The Human River

I had a Russian circus coach in his sixties, Alex, who could still do standing backflips.  He was able to pluck you out of the air one-handed if you were about to land on your head; it was like being caught by an oak tree.  He looked like a bear, he walked like a zombie, and his secret to maintaining his form was taking good care of his intestines.

People have strange ideas about how their bodies function.

It was a Russian coach fad at my school; fasting one day a week and fasting one week a month.  It was all part of a solemn ceremony which culminating in a glorious herbal enema to keep your colon clean, supple, and rubbery like a nubile squid.

I wasn’t ready to go that far, but he afforded me this advice:  Eat a grapefruit every morning; don’t eat anything cooked, never talk during a meal, always eat meat last, and enjoy a handful of organic peanuts before physical activity (softdrinks are poison, and processed food is good to make your stomach feel full, but it won’t do anything for your body).

He was my teacher, I listened, and it made sense, at least when training 12 hours a day like the good circus school students that we were.

This kind of ascetic eating regimen fit with his personality.  Even his sense of humor:

One day, the denizens of a small village awoke to a loud, rhythmic pounding.  Each pound was punctuated by a man’s screams of pain.  The villagers, shivering in the morning chill and dressed only in their nightclothes, left their huts to find the source of the screaming.  In the middle of the public square, a man was repeatedly striking his phallus [Alex always said phallus when he told this joke or any other joke that featured a penis.  He always lowered his voice and blushed a little when he said it.  Ever seen an embarrassed bear?] with a blacksmith’s hammer.  The patriarch approached the man to ask him why in the world he was punishing his member so.  “Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”  “Of course,” replied the stranger, “but nothing compares to blissful respite that comes between each strike.”

My Lithuanian roommates have explained that this is actually a very Eastern European kind of joke.  They tell another one that I like:

A wife walks out onto her porch where her husband is looking at the sky with a serene smile on his face.  “Why are you so happy?” she asks.  “Our neighbor’s house is burning down.”

I told this joke in Boston to a mixed audience of Canadians, Americans, and Bulgarians, and sure enough, the Bulgarians laughed while the North Americans waited for the punchline.

My point was that people have lots of different theories one how to best care for their body.  The FDA of America has a great one, which happens to be very different from that which is professed by their Japanese counterpart.  But I think that having your own cartoonish view of the human body is helpful, as long as it makes sense to you and it keeps you healthy.

For me, I believe that the key to everything is water.  Lots of water.  If I can keep a steady flow of water through my body, I find I can train harder without being sore the next day, I am more flexible, I have more energy, it is easier to maintain my weight (or lose weight when necessary), and I can drink alcohol with no ill effects in the morning.

For me, I see the body as a riverbed which is constantly polluted by our everyday actions (like every other riverbed you have ever seen).  If you can keep that river flowing at nearly flood levels, all those pollutants (lactic acid, alcohol, excess nutrients, etc) will be washed away.  I also see water as a sort of lubricant for cells, particularly muscle cells, that help them to work more efficiently.

I know that this is all a huge oversimplification and sounds a lot like a placebo (based strongly in sports medicine and common sense, of course), but it does serve as a nice little feather to hold onto when I force my body to do impossible things.

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College Redux

Do you feel old?

I discovered a little pocket of international youth in Tokyo while biking home with The Political Scientist last night.  About five minutes from our house is an international dorm for one of Tokyo’s language exchange universities, and they just happened to be having their first barbecue party of the year that night.

We stopped by for a drink and some multilingual ambience in the 60 minutes before the police biked over in formation to close us down.

It was silly and fun, talking with college sophomores.  It made me remeber what I was like 8 years ago.  It made me remeber my friends from circus school from 3 years ago, where I was the oldest by far (I was 23 in my first year, the median age of my class was 18).

I think that there is a difference between ‘feeling old’ and just ‘seeing youth.’  At least in my case, I am still dealing with the same questions at age 28 that I was at age 20, but I take them much more seriously.  I also have about 3000 more days of mistakes and good fortune and love in which to float; I have a deeper emotional pool in which to splash.

The difference between ‘extremely happy’ and ‘extremely sad’ has increased by orders of magnitude, and the size of the world has shrunk accordingly.  I have been penniless; I have been more wealthy than I deserved; and I found that my sense of personal worth or well-being did not seem to be correlated to any fluctuation therein.

28 minus 20 equals a lot more emotional and mental space in which to wander and a lot more voices from your past to guide you on your way; it seems the magnitude of your observable future is linked to that of your recall-able past.

