My Apologies

I really wanted to get a new mental health post out today, but it’s not going to happen. I started a post about insomnia. I just don’t have it in me to finish. I just wanted to post this in case anyone was wondering where the Monday post was. Sorry.

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Depression and Housekeeping

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It’s often embarrassing to have depression. And I’m not talking about the internalized stigma around mental illness. A lot of things that would be embarrassing without depression are much more likely to occur with depression. Depression affects sleep and appetite and saps your energy. As a result, it’s just harder to take care of yourself. Many depressed people have trouble with daily grooming. Many also gain or lose weight and live with bags under their eyes. These have all happened to me. But my real nemesis when depressed is housekeeping.

It’s hard to explain why housekeeping is so hard during a depressive episode. Part of it is the general lack of energy, but it goes beyond that. It’s not just not having the energy to run the vacuum. If it were, it would be relatively easy to deal with because all those cleaning hacks might actually work. There are a bunch of things at play that interfere with keeping house.

First is the feeling that you lack self-worth. Worthless people don’t deserve a clean living space. It’s not really true, of course. Depressed people aren’t worthless and even if they were, a clean, comfortable home isn’t a matter of desert. But, when depressed, it’s incredibly difficult to convince yourself of either of those things.

Another issue is the mess can be strangely comforting. It’s as if the external environment accurately reflects your internal environment. When you’re depressed but in a super neat and clean room, it’s almost like the room is mocking you. Why can’t you be like this? The clutter gives a sense of belonging.

Depression often involves a desire to be alone. It’s not a healthy desire, by any means. But depressed people do tend to isolate themselves. Failure to keep up with the housekeeping helps with that. It’s a reason to not have visitors. It would be mortifying to have a guest see your home in such a state.

Finally, the very thought of cleaning can be overwhelming. Where do I start? How do I start? I’ll never finish. It’s just going to get messy again. Those thoughts quickly turn into: No one’s going to see it anyway and I’ll do it tomorrow. Then the mess gets bigger, and those thoughts get worse.

I’ve tried different methods to keep a clean house. But, like everything else with depression, it comes down to managing your energy. Luckily, I have a kid. That’s the incentive I need to keep up with the laundry and the dishes. There’s simply a threshold below which it would be an unhealthy environment. I use what energy I have to stay above that threshold. When I’m depressed, it’s the best I can do.

All of this is hard to write about because it’s so embarrassing. I’m an actual adult, have been for decades, but when I’m depressed, I can have real problems with the basics of adulting. And that’s why I’m writing this. Housekeeping while depressed isn’t talked about. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who struggles with it, though. So, I’d like anyone who shares my struggle to know that you’re not alone.

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Truth and Honesty

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I wrote Facts vs. Honesty | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. Even though I published it, I wasn’t really satisfied with it. I should have sat on it, but I was having trouble figuring out what I didn’t like about it, and I had missed a few days posting new content. Little did I know that a few days before, The Guardian had published The big idea: should we have a ‘truth law’? | Books | The Guardian by Sam Fowles. When I finally got around to reading Fowles’ essay, it finally clicked why I didn’t like Facts vs. Honesty. Here, I want to correct my mistakes by comparing my essay to Fowles’.

My piece, if you haven’t read it, was about how there isn’t a strong connection between facts and honesty. A person can get the facts wrong while being honest and another person can get the facts right while being dishonest. The Guardian piece is much more concrete. Fowles points out lots of examples of British MPs lying during speeches and on the floor of Parliament and then proposes a “truth law” where MPs could actually get in trouble for telling lies. It may not sound, based on those descriptions, that the essays were at all similar, but Fowles and I were basically talking about the same subject, getting facts correct in public discourse.

In my essay, I didn’t use the word “truth”. It’s just too big a concept. I used “facts” because it is much more manageable. Fowles uses “truth” but doesn’t seem to be talking about capital T “Truth”. Rather, he seems to simply be talking about facts. The things that can be obviously right or wrong and that can be easily verified. So, both of us seem to be talking about the same things.

