Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sometimes I dance and philosophize at the same time

I hope this post won't offend any real philosophers out there. I just think about things. A lot. And I try to get to root causes.

I went dancing tonight. I knew it was a swing club. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect, as there are a lot of variants of swing. It turns out that it was a lindy hop club.

For those unfamiliar with dance and with my background, I've danced lots of different styles. I'm not bad at standard ballroom (waltz and foxtrot, for example) and I'm good at Latin (samba, cha cha, etc.) – I'm no pro, but I definitely get by. I'm mediocre at swing. Within swing, there are many variants. West coast swing is easily the one I'm best at. Lindy hop is easily the one I'm worst at (of the ones I've tried, which are several). West coast and lindy are similar rhythmically but their styles are worlds apart; west coast swing is smooth and lindy hop is grounded. So when I try to dance lindy hop, my west coast swing kicks in and I do it wrong – very wrong.

Not having gone dancing anywhere west of Salt Lake City – ever – I took a minute to observe what was going on around me. It was easy to see that there were lots of novices who still struggled with things like rhythm and leading. There were several people way more advanced than I. They dance the way some people play soccer or paint: they made something beautiful with the skill they've developed.

I went back and forth between observing from the edges (hoping to learn) and dancing. Everyone I danced with was nice, but some of them were clearly underwhelmed. As they always do when I'm faced with my own incompetence, the gears in my head started turning. Turning isn't the right word – fast enough; these gears were threatening to melt.

I realized that I'd never really gotten into self-expression through dance. After all, I use my words for self-expression. I like words because they can be used precisely. Dance, as is the case with many art forms, can express very effectively from the perspective of the expresser, but it is often ineffective at clearly communicating to observers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of expression; it's just that I feel no need for it.

Another reason people love swing is its low barrier of entry: relative to other dances, it's easy to show up and learn and have fun without much practice. I've often been frustrated with people who dance swing because they often don't learn the other styles that I love so much. I don't begrudge them swing, but it irks me to see that they are talented but that they don't use that talent for other dances. I feel like they're missing out and I feel like I'm missing out on the chance to dance with them – to really dance with them.

Another factor is that swing's culture is generally one of showing up and learning by experimentation and observation. I've found that I learn better when I'm being instructed precisely. I'd like very much to know where each toe is supposed to point and I learn it better when people just tell me. Such exacting technique certainly exists within the swing world, but many casual swing dancers love swing because they can get away without it.

Tonight, I realized that I enjoy dancing because the way I move is different. Waltz is smooth but surprisingly athletic and the spinning is fun. West coast swing requires control and finesse with some flair. Samba looks like it's all over the place but also requires precise control in every part of the body. I have fun when I dance them because of the challenge of being technically precise and because of the beautiful and distinct feeling that each one affords. I'm sure that the other variants of swing have their own feel – I know that lindy does – but I've never done enough of them or been interested enough in them to experience them in that way. And I don't know if I can really get into swing if I don't find a way to express myself as freely as swing dancers do. It's like I get to a dance hall and I don't know what to say.

Because I approach dance from such a different perspective, it's no small wonder that swing does little for me and that my own favorite dances aren't as widely known as I'd like. It's simply the end result of different motives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boys and girls are different

I was talking with a friend about gender relations once. I said that I have little use for reverse sexism, although I think that women deserve much more respect than they currently enjoy. She said that reverse sexism has a place because there is so much sexism in our society today.

This floored me. It's not that I don't see the rampant sexism in our world. It's that the women in my life (my sister and mother) have always been strong. They have expected and deserved respect and they have had it. I respect women greatly and I credit them for it (and I wish them a happy Mothers' Day).

There are many common errors made about the genders. I'll identify some of them and then express, to the best of my ability, some truths about the genders.

Please feel free to disagree – especially if you can explain your reasoning.

Falsehoods

Men and women are exactly the same, except women are better

I don't think this one needs much explanation. Second-wave feminism was ridiculous and we all know it. Let's move onto more plausible and interesting topics.

Women are valuable primarily because they're beautiful

Women, it turns out, are worth far more than their looks. I'll be the first to say that I appreciate women's looks. But there is much more to them and we often fail to recognize it. This is particularly true in a few subtle ways.

Many depictions of women emphasize their bodies more than their faces. I don't think there's any doubt but what this objectifies women, but we're very used to it. To illustrate the fact that this is so prevalent, Kevin Bolk made his own version of some promo art for the recent Avengers movie. There's also Jim Chines, who has a whole blog post of himself doing the poses that women do in fantasy novel cover art.

In contrast, men tend to have far more natural poses and their artwork tries to show strength more than allure (although strength and allure may, in fact, be the same thing).

Many of us don't notice this, even though it's clearly not subtle.

Slightly more subtle is the facial expressions that men and women wear in similar art. Men tend to have stolid, determined expressions. Women tend to have one of two faces: determined or mentally vacant. Determined isn't so bad, but the fact that we're okay with artwork that shows appealing women who seem to have a light switched off in the attic sickens me. It's like we're celebrating the idea that women are something pretty to look at, but that talking with them is a waste of time.

