirius XM (and before that on WNYC, preceded by WQEW and WNEW. Believe me, I know — I’ve been listening to Jonathan Schwartz since I’m 14.)

I blocked out the disco era of my teens and never had much of an affinity for pop or ear-splitting guitar riffs. But give me “Autumn in New York” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong — anything by Ella and Louis, separately and together — and that’s something else entirely. Or “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Laurindo Almeida, “Wave” by Sinatra, “Penthouse Serenade” by Tony Bennett, or “Two for the Road” by Nancy LaMott. Give me Stacey Kent, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, Eva Cassidy, Kenny Rankin and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Many others, too.

Many high-strung people resort to Xanax, but music is my preferred drug. The sad or bittersweet songs work better than the happy ones. I’m really not sure why. I start breathing easier almost immediately. The stress begins to fall away.

When I work at home, music is always on in the background, very softly. It’s greatly minimized the physiological effects of word overload, and for that I am grateful. I can’t explain my response to music. The wonderful thing is that I don’t have to. It just is.

I’ll end with the impossibly beautiful rendition of “Simple Gifts” that Yo-Yo Ma recorded with Alison Krauss.

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