Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Back to Blues

I've been vaguely wanting to get into blues dancing again since Herräng this summer. Recently I've been reminded of it by random other slow dances, like the gorgeous last waltz I had with Jessica when she was up visiting a few weeks ago. (Michael's Mazurka, by Childsplay. Never thought I'd be able to say I'd danced blues to a mazurka, but we did. Luckily, it's not actually too mazurky.) And then last week's Faster Polka had a couple waltzes that were too slow even for cross-step, so there blues-ifying it just made more sense.

Anyway, R.A. Blues is right here in downtown Mountain View, and I'd never been (at least not since last year or so, when it was down in Campbell). This week they had a live band (The Insomniacs, from Portland) so I decided to finally get myself out there. And it was awesome.

I went for Mihai's lesson before the dance, and it was a good one. We did a lot of exercises on listening to your partner's dancing, which I think was probably the best single thing that could have happened for my blues dancing at this point. The point was to get things from being nearly 100% leader-driven to more like a "conversation" between leader and follower. Not necessarily all the way to 50/50 perhaps, but much more balanced. The beauty of this is not only in how it makes for a much nicer dance on both sides, but also in how leaders can actually learn from followers. I think one of the most difficult things about being a beginning lead in most ballroom dances is that if you only know three moves, that's all you get to do. Whereas the follows can dance with experienced leaders and get led through all sorts of new stuff and learn much faster. This approach to blues evens that playing field a great deal. The way the exercises worked, it also really reinforced the concept of not having "moves" but just moving, and it helped me be a lot more comfortable with that.

As for the dancing itself, it was exactly what I'd been wanting recently. One of the things I love most about dancing is being a musician with it, and good blues dancing feeds that incredibly well. The music becomes like a third partner in the dance, being channeled through the two human beings, and all three elements are drawn closer together by the intensity and focus of it all. This can happen sometimes in other dances, like a waltz, but it's harder when you're doing something with a fixed "basic" step, because it's so easy to relax and put things on autopilot for portions of the dance. With blues, on the other hand, you have be be there and in the flow of it at every moment. (I have another post to write about Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, but for now suffice to say that an activity that forces you into it is inherently enjoyable.)

I'm going back next week. Come join me!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hallowe'en Music

At the library last week I picked up some CDs by a Finnish group called Värttinä. For a random library find, I was extremely pleased, and I definitely recommend the group. But a song called "Äijö" on their Ilmatar album really just seems like something to sing at midnight on Hallowe'en under a full moon. I only know 3 or 4 words of Finnish but this thing was completely creeping me out the first time I heard it. Awesome. I've been listening to it all day. :-)

Another musician I've recently discovered is Screamin' Jay Hawkins. He sounds somewhat more insane than scary sometimes, but he's got some cool stuff. Richard even played some at Friday Night Waltz (at my suggestion): "Little Demon" (swing) and "Voodoo" (one-step/polka, sped up slightly). "Alligator Wine" and "I Put a Spell on You" are good, too.

Oh, and I just realized: we got all the way through a Hallowe'en FNW without a single rendition of "The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati." Impressive.

So now I'm thinking about what else I have that's Hallowe'eny. Rockapella's "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch," certainly, for all that it's a Christmas song. Definitely a few things by Tom Waits. Anybody have anything else to suggest?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Ecotopian Perspective

At the Green Festival last year I picked up a 30th anniversary edition copy of Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach. It imagines an alternative future (looking forwards from the 1970's) in which Washington, Oregon, and Northern California have seceded from the United States to form a new country called Ecotopia. After decades of little to no communication between the two countries, a US reporter travels to Ecotopia, and this book is made up of his journal entries alternated with the articles he sends back for his newspaper to publish. The country has completely remade its society and technology into a new, ecologically sound, stable-state system (hence the name).

I won't go into the details, since if all that sounds interesting, you should just read it for yourself. But here's why I particularly appreciate it. Whether you agree with all the ideas or not (and yeah, it's a mixed bag) it's the perspective that's important. It steps away from the question "how can we fix or adjust what we have to make it better?" to "what would an ideal system actually look like?" If you ever get bogged down looking at the trees in the first question, use this book to get yourself thinking at the forest level.

