Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Year End Catch Up

I'm about to head out to Camp Harmony tomorrow, as is usual for this time of year. Before I do, though, I wanted to breeze quickly through some of the good stuff from the last busy two weeks:
  • Hearing Chanticleer perform in MemChu with Rowyn and Sandra. Chanticleer is an all-male chorus, but they still sing alto and soprano parts, and they're incredible. Especially in MemChu. One of my favorite bits was in Arvo Pärt's Sieben Magnificat Antiphone when they just settled in and sat on a minor second until the whole church just vibrated with it. Mmmmm.
  • Going to the Christmas Revels with Mom. This was my first time actually going to the Revels, though I've been listening to the music for years. I loved Shira's opening with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on the fiddle, and Geoff Hoyle being hilarious throughout, and the old favorites like Lord of the Dance, and the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance. And of course, I got to see and hear my favorite alto in the chorus.
  • Waldon-Lieber-Edwards-Atkisson Christmas. After some heroic rescheduling on Dad and Betty Lue's part, Lacey and I got to go to this conflict-free. And we made delicious egg nog, which I still intend to try as ice cream someday.
  • Friday Night Waltz and "Friday" Night Waltz. After a couple weeks of being sick and/or busy, it was quite nice to be dancing again. The Saturday one had a live band playing excellent renditions of many of my favorite waltzes.
  • Boone-Haas Christmas. White elephant gift exchanges are usually more fun for the exchanging than for the gifts, but this time I ended up with a game that I've actually gotten some fun out of already. Also, Rowyn got to come along at the last minute and short circuit her brain trying to learn the names of 20 different relatives all at once.
  • Christmas itself. Quite mellow after the parties of the preceding weekend.
  • Planning my time off. It's actually being rather trickier to schedule some things than I'd expected, considering I'll be unemployed in a couple months, which ought to make it easy. But with Lacey attending a school and me a wedding, we might not end up taking our trip together after all. Plans are all still in the vague stage, though.
  • Getting ready for Harmony. Hmm, have I done this yet? I probably should....
I've had various other blog posts queuing up in my head recently, but not quite making it out. Some may see the light of day in January, and others will probably just as well not. For now, I'm leaving the world of computers behind to go dance, sing, and play out in the redwoods for 5 days. Happy new year!

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Next Big Change

This year has been a time of many changes for me, some of which get blogged about in more detail than others. But this is one that's currently making the rounds of announcements: I'm going to be leaving my job at Google.

When: The timeline for this isn't rushed. Taking various factors into consideration, I'll probably be finishing up early- or mid-February. Exact date still TBD.

Why: The simple answer is just that it's time for a change. I still think Google is a great place to be, but it's a great place that I've been for nearly 4.5 years now. I could conceivably switch to a different sort of job here, but at this point I want more of a change even than that. I also just want to take a break for a few months before deciding what's next on the job front. (So no, I'm not just trying to be like my sister.)

What: For now I'm planning on leaving most of the time unstructured, but it's certainly not going to be all lazying around kinda time. Among the various things I'd like to do are....
  • Music. I'd especially like to work on singing, ear training, composing, and piano.
  • Art. I want to draw more, work on my wall, maybe think of other fun projects.
  • Writing. I don't know about doing another novel, but I'd kind of like to try my hand at some short stories. There's a continuing studies class next quarter on writing micro fiction, which might be fun to take.
  • Volunteering. Probably more stuff through Hands On Bay Area, or other groups I find.
  • Travel. I'm still in the planning stages for a volunteer trip. Might even consider the Prague vintage dance week if I'm still footloose come July.
  • Meditation. A conversation with Case today made me think a meditation retreat might be interesting to try.
  • Cooking. Okay, this one might be a stretch, but if weaning myself off Google food doesn't get me learning to cook, nothing will.
  • Outdoorsiness. Find some nice places to go hiking or camping or something.
  • Dancing. This is one thing I'm actually getting about the right amount of already, so I don't really need more of it, but hopefully I'll keep it up.
  • Reading. Again, I do kinda enough of this, but a bit more wouldn't hurt.
  • Redesign my blog. If I come up with a cool idea, it might be fun.
I tried to narrow that list down, really. Well, okay, not much.

Anyway, I don't know where this will all end up, but I'm sure it will be interesting. I've done it before, deliberately flinging myself into the jobless void like this, and it worked out quite well. So it'll all be good.

Reminder: I work at Google but speak for myself. I have no job offers, stock tips, or trade secrets to share with you. Go here for help with Blogger and here for help with Reader.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Living Room Wall Update

Living Room Wall It's been over a year since my last update on this project, so here's a new picture. (Previously: 1, 2, 3.) There are also a couple more photos showing it in a little bit more context. It's not growing very rapidly these days, but I just recently put up a new batch, starting on the tertiary color finally. The blue has a lot of filling out to do still, though. Unfortunately, I'm running into paper procurement problems, getting more of the blue to match. I think I have to buy a whole pad of assorted colors art paper just to get a few sheets of the blue I want. Should have thought of that when I was picking it out originally.

Anyway, if you happen to be feeling creative (or wondering what to get me for Christmas :-) remember that this is an audience-participation activity. And "2" is the magic number: The only two rules are that it be 2-dimensional and 2x2 inches. The illustrious list of contributors so far includes Lacey, Pa, Quena, Miriam, Antonia, Emily, and Jenny. Yay for them!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

One Month Post-LASIK Checkup

I went in this morning for my one-month checkup. My vision is still pretty much where it was on the day after surgery -- 20/20 in my right eye, and slightly better in my left. My right is healing a tad slower, though, so it might yet catch up. Not that the difference is really noticeable in day-to-day life, of course. The doctor could tell that I had gotten something in my right eye recently, as it was slightly scratched, but no big deal. The corneal flap itself is healing nicely, as it should.

I'm still taking pretty regular eye drops, though the frequency is diminishing as my eyes get better at taking care of themselves. Apparently the thing about the dryness isn't due to a problem with the tear ducts. Rather, nerves in the cornea get damaged during surgery, and until those are fully regrown, your eyes have a harder time telling how much moisture they need to produce. The time to restore the nerves varies from person to person. The doctor also gave me a sample of some different, gel-like eye drops that should be better (i.e. longer lasting) for nighttime use.

The various side effects I mentioned earlier are mostly gone. No more noticeable night halos. Computer screens and books stay in focus properly, so I don't get eye strain as easily. And I'm hardly ever reaching to take off glasses I'm not wearing. In fact, it's even gotten to the point where I think pictures of myself with glasses look odd.

I've been very good about not rubbing my eyes (which I'm supposed to keep up for at least another month, though it's a good policy in general). In the beginning, I was so hyper-aware of my eyes all the time that it wasn't actually at all difficult to remember not to rub them. Nowadays my eyes just feel normal the majority of the time, but I've already built up enough of a habit that I've still managed to avoid any lapses. Even just seeing other people rub their eyes makes me squirm sometimes, until I remind myself that they didn't just have LASIK recently.

Earlier on, around week 2 or so, I noticed that I had a light red spot on my right eye, just above the iris. I called the doctor's office and described it, but they weren't too worried, since it wasn't hurting, oozing, spreading, or affecting my vision. If any of that changed, I was supposed to go in and get it checked out, but otherwise it was expected to go away on its own within a few weeks. It was gone entirely in about 2 weeks, I think.

