22 June, 2017

"And just like that..."

Watching "A Single Man" always helps when dealing with the emotional consequences of nuclear winter. Or listening to Tsaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, "Winter Dreams."

Here's a crazy idea for a summer job: get grant funding to finish an eight-movement symphonic poem! One of the movements has already been played by an orchestra, albeit just a read-through, enough to confirm my interest in someday completing it. At the time I started composing it, my experience of return, of isolation, and of 20th century harmony was incomplete. Now, I think I'm ready to finish "The Country of the Pointed Firs: Tone poem for Symphony and narrator."

But of course that's a long shot, and it's not as though I'd get any support from my siblings. They could surprise me. I'll be contemplating the path of aesthetic and ascetic fine artist vis a vis the path of the saint and reading Schopenhauer, meanwhile.

Speaking of against all odds, I'm  blogging on a phone using phone camera pics because my laptop's logic board is shorting - a $730 replacement and nobody but Gary called to ask how the day was (discouraged? Often. Frustrated? Perennially!). But I went to the Career Center, got a library card, and checked out some "light reading." And then made art in the kitchen - haddock with lemon butter, garlic, tarragon, paprika; green beans sauteed with onion and tomato; brown basmati on a bed of spring greens. Twas a splendid summer solstice!

30 March, 2017

Turning a page

Desert spring bursts to life in Tucson. Pink-leafed aloes send yellow spires skyward and brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) explodes into silver and yellow, while the green trunks of palo verde trees are obscured in clouds of canary blooms. Two nights ago a "ten percent chance of rain around midnight" woke me with gusting breezes and lightning. I scrambled from the backyard couch, bundling my sleeping bag, and dashed indoors. My life companion Gary helped move the outdoor furniture to shelter before rain came in earnest. I was too busy sleeping to notice, but he said it was more than a sprinkle. 

I'll save the el Niño digression for another post. Matching firsthand observation of Tucson rainfall patterns with available research on Pacific climate cycles is such comfortable, safe, analytical space. But right now i'm feeling something, and among the many things Gary has taught me, one is that i tend to suppress emotion by analyzing it.

Gary suppresses emotion in his own way. After our initial meeting in Maine, the "frielationship" grew across long distances, in fits and starts: i drove a truck containing his belongings from Maine to Toronto - a trip that included a night spent sleeping in the back of said U-Haul outside Montreal and hitting rush hour, morning and evening, in Canada's two largest cities - and later spent a month in Toronto before moving to Tucson. He spent a month in Tucson between Toronto and a new job in Calgary, and later a week's vacation; then came the phone call that he had been cut loose by his employers and didn't know where to turn. With my sporadic employment it was no trouble to fly to Calgary on short notice, and after a quick side trip to Banff, in yet another U-Haul we trekked from Alberta through Montana, Idaho, and Utah to Baja Arizona. When i returned to Maine for a season, he stewarded my habitat and started seeds in flats. When my father arrived to spend the winter - as i worked to discern what "Honor thy father" means in practice - Gary worked alongside me and shared his experience honoring his own mother as she ages. He noticed little memory fails i missed, and served as a human mindfulness bell when i would get hyperfocused on a creative task at the expense of other needs. His response to life with two cigarette smokers modeled gentleness and patience.

 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. (Matthew 25:35-36, KJV) 

Gary's hand-me-downs have kept me in snappy threads, and in the rockiest months of my life his generosity kept me fed. His emotional support may have been the difference between life and death, and his spiritual balance beckons me to live and create art in good faith. His commitment to physical fitness models for me the difference between vanity and stewardship of the body, while his intellectual discipline affirms my faith that it is both Christian to question authority and wise to make use of all available knowledge. A week or so ago, as i worked in the garden, he read aloud to me Sara Zarr's 2016 preface to Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine L'Engle. The paperback lay in the bookcase this morning, a parting gift above and beyond all the housewares he jettisoned in the move. 

On the eve of his departure after a year of life together in Arizona, he would get annoyed when i asked what he wanted for our last "family dinner" together here. Gary shares my fondness for Eat, Pray, Love (we've both read the book; he has the film) and introduced me to Julie & Julia. Sharing recipe ideas, shopping and cooking together, or harvesting from the garden ingredients for him to cook with have been a big part of the past year, and it seemed important to me to honor the "last supper" we would be having together for the foreseeable future. But he got annoyed with the question, wanting none of the "finality" he heard in it. (Fallibility of the receiver: the bane of all relationships!) When he tried to emotionally process a final-for-now tea outing with a friend, i distractedly missed the fact that he was trying to process. At dusk, he finally coughed up some parameters: Pasta, sauce, no meat.