Fowles says, “Truth is democracy’s most important moral value.” It’s not the thesis of the essay, but it is the lynchpin. None of Fowles’ arguments get off the ground without this statement. The only thing is, it’s a pretty absurd statement. First off, is truth even a moral value? I’d argue no; it’s an epistemic value. We don’t sin every time we get something wrong. Otherwise, we’d all be carrying around an unbearable amount of guilt. There is a corresponding moral value, honesty, but Fowles never even mentions it in the article.

Second, what makes truth “most important” for democracy? It seems significantly less important than citizen participation. It’s also far less important than pluralism. In a modern democratic nation state, truth probably lands somewhere after a functional bureaucracy. But if we want to stick to truth-like things that are more important, the obvious choices are belief and trust.

Now, some may argue that trust and belief aren’t possible without truth. Realistically, though, trust and belief aren’t necessary with truth. Trust and belief come into play when we don’t know the truth. I talked about this in more detail in a post I wrote during the 2016 election (Politics and Epistemic Confidence | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics). The key takeaway is that in most cases, we are not able to know the truth, so we can’t rely on truth to engender trust and belief.

Fowles says that a “truth law” can help. Basically, it requires government officials to tell the truth or be punished. Essentially telling a lie in a government capacity is like committing perjury. A truth law is fine with me, although I foresee major issues with enforcing it. But the real problem with it is truth alone won’t engender trust and belief. It’s spectacularly easy to use truth to mislead people. That’s mostly what purposeful informal fallacies are all about. They are rhetorical devices used to make the truth misleading. You don’t have to lie to be xenophobic. Just tell a true story about an immigrant or refugee and frame it as a slippery slope. The true story becomes misleading, and the truth law won’t help at all.

The thing that’s more important than truth in creating trust and belief is honesty. Now, I’m not British and don’t follow their politics closely, so I can’t comment on Fowles’ examples. But America has plenty of examples to prove my point. When Mitch McConnell said that his primary goal was to make sure Obama’s presidency failed, he was being totally honest. When Les Moonves said Trump was bad for America but good for CBS, he was being honest. When Trump used executive orders to try to build his wall and ban Muslim immigrants, put kids in cages, and tried to steal the 2020 election, he showed that he was being honest in his intentions all along. (It’s kind of fascinating the way Trump is talked about. He’s completely abhorrent, but he tried harder than any president I can remember to fulfill his campaign promises.) There’s no excuse for being surprised by anything the Republicans do. Whether it’s overturning Roe or suppressing the vote or making the world unsafe for trans kids, they’re up front and honest about it. In a strange way, I think this honesty is why people are willing to believe the falsehoods. (I’m hesitant to call them lies. Some certainly are lies, but more often than not, I think they’re BSing rather than lying.)

In contrast, it’s hard to trust the Democrats because their actions so rarely match their rhetoric. When they talk about the student loan crisis, they may be dropping facts all over the place. But when they don’t do anything to address the student loan crisis, they seem dishonest. When they promise $2000 stimulus checks and then start negotiating at $1400, they seem dishonest. They promised to fight Covid but didn’t implement anything to fight Covid. Same for climate change. Based on behavior, it’s hard to tell where the Democratic party stands on any major issue. They talk like they want change, but they behave like they prefer the status quo. Even though they often tell the truth, Democrats are in no way trustworthy or believable.

Like I said earlier, I’m fine with Fowles’ truth law. It might give the fact-checkers some teeth. But I don’t think it will significantly change the discourse. Honesty and dishonesty resonate with voters a lot better than facts and truth. Luckily, honesty isn’t the only factor that decides elections, but it goes a long way. Maybe if the Democrats tried being more honest, it would translate to better electoral results.

