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Bursting Bubbles November 22, 2013

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, education, life lessons.
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“It’s not gonna make a difference. I can’t beat them. All I have on my side is facts and science. And people hate facts and science.” – Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope

There. In one tiny part of a scene, the writers of Parks and Recreation captured the core of my frustration with the world.

I’ve written a lot about the wonders of finding like-minded people to talk to, largely thanks to social media and the breaking of geographic barriers. The internet has brought us together and torn us further apart than ever at the same time. While I marvel at finding out I can chat both about Mars and the Bard with a guy who literally had a job where he “drove a car” on Mars, other people are marveling at how awesome it is that they can share their willful ignorance with like-minded people. If I can name thousands of sites to back up my claims, well, they can too. The problem with the easy sharing of information is that the ease of spreading disinformation grows just as rapidly.

It’s so easy to wrap yourself up in bubbles. While it’s an easy joke to say that Republican politicians are in a bubble, as Bill Maher likes to point out most weeks, the truth is, most people swan dive right into one bubble or another. It’s easy to focus solely on information that backs you up.

It’s also really easy to ignore things you don’t agree with. That’s where things get really dangerous.

Remember “dittoheads” as a term? You don’t hear it as much these days, I’m not sure if it’s because Rush Limbaugh finally annoyed even his listeners to the point where they aren’t proudly calling themselves by a name that essentially means, “I let someone else think for me,” or if he just doesn’t have the juice he once had in general. Again, easy to poke fun at Rush and his fans, but it’s no less scary when someone acts that way towards any other persona. I know a guy who quotes Rachel Maddow so consistently that even when he’s making a good point, it’s lost, because he sounds more like a Myna bird than a person expressing his own ideas.

I’m not saying it’s not okay to quote people to back up your arguments. Heck, I quoted a fictional character here! The problem is when the vast majority of your quotes come from a single source, be it your professor or pastor or Fox News or MSNBC or the Bible or the Constitution of the United States.

There is no such thing as a perfect person, document, group, organization, scientific study, government, or work of art. There is no such thing as perfection. And this is coming from a perfectionist.

If you don’t mind my utilizing a little more wisdom gleaned somehow from the land of sitcoms, an older The Big Bang Theory rerun got me thinking recently. For those who don’t watch the show, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) is an experimental physicist who comes from a whole family of overachievers, where being a physicist at a leading institution doesn’t even rank. When his mother comes to visit he promises to take her to see his lab, but as they walk off for the tour he mentions he’s currently duplicating an experiment done by an Italian team. She remarks that she might as well just read the paper by the Italians while Leonard’s roommate (a theoretical physicist) mocks him for his lack of original research. It’s a funny scene that has made me laugh many times, and a fairly accurate portrayal of intellectual snobbery, but in this last viewing I got a little angry. One of the duties of an experimental physicist is to duplicate results found by others. That’s how science works. Without duplication, the first experiment isn’t worth anything. The results could have been a fluke or the result of uncaught human error or even something as unpredictable as an errant breeze might have upset something (depending on the type of research, of course). There is nothing less than noble about being the person who proves the original results are correct and a scientist should know better. Maybe it’s nobler, as you do get less credit.

One of the reasons the Olympics are exciting is that, quite often, the favorite fails to win the gold. When a huge championship is decided by a single event the underdogs actually have a bit of an advantage, because they are not subjected to as much pressure or bugged as much by distractions like giving interviews. That’s why a lot of sports leagues have multi-game playoffs and championships. It’s very likely that an underdog can win a Super Bowl (a single competition) but less likely for an underdog to win a World Series or Stanley Cup (a series of competitions). A single, very-first-to-be-done, experiment is like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, and the only way to find out if the results are good are to repeat, repeat, repeat.

That’s why science works better than any other system of gaining knowledge. It is absolutely imperfect, because it’s done by humans. Science can contradict itself in the short term, but that’s why scientists keep working the problem until the correct answer is found, even if it takes thousands of years to get there. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Scientific studies can be corrupted by the source of funding. That’s okay because it is inevitable, that’s why you need studies repeated by all the sectors from utterly public government programs to private corporations. More data, always more data. Studies can back up any sort of nonsense, until they are repeated by scientists from other organizations with other funding. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Flawed studies have created all sorts of weirdness from diet crazes to the non/less-religious arm of the anti-vaccination movement. We hear the results of flawed studies all the time, which sometimes leads to hilarious contradictions like hearing, “Don’t ever drink alcohol if you want to be healthy!” on the 6 o’clock news and then, “Drink a glass of red wine every day for heart health!” on the 11 o’clock. The repeat attempts rarely make headlines and often disprove those early studies. Sometimes there are signs pointing in different directions for years before the truth is revealed. Science is not glamorous. It’s not for those who crave instant gratification. The media and science are on completely different time tracks.

Part of me would love to work in some form of “pure” scientific research, because I’d love to be contributing to the body of human knowledge, but part of me realizes that I just don’t have the patience. That’s okay, too, it’s just how I formed and I have different skills.

