A still more glorious dawn awaits...

by Monday, December 28, 2009
With each passing year, I discover an incredible overlap between bellydance and geekitude. This pleaseth me greatly. :) So I am confident that a large cross section of you who visit this blog will appreciate the following video. It was sent to me via various methods earlier this year, and I have had it stuck in my head and heart ever since. It's autotuned Carl Sagan (feat. Stephen Hawking, even!), so for those of you not interested in either (autotuned music or science), you may not enjoy it much. But it made me cry when I first heard it and it still moves me incredibly every time I listen.

I grew up watching Cosmos with my family at home, and later on VHS in science class. Carl Sagan is at the top of my "if you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?" His combination of genius level intelligence, eloquent speaking skills, practical spirituality, childlike wonder, wry humor, respect for life, and passionate desire to understand that which is not yet understood is, to me, an incredibly evolved state of being which Mr. Sagan exemplified in his life* and work. This song is a lovely tribute to the man and his philosophies.

And while we're at it, you need to read "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan. An incredible read by one of the greatest thinkers in human history. http://www.amazon.com/Demon-Haunted-World-Science-Candle-Dark/dp/0345409469

(* To be clear, Sagan was still HUMAN, and I am aware of his personal relationship issues with his wives and family, but I am speaking of the public figure and his admirable qualities. I should hope I am more judged on the good I do publicly than the way I fuck up in private. :)

Rest in Peace, Perry Lorenzo

by Sunday, December 20, 2009

My senior high school English teacher, arguably one of the most influential teachers of my life, passed away last night of bone cancer. Thanks to old friends and acquaintances from school, via Facebook I was aware of his illness many weeks ago, but was still knocked down by the news given just moments ago. I had the pleasure of not only being his student at John F. Kennedy High School, but also working with him in educational outreach at the Seattle Opera and performing in his production of The Mikado at the new Savoy Opera back when I was a college undergrad. I studied great works of literature because of him. Hell, I saw Wager because of him...all four nights of Der Ring des Nibelungen! How many 17 year olds do you know who can find an interest in that, if it weren't for someone influential pulling gently on the reigns?

What is it about our most influential teachers, in any discipline, that reaches not only those parts of us which are affected by the material they teach, but extends subtle tendrils which reach into our souls, and creates lasting memories and aftershocks of effects which last us all our lives? Perry Lorenzo was one of those teachers in my life, and I will be praying for his family and friends closest to him tonight, and meditating on his effect on me and others in my graduating class (and surely far beyond) in the coming days.

In the meantime, I want to share a piece of what made Perry such a beautiful human being, spiritually and intellectually. A prayer request letter written on the Catholic and Enjoying It blog, which for me beautifully illustrates a man of passion for his work, and depth of commitment to his faith. (to see more of Perry's writing about art and life, visit his blog at http://perrylorenzo.blogspot.com/, and there is an article from Sunset onoline about his work with students and opera at http://www.sunset.com/travel/northwest/hooked-on-opera-00400000018940/

"And finally, Perry Lorenzo, who is one of Seattle treasures both as a Catholic and as a fine teacher on practically everything to do with the Western tradition, but especially opera and the Catholic faith, writes:

Dear friends in the Lord,

I have a degenerative bone cancer in my left shoulder, as well as dormant cancers in all my lung lobes. I am going through radiation and MRIs and tests and scans at present, and soon we will be determining a future path of treatment.

This has not in the least diminished my faith, in fact only strengthened it. My prayer is that God heal me so that I can return to performing my vocation of education and teaching and music; if God will not at present quickly heal me, I pray that I can give the best witness of love, gift, and beauty to other people. In the spirit of Pope John Paul II. Please pray for me in that way, if you wish: or in any way you like...

