Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Adventures in Hedonism - The Nelken Line

1996  - twenty-one years ago was the first time I saw Pina Bausch and it forever changed the way I saw Dance. I’m not even sure how I got there in the first place. Probably read something in the calendar section of the LA Times (I was still reading newspapers in 1996) and came across triggering key words like “German “ “contemporary” and “experimental” but I picked up a cheap ticket to the Dorthy Chandler Pavillion and ended up seeing Nur Du, a commission 3 1/2 hour extravaganza that at one point had a chorus line of dancers washing and ironing their clothes, turning the mundane repetition of chores into mesmerizing beauty. 

I was instantly hooked. And when Pina returned in 1999 to reprise Nelken at UCLA, I bought tickets as soon as they were available. Watching the dancers construct and deconstruct the stage again mesmerized me, and seeing the famed Nelken March, completely charmed me. 

I was there again in 2005, when Pina retuned to UCLA to perform Ten Chi. I had already vowed to see every performance I could whenever the Wuppertal Dance Company came to town. Little did I know, this one was going to be the last.

I grieved hard when Pina passed in 2009 - no choreographer had ever inspired me so much. The ray of hope was the knowledge that Wim Wenders was working on a film about Pina Bausch - I was there for its opening and again charmed that the Nelken Dance was featured, a piece of such simplicity and elegance that reminds me about what I love about her work, seeing the beautiful in the ordinary. The dance plays out in four simple movements, each capturing the progress of the seasons:
  • Spring, the grass is small
  • Summer, the grass grows tall and the sun shines
  • Autumn, the leaves fall from the trees
  • Winter, a shiver of cold

It repeats as the seasons do, one following the other as the years advance. A perfect line, a time line, leaving the marks of nature. 

Thankfully the Wuppertal Tanz Theater Continues, and with it, the call of the Nelken Line. Last year, tributes to Pina Bausch were being performed sponsored by the Pina Bausch Foundation as groups around the world picked up and started to perform their own variations of the Nelken Line and sharing  them on website 

I discovered that the Intrepid Dance Project was formulating its own tribute to add to the collection, and more importantly, invited to join along. 

So, here it is the Intrepid Dance Company’s tribute to Pina Bausch and her Nelken Line - traditional and circus. It’s unfortunate that Pina will not be creating any new works, but I hope
You enjoy this one, and fall a bit into her rabbit hole with me. 

Intrepid Dance Project Pina Bausch's Nelkin Line Circus Style! from Pina Bausch Foundation on Vimeo.

Monday, January 1, 2018


It's New Year's Day - so of course it's a time to reflect on the year to come. Typically, one trots out a number of resolution but I have a new methodology I'd like to try out.

Last year I've explored a number of ways to "self improvement." I follow Gretchen Rubin,  her Happiness Project and all the things that have come out of it. As a self-professed hedonist, I'm all about identifying the things that truly make us happy. The truth is, there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to the pursuit of happiness.

I've tried out numerous goal tracking apps. I wear a Fitbit which is awesome for monitoring my activity, my sleep cycles, my weight. It's nice to see numbers move in the direction you want them to, but on their own they do little to motivate me.

I've also noticed that the long term goals I set for myself have a tendency to remain long-term goals. If I don't have some way of breaking them down into tasks I can do every day, I fail to make progress on them. This bogged me down in tracking daily tasks, whose graphs and numbers didn't mean much to me.

This year, I have picked four words that will serve as my mantra. Words I can repeat to myself, be mindful of them, and use them as the lens through which I make my daily decisions. My hope is that they will drive me to the goals I want to accomplish, or more importantly shape me into the person I wish to become. The words, at least as of January 1, 2018, are: Connect, Explore, Challenge, and Play.

I started with a much longer list that included such commands as Create, Share, Cultivate, Grow - all good words to be sure - but I needed a list short enough to be contained simultaneously in thought. Science says the limit is 4, so that's my maximum - maybe I can consolidate further in the future. Actually, my exercise of distilling down to these 4 words have made them all the more robust in their meaning to me.

Connect - Because our happiness seems to be greatly impacted by the company we keep and our relationships with others. This is my reminder to maintain my relationships and keep them strong. For me it's also a reminder to put down the phone and engage with the people around me. Furthermore, to find ways to interact with my friends outside of social media which often just creates an illusion of connection.

Explore - This is a reminder to indulge my curiosity, to try new things, and allow adventures. This word contains my resolutions to read more, experience more art, visit new places - but more importantly keep that curious mindset that wants to check out new things.