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Mental Illness: Navigating the workplace while symptomatic

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One of the hardest parts about living with mental illness is having to work while symptomatic. I wish I could say that the best way to navigate the workplace while symptomatic is to avoid the workplace. That’s just not possible for many people, either because there is no paid time off or their workplace has a strict attendance policy that doesn’t recognize mental illness or some other reason. For those that have to work, every job is different, and every instance of mental illness is also different. There’s no one approach that works, but I want to share some of the strategies that have worked for me, and some things work can do to make it easier.

What Works for Me

The premise here is for people who have to work even while showing symptoms of their mental illness, but the first thing I recommend is doing a spoon check before work. If the spoons are low enough, it might be best to stay home even if you won’t get paid. The spoon check is worth it even if you must go in. Knowing where you’re starting from will help you manage your symptoms throughout the day.

I know a lot of people would say here to work from home if that’s a possibility. I wonder how many of those people suffer from mental illness themselves. In my experience, being home makes actual working even harder. When I’m symptomatic and my bed is right there, I don’t have the willpower to resist. Also, isolation feels easy, but being around people sometimes adds enough pressure to be motivating.

Remember to eat. This means breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few snacks in between. Many with mental illness lose their appetites when symptomatic. Going without food will only exacerbate the bad feelings, though. Plus, food is really the best energy source. My therapist is always telling me to get food, water, and sunlight even if I’m incapable of anything else. There’s no reason to make things harder than they already are.

While at work, navigation will depend a great deal on what kind of job you do. If it’s at all possible, don’t talk to strangers. Try to stick with people you know, and hopefully like. If you can pick your tasks, go with the easiest available. I actually like to find something physical to do. The movement eases my symptoms, and it allows me to put my brain on autopilot.

Finally, take breaks. I’d say take them early and often. Take as many as you can get away with taking. Try not to think of it as a bad work ethic. Think of it as self-care. When you’re feeling this bad, they’re lucky you even showed up at all. Even if it’s just a thirty second mindfulness exercise, it can help.

What Work Can Do

The big things work can do are, sadly, unlikely. They could start recognizing mental illness as illness. They could give adequate sick time to all their employees. They could give people generic paid time off instead of specific sick time and vacation time. They could take steps to lessen the stress that their employees are subjected to. These things would benefit everyone.

Work can also be more flexible. I know I said that I find it worse working from home when I’m sick, but that may not be the same for everyone. The more options a person has, the easier it will be. This can mean working from home, flex-hours, being creative rather than regimented with breaks, or anything like that.

Another thing work can do is just be understanding, sympathetic, and compassionate. Workplaces make accommodations for employees all the time for many reasons. Mental illness should be one of those reasons, no questions asked. One of the more exhausting things about mental illness is always having to justify yourself. A little understanding takes a lot of pressure off.

Finally, work could integrate wellness activities. This could be anything from mindfulness practices to encouraging walking and healthy eating. These would help the symptomatic people and also help stave off and lesson the severity of active episodes of mental illness. It would be good for work as well as the employees.


As someone who struggles with mental illness and has been in a position of having to work while symptomatic, this is my best advice. It’s a terrible position to be in. It’s not only hard in the moment, but it makes getting better significantly harder. No job is worth your health. But sometimes we have to sacrifice our health for our livelihoods and it’s bad for everybody.

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The Serotonin Hypothesis

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A study came out last week that dealt “A Decisive Blow to the Serotonin Hypothesis of Depression.” It’s all anyone in the mental health world seems to be able to talk about. Some people are incredulous, wondering how this could have happened. Others are angry that they were ever prescribed medication for depression in the first place. The anti-meds crowd is gloating. The pro-meds crowd is defensive. Meanwhile, I don’t know what to think. All I know is that the extreme reactions feel a bit unseemly.