Another way this idea is manifest is in some women's interest in fashion. I will not say that all interest in fashion is misguided, but I fear that some women are interested in fashion because it's how they see themselves getting value – by getting attention from men, yes, but also from getting the approval of their similarly fashion-minded peers.

In summary, if you believe that your self-worth comes from your fitness or your fashion, you're doing it wrong. You're valuable because you're human and because God is your father.

Men are insensitive

Men aren't stupid. Men have feelings.

Of course, our culture tells them that their feelings aren't okay. It tells them not to express them. No one seems to have noticed how similar we all are; it's just that modern girls tend to talk about their feelings before they bury them and that girls tend to use ice cream and chick flicks, while guys use video games and/or movies that feature explosions.

When men grow past adolescence, they start to open to the possibility of expressing their feelings. But the lost years of practice haunt them; they feel awkward as they do so and often have trouble articulating their feelings. In fact, they've spent so long hiding from their emotions that many men can't identify them in the first place. Failed attempts can drive men into deeper emotional solitude.

Fearing emotion, men often don't know how to help others with their emotions. It's time we changed our culture and allowed men to talk. This means that men need to talk about emotions with their sons and with others who look up to them. It must be the role models of masculinity who show examples of emotional maturity so boys can look up to them.

Men are stronger than women

Yes, actually, men tend to have more muscle mass than women do. They usually win if they ever arm wrestle. But we tend to think that men are stronger because we ignore other types of strength. What about the strength to endure the pain of childbirth – repeatedly? What about the strength to sacrifice something important for something else that matters more?

Of course, it shouldn't matter much. When a man hits a woman, he commits a despicable act.

Some people try to compensate by depicting strong women. Yes, there are women who train hard and can do amazing things. Yes, there are women who could beat the daylights out of me. But creating a fictional female character who fights with a sword against creatures with triple her weight just makes the problem worse; if a girl feels helpless because she isn't strong enough, this is more likely to cause further discouragement than to inspire her to greatness in martial arts. And no one should pursue any skill or education to fill a gap in self-worth.

Instead, we ought to celebrate the characteristics that women have. They don't have to have massive upper body strength to be valuable. We need to identify and vociferously congratulate women on the strengths that they have.

A woman dominates a relationship with "feminine wiles"

If a guy falls for you for your looks, know that you will age and that younger women will come of age.

A man dominates a relationship with his strength

This is called abuse. Don't ever let me hear about this happening.

Of course, this can happen in subtler ways than physical abuse. Men should be strong, primarily for the benefit of their wives.

A woman dominates a relationship with her wit

Lots of women in recent mass media (especially sitcoms) are sarcastic and condescending to their idiot husbands. They always get the final words and their husbands never quite catch up. As is the case with the previous two sections, this doesn't describe a real relationship.

Truths

Men and women are different but of equal value

Yes, boys and girls are different. No, one group isn't inherently better than the other.

We should value these differences

The characteristics of each gender are beautiful. We're designed to be together. We ought to celebrate our differences and use them to build a family that's better than either spouse is on his or her own.

Relationships bring different people together

It wouldn't be a relationship if the two members of it were the same. Relationships are about using our differences to improve ourselves and each other. They are built on complete trust and fidelity, one day at a time. The battle of the sexes has no place in true love, because each spouse is concerned only with the other's needs. This sort of marriage is the pursuit of a lifetime. I'll get there, but it will probably be long after my darling and I have slipped the bonds of mortality and gone on to a better life.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A few thoughts from my first days in New York City

I live a couple of blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel, but haven't yet found the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops.

When I walked through Central Park, I remember thinking that there was no snow, so Buddy's skill with snowballs was moot.

I love the attitude that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has: this art is to be shared freely.

People come to the Met from all over the world. Trying to understand languages is even better than the artwork.

The bust of Caligula wasn't as great as everyone else seems to think.

I really like Monet.

Van Gogh really likes swirlies.

Rodin (who sculpted The Thinker) was one weird cookie.

People in NYC aren't hostile, as their reputation would indicate. They're just in a rush. They actually try to accommodate each other while making sure that they hustle from one place to another.

I don't really like Times Square, but I'll take it over the Strip anyday.

The blend of languages and cultures is amazing.

I love it when there's a train that goes almost directly to where I'm going because the subway is so fast.

Mormon culture shows up when Mormons (more properly, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) get together, no matter where they are.

I find myself observing more and talking less when I'm in new surroundings. It still wouldn't be fair to call me shy, but I haven't been as overwhelmingly talkative.

I haven't seen much weather yet, but it seems pretty temperate.

Lots of people smoke here.

It seems that no one cooks in midtown – ever. Fortunately, there are ways to order groceries online.

I've been good about getting up in the mornings, but it's boring when everyone you know is still asleep. The jet lag could be a lot worse.

I'm pleasantly surprised by how clean the air is here, despite the prevalence of smokers.

My apartment is really nice. And it has a washer/dryer!