"Start now, before i decide to get takeout," he joked.

Thanks, mom: between her training and Gary's, my Italian heritage and time in Turkiye, meals can be miracles of spontaneity. While Gary appreciates the guidance of recipes, i dig the fact that carb + protein + veggies and spices is a global culinary equation, and mastering the art of peasant food (the daily day's food, to borrow a phrase from a Danish chef i once met) is mostly a matter of knowing what a region's go-to ingredients are. Frozen lima beans paired with whole wheat penne we'd trucked all the way from Calgary. Garden carrots and parsley joined purchased bell peppers and onions in a jar of red sauce; shredded parmesan and romano we'd bought melted on top. A salad of baby tuscan kale and five beautifully unique lettuces - from ruffled maroon to speckled tongue to robust romaine -  was accented with fresh dill, green onions, and Tucson-grown sweet oranges from the farmers' market. Gary took his usual place beside me at the stove, minding the pasta as i fervently chopped, diced, washed and tore.

A knock at the door! Jamey and Bill, to me exemplars of both "intergenerational gay couple" and "good neighbors," dropped by to say their regards. Four in my galley kitchen is tight - add an aging collie dog underfoot for grins and giggles - but co-operation makes it work, and Gary and i now have more than a year of practice. As Jamey watched with interest, Gary demonstrated his technique for a balsamic vinaigrette, choosing a mustard and spice blend to accent the local citrus. After abrazos y besos, Bill took his leave, but Jamey stayed for dinner and a rambling, enjoyable conversation.


"If components in binary star systems are close enough they can gravitationally distort their mutual outer stellar atmospheres. In some cases, these close binary systems can exchange mass, which may bring their (stellar) evolution to stages that single stars cannot attain." (Wikipedia)

Gary and i have never really settled on a definition for our "frielationship," content to simply describe it as it unfolds. When the Bishop of his new diocese asked whether he had a partner, his answer was "no;" and i would concur with that answer. Though "domestic partnership" would accurately describe the past year, we have very different ideas of what constitutes a good sleeping environment and thus prefer to have separate rooms, a caricature of some 1950s sitcom couple. Where it once would have made our private behavior illegal, secular jurisprudence now offers us the same rights, responsibilities, and privileges any heterosexual couple already enjoys should we choose marriage - but as a person whose childhood was marred by familial trauma around organized religion, being a Priest's spouse (like my sister, weirdly, my childhood nickname being Jennifer II) is not a choice i can make without a lot more healing. Gary, divorced, and i, never married, have together discovered our own sense of emotional intimacy and mutual support; raising children is not in his plans, but i have yet to rule it out. Would i care for him when he is aging? By the grace of God, absolutely. But like binary stars, or sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, our mutual orbit unfolds in cycles of proximity and distance, warmth and cooling. Emotion, like gravity, can be described as a wave phenomenon. It is, as they say, what it is.

He's airborne by now, off to learn what it means to live into being a Priest, a role he has yet to define for himself, but one he has felt called to since his youth. (The Episcopal flock he is about to serve are a blessed bunch - be gentle and patient with him and his gifts will reveal themselves! Just wanted to let you all know that i'm a part of his support system.) I prepare to charge three new inhabitants with stewardship of the huerta i call home and to begin a new chapter of my own caring for my father in Maine. I drove back from the airport in the bright desert spring, basking in the gravitational mass of the Santa Catalinas. The mountains of Baja Arizona are an emotional anchor to me.

Back at la casa, dad and i have breakfast. "I'm going to miss Gary," i say.

"I'll miss him too," Dad says. I know he means it.

A new day, a new page. Deck chairs on the front of the boat, as Alice would say.


Music is how i process and best communicate emotion. So i want to leave you with four pieces i'm listening to today. The first is a folk hymn performed by the Amidon singers, the second a piece old friend Emeline introduced me to and which i introduced my father to this morning. (I'm looking forward to watching Les Miserables with him soon; the "Epilogue" is to me both a good tear-trigger and an anthem of liberation and healing Creation.) The third is to me a shining example of postmodernism in sacred choral music, the universe of new harmonies that are possible when Orthodox traditions and Western ones are engaged in a global musical conversation. Last, a piece by Vaughan-Williams i had never really encountered until this week. I can't express my gratitude in words, Gary, but maybe you can hear it in the Vaughan-Williams you shared. Thanks be to God for this beautiful, ever-changing life, and for your company on the journey.  