(My new Uzbekistani friend from the party challeneged me to a handstand contest last night, and I am sorry to report that he lost.  He expects a rematch as hope springs eternal.)

And on to Korea

As The Rocker says, “Apply for things and forget about them.  You’ve lost nothing if they never happen, but when something does come through, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

And so we wait for confirmation on project after project: a 1-hour made-to-order multi-media/acrobatic show at an international film festival in Taipei, various residencies in Japan, the budget for an international new circus festival in Taiwan, the possibility of performing or creating a new show in Singapore.

I also wait for responses from several proposals I have sent out on my own: residency at MIT, working with my former dance company in Boston, even applying for a Data Analysis Specialist position at Mauna Kea Observatory in the naive hopes that this life of show production and promotion might someday provide me with an easy exit ramp back to the life of a responsible, financially-secure scientist.

Last night, after returning from a limited Golden Week roadtrip with The Political Scientist and her friend, I received word that the Chuncheon International Mime Festival was indeed counting on me to present at the end of May as a graduate of the National Circus School of Canada, a former freelance performer for the Canadian circus company Cirque Theatrical at the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, and assistant director/new project coordinator for the National Theater of Taiwan.  All this despite their notice in April that due to budgetary constraints, they would not be able to sponsor me after all.

It was a last-minute change, the kind that I have had to learn to accept in my profession.  The only way around it is to maintain flexibility in your commitments at all costs.  Luckily, on the particular week in question, I was able to reschedule all commitments except for one, so on to Seoul.

It has been a long time since I was last in South Korea.  The las time was in 1991 as an incredibly awkward 14-year old travelling with my family.  I remember nothing of the language, except for “thank you,” and nine of the numbers from one to ten (I have no idea which number I am missing).

Whenever I travel to a country, I like to learn enough of the language to order a local specialty in a bar or make a request of a DJ.  I think that if you know that much of a language, you are well on your way to fluency.

“Excuse me, a drink please.”

“……………..”

“What do you recommend?”

“……………..”

“One of those, then.”

“……………..”

“Thank You!”

or,

“Excuse me, do you have ‘Dirty Water’ by the Standells?”

“…………….(negative)”

“It’s ok.  Sorry to bother you, but do you have ‘Kids in America’ by Kim Wilde?”

“…………….(affirmative)”

“Excellent!  Thank you!”

By living abroad in non-Anglophone countries for the last 6 years, I have learned that I had been far too anxious when it came to learning foreign languages.  It took me about one week to learn ‘bar Mandarin.’  I didn’t understand responses word-for-word, but body language clears up a lot of ambiguity.  The only problem was that I had no idea what they brought me that night and was unable to order it again.  I just asked for recommendations everywhere I went.

So for Korea, I am supposed to talk about my studies at the National Circus School, what the “theatrification of Circus” involves, and what it is that characterizes the Canadian thrust of the movement.  I have 24 hours to get my mind straight about this subject, compose an article and lecture and then send it to the festival for translation into Korean.

I will also probably have to provide a technical demonstration, though I am not really sure what that might entail, as theatrification is not a real word.

The United Colors of Fauxmogeneity

In the academic climate of MIT everything was outcome based, and no one really looked at who was having difficulty and why – you were admitted because you were supposed to be smart, so prove it – deliver, deliver, deliver!

Well, we’re not smart.  No one is.  We’re all stupid from birth, and absorb a filtered mix of what is presented to us and what we choose to  absorb.

These days, I am amazed on a day-to-day basis at how stupid some of my long-held beliefs are, how little I actually know about things that I thought I knew, for example:

  • Soviet culture during the Cold War
  • Meso-American and South American history
  • the best way to cook a turkey

Social learning and academic learning are two completely different things, and too often people think that school should be the main source of both.

Classrooms are much better organized to focus on academic learning, but social learning takes place everywhere in a school: in hallways, during after-school activities, and in the classrooms themselves.

So will boys and girls will learn more efficiently in same-sex classrooms?

Well, if the focus within the classroom is on academics then the social learning argument falls away – some people (like me five years ago) who claim that same-sex classrooms don’t prepare students for the real world, but now I see that the classroom itself is not necessarily designed to prepare students for the real world.

The real world is meant to prepare students for the real world, but if the classroom can be more efficient than the real world at making our students more interested, educated, and comfortable in their gender roles, the real world will be that much richer for it.

In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond talks about how people learned in tribal societies and how tribal societies evolve as the population grows.