Part of why I don’t know what to think is simply because I’m not a doctor, chemist, psychologist, or anything else that would have special expertise in medications or brain chemistry or anything of the sort. I’m a patient. That’s it. I rely on those experts to help guide me, and I’ll come back to that later. The other reason I don’t know what to think is because, if I’m understanding what I’ve read, scientists have been casting doubt on the serotonin hypothesis since it was first proposed more than fifty years ago. In fact, this new study is actually a review of all the studies that have been done over the past fifty-ish years and finds that all those studies show a lack of support for the hypothesis.

In my own experience of depression, the serotonin hypothesis has played virtually no role. I’ve been thinking a lot about it since reading the Psychology Today article. I cannot remember any time when my PCP, my therapist, or my psychiatrist told me that serotonin, or lack thereof, was the cause of my problem. Sure, I’d heard the theory, but never applied it to myself. I’m pretty sure the only time serotonin was mentioned at all was when my psychiatrist and I were discussing possible medications and she told me what SSRI stands for (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). I distinctly remember her telling me about how there are several different classes of drugs. SSRIs are the oldest and most studied but getting on medication would be a process of trial and error, both to see what works and to see what I tolerate without side effects. She told me right off the bat that they still don’t know exactly how these drugs work or what the results would be, so we had to be patient and observant. I did end up with an SSRI, but not because of the serotonin hypothesis. It was because it worked without side effects. And I can’t imagine it was the placebo effect since it wasn’t the first medicine I tried.

The reason I’m describing my own experience is I can’t imagine the reactions to the new study would be so extreme if my experience was typical. The most shocking thing in the article, for me, was the doctors that admitted they knew the serotonin hypothesis was wrong but told it to their patients anyway because it was easier than explaining the real science. I can’t help but wonder what my reaction would have been if that had been the case with me. I’m sure I would have been disappointed. I don’t want people coddling me. But I don’t think it would have been as strong as the actual responses I’m seeing.

The reason I can’t get as excited as everyone else about this study is I don’t really see what it changes. Again, I’m no expert, but it sounds like all the experts already knew. That leaves the big revelations that pharmaceutical companies misled the public through their advertising campaigns and doctors are condescending toward their patients to make their lives easier. That’s about as revelatory as saying that water is wet and the sky is blue. I’m not sure why this study lands a “decisive blow” when none of the other studies did.

I’m sure I’ll ask my psychiatrist and therapist about the study the next time I talk to them. But I don’t desire or anticipate any changes to my treatment. One thing this study definitely did not do is say anything about the efficacy of anti-depressants, even SSRIs. Unless that changes, I’m more stable than I’ve been in months, I see no reason to change things up. Of course, no two patients are alike, so I’m certainly not recommending anything for anyone else. Remember, I’m not an expert. It’s just, lost in all the hubbub around the study, there may be others who are happy with their current treatment plan. I want them to know that it’s ok and they’re not alone.

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Facts vs. Honesty

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People have become kind of obsessed with facts. Trivia nights are a trivial example. Many of our leisure activities are about facts and nothing more. Fandoms of all types obsess over facts. How much money did it make? How many people of color are involved? Sports talk is all about statistics. You rarely hear a description of a beautiful play; you hear about how many yards were gained. It’s not just leisure, though. Quantitative, measurable results are king in business and education. That’s a fancy way of saying facts. Politics is all about facts, too. Just look at the army of fact-checkers deployed on every statement made. And sports has nothing on politics when it comes to statistics.

The thing is, facts are meaningless. Well, that may be too harsh. I guess it would be more precise to say that facts have no meaning by themselves or beyond themselves. Look at some facts: the sky is blue, that worm is 3 inches long, he’s 3 for his last 15. By themselves, there’s nothing there. Without context, the statements don’t have any value.

This is a pretty obvious point and has been said before. It’s good to remind ourselves every once in a while, though. And the reason I’m writing this now, it follows that facts have very little bearing on honesty. Honesty is a qualitative, value-laden concept. In other words, you can’t determine how honest a person is by counting the facts.