18 March, 2017

Location: Breakthrough

Welcome to my stream of consciousness. Sometimes it feels like "The River Wild," and other times it's an inner tube ride down a lazy river. I just want to say how grateful i am you have agreed to come along with me, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I'm a creative person, and creativity to me is active participation in the Creation. While i've lamented the lack of care some traditions show toward stewardship, i have to admit my own shortcomings.

Estranged from the God of my childhood, i continually engaged in learning, but the stream of inspiration slowed to a mere trickle.

"God on His thirsty Zion's hill some mercy drops has thrown," says an old shape note hymn. Even when i could not accept the theological paradigm i was raised with, i remained open to encountering it in the context of early American four-part music. One thing i enjoy about the shapenote tradition, wherein the notes are represented with four geometric shapes, is that a new leader stands for each song, making its organization a democratic one, and singers are free to choose any part regardless of gender. This to me is a hallmark of modern social structure, yet it is evident in a tradition dating back to 18th century New England.

I've been reluctant to embrace faith because i thought it forced me to choose between belief and science. Darwin's theory of Evolution was greeted with hostility where i came from, and as a child i was taught to censor phrases like "millions of years" from natural history texts.

Faith has been skeptical of science for some time, and science it seems returns the favor. Italian polymath Giordano Bruno, a "Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and cosmological theorist" was in 1593 tried and burned at the stake for heresy. Among other things, Bruno espoused pantheism while denying core Catholic doctrines such as the Divinity of Christ, transubstantiation, and eternal damnation. (The excellent 2014 documentary series "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" profiles Bruno among others who were early adopters of a more modern perspective.) It sucks to feel unappreciated - and it's even worse to be executed for your beliefs, whether or not they later prevail. It's a cold and broken Hallelujah.

Today, science holds the floor. But religious traditions are still killing people. In both Islamic and Christian contexts, atrocities are still being committed against homosexuals. U.S.-based pastors like Scott Lively and Steven Anderson fan flames of anti-gay sentiment in Africa with ideas like "homosexuals should be stoned to death," while Daesh spreads across the Levant like a plague and countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran remain unsafe for LGBT people to claim their identities openly. Even in the United States, LGBT individuals have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

Reclaiming my Christian identity and at long last coming out to my brother, whose response i feared, were a necessity to me because i believe honesty is paramount. I believe my orientation is one of many gifts from God, and the only choice in the matter was whether to finally break out of the closet. Having the courage of my convictions allowed me to confront years of anxiety, and after a frank and open phone conversation i actively look forward to our next one. I feel as though a creative block has been removed, and i see light at the end of the nicotine-addiction tunnel.

I for many years denied the existence of Spirit, but God sent me a partner who restored my soul and nurtured my body. Now mind, body and spirit are in harmony for me and creative insight flows freely again. I'm working on a new format for this blog, one that mixes symbolic communication, wordplay, neuroscience, intersecting narrative, behavioral science, philosophy, analogy, poetry - you name it - a veritable smorgasbord (#CharlottesWeb) of concepts in conversation across cultural context. So many ideas are swirling around in my head that it will take a bit to sketch out a plan of attack. Creativity is playtime, but formatting and organizing will help me structure creative leisure. Take a minute to look around, see a sight, hear a sound. i'll be #Bach soon.


24 October, 2016

Elegy for a compost pile

It’s been a long time since i’ve felt such a stirring to write for writing’s own sake, fingers pining for the keyboard and remembering what retreat and sanctuary i found in the act of writing. Too long without taking a reflective hour to memorialize the passing day. 

In the latest round of garden expansion, i had excavated the beginnings of a new bed. My housemate Gary joked that it looked like i was preparing to bury someone or something, and i had every intention of burying some horse manure there, one of these days, when the horse manure connection was available and friends could help with their truck. Then living order asserted itself as what seemed to the lazy mind entropy and disorder. A task not in my awareness four days ago was, looking back on the day, the one real, necessary thing i accomplished beyond the daily chores - and that’s the sort of day that begs reflection.

