Monday 19 October 2015

On Professionalism

A little rant: So, a friend just shared an AirBnB experience that went wrong and keeps going wrong-er, thanks to an unprofessional host. This fellow in question dropped the ball, and is now coming back with excuses that he is not a hotel professional. 

And, you know--he's actually right on that part. He's unprofessional in every sense, because even though he's signed himself up for the business of catering to guests' needs, he's actually just some schmoe who's making money off of a property he has access to, regardless of his lack of ability or expertise in the hospitality sector. 

He is not a professional. 

At the same time, I'm thinking about the black cabs in London. I love them. I don't give a damn if they're more expensive than Uber, they know where they're going, way better than I do. I give them an address, and they don't plug it into an iPhone--they reference their incredible bank of knowledge about the twists and turns, legalities and logjams of an ancient city. They are professionals. They come with training, knowledge, regulation and vehicles that are built like tanks to withstand the rigours of city driving. 

They are professionals, and they are precious to me. 

While I think there are some wonderful things about the "sharing economy," I approach it with a high degree of skepticism, because what things like Uber and AirBnB often do is create parallel markets for poor versions of services that used to be mostly fulfilled by professionals, but are more and more often done by people that don't necessarily know what they're doing. 

When this is obvious and part of the reason it's cheap, when you know you're getting no better than your mate doing you a favor in exchange for gas money, fine. But, as time goes on, we're losing both our lowered expectations and the notion of professional accountability, because "sharing" services increasingly encroach upon professional territory. And I think it's lame. 

Sure, there are some great, even professional, drivers on rideshare services, just as there are lovely folks running their bed and breakfasts via AirBnB. But, we should never forget that these are likely to be amateurs, playing at professional games. (And, I should add--things like taxis and hotel rooms have long been carefully regulated, in no small part because of the serious risks involved with insufficient responsibility around such services.) There's a good chance they don't really know what they're doing, that they lack communication or conflict resolution skills, and that they might be brand new to a game they shouldn't be playing. 

In bellydance, we talk about the line between being a professional and a hobbyist, what rates professionals should charge, and what professional conduct means to our business. We can easily identify the numerous ills that come from getting this wrong. There is a fundamental difference, and individuals may transition from one side to the other as their knowledge and commitment grow. It's the same for any profession, I think. 

While I salute the experimental nature of the "sharing economy," I mainly want to see those experiments stay small and push the real professionals to be better. While I don't resent anyone making a bit of money moonlighting in something new to them, they should be wary of impersonating an educated expert by stepping into the commercial shoes of someone who is actually expected to know what they're doing.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Hanging Up

I'm having a heartbroken afternoon, and I'm pretty sure it's because I'm not going back to Burning Man, at least not for a very long time. It keeps coming back to one thing: the phones.

Somehow, that change over all the others has cut me deep. Hearing people bitch about poor reception. Daily updates about what's going on in the outside world. People sitting around camp staring at shit on the internet. It all feels like vandalism to something that means so much to me. 

It used to be so magical--that long journey out, following mountain roads and rivers to the place where an alien landscape took hold and the data connection died. This was the process of going to another world, one that was temporary and beautiful and that you could only visit briefly. (Really, they are all that way.)

Maybe it's that I'm a forest creature stuck living in a day-to-day where people are zombies staring at screens all the time, breaking conversations to answer noises on a machine, not idle for more than nanoseconds before the boredom tick of scrolling on the phone takes over. The pointless treadmill of meaningless novelty, hitting the button for connectedness and missing it the whole time. That burns me; my own abstinence is imperfect, and has no impact on the tide coming in on me, anyway.

I love those places that remain sacred, untainted by those bastard toys, their nagging for attention and indulgences of narcissism. Maybe it's time to let go of the idea that Black Rock City can be one of those places. But, man, it hurts. 

I'm going to put my energy into creating new worlds. I'll find other remote places teeming with feral energy. I have other things to do in life, so it seems a bit silly to feel so sad about outgrowing this one. But, it's been precious to me for a long time. All of my adult life so far. I've fought this corner. The wild experiment changed me. 

