Tuesday 5 November 2013

Violet Silver Moon

The moon was beautiful tonight. I caught sight of her as I was walking along on errands around 6pm, when the sky was indigo chasing twilight, and I kept seeing bright flashes between treetops. And then, there she was: suspended, elegant, in that rich blue infinity, shining silvery white in a sliver of a crescent with a crisp violet disk of the shadowed portion of her face. 

Only moments before, I'd unpacked my bag from hiking in Berkeley, and left my camera and sunglasses behind to lighten the load. I figured that I'd have nothing to take pictures of that would be demanding enough for me to risk getting caught unawares with a big fancy camera around my neck in the dark. So I left it behind. And then, there was the moon, daring me to try to steal the moment for a little longer by committing it to pixels. My phone never stood a chance. 

Thursday 3 October 2013

Dance and the Ephemeral Moment

Years ago, after a breakup, I observed that the weird rough edges within myself--all of the hanging questions and unfinished lessons, emotional scars and unwanted reflexes acquired in less healthy times--would not work themselves out fully until I found myself again in a similar context. Being alone and introspective was good, even essential, but only when I re-entered the world of relationships would I be able to feel all the demons rise to the surface. Once they came out to play in a new encounter, I would be able to see them as they were, and I could single them out for eradication. Until then, I realised, I wouldn't really know who I was in a partnership; the best I could do would be to work on all of the day-to-day rough patches and get to know myself.

In dance, I feel there's something similar. Or maybe it's just that my approach to life has a pattern. I always feel like the real moments of learning about performance are extraordinarily fleeting, maybe five or six minutes of going out into a particular environment that has been crafted by all the participants to create specific experiences for everyone involved. While I think there's clearly great value in rehearsal, the repetition in a studio doesn't get to the nuances of what it feels to perform. To get at that stuff, I feel that one needs to be in that rarified space, get a feel for its contours and observe how sensations bounce around within it.

I'm a largely improvisational dancer, and so I may be especially sensitive to all of this. I don't take a lot of comfort in a routine; in fact, I sometimes find choreography distracting in performance, because my memory and muscles have a tendency to surprise me, and I'd rather integrate that into the flow than find myself outside the program. Even when I'm learning choreography, I often feel like I'm chasing after a train as it accelerates away from the platform. Sometimes my body gets it, but I don't feel or really know where I'm going next. I'm sure a lot of this is down to practice, and nailing down a way to drop into choreography is perpetually on my dance to-do list. So far, though, dance just feels like it's made of something different to me. 

Rather than coming from a place of familiar combinations and common language, I feel dance at a nearly molecular level. I teased apart the movements I learned from my teachers through a lot of obsessive self-observation, expanding and experimenting with the nuances of my own musculature.; it's not for nothing that these are called isolations. I actually think of the movements I do, when I think about them, in this way: pinpointing anatomical impetus and chasing it down connection points to transfer energy through cascading contraction and relaxation. I do these things over and over again, until the movements that are in my body are mine, as reflexive as my own use of language. It's not that I don't want to learn combinations and choreography, it's just that I'm a weirdo and I get hung up on the details. To borrow the analogy of not being able to see the forest for the trees, if choreography is a marked trail through the woods, then I find myself admiring bark patterns and climbing up into the canopy to see what the view's like up there.

My days of being frustrated with this are mostly past me. I think I've largely succeeded in making peace with the fact that I approach dance in my way, and that while it's greatly expanded my interior universe and interaction with the world around me, it also makes me difficult to work with and slow to pick up things that are second nature for other dancers. I aspire to develop these other skills; in the meantime, I enjoy learning what I learn and absorbing it in my sloth-like way. As a teacher, I enjoyed developing choreographic ideas and sharing them with a group, working with the symphonic arrangement that simplicity can build to with many people working together. But, when I dance alone, I tend to slip into that natural language, feel a moment and encounter that strange interaction between myself and the music of the world around me.

Performance sometimes feels like a cocoon I can only enter for a few minutes at a time. The transformation is gradual, the conditions and test very brief. I try to access that transcendent space to let dance happen, and I can't be on the outside at the same time to assess whether my interpretation of what's transpiring gets through to the audience. It's a strange art form; there's no thing to hold outside of time, to turn in the light and get a finite sense about. Video flattens it. The animal bits of us can feel the strange sensations of another person's poise, and similarly primal parts of our busy brains can be held hostage by a suspension of physics and animation of intent. In each of those dances, I breathe into that expanded space, feel the presence of the people around me, and try to be open to that big mystery before the song ends.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

In Honor of Exchanges

I've just come back from a wonderful expedition through Spain and Morocco, and I have lots to share about that very soon. However, something major has happened today here in the United States of America. Our government has ground to a halt, and, at the same time, we went live with a new, nationwide system of healthcare. This is a very big deal, indeed.