It seems possible that small societies with clearly defined gender roles might leave the men to educate the boys, and the women to educate the girls.  Outside of that informal educational structure, young men and young women randomly bump into each other in the social thermodynamics of human interaction.

Of course, the way that our Western society has developed, the idea that men are better suited to teach boys and that women are better suited to teach girls seems a bit archaic (although I may change my mind in five yers, who know), but that is because knowledge base is much less linked to gender role than it might be in the hypothetical hunter-gatherer society above.

However, I don’t think that it changes the fact that boys might be better classmates for other boys and that girls might be better classmates than other girls, primarily because I believe that we still do have biologically (and sure, maybe culturally) determined gender roles that cannot be left at the door of any classroom.

But this is fine!

  • Women and men are different.
  • Christians and Muslims are different.
  • Japanese and French are different.

Blindly believing that people the world over are fundamentally the same may feel right to people who aren’t at the interface of these differences, but in fact it actually interferes with international communication and policy setting from the UN right down to the US to its school system.

We are all different, and we need to affirm and own our differences before we can learn to accept them and love them in each other.

Never in my time in school, not in elementary, not in middle school, not in high school, not in college, not in art school, not in Japan, not in America, not in Canada, did we ever discuss in a classroom setting what it means to be White or Black or Latino or Asian; how these groups are perceived by the others, how various factions withing a given group interact, etc, etc, etc.

Sure, we saw it all ‘in theory;’ we learned abstractly about hate crimes through ‘Roots,’ and the Holocaust, and through after-school style educational videos.

But we never had the opportunity to say ‘All right, all cards on the table, this is what I think about Black people, Asian people, White people, and this is what I think they feel about me.’

But I do remember that there was a clear image in the minds of everyone – silent, but deafening in its pervasiveness and implicit acceptance, of how Black students were supposed to act, how the punks were supposed to act, how the Asian honors students were supposed to act…

I wonder if there would have been more openness to discuss this issue and to examine it carefully were I in a classroom full of other half-Japanese.

Where did these images come from?  Media, friends, history, parents?  How can we really sort the whole issue out without communicating in a raw way, and without getting emotional about the whole thing?  Without feeling threatened.

We are far from being able to divide everyone into classrooms with their clones; we do not have the racial and cultural homogeneity of tribal societies; so how far can we subdivide our educational experiences?

I feel like I can really argue it from both sides, so it is hard for me to find out what I actually believe.

All In The Name Of International Understanding

The other day, one of my Jewish friends was telling me how she thinks people would be much happier these days if Hitler had won.  She says that a Nazi world is a simple world.  I asked her if she thought the world was simple in Dachau, where her grandmother died.  She told me I make things too complicated.  She said that I would have made a lousy Nazi.

I think she was being a little harsh.

Often, just walking down the street I find myself hating people for no good reason.  I think that I am right most of the time, and that people who disagree with me are wrong.  I believe these things because I feel as though I think more deeply about the world than everyone else.

It took me just under three years to get to the point where I am able to say the things that I need to without fear of repercussions….

It takes less than a half a century to forget the scars of a million innocent deaths.  It takes less than a man being willing and able to make a change in the world that keeps him down.

Down, down, down, so softly speaking to no one in particular.  It is a free world that is holding me from telling you all the things that you wish that I could say, but at the same time, I am locked in a vault of lost ideas, of unspoken beliefs, of forgotten vendettas…

I am on an island in the China sea right now and I am walking freely, feeling no compassion for the bands of emaciated and wild dogs that roam the streets looking for handouts or perhaps just each other’s company.

It is a free world, and that is what we often forget.  That others are not doomed to share our own beliefs.

This freedom can make the world an ideological prison for the small-souled.  What is it that can either feeds a soul or cuts it off to atrophy, to wither and die?  To fall off in a gangrenous heap and dissolve into its surroundings?

If we were all large-souled, if we were all free enough, then would there be space for emptiness?  The emptiness upon which we can project our freedom?  The emptiness that serves as a stage for the human spirit in a world slowly filling up with millions of people?

We need to change the way that we think about numbers of people about population.  We need to think in terms of volume, not numbers, to see the world around us as a whole unpunctuated with that unpleasant otherness that keeps ‘them’ away from ‘us.’ 

The shit begins so early in life – just as we start to put up the walls that tell us what is knowable and what is easy versus what is unknowable and difficult.

Why are we so able and willing to accept things that will make it more difficult for us to achieve more in the future?  We, the little human flowers, are pollenated by these same vices that we are told to avoid.