But just because I’m not a scientist and never will be in any academic/professional sense doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t approach everything with a scientific mindset. I need to read, listen to, and watch things I disagree with as well as those I am inclined to agree with. I need to talk to people who challenge my thoughts as they grow into beliefs. I have deep cravings for raw data that I can interpret myself, not just other people’s interpretations (although I’d like to have at least 3 contradictory interpretations by experts, please). I even have sort of a strange(?) habit of coming up with specific questions that I ask everyone I wind up talking to over a period of a few months, just to get the widest possible range of spontaneous conversational answers as I can as someone without a research grant or access to a call center and phone lists, like mini-polling with room for additional comments. Most importantly, I must change my mind when all of the information I’ve collected, from anecdotes to proper scientific data (if available, depending on topic), shows me a different answer than expected. The process never ends. I will most certainly die with more questions than answers in my head, no matter how much I learn or develop deeply-held beliefs across the span of my lifetime. That’s a good thing.

I don’t care what any individual believes, I care how a person approaches knowledge. It’s entirely possible to look at the same data and interpret it differently, because we are always informed by our past experiences. That’s just being human. Refusing to look at data (and the methodologies behind that data), both for and against your position, is choosing to not exercise your greatest strength as the most successful animal on Planet Earth.

We’re all born as scientists in a sense, curious about our bodies, the people we see, and the world around us. We explore and interact and experiment and try the same thing a few times before we learn what hurts and what feels good and what makes our parents angry or makes them laugh. Trial-and-error, the basic principle behind the grander scientific method, is our default in those early years. It’s why babyproofing is a thing. What makes some people lose that sense of wonder and curiosity? What makes some people become followers? Why do some people flatly deny facts that are backed up by the vast majority of research? And why do some people retain all of that curiosity to the point where they’re willing to go deep into jungles or the Arctic or space to look for answers?

If we can find the answers to those particular questions, maybe we’ll care less about what other people think or pushing our own beliefs on others because we’ll all be too busy trying to learn what we ourselves think. That’s my idea of utopia. Not a place where we all believe exactly the same things, but a place where we are open to one simple statement… I may be wrong, but I’m going to do everything I can to find out. A place where people don’t hate facts and science.

Imagine what we could learn…


Daughter of a Bitch (A Mission Statement) July 19, 2013

Posted by craftlass in education, life lessons, people.
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My mother was an educator. I don’t mean that was her job or even career, though it was how she always earned her money. She was one of those amazing people who lived to teach instead of teaching to live.

That was about all I knew when she was still alive. I knew her resume, knew she was a high school salutatorian who never got over losing valedictorian by a tiny fraction of a point, that she had gotten her PhD with a dissertation on something to do with Chaucer, that she had once taught college but had moved on to high school by the time I came along. I knew that her days were filled with students and her evenings were, well, often filled with students, parents, and other teachers. If she was home, she was grading, writing lesson plans, or, when she’d finished her necessary work, she was plotting how to make education better for every student in her school, state, nation, and perhaps even world.

That’s not to say she wasn’t an active parent to me. Oh, no. My dad was the quantity time parent, a “Mr. Mom” before that movie existed (even with his full-time high-pressure job, which blows my mind), but my mother swooped in with quality time in regular intervals. Her intimidating intellect and passion for great thought translated into some pretty cool mother-daughter activities, at least now that I look back with the realization that most moms don’t actually speak Old English, let alone think Beowulf is a bedtime story a small child might enjoy hearing (since I couldn’t understand, it wasn’t scary, but I loved the weird sounds she made and the poetry of it all). She took me to visit places of great history, here and abroad, and usually taught me far more about them than the poor tour guides who got stuck with us. Almost no vacation was allowed without an educational component, even our winter trips to thaw on Caribbean beaches always included visiting the markets to meet locals and learn their oral traditions of story and song. When I discovered Shakespeare on my own due at the age of 7 to the 27 copies (yes, I counted) of his Complete Works she had on a shelf and childhood boredom, she didn’t swoop in to teach me about what I was reading, but let me form my own questions first and then answered them without an ounce of patronization. I didn’t often have her attention, but when I did, it was her full attention.

Did I resent that she would often have to miss my activities due to work? Sure. I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and saw many of my friends had moms who were always around and unfailingly cheered them on. I had yet to learn that quality time is superior to quantity time, too. Looking back, though, I don’t just understand, I am so grateful that I had a mom who forced me to learn independence from the beginning and mixed it up by building great memories when we were together. Don’t get me wrong, if I needed her, she was there in a heartbeat, but my first thought in a crisis has never been, “Help me, Mommy!” She was my last resort, the great weapon I’d unleash on a world that I thought had done me wrong.

She was far from perfect. Her temper was epic and, as I grew older and became more and more like her (read: stubborn), we clashed even more than most mothers and daughters. She pushed me just as hard as she pushed herself and I often cracked under the relentless pressure. I sometimes felt like I was one of her trophies, but one that could never be polished enough. That I definitely resented full-time.

So, when she was hit by a drunk driver and died in a foreign land that prevented not only a goodbye but kept me from the knowledge that she was dead until almost two days later, it was a very confusing experience. The grief of losing her so unexpectedly mingled with a sense of being free for the first time in my life to just be myself. I was 15 and in full rebellion mode. I worried that it was possible that I had wished her dead, even. Stupid thoughts, yes, but natural in the midst of crisis. I used that new-found freedom, though, even reveled in it. I spent a long time barely thinking about her outside of those random moments where it would hit me that she really was gone and I’d allow myself to feel the loss for just a little while.