Despite this ridiculous government shutdown business, the United States took major a step toward joining the rest of the civilised world today. I have friends who can now access coverage, and treatment, for anything from chronic, life-threatening illness to minor maladies that would otherwise escalate into a debilitating issues requiring emergency room visits--and potentially permanent disability. People I know who have addiction issues can start to seek help, as mental health services and substance abuse treatment must be covered as "essential health benefits" under insurance plans and publicly funded treatment programs become more widely available under Medicaid. 

All of these changes come as a result of pooling risk, which one could argue we were already doing, albeit in a haphazard, cruel and expensive fashion. Leaving the people who most need medical care out in the cold to favor those who are already better-equipped to deal with emergencies has meant that we all foot the bill for care--at inflated cost--in a strained network of hospitals, left to provide all of us a level of treatment inferior to that of a country that would prioritize early, inexpensive and non-invasive preventative care.

This insurance-based solution is imperfect, but it was implemented in the name of bipartisanship and preserving choice. Our status quo has been shitty and harmful: ongoing market failure to provide adequate and efficient solutions to healthcare needs, because there's no money to be made in providing basic care to the poor. Aside from the moral failures of our previous shambles (I am reluctant to even use the word "system" for something so disconnected, ineffective and unpredictable), what we've been doing in this country with regard to healthcare is expensive--on federal, state and individual levels. We've spent more out of pocket and through our taxes than other countries that allow people to simply walk into nationalized hospitals and receive high-quality care for free.

For all of these reasons, we should resist letting perfect be the enemy of good. We can keep working on a better answer, even as we get more people out of lives of illness and fear by starting on some sort of solution.

One consistent tendency among developing societies is a commitment of resources to gains in health and education. This is us trying to live longer, healthier lives, gain wisdom and really reach farther toward the horizon of our human potential. And that transcends any fitful starts we have on the path.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Thinking about Trayvon

I was out with friends in a trendy bar in San Francisco's Tenderloin on Saturday night. (The contrast in that statement is sharp; one walks past a lot of sadness to get to this chic spot, safely inside frosted glass that lets in light but not scenes of desperation.) A smoke break for my friends made space for me to check the news on my phone and read the verdict of the Zimmerman trial. I fully expected to be reading that he was not found guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin, but I did expect to see that the manslaughter option had stuck.

Foolishly, I was not prepared to read that a jury would have acquitted Zimmerman. Or that an expert witness would have stated that it was time to drop this, and let the man get back to his life and family.

I really was not prepared to have a verdict land that so soundly stated the difference in value between white and black lives. Really, race relations in Florida were on trial in this case. The only positive outcome is that now, people are talking about what an outrage this is, what a joke the legal system in Florida is, what white privilege is and what can people do about this widening gulf that should sicken us, where on one side sits poverty and all the social ills that come with a highly insecure life, and on the other are all the people who never even have to notice that this kind of structural inequality exists. And persists, thriving on just that kind of ignorance.

I've been reading so many things: the account of a grey-haired astronomy professor driving through Florida, who in a moment realised that white people feeling threatened by their own racism could have resulted in his jailing, or death. A young black man writing that he gradually came to appreciate, rather than resent, the ways that his mother made him aware that he was different than his white friends, even if he was multi-lingual and well-educated. White authors imploring white audiences to fight back against that urge to say that they are not racist, and instead see how pervasive these problems are and that we must resolve to push back.

In some ways, we are beyond the big actions on racism. We have largely eliminated from the books those laws which explicitly draw lines between people of different colours. (In some cases, prematurely--the Supreme Court's action on the Voting Rights Act imagines an America where Southern states, blithely unaware of themselves as anything worse than "accidentally racist," are fit judges of how to equally protect an electorate from themselves.) We are now mostly down to cultural changes, self-examination and demands of righteous anger when racism and excuse-making hijack our public institutions and turn them into vessels for antipathy.

I think of my own experiences, living in neighbourhoods where I've been followed home or harassed by black men, and also see where I am in this, as a non-threatening target for rage or reaction, a less-dangerous representative of a portion of society that disproportionately controls the fates of others. I am also reminded at regular intervals that my life, and my control over it, are valued less highly than others. In this sticky matrix of race and gender and judgment, being blithely unaware is abusive. Humiliation can be deadly, though not always for the one brought low. Those moments of exercising power over people have ramifications that vibrate through this web, and that shaking undermines some more than others. The lifelines become detached and drift away in places, those formerly strong, invisible cords cut away until gradually there's not much purchase for anyone.