I think that this experience of cancer, medicine, and treatment is quite profound. It does not at all alter what we all already know about ourselves--that we are created by God, that as creatures we are limited and dependent and mortal, that suffering is inevitable, and that we will die. These are all facts, whether we are diagnosed with a disease or not. However, the experience of a cancer, such as I am now going through, is simply an intensification of my awareness of this fact. I know, in a deep way, that I am created, mortal, and live every day in the face of death. The real issue is the how of facing death: and I need your prayers to face death--or serious illness and recovery--in a spirit of faith, hope, love, joy, gratitude, and most of all GIFT. God has given me my life, and I want to give it all back to Him, for it is His anyways; in giving it all to Him, I want to love Him and love my neighbor, to return to my vocation or to use what time is remaining as a Gift of sharing God's beauty with other people.

I keep a long list of people to pray for daily, as Im sure many of you do too! Please keep me in your prayers!

If you would like to pray to the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, please do so. Newman inspires me to be a Christian Roman Catholic intellectual in the modern world, dedicated to education and the Gospel. Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for me.

Thank you,

Perry Lorenzo."

A stanza of the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Perry's blog, about knowing death is an inevitability:

"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood’ goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come."

The digital Universe

by Friday, December 18, 2009
This video is stunning. Shows the known Universe as we understand it today, through a combination of the most advance scientific resources we have available.

If you feel amazingly tiny and insignificant, and completely awed by the scope of human existence, raise your hand.
*raising hand*

Nightmare before Christmas as metaphor

by Thursday, December 17, 2009

Once upon a time there was a character named Jack Skellington.

Jack was very very good at Halloween. Everyone looked to him for leadership because he was so good at it.

As time went on, Jack became bored of Halloween. He kinda felt like everything that could be done had been done, and he really wanted to try something new to spice things up.

He stumbled upon a town which celebrated something called Christmas. "What's this?!" he exclaimed joyfully. It was something really different, and it looked fun and interesting. On the spot he decided to give that a try.

He took Christmas back to his friends, none of whom knew anything about Christmas. Jack himself really didn't know much except what he thought it should maybe look like a bit (from his brief visit to the town), and some general ideas about the traditions. Armed with this spare information, they set to work on their version of Christmas.

They took it on with gusto! They trusted Jack's instincts, and despite reservations and confusion, they plowed ahead with their attempts at something new. They did random experiments to try and see what it all meant, mixing and matching this and that to try and see what it would result in. They were scratching their heads, but kept pushing forward with innocent curiosity. "Making Christmas; time to give them something fun they'll talk about for years to come!" It was all done from a place of genuine enthusiasm and desire to do something spectacular. They poured everything they had into it. Jack even had a friend make him a version of a "Sandy Claus" costume for him to wear. Now that was authentic Christmas right there!

When all was said and done, things were kind of sort of vaguely something like Christmas, but really it was just this strange kludging together of Halloween and Christmas that didn't quite work. In some ways it was completely horrifying how things were misinterpreted and misunderstood! But having done this from such a place of ignorance, they had no idea how wrong they were. And off Jack went in his sleigh to excitedly share his interpretation of Christmas with all the families of the Christmas world!

And it was a disaster. People were confused, terrified, and offended. And Jack and his minions couldn't figure out why! They had read some books, made some costumes and toys, and decorated to a T (with rats and bats, even! Who doesn't love rats and bats?!)! What could they have done wrong with all those bases covered...?

Perhaps it was just a basic understanding of the material?

Hrm...sounds so familiar...Can't quite put my finger on it...

Renee's look at ATS

by Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Today I stumbled across a tribal discussion on Bhuz from back in June which I missed (I was on vacation for my anniversary around that time), in which my co-director Renee was making some observations about tribal bellydance in the context of a discussion where another dancer asked about the difference between cabaret and tribal. I really enjoyed her perspective, and she is such an eloquent writer, I thought I would share.

The full discussion can be found HERE (must be a member to read, but Bhuz is a great resource--you SHOULD be a member and participate!).

From a technical perspective, everything done is tribal is geared towards enhancing and facilitating the group dynamic. Arms have fixed positions (frequently uplifted and away from the body) in relation to the corresponding hip and body movements because they are the primary cue mechanism. Formations are placed so that everyone can see the lead as well as be seen by the audience. There is not often a great deal of footwork or lateral traveling movements because you can't count on having the space to move an entire formation. Movements are kept simple and uncluttered to best emphasize the unsion of the dancers.