So all is well. I don't have any more scheduled checkups, and this'll probably be all for the blog chronicling of it, unless something else unexpected comes up. But hopefully it won't, since things are in pretty good shape here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Short List

I have several modes of music listening, from putting my whole library or large genres on shuffle, to focusing on specific artists and actually listening to entire albums in order. Lately I've been more conscious of my "Short List" mode, where I get three or four songs together and just play them repeatedly as a set. There are breaks in between to preserve the sense of order from a continuous loop, and I might listen to other music or just have silence then, but I come back and play the set many times a day until it's time to move on to the next one.

Short Lists can be themed sometimes, such as all dance music, like this set from quite a while ago that I still remember because I was stuck on it for so long:
  • Big & Rich: Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy (polka)
  • Kelly Clarkson: Breakaway (waltz)
  • Indigo Swing: Blue Suit Boogie (swing)
More often they're collections of recently-discovered music, so I'm frequently in this mode when I'm scouting out new stuff. Like this previously blogged list, courtesy of my recommendations:
  • Hank Williams, Sr: Honky Tonk Blues
  • Reel Big Fish: She Has a Girlfriend Now
  • The Smiths: Bigmouth Strikes Again
The ordering within a list is specific, but I'm not always sure how I choose it. The songs are often exceedingly different (as above) but I think that just makes it more interesting as they developed relationships in my mind from repeatedly juxtaposed listenings. Here's the current, somewhat motley, collection:
  • Colby Caillat: Bubbly
  • Geoff Byrd: Elusive Butterfly
  • Mika: Grace Kelly
  • The Vincent Black Shadow: Metro
There's also the question of number. Three is usually the right amount, but this list has four songs in it because I was unable to squeeze out either of the two middle ones. (The bookenders of a set are usually non-negotiable.) Unfortunately, I have the next Short List starting to form already, when I'm not entirely done with the current one. Here's what's coming up:
  • Indigo Girls: Fill It Up Again
  • Sugababes: Hole in the Head
  • Joan Osborne: St. Teresa
Though I don't know if the middle one will stay or get booted for something else (again, the middle position tends to be weakest). There are some Bowling for Soup songs that might get swapped in. I tried tacking this list on to the current one, but seven songs is really just too much for a Short List. So I'm in a transitional stage right now, which feels weird.

Credit (and thanks!) where due: This current flood of new music recommendations is coming mostly from Rowyn. Props also go to Bandanna Bob for introducing me to "Metro" at Faster Polka a few weeks ago (it's a good swing).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Hands On Bay Area

I've recently (in the last month or so) started using a site called Hands On Bay Area, which matches volunteers with various community service opportunities throughout the bay area. (There are other chapters of the Hands On Network around the country, too.) It's a handy thing, because it not only helps you find interesting organizations to work with, but makes it easy to sort of "test drive" them. You sign up for everything on a one-off basis, so you get to go help out for an afternoon or evening or something and see what it's like, without having to make a big commitment. Naturally that limits the types of things you can do (Project Read's tutoring program wouldn't fit well in this model, for instance) but you can still find other ways to contribute later on after you've "met" an organization or project you like. Here are some of the things I've done so far:
  • Sunday Friends: I spent an afternoon doing arts and crafts and playing games with kids from low income families, while they and their parents developed various positive life skills and earned points they could spend at a "store" of donated food and household items. I quite enjoyed it, and I intend to go back, though I haven't yet managed that.
  • Books Aloud: This organization runs a mail-order library of audio books for people who are blind, dyslexic, or otherwise unable to read conventionally. The evening I was there I mostly just dug through their (horrendously cataloged) collection to find things to pack up and send to people. I want to see if I can get involved in the actual recording of the books though, once my schedule allows, since I love reading aloud.
  • RAFT - Resource Area for Teachers: Here I was sorting through extremely miscellaneous boxes of office supplies donated by various companies, to be packaged up and sold at low costs to teachers. Doesn't sound like much, but turns out to be a very good flow activity, especially when a whole team of people really gets into a synchronized groove. They also have other projects, like assembling science project kits, again from donated, discarded, or recycled materials.
Anyway, that's my plug for the Hands On Network. If you've ever felt like you wanted to do something to give back to your community but didn't know where to look, this is a good way to get started. And if you find something you're interested in around here (e.g. San Mateo or Santa Clara counties), let me know and maybe I'll be able to go along with you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

Things I'm thankful for, in not a lot of particular order. The top dozen or so, anyway.
  • Friends and family surviving car and bike accidents.
  • A loving, wise, and caring family.
  • Modern medical technology and 20/20 vision.
  • People who make the world a better place and inspire me to do the same.
  • Music, including highly compatible shared iTunes libraries.
  • Books that make me laugh out loud, whether I'm by myself or sharing.
  • Supportive coworkers.
  • Dancing, especially blues and FP.
  • People who like me, and being aware of it.
  • Creativity, in all its manifestations.
  • Freedom, decisions, and adventures.
  • Hugs.
And of course, I'm grateful just to have an abundance of things to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Week After LASIK

Me, Without Glasses I So this is me without glasses. Never having even worn contacts before, it's a big change. Some folks are noticing, others aren't (or at least aren't remarking on it). The funny part was the first day or two after surgery, when I'd be somewhere random like the library or the grocery store, and wondering why complete strangers weren't all exclaiming in awe at the wonder that is Graham without glasses. I guess it's not earth-shattering for everyone else, but it's pretty exciting for me.

The first day after surgery, my vision was good. The second day, my outside vision was officially wonderful. Outdoors on a sunny day, everything is just gorgeous. I went over to Stanford for a couple hours in the afternoon and wandered around some of my favorite places, just looking at things. Went through the art museum a bit, too, though my inside vision isn't anything to write home about yet. Computer work and reading are still a bit variable, which apparently is to be expected for the first few weeks or so. I can still do everything just fine, though my eyes get more tired from the extra work to keep things in focus, especially after a full day at work. (The plus side to this is that I'm playing mandolin more again, since I can do that in the dark while resting my eyes after work.)

Eye Shield I'm off the antibiotic and anti-inflammatory eye drops, though I'm still using regular moisturizing drops pretty liberally. I have to wear this annoying plastic sleep mask at night, though just for a couple more nights. It's rigid plastic, to make sure nothing touches your eyes, or even rubs them through the mask (like could happen with a regular sleep mask). Unfortunately, that means that it doesn't fit very well (because it doesn't conform to your face) and you therefore have to be really careful about rolling over on it or things like that. One night I accidentally pushed it out of place and the edge of the mask itself rubbed up against my right eye. That hurt like the dickens, but luckily there was no lasting damage. I think I've learned to sleep more carefully, though, since I haven't had trouble with it since.

Here's a nighttime tip for anyone getting LASIK: Set an alarm to go off once or twice in the middle of the night, for you to get up and put in eye drops. The first few nights I was waking up at 4AM because my eyes had so painfully dried out. It's completely worth losing a few minutes sleep for preventative eye drops.

My phantom glasses syndrome is gradually fading. It still catches me reaching to take off my glasses at some of the obvious times, like putting on a shirt, or taking eye drops, but I'm already doing considerably less of that. More interesting to watch for are the small moments of self-consciousness or other such situations where I might be adjusting my glasses, or wiping the lenses or something, just to have something to do. There's also a psychological effect of not wearing glasses, where I assume that since I don't have anything on my face, I must not be seeing everything clearly, and my brain tries to reinterpret the clear images as fuzzy. That was actually briefly disorienting at times, though not so much after the first day.