This backsliding and blindness is detrimental to all of us. The paranoia and privilege of white males, insecure in a masculinity built on nothing but flailing hierarchy and damaged pride, is perhaps the greatest example of how corrosive ignorance is. The fabric of society is rent asunder, and the opportunity opens for those bullies doing the tearing to scramble to the top of the heap and demand fealty. This isn't good for anyone.

So what do we do? We talk about this. A lot. We should keep talking. We have reached the point of being able to resolve a lot of these things by deepening our awareness of them. We have succeeded in tearing down the worst bastions of discrimination before this moment, and now we need to keep talking about why we did that. What we're walking away from. How these moments of judgment, ignorance and avoidance add up to destitution and violence. The conversation about Trayvon's end is about how paranoia and ignorance kill. And we're having the same conversation if we're talking about women's rights, or discrimination against people who don't conform to the someone's idea of the right way to do sex or gender. 

We need to push back against this moment, in which a certain contingent finds it useful to declare that some lives are worth more than others. This is embarrassing, and it's not what America should be about. We were built on higher ideals than this, and failure in this regard is more than a moral matter--the anger and abuse perpetuated by discrimination makes all of us poorer, in so many ways.

We have to see. And to listen. We have to become sensitive to the world around us, and the way that people live in the world around us, and stop judging and start helping. Anger is useful when it impels us away from ugliness and gives us energy to move toward something better.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

An Ugly Day

I'm having an ugly day. This is the third day, and there are some less attractive ones to come. I'm perfectly healthy, and, in a seemingly infinite number of ways, my life is very good. I know that.

And yet, I would rather not show my face right now. The worst outbreak of cold sores I can remember experiencing has taken over my lower lip. Even without looking at my face in a mirror, I am reminded of the presence of this nasty little virus; my face hurts, burns, where these blisters have erupted to the surface of my flesh. 

It's a little thing. My lip is swollen and ugly. I have my legs. My fingers work. My brain is fine.

And yet… I would rather not go do anything that I could conceivably put off until later, when maybe I won't have to deal with unwanted attention or commentary about this painful thing I can't control. Maybe it's my fault I have this now; maybe I out-funned myself in the blessed spot of summer sun we got over the long holiday weekend. Maybe hanging out too long in the ultraviolet rays that burned my legs weakened my defenses enough for these minuscule creatures to do their dirty work on a nerve in my face. I don't know.

I do know that this is not a big deal. But it feels like it is. And that is, in large part, because I am used to having a sort of superpower. Usually, my face is quite easy. It's younger than its years, white and female, with oversized blue-green eyes and cheekbones that come from just enough Native American ancestry to add some intrigue. Whether I want to or not, I reap a daily dividend from this face. And, even though there may be days when I would rather leave my face at home and pass unnoticed through the city, I can feel the abrupt pivot that happens with this temporary disfigurement. I don't like it.

I spend so much time trying to re-inhabit this feminine face with more depth, less judgment. To use whatever superpower this is to bring my intelligence into situations that might not otherwise welcome it, or to talk to people who might not otherwise care to engage. It doesn't always work. I've been told before, by colleagues and eventual close friends, that my initial appearance said to them that I would be difficult, disinterested, and dismissive. People carry their assumptions into situations that sometimes stick around long enough to develop nuance.

And yet… The interactions I want to avoid right now come with extra judgments. Disease. Sexual promiscuity. Cover it up. Does it matter that most people have been exposed to the virus that causes these nasty little blisters in some of us? No one will know that I've had them since I was a child, long before I ever had the chance to do some dirty thing that would have earned me a scarlet letter on my face. Or maybe some people won't know that cold sores are another manifestation of herpes, which causes colds, chicken pox, small pox and shingles. That these bugs live in almost all of us, once we're exposed, and our immune systems fight them down into invisibility most of the time.

Sometimes they make their mark. And all the marks are interpreted differently. Chicken pox are childhood. Shingles are stress. And the big "H"--herpes--are taken to be a sexual death sentence and a dirty mark against the bearer. None of them have a cure. All of them are simply waiting for the right mismatch of immunological memory and exposure to experiment further in our species. They are ancient, adaptable, and omnipresent.

Really, this is no big deal. But I might just wait to go out until the journey is less laden with monkey fears about plagues and human judgment about appearance. Not so ugly days, when I have a little more choice about how people read my face, and fewer painful reminders of what we can't control in this social universe.