It might turn out that I miss hitchhiking on art cars and making possibility in the starkest dry dust too much to stay away. But, for the foreseeable future, I think it's time to accept that I can't stand in the face of this change and hope for a pivot. Maybe I can find a new way to be involved with this crazy place, where I can pitch myself into projects with other folks that want to shine up the immediacy and involvement in our ephemeral, imaginary city.

For now, though, I can tell you this: Convenience is death to purpose.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Human, Animal

I've been too quietly watching the news, speculation and details come out about Sandra Bland's death. There are so many instances of racism cutting life short, hitting the news daily, that I don't know how anyone could pretend the US doesn't have an issue with such things. It's a victory that the Confederate battle flag is being consigned to its rightful place as a historical relic steeped in violence, oppression and treason. But that's merely a symbolic victory--there's behavior to change. 
Meanwhile, the ugliness of a lion's death is galvanizing my soft-hearted friends who stand up against the torment of animals. Discussion of extinction, cruelty and the outrageous arrogance of humans permeates my social media. And that's a good thing. It's also an extremely simple thing to condemn--much easier than digging deep into the injustices human society inflicts on its own. 
But, let's remember: humans have the gift, amongst all animals, to be better than our savagery. We can increase our understanding, learn from our mistakes and ignorant transgressions. We are uniquely able to embrace our better natures and mitigate our own destructiveness. We can take each of those lessons and enhance our compassion, almost infinitely. 
Let's remember that almost every calamity we witness in our brief, delicate lives is directly related to human suffering and its awful, echoing effects. Our shimmering gem of a planet is ravaged out of hunger, fear, desperation and disregard. Everything we can do to replace trauma with kindness and consideration makes a little more space for healthy life, of all kinds. 
It is a beautiful thing to be able to empathize with other creatures. It can be harder to keep the lights on in our hearts for other people, whose problems may be uncomfortably tangled into the messiness of our own lives, or who may resemble those that have hurt us. 
The lurking shadows of human cruelty are overcome by helping each other to burn ever more brightly, and freeing ourselves from the ashen remains of our confinement from one another.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Bomb Blasts and Beginnings

Ten years ago today, I was flying into London with my bags packed for a new life and voicemail messages from James about how terrorists were blowing up the city. With heightened security, all of us boarded the plane anyway. 

I landed in a city deserted. All of the cabs had long since been taken by commuting workers stranded by the eerily quiet transport system, shut down by the morning's bombs. The last option for transport was a limo, complete with chauffeur, so I was greeted by two men in suits and a placard with my name on it. 

There was no traffic from Heathrow to Holborn. I've never seen anything like it since. 

James himself had breezed past not one but two of the blast sites on his way to the office. Then, as the city realized what had happened, the phone networks became overwhelmed and normal life disappeared into a mix of chaos and the remarkable calm that only London can possess as it's having the shit kicked out of it. The place has had practice, after all. 

Within two days, people were taking the tube to work again. Within three months, we moved onto Edgware Road. 

This morning, I woke up to a lovely email reminding me that, despite the somber anniversary and the rough landing into English life, today also marks a decade of having gained a family and having started an adventure that changed my life forever. 

London, you're a tough old city. I'm loving you a lot today.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Of Zills and Pink Slippers

I've been thinking a lot lately about connection. And other "-tions": Motivation. Inspiration. 

I've also been pondering the slings and arrows of growth and change. Of running after, and letting go.

I think it might have started when I got the letter from my student loan company, laying out in brutal terms how much I would be paying per month and over the lifetime of my loans. Before that, I'd thought I understood how lending worked and that I'd done my due diligence by carefully reading all the fine print. But the demon of compounding interest had me by the hair, and it was too late. 

I was a newly graduated university student and professional bellydancer. And I was going to have to pay as much monthly on my loans as I did for rent in London--one of the most expensive cities in the world. I'd been applying for jobs, and no one was responding; this was 2008, and the financial crisis was really hitting the city, resulting in massive layoffs in the banking sector, flooding the job market with ambitious folks with experience. 

And there I was, foreign, all my references in another country, armed with my anthropology degree and an overwhelming sense that my can-do spirit was not enough.

