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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Steven's LiveJournal:

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Monday, January 7th, 2013
10:17 am
Remembering Rose Danesi
My jr. high/high school friend Debbie Danesi (now Debra Marx but this is a time-travel post) sent me the sad news shortly before Christmas that her mother, Rose, had died. Because Facebook had put me back in touch with Debra, I did know that her mother had been having some health issues, but this was still a sad thing to hear.  Even though I hadn't seen Mrs. Danesi in decades, I remember her very fondly, for two important things.

It was Mrs. Danesi who inspired one of my grand food epiphanies. At one point towards the end of high school it came up that I had never eaten lasagna (a difficult thing to imagine, I know, but it was a different time). She immediately invited me to dinner, and what she served me was one of those sense-opening taste experiences that cause some people to become chefs. This dish was amazing. Now, it's not as if at that point I had ever even once cooked an actual dinner, but I asked for the recipe anyway, so overcome was I with the desire to taste this again. And here's where I learned some key lessons.

The very first thing Mrs. Danesi said, when I took out a notebook, was "You're lucky because the Valencia Pork Store just opened a branch in Middletown. Before that you would have had to go all the way to Long Branch to get Mozzarella stored in water." Because that was step one: If you're not going to get fresh Mozzarella cheese, there's no point in making the dish. You can now get Mozzarrella stored in water at most supermarkets, but the freshly-made product available at the time in delis that catered to Italian immigrants in New Jersey really was of a taste and quality I haven't seen reproduced commercially. It was, in fact, the key to the whole dish. It seems such an obvious point now, about primacy of ingredients and the difference between fresh smooth creamy cheese and the plastic-wrapped stuff in the dairy department, but seriously this was a big deal. When I later moved to Boston I would travel to the North End to find this cheese.

She also taught me about finding a good jarred tomato sauce (recommending some local small producers) and "doctoring" it with herbs and simmering it for a bit. She said that most people in this country add meat to the sauce, and I could do that if I wanted to, but she insisted that traditionally the meat was served as a separate dish on the side (sausage, also purchased at the Italian deli freshly made) and was not a part of the lasagna. Lesson noted and never violated. I even made the dish for my family not too long after, and my mother had me type the recipe up on an index card which she whimsically labeled "Lasagna a la Danesi".

This one amazing meal and this lesson in the importance of quality fresh ingredients is what started to open up a world for me, and I have often thought of Mrs. Danesi and privately thanked her.

And here's the second thing of importance, of greater importance really, for which I remember Mrs. Danesi. Mrs. Danesi -- from the time I met her when I was in 7th grade -- always treated me (and all of Debbie's friends) with absolute respect and affection, as full human beings in our own right. She showed genuine interest in us, asked after us, cared about us. This really wasn't all that common of a way for parents to treat their kids jr-high friends back then. She also told fun and vivid stories, she was something of a fireball of humor, and that's fun to remember. But at the core what I remember so strongly is not being treated as a child, but being treated as somebody who had something to offer. This means a lot to a 13-year-old. Hell, this means a lot to a 56-year-old. I suppose I looked to this in some way as a model, and this has served me well over the years as my own friends have had children.

So here's a fond farewell to a very nice lady who was a positive part of my teenage years. I'm fortunate enough that, through Debra, only a couple of years ago  I was able to tell her the very things that I've written about here, and of the lessons she taught me that I still hold.
Thursday, April 12th, 2012
12:01 pm
Singing With Joan
Tonight will be the third Thursday evening that the local shapenote singers will head over to sing at our friend Joan's comfortable hippie house overlooking Powderhorn Park, where she is now in hospice care. I here forward the bulk of the note she wrote us all. This was written to a public list, so it doesn't seem a privacy violation, but mostly I want to quote directly so that you can see Joan's personality shining through. I couldn't otherwise do her justice.

The bad news is that the Parkinson's disease that I've been living with for 24 years has just now become a big problem.  I can't predict my mobility any more; I get frozen,twitchy, spastic, awkward in general, etc. ---as has been obvious to you on occasion, I'm sure.  I am extremely lucky to have had such a long run.  

The good news is that I do not have to face a "Home" even now.  Because---very black humor warning---the liver cancer I've been dealing with for two years is getting out of control at the same time as is the Parkinson's disease and will finish me off before I am truly helpless.

At any rate, I am neither physically nor otherwise devastated.  I'm on hospice care, I have a great deal of support of all kinds, and I want you all to know that our singing has been one of the best things in an already rich life.  I wouldn't have believed I would ever enjoy such a community.

Joan has asked us over to sing once a week, for as long as she is up to it, and boy is she up to it. I'm not sure whether she saves up all the energy she has in anticipation of Thursday evenings, or whether she allocates whatever drugs she has, but she is so fully herself -- direct and warm and bawdy -- that the singings are fun and lovely and moving. Two weeks ago she told us that whenever we sing "Akin" (Awake, asleep, at home, abroad; I am surrounded still with G-d) she hears "abroad" as two words, and identifies with it, since she is "at home a broad". We told her this will be her legacy -- none of us will ever be able to sing this again without thinking of her, at home a broad.

In her note providing the details of the first singing she wrote "Denson plus a request to Levine for the Sultan's harem song."  I thought, "Which Sultan's harem song?" (I know a few) but when I arrived she said "the one with the knives" -- meaning the Cole Porter song Solomon from "Nymph Errant" (1934) which I usually only sing in very limited company (it has some culturally questionable aspects) but sure enough we took a break from religious songs and I did my best.

A couple of years ago, when our group lost our gracious friend Cindy, her husband Charlie organized small (4-6 people) singings in their home during her final weeks, and that's when I learned that getting together and singing like this for an hour is not mournful or maudlin or sad. It is energizing. It is a gift. It is using music to express the inexpressible.

But oh, Charlie really got Joan last week. During Cindy's time Charlie wrote a beautiful piece in the shapenote tradition, so beautiful that it will be in the next Cooper book revision. After singing for Joan two weeks ago Charlie said a song came to him and he wrote it down (like Coleridge with Xanadu, I suppose). It's lovely, and deceptively simple. He distributed it last week, dedicated to Joan, and we sang all three verses. By the end Joan had covered her face with her copy of the music and when the last chord died out said, "Please sing that third verse again".

Individuals come and go, but in general the group of people who come to Joan's has been singing together and traveling together and eating together for a couple of decades now, give or take. The magic is not specifically the words and the notes, but the history and the affection and the shared humanity. We sing for an hour, but it is an hour out of time.

The prognosis is that we won't be doing this much longer -- we don't know until Tuesday or Wednesday whether there's a singing on Thursday. Two weeks ago Joan said that her doctor told her that day that she's still too snarky to die within the next two weeks. Last week I asked if the doctor still considered this to be the case but in her very Joanlike way she said, definitively, "He's not the one making those decisions any more."

It will be a blissful hour again tonight, with sunlight streaming in from the park and big open chords filling the living room.

Monday, January 30th, 2012
12:19 pm
The Dilettante's Downfall
At the Midwest Morris Ale, on most nights the pickup dancing goes on until the very wee hours of the morning. Dancers from different teams accompanied by some versatile musicians get together and dance any dance in any tradition for which you can muster a side. Sometimes a dance will get taught. Sometimes a specific team will get up and dance for the others. But it's mostly just dancing for the joy of it, you just jump in and follow, and after enough years people get pretty good about faking all manner of traditions and dance. It is one of those pleasures that deepens with time and experience.