We need to kill our own assumptions and certainties about how the world works in recognition that everyone’s interpretation of the facts is pre-tailored to their own vision of the world – not the other way around.  And as it is, we are all right.  It is all valid.  Even the insane.   It is an insurmountable task to unify a world with such diametrically opposed views.  But breaking apart our own views, assumptions, and certainties – is that a cure for diametric opposition itself?

For example.

She is an educated American.  College graduate.  She can program a computer and she works in a lab.  She feels as though she has seen the world because she has been to Europe.  While she was there she spent two weeks in Paris, which is where Americans who want to go to Europe go to say that they have been to Europe.  She spent some time at the Louvre with the friends that he was travelling with and they took pictures of each other playing in the sculpture gardens.  They partied with other travelers in their youth hostel located just beneath the cathedral of the sacred heart.  They saw the Eiffel tower and celebrated bastille day.

They danced in clubs that are frequented by North American tourists and Parisians who want to pick up North American tourists.  They speak no French.  When people meet them on the street and ask if they might be American, they say, “No, Canadian.”  Easier than a political discussion around imagined political views.  Were Europeans to challenge their political views, they would simply say that it was not their fault as they had not vote for President Bush.

They see evidence of a political climate that is different from that back home in the homeless and the varied racial makeup of the denizens of this old European capital.  They make jokes at night about the frogs, snails, and funny accents.  They miss the food back home, and see the local cuisine as a necessary price to pay for their exciting experiences.  They meet a group of local guys (charming with cute accents) and they kiss on the dance floor of the club.  Their furtive attempts to explore the sweaty terrain covered by Abercrombie and Fitch halter-tops are giggly swiped away, but after closing time, in a back alley, a full expedition is encouraged by rhythmic swaying of American hips in the humid Parisian summer night.

They all have boyfriends back home who can’t understand why they would waste their short summer break from graduate school to frolic around in a country that has no relevance to or common history with America.  They explain themselves and the trip, saying simply that it is all in the interest of international understanding.  How can the world change, they wonder, if there are no brave souls willing to make that first tentative leap across the Atlantic to extend a hand of friendship to our European brothers who are so misled as to the true nature of the American soul.

These ambassadors of good will, who, through sloppy, drunken blowjobs, have drained their Parisian suitors dry, are now stumbling home with their arms around each others’ shoulders, singing the American anthem at the top of their lungs.  They’ll go back home to America tomorrow, but they have made some fantastic friends here in Paris, and the memories, the memories will last a lifetime.

All in the name of international understanding.

Back at school, their graduate programs are bursting with foreign students.  And now, they will be joined by these newly-minted, open minded, worldly Americans.

Circus acrobat in the National Circus School of Montreal's atelier de creation.

Angels Of The Storm

As part of the creation process for the National Circus School of Montreal’s “atelier de creation,” we all had to write down ideas for a circus school about the experience of children in war.  The following was my submission.

childhood in war.

a war that kills innocence, shatters dreams…

is “loss of childhood” a euphemism for greater horrors?

or is losing innocence early actually the natural state of affairs?

today, we hide ourselves from death and sickness…we feel entitled to prolong childhood here in the West while robbing other regions of that privilege.

interlude: my childhood as i remember it.

innocence to the point of stupidity.  education the priority.  discipline.  apprenticeship from my father.  a sense of “needing to fulfill.”  dreams of fame, of success, of science and history.

meanwhile: elsewhere, does violence and tragedy prematurely interrupt such childhoods?

do our prolonged childhoods in North America permit  us to act so inhumanely?

ways that cnn tells me you can lose your childhood:

  • hide under the corpses of your family.
  • start college at age 9.
  • live in chronic hunger from birth.
  • become a hollywood child actor.
  • be a 13 year old soldier
  • train in a chinese sports academy at age 4.
  • live stricken with severe childhood illness.
  • endure abuse by your family.

is childhood with soccer moms and playstations and dance classes and circus schools and sneaking into bars and making out when mom’s not home so desirable?  will we end up better suited to this world than are survivors of robbed childhoods?