Cut to 2013: She’s been gone for well over half of my life, a life that I have built into one I never would have expected to have back when she was around. Along the way I have become friends with many educators, even a few with PhDs of their own. I, a high school and college dropout, seem to regularly wind up in long conversations about education and how to improve it, conversations that echo my childhood dinner table. While talking to a professor friend about how I had found my mother mentioned in some recent scholarly works as an expert in the field of Chaucer (a huge surprise for me), my mother’s choice to switch to teaching high school came up and my friend pointed out that my mom got to leave the competitive world of high academia when she did made that move. I immediately replied that my mom would have relished the competition, then realized I wasn’t qualified to answer for her. I had no idea who she was, really. I only knew her as my mother and as a resume. That’s the worst part of losing a parent before you are an adult yourself.

So, I called the person who stood right next to her through all of her choices, my father, and asked, “How did Mom feel about academia, was the competitive atmosphere any part of her decision to leave, and did she struggle with that choice?” It led to a lot of discussion. He revealed that she was pretty sure she would succeed in academia and she knew she’d miss the opportunity to spend a lot of time in research, but that she felt a calling and saw teaching high school as far more challenging than publishing. She did once tell me directly, when I first realized she had been a professor, that, “In college, minds are already set in their ways, and many students can no longer be reached. I wanted to change that, and that meant getting to kids when they were younger.” Still, finding out that her life-changing choice had been easy was revealing. She could have been a star, with piles of scholarly works bearing her name. Instead, she toiled away endlessly in the dark caves of public education, trying to convince the kids she encountered who had never tasted opportunity that education and hard work was the path to a better life and pissing off parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, and the teacher’s union along the way because, to her, all that mattered was the kids. She thought tenure was a travesty, that teachers should always be available to any student who wanted to learn more regardless of what time it was, and that education was the only way to make a better world for everyone. She climbed her way into being a principal so she could create change for even more students and I remember clearly her pride in finding ways to get lazy teachers out of the classroom despite not being able to fire them due to the system she had to operate within. She missed teaching, but the kids needed more from her. She got a lot of threats from every direction, to the point where I was only allowed two years in public school due to fears that I would experience retaliation on her behalf, despite her love of and deep belief in public education. She never wavered on her mission and it truly was a mission.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I understand a good part of who my mother was as a person and what drove her to be that way. More importantly, I feel like we could be friends now, something that even two days ago I never would have thought. She’s been gone for over 20 years, but she’s not gone at all. Not in the “she’s in heaven looking after me” or “her spirit will always be with me” ways, but through imparting those values in her only child. I suddenly understand why I always choose the most difficult path open to me. I’ve often wished that I could be a “normal” person who can focus on things like having security, who didn’t prefer stress and struggle to ease, and who doesn’t feel the pain of those with less privilege with such acuity. Today, I’m letting all of that go, not in my old apathetic this-is-just-who-I-am way, but with purpose and as a choice.

I’ve always been my mother’s daughter, but now I’m determined to BE MY MOTHER’S DAUGHTER.

No, this doesn’t mean I’m going back to college anytime soon or aiming to work in the school system, that would not be true to who I am or the talents I possess. Nor does it mean that I’m going to start screaming the moment someone angers me (that part of her was a big lesson in how not to live). I’m just going to make an active choice to embrace the uncomfortable parts of being me and use them as fuel instead of fighting or bemoaning them.

I’m going to stop rebelling against the imaginary mother I’d concocted out of the haphazard memories that are all you have when you lose a parent during that time when you’re not really supposed to get along with your parents and do my best to live up to the woman who actually was my mother instead.

I’m going to use the same issues that have held me back to drive myself forward.

I’m going to recognize that her less savory behavior towards me was not due to disappointment but rather the potential she saw in me and desire to see it fulfilled. Even with expert educators, their own children don’t come with a manual. She did the best she could and that’s a whole lot better than a lot of children get.

I’m going to do what I can to become someone my mother would be truly proud to call her daughter, because there could be no higher honor in all the land.

Despite the amount of effort I know this will take, I feel a sense of peace within me for the very first time, all because a friend made a comment that sparked a question I couldn’t honestly answer.

Life may be too short, but it never stops bringing surprises.

The Best and the Worst May 22, 2013

Posted by craftlass in education, life lessons, women's rights.
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I don’t scare very easily. I have walked the streets of many a city alone, feeling perfectly comfortable just about anywhere. I’m cautious, always aware of everyone around me, as anyone who has spent a lot of time in urban environments learns to do, but it’s been a long time since I felt a true threat.

I’m disgusted by many actions aimed towards women, but I’m also used to a lot of offensive behavior, have become inured to it (sadly). I rail against it more for other women’s sake than my own.