There are a few traditions surrounding late-night pickup dancing, and one is that when the sad realization hits the last weary dancers that the dancing has wound down for the evening it is then time to dance "Saturday Night" in the Bucknell tradition (technically we dance a variant processional that allows for an infinite number of dancers rather than 4 or 6). This is a dance that starts with two dancers for the first iteration, then two more join them, then two more and so forth. The first two turn around when they come to the end of the room and dance back, facing the dancers who are approaching, turning the dance into a partnering figure. When the very last pair of dancers has danced up and down the whole room, the dancers move  into a big circle and dance the whole figure one last time as "rounds".

With 12 or 16 or 20 or 30 dancers, this can take a very, very long time indeed, to get all the dancers up and back across the room. There are legendary accounts of 20 and 30 minutes worth of this dance some years (or longer?). Which might seem extremely tedious, and I suppose from the outside it must be, but the dance (in this context) is about dancing *with* each other, partnering up and down the room. It's the Minnesota long goodbye made manifest in dance.

Last Saturday was the second "Morris On Dance 'Til Dawn" we have held in the Twin Cities, holding a session of Ale-inspired Morris pickup dancing for all who will in conjunction with and following the weekly contra dance. Unlike at an Ale, we start dancing at 7:30 or so (the building has two dance rooms, so this doesn't interfere with the contra dance). So we don't actually dance until dawn, or at least we haven't so far. About 2 am it seemed time to wind down, with Saturday Night. (As a side point I should say that *after* we finished dancing Saturday Night we danced Flowers of Edinburgh which is another end-of-pickup tradition but we had forgotten to dance it earlier.)

I, myself, did not join in Saturday Night (I was having some back issues by that point, although I got some great dancing in throughout the evening so weep not for me). Instead, I stood to the side and marvelled at the amazing notion that there is this particular dance that we reserve for this particular sort of moment. It's just "known" that we do this dance to end pickup dancing. It's what we do. I love this.

I often find myself trying to answer the question of "What is this Morris dancing that you do". And I can give a good accounting of its origins, of what it means to have a "tradition", of what my team in particular does in a dance season. I can talk to some extent about the different steps and styles. But how, in such an explanation, do you weave in an explanation of the tradition of dancing "Saturday Night" at the end of latenight pickup dancing?  There's pickup dancing to explain, there's the Ale to explain, there's the idea that with some Morris experience you can probably learn a dance like this if you wait and watch the first 10 or more times through the dance. There is, at the core, trying to explain what it means to dance *with* the other dancers, from all the represented teams.

Now and again I will hear somebody say something like, "Oh yes, I've danced Morris. I took a class at Pinewoods". That's a great thing, that there are places that give some exposure to the dance form and the dance feel. But, to my mind, there are so many other things that define what it means to dance Morris. There is, at the core, what it means to have a team in and for a specific geographic community, that adds to the texture of life. There is being part of a team that practices together, that travels together, that goes out for beer and song after practice. And there is the occasional rare but specific tradition, that you just know and you just do.

And this makes you happy for a long time afterwards.
Friday, January 13th, 2012
12:58 pm
My New Year's Eve
I've mostly been off on FaceBook, but I wanted to get this link here. This is me at a sort of private club-party in my neighborhood, performing for friends, a song I didn't quite know as well as I would have liked (I didn't have much time to prepare), but I think this captures the fun.

The song is "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty", written by Arthur LeClerk in 1934.

Friday, December 16th, 2011
1:30 pm
My USENIX-LISA Conference Report 2011

This is the report I'm submitting to my department, which I put here so that there's a public place I can link to.

Report behind the cut tagCollapse )
Friday, June 17th, 2011
11:15 am
Photo Story: Brags at the Ale
This new digital era provides an overwhelming amount of photographic documentation of the world as it spins. I've been sifting through the many albums of the Midwest Morris Ale that have been appearing on Facebook and reminiscing in general. I've also seen some nice photos of my own team that I want to comment on here, mostly because my parents aren't on Facebook and this way I can show them a bit of my Memorial Day weekend.

Photo-rich journal entry behind this cut tagCollapse )
Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
2:30 pm
Three Dances for the Ages
So I gotta' tell you about three amazing dances I was part of at last weekend's Midwest Morris Ale, dances in circumstances so specific to the Ale that they will remain unique. My challenge will be to translate the humor and fun expressed as movement into words, which at best provide only a second-order glimpse into that fun. Interestingly, two of these fine times involved dancing with Smack Young Walser, the just-turned-13 lad who is in his third year dancing with Ramsey's Braggarts.

Mrs. Widgery's Lodger at the Quay Street Brewing Company
At our Saturday afternoon pub stop in Port Huron, we cleared aside the chairs and bought a few pitchers of beer and sang for a while. Then the Braggarts formed up for Mrs. Widgery's Lodger, one of our few dances that we can do indoors. It's a column dance: The two dancers at the top of the set dance a particular step and then walk to the back, then the middle two, then the final two. I wanted to partner Smack because once at a practice I was across from Smack when he got a little bored and added some extra small fun steps that I joined him on and this was a hoot.

When the first two dancers did their foot up, I looked over at Smack and started pantomiming that this was something we could do better. Somebody caught a photo of us looking conspiratorial just at this point:

After the first pair did their step, we danced the same step with exaggerated snootiness, then strutted our way back to our spots before the chorus figure of the dance. This set a pattern, and for each new figure we would point at the first couple and make fun of their dancing (during the right-toe-backs Smack stuck out his butt in exaggerated mockery of what the step looks like from the rear) and then we would haughtily dance the figure -- which gave us the goofy energy to dance really well, I think.

So it was a total goofball dance for us, with continual interaction and improvisational pantomime and some real good stepping to back up the silliness. At a bar in Port Huron Michigan on a warm afternoon, surrounded by dancers we know from around the country. It was street theater, really. Afterwards I said that I had just danced in one really great dance, and that alone makes the Ale worthwhile for me.

Vandals of Hammerwich at the Sunday Night Pickup
Smack and I have a game we have played once or twice, when we are both not part of a set for a stick dance. We stand on the side and dance the dance with air sticks and then, at stick clashes, we pantomime whacking each other hard and responding accordingly. Or we just pantomime punches and kicks. Why is this fun? I don't know. But it is.

Just a little bit into the pickup dancing at the Ale on Sunday night, at perhaps midnight, they called Vandals, which had been one of the weekend's mass dances so everybody knew it. Smack had been out of the room with 16-year-old Anna Bean and when they heard the dance start they came running over to dance it, but of course since they didn't hear it until the dance had started all of the sets were already formed and dancing. Seeing this, I ran over because Vandals is the perfect stick-whack dance: Some of the chorus sticking is a two-beat slow stick, which provides lots of time to lift a threatening imaginary stick in a big windup. I got a good fake whack onto Smack just as the chorus started, then he responded in kind.

Anna Bean, as we all learned last weekend, is very good at thinking on her feet during a dance, so she picked up on this immediately and by the end of the chorus we had our pattern down: I whacked at Smack, he whacked at Anna, Anna whacked at me. Or we'd reverse it. Each time we did everything slightly differently, but always perfectly with the music, echoing the entire packed floor of dancers.

Ah, but the chorus of this dance, after the sticking, goes into a step where the dancers step brightly to each side with their sticks held at an angle -- a happy, peppy figure. This figure can look messy if the dancers are not focusing on moving in tandem with each other, or not keeping up the bounciness, but when there is good partnering this is a fun figure. Needless to say, Smack and Anna are very skilled at partnering. Which meant that the chorus of the song was wild fake whacking to the music, and then suddenly, turning on a dime, the three of us were standing erect with big happy smiles and a jauntiness to our stepping. Then we'd repeat the sequence.