A compost pile is more than just a cache of vegetable scraps, egg shells, and the right balance of carbon and nitrogen residues to achieve efficient decomposition. It’s a sourdough, a partnership with microbes as delicate and resilient as a kefir culture, a mother of vinegar, or a good scoby. Compost is metaphysical, an apotheosis of that natural alchemy constantly transforming death into new life. It is alive, for it contains millions of organisms. 

When three years ago i signed the contract with this little chunk of earth, i purchased among other minor outbuildings a small stake-sided bin. Whatever feral microfauna the home’s prior owners had managed to lure into their service lay in a rather dried out pile. Over seasons as compost receptacles came and went, a little of the old compost went into each new pile. 

Autumn 2016. My little microbial cattle were grazing quite happily in the remains of an old Tucson barbecue - a brick structure along the back fence, handy to the garden, that handily held two batches of compost side by side. Overly vegetative tomatillos - they grew like weeds, but never set fruit - got tossed in, along with the Anaheim pepper on its last legs. Then the nights got cooler, and the compost started to sputter. 

One day while watering, what i thought was a beneficial wasp alit on the watering can. Little did i know this was actually a black soldier fly, a common yet not oft seen and largely unsung ally in decomposition. The slender black adult, which i later learned was Hermetia illucens, was the first sign the pile had cooled too far. Adding some vegetable scraps i found the writhing mass of larvae that helped - though icking me out a bit at first - clarify the insect visitor’s identity. Consulting the internet took my stress level down a notch. I could accept that this very squirmy batch of larvae are allies, and while i still needed to do something with the pile, that task’s urgency could be downgraded. The fact the compost had cooled enough for macro-grazers had yet to sink in completely. Then one day, proverbially haying the microbial cattle, i lifted the paving stones set atop the pile to see a very quick scuttle. Not a slow fly-larval writhe, but the unmistakable movement style of a cockroach. “Scores” might be an appropriate scale on which to estimate the pile’s roach population. 

On the heels of several months of occasional indoor roach visitors, this discovery of massive proliferation lent a certain urgency to the “deal with compost pile” task. How to vanquish a roach nest - without poison and without landfilling the compost? I was stymied until i remembered my parents’ time-tested method of dealing with garden pests: drown them. 

A few roaches ran for a nearby woodpile (the lizards’ favorite hang-out spot), but most made the journey by shovel into the blue rubbermaid tote where they met a watery death. Unfortunately, drowning the roaches meant drowning the compost pile and all its other denizens. The H. illucens larvae, a few massive white grubs, isopods, ravenous staphylinid beetle larvae - i couldn’t begin to identify the organisms i could see, not to mention the ones i couldn’t - and most of the aerobic microbe populations perished with the roaches. The morning after this act of destruction i had a new resource: a vat of compost tea that didn’t yet stink to high heaven. (Anyone who has dealt with waterlogged compost may well know the aroma of anaerobic decomposition. I can only imagine the small after Noah's flood.)

The sloppy, waterlogged remains of the drowned compost pile were laid to rest in the sepulcher intended for horse manure in a sort of substitutionary fertility rite, ligneous central stalks of the disappointing tomatillos and a few still wriggling H. illucens and all. In the world of compost nothing, in the end, is lost. The whole garden got a shot of the tea - some sixteen gallons worth - before i worked the solids into the garden. That fertility, hopefully, will be the secret to finally growing Romanesco cauliflower.

Unless we get all Leeuwenhoek with the microscope regularly, those of us who dabble in micro-ranching never see our flocks. Composting is in many ways an act of faith - though i can’t see the microbes, their populations are present, shifting in response to the pile’s microclimate and other ecological factors, and actively reshaping its internal ecology. It’s easy to neglect an invisible resource.

For now it’s off to another task… researching an Arizona-proof composting system. 

07 December, 2015

Oral traditions, digital transmission

This multimedia essay, gestated four months, is intended as a gentle critique, clearinghouse, and attempt to set the tone for future discussions on making the most of online resources available to the folkdance community, via an analysis focused on the contradance universe. It's a bit long, but i hope if the topic area is of interest to you that you'll set aside an hour or so to fully digest what the linked videos convey, that you'll share and discuss it with other practitioners of your own folk tradition, and that the effort put into writing this will positively impact other performers' development just as the efforts of the contra-verse's documentarians have impacted my own, adding zest to contras everywhere.