I ask because we seem to admire the grown-up children who had their innocence stripped from them.  we call them brave, we want to hear their story, we take valuable life lessons from their experiences

childhood can be killed by privilege and complacency.

i had a privileged life as a child.  i lived all over the world.  i grew up mostly among displaced western expats in japan.  my friends were children of soldiers, diplomats, senior-management, and ceo’s.  i went to the most expensive preparatory english speaking high school in japan.  my biggest problem was a self-defeating desire to fail, artistic pretentions, and chronic beatings from my peers.

my life was a slef-contained plastic bubble of privilege punctuated with moments of public servitude.  fund raisers for filipino refugees, riceballs for the homeless, boy scout hunger marathons to raise money for ethiopians, food collections for victims of natural disasters.

history classes were taught with a humanistic perspective.  my understanding of the berlin wall is through the eyes of the children who chased the candy-dropping bombers during the cold-war.

but why the fuck didn’t i care?

because in multi-denominational church group slideshows about the street children of  india, the shocking photos of poverty and disease got the gasps of the audience.  gasps of horror, of pity…  yet i remember assisting at a school for the mentally handicapped with the award-winning service club of my high school.  i remember seeing my classmates recoil in disgust from the students that we were there to meet.

i judge these reactions harshly because i have seen the way that my mother cares for her patients.  i have seen the way that she always treats them with dignity and shies away from recognition for her work.  She tells me she goes to at least one funeral a month for her children, and suffers silently, knowing also that their parents will live an unburdened life.  i am not saying that she is immune to the notion of what childhood is supposed to be, but she did also go to guatemala to care for these children directly, not as part of her job, either, but because she believed she needed to do it for the children.  she treated them with dignity and respect and without pity. 

i want to be empathetic, but i do not know how to be. My privilege gets in the way.  i went to college, i went to circus school.  i want to learn about the needs of the underprivileged, but to name them as such is to be so prejudiced as to prevent me from ever really understanding anything.

this is damned frustrating. i can complain a lot about everyone, but i am everyone. so i can produce no solutions.

twin towers erupting into flames, tons of airline fuel sucking oxygen out of the air, people choosing between immolation and freefall as an exit from this life.

does it take a monster to say there is beauty in that image?  tv documentaries, political ads, people crowding storefront tv displays to see the images over and over again. what drew us to these images? there was a humanity there, an insight into the human condition.  fanaticism, murder, fear of death, the welcoming of death, trapped, liberty, buildings, mortality, fatalism, fire…

in a way, the american public fell in love with those images.  a folklore and a culture sprang up instantaneously around the event… and people fall in love with suffering children.

i love the image of an artist. and that is why i am wracked with feelings of inadequacy.  i want to change the world, but am limited to changing only that world that i know from my immediate experience.  the best i can do is be a part of a creation that makes other people  think of those children and their suffering in a new way, one free of pity, shock, horror, or vapid compassion.

so i want to throw around some stage images in order to finish on a productive note instead of just abstract intellectual masturbation.

  • a child in a scene of destruction who does absolutely nothing to interpret that horror: skiprope in sarajevo.
  • children playing hide and seek, one is killed.  the other does not find him.
  • singing nursery rhymes in all the different languages we know over air raid sirens.  the nursery rhymes stop abruptly.
  • children fighting with a voice-over of an audio book about disciplining your child.
  • Voice-overs about our childhood dreams over photos of children in less privileged situations.
  • some circus guy who wants to do his circus number but can’t because we keep projecting pictures of starving kids behind him.  how is he going to get applause that way?
  • fun with gas masks… taking images of war and interpreting them in a way that a child might if he had absolutely no idea what it was actually meant for.
  • a starving kid talking about how much she hates canned corn.
  • flying.  lots and lots of flying.
  • soldiers fighting wwi trenches style, kids keep running across no mans land and playing: “kids, go play somewhere else.”
  • playstation playing kids suddenly caughtup in a real combat or conflict.
  • kids playing war.
  • kids playing nazi concentration camp.
  • kids playing influenza outbreak.
  • kids playing 9-11.
  • running images.
  • beautiful images, folk dance style, broken by a huge event.  lights and sound and smoke.  intermittent running, panic.  blooming image out of the center from one of the people who was implicated in the dance earlier.

when i say ‘child,’ i don’t mean that we should play act that we are kids, i think that would suck.  after all, none of us are really more than kids, anyways.

Manure Spreader

Politac Scientoast

Is it better to be a politician or a political scientist?  You can still be a successful political scientist while actively criticizing the status quo and the powers that be.  I think you are less able to do this if you are a politician.  Just look at the justice minister in Germany or the attaché to the Canadian Prime Minister both of whom were sacked for criticizing our own monkey dressed like a cowboy president.  Wacky shit.  If I were a politac scientoast, I’d have a good old time spreading shit all over.