Ok, that's just the chorus. For each figure to the 8-person dance we improvised a 3-person version on the spot, which is always fun. The Ilmington Hey for 3 in particular was a blast -- Anna and Smack have known this dance since they were young children, so working off of it is, er, child's play to them. But whatever we did, each figure ends with three big capers, so we would suddenly all be together in synchronized capers (both Smack and Anna are famous for their capers), which is like resolving the chord at the end of a line of music. Then the chorus.

This is art: Wild abandon, contrasted with elegant perfection and unity, different each time, over and over, with nothing coursing through our minds but joy. Plus we did a lot of stage fighting. Best. Mass. Dance. Ever.

Orbitals vs. the Red Baron at 4am
Our local Border team does a few Molly dances, including one called "Orbitals" that is danced to the song "Tide Flows In", usually with me as the singer. This past season I got to thinking that "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" might work as well, and it was a nice fine joke to try this once or twice at practice. It does, in fact, work, but it changes the feel of the dance. It was also great fun to do, so after the first try we would bring it out now and then as a little treat of a dance.

Lo about 3:30 am on Saturday night at the Ale, maybe a little later, sitting around the fire where the singing was taking place, I noticed that a few of the folks who know this dance were present. I got to thinking it would be funny to dance this then and there. I consulted with Matt about this and he liked the idea, but we weren't sure we had the dancers. Shortly afterwards the pickup dancing started to break up, with folks dropping by the singing on their way home to bed, and it was clear we had the full quorum of dancers and then some. I got things organized so that as soon as a particular song ended there were six dancers standing off to the side all ready to go and I started singing the dance and we were off.

We not only were off, but the dancers danced this difficult dance as well as they ever have. Rick Nagler came and joined me in the song. Usually I don't like anybody singing with me for a Molly dance, but with Rick it was different and I enjoyed having him there. All the singers stood up and gathered to get a better view. Some of the women from Rock Creek began some doo-wop dance moves in the background. It was a great dance moment, and when we finished the singing resumed.

Now here's the thing: I expected the reaction to be a response to the joke of dancing a Molly to this particular song, but that wasn't the response at all. Nobody thought there was anything at all amiss to setting a Molly dance to a novelty tune; in fact, that's the norm with some of the newer Molly sides. Instead, the response was to the quality of the dancing, and the glory of the moment. Which is good, very good indeed, it just was not what I thought it would be.

The greater resonance here for me is not just that the assembled Ale attendees took it completely in stride that we would dance a Molly to Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, but that at 4am without prearrangement or practice or planning there were six dancers and a singer who could get up and do this dance, the way you might start up a round of Happy Birthday. It is the very fact that this was unnotable that, to me, is so very notable. This is the Ale world to me in a nutshell, where these things just happen. Of course there's a Molly. Of course Steven can sing for the Molly. But wow, what a strange assemblage of people and circumstance it takes for that to be an "of course". It is stunning, really.

And I loved being part of that dance.
Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
3:20 pm
And a Lump of Fatty Bacon
It's hard enough to explain Morris dancing in general -- not to explain what it looks like, or its ethnographic history, but what it feels like from the inside and, therefore, why anybody would do it. But explaining Morris in general is easy compared to explaining the Midwest Morris Ale, because every aspect of the description requires some further explanatory overlays, each of which leads farther and farther out from the specific event you are trying to describe.

I think at the core it comes down to something a member of the Adderbury Morris Men (who were visiting us from England) said to me on Sunday night, about an hour into the third straight late night of pickup dancing. The Adderbury Morris Men are a primo traditional team, with very strong ideas about the Morris. I thanked one of their members for coming, and expressed my hope that the differences between Morris in England and Morris here at this Ale were not too much for their comfort. He said that it's mostly very much what you see in the UK, but more importantly his team was happy to see so many people who clearly loved the Morris so much. Yes, nearly 300 people gave up their holiday weekend to travel great distances to stay in less than luxurious accommodations for no other reason than their love of the Morris.

And that, my friends, brings us straightaway to the pickup dancing, which is the reason many people give for why they come to the Ale and is the very definition of Morris-love. There is a major evening event every night of the Ale: On Friday the "mass dances" for the weekend are taught, on Saturday there is a contra-dance (with the best partnering you will ever find, meaning every person up and down the set is wholly with you at every move, as if every contra figure were a variant of a gypsy), and on Sunday there is skit night. But towards the end of each of these events we are all chomping at the bit to get on with it, to clear the floor, to call up the musicians, and to dance anything at all with whoever wants to. The newer dancers (and by that I mean dancers who have been dancing for less then 10 or 15 years) get pulled into dances and traditions they don't know. Sometimes dances are taught. Sometimes an individual team will get up and dance as hard as they ever have. Through all of this there is nothing but happiness on the faces of the dancers. Nobody is dancing close to the ground. All corner dances are done with a sense of glorious challenge. You keep saying, "I should go to bed" but 2am or 3am or dawn comes and you can't pull yourself away because there's another dance and when will you have this opportunity again.

Not just to dance, really, but to dance with these people. Who love this as much as you do.

This is not Morris dance, per se, which in my mind means a team that develops into a unit through working hard over the course of many months and years to develop a sense of being a team and a dance style and a repertoire. And then, through public dance and music, a Morris team provides a sense of community to its home area. If you're out on a summer's evening, you just might run into the Morris dancers, you never know, and that will bring a smile to your face and, just maybe at the smallest subconscious level, an appreciation that there is music and dance and song that exists wholly outside the world of the "music industry" (talk about an oxymoron).

But that's not what the pickup dancing is. At the pickup dancing, all of the skills you have developed that you didn't even realize you were developing and you didn't even realize were skills - the sense of dance patterns, and hanky coordination, and providing bell percussion with your own legs -- all of these things become the tools, the mechanisms, the doorways that allow you to be with the other people who are dancing with you in the room. As a way of connecting with other people, it is a thousand times better than smalltalk at a cocktail party and a million times better than Facebook.

And there's the singing, here and there throughout the weekend. And the inside jokes, or perhaps what I mean is the private community references (there are many people who read the title of this journal entry and knew immediately what it would be about, by finishing the musical line). And the history you develop with the other dancers. And the workshops. And the tours, when you separate off and board the buses and dance around the towns near the Ale location, stopping midway at a pub, of course, where you sing and dance inside. This can be a time to get to know the other teams on your tour, a smaller subset of the intimidatingly large number of Morris dancers at the Ale in general. And there are countless moments in specific dances, or in specific songs, or in a small fine conversation on the porch of a lodge overlooking a lake, that you would gladly pay all of your discretionary income for except that these are things that cannot be bought at any price.

That's the Ale: Priceless moments and the joy of Morris.
Thursday, May 19th, 2011
12:03 pm
Finding Your Voice
If you want to get a sense of the self-involved arrogance of some practitioners of European classical vocal tradition, go browsing through YouTube for the various lessons on vocal technique people offer. I have no issue per se with anything that's being taught, and in fact most of it I'm finding useful and interesting (as somebody who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about singing), but the language that's used is so rife with assumptions that I want to reach through the monitor and shake these folks. What you find, again and again, are words such as "you don't want to sound like..." referring to perfectly natural musical expression of individual voices (and what my friend Keith calls "idiosyncratic vocal texture" which happens to be something I swoon over), or absolute assertions of what a "good" sound is, by which they don't mean "good" but a very particular highly-stylized and spectacularly unnatural sound, by any definition of "natural" that makes sense to me. Now, I'm not saying this is "bad" -- or that I don't understand and appreciate the skill and technique and even the musical tradition that classical singing techniques come from (I mean "spectacularly" here in quite a literal sense and I do love and worship spectacle) -- but what you see is a complete loss of that context, as expressed subconsciously through word choice. I get that these value-judgement comments are meant to be taken as value judgements only within the very specific context of the traditions -- but for the most part I do not believe that the people making these judgements get that at all, or -- particularly -- how specific their context is.