I've been dancing a few times with my "new" eyes, though only once so far at something crowded (i.e. navigationally challenging) enough for them to have a relevant effect. I like having real peripheral vision, without glasses frames fuzzing things up at the edges, though for the most part I wasn't specifically noticing it. Which is good, since it means everything Just Worked™. It's also nice in close dancing situations, like some blues dances, to not have frames to bump into. And of course my glasses will never again be knocked off by an over-enthusiastic underarm turn. (That's only ever happened a couple times, but still....)

So anyway, there are still various little things to deal with in the eye-healing process, but nothing too onerous. It's all far outweighed by the awesomeness of knowing that I can see with my own eyes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

My LASIK Experience

Short story: Everything went perfectly smoothly and I have 20/20 vision now. It's awesome. Read on if you want details (some of which may be somewhat squeam-inducing, so use your own judgment).

The day before surgery I had to start taking antibiotic eye drops every several hours. Since I don't wear contacts or makeup, there wasn't much else to do differently from normal. So nothing too bad about that. I spent more time on mental preparation, though.

Between Wednesday and Thursday nights I actually watched about an hour's worth of LASIK videos on YouTube. This is probably not recommendable for everyone, but I really like knowing precisely what I'm getting into. If I can't face it in something as safe as a video, I probably shouldn't be doing it in real life, right? Anyway, I put on some good music and just practiced getting used to the procedure and feeling relaxed around it. I figure if kids can supposedly get desensitized to violence by playing video games, we could probably put the same principle to more positive use. (I did, however, deliberately avoid videos with titles like "LASIK Gone Wrong" and such.) I didn't fall asleep very easily the night before surgery, but I used some of the time to visualize what it would all probably look like from the patient's point of view.

Still, I was a bit on the nervous side on Friday morning. By coincidence, I had a regular physical exam scheduled for the same day, right before surgery. The nurse mentioned that my blood pressure was fine, but that my pulse was a tad high. "Yeah," I said, "Let me explain that...."

Mom drove me down to Dr. Hyver's office in Santa Clara around 12:45. They did some of the same tests and examinations of my eyes as on my initial consultations, and some different ones as well. I was having Wavefront (Custom) LASIK, so they get a custom topographical map of my eyes and use it to program the laser specifically for me. (With regular LASIK you just get a standard treatment based on your prescription.) I've heard that you can get a Valium at this stage of the proceedings as well, but I didn't. Maybe they only give it to the folks who look nervous on the outside. Anyway, there was some more waiting at this point, before the actual operation, so you have a bit more time to get sufficiently nervous about it, just in case you weren't already. I used the time to take deep breaths and get myself to the point where my body was basically in a holding pattern without nervous symptoms and my mind was a little distanced, where it could remain calmer.

In the operating room, the assistants attired me in stuff to keep my hair out of the way and the eye drops out of my ears, then had me lay down on the operating table and slathered my eyes in numbing drops. They offered me something to hold onto ("Umm-letmethink-yes") and I got a small teddy bear and a stuffed chihuahua. I never actually got to see the stuffed animals, since I had to keep my eyes closed until the operation (at which point my eyes were otherwise engaged) but I amused myself during the wait by figuring out what they looked like by feel. Come to think of it, I never actually saw Dr. Hyver that day, either. It sounded like him, though, so I figure he was there.

They put a patch over my left eye first, so it wouldn't see what happened to the right eye and run away. They taped my right eyelids back and then put some little metal spreaders in there to open the lids further. This is the point in the videos where it starts looking freaky, because an eye that unnaturally open just automatically looks painful and scared. It wasn't actually too bad having it done, though. The part I most disliked, though, was the next bit, where they put the metal ring around my eye to hold it still. It puts a considerable amount of downward pressure pushing into the eye socket, which isn't very comfortable. But it was nice to know my eye couldn't move, because then they slid another piece of equipment over, blocking my field of vision, and I could hear the sound of a miniature buzz saw slicing my cornea open. I didn't feel it at all on my right eye, and only slightly on my left (not even quite enough to really be called "painful," but I could feel it). The info sheet they gave me before the operation described this whole stage a bit vaguely as "preparing the eye."

So then all that stuff came off, and Dr. Hyver folded back the flap he'd cut in my cornea (it was still attached at the top of my eye). It made the yellow and blue light I was staring at go all wavy and watery, which was kind of pretty, then it settled down into just being fuzzy. Then they fired up the laser, which makes a sound like a tiny jackhammer while it's running. Visually, there's nothing scary about the laser. You just focus on the light in front of your eye for about 30-60 seconds or so, and that's it. The smell was a bit more disconcerting, like burnt rubber. I couldn't feel a thing, but it did take a bit of concentration to keep focused.

Once the laser was done, they put my corneal flap back in place, gave it a lot of eye drops, and smoothed it all into place with a little brush, until it had sort of suctioned itself back into place. After that, you just have to trust it to hold itself there until it heals and seals itself again. Then they took off the spreaders and the tape, let me close my right eye, put a patch on it, and moved on to the left, where we went through the whole thing again. It doesn't take very long; I was probably in the operating room for no more than 15 minutes total. Dr. Hyver kept up a comforting monologue the whole time, not necessarily saying exactly what he was doing, but letting me know precisely what I'd be seeing or feeling at each stage of things, which was helpful and reassuring.

Overall, it wasn't at all bad. And in a way, it's easier than watching the videos, because you can only see the tools and lights, not the gross eye bits getting cut up. The thing about doing all this on the eyes, though, is that it takes your complete attention. If it were a foot operation or something, I could imagine being able to ignore it, but with the eyes there's just nowhere to hide. Especially since you have to "help" by keeping your focus on the laser's light, which actually takes some concentration. A couple times, though, I picked up a bit from the part of my mind with the constant background soundtrack. I think it was playing Värttinä tunes mostly. "Seelinnikoi" in particular is now associated with LASIK for me.

After the operation I got to rest in a dim room for a few minutes, then a doctor came in to take a look at my eyes and confirm that they were looking okay. Then I got my eye drops and instructions and was sent home with dark glasses to cut down on the brighter-than-usual sunlight. Mom drove me back to her apartment for the initial recovery period.

The instructions included keeping my eyes closed for four hours after surgery. I managed to doze a little bit, but couldn't really sleep, though I did keep my eyes closed the whole time. Mom kept me company and we listened to some audio books to pass the time. (James Thurber and P.G. Wodehouse stories make for good, light listening.) I was told to expect some burning scratchiness and irritations, but I didn't really have a problem with it. The preventative Ibuprofen I took might have helped. It did feel like I had a bit of crud in my eye sometimes, but if I kept my eyes mostly still it wasn't a problem. Got a bit of a headache, though, probably as much from deliberately keeping my eyes closed all that time as anything else.

When my four hours were up, I took off the eye covering that was keeping things dark for me, and it felt like I was in bright sunlight even before I opened my eyes. In reality, it was dark outside and Mom had only turned on one bulb in the living room lamp. Pretty dim by regular standards. I opened my eyes in a dark room first and then got adjusted to the light very quickly. At this point, my vision was good, but kind of fuzzy, as if I had just woken up. (And I'm not allowed to rub my eyes for 2 months, so I can't clear them that way.) We went for a nighttime walk and I could see the halos around lights in the dark. They're not too bad -- kind of like seeing the lights through a fog, or through textured glass -- and they're supposed to go away eventually anyway.