Then I got on the “other” PATH train last night, meaning the connecting route from the World Trade Center to Hoboken, with a change at Grove Street. I take the 33rd Street line at all sorts of hours somewhat regularly, it’s always crowded late at night and, while sometimes annoying, it always feels safe. One of the myriad reasons I chose to move to the Mile Square City was I have never felt truly threatened on the train or the streets at any hour, even before I lived here or it was known as a safe place. I was tired of the extra precautions required in some not-so-great neighborhoods I’d lived in and paying for cabs in the wee hours. Anecdotally, most of the women I know who have been attacked at night in the city were attacked on the subway (I have no statistics, and most seem to go unreported anyway, so I’m a little suspicious of data on this topic). Being brave does not mean taking stupid risks, so getting to avoid the MTA system without spending a fortune is one of the many great perks of living Jersey-side.

I had been hanging out downtown with two male friends, who were gracious enough to walk me to two blocks away from the station before we said our goodbyes. I paused for a moment to admire the St. Paul’s Church graveyard, as I always do when I walk by, thinking about the rich history it contains. Walking on, I stared up at World Trade Center 1, finally nearing completion and beautiful enough to win over this hard heart of mine (I wanted them to just rebuild the old buildings, show everyone we don’t give in, but I accept what we’ve been given to ogle). I was in a fantastic mood, having had a wonderful night with people I love, and skipped my way down the escalators and stairs to the platform. There was a decent amount of people, less than I’m used to at that time, but there were enough that when we got to Grove Street, quite a few people got out. Most went up the stairs and out of the station, leaving only two men and me on the platform. I sat down and noticed I had 1x data, so I checked the schedule and saw the train should arrive at 1:55. It was 1:47. Okay, that’s not long. 1:55 rolled around…1:56…1:57…2:00…

Suddenly I heard a voice call out, “Look at me!” Reflexively looking towards the voice I saw a man standing by a column with his pants down. I took a deep breath and looked pointedly down at my phone, trying to just not give him any satisfaction, and tweeted:

I tried to shrug it off as I just really wanted to the train to come. Right then. But then I looked up again and the guy was walking towards me, with his hips thrust forward and pants around his knees. My Spidey-sense was screaming and I could hear the sounds of construction above me. Before I even knew what I was doing I was racing up the stairs, with the guy in full pursuit. Yellow tape and a barrier were blocking off a stairway to the street. I flat-out hurdled them and ran up to a construction worker in a mask and rapidly told him what had happened. One of his co-workers came over, and upon hearing the very brief version, went running down the stairs to find the guy just as the train finally came it. I don’t know if Mr. Creepy jumped on the train or ran out of the station via the open stairs somehow, but he was gone. The first construction worker went over to the help phone and contacted the police while the other asked me for more details. We all went up to the street to wait for the police, who arrived a few minutes later and took my statement and description of the man. One of the workers went back to his job while the other made sure I was getting into a cab home. With no cash on hand. I called and woke my partner, gushing out a non-detailed explanation, fearful that my drained battery would run out on me before I got through. The phone stayed alive. I was going to make it home okay and the tension started to ease a little.

Note: I meant the PATH train specifically there.

Getting home, seeing my partner waiting on the stoop for me, was the best feeling I’ve had in ages. I told him the story and he gave me a huge hug, then went back to bed. Well, when I checked Twitter again… The response was incredible, full of support from all sorts of people, and even thanks for sharing the experience. That’s what made me decide to post about this here, if this helps even one woman feel a little less alone or a bit more empowered to get out of a bad situation, then it’s worth writing.

Instinct is an incredibly powerful thing. I have no idea what might have happened if I hadn’t listened to mine. When a man groped me long-ago on a rush-hour subway I kicked him in the most effective place and he crumpled. That was the right thing in that trapped situation. Last night, I probably could have fought but knowing there were people nearby enabled me to listen to my flight instinct instead. It was the right move and reinforced my belief that most people are good, despite seeing a bit of the low side of humanity.

Still, I’m angry. The knowledge that my little incident last night was far less scary than most women in the world face regularly, many even in their own homes, gives me the chills. I woke today feeling mentally empowered but with muscle exhaustion from the tension, the thought of that being a somewhat normal state to anyone is unacceptable. I’m very lucky, I was raised to be prepared and strong, and have a wonderful support system. What about the women who have no such good fortune?

We can only do so much to directly change or even punish the bad people of the world, like this man who will haunt me forever. We need to make sure that every girl gets an education in how valuable she is and reacting to dangers with all her strength, which goes hand-in-hand with access to academic education, according to pretty much every woman who has escaped bad situations from poverty to abuse to systemic misogyny. This is not to say that men are never victims, it’s just that their access to all kinds of education and even help from others is much more common on the global scale. We need to make sure that every woman on this planet can feel she is not alone and simultaneously learn how to take care of herself, without dependency on anyone. It will be a long road, but it’s the only way to improve circumstances for the majority of people.

This morning one of my companions from last night texted, “Do I need to be your subway escort going forward?” It’s a sweet sentiment with the best of intentions, but actually completely contrary to what anyone needs. If we can’t take care of ourselves we can’t be either safe or free. I would never want to exist in a world where I feel the need to have a man to protect me everywhere I go, that would be a mental prison. True, I turned to men last night, but I would have run up to whoever was there. Asking for help is not the same as dependency, it’s just good sense sometimes, especially when it allows you to avoid being a victim or getting violent yourself (which should always be the very last resort). Conversely, if another person came to me for help under similar circumstances, I’d have reacted just like those two wonderful workers. Humans are simply stronger when we stand together against those who want to use power against us, individually or as a group. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson in all of this.