This may seem counterintuitive, so I’ll explain. There are all kinds of reasons that people get facts wrong. Lying is one of them, and I’ll get back to that later, but there are many innocent reasons, too. Often, people are simply misinformed and sincerely believe what they’re saying. People frequently make mistakes. You could almost say they get the facts wrong by accident. Many people tailor the facts for their audience. It’s not true that the planets go in circles around the sun, but when dealing with small children who don’t know what an ellipse is, it’s close enough. No one would call any of these people dishonest.

Getting back to lying, it would seem that someone who tells lies is the very definition of a dishonest person. That would be too quick, though. Virtually everyone lies from time to time. I wouldn’t want to say that everyone is dishonest, though. There are lots of reasons for people to lie and lies have many different kinds of effects. If everyone who says “fine” to “how are you” is dishonest, we’re in big trouble. I actually had a professor at college who said that lies are only the falsehoods that make someone’s life worse. I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far (that’s a topic for another time), but I think it would be fair to say that the only dishonest lies are the lies that make people’s lives worse.

Now, what’s the point of all this? Simply put, we need to stop with the facts and focus on honesty instead. In most instances, it doesn’t matter if a politician gets the facts wrong. We should all care if the politician makes their intentions clear or not. It’s an important difference, and one we often fail to make. Even in personal relationships, I’d rather spend time with honest people who play fast and loose with the facts than dishonest people who are meticulous about their facts. I think most people would agree.

We need to replace all the fact-checkers with honesty checkers. It would be a much harder job, but much more valuable. Our gotcha culture has gotten us nowhere. We need to recognize the limits of objectivity. Qualitative value judgements would do us good. Honesty over facts is a great place to start.

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What Might Work Better?

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A little bit ago, I wrote What Am I Missing? | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics about the inadequacies of the Democrats’ responses to the latest Supreme Court decisions. In it, I suggested we need more radical solutions. Today, I want to talk about some of those possibilities. They may not seem radical at first glance, but they are things we’ve never done as a society before.

My starting premise is that politicians either can’t or won’t make the necessary changes. We’ve been dutifully voting for the past fifty years without changing the direction of the county whatsoever. It hasn’t even mattered if there’s a Democrat or Republican in office. The rich get richer and the rest of us are left out. Climate change worsens. Healthcare is a disaster. People lose rights. It just keeps on going.

If anything is going to happen, it’s up to us, the regular people. We have to hit them where it hurts, in the economy. One way to do that is with a general strike. And I don’t mean “everyone take a sick day on August 1st”. It has to be a real strike by everyone outside of emergency services. It should go on for at least a week, preferably longer. During the strike, people shouldn’t just stay home. They should show up to work, stand outside, and let everyone know what they are doing and why they are doing it. Anyone choosing to cross the picket line should be given a lot to think about.

Another thing we could do is a general boycott. Lots of people like boycotts anyway. They don’t shop at Hobby Lobby or avoid Koch Industries. But those are too limited. To really work, we need to boycott everything that isn’t necessary to survival. If it’s not food, water, medicine, or shelter, don’t buy it. This could work well with the general strike as there will be far less to buy and it will make going without work easier for most people. Like the strike, the boycott has to last for some time. One day won’t cut it. And everyone should be vocal about what they aren’t buying.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a song called “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?” It’s an interesting question. It would get the government’s attention really quickly. And there’s historic precedent. Thoreau stopped paying taxes as an act of civil disobedience to protest slavery. Unfortunately, not paying taxes is a lot harder to do now than it was in Thoreau’s time. The boycott would greatly reduce the sales tax intake but organizing an income tax boycott would be a nightmare. It would mean everyone opting out of the taxes being taken directly from the paycheck. Then, on April 15th, not sending in a tax return. Plus, this kind of protest is illegal. The IRS has recourse to seize bank accounts and garnish wages. I’m throwing this out there, but I think the other two are better options.