That's when I knew I had to dance. The lucky break I'd gotten as a bellydance teacher while studying was my only viable employment. My hopes of keeping dance for myself and developing a career in my area of study were met with only endless unpaid internships I couldn't afford to take.


Over the next few years, I kept dancing. I loved my students and my classes. I was proud of the festivals I was privileged to help grow by teaching and performing, all over Europe. I felt like I was part of a new tradition of bellydance that was vibrant and exciting, and that I was doing something meaningful to help it thrive abroad.

I was also wearing down. Unbeknownst to me, I had a serious digestive ailment that was making me sicker and sicker. I kept going, though--taking all the workshops I could, drilling daily for hours, teaching several classes a week, travelling frequently. There were a few scary times when I felt dangerously depleted, almost in shock, but I pushed through.

It started to add up. I began to feel diminished. My husband and I talked about what would come next, and we casually discussed the possibility of moving to San Francisco. 

Then, suddenly, it happened. The offer came. And, if we said no, we might not have another chance in the foreseeable future. We debated, we cried, we held hands, and we jumped.


In retrospect, I don't think I ever recovered from losing my students. I loved teaching. As the years have gone by, I've remained intensely proud of the dancers they've become. Some of my most precious friendships came out of curious forays into classes I taught, and I am so incredibly grateful for the presence of those women in my life. 

In my naiveté, I had assumed that I would simply start over in San Francisco. I thought my accomplishments would come with me, and that I would jump right into the place I had previously called home. I underestimated the emotional impact of shutting down a healthy business I had grown from scratch, and the challenge of learning to feed myself again as a dancer with dietary restrictions. I needed to build my strength and get settled, and those things require time and attention. But I hadn't realised that yet.

I offered to be a substitute teacher for a friend's class. Her negative response stung. I started to realise that all those years working on my own did not add up to being part of the local tradition. I felt disconnected and disappointed with myself. It seemed that the things I had achieved overseas had evaporated. My motivation began to wither.

I tried to reconnect with the things I loved about bellydance. There were some moments of inspiration, and times of profound sadness. Grief. My body started to interfere with my ability to keep up. Family drama overwhelmed my emotional resilience. Loneliness set in. 

The first human profession I remember wanting to pursue was being a ballerina. From the ages of about five to nine, I took classes. I remember the way the cement floor of my teacher's basement studio felt under my little pink shoes, the dusty sound of a rond de jambe at what must have been a tiny barre. I remember a yellow costume that reminded me of the teardrop Johnson & Johnson logo on my baby sister's shampoo, and the first time I got lost in a choreography onstage. (A fate I was destined to repeat even as an adult dancer, and--in retrospect--the first evidence of my right/left confusion from learning dances in a mirror.)

When we moved to the countryside, away from my teacher, my dancing days became shows improvised to my parents' record collection, performed to imaginary audiences. I climbed trees, read books, and imagined I would become a veterinarian. It was a long time before I had a dance class again.

Twenty years after I stopped, I went back to ballet. A search for classes revealed a school with an adult program a few blocks from my home in San Francisco. I started packing pink shoes with me in my purse. 

I started, then life got in the way. I started again, and then I bought a house, and that took all of my time. I started again, and, by this third start, I had discovered that my creaky back was increasingly intolerant of the undulations I'd worked so hard to install as a bellydancer. The harder I pushed, the more physical and emotional pain I felt. Ballet started to put me back together. 

There's something to be said for revisiting your first love. I will never be a ballerina, but several times a week, I make an investment in keeping my identity as a dancer. While I hope that I might one day learn enough to integrate the dance forms that have shaped my body and spirit in some sort of personal expression, I think it might be enough for me to just go. Maybe I'll be able to contribute something beautiful to the world this way, even if it is only carrying myself with more strength and ease. I'm getting older, and I want to see what can happen while I have time. I have things to express in this mortal form, and I want to expand my reach and means to do so.

I am so grateful for all of my teachers. Over twelve years ago, Rachel Brice got me dancing again when I was just a little raver gyrating under laser beams. Now, I feel so lucky to restart an old journey of a thousand tendus with Zory Karah, Joshua Trader and Rubén Martín Cintas. You all help me to be a little more alive in a very special way, and I am glad for it.