10 Lessons I Learned by Having the Time of my Life May 12, 2011

Posted by craftlass in dance, education, life lessons.
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There’s a lot of talk these days about, “How NASA Tweetup changed my life,” and I have a lot of ways I could talk about, but perhaps the oddest is that it unintentionally introduced me to ballroom and Latin dancing. See, I’ve been taking advantage of my trips to Florida to spend time with my parents who live on the west coast of the state between various events and my second trip to see STS-133 launch gave me a chance to visit quite a lot. My stepmother has been dancing for awhile now but started taking it really seriously over the past year or so. She’s studying at a competitive dancesport school run by a world champion dancer, not just some cheesy chain joint but one that can take you however far you want to go. Every Thursday night they have a guest party and she invited me to join her. Thinking this would be a good way for us to bond more I figured I’d go, check out what she’s been doing, and enjoy it however much I could. Well, it turns out I could enjoy it a lot! It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done yet it just seems to come naturally, like I’d been waiting all my life to find it.

Apparently I am the only person surprised by this. Oh, well. Guess I don’t know myself quite as much as I’d thought…

When I started taking lessons I thought I was just learning how to do a style of dance I hadn’t done before. After all, that’s what they’re for, right? However, being a struggling musician, just that wouldn’t justify the expense, so a major reason I continue is the larger value. Here are a few lessons that apply well beyond the dance floor that I’ve gotten out of my first 10 sessions:

  1. You have to put faith in someone else if you are going to get anywhere.

    I’m a bit of a control freak and I like to lead, to the point where it is detrimental and borders on sheer stubbornness if I’m not careful. I suspect I was either born that way or learned it early from my very Type-A mother. Regardless, while it is good to have some inherent leadership qualities you will drive yourself mad if you try to do everything yourself or micromanage. Even worse, this can lead to complete burnout. As a woman, in dancing with a partner I must give up that control impulse and not only follow a leader but believe in him 100%. For example, when dancing in a crowded room, especially in a progressive (as in moving around the room) dance like the waltz, I’m generally moving backwards so it’s up to my partner to steer me out of trouble. If I don’t trust him to do that I will look behind me and that is just plain wrong and very ugly. That’s just the most basic part, of course. I have to let him give me the cues or we won’t do anything complimentary. The best way for me to stumble or even fall is to lose that faith rather than throwing myself into the movement completely. Nor can I be fighting my instincts at every turn, my instincts must adapt to this faith or the dance will never be elegant as the struggle comes out quite visibly. The same is true in romantic relationships, where trust matters far more than even love if you are to be happy together in the long term, and in a working team, where people usually perform better if left to do the jobs they are supposed to do without feeling like someone is staring over their shoulder at all times. Mistakes will happen, of course, none of us are perfect, but

  2. You have to have faith in yourself.

    Seems obvious, right? After all, if you have no faith in yourself you will just stand still, scared of everything. It goes deeper, though. My instructor says my biggest challenge is my own brain, which likes to overanalyze everything. This can be helpful when first learning something new but becomes a detriment rapidly. Sure, I might get the steps right, but dance is not simply a series of steps, it’s the entire presentation and it ideally looks and feels very natural and easy. You have to let go and trust your training to pull you through. Deep down, you know what to do. Just do it! Life, like an uncertain leader, often throws confusing cues and no one can decide which way to move is right but yourself. You might make a decision that seems wrong in hindsight but as long as it was yours alone and you threw yourself into it completely you will get something out of it and maybe even manage to make it look intentional and elegant.

  3. Communication is everything.

    Communication is often confused with speaking and listening. Sure, these are forms of it, but they are far from the only ones. In dance, the main form of communication is in the hold. With the tiniest (imperceptible to onlookers) movements the leader can make sweeping changes in what you are both doing. When you first start learning that hold needs to be consistently firm or signals risk being missed but over time, the more you dance with the same person, it can soften without being any less effective and you can even split apart for a turn or similar move without losing your mental connection and come right back together. Communication becomes instinctual, almost like mind-reading, and that is a beautiful thing. Have you ever seen how long-term couples do tasks in perfect tandem without a word or heard them finish each other’s sentences? That’s the same effect. A new couple needs to talk everything out and that is often a far lesser form of communication. Working with collaborators is similar, the first project may require a million emails or meetings to get just right but over time you find yourself knowing what your partner(s) will think before you even share your part with them and you automatically correct for that. The partnership becomes more efficient and the results get finer.