I recently saw Tim Eriksen give a workshop, during which -- in response to a question from a trained classical singer -- he pointed out (as observation, not criticism) that in the entire world there are only three cultures where "singing" is completely stylized: throat singing, Japanese opera, and European classical tradition (everywhere else it's just singing). Those are highly-skilled techniques (even high art, I think it's fair to say), but you'd think that the practitioners would at least understand this, rather than hold themselves up as *the* standard of what "good" singing is in a universal sense. As if everybody else would want to sing and sound just like this, if they only had the skill and training (which gets back to what I'm seeing as the assumptions and even the arrogance).

I was thinking about some of these issues recently as I've been listening to a CD by the Bay Area group Oak, Ash, and Thorn, much of whose repertoire comes from the folk/traditional world I know. It's unfortunate that I've just spoken critically of what I see as a purviewed arrogance before bringing this CD up, because I don't mean to imply this at all for this extremely skilled group of nice guys (one of whom I met and sang with at last year's Midwest Morris Ale). I just mean to point to what I'm hearing here as an example of what I mean by differing traditions in approaching songs and approaching singing as a whole. I mean, these guys are really really good (and I could write several paragraphs on what specifically they are doing vocally that is so good) -- but what I think about is why what they do is so different from what interests me in singing these very same songs.

So let's start with the differing purposes here. To me, the chorus/traditional song culture is about pulling people in for a collective experience -- so that my definition of "good" singing and "good" arrangements are those that work towards this goal. But a group that performs on a stage (and, I want to say, before an audience that has been taught to believe that "good" singing is "European classical tradition" singing) works towards something else. So, for example, a big thing that strikes me here is that the songs are nearly every one of them performed at what I think of as "Renaissance Festival" speed -- meaning twice as fast as you'd sing them in any other context. (If you search YouTube for "Bring Us a Barrel" you find a group at a RenFest singing it at the sort of breakneck speed I speak of here, since at a RenFest the goal is not really to have people join in.) The speed thing is not specifically about vocal technique, although it does show a flashiness and skill, but it's part of what I'm calling differing purposes.

What struck me most, though, was that these guys sure have pretty voices but they sound pretty much like every other very good classical small male ensemble. If you told me they were a subset of Chanticleer, say, I wouldn't hear the difference. Think of how much work and how many years they spent erasing idiosyncracy from their vocal sound (just like the YouTube instructors tell you to!). It's beautiful, yes, and something I'm pretty certain I could never do, but it's not what I would say should be a universal aspiration of "good singing". Now and then a small something comes through and I hear a recognizable voice and I think, "Yeah, that's really what I wish they would do more of" -- since these guys really do have strong musical voices and a sense of fun that I think is necessary here. I suppose that might reduce the goal of "blend", though. Do I have to bother saying that "blend" is not something I think of as a relevant goal to what I would be doing with these songs (and why I find The King's Singers -- supposedly the gold standard -- impossible to listen to)? The first few songs I heard on the CD, songs I know and sing, sounded like madrigals (rather than drinking songs). And then the next songs actually were madrigals. Ok. But boy, talk about mixed purposes.

And then there's this odd diction thing, what I think of as "choral ensemble diction". In some cases it's just weird -- they sing a setting of "The Owl and the Pussycat" and each time the word "pussycat" comes up they sing "pooh-see-kat". But mostly the diction thing comes with the letter "t", which they seem to be forming with their tongue at the front of the roof of their mouth rather than the middle. It distinguishes that from a "d", that's for sure. And I think that when you have a large vocal ensemble, you probably need to do things like this so that the words are understandable. (My solution would simply be never to have a large vocal ensemble perform on a stage, but that's just me.) So yes, you understand every word. A good thing, right? But it comes at the expense of natural speech.

Pretty tone, good support, clean intonation, vocal flexibility and musicality -- these are all things that I love in any singing context. Good things to work on. But folks: You have a voice. It's yours. Just sing with it. Use it to communicate. Use it to have fun. Use it to bring a roomful of people into your fun. To achieve this, it is not necessary to "place" your voice so it it not "nasal", or to sound like a Court musician. It's not easy and it takes practice and experience, but find your own way here and I for one will love you for it.
Monday, May 16th, 2011
3:10 pm
Putting a Song Together
I grow wilder all the time with the liberties I'll take with an existing song. I've been working on a new song for tonight's Pub sing at Merlin's, and in this case I'm doing some major reworking of actual published old poetry, in the service of a workable chorus.

I recently came across a musical setting of a poem by Cicely Fox Smith. This is the original poem:

I wish't I was in Lancashire huntin' o' the hare
All across the wide moorlands an' the hollows brown an' bare,
Hearkenin' to the good hounds' cry, hearkenin' to the horn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I wish't I was in Lancashire along o' folks I know,
Rangin' o'er the countryside in all the winds that blow
As they blew when I was yet a lad, in the place where I was born,
Far away in Lancashire on a good huntin' morn.

There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire as how they're bleak an' bare:
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, and that I tell you true,
An' I wish't I was in Lancashire all the day through!

The melody is simple and singable -- pretty, despite a six-note range. Maybe a little too simple, but with words that are difficult this is a good thing. But this is a poem, not written to be sung (as, say, the works of Robert Burns often were). So the metrical things that give this interest, that stretch and telescope meters and accents, work against the singability. That's in part why I'm ok with changing some things.

So step 1: That first verse works as a chorus. The second line will be hard for people to pick up, but it will be ok.

From there, I change something small in the second verse. You can't sing "on a windy morn" in the chorus and then, in the first verse to same melody, sing "on a good huntin' morn". That extra syllable (semi-syllable really) gives a nice twist in recitation, but (unless it's an art song setting) throws off the singability. But after singing this a few times I realized that if I just sang "on a windy morn" as the last line of that verse I've got a nice hook for people to sing at the end of the verse, that they already know and can join with. Plus when you go right from that verse back to the chorus you pick up the hunting theme so it doesn't get lost. The goal here is not to show how smoothly and passionately I can sing a sentimental song, but to find a way to draw people in. Changing that line I think will help.

Ah, but there's the key and the road to ruin: From there I realize that I wanted the last line of the second verse to be the same as well. So this is what I now sing:

There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire as how they're bleak an' bare:
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, on this I've always sworn
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

If there's an adjective you don't know, it's a Lancashire dialect word meaning "excellent". Or a topographical feature of the landscape, depending on context. I lost a little bit of the poetry in my change here, but I think in the song this is fine.

So now I have a two verse song. I could try writing a third verse -- it would certainly not be the first time I've tried to write in the diction and style of an existing poem/song. But I think aiming for quaint and charming archaic Lancashire wording is a little beyond me. So I went looking and found another poem by Cicely Fox Smith about nostalgic pining for Lancashire (although not hunting in particular) that includes this:

Still runs the brook, the trees stand up
By yonder cloughside still:
You can see your father's barn
Look over the windy hill.'

'There will I go, and there shall meet
Old ghosts of joy and pain,
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone
Shall greet me once again.