Much has been said by folklorists and musicologists on the methods of oral transmission in folk traditions. But while oral transmission remains a valuable conduit for the propagation of tunes and action of the folk process, the majority of learning musicians today rely on printed collections of tunes. This is positive in light of how the uniformity of printed texts allow musicians from different regions to share common repertoire without the obstacle of strong regional variations in a given melody. Ear learners, however, have access to a far broader range of tunes that may not exist in printed form. Audio recordings, MIDI transcription and the internet have allowed an explosion in the number and variety of folk tunes accessible to musicians anywhere on the planet. 

Folk music, storytelling, and community histories are easily recognized examples of orally transmitted traditions. Dance calling is another, and despite publication of dance sequences, calling arguably remains more dependent on oral transmission than its allied traditions. Like musicians, dance callers collect repertoire, often at weekends and festivals, from peers and mentors, from printed texts including event syllabi (for example, syllabi of the annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend being an excellent resource available online, one of a number of valuable online resources available from the University of New Hampshire Library special collections) and through exchange via email and listservs. Unlike musical constructions, which do not require the performer to generate a method of instruction, dance sequences obtained in printed form are often collected lacking key information - information on how best to teach sequences and transitions, information on how dancers respond to a given sequence and its transitions, and information on the technical elements of dance calling that relate to personal performance style and stage presence. This missing information is gathered through observation at events, in workshops, and in verbal and written conversation among peers and mentors, and generated through observation of similarities among sequences in a growing caller’s repertoire. 

Over the past five years, the efforts of a handful of professional documentarians and many more enthusiastic amateurs have revolutionized digital transmission of the contra dance tradition. At this writing in December 2015, a YouTube search for “contra dance” yielded some 177,000 results, many of which are full dance sequences from various festivals and regular dance series, along with instructional videos such as contrasyncretist’s flourish tutorials, George Marshall’s beginner session, and Dennis Merritt's performer interviews. Any caller can easily collect a range of dance sequences, and as videographers post and choreography nerds continue to identify dance sequences, possibilities for caller - and musician - repertoire collection expand rapidly. 

This rapid expansion is not without thorny questions of intellectual property, release waivers, and dancer privacy, matters with which the dance community will need to grapple in the future. Regardless of those implications, YouTube and similar video sharing platforms now occupy a unique niche with rich potential for the tradition’s future.

Let’s take a dance break. 

The above example includes a number of different types of information beyond the sequence itself (“Lanier Equation” by Bob Isaacs). Not only does the video clearly capture Nils’ full prompting and timing of calls in early iterations of the dance, it reflects the mechanics of the sequence and how dancers respond to transitions. 

Repertoire collection is an important but relatively small part of callers’ ongoing development. An equally important element of calling skill is to modulate the voice, respond to dancers' movements, adjust calling to reorient and reinforce when dancers are uncertain, and engage in on-the-fly set management. 

Two videos of Lisa Greenleaf’s calling aptly illustrate the potential utility of recorded sequences for learning these skills. Note the set management occurring around the 1:11 mark here; voice modulation and the use of clarifying prompts are illustrated here. In some ways recorded sequences are superior to in-person observation in that they allow repeated observation of ephemeral elements that may slip by unnoticed when one is engrossed in the immersive momentary experience of interactions with partner, minor set, and music (note dancers' response to the Free Raisins’ exemplary musical climax at the 3:23 mark here).

Such online resources may be of particular value to developing callers in rural areas for whom opportunities to learn from the best national-level performers are often infrequent and subject to financial, scheduling, and travel constraints. While they are no substitute for personal peer and mentor relationships, online recordings have a demonstrable potential to increase performer and therefore dancer skill and enjoyment in remote dance communities lacking the economic resources to regularly import top-flight talent for events and workshops.
More can be learned from a recorded sequence than simply figures and calling technique: the careful observer may note how a tune set works with a given dance and, with diligence, how several different tune sets modulate dancers’ kinesthetic responses to the same dance, a possibility that grows as recordings are added but which requires that uploaders identify the dance sequence in the video title or at least in the description. Learning musicians can observe how performance situations differ from studio recordings (e.g.: how the best bands abbreviate phrases early in a set to accommodate the calls, which was my reason for selecting that particular video of Nils and Elixir), and how arrangements are built and deconstructed. Ear-learners can collect tunes, and online mp3 conversion and tempo alteration tools can facilitate ear learning. 