  4. Get out of your comfort zone.

    Some dances just feel right from the very first moment. Some dances feel awkward at first. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other or that you should avoid the ones that don’t instantly appeal. Sometimes you have to learn or even just watch others do more advanced steps and really listen to the music to fall in love with what you once were “meh” about. In my case, this is the foxtrot. In my introductory lessons I simply wasn’t inspired by it and found it awkward. My instructor and I talked about the music it’s appropriate for and I realized that includes a lot of music I absolutely adore, but was still a bit apathetic. When I went home to NJ and decided to watch a lot of ballroom competitions on YouTube I saw what it becomes when you know how to do it and found a passion that surprised me. I still haven’t gotten back to learning it, as I’d already chosen other dances to focus on for the time being, but I’m looking forward to throwing myself into it when the time is right. It’s graceful and elegant and reminds me of an era that I really would have liked to experience. In a similar but different vein, Latin dances seriously intimidated me at first. I spent years studying ballet as a kid and Latin dancing is the antithesis of that, with hip swinging and straight-up sexiness I just couldn’t imagine pulling off. I instantly loved doing them but was still worried it just wasn’t something I could be any good at. With hard work, exercises to loosen up the muscles needed, and a whole lot of just listening to the music as I go a about my life to internalize the rhythms, it’s starting to feel natural and makes me feel like a whole new person! There are few greater highs that succeeding at something you never expected to even be competent in. What do you want to do but haven’t tried for fear of failure? We all have something that fits into that category and you never know, it might turn out to be your greatest talent if you just give it a shot. There is nothing to lose by trying, nothing.

  5. Relax into the rhythm.

    When you start a new dance or jump up a level your brain is filled with steps, counts, body positions, and lots of terminology, leaving little room for listening to the music. This is dangerous. After all, dancing is, first and foremost, a physical expression of music. Even though I am a musician myself and have a deeper understanding of it than the average beginning dancer I fall into this trap very easily. To compound matters, I am extremely hyper and I get so into dancing that I get ahead of the beat pretty easily if I’m letting my mind do the talking. You have to relax and let the music take over every part of you (which is also part of the giving-up-control lesson), even if the dance is one that is far from relaxing. Life itself has a rhythm, too, and it’s very easy to try and fight it in order to get ahead, but that’s always counter-productive. You have to listen to what everything from the universe to your own body is telling you, get in touch with your inner soundtrack and move with the flow. V.C. Andrews wrote, “A branch that does not bend with the wind breaks,” a poignant thought from a fairly schlocky writer (that might be a paraphrase, it’s been about two decades since I read that line, but the point is correct).

  6. Your greatest competitor is you.

    Okay, I’ll admit, this is a lesson I first learned from riding dressage, where the judges give you a scorecard that includes a percentage of how well you accomplish each move, allowing you to focus on improving those scores more than on winning ribbons. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a horse, though, and it was well beyond time to re-learn this important lesson. If you look to how others are at everything you will always feel inadequate. For example, Janis Joplin was a very talented painter before she became a singer and the story of why she didn’t stick with it is a cautionary tale: She looked at how good other people were at painting and decided she could never measure up. While I’m selfishly pleased she went with the singing route I’ve always found this depressing, especially after seeing some of her artwork in-person. For me, singing is what I can never measure up to many others in, which held me back for many years. Some people love my voice, though, so the wise thing to do is work hard to make myself the best I can possibly be rather than compare myself to those more talented than I. Still, I sometime lapse and fall into that old trap again. I’m highly competitive by nature and want to be the best at everything I do. Starting something as physical as dance at age 34 is a challenge and I may never get to the point where I’d like to simply because I started now, but that’s okay. I can’t look to the dancers who started in elementary school and compare myself to them or I will never be at all satisfied with my progress. Nor can I look to people of any age who have the ability to take more lessons than I ever could without major life changes. All I can do is my own best and strive to improve every single day. From what feedback I’ve gotten so far I’m improving pretty rapidly and the work I’m doing outside the studio, like exercises to improve my strength and flexibility, are paying off in ways that knowledgeable people are noticing and commenting on. By focusing on competing with myself I am winning the only battle that matters.

  7. Fitness is not about looks, better looks are only a bonus, and getting fit only sticks if you enjoy what you do to get there.

    I’m naturally what many people not-so-kindly refer to as a “skinny bitch.” I don’t share the battle with weight that many do, my naturally hyper state, awareness of getting full from eating, and general lifestyle take care of that. However, as is so easy to do when your life is largely spent sitting in front of a computer, I have slacked and gotten terribly out of shape. This is detrimental to everything I do, especially my top priority, singing. Being fit has little to do with any numbers, whether inches around your waist, dress size, or those on a scale. Being fit is about the ability to physically do anything you want or need to without hurting yourself in the process. A big problem many of us share is that a lot of exercise types are or become boring and we look at it as a chore rather than a pleasure. How many of you have fallen into the cycle of beginning an exercise routine with enthusiasm only to find it fading into just another line on an overwhelming to-do list? Then come the excuses: I don’t have the time or energy, it cuts into the things I would rather or must be doing, or I just have a lack of motivation. One day of not bothering extends to two, then a week, and then a few months have gone by and your gear is collecting dust or your gym card is simply taking up space in your wallet. You feel guilty, but guilt is a terrible motivator as it comes from a negative place. I didn’t get into dancing to get in shape, I truly love doing it and refuse to let more than a day go by without at least practicing on my own because it feels good and brings joy to my life. One day I looked at myself naked in a full-length mirror (I don’t care what you look like, that is always a frightening thing to do since we all have flaws and zero right in on our own) and was shocked and gratified to see that my body had completely changed. Areas that I had never been able to get control of, like my side abs, have mutated into something I thought was out of reach. In the past I often started working out with that as the goal but this time it was different and I am seeing the best results of my life because my focus is far larger than body parts. More importantly, just going about daily life, like bounding up the steep stairs to my apartment or carrying piles of groceries home without a car, has become easier. I’m happier overall because my body and I have a better relationship than we have in years. I give it exercise in a fun way and it in turn listens to what I want it to do.