It's a slightly different, more melancholy feel, but the raw material is there like clay for me to rework. This is what I added as the third verse:

There will I go and there shall meet old ghosts of joy and pain
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone shall greet me once again.
Still runs the brook, the trees stand up, the cloughside to adorn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I don't like the word "pain" there -- it's just wrong for the tone of the rest of the piece to my sense of things. But I'm leaving it and hoping it will add a little twist that doesn't rattle things too badly. "Cloughside to adorn" may not be the smoothest line ever, but it gets boosted a bit by the melody there and by adding to the rhyming refrain-introducing structure. And cloughside? Remember the guideline about meaning? It's a local word for a topographical feature, in this case a ravine.

So this is what I'll sing, and if I hadn't told you this story you wouldn't know what hand I had in this -- oh, and I made a slight change to the gradely hills line, but actually I stole that from the place I originally heard the musical setting:

I wish I was in Lancashire a-hunting of the hare
All across the wide moorlands and the hollows brown and bare,
Hearkening to the good hounds' cry, hearkening to the horn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I wish I was in Lancashire along o' folks I know,
Ranging o'er the countryside in all the winds that blow
As they blew when I was yet a lad, in the place where I was born,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.


There's gradely hounds in Lancashire, as such there always were:
There's gradely hills in Lancashire, their summits bleak and bare
There's jannock lads in Lancashire, on this I've always sworn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.


There will I go and there shall meet old ghosts of joy and pain,
And the folks I knew in the time that's gone shall greet me once again;
Still runs the brook, the trees stand up, the cloughside to adorn,
Far away in Lancashire on a windy morn.

I sang this for Jim and Denise and Anna Bean last night and it seemed to work. We'll see how it goes tonight.
Monday, March 7th, 2011
11:33 pm
Tonight's Shanty Sing
My friend Matt and his wife Deb took videos of me (well, at my request) singing the two songs I sang at tonight's Shanty Sing.

This is me opening up the sing (after the first song that the organizer leads off with). Or about half of my song, anyway:

This is me singing a similar sort of song to open the second half of the evening. I normally wouldn't sing two similar songs like this, but the second one was a request of the organizer and besides I really love this song:

It's a very odd thing to see this from the outside -- it looks and feels nothing like it does from the inside -- but I'm very happy Matt and Deb got this down for me.
Friday, February 25th, 2011
3:50 pm
More Great Kids from the MorrisWorld
I went to New York City last weekend to attend the Half-Moon Sword Ale, as a guest. I do not dance on a sword dance team, but I thought it would be fun to spend a quick weekend in New York City and follow the teams around and join them for the post-Ale singing at a pub in Brooklyn and see some friends. All of these things were, in fact, great fun, and there were many more people I knew than I expected to see, and I got to help out some as a volunteer at the Saturday night Feast and contra dance and all in all it was a fine time. I spent some time at the Brooklyn Museum, where I'd never been, because that's where the final performances were -- that was a great thing to do as well. A good chunk of the people I met at Morris Intensive at Pinewoods in 2009 were there, so that was another rich delight. Plus I missed a big blizzard in Minnesota, although I had to deal with some of its aftereffects on my return.

As the Ale is fading into the past, one of the things that stays on my mind is how great it was to see the interest in this dancing (and the community that surrounds it) on the part of high school aged kids. There were three teenage rapper sword teams -- two from Massachusetts and one from New York City. The kids had verve and energy and joy, and they seemed to delight in hanging out with each other. What a great thing to have in your life at that age, I say. They're also great contra-dancers, pretty much all of them. This world will outlast me, that's for sure.

After the Ale I got a Facebook friend request from a high school junior on one of the teams. This is not somebody I talked with at all, although of course I knew who he was by the end of the weekend. I was part of a sweep of post-Ale friending he was doing, from what I could gather, but this was a flattering thing nonetheless. I went and checked out his Facebook page, and he seems like a very earnest, good kid. But the great thing to me, the thing that just makes me smile with delight and hope, is his engagement in larger political issues, including ones of concern to me. Off his Facebook page I found a link to a local newspaper that published the testimony on bullying he gave recently before the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Commission on Anti-Bullying, as a representative of the Mass. Student Advisory Council. I found a copy of a "transgender policy" he had worked on to present to his local school committee -- a very thoughtful teasing out of rights and protections. Good work. Good stuff. Brave stuff. I sit back in awe.

This was all easy to see from just a quick scan of his Wall.

This just fills me with hope. For the future, and for Morris dance.
Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
1:09 pm
Piecing the Lyrics Together
Some chorus songs that strike my fancy come into my purview fully formed and ready for me to learn and make mine. Sometimes, however, I find I need to make some sort of change before I can feel right and comfortable with the song. In fact, it was epiphanic for me when I realized that songs -- particularly traditional songs, or songs that have worked their way through various processes -- are not sacrosanct objects, untouchable and immutable.

Last night at the 3rd Monday Pub Sing at Merlin's I sang a song for the first time that is probably a keeper that required more research and compilation than usual. I thought I'd write down the whole process of how I came to sing the song as I do and why. I'll say in advance that I think this was a success because somebody I don't know came up to me afterward to ask me about the song, and she had totally gotten the subtext I was going for, and was intrigued by the song itself (which is the goal, or at least part of it -- the main goal is for people to enjoy singing it with me).

The song I sang was a version of "My Coffin Shall Be Black", which I have discovered is quoted in Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" -- one person who set it to music noted that Joyce may have written the lyrics himself, but since it was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1893 that seems unlikely to me. The song came to my notice on a CD called "Dusty Diamonds" by Martin and Shan Graebe. They attribute the melody they use (which is very simple and repetitive but quite lovely, particularly in their arrangement) to one that Ralph Vaughan Williams collected. This is what I'm recollecting as the lyrics they sing (I may have this slightly wrong in my memory -- I'll check it later and correct it perhaps):

My coffin shall be black
Four little angels at my back
Two to watch and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged the parson's bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own mother

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
Jesus Christ will rise again
When I am quite forgotten

The liner notes say that Baring-Gould collected it in 1893 from a boy who learned it from his aunt.

[As a side point here, I have long known a song from the singing of Joe Hickerson that includes the lyrics "Two, two, to my head; Two, two, to my feet; two, two, to carry me Lord, when I die." I think I now know where that "two two" comes from.]

This song was compelling and lovely, but I had some problems with it, at least if I were going to sing it. For one thing, it seems to be a bedside prayer for somebody who is very poor at arithmetic. Or maybe there are 10 angels, but that's a stretch. Also why is he saying farewell to his mother if he's going to be buried beside her? But the most dissonant note is "Jesus Christ will rise again" which seems tonally and thematically quite off from the rest of the words.

So it was off to Google to see what I could make of this, which is where I found the countless references to James Joyce. But I also found a bunch of references that made me think this was some sort of takeoff/parody of an old poem about a little orphan girl (which is mostly found referenced as a street rhyme, but everything about it points to its origins as a Victorian poem):

I am a little orphan girl,
My mother she is dead;
My father is a drunkard,
And won't buy me my bread.
I leant upon the window-sill
To hear the organ play
And think of my dear mother
Who's dead and far away.

Ding dong my castle bell,
Farewell to my mother,
Bury me in the old churchyard
Beside my eldest brother.
My coffin shall be white,
Six little angels by my side,
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.

Ah, already we have some things that work for me: two angels + two angels + two angels = six angels (somebody has used a calculator this time). And the first two sing (rather than watch). Now, "two to watch" sings and flows better than "two to sing", but I like the image of the singing, praying, and transporting pairs of angels. We also have the "castle bell" which is a new problem -- why is there a castle here? Other versions use "parting bell" -- an archaic reference at the time that would easily be changed to a more familiar image. (Martin Graebe may even be singing "parting bell" on my recording, although I hear it as "parson's bell".)