For any of these things to work, they have to be mass movements. If only a few people strike, they lose their jobs and nothing changes. If virtually everyone strikes, they can’t fire everyone. If only a few people boycott, it’s like the boycotts that happen now. No one notices or cares. This will take societal action. We can look to the Viet Nam protests, the civil rights protests, the suffragettes, and the abolitionists for inspiration, but modern protests probably need to be on an even bigger scale.

As for demands, think big. Forget student debt cancellation and let’s cancel all personal debt. Forget $15 an hour and go for $25-$30. Forget passing laws and think about constitutional amendments (or an entirely new constitution). The sky’s the limit.

What do you think? What else can we do that would get the government’s attention and get things done?

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PTSD from Relationships

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About a month and a half ago, I wrote a piece for Culture Slate called A Psychological Profile On Obi-Wan Kenobi — Culture Slate. In it, I did what the title suggests, I wrote a psychological profile of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the recent Disney+ show. I used a depression checklist and a PTSD checklist that my therapist gave me. After it was published, I was talking to my therapist about it. She asked me whether I noticed anything with the PTSD part. I thought for a moment and told her I was surprised at how familiar the PTSD symptoms were to me. I knew my depression was triggered by my marriage, but PTSD? I had never considered that before. PTSD is something that happens to soldiers and people in horrible accidents. Can you even get PTSD from relationships?

The answer, apparently, is yes. You can get PTSD from relationships, and it doesn’t even have to be an abusive relationship. At least that’s what my therapist tells me. I don’t know how I feel about that. I have trouble thinking of what I went through as trauma. It was absolutely stressful, but traumatic? I just don’t know.

My therapist pushed back, asking me why I wouldn’t want to call it trauma. I struggled a little for an answer, but it basically comes down to associations. When I think of trauma, I imagine physical hurts and crime victims and soldiers who saw battle. I don’t think of nonviolent domestic situations. She asked why not. I struggled again, but eventually decided it was because I feel like if we start labelling any old pain as trauma, it takes away from those people who have experienced real trauma.

This brought the inevitable question, “What’s ‘real’ trauma?” I thought about it for a while but couldn’t come up with an answer. Trauma seems to be one of those words that I know what it means without really knowing what it means. Don’t worry, my therapist wasn’t playing a game of ‘Gotcha’ with me. She was trying to change my perspective and help me see something in a new way. She suggested that I should broaden my idea of trauma because trauma can be different for every person who experiences it.

To be clear, we didn’t go through the whole diagnostic process. I’m not claiming to have PTSD, but if you had asked me before talking to my therapist, I would have dismissed the idea of PTSD as absurd. Now, I’m not so sure. It’s given me a lot to think about. Can I have PTSD? If so, can the PTSD be from a relationship? What can and should I do about it? These are all questions for my next session.

In the meantime, I have some of my own thoughts about PTSD and PTSD from relationships specifically. First, I’m still really uncomfortable describing what I went through as traumatic. I keep testing it and it keeps making me squirm. Being in and ending a bad marriage is so mundane. Trauma makes it seem special in a way that it wasn’t. Except, maybe it was. I’ll have to sit with this a while longer. Second, with this line of thought, I keep focusing on the myriad people who have had it way worse than I. It feels selfish to equate my pain with theirs.

My therapist has often cautioned me against comparative pain. My trauma, if that’s what it is, in no way takes away from anyone else’s. And two people can go through the same exact experience, but only one finds it traumatic. That’s just the way it works, it’s not fair to judge anyone’s trauma. My third thought is that I ought to be at least as charitable with myself as I am with others.

Now that I’ve learned that people can get PTSD from relationships, and I have experienced at least some of the symptoms of PTSD, my therapist and I will have plenty to talk about for a while. It’s a lot to process. It certainly doesn’t feel good, but, hopefully, it’s one of those moments of friction that will lead to progress.

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What Would You Like?