  8. Good posture matters.

    I used to have great posture, thanks to my ballet lessons and riding. I’ve always placed importance on it but again, spending much of my life typing on a computer and wrapping my tiny body around a full-sized acoustic guitar has degraded it to the point where it has probably contributed to my back pain and certainly makes me look less attractive. I had never noticed that I lost it, though, until several instructors pointed it out to me. Highly embarrassed but grateful, I’ve become a bit of a posture nut again, not just while dancing. Posture is key to dance, of course, you must stretch up tall and proud into the required frames, and it’s especially critical when you’re all of 5’0″ and are dancing with even average-sized men. However, even if you’re very tall and embarrassed about your height you need good posture. It helps your whole body fall into a healthy position and commands attention when you enter a room. Want to seem more confident even when you’re not feeling it? Throw those shoulders back, lift your chest, raise your head up high and show yourself off. Not only does it change the impression you give to others but it can influence how you think about yourself. Such a simple tweak to improve your life in every way, huh?

  9. Hard work, patience, and persistence are the only things that pay off in the long run.

    This seems so obvious but our culture is one of speed and hard work often takes a long time to get results. Just like get-rich-quick schemes rarely pay off, cutting corners might satisfy a short-term goal but it will fail you in the end. When I took my first lessons I bounded into mimicking what I’ve seen in movies and musicals. It’s far from surprising that a lot of it was just plain wrong. As my lessons get more advanced and we get more into the minutiae of what every little part of me must do to make the dance beautiful I may need to do a single part of a step millions of times to nail it but it’s all worth it. No amount of natural talent can replace dedication and attention to detail. Often you must tear what you are doing apart and build it back up to make it better. It’s important to have both short- and long-term goals that fit together, too. The short-term goals let you mark the progress towards your long-term ones and keep you from feeling discouraged. Learn the steps, internalize them, focus on details, internalize those, add the layers that make the cake of results both taste good and look beautiful. After all, what good is a gorgeous cake that tastes like sawdust? That’s the best you can get if you rush things.

  10. Constructive criticism is the highest of compliments.

    Criticism sucks when you are getting it. It’s easy to take it as a personal attack and feel terribly hurt. However, the vast majority of criticism actually means that someone cares enough to pay attention to you and wants you to improve. Few people like to criticize anyone, especially to their faces, it’s uncomfortable no matter which end of it you are on. The important thing to look for is whether it is destructive or constructive before you let your emotions take over. Whether you are paying or asking someone to be critical or it’s offered unsolicited, if you can look at what is given objectively and know it to be true you will improve more because of it than you ever could without. Going back to posture, I was rather upset when I heard mine was lacking. Instead of letting myself wallow in the hurt, though, I force myself to repeat that criticism, look into a reflective surface, and shove my body into the right position as well as I could. Every day I get a little bit better, have to correct myself a little bit less, and it’s becoming something I don’t have to think about. This would never have happened if I wasn’t criticized openly and honestly or if I stubbornly negated the notion in a fit of ego. Humility is the only path to improvement, so the next time someone gives you advice that doesn’t feel so pleasant, just say, “Thank you,” and use it if it applies.

It will be a long road to become the dancer (or person) I want to be, but by embracing life’s surprises and throwing myself into everything I do my life has improved dramatically. Being a wallflower will only bring you greater disappointment so get out there and proudly dance the dance of life, whatever that might mean for you! Who knows what you might learn along the way…

Operation Scholar-Without-College October 1, 2009

Posted by craftlass in education, Operation Scholar-Without-College.
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“Humiliation and mental oppression by ignorant and selfish teachers wreak havoc in the youthful mind that can never be undone and often exert a baleful influence in later life.” -Albert Einstein

I am a learning junkie. Always have been. The problem is, I don’t like school very much. I went to really good primary and secondary schools and have taken a bunch of college courses at good schools but I get really bored easily. Classes never move fast enough for me and I’ve always been in trouble with teachers and professors for getting ahead of my peers, which is stifling and frustrating. It doesn’t help that I’m a freethinker who likes to search outside the box for answers rather than regurgitate what someone else thinks. Teachers are rarely fond of that, only the best of the best want students to be that way.

I come from a super-academic family where almost everyone has at least a master’s degree and there are several Ph.D.s (with more in progress), including my mother (who was the first). So, school is frustrating but not finishing is also frustrating and a disappointment to them all. I just can’t win.