I'm on antibiotic and anti-inflammatory eye drops for 5 days, and regular artificial tear drops for as long as I like. For 10 days I have to sleep in a special cover that will keep anything from touching my eyes. It's kind of uncomfortable and annoying, but it would suck to dislodge my corneal flap, too, so I'm motivated to deal with it at least.

The Next Day
This morning I went back for a post-op checkup. My vision was still a bit fuzzy (more noticeably at the computer), but I could see perfectly well to drive myself down there. They measured me at 20/20 for the right eye, and my left could even read some of the 20/15 line. This is compared to 20/300 without glasses before. The fuzziness clears up as the cornea continues healing, and as of this afternoon it was already much better, though it still has occasional weird moments. The eye drops help that. There's no pain at all, though I've got a bit of phantom limb syndrome for my glasses. I tried to see the cut in my cornea in the mirror, but everything looks perfectly normal. I can read and work at the computer just fine, though I'm trying to take it easy and not strain my eyes too much, giving them frequent rests. I've also just enjoyed walking around downtown, going to the library and the grocery store, and just looking at things, seeing what I can see, reminding myself that I'm not actually wearing my glasses. It's a little surreal.

Watch for further posts about life without glasses, once I've lived it a bit more.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Volunteering Abroad

Lacey and I have been doing some research recently on volunteer travel opportunities. We're thinking of planning a trip for March, though we haven't yet decided where, or even specifically what sorts of projects (e.g. environmental conservation, building homes, working with kids in orphanages, etc.). Here are some of the organizations we've been looking at so far, though:
  • Globe Aware - Looks good, but they pretty much only do 1-week trips. (I'd rather go for 2 or 3.) Also says that even the airfare is tax deductible. I don't know how standard that is, but it's cool.
  • i-to-i - Some interesting touring/volunteering combinations, though I'd probably go for something more work-oriented with maybe just free time to run around on weekends.
  • United Planet - I'm particularly interested in the Turkey trip.
  • Volunteer Visions - Some really good prices, e.g. for India.
Has anybody had any experience with any of these? Good? Bad? Any other organizations to recommend, or other advice to share? Let me know!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Zappy Zappy

Various factors in my life have recently converged to get a certain something off my "someday" list: LASIK. Yesterday I went to the highly recommended Dr. Scott Hyver for a consultation, and next Friday I will be going under the laser and then throwing away my glasses. So I have a week to get over as much of the lingering squeamishness as possible. That part's going pretty well so far, though.

In terms of motivation for this, I've never had much of an opinion on glasses aesthetically one way or the other (so I've stuck with them over contacts just because it seems easier). For me, it's all about independence. With either glasses or contacts, I'm completely reliant on external, breakable, losable objects for one of the most vital means of relating the world. If my glasses were to break, I'd have trouble just getting myself home safely, much less doing anything else. That would be a pain three miles from here at work, or much worse traveling somewhere on the other side of the world. Freedom from that worry and dependency is the gift I'm giving myself here. I expect real peripheral vision will be pretty cool too, especially for dancing.

So... if for any reason you liked seeing me in glasses, get your looks in this next week while you still can. Maybe I should shave my head out of season, too, just to really confuse people. :-)

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 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.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chocolate That Makes You Pay Attention

So here's an update from my last ice cream post. I did go ahead and try the spicy chocolate idea. One of the first things I learned about ice cream from Antonia was that you have to mix it up sweeter than you think because you taste the sweetness less once it's frozen. And the first thing I learned from this experiment was that this rule does not apparently apply to spiciness.

I started off with just tiny pinches of chili powder in the chocolate mix (from Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Book) but could hardly taste it. So I kept adding more... and more... and more.... And maybe somewhere in here we also got some sort of adaption factor to make me taste it less, which would only complicate things. Anyway, I finally decided it would probably be okay, so I went ahead and put it all in the ice cream machine. And once it was frozen it was hot! This is not ice cream to eat lightly. I'd probably halve the chili powder if I were to make this again. If I had measured it in the first place.

Good, though!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

eMusic and Recommendations

I don't know if this is new in eMusic or if I only just noticed it, but it's kind of cool. It generates recommendations of artists you might like based on what you've already bought, which is nothing new. But the visual display of it is pretty slick. You can see which recommendations come from which other users via which artists, and you can watch the connections change just while you mouse over the different names in all three columns. Plus, of course, you can play samples right there. Nice.

The problem here is that I don't really have a reason to care much about things eMusic is recommending based on just a couple months of purchases. What I want is this UI on my recommendations, which is based on 3 years of what I've actually listened to. The radio is cool and everything, but it would be fun to have this alternate way to browse recommendations more deliberately. Though with so many more recommendations, this design would probably get unwieldy, so you'd have to work out some way to just examine specific parts of the network at a time. E.g. limit it to friends, or neighbors, or tags, or using the obscure/popular slider.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Your Brain On Music

I just finished This Is Your Brain On Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. If you're at all interested in music and/or brains it's a fascinating read. I found a lot of concepts that I was familiar with from my cog. psy. classes in college, but it was fun seeing them applied so directly to our perception and experience of music. The book actually made me want to just sit down and really listen to music more than anything else, rather than just having it playing in the background like I usually do. But it also made me want to get back on track again with things like playing, composing, and developing my ear.

Particularly interesting to me was the information about perfect pitch. A number of studies have shown evidence that many people, even non-musicians, are able to store absolute pitch information in memory. E.g. they could be trained to recognize or sing back an assigned note that they learned. In other cases, when asked to sing a favorite popular song, they would do so in the right key without any prompting (or even awareness that they were doing so). My guess is that if we taught babies to recognize notes the way we teach them to recognize colors, a great many more people would have perfect pitch. It seems to be built into the brain, but most people just don't know how to use it or develop it. Granted, the people who seem to have it "automatically" make it seem inaccessible to the rest of us, but I think that's just a natural misinterpretation of ordinary person-to-person variability.

Another interesting concept regards what it takes to become an "expert" level musician. It seems that amount of practice time really is the biggest factor in becoming really good at something, even more so than perceived talent. Ten thousand hours is the usual amount of time you have to put in to really reach that top tier of world-class experts. And that same number seems to apply not only to music but to everything else that has been studied in this context: playing chess, figure skating, fiction writing, and more. Unfortunately, 10,000 hours is about 3 hours a day for 10 years. Sigh. But I guess that's why we're not all the best musicians in the world.

I was also amused at how well Levitin "predicted" the existence of a few years after its creation. Personalized radio stations mixing stuff you like with new recommendations to try? Yep, got that. :-)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

I Scream for Flavor Suggestions

Is it ready yet? I finally got myself an ice cream maker this weekend, which I'd been meaning to do for a while now. Yes, I know summer is mostly over, but it was still so crazy hot this weekend I figured it was better late than never. And I'm happy to eat ice cream year 'round anyway.

So far I've made two flavors, both quite yummily successful. First was cinnamon-cardamom, from a recipe in one of the Moosewood cookbooks. (Thanks, Cass!) Second was nectarine, which I did with just a basic strawberry recipe and the obvious substitution.

Now it's ready Not sure what's coming up next. A couple things I've been thinking of for a while are lemon-rose (inspiration from a rose garden in Stockholm) and red tea (since I know there's green tea ice cream, but I like red tea better). I'm also wondering if there's a way to make a spicy chocolate ice cream. Would that work as well as spicy hot cocoa does? I'm having trouble imagining a spicy cold thing, but who knows.