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This post is part of Blog Action Day. One issue. One day. Thousands of voices.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Thinking Beyond Borders

Thinking Beyond Borders is a relatively new organization that is designing a brilliant program for gap year students between high school and college. A group of 16 students and a few staff members will travel the world for a full academic year, spending a month each in a number of different countries and working on projects with a variety of local NGOs. E.g. in rural Bolivia they'll live with native host families and spend the majority of their time working on clean water projects with one particular organization, while also traveling around visiting and learning about similar organizations in the area. Then on to South Africa for a similar stint working on public health and the AIDS epidemic, and so on to India, China, and Vietnam. The programs are being designed and chosen to provide as diverse an experience in the developing world as possible. Then for six weeks after coming back to the U.S., the students go around making presentations to educational and philanthropic organizations, meeting with representatives from the UN and World Bank, etc. The idea behind having this specifically be a gap year program is that students can then start college right from the beginning with a hugely expanded global perspective, which many people only get after going abroad in junior or senior year, if at all.

What I love about all this is that it works on two levels, both educating future leaders and world-changers while also providing direct service and support to organizations working on the ground in the here and now.

Right now Thinking Beyond Borders is still working on fund-raising and program development, getting ready for their first actual program year starting in September 2008. Their goal is to have all the initial fund-raising get the organization to the point where it can be completely self-sustaining on tuition fees alone. The tuition will be comparable to a year at college (they're calling this "the best first year of college you can get") but there will be lots of scholarship opportunities, both built into the program and from ongoing donations. I'm going to be making one of my monthly donations to them, and if you find it interesting too, there's more information on their website and in this video of a talk one of the founders gave at Google a few weeks ago.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Deca Dancing Decisions

So about a month ago, a slip of the tongue at Friday Night Waltz resulted in me telling Merry I'd audition for Decadance. Never one to go back on my word, I started thinking more about it, and realized that if I wanted to join any dance group these days, Deca would be the one. I've had a lot of fun, the last couple years in particular, watching all the fun and creative stuff they come up with. So I went out for the first auditions on Oct. 3rd. For the record, this is the first thing I've auditioned for since VB Opening in 2001-2002, and probably the first ever that was entirely of my own free will (as opposed to following someone else there).

The auditions were actually surprisingly fun. Aside from just dancing with a lot of nice people, we also got to learn the beginnings of two choreographies: Swing It and Go-Go, which is a routine that never fails to make me happy. So I made callbacks and was there again last night for round two. We got to learn more of those choreographies (harder parts) and also did some of those "convey a randomly selected emotion through dancing" exercises. (Which, by the way, drive me nuts. Musician that I am and actor that I'm not, I can kind of work various emotions into arbitrary dances, but not into arbitrary music. Argh.) Anyway, it was all challenging and interesting, and that took us into the decision phase of things, for me as well as them.

On the pro side of joining Decadance is, obviously, their dancing. I especially love the fact that they happily blend whatever styles they can get their hands on. If I got to join, I'd have a chance both to polish things like swing and waltz, and to take a shot at a bunch of styles I haven't done before. Learning choreographies also just inherently appeals to me because the range of stuff you can do with it is different than in pure social dancing. And after getting more experience doing group choreographies, I might even like to start choreographing stuff myself. I've been needing more creative outlets recently. Dancing aside, I also think it would be nice to just be part of a group like that, and have that kind of an extended family.

High on the con side, though, is the fact that I'm not a performer. There's a sense in which Decadance is purely a performance/entertainment group, even more so than specifically a dance group, and a lot of people thrive on that and do it well. Personally, I have nothing against performing, and I don't think I even get terribly bad stage fright (from my limited experience in this kind of thing). I even agree that it's fun sometimes. But it's not something I need the way some people do, and it takes a significant effort to try to project myself out to an audience, even just at the level of auditions. So net result over the long term would be a drain on me, psychologically and emotionally. To adapt a quote from James Thurber, no other thing can be less what it is not than a Graham can (excepting pigeons, of course). That's how I feel when I try acting of any sort, which includes trying to really "project" my dancing.