Friday 14 June 2013

Racism, Fear and Laundry

Just found myself in the middle of a super awkward racist encounter. I went to drop some clothes off at the dry cleaner, which is run by an older Chinese lady who works alone. She's had multiple scary encounters with guys who have parked outside and watched her count money, ask when she's closing, etc.--casing the joint. One was waiting outside when I came in.

She tells me he's been waiting there since 1:30pm. She's nervous. I try to calm her down, advise her to call the cops. As we're talking, a dad walks in with a toddler in a stroller, asking how much the cost is per shirt. The lady freezes up. He asks her some totally normal questions, she doesn't answer. She asks him if he's come in before, he says no. She says she thinks he has. He says he and his wife have just moved to the neighborhood.

He's black. She's scared. I try to make conversation with him, keep things relaxed, but no dice. She takes the shirts, and tersely requests that, next time, he not block the shop with the stroller, and she will bring his shirts outside to him. He leaves, wondering what the hell just happened.

Once he's gone, she says she thinks that the man waiting in the car might have called the man with the stroller. She was worried she was going to be in a hold up. I explain to her, no, he was just a dad with his kid. I realize that she is probably scared of all the black men in our neighborhood at this point.

Friday 10 May 2013

Thoughts while packing and sorting out clothes...

For years, I got almost all of my clothes through thrift shops and swaps, which encouraged me to dress like a bit of a lunatic. If you want to dress like a perfectly unremarkable clone, it's not a simple task in the randomness and magic that is the secondary market for clothes. Charity shops in wealthy areas can conjure up Alexander McQueen silk trousers for less than a pair of jeans and solid silver jewelry hiding under nothing more than a thin layer of tarnish. The serendipity of discovery meets the challenge of repurposing and re-inhabiting the excess and extraordinary.

(Let's not forget, this is really fun. I assume you've heard this song by now?)

I'm thinking about all of this because of an excellent segment on Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviewed Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed. This conversation reminded me of how little I used to buy new, and how much delight I've had searching through the goodies of the world in surprising places like Buffalo Exchange, consignment stores, vintage fairs, Etsy and Ebay holes. Even with a guided search through the seemingly infinite offerings online, it's easier to find what you're looking for if you're a bit flexible. And it's always easier to pull it off if you've cultivated your own voice.

One has to learn how to dress. It's a mode of expression, done with things. Things are made. Garments have a life of their own, but they are a product of human effort, and worthy of respect. They say something, not only about the wearer but about the world we live in and the pathways of goods and trade that whirl around us and shape our world through agriculture, labor, manufacture, the creation of value...

The new great things to find in a vintage store tomorrow are being bought today. These are the garments that will bring history forward into new contexts, reconnect people to the daily lives of their parents or grandparents, and remind us that the past is always with us. However, they are in a vast sea of things being made in mind boggling amounts, a mighty gyre that is spinning to fathomless depths even as we casually wave to friends over sales racks. We can talk about feeling guilty, or sad, or we can think more deeply about how we connect to the world around us and people nowhere near us.

Planet Money's t-shirt project is finally getting some legs under it. People are talking about Bangladesh, how people end up crushed to death under collapsed buildings in the midst of working to change their economic prospects. This phase of development and change has happened in so many countries, including the USA, Britain, and countless other places. Eventually, most of us opt to outsource work that is still done with hands, and thus expensive, or tedious, or dangerous--or all of the above.

The answers are not just, "Buy American!" "Boycott China!" "Buy organic!" or anything as narrow and simplistic as those commands. Big picture trends are knit together out of everyday patterns, impelled by our lack of awareness about impulses and consequences. Trade is not inherently poisonous, but deliberate ignorance usually is. 

Vegan leather is often PVC, which is horrendous for the environment. Silk biodegrades and is quasi-magical in its properties, but its creation nearly always involves the torture (to death) of worms. Quality cotton is grown around the world, but debating its price requires a confrontation with farm subsidies and livelihoods. Leather comes from animals, but mostly from creatures we slaughter to feed our meat habit. The contradictions and tensions are endless, and solutions are generally not simple.

Navigating this terrain is a careful balancing act, always in motion. We have to commit to questioning what we encounter and why, and what we can support--or not--and changes that we are shaped by as well as shaping. We can't see the whole picture at once, which is no surprise when the subject at hand involves vast companies, global networks of trade and a retail pace that intensifies in its momentum daily.

Responsible consumer behavior is a matter of starting where we are, and deciding to engage with our choices rather than make them blindly. Ask why something is so cheap. Analyze where it's come from. Think about where that thing is going to live, after you've thought about its life with you.

Darning a sock shouldn't be a lost art. That simple dance with needle and thread can be the first step toward appreciating the fine work someone's two hands put into the beautiful things that envelop us in the human world.