I think what's also missing here is the focus on the group. Many times when I see cabaret troupes perform, it looks like there are just multiple soloists all doing the same choreography, and no matter how much the choreography may have them "interact" they are not really connected or breathing the same breath. The connection required for good tribal group improv is palpable. It's a different skill set--being able to draw in the moment on a broad vocabulary and effectively communicate it to your fellow dancers in time for all to start the new movement at the proper point of the phrase; being able to follow smoothly and make all of the minute adjustments that keep you in the same angle, posture, movement and timing as the lead; the constant communication--it's all very different from cabaret group work.

For the benefit of friends who are cab soloists I have likened dancing group improv to the difference between dancing a choreographed solo to taped music and dancing an improvised solo to your favorite live band. You have an idea of what they're going to play, but you're not sure exactly what's going to happen from moment to moment and they keep their eyes on you and you turn to them, looks are exchanged and you vibe with each other and have this amazing conversation right there on stage. I mean, it's fun to nail a choreography, but it's *nothing* like a really connected improv piece.

Tribal just has a different spirit. It is about the joy and support and strength of the group, not about the personal emotional expression of the soloist. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just different.) While we never would claim to be traditional ethnic dance, we've had many people from the middle east come and tell us after a performance that it *felt* like what they experience at home, and I think they are talking about what they see in the home, at family events and such, as opposed to on a stage. While we do perform tribal on stage, I think at it's heart it is more of a folk art and less of a fine art.

I particularly love that last line. That resonates with me.

Organic Process: The Art of Seeing

by Monday, December 14, 2009
All the way back in May, I was pondering the collision of modern media and the organic process of artistic creation. In that post I wrote:

"A sculpture or a painting--even a piece of music or a video--is not expected to change, and is appreciated for its unchanging beauty. It is it's solidity that is part of its appeal, in a way. We see the same piece over time, and instead of expecting it to change or adapt to us, our perspective adapts and changes. We see it (hear it, experience it) from different angles, in different lights, in a different environment, our attitudes change, our perceptions change; and we find that our appreciation deepens and becomes richer and more multi-faceted as we take the time to consider the piece from all these perspectives. The work to appreciate that art day-to-day is in our hands as the viewer."

Behind the cut below is a vintage video which discusses a related topic: that how classic art is viewed today is so radically different from how it was when those works were created. One of my favorite quotes:

"As you look at (the art) now, on your screen, your wallpaper is around them, your window is opposite them, your carpet is below them. At this same moment, they are on many other screens, surrounded by different objects, different colors, different sounds. You are seeing them in the context of your own life. They are surrounded not by gilt frames, but by the familiarity of the room you are in and the people around you.

Originally paintings were an integral part of the building for which they were designed. Sometimes when you go into a Renaissance church or chapel, you have the feeling that the images on the wall are records of the building's interior life. Together they make up the building's memory, so much are they are part of the life and individuality of the building. Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning."

Which made me think about different pieces of dance performance art, and how for me it is ideally a reflection of the dancer's (or dancers') "interior life". And that sometimes, that context is so integral to fully appreciating the performance, yet we don't often have that piece of the puzzle. We are viewing it and assessing it "in the context of (our) own life", as an audience, by the familiarity of the room we are in and the people around us, no less! How much of the backstory is necessary to make a concept piece really effective for our audience, and how much is it lost if we just put it out there without our audience having any perspective on the creative roots from which the concept has sprung? When they go "huh", is it the audience's lack of vision or personal context, or did we fail as performers to make our intent and creative vision clear? And even further, how much does venue play a part of such a performance?

Is this part of the key in the proliferation of poor fusion out there? Lack of context? My very rambling stream of consciousness behind the cut...

Is it the crux of the problem that new and blossoming dancers are viewing fusion of another artist--a fusion which sprung from that artist's personal context, which the viewers are not privy to in any detail--and then parroting that style or creative choice without any personal context?

And then we have to ask, is it a failure of the performer to really access and present a honest "interior life" (rather than a contrived or copied one) in the work?