I'm more than open to other suggestions, though, so leave a comment with your ideas!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Fixing My Sleep

I just finished re-reading Dr. Dement's The Promise of Sleep, which was good since I needed to learn different things from it now than when I last read it several years ago. I highly recommend this book to pretty much everyone, since I agree with Dr. Dement that sleep is one of the least understood but most important aspects of our physical and emotional health. The quality of your sleep affects so many other parts of your life.

What prompted this re-reading for me was coming back from my vacation last month with a severely screwed up sleep schedule/ability. Between jet lag, dance camp, Harry Potter, and various kinds of stress, I was a wreck. I had three days in a row at one point where I only slept a scattered handful of hours, and even after that I'd have nights where I was exhausted but unable to fall asleep for hours. Then I'd alternate nights of no sleep with nights of sleeping like a rock. So I started experimenting a bit with my sleep schedule (what did I have to lose at that point?) and also started reading this book to see if what I was doing made any sense. Luckily it did.

What I started by doing was just moving my bedtime later by one hour every night, while still getting up at the same time in the morning. Ever since I took Dr. Dement's "Sleep and Dreams" class in college, I've tried to be very aware of my sleep debt and of allocating enough time to keep it low. The problem is that sleep debt can actually be too low, to the point where it negatively affects your sleep efficiency, and allows other causes of insomnia (of which I have plenty) to come in and take over. My alternating nights of good sleep weren't erasing all my sleep debt, but just enough to cause this problem, given the state I was in. My idea with the first stage of this experiment was to try to regain/maintain a regular sleep schedule, but not let myself get quite enough, so that I could still fall asleep before my mind starts running away with me each night. After adjusting for a little while, this was fairly successful. (Moderately improving stress levels have helped as well.)

The downside to this, of course, is feeling sleepier than I'd like during the day. In the current phase of the plan, I'm alternating nights again, but in a much less dramatic way than when I had no control over it. I just switch between staying up the extra hour or not, so it's not a huge difference, but so far it seems to be balancing well between getting more rest and still falling asleep without too much trouble. There's also the plus that I can time my later nights so that I get more dancing (like the fact that I actually stayed at FNW all the way to the end last night). This does go against the standard advice of maintaining a rigidly consistent schedule of sleeping and waking, but Dr. Dement does stress in the last chapter of his book that it's really just important to understand the principles, and that different things will work for different people. My original idea was to eventually work back to having a fixed schedule, but I'm starting to reconsider this. If this alternating pattern continues to work out well, I may just tweak it a bit to make sure the total sleep time is enough, but then leave it there. We'll see.

Another thing I've been doing -- independent of but beneficial to the sleep times experiment -- is working out and running more. Dr. Dement recommends regular exercise as being good for sleep, but adds that it's best to do it more than 3 hours before bedtime, so as not to keep you awake. This is another case, though, where it's important to really understand how I personally react to it. My favorite time to go running recently has been about 10 PM. Luckily, this not only helps tire me out, but it can be incredibly relaxing. Running is very meditative for me. Nowadays, my mind -- my sleep nemesis -- is never as calm as when I'm running. And when I'm done and cooled down, I can continue relaxing myself for a while afterwards and maintain much of that feeling until I'm ready to go to sleep. So for 3 or 4 nights a week, that's very helpful.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Sabra Can Dance

I watched the finale of So You Think You Can Dance last night. I was somewhat surprised that Sabra won, but extremely pleased. I had expected it to be Neil, and wouldn't have been disappointed with him, but was hoping it would be either Sabra or Danny. Lacey was the only one I didn't think should have been in the top four (I'd rather have had Lauren stay on instead). My thoughts on various dancers:

Danny - Most all-around beautiful dancer. Probably just didn't engage the audience enough to win.
Sabra - Like a little sprite. Always fun to watch.
Neil - Didn't care for him at first, but it got better. Gotta love the leaps, though, and that plange over Sabra on the table.
Lacey - Performed too explicitly. Hard to relate to her as a real person because of it.
Lauren - Took me a while into the season for her to grow on me, but she certainly did. I can really feel how happy dancing makes her.
Pasha - I liked him a lot, but he didn't need to be going all Dimitry-shirtless on us all the time.
Sara and Dominic - I was consistently amazed at how incredibly well the two breakdancers picked up all the partnering stuff.
Hok - I had huge hopes for him early on. He did my favorite solos but could never quite cut it on the partner dances. Sigh.

As for the choreographies this season, I was less consistently impressed with them than I was last year. There was nothing on the same gorgeous, memorable level of Ivan and Allison's hip hop, or Travis and Heidi's contemporary. There were a few good ones, though. Neil and Sabra's "negotiating" jazz dance was really good, and I enjoyed Lacey and Sabra being foxes much more than any of the judges did. I also liked the Wade Robson solo that everyone did individually several weeks ago. (And I appreciated the opportunity to make that kind of a comparison between contestants as well.) There were some others that I enjoyed re-seeing during the finale, though they hadn't made a huge impression on my the first time around and probably still won't be too memorable. I was excited to see the first Lindy Hop on the program ever, though it seemed pretty low energy. Hard to blame them, though, since they've got to be worked to death at this point, plus it was an incredible amount to learn in such a short time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Last night I went to a Swing Kids "Jasmix" (I think the "s" is for "summer") on campus, and I have to thank two people for making me glad I stayed awake all the way to midnight: Jason for the last waltz he played, and Rachel for dancing it with me. Three people, perhaps, since I'll extend the gratitude to Vienna Teng for writing and recording "Recessional" on her latest album. In spite of it not being a cross-step, it's my new favorite last waltz.

The magic of this song is in how you have to let yourself be completely and utterly absorbed in it. While we were still nominally leader and follower, the only way to really dance to this was to both be followers of the music. The fluidity of the tempo changes, the fermatas, the pulses, all prevent you from letting your attention stray for even an instant. But the closeness and intimacy of it draw you in to the point where you don't even want anything other than to be a part of it. The incredibly restrained vocals especially give the impression of hearing her heart speaking directly to you from inside her chest. You not only have to listen to it, but to really feel it and experience it, to "breathe with it" as Jason said, so that it's flowing through you. Ending the dance was like waking up and having to come to terms with the real world again from scratch, though we'd only left it four minutes ago.

Vienna Teng has described "Recessional" as a sort of reverse emotional strip tease. It begins at the most open, raw, touching point, and slowly covers itself back up. It took me a few listens today, though, before I realized that it's still chronological, and not going backwards in time. The music helps show that, and once I realized what was going on it made the song even more intense and poignant. The emotional effects of this song have stayed with me most of the day today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Giving 50%

A friend passed on the following advice from their psychiatrist: Practice giving 50%. In a world of 110% expectations, that sounds kind of silly, but here's what it means.

Some people have a tendency to completely throw themselves into a relationship (friendly, romantic, whatever) 100%. This isn't in and of itself a bad thing, especially if they're around lots of other people like themselves. But it can get to the point where such a person meets too many "zero percenters" and they become primarily responsible for the majority of the relationships in their lives, and everything that makes a relationship "work" depends on them. Even for people who are inherently relationship-oriented this way, this can become a huge pressure and a burden. So you practice giving 50%. Practice letting other people meet you halfway and appreciating that balance.