Of course, now I have another factor (a very common one these days) of not being able to afford school. Even if I could get loans I do not want to do it that way. I’ve watched my friends struggle for decades under the weight of loans and college was a LOT cheaper when they went.
In the end, though, a degree isn’t that important to me. What I care about is learning. The only thing I miss about school itself is the conversations that make you think more deeply about the subject. These days, though, I’m finding that online more and more. Not to mention that I can now watch lectures from schools that would probably never have me, read journals I never knew existed, and keep up with the absolute latest studies and experiments. I’m so grateful to be alive in this day and age with all these opportunities for learning outside the classroom. I think I mentioned this before but it bears repeating: I’m also grateful to the American Museum of Natural History, particularly Neil deGrasse Tyson, for their excellent lecture series, even though I haven’t been able to even afford to attend those recently. Still, they are responsible for my rediscovery of my love for math and science, plus anthropology and other related fields of inquiry.
Today I joined the local library at last. It’s a pretty good one for a small town and is part of a consortium that carries plenty more books than we have right in town. I’ve been reading about quantum and theoretical physics quite a bit lately and decided it was about time I take these studies seriously. To that end, I checked out Relativity by Albert Einstein and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I read the latter years ago but simply can’t believe I never read the original Einstein itself, no matter how much I’ve studied that theory.
Is that the best way to go? I don’t know, I don’t have anyone guiding me in this.
For fun, I also checked out Astronomy by Mark A. Garlick and A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins. Luckily, this library gives you four weeks with any older book! They’ll even let you renew twice, but I’m hoping I won’t need that privilege. At the same time I’m working my way through books on algebra, geometry, and calculus to refresh my memory and expand on what I know.
I realize that all this learning might make it even harder to go back to school (see the boredom problem above) but I’m also aware that I may never get back there and I just can’t wait. It’s not like I’d have a shot of getting a job in the sciences without a degree but this is the best I can do. My brain needs the exercise, anyway. Years in the music business rotted it pretty thoroughly, as can happen when you have to focus on fluff like what someone wears or how to write an effective fake bio to make them look more interesting. Even the intellectual challenges always felt so unimportant.
Most of my educational background is very much in the humanities but the more I get to know myself the more I realize I missed my true passions and (according to testing) talent. It’s astounding how easily you can get swept up in a direction that you never sought out in the first place. Time to get back to myself.
The most pressing challenge at the moment, though, is to find the time to pursue all these things without wrecking my business and personal life. It might be nice to get some sleep at some point, too.

World’s Smallest Political Quiz August 14, 2009

Posted by craftlass in beliefs, education, politics.
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One fact about my family has defined more about the way I look at everything than any other: My father has been a passionate Republican for my whole life while my mother was just as passionate of a Democrat. It was like growing up with James Carville and Mary Matalin in reverse, only not political operatives but just intelligent and educated voters who care. Objectively, their points of view were unsurprising, as he was an executive at large companies while she was a Ph.D. who opted to teach in and, eventually, run public high schools instead of working in the relative luxury of colleges. They generally lived by what they preached and that obviously led to some heated debates at the dinner table. While this drove me absolutely nuts as a child it also made me learn the importance of being politically aware very early on.

The second most important lesson I learned is to respect people who disagree with you. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person in Generations X or Y who feels that way. The vitriol between parties makes me physically ill when it’s my friends spouting it. Disagreements are necessary and even helpful but the sheer petty meanness from both major parties is purely depressing and helps not one single person in this world.

Even worse, I’ve never fit on the right/left line, so the debates have always made me feel like even more of an outcast than I felt from being a geeky girl with odd interests all my life. I’ve also found that a lot of people I’ve met who THINK they know what party they belong in actually disagree quite a lot with that party. That’s one of the many problems of a two-party system, many (if not most) people join a party that fits one or two of their pet issues and ignore that party’s position on everything else.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive an email from Dad with a link to The World’s Smallest Political Quiz and a note about how he was surprised by his results. I immediately took it and, while not surprised when it told me I was a libertarian (I joined the Libertarian party a while back after doing a lot of research before transferring my voter registration to a new state), it was a revelation to see just how intensely libertarian I am. What validation! People have been trying to convince me I’m a Democrat for years despite my enormous issues with many of that party’s stances and their underlying system of beliefs. I knew that wasn’t right.

Being a natural skeptic in general, though, I felt the need to test the quiz a bit further and had my boyfriend take it. He scored precisely where I expected, as pretty much a super-liberal. Yup, I ended up with a significant other almost as different in his beliefs as my mother was to my father. We really do grow up to be our parents!

So now I want to encourage everyone in the country to take this quiz, it only takes a couple of minutes but it is by far the best way I’ve found to distill what you think into something quantifiable. The other wonderful thing about the quiz is that it will lead you into ways to explore the parties you might fit well into, regardless of which they may be. No matter how politically aware you may be there is always more to learn. Always.

Perhaps the most important thing about this quiz and the group that publishes it is that they are trying to redefine the political landscape, get away from the left/right line that leaves so many people like me out in the cold. Libertarians AREN’T conservatives, as many people think, and statists aren’t liberals. They use a diamond-shaped chart that makes so much more sense than any straight line ever could, the world isn’t flat and neither should our political options be. There is no category where you can divide the nation’s population into exactly two positions, let alone one as sophisticated and complicated as politics.

John Adams famously said, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other.” The man should be considered a prophet.

Please take this quiz!

The link again: The World’s Smallest Political Quiz