Also here we have a dead brother (in addition to a dead mother, but I'm ignoring that) -- and that, to me, was the key to understanding the song: This may be a morbid little ditty, but it makes emotional (rather than self-pitying) sense for a boy who has lost his brother to be contemplating his own death. There is also the twist of anger: Your coffin in the original may be pristine white, by *my* coffin will be black. This is no sweet little Victorian lad.

But what to do with the line "Jesus Christ shall rise again", which still rings an odd tone for me in this lyrical context. That verse seems to have it's origins elsewhere, in this poem which I found described as a "book rhyme":

When I'm dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten
This little book shall tell my name
When I am quite forgotten.
Jeannie Rodger is my name;
Dundee is my nation;
Heaven is my dwelling-place
And holy habitation.

Yes, this makes sense to me, in the story that's forming in my head: With these words the speaker, legitimately concerned with the impermanence of life, is trying to make a mark. He wants you to know his name -- or at least it's a "he" in my song so I need to change the name. So I moved things around and this is what I sing:

My coffin shall be black
Six little angels at my back
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged my passing bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own brother

Johnny Rogers is my name
Dundee is my nation
Heaven shall be my resting-place
And holy habitation

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
You'll hear this song and know my name
When I am quite forgotten.

In verse two the singer announces -- proclaims -- his name and home. Then he sneaks up on you in verse three by saying "Now you'll know my name, long after I've gone." It is still a song of pathos, but it has a ring of sincerity to it. It is not a joke, despite the gruesome nature of the lyrics. Plus it's still a pretty tune.

It will take me a few singings to get this right. At this point it almost comes across as a joke when I begin "My coffin shall be black!" (although the person who spoke to me afterward said, "Oh no, it's not a joke song.") All that I'm writing here is totally subtext -- the story I think the song is telling -- that I don't think anybody would explicitly get. But if I have that sincerely in me when I'm singing the song, something of it comes through.

And that's how I've come up with my version of this song. I may ultimately change "sing" to "watch", since my brain seems to want to do that. And I've got to work on a slightly less bombastic approach to the singing (I begin by capturing the air with a big "MY" at the highest note in the song). But I think this has potential. Time will tell.
Tuesday, January 4th, 2011
12:05 pm
These Kids Today
Through the local Morris Dance community, I do know some cool kids. Teenagers mostly. This means I get to sit at the pub after Morris practice with them sometimes (french fries are on me) and question them like a DA about their lives, and they in turn get to question me about mine. What makes them cool kids, in my estimation, is that they are legitimately interested in other people. It is a myth of the psychologists that teenagers are incapable of seeing things through the perspective of others. It's just that they don't do this all the time (and when they don't, they don't in a dramatic fashion). But neither do adults, so that hardly distinguishes them, as a class.

These kids, on occasion, are also capable of saying things to me that I find touching and sweet. After the Shanty Sing last night I was chatting with Temple and Deb and I remembered that last summer their high-school-age daughter found out a little more about what I do for a living. As the nature of my day to day work became clear to her she said something like, "That must be a boring thing for you." I don't think she said "boring", actually, She might have said "limiting". The real point here is not that she said "That must be a boring thing" (as in "I would find that boring") but "That must be a boring thing for you." The implication was that I would be happier doing something more social. Or improvisational. Or energetic. She had been paying attention to who I was, and trying to match that up with what I do. And what can I say? She was dead right.

The local Morris teenagers now dance with the Border Team during Border season, which comes in the fall. Towards the end of this past year we held a brief team meeting about whether we wanted to consider, as a team, attending the "Molly Folly" next July - a weekend of Molly dancing that's going to be held in New Jersey. Molly dancing is a form of ritual British dancing (thus a form of "Morris" as the term is used) which, in the US, is characterized (in part) by the music being provided by an unaccompanied singer (rather than by instruments). There are very few Molly dance sides in the US, really, but probably the foremost is Handsome Molly of Princeton NJ, which is hosting the event.

Our Border team dances a few Mollies, and while I have backup I am currently pretty much the main Molly singer. Even for the dances that others generally sing, I need to know every Molly song so that in a pinch I can provide the music.

When we brought up the issue of going to the Molly Folly, we pointed out that we are not really a Molly Team, as are the other teams in attendance. We are a Border side that does a few Mollies. As a key factor here in our planning, we pointed out that the Molly dances we do are dances that the other teams do as well. At which point one of the teenagers in question said, "But we have Steven!"

Way cool, I say.
Wednesday, December 8th, 2010
2:21 pm
Loosing Ends
Facebook continues to throw me into the occasional memory tailspin. I'm starting to think that the emotions of your past (particularly your youthful past) do not fade away from lack of use (like, say, remembering the quadratic formula). Instead they just get buried under newer emotions that have actual relevance to your current life. But you can still expose them, the way you might expose the dentin of a tooth if a filling falls out. This can be painful, although this particular story is not a painful one. The reason I'm telling it is that the strength of the memories this evokes surprises me a little.

In my case my most powerful emotional memories all seem to center on growing up as a gayboy, and the position that put you in forty years ago. I realize this can start to seem repetitive after a while, since what is there to say after "I felt alone and monstrous and an alien on my own planet"? Well, plenty, really, but how do you make that interesting to anybody who is not being paid to be your therapist? It's a risk.

In this case the core of the story is no story at all. There was a guy in my high school a year ahead of me, a public figure (he was involved in student government and he sang) to whom I responded in that way you don't really have much control over -- the whole crushboy thing. I still respond like this to people sometimes, and just as strongly (if much less frequently), but the difference is that when I was 15 just having this response to another man had all manner of intense and complicated overlay. It was a response inside of yourself much too powerful to deny or dismiss, and (at least in my case) it was the sort of thing that made me confront the awful things that went along with that (culturally, internally). So the whole response is not just about "Hey, here's a guy I find incredibly attractive" but also "Oh my gosh I'm a homo" as well as "and this is something nobody can EVER know". (Some people -- many people I'm afraid -- have far more self-destructive responses than that, and I suppose even I had my moments of that sort.)

Now I gotta' say right here -- so you know how odd it is that I even have a story to tell -- that this guy was not somebody I had much contact with at all. We had a couple of mutual friends, but he was a different year. I only exchanged words with him once or twice, and he was smiley and pleasant. In reality, away from the whole mooning-over phenomenon, he was just a guy in my school who (although I wouldn't have used these words at the time) I thought was really hot. Or cute. Or something. Plus I was and remain a complete sucker for people who can sing. But here, see for yourself and try to see this through the stylistic overlays of what was attractive in 1972 (but really, that's a handsome face no matter the surrounding):

What you don't see here is what a husky fireplug he was, and how he looked a bit older than his years. (Do you hear the hotness points ringing up for me?)

I can't say that I never thought about this person at all for the next 37 years, but only in the occasional yearbook lookthrough and the memory of how attractive to me I remembered this guy as being. Then yesterday I was looking at the Facebook friends list of a high school friend and saw this guy's name -- well, just his last name as he no longer goes by the same first name (which was, no lie, "Butch"). Just seeing the name brought back -- unbidden and of a sudden -- all of those crushboy feelings, as alive and intense as in 1973. And this was the profile pic (about which, to many of you, I can simply ask "Need I say more?"):

He's the older guy, the one who is my age, and why yes, he's grown up into quite the Daddy Bear. Actually the Daddy Muscle Bear. He hangs out at times at the piano bar I go to when I'm in NYC. He's back in the hometown area in NJ. Here's a sweet picture (most of his pictures show him in more standard daddymusclebear garb: sunglasses, cigars, muscle shirts, serious expression -- but this one speaks more to what I responded to long ago):

As I say, I didn't really know this guy as anything other than, oh, an image to ponder back then, but I couldn't resist friend-requesting him (along with a note saying that I was a year behind him in high school and mentioning our mutual friends). I seriously doubt he knows who I am, but he accepted the friend request.