I've been thinking a bit about how I relate to this. I sometimes feel like I tend to be very much at the extremes: you get all or nothing with me. Maybe not nothing nothing all the time, but there's definitely a gap in the middle. Odd, since in so much of my life I strive for balance and a happy medium. But it's true that I have very few good friends, and lots of acquaintances. And there are even a great many people whom I quite like but that I don't really feel as close to as might make sense. So for me this advice would be geared more towards having a wider range of relationship types. Good for quality of life in general, I think, but also as a cushion of sorts if anything goes awry in one of the "100%" areas.

I think I'm kind of taking the percentage concept in a couple slightly different ways here, but it's an interesting one to mull over and apply in different ways.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Swami Kriyananda

On Sunday, Mom invited me over to Ananda to to see Swami Kriyananda. It was the last talk he was giving in America on this trip before going back to India. He was a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda over 50 years ago, is probably as close to enlightenment or self-realization as anyone alive, and he also founded Ananda communities around the world, so it's like having a living saint come to visit. I've been immensely inspired by him just from reading Asha's book, which is a lovely collection of short stories and memories about him from all sorts of Ananda-affiliated people, so I was very glad to get to see him.

Swamiji is inspiring because he represents so intensely the qualities I want to find and develop in myself. No matter what situation he's in, he just absolutely exudes complete love and joy with every particle of his being. It doesn't matter that he's in his 80s, with his health and body falling apart; he just carries on joyfully letting God work through him and loving everyone around him. If you meet him for the first time and only spend 10 seconds with him, he can still make you feel like the most important, beloved person in the world. It's the most beautiful and powerful kind of personality I can think of.

Blessings II The talk was gentle in presentation yet intense in content. Many things I believe in and want to strive for, and many that seem frighteningly unattainable. But after the talk was when we had the opportunity to actually greet Swami individually, and that, I think, would make the day worthwhile all on its own. For an hour, people queued up to each get their own few seconds in front of him, to introduce themselves, look into his eyes, and feel his touch as he blessed them. I have to admit that I was kind of nervous and self-conscious going up there for the first time, and I almost missed it through my own distraction, but the feeling was still intense. I don't know what to call it. It wasn't any one of the extreme, specific emotions I've been experiencing recently, but more like pure, and nameless, emotion. I moved to the side and cried quietly for a while, not because I was explicitly sad, but because it was the only way to gently let the feeling move through me. I watched the river of people continue to flow blissfully along in front of him, and the baby whose crying turned to giggles when Swami touched his head.

As the stream turned to a trickle and the end of the line came near, I spent a little while screwing up my courage, then added myself back into the queue. When I was back in front of Swamiji again, I admitted that I'd been through already, but this time wanted to ask for a blessing for someone far away. He very graciously said yes, of course, and as he put his hand on me, I spoke the name of the person with whom I wanted to share this experience. I don't know if I was more conscious this time around, or if I was trying more deliberately to channel the energy, or if it was just from going through a second time, but the nameless mystery emotion was even more powerful than before. It was a while before I was able to come back and focus enough to drive myself home.

If you're interested, the Ananda website has and audio recording of this talk (with video probably coming too), as well as many others. It's not the same as being there, but it's good stuff regardless. I also recommend Swami's reading of a P. G. Wodehouse story.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Things Everybody Knows

Mom is behind on the Harry Potter reading, so I was reading some of it out loud to her, and we had stopped to discuss names at one point.

Mom: ...and of course, "Dumbledore" is Anglo-Saxon for "Bumblebee."
Me: [blank look] really...?
Mom: Oh, sorry, I thought everyone knew that.

She evidently reads different books than the rest of us. :-)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The "Other" Ballroom Dancers

I caught some of last year's IDSF World Championship competition on KQED today, and it was really interesting to watch how (mostly) familiar dances are done in very unfamiliar (to me) ways. Unfortunately, I only got to see a few dances, and only two of them included the solo dances, as opposed to groups. Though I did get to see one woman get her scarf draped over her head and waltz around like that for a while until it fell off, because neither partner would free up a hand to fix it. That was funny.

I have to say, the Viennese waltz was really horrible. I don't know if it was the strict steps they were doing that looked funny to me, but most of them barely even seemed to be dancing with the beat. I think there were only two moves besides the basic step (a fake-out non-dip, and a skitter-around-in-place thing) and they weren't even used very musically most of the time. I don't know if the music is a surprise to the contestants (it probably is) but still, I could do way better choreography on the fly than all that.

And of course, the basic ballroom hold always seems extremely wrong to me. I know the motivation behind it, since it's about impressing judges, rather than connecting with your partner and the music. But I guess I wouldn't make a very good judge, since I don't actually like to see arched backs and heads sticking out at odd angles. Oh well.

One thing that did really intrigue me, though, was the quickstep. This dance seems to be what ballroom types do when they want to polka and only have swing music. They pulled out a lot more musicality for this dance, too, compared to the Viennese waltz. I've never encountered quickstep in the world of social ballroom, but it looks like it could be really fun. Entertaining footwork and some really fast traveling possibilities. I'll have to keep my eyes peeled for opportunities to learn some.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Deathly Hallows

***** (Only the first paragraph is safe.) *****

HP7! I picked up my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Books Inc. last night and started reading around 1:00 AM. Took a three hour nap in the wee hours of the morning, then dove right back in and finished around 8 this evening. I read it on my own, since Antonia and Ryan decided they wanted to go through it at a slower pace. I missed the reading-aloud, and the play-by-play discussions, but it was good to go at my own rate, especially considering I was stopping to cry after most of the last 7 or 8 chapters.

This book was intense all the way through. When Hedwig and Mad-Eye Moody died so early on, I knew it was going to be a rough ride, but in a way, the enormity of it really started sinking in for me when we learned what Hermione had to do to her family. The chapter where Hermione was tortured and Dobby was killed just tore me up, and by the time Fred, Lupin, and Tonks died, I was ready to be a basket case for the rest of the book. I was completely at J. K. Rowling's mercy when Harry was marching off to face death without even stopping to say goodbye to Ginny.

But on to the good things, too. I was so happy about the resolution of the Snape question, though the themes of uncertain trust and constant, unrequited love currently give me a real emotional yank. The fact that even Kreacher was redeemed, which I didn't remotely expect, was like a beautiful little gift. I even felt considerably more sympathetic to the Malfoys by the end. And Percy coming back. That was good. I thought it was wonderful that Luna could recognize Harry even through the Polyjuice potion, and that Neville got the heroic deed he deserved. Ron had me worried when he bailed on Harry and Hermione, but he pulled through and I'm very proud of him. The looks into Dumbledore's past were surprising, but I still love him. I didn't expect the "Nineteen Years Later" epilogue (because I didn't even let myself peek at the table of contents before I read) but I was very grateful for it. As much as she could have left us without an explicit happily-ever-after ending, I really needed it.

Anyway, that probably wasn't all too coherent, but it's about all I'm up for right now, given that I'm still pretty emotional about it all and don't yet have anyone who's finished it that I can talk it out with. Now I guess it's time to start coming to terms with a world devoid of future Harry Potter books and mysteries.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Nordic Trip 2007

The trip is now posted more or less in its entirety. I'm afraid there wasn't a limerick edition this time, but you can find the rest of it here:

Herräng, Sweden

Folkets Hus Entrance Our final week of the trip was spent in Herräng, for week one of the Herräng Dance Camp. This year is the 25th anniversary of the camp, and they've got 5 weeks of dancing madness there. Herräng itself used to be an ore-mining town, and now is just a small village of ~800 people. That population probably doubles or triples during July, depending on how many people are attending camp on any given week. Though I think a lot of the natives bail during the summer and rent out their homes or rooms to dance invaders.