On YouTube, digital transmission grows to resemble oral transmission: dance tunes are heard in their living, amorphous form, and thanks to DSLR onboard audio quality limitations, with enough noise to result in meaningful variation through signal degradation much as orally transmitted tunes achieve variation through limitations of human memory.

Here’s another fantastic example of an information-rich recording: while the calls are not as clear, it’s easy to observe dancers’ response to Marty Fager’s “Balance and Bounce” early on, and visible details of the Syncopaths’ adventurous arranging offer learning musicians inspiration, echoing Colin Quigley’s observation in the 1993 paper Catching Rhymes: Generative Musical Processes in the Compositions of a French Newfoundland Fiddler that “experimentation is always within the structural parameters of the fiddle-tune form.” 

The utility of recorded sequences to callers, however, turns on the inclusion of key information. Ron Buchanan’s “Glenside Promenade” is challenging to successfully collect from this video because Ron does not use the terms “partner” and “neighbor” in the prompts, and the camera motion that makes it such a watchable video complicates a learner’s ability to deduce which of the swings is with partner and which is with neighbor. Dancers’ behavior suggests that would be the first swing, a deduction reinforced by the nature of whole set promenades, which are almost always done with a neighbor. Potential for collection errors would be reduced if the camera lingered on a single region of the hall for a full iteration of the dance. 

At this point it is important to note an enormous absence within the vast trove of recorded dance sequences online: the absence of the walk-through. It may be possible to ascribe a certain sense of privacy to the walk-through, as it is the time when dancers are learning - but it's more likely the walk-through's absence stems from a key difference in status between bands and callers. Callers have fans, sure, but from an organizing perspective the average dancer is more likely to turn out for a particular band than a particular caller; excitement resides in dance time, not teaching time. Teaching workshops are useful, but the best tool for a developing caller is to observe the best callers in action, and the absence of walk-throughs is a limiting factor in what can be gained from recorded sequences. 


While next-generation digital transmission offers rich possibilities, questions arise both about the intellectual property ramifications of video posting and about how videographers can maximize the utility of these publicly available archives to current and future developing performers. Many contra choreographers already make their sequences freely available online, but some do not. What are the implications of identifying recorded sequences for intellectual property among dance composers? Has the late 20th-century effort at dance-book publishing acceded to this digital evolution of oral tradition sufficiently that taggers need not consider whether a dance has been previously published when commenting with a sequence name? 

For an oral transmission to make the most of what digital transmission allows, it is important to recognize that different documentary approaches will facilitate different results. Videos which afford the best learning opportunities to callers and musicians may not be the best videos for organizers to leverage as tools to recruit and train new dancers in dance etiquette and uncommon courtesy. How can the contra community as a whole shape this emerging resource to best transmit the tradition? How can the community guide developing musicians and callers to gain the most from YouTube’s possibilities as a learning tool? 

At some point in the near future, i would argue, it may be beneficial for an organization like CDSS to dedicate resources or the efforts of a qualified individual to develop a “curriculum” of videos like the ones i have included in this post, explaining what the particular types of information learners should look for. The efforts of tagger extraordinaire ccpage19143 would do well to be abetted by others with a similar depth of choreographic knowledge, and a new layer of comparative analysis of tune-dance pairing would be possible were uploaders to note sequence names in video titles. Adding links to recorded sequences would give Michael Dyck’s dance index vastly more utility than the resource's current list of links to printed texts offers. Dance organizers could include in outreach and advertising materials or on “second dance free cards” a URL or QR code linking new dancers to an orientation video on basic style and etiquette.

A significant advantage in harnessing the power of this unorganized body of information is that efforts need not be local. It is our local dance communities that nourish us, but when we invest effort in enhancing the body of contra performance knowledge on a meta-scale, that effort improves communities across the contra-verse including our own. There are many dedicated and passionate practitioners of the form - here i sing the choreographers, veteran local callers, musicians, organizers, wearers of many hats - whose efforts are seldom recognized outside their local communities but whose contributions to the contra-verse amplify the effectiveness of initiatives at many scales. There is a human resource dimension to the questions of digital transmission, and it is perhaps a dimension characterized by the problem of coordinating distributed volunteerism in ways that have direct benefits to local communities while simultaneously enhancing the meta-resource.  