There are two things this makes me think about.

One, it's kind of funny how intense and immediate and in the present the memory of my response to him four decades ago was, just from seeing his name. That speaks, I think, to what an intense time those years are. This is far, far from the only time I have had that sort of emotional memory from that time come flooding back to me as if I were not remembering it but re-experiencing it.

But second, I'm thinking about why my impulse was to friend-request this guy (and then wait nervously to see whether he'd accept the request). Why would I care? I certainly have no shared memories with this man, and it's not as if I imagine that I could suggest we go out to Marie's Crisis next time I'm in New York City. From what I can see on Facebook he seems like a lovely, optimistic man with a full life and many interests (he still performs sometimes), but I don't know him and never really did. What connection was I trying to make? Yes, we went to the same high school and are both gay, but is that enough? Experience long ago taught me that the answer to that question is "no". (Although I recently heard -- through Facebook -- from a woman I knew all through school who didn't identify as a lesbian until later and I was delighted to make that connection and feel that bond, but that was somebody I actually knew and come to think of it I would have been happy to make that connection regardless.)

I think what's going on here is that the emotion this unburied is one that I would describe as longing. As wistful, frustrated longing -- for something that at the time of its genesis I was thoroughly completely unarguably convinced would never be assuaged. So this memory, this guy I didn't know, is a sort of manifestation of that. But then I saw the current pictures and everything about them is completely and obviously reflective of the meaning that being gay holds for me now. For me there is still wistfulness, and there are still crushes, and there is a general longing that I think characterizes life, but oh what a difference. This is now a source of pleasure to me, of hope, of companionship. I think just pulling those feelings of back then and forcing them into the present is a good thing.

All of this from a name and a picture...
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
9:53 am
The USENIX-LISA Conference Report
Since apparently it is not possible to read something on Facebook without a Facebook account, no matter how I tag it, I am putting the conference report I wrote for my department here. It's long in part because my company paid my whole way this year (which is unusual) and I want them to be sure they got their money's worth.

Very long report hidden behind a cut tagCollapse )
Wednesday, October 27th, 2010
12:07 pm
Explaining Contra in Terms of Morris
Last night at Border practice I had occasion (not for the first time) to learn that there are passionate Morris dancers of my acquaintance who do not enjoy contra dancing. With that in mind, I want to try to describe how a good contra set, such as I experienced many times last weekend at dance camp, can be like a good Morris side (such as I experience every time I dance with Ramsey's Braggarts ha ha).

When you start a Morris dance with a foot up, you are about to dance a dance you have danced many times before. And yet each time there is a sense of anticipation. You, and the other five dancers, and the musician, are about to come together in an arrangement of music and movement that feels immediate and alive and fresh. With every movement you are aware of the other dancers, moving in tandem or counterpoint. The music is live, so it is subtly different every time and you respond accordingly. Who knows what the dance will bring this time?

What it always brings, when the dancing is good, is partner interplay. You move with the other dancers, in human contact. And you move your bodies both together and with your own style to the driving catchy tune. With my team, you are also pushing yourself to extremes of exhaustion. When the dance ends you have had an inspiring time, and you are happy.

In many key ways it is the same sort of feeling when a contra dance is good. You move up and down the contra line into sets, and you have the interplay with each other and with the music and with your own body that you have in a good Morris set. Then you progress to the next couple and have the same dance with them. All along, ideally, there is coordinated movement and eye contact and a driving catchy tune and individual styling in the context of the larger cohesion. You don't know what the dance will bring, what each new set will bring. But maybe it will be good this time, and your swings and your allemandes and your pull-bys will be smooth and flowing things, and maybe they will provide human connection through movement and music.

It isn't always good, of course, but once you've found that you search and search to find it again. The fun for me last weekend was how often I found it.

This comparison only goes so far. With a Morris team you develop a strong sense of being on that team, both in and out of the dance. You are preparing dances for public performance, which adds a significant overlay. Although both dances are "called", for a Morris dance you pretty much have to know what's coming (and how to style it) to do the dance at all.

But at the core -- when it's good -- there can be a harmonic convergence of society, movement, music, physicality, and in-the-moment fun.

With our Morris teams we work hard on a weekly basis to achieve these things, to achieve that "good" I keep repeating. We get to know the smallest quirks of our teammates. We go out for beer together, and we sing songs together -- singing harmony chorus songs can provide the same sort of bonding as dance. Contra, in general, does not provide these things. But it absolutely can provide a sense of fine and fun dancing to vibrant live music in a set of dancers. In many sets of many dancers, all in one dance.

And at the end of the dance, you can sometimes feel very happy indeed.
Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
2:52 pm
Glorious Contra Dance. Glorious.
At the LCFD dance camp last weekend in western Massachusetts I had more fun dancing contra than it might be possible to convey to people who have never experienced that particular level of contradance joy. I had more fun dancing contra than I've had since my first year of contradancing (and really the only year I did much contra dance at all, in 1980 or so). I remember that on Thursday afternoons of that year I would practically shake with excitement because it was contra dance night. But until this weekend I remembered being that excited only in a sort of intellectual story-telling way; last weekend reminded me what it felt like internally, as I experienced those feelings anew.

Come to think of it, I enjoyed the dancing even more this past weekend than in that virgin year, because in that first year I was something of an outsider to the community in which I was learning to dance (it was the dawning conviction that I would always be an outsider in that community that caused me to lose my passion, in fact). But last weekend I was not an outsider, for any number of reasons. I am concluding that a big part of the dance passion I am talking about here is about being part of a dance community (comparisons to Morris dancing are encouraged).

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I want to write about here is why it was so much fun for me. If contradance in the Twin Cities were this much fun for me, I would be there every week (as opposed to once every year or two, if that).

Bottom line is that the level of dancing was first-rate, throughout the hall. At least as important, the band played with drive and swing -- for me dancing is first and foremost a way of listening to music with my body, and if I don't like the music I cannot dance at all (which is why two-stepping is a mixed bag for me, as I love two-stepping when the music is western swing, but for the accent-free four-square electric-drum pablum of modern country music there is no connection between my body and the sound and besides the music is not live so it lacks the give-and-take with the musicians that makes dancing come alive). All up and down the contra line, each swing was a graceful interaction (like Morris dancing at its best). Each set was goofy and fun and free. Each new neighbor, each new set, was a whole new flavor of fun. At the end of a dance, it felt as if I'd just ended a fine dinner party with the other dancers in the line. You could see and sense that feeling of satiation and happiness.

To be honest, this level of dancing surprised me, because all of my previous experience with gender-free (or gay/lesbian) contra dancing was that the community and joy and passion were great (certainly greater for me than regular "straight" contra), but the actual dancing was not as strong as the dancing at the best contras. But not here, no sir and no ma'am. There were decades of experience here. And come to think of it, this was a group who had made a huge effort to go away for the weekend just to dance -- as self-selecting of a group as you can come by (again, connections to Morris dance and the Morris Ales are encouraged). Also there's a lot of consistency of attendees from camp to camp, so this group has collectively developed this amazing level of skill.