Or is there simply a lack of an understanding, on the part the audience, of an expression which is coming truly from within the dancer on stage?

Certainly the latter seems to be the cry of the struggling artist. I find that most often when dancers are challenged on their artistic choices, the volley back is "You just don't get it!" Soon followed by "I will do whatever I WANT. I am an ARTIST!!" The insinuation is that it is entirely on us, the viewer, to do the work of understanding and appreciating, and none of that rests on the performer themselves. That their job is only to do whatever they feel, whatever they think makes sense in the context of their life (even if it is sometimes a completely superficial copy of someone else's choices) without consideration of their audience. But I would argue that we are not just visual artists as dancers; that as performers, we are also necessarily entertainers. And while part of our job is an internal struggle to create something genuine from within ourselves, the other part is translating it into something for others to consume. If your work is truly from within you, and you want to put it out there for others to share in, the next step is to consider how you will best convey your message so others can appreciate it.

So following this train of thought, I ponder many questions...

How much of copying another's style is a stepping stone to a more personal expression, and how much of it is a crutch to avoid the real work of personal development?

How much of the responsibility to make any performance piece understood is in the hands of the performer versus the eye of the beholder? And what role to we performers have in helping the latter along? Is it creative sacrifice or creative consideration to change our original vision in any way to be more palatable to our audience?

Emmet the Otter

by Saturday, December 12, 2009

Last night was our "Elf Virgin Party", which sounds kinky, but is actually just an excuse to get some friends to watch the fabulously hilarious film. Really, if you haven't seen it, you must.

My friend Michelle brought a bonus DVD for us to watch after: "Emmet the Otter's Jug Band Christmas". If you haven't seen it, and love Jim Henson's work as I do, you will love it. And do NOT miss the outtakes, which had us CRYING with laughter! Some of it is available on YouTube, but I feel you won't get the full effect unless you are in a room with people you love, eating junk food, and enjoying the holidays in style.

Now I am ready to make my washtub bass to rock with my new band.

A Simple Guide to Being Present

by Saturday, December 05, 2009
Zen Habits really just has some of the best articles! Here is an excerpt, and I encourage you to pop over and read the rest for yourself:

"How often are you driving while talking on a cell phone, or thinking about work problems, or the errands you have to do? How often do you eat without thinking about the food you’re eating? How often do you drift off while doing other things, thinking about something you messed up on, or worrying about something that’s coming up?

I would submit that most of us are elsewhere, much of the time, rather than in the here and now.

If I could only give one word of advice to someone trying to find peace in an overwhelming and stressful and chaotic world, it would be this: simplify. But if I could give two more words of advice, they’d be: be present."

This article came from a suggestion from commenter Mark, after I wrote about ways to create a peaceful, relaxed workday. It’s an article I’d been planning to write for some time, but Mark spurred me to do it sooner — so thanks Mark!

Focus On Now
There are three things we can think about:

1. The past. Reliving things we messed up about. Being embarrassed about something we did. Wishing we could have something back that is gone. Living in memories of good times past. Being angry about things done to us. You get the idea.
2. The future. Worrying about things we need to do later. Worrying about what might happen, or a big event coming up. Being anxious that things might go wrong, or that we might mess up. Hoping for something wonderful. Dreaming of great things to come.
3. The present. What is happening right now, at this moment. What we are doing now.

It is inevitable that we will think about all three. We cannot stop ourselves from thinking about the past or the future. However, with practice, we can focus on the present more than we already do.

But why should we do that? What’s wrong with focusing on the past or future? Nothing’s wrong with it. It isn’t wrong to think about past or future. However, there’s nothing we can do about things that have already happened, and worrying or agonizing about them doesn’t usually do us much good. I’d suggest analyzing what happened, learning from it, and moving on. It’s much healthier.

We also can’t control the future. It’s impossible. We can do things that will change the future, but they might change the future in ways we cannot anticipate. Or they might not change things at all. And the only thing we can do about the future is do something … now. In the present. So focusing on what we do now is the best way to improve the future. Not thinking about the future. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals or shouldn’t plan — but goals change (I know this first-hand, as my goals at the end of 2007 were completely different from what they were at the beginning). Plans change. We must be prepared for that change not by overplanning, but by being in the moment and rolling with the punches.