The way classes worked was interesting, since I come from a Camp Harmony sort of background where everything is very flexible and on-the-fly. At Herräng you have to register for a specific class series, which gets marked on your Herräng "passport." They actually have a passport control squad that does random spot checks in the classes every day, to make sure nobody's sneaking around. I was signed up for Int.-Adv. Lindy Hop, so that's what I did, though I would have checked out some of the beginning Boogie Woogie classes if I could have. (Boogie Woogie was the non-Lindy focus for this week; each week is different.) We had about three 80-minute classes a day, some of which really pushed me, and some of which were easier, so I think it was a good level for me. There was a good variety of teachers, too. We spent the most time with Daniel and Åsa who I think made a really good backbone for the week. They seemed the most well-rounded teachers, covering musicality, fancy moves, footwork variations, niggling basic details, and other stuff. There were some other good teachers we only got one shot with, though, like Ichtiandras and Solveiga, who I would have liked to have seen a lot more of.

Miriam and Frankie Frankie Manning is sort of the patron saint of Herräng, though he didn't arrive until mid-week because of some events back in the States for his recently released autobiography. I got a copy at camp and got Frankie to sign it, then read most of it on the plane flight home. Absolutely fantastic book all the way through, but worth it even if all you read is his description of creating and performing the first air steps (aerials) ever. One of the classes for all the lindy hop students was actually just an hour with Frankie Manning and his son, Chazz Young, on stage telling us stories of what it was like dancing at the Savoy back in the 1930's to bands like Chick Webb and Count Basie. Frankie is 93 years old and says he's been dancing for 94 years, and he can tell you about all of them with such complete joy and humor that it's a delight to listen to. His voice comes through extremely well in the book, too, so I highly recommend reading it.

Hearing Stories One camp tradition I thought was a little weird until I experienced it was the daily meetings. At 9 PM each day there are no dances or classes or anything else scheduled and everyone goes and crams themselves into the main Folkets Hus room (fire safety limit: 150 people, actual limit: waaaay more) as well as a couple other rooms where they have live video broadcasts. Then Lennart Westerlund comes out on stage completely deadpan, sits down on a stool, and leads some of the most entertaining hour-long meetings I've ever been in. They include not only general camp information and announcements, but also video clips from previous camps and old movies, occasional performances, ongoing sitcoms with various teachers and staff, ongoing in-jokes (ice cream! salty fish! bugaloo!), and updates on projects such as trying to get the King of Sweden to visit the camp. It was well worth being packed in like sardines every night. (They'd have you cram in as far as you think you can, let you rest and get comfortable for 10 minutes, then tell you to squeeze in even more to get the latecomers in.)

Remains When I needed a break from camp a couple times, I took a walk down to the beach. The beach itself is an extremely modest little strip of sand with a dock and a picnic table. But there are also some interesting areas with remains of the old mining operations. Like enormous pits, or huge dirt/sand dunes in different colors. And giant, rusty pieces of equipment, like enormous iron wheels and railroad ties. It kind of reminded me of playing Myst years ago, exploring a deserted area and finding remnants of past civilizations. Also near the beach were some beautifully forested areas with some lovely paths to follow. So it was a good place to go and recharge if I got a little over-lindied once in a while.

Typical Dorm Room Miriam and I stayed in the general accommodations, which are mostly in the small school building and its gym. All furniture was removed from the classrooms and the entire thing (including hallways) was packed with bunk beds. They left the decorations up, though, so there are still little kids' drawings and dioramas on the walls, and a solar system hanging from the ceiling. Our classroom had 15 bunks, so 30 people. One one side, my bunk was flush up against another one (luckily neither of us were rollers). On the other side, I had to squeeze in sideways to fit between the beds. We were told we only had this much space because it was week one. Apparently in the more crowded weeks people are sharing beds and sleeping on the floor. As it was, it still got pretty unpleasant after a few days, when it just became a warm, damp, smelly petri dish of sweat and germs. As I think I mentioned in a previous post, I got sick midway through camp, and you could just hear the cough traveling from one bed to another. No way to keep anything quarantined in there.

Getting sick meant that I had a pretty rough time of the last half of camp. I still managed to attend classes and learn some stuff, but I wasn't able to dance much or have much fun in the evenings. So it was kind of a depressing end to the trip, having gone all the way out to Sweden for this and then blown so much of it. I'm not sure if or when I'll go back in future years. Part of me wants to, to do it right, but part of me would rather just spend my travel time and money on new trips. But someday, maybe, who knows.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ikaalinen, Finland

Signpost The idea to go to Ikaalinen came from finding out about the Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival that happens there every year. Miriam actually plays accordion, and I would if I had one, plus we just thought it sounded like a fun way to go somewhere beyond Helsinki. From Helsinki it was a 2 hour train to Tampere, then a 1+ hour bus ride out to Ikaalinen, then a walk out to a small island on the lake, where we found our lodgings in a campground that rents little cabin rooms. The festival is a week long, but we just went for a day of it.

Dancing in the Park For a supposedly international accordion festival, most of the music we heard seemed to be Finnish, or stuff for ballroom dancing. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what I was expecting. Probably if we had gotten there for the actual championship accordion competition a day or two before we would have had a different impression. The main festival park area had two stages with seating areas and dance floors, so we got to do a bit more dancing. It was similar to the dancing we had in Helsinki, except people were mostly just dancing in fixed couples (i.e. not asking random people), and it was trickier dancing around in damp, muddy shoes. It was getting to my ankle a bit, actually, so I didn't do too much.

Excelsior On the one evening we were there, we went to the church to hear a concert by The Baltic International Quintet Excelsior. Four piano accordions and one 5-row button (which is what we saw the most of around the festival). With that many accordions, and with a wide range of reed sets on each one, they have a remarkable sound, almost like a giant organ. The fact that none of them seemed to use the left-hand chord buttons probably contributed to this effect. They played a variety of things like arrangements of classical pieces (e.g. by Mozart) as well as stuff I assume was written specifically for accordions (e.g. by Astor Piazzolla). Miriam was rather put off by their stage presence, but I didn't pay much attention to that and just really enjoyed the music. We had great, front-row seats, too, which is good because I love watching musicians' hands. The baritone player was my favorite in that respect.

Disguised The Accordion Museum in Ikaalinen is a single room lined with accordions in glass cases. There was one person in it who I don't think even usually works there, but he was so excited to get visitors that he immediately took us under his wing and gave us an enthusiastic, informative, knowledgeable tour of nearly all the instruments. My favorite was this accordion that was designed to let a Finnish 5-row player fool an American audience that expected to see a piano accordion. It has three rows of buttons below a somewhat stubby row of what appear to be piano keys. But those piano keys are actually the last two rows of the buttons. If you look closely, you can see that there are actually white "black" keys to make the black row complete while still blending in to the piano look. I think that's hilarious.

There was also a building where lots of accordion makers were selling their instruments. I was sorely tempted to get one of the smaller 5-row accordions, but resisted for lack of a few thousand euros and an extra arm. Not to mention the fact that it probably wouldn't be wise to buy a "real" instrument before knowing anything about playing it. Anybody know someone who can lend me one?