So ok, the dancing was great. And that was enough in some ways to explain my joy. But that wasn't all, not by a long shot. When I went to NEFFA last year I came back full of amazement and praise for the level of contra-dancing I saw, and I wrote about it at the time (in similar terms to this -- that if contradance were like this in the Twin Cities I would dance more regularly). I saw contra-dance taken to a completely new level than it had been when I left Boston 25 years ago. I loved watching it, and the bands were great. And yet at NEFFA -- last year or this year -- I never danced a dance. Well, perhaps one. That's a pretty dramatic statement, I think.

You see, at NEFFA what you have are members of various dance communities throughout New England gathering for one massive contraorgyfest. So people have their own communities, as a base, and lots of people they are anxious to dance with. That makes a big difference. Others come as a couple, which makes for a different experience as well, even for couples who dance with others most of the time. I posit that people who come to contradances as part of a couple -- particularly in communities that are not their own -- have a very different experience than people who come by themselves. They have a partner for the first and last dance, a way in to the line, a way of easing in to the group.

It is certainly possible to find dance partners at NEFFA if you are a stranger, and contradance etiquette is such that one does not refuse to dance unless one is sitting out or has already promised a dance. But if you show up at NEFFA alone -- and not a member of any represented dance community -- you have to work pretty darned hard and pretty darned quick to get a partner for a dance. At the LCFD camp, you had to work extremely hard NOT to be part of a dance. I like to sit out and watch a lot, but I got pulled in and pulled in for dance after dance, almost always by people I had not yet met. My favorite moment along these lines was when a young man named Aaron (a first-rate dancer whom I'd met a few years ago at a Morris Ale) came to ask me to dance and I said, "But they're about to switch to English Country Dance" (meaning that I don't really enjoy English dance, although that's another issue and in fact I did enjoy it this weekend at times). He responded with enthusiasm, "Oh good -- I *love* English!" and pulled me with great force into a set that was forming.

And then there's the final overlay, with a significance that caught me by surprise. That this was, at the core, a gay/lesbian/queer community mattered more than I thought it would. Back when I first learned to contra, I felt an outsider to a large extent because it seemed such an overwhelmingly straight community, which was not what I wanted or needed at the time. But I didn't think that was the same issue for me at this point, three decades later. And yet it was a great and wonderful thing to be among these people -- not just because there could be nice little flirtations when your partner or corner was the same gender, but because it didn't matter one way or another to anybody who was dancing what role. It has started to seem to me that this is generally true at many contra dances these days, but it's different when the community is actually defined by the fact that this does not matter. That surrounds me with a sense of warmth and belonging.
Monday, October 18th, 2010
2:24 pm
How to make a Macy's customer distressed and uncomfortable.
Apparently Macy's now contracts out its credit management to one company, and it contracts out its check approval management to another, and both companies seem to have it as their goal to be sure Macy's not only doesn't sell any merchandise but upsets its customers as well so that they will be uncomfortable returning to the store. I had the most bizarre experience on Saturday morning, and I'm still trying to figure out just what to make of it.

On Saturday morning, armed with some sale coupons, I went to Macy's and found some nice oxford shirts for a great price. Hooray. The store had just opened, so the two sales associates were free to talk with me and goof around and make the whole shopping thing a pleasant one. But then it came time to pay.

I asked if I could pay with a regular Visa card, but they started to say there might be an issue getting one of my discounts so I said that's fine, I have a Macy's card as well which I haven't used for a while -- I stopped using more than one credit card a while ago, and I prefer to use my debit card at that.

Here's the first problem I ran into: My card didn't go through. So the sales associate had to call for "approval". The person on the other end of the phone passed him off to another person, or actually just tried to but instead hung up on him. So then the sales associate called back and got the same "I'll have to pass you off" line and had to say (for the first of two times that morning) "Don't hang up on me!". Eventually the credit company gave him incorrect information about what to enter and hung up. So he had to call back and this time they told him that they couldn't approve the transaction because my last purchase was nearly two years ago so the account had been closed.

The Macy's card seems to be a Visa card as well (it has the Visa logo on it), and my guess here is that with the recent credit crunch credit companies have been canceling inactive accounts. But an inactive general purpose credit card, to my mind, should not be the same thing as an inactive department store account. I guess to keep a Macy's card you have to buy things at Macy's on a monthly basis. The sales associate said I'd have to open a new account -- but then I'd get an extra 15% discount. Ah, but when he tried to open this account he learned that he could only do that if my account had been inactive for three years. But since it had only been two I had to open a new account but didn't get the new account discount. Because that's the definition of customer service: Close your account and make you open a new one but don't consider the new account an actual new account. (It's not as if I closed the account myself with the intention of getting a new account discount -- they took it on themselves to close the account for me without letting me know, although they sure still fill my mailbox with coupons and flyers.)

Never mind, I said -- I had no intention of committing myself to buying things at Macy's on a monthly basis just to keep the card -- can I pay with a check? Sure, he said. But he had to call for approval -- and didn't know that you call a different number for check approval. Neither did the guy at the credit company, who said, "Gee, I've never had to approve a check before." After a long runaround they figured out the second number to call.

So the sales associate entered all the information on my check and called the second number for approval. After a bit of delay and runaround, they denied my check and hung up immediately without explanation. This is the point that I started to get upset. There is a huge absurd amount of money in my checking account just now -- I have recently exercised some stock options and that money is sitting there. I went into a panic, about the missing money. I said, "Did my bank deny this, or did Macy's? Because if it's my bank I'm out of here now to go there. This is serious." He said he didn't know why the check was denied, did I want him to call back? I sure as hell do, I said.

So he called back and I don't know what they told him but that's when he had to say -- with actual desperation and pleading -- "Don't hang up on me again!" He had to *argue* with the check approval company, who said it is not their policy to say why a check is not approved. But he managed to convince them to tell him anyway. What they said was that the info he entered did not match my profile. It seems -- unbeknownst to me -- that my driver's license number changed when I last renewed my license, so the number on the check did not match it.

Fair enough, but all they have to do is say so and we'd get the number direct from my license. I mean, I was right there with my license and several other forms of ID. If the sales associate had mistyped a digit there would have been the same problem But nope, it's the policy of the check approval place just to see if the license number on the check matches the records at the motor vehicle department or something and then to hang up immediately and not give you a reason. That's their POLICY! (Well, I think that their actual policy is to encourage their phone representatives to spend as little time on the phone as possible and that they don't really have a written policy to rudely hang up on people who are standing around trying to pay for some merchandise, but that's the inevitable effect.)

So we started over with the correct license number and this time it was fine, but I was still pretty upset about the (quite public, I should note) disapproval of my check. I have a lifetime of perfect credit. I pride myself on this. To have a check denied without explanation -- with an actual REFUSAL to give an explanation -- was probably a lot more upsetting than is strictly logical, but it was upsetting nonetheless. And to fear that something has happened to all of the money in my checking account -- which I think was a rational fear in the circumstances -- that took me a very long time to calm down about internally. I didn't have a public tantrum or anything, but this was extremely distressing to me.

As I say, the sales associate was as fine and friendly as his impossible situation allowed. And the shirts are nice and were a great price. But I know that simply walking into Macy's will be upsetting to me for quite a while. That's how these things work.

Doesn't Macy's know this?
Sunday, October 10th, 2010
11:45 pm
Me on YouTube
This morning a local Morris dancer opened a gelato store at the Mall of America, and lots of the local Morris dancers went out to dance. It was a blast.

Just at the moment of opening I led us all in an improvised song about the store, and the last bits got caught on video.

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