There’s also the problem of missing the present. If we spend most of our time thinking about the past or future, we are missing life itself. It’s passing us by while we’re elsewhere. You can’t get the most out of life unless you learn to focus on being present, while things are happening. Thinking about your childhood, or your kid’s future, is useless if your kids’ childhood is passing by without you being there.

Benefits of Being in the Moment
I’ve noticed a ton of benefits from my increased focus on the present. Here are just a few to consider:

1. Increased enjoyment. I find that I enjoy life more if I’m present rather than having my mind elsewhere. Food tastes better, I have more fun with my family, even work becomes more enjoyable.
2. Reduced stress. Worrying about the past and future gives you stress. But being present is almost like meditation. There are no worries. There is just experiencing.
3. Better relationships. When you really commit yourself to being with someone, to listening to them, you are being a better father, husband, friend, daughter, girlfriend. You have better conversations. You bond.
4. Get things done. I find that focusing on what I’m doing, rather than trying to multitask or multithink a million different things at once, I actually complete what I’m doing, do a better job on it, and get it done faster. I don’t necessarily do more, but I get things done. Focus tends to get things done, in my experience, and when your focus is split among a lot of things, it is less powerful.

The Magic of Flow
There’s a concept called Flow that’s been pretty popular among productivity circles in the last couple of years. I’m a big fan of it myself. In a nutshell, it’s basically losing yourself in whatever you’re doing — reaching that magical zone where you forget about the outside world and are completely doing what you’re doing, whether that’s writing or drawing or coding or whatever.

It’s a wonderfully productive zone to be in, and a state that also, incidentally, makes you happier. Productive and happier at the same time. Hard to beat that.

However, it can’t happen if you’re switching between tasks or thinking about the past or the future. It basically happens when you are in the present. So practicing being present will help you get to flow, which makes you happier and more productive. Best argument yet for being present, perhaps.

Practice, Practice
There’s no single method that will get you better at being present. I don’t have the magical formula, except one word that I often tell my kids when they’re learning anything or striving to be better at anything: practice.

You won’t be good at it at first, most likely. Your mind will wander, or you’ll do a lot of “meta-thinking”, which is just thinking about what you’re thinking, and whether you’re thinking it the right way, and whether there is a right way … and so on, until you’re no longer in the present. That’s normal. We all do that, I think.

Don’t beat yourself up about that. Don’t get discouraged. Just practice.

So what’s the magical method for learning to be present? Practice.

You do it in the morning. You practice it while eating lunch. You do it with your evening jog or walk. You do it while washing dishes after dinner. Every opportunity you get, practice.

And you’ll get better. I promise.

One Month Challenge
The best method I can offer for learning to be present, the best method for practicing, is to focus on it for one month. Make focusing on being present a habit. If you make it your only focus, I guarantee you’ll get better at it, and more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of remembering to focus, of remembering to practice, of being more aware.

Do a one-month challenge. It’s the best method for forming new habits, and it works for being present. A good way to do this is join the monthly challenge on the Zen Habits forums. Then do the following:

* Tell people on the forum what your monthly challenge will be (focusing on being present).
* Log in daily to report on your progress. This gives you the accountability and motivation needed.
* Do the tips below every day for a month.

“The living moment is everything.” - D.H. Lawrence

Tips On Being Present
You just knew I couldn’t end this post without a list of tips. So here are things that have worked for me … pick and choose the ones that you think will work best for you:

1. When you eat, just eat. The best way to think about being present is this: do just one thing at a time. When you are eating, don’t read or think about something else or iron your clothes (especially if you’re eating something that might splatter on the clothes). Just eat. Pay attention to what you’re eating. Really experience it — the taste, the texture. Do it slowly. Same thing with anything else: washing dishes, taking a shower, driving, working, playing. Don’t do multiple things at once — just do what you’re doing now, and nothing else.