I’ve outlined here some of the key possibilities and considerations i think must be raised and discussed throughout the contra-verse in order to make the most of the opportunities inherent in digital transmission. Focusing the raw potential of an as-now-unorganized resource will require ongoing dialogue and some application of fiscal and temporal resources, but that outlay of effort may be key in ensuring community dance is as accessible as we dream it to be and continues to flourish on into the 22nd century.


Footnote: The role of video editing has been left out of this analysis - despite that being a primary skill area of mine - because the role of editing is worth an essay of its own.

I'd like to thank Doug Plummer, Doug Heacock, Dave Pokorney, Ray Sebold, John Newsome, John Michael Seng-Wheeler, Chris Page, Ryan Holman, Dennis Merritt and all the others whose investments in documenting the contra dance tradition online have been instrumental to improving my skill as a dancer and caller.

09 November, 2015

Winter garden (prologue)

I picked the garden spot because it was the only place in the back yard that made sense. With a neighbor and his pickup truck, a few cubic yards of composted horse manure were procured, and with the help and viking metal proffered by a visiting midwesterner learned in the arts of soil, the horseshit was given a proper burial. Then came leaves from the neighbors' pistachio tree and leaflets from my mesquite, roots left behind after leafy early summer harvest; micturated beer mingled in the soil with three months of laundry water and above-average September rain.

When i pulled back the basil, three feet tall and mostly lying on the ground, what i found was astonishing. Little trace of the leaf mulch remained: the top three inches of soil were filled with filamentous fungal hyphae. As i forked and raked the soil, i found shriveled fruiting bodies. My desert garden grew mushrooms! Thanks to all that leaf mulch (and urine, putting leaf decomposition on speed), in just under eleven months the soil's organic matter content has increased considerably.

We'll see how things do with a Nov. 7 planting date. What went in the ground: Danvers 126 carrot, Cylindra beet, Romanesco cauliflower, Tokyo Bekana, Tatsoi, and mesclun mix, along with hardy mustard and "dancing kale" gene pools from Restoring Our Seed all those years ago.

04 November, 2015

Gratitude season

So picking up the story where i left off, after the abrupt loss of job and temporary work left me severely depressed, I decided to head back to Maine where i could work for an old friend and keep an eye on my 77-year-old dad, who had given us all a little scare with pneumonia earlier in the spring and would continue to live alone until October. While there, i hoped to get my motorcycle on the road so i could ride it home to Tucson and have wheels here. Turns out Virago carbeurators are as finicky as they tell you, and when you're earning ten an hour to the mechanic's sixty-five, professional help is hard to finagle.

Because life is never stressful enough, one of my tenants contacted me in early September to report boxes in his room had been tampered with, personal documents were missing, and he was dealing with identity theft. Soon i too found myself receiving decline notices on credit cards i'd never applied for. When i returned to Tucson, two pieces of furniture were missing and three camera lenses and my violin had disappeared from the storage closet, along with my mortgage documents. The tenant who now, nearly a month later, admits he allowed an unauthorized occupant in my home - something i initially knew only from others' reports - says he's going to sue me.

It wasn't just an armoire, lenses and violin missing. So many of my personal belongings had migrated into that tenant's room that it took days to get any real sense of what had been stolen versus simply appropriated.

You don't really know the value of an item until it's stolen. Sure, it has a replacement value, and keep a list of serial numbers just in case. Sentimental value includes sweat equity: I poured every bit of earnings from my first job into buying those lenses. The violin i was looking forward to play in the neighborhood's Las Posadas processions this Christmas season; all that's left of it is a single Pirastro string envelope by the trash cans. I can get another dozuki saw, but that one belonged to my mother. Because the universe is never finished, while i was putting dishes away, my favorite mug decided to fall and shatter.

Trying to accurately gauge my losses, i ended up with a dual-entry. For everything i had to replace, there was another reminding me of its origin memories, its latent value as art, its usefulness.

Out here in Arizona, November is a comfortable, slightly rainy month. The basil had grown so out of control it took up most of the garden - even started putting down adventitious roots - and smells glorious. The soil was actually damp two days after rain, thanks to all that prostrate basil. Three volunteer jalapeño plants that sprouted in the potted jasmine already held pendant podfuls of capsaicin. I can't really think of a more appropriate "welcome home to Tucson" sign from the garden than volunteer jalapeños.

Bronzed beech trees and bare boughs or mesquite and cacti, November has a special feeling for me no matter the climate and flora. I start staring down that fourth Thursday and think to myself, "it's gratitude season."