Even with all that, though, the balance between yes and no is very, very close, and this could still be something I could find ways to have fun with. Unfortunately, there's also the additional issue of commitment to consider. Between rehearsals and performances, Deca would take up all my currently allotted dancing time, and probably cut into other stuff, especially if I still wanted to go out social dancing or taking classes. Also, the current state of my life, for reasons I don't want to get into here, has me feeling like a lot of things are very uncertain and up in the air, which makes me reluctant to give a full year's promise to something like this that I would want to take very seriously. There's a lot of balance that I need to get figured out, which needs to happen gradually, letting everything settle into place together. A large, immediate commitment like joining a performance group would be throwing that process considerably out of whack.

The net result of all this is that I didn't sleep much last night. Then this morning I saw a Decadance email in my inbox, and heard a little voice in my head hoping they'd turn me down and take the burden of the decision off of me. That was the final gut check I needed to convince me that the balance was tipped. So when I read the email and saw that they were very kindly inviting me to join, I responded and respectfully declined. That said, I still love the group, and I'm very grateful even just for the auditioning experience, and for the vote of confidence expressed by their offer. Major congratulations go out to everyone who does join, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with this year.

To end on a happy note, really, just watch the Go-Go video :-)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Blogging for the Environment

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day October 15, a week from Monday, is Blog Action Day, and the theme this year is the environment. If you have a blog, use that day to post something related to the environment, in whatever way, shape, or form you prefer. So far, over 7,000 blogs have signed up to participate, with more joining every day. (Not that you have to sign up or anything, but it helps them measure the impact.)

If you're thinking 7,000 blog posts isn't that much in the big scheme of things, Blog Action Day estimates those posts will reach nearly 5 million readers. Putting environmental issues in front of that many people can have a huge effect on public consciousness, and awareness is always the first step in change. So who knows what big things may be set in motion by the combined efforts of individuals sharing their ideas. See the Blog Action Day blog for more on how bloggers can change the world.

Friday, October 05, 2007

More Post-It Doodles

Post-It Doodles Just because I felt like posting something. I also like the fractal-ness of the various post-it sizes, and how you can spiral together a large, medium, and two smalls like this.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Amazon.com MP3 Downloads

This weekend I got around to trying out Amazon's new MP3 download store. So far I've found a few albums that eMusic didn't have, so it's definitely worthwhile in that respect, in spite of being somewhat more expensive (though still vastly cheaper than CDs, and even somewhat cheaper than iTunes). I also appreciate it tying in to the whole recommendation system there, since I've got a considerable profile built up for that.

Just a couple peeves with it so far:
  1. If I'm using Camino, Amazon doesn't believe I've installed their downloader application, so I have to switch to Firefox.
  2. You can only download files once. They don't get saved in your account library or anything like that.
And one weirdness that I think (hope) was just a one-off: On one of the albums I got, all the tracks are shifted a minute and a half to the right. That is, the first track has 1'30" of silence before the beginning of the song, which then goes 1'30" into track 2. Then the last track is cut off abruptly in the middle. Pretty weird. Still waiting for customer service to get back to me about this, since I can't even try to fix it by re-downloading (see #2 above).

Update, 10/20: Support responded promptly, saying they were looking into the problem. So I waited a week and then wrote in again asking for an update. They responded again, saying they had taken that album down and would make it available again, at which point I could try downloading it again and see if it was any better. After a week of checking every day and finding it still unavailable, I wrote in again. They couldn't tell me when it would be ready, but said to just keep checking. Sigh. Anyway, it finally made it, and I downloaded it again, and the tracks are still screwed up. Back to the drawing board.

One other annoyance, too: They use browser cookies to determine whether you've installed their downloader app. If you happen to clear out your cookies, they force you through downloading and installing it all over again. Ugh.

Update, 1/10/08: I happened to check back today, after forgetting for a while, and found that the album in question (Jason Webley's "Only Just Beginning") is back up. I downloaded it and it all worked perfectly. So we got there in the end.