Ikaalinen Sunset Ikaalinen was as far north as we got in this trip, though everything on this trip from Stockholm on up was farther north than I'd ever been in my life. This sunset picture was taken at 11:30 PM. The night probably got a bit darker after that, but it wasn't long before the sun was coming up again. In a way, it's fun to have almost continual daytime when you're traveling. But it didn't always make sleeping easy, and I was really happy to be able to find proper darkness when I finally got back home.

Ikaalinen was also where we heard the most Finnish spoken. It's an absolutely fantastic language and I wish I could speak it. It just burbles along and makes me laugh sometimes even though I don't get the jokes. An interesting thing about being in Finland was having so many signs, labels, etc. be bilingual Finnish-Swedish. After a few days in Sweden, not to mention a Pimsleur CD and a bunch of cognates, we were actually turning to Swedish to help us translate or at least get the gist of any Finnish we had to read. Didn't help with what we heard spoken, though.

Tallinn, Estonia

Town Hall Tallinn is just a couple hour's ferry ride from Helsinki, so it makes a good day trip from there. An afternoon there is about enough to wander around the old town area a bit, visit some churches and antique shops, and see some nice views.

Military Band The first thing we encountered on our way into town from the harbor was a little odd. Several hundred people in a field appeared to be getting taught a Macarena-like dance by a guy on stage with a microphone. We couldn't understand what he was saying, unfortunately, except for when he counted them off 1-2-3-4 in Estonian. No idea what that was all about. Once we made it into the Town Hall Square, we found a military band playing tunes like Something Stupid, and Puttin' on the Ritz. They wrapped up soon after we got there, though (Finale: The Can Can), and we didn't get to dance to them. (Cobblestones, crowds, and backpacks would have made that hard, anyway.)

Near the square we met a guy selling miniature kites, which are great because you can just stroll along the street on a breezy day, with your little kite skipping along ahead of you like a dog on a leash. We got a couple of those, though I haven't tried mine out yet. Someone else who tried to sell us stuff had a collection of old Russian passports and communist cards. We passed on those.

There are several interesting churches to visit, though you can't necessarily take pictures in them. St. Nicholas' is now a museum and also has a collection of church bells from around Estonia. Another, whose name I've forgotten, treated us to a few minutes of organ music. I think someone was just testing it out or something. A lot of the other places have sort of blended together in my mind.

View from St. Olaf's Spire Our ferry back to Helsinki was canceled on account of drizzle, so we had to stick around another two hours, which gave us time to go back to St. Olaf's Church. St. Olaf's has what was once the highest spire in Scandinavia, and if you climb to the top of the tower, you can get the best views of Tallinn anywhere. The tiny stone spiral staircase has 233 steps going up and 234 going down (I counted). Must be magic. Once you've climbed those, you get a 23-rung ladder to actually reach the viewing platform. From there you can see the churches and towers of old Tallinn contrasting with the skyscrapers and office buildings of the modern part of the city beyond. It's a great way to end a day there, both because you can pick out places you've already been, and because you're legs will be ready for resting on the ferry when you're done with the climb.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Helsinki, Finland

Lutheran Cathedral Helsinki was bright, sunny, and full of people when we arrived, which was a welcome change after gray, empty Stockholm. Continuing in the theme of staying in places that used to be other places, we got a room at the Academica Hostel, which is actually a student dormitory during the academic year. After dropping our stuff off there, we went to the harbor-side market for some food and a nice waltz, courtesy of an accordion busker. Nearby we were entertained by a street performer with trained cats, which jumped into baskets, climbed things, etc. Hilarious, because even though they were doing all this, they were still just cats, and you know how cats are. Then we hopped on a bus for a recorded audio tour of the city (first one ever available in Latin). It was a good way to get oriented a bit and see a few of the sights.

Blogger and Sibelius I had really been looking forward to seeing the Sibelius monument. Not only do I have good associations with a certain piece of his music, but it was the first thing that gave me the idea of coming to Finland at all, when I saw it on an old postcard of Grandma Jackie's. And I do like it in person as well. I would never have thought a bunch of steel tubes could be that lovely. On a side note, the head of Sibelius that you can see off to the side was tacked on as a later addition to the real monument. The artist was trying to shut up all the critics who were heckling her about it all being too abstract.

Temppeliaukio Organ Of all the churches I've ever been in, Temppeliaukio -- the Temple in the Rock -- may be my favorite. It's literally hewn right into the solid rock of the hillside, with sunlight coming in through the 13 miles of coiled copper wire in the ceiling. And the acoustics are beautiful as well, as demonstrated by a lady playing Chopin on the piano when we were there. Would have been lovely to hear the organ. But just being right there in the earth and peaceful is what I loved the most about it.

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral At the opposite end of the church spectrum, we also visited the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. I did love the outside of this, with the excellent shades of red, green and gold. But the inside is all the overwhelming, overdone, orthodox style that tends to just turn me off. I can't really relate to it.

Songlines Museum-wise, the National Museum of Finland had some good historical exhibits and was fairly interesting and educational. But the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum was the real winner. They have no permanent collection, so I don't know what it might be like at any other time, but when we were there it was excellent. I love modern art, but usually in a panning for gold kind of way. I was impressed with how many nuggets the Kiasma had. Without listing all of the fascinating things there, I just want to describe one of the real winners: Songlines. This is a metal globe with raised outlines of the continents. A motor rotates the globe in its frame, along one side of which is a row of small, metal reeds, like on a thumb piano. As the continents rotate, they pluck out different melodies on the reeds. Higher notes are in the North, and lower ones in the South, so that you get, for instance, a huge bass boom when the coast of Chile goes by. Absolutely brilliant, and fascinating to just watch and listen to.

We happened to be lucky and find a dance to go to on our last night in Helsinki. A local dance association was holding one of its regular social dances out near the Sibelius Park. We were running late from our earlier excursions, and we had trouble finding the place, but we still managed to get a couple hours of dancing in there. The band was accordion, drums, and bass/vocals, and the dancers were mostly middle-aged and up, though we did find a couple of other nice 20-somethings as well. People there spoke varying amounts of English, which was kind of cool to finally have to deal with, since absolutely everybody in touristy areas speaks English impeccably. A few folks also made an effort to help us out learning the customs and etiquette. Like the lady I almost insulted by only dancing one dance with. All dances there are done in pairs, two dances in a row with the same partner, and the band plays in pairs as well (two tangos, two waltzes, etc.) to help you keep track. Then there's ladies' hour from about 10-11pm, when the ladies get to ask the men for dances (though opinion seemed to be divided on whether this also included escorting them back to their seats).

As for the dances themselves, I'd heard before the trip that the tango is practically the national dance of Finland, and there were certainly a lot of them. I had worried a bit about not really knowing tango very well, but it turns out that the way it's done there is basically like a glorified foxtrot. So my basic American tango and leading skills got me through just fine. Actually, a lot of their dances seem to drift towards foxtrottiness, and you can kind of forget what you're actually watching sometimes, because it all looks so similar. You can tell the waltzes apart, though. And there was something called a humppa which seemed like a turning two-step polka, though I'm sure there are stylistic differences I couldn't pick up on the fly.

By the way, two useful Finnish words to have at a dance: anteeksi (excuse me) and kiitos (thank you). Everything else you can just mime.