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I was talking to a friend the other day and she asked what my goal was for this blog. (It’s ironic because I’m pretty sure she doesn’t regularly read this blog.) I didn’t quite know how to answer. It started, and mostly remains, a hobby for us. It’s mostly fun and lets us scratch certain itches as they pop up. But I’ve spent the past few days wondering if it could be more.

The standard way to make a blog more than a hobby is to identify a niche, do SEO research on that niche, write exclusively about that niche while incorporating the keywords and other things learned from the SEO research, and get lots of email subscribers. Then there’s a lot of networking and cross-posting and finding ways to get other websites to post links to this blog. It would be work, but it is doable.

There are a few obstacles I’d have to overcome. Jamil and I don’t like, and aren’t very good at, self-promotion, networking, and all that. We’re self-conscious about spamming people if they give us their email addresses. Using key words and other SEO techniques gets in the way of good writing. But the biggest is the niche. Both of us have wide-ranging interests. What would we narrow it to?

Just looking at statistics doesn’t help at all. Jamil’s most popular piece, and the most viewed essay on the site to date, is There Was Always a Better Plan: The DoNo That Might Have Been | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. It’s about what Hartford could and should have done rather than build a minor league baseball stadium. But his second most popular piece is Dragon Ball Z is the Greatest Science Fiction Anime* Of All Time | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics, a completely different topic. My most popular is The Maryland State Flag | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics about how the Maryland flag is racist and needs to go. My second most popular is Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol – Stave Two, The First of the Three Spirits | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. Again, completely different. Maybe one could argue that our niche is “general interest” or something like that, but I don’t think that will satisfy the SEO gods.

That’s where you come in. We do have some regular readers (Hi, mom and dad). When you read this blog, what do you want from it? What are you expecting when you get here? Do you like some of our topics more than others? We’d really like to know.

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Got Soul?

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This summer, I’ve been trying to go to concerts again. It’s one of my favorite things to do, but the pandemic messed it all up. I’ve seen the Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB), Los Lobos, the Gabe Dixon Band, and Al Foster so far. Every summer, TTB calls their tour “Wheels of Soul”, so I saw Wheels of Soul 2022. But I don’t think most people would describe TTB as a soul band. There are elements of soul, certainly, but I’ll bet most of their fans call them a jam band. That got me thinking, what is soul in a musical sense?

One definition I found is:

a kind of music incorporating elements of rhythm and blues and gospel music, popularized by African-Americans. Characterized by an emphasis on vocals and an impassioned improvisatory delivery, it is associated with performers such as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Otis Redding.

I think that definition does cover what most people think of as soul music. It doesn’t do it for me, though. I don’t think the emphasis is always on the vocals. That would leave out classic soul bands like Booker T. and the MGs and the entire subgenre of soul jazz. I also don’t think the delivery has to be impassioned. Bill Withers has a low key, almost cool, delivery, but I’d say he’s clearly soulful. The Righteous Brothers are a classic example of blue-eyed soul, but I’m not sure I’d describe their performances as improvisatory. I think we need to back it up and go with a more general definition like:

emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance.

This is a much less precise, but more satisfying definition. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Otis Redding are still covered, but so are the counterexamples I listed above. The question is whether this definition is too expansive. Are there examples of bands or artists that clearly lack soul but are covered by this definition? It’s really hard to say. I would say that house music and EDM lack soul and are not covered by the definition, but would fans of those musics agree? It seems that this definition leaves a large, amorphous grey area.

This might mean we have to move into family resemblance and “know it when I hear it” territory. I don’t normally like this space. It feels a lot like a philosophical shrug. But I’m not sure we have any choice when dealing with something as subjective as music. I’d probably take Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin as the archetypes of soul and say others have more or less soul as they approach or move away from those two.

The good news is that TTB’s summer tour is aptly titled. They have soul whichever way you want to look at it. I’d say Los Lobos, Gabe Dixon, and Al Foster have soul, too. I might even go so far as to say that all good music is soul music and all bad music lacks soul. What do you think? Who, in your book, has soul?

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