2. Be aware. Another important step is to become more aware of your thoughts. You will inevitably think about the past and future. That’s OK. Just become aware of those thoughts. Awareness will bring change.

3. Be gentle. If you think about the past or future, do not beat yourself up about it! Don’t try to force those thoughts out of your head. Just be aware of them, and gently allow them to leave. Then bring yourself back to the present.

4. Zazen. Ah, you were wondering when Zen Habits would have anything to do with Zen, right? Zazen is basically the center of Zen practice. It’s simply sitting. It’s a form of meditation, but really it’s just sitting. You don’t have to contemplate Zen koans or the meaning of the universe or chant anything. You just sit, and focus on sitting. I haven’t done this much recently, but when I have, it has been very useful practice for me.

5. Exercise. These days, exercise is my zazen. Running is my sitting practice. I run, and try to only run. I focus on my running, on my breathing, on my body, on nothing but the present. It’s great practice.

6. Daily routines. Anything can be your zazen. When you wash dishes, this is practice. This is your meditation. When you walk, focus on walking. Make anything you do become practice.

7. Put up reminders. A reminder on your fridge or computer desktop or on your wall is a good thing. Or use a reminder service to send you a daily email. Whatever it takes to keep your focus on practicing being present.

8. There is no failure. You will mess up, but that’s OK, because it is impossible to mess up. The only thing that matters is that you practice, and over time, if you keep doing it, you will learn to focus on the present more often than you do now. You cannot fail, even if you stop doing it for awhile. Doing it at all is success. Celebrate every little success.

9. Keep practicing. When you get frustrated, just take a deep breath. When you ask yourself, “What should I do now, Self?”, the answer is “keep practicing”.

This article was re-printed with permission from the fabulous Zen Habits blog!

What do you want to be known for...?

by Tuesday, December 01, 2009
What Do You Want to Be Known For?, a post by Jonathan Fields over on his blog "Awake @ the Wheel".

"It’s a question most of never really think about…

Or, if we do, we think about it fleetingly, then tuck it away for some time down the road…when we’ll be able to finally do something about it.

Then, we go about the business of more or less responding to life, just doing what’s in front of us every day. Soon enough, a few minutes turn into a few hours. Then, hours turn into days, days turn into weeks…and, out of nowhere, we find ourselves years down the road, but still no closer to doing what we really want to be doing.

Still, no closer to being known for what we want to be known for…"

(more after the jump)

"It’s been on my mind, more recently, because of a comment that blogger and author of Internet Riches, Scott Fox, left on my post about 'running to catch the sun' last week. He shared:

Nice to see some “real” writing in the sea of copywriting, advertorials, and pitches that floats us all along daily online.

That comment was a bit jarring to me…

Because it sent me spiraling back to the fact that one of the things that I truly want to be known for, when I look back on my life, is being a writer.

Not just a purveyor of information, advice or inspiration, no matter how useful those may be. Not a pundit, a blogger, a smart person. But a writer. Someone who cares about and crafts words to bring people into the story, to take them on a journey. To somehow illuminate and change the human condition, if only fleetingly.

That’s what that post about the sun was about. And, that’s what I want to do more of…and be known for.

Does that mean it’s the only thing I want to be known for?

Of course not. Being a loving, involved husband, dad, brother, son, friend and mentor rank high above. But, it’s part of my vision.

I wonder might happen if we all made a concerted effort to step away from the increasingly autopilot nature of life?

To commit to living with more deliberation.

I wonder what might happen if we built into every single day a little time, say 10 minutes in the early morning, to do 3 simple things:

1. Create and reaffirm a vivid vision of exactly what it is we want to be known for,
2. Commit to taking a single step in the direction of that vision that day, and
3. Visualize ourselves taking that step first thing in the morning

Won’t you give it a try? Commit to 30 days and just see what unfolds."

I have been giving this a lot of thought, and am not sure yet what is my goal for myself in this regard. Must think more on it....what about you?


On this blog I share my personal posts about cooking and knitting, travel and other musings; while I will blog about dance-specific topics over on the Deep Roots Dance blog:

I hope you will enjoy both my sites. Thanks for visiting!
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