Challenge - It's easy for me to fall into routine, and while "Explore" may help keep me from eating at the same places, I needed this word to check in on myself at a more "meta" level - including are these 4 words working for me, or am I just exploring new dining options? This word is intended to make me get out of my comfort zones.

Play - I abandoned "Create" for this word as I discovered it had too much gravitas for me -  to full of expectations that actually prevented me from being more creative. "The things I create need to be important" - whatever that means. Instead I realize I need to take myself less seriously, let myself try things and be able to laugh if they fail. This is my weapon against my internal censor. Hopefully it will lead to more creativity on my part, but beyond that "Play"is a reminder to have fun with what I'm doing, whatever the outcome.

These words may change as the year progresses, but I think keeping these words on mind will have a much greater impact than the usual resolutions. Check back with me in 2019 and perhaps I'll let you know how it went.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Future is Female

Having recently finished Carrie Jenkin’s What Love is and What it Could Be, I found myself face to face with the downside of privilege. As a white male, I live in a society optimized for me, which makes it easy for me to pronounce in absolutes on how to live the best life and have it backed up with my personal experiences.

Sure the world of philosophy was (is?) a male dominated discipline, as were many academic disciplins of the past – women weren’t given the opportunity to be “philosophers,” so naturally you wouldn’t expect to see many contributions from female contributors. And still``, the discipline itself shied away from such “feminine” topics as love or even gender. Sure we got the Platonic tale of the two headed, four armed, and four legged proto-humans that were split apart by the gods and forced to seek their “other halves” across eternity – but that was it. Or so it was for a philosophy major in the early 80’s.

Before reading Jenkin’s book, I had no idea that Bertrand Russell wrote Marriage and Morals, a book challenging Victorian morals around sex and family. Apparently this is often left out of his philosophical cannon – and yet why wouldn’t a philosopher take on such questions? Of course, this work ultimately made him declared “morally unfit” to teach at CCNY – so more reason to ignore their existence.

Looking into my own education as a philosophy major that had an interest in existentialism, I have never read Simone de Beauvior, or Hannah Arendt. I just missed Belle Hooks professorship at Oberlin, but even there, I believe she was ghettoed in Women’s Studies. I look back on this and think I was cheated out of a whole host of insights, that weren’t considered significant enough for study as they didn’t fit in with accepted values – patriarchal values. I’m working to fill those gaps now, but what the hell? Its 30 years later.

I read Jenkin’s book wishing that I could have wrote it, but of course it had to be written by her as it was her own experiences of the world that lead her to challenge the traditional line of thinking that guys like me never thought to question. For that I am grateful. I am even more grateful to have so many avenues of thought suddenly open to make me want to engage in philosophy again.

Now I look at all these “controversies” in pop culture, Wonder Woman, the casting of a female Dr. Who, Disney’s replacement of the Red Head as “bride” to the the Red Headed Pirate, and think this is finally an opportunity for some new stories to be told; stories that may push us into thinking bit different and challenging our own expectations. In a Hollywood often criticized for lacking unique thought, this is clearly an opportunity. I can’t help but think this is a good thing even if it does make a world that’s designed a bit less to make my life most convenient or comfortable.

For so long we have been deprived of women’s voices, it’s time to hear them, along with their own experiences and values as it can only enrich us. Honestly though, my feminism is selfish - my hope is these new stories inspire me further to create something new myself. Here’s to the future.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Of Hedonism and McGuffins

Hedonism, as the pursuit of pleasure is often critiqued as an impossible goal. Happiness cannot be pursued for happiness’s sake and whatever pleasure obtained is often fleeting. The hedonic treadmill makes us quickly adjust to our new circumstances so that whatever pleasure obtained becomes the new status quo and is no longer appreciated, or even felt.

This has lead some to posit that happiness in-itself fails as an objective. Rather happiness can only be a by-product of pursuing other things. The challenge then of course, is if “happiness” cannot be an objective in-itself, then what should we pursue in its stead? Virtue, the service of God, the service of man, 42?

The existentialist seemed to think life’s purpose was inherently meaningless. The only meaning was that which we create ourselves. The existentialist goal became one of authenticity – that or decision and pursuits reflected the person we wanted to be or become. That approach resonates with. Our purpose is our own manufacture. And while that may leave us at certain times with a sense of dread or despair, it at least is a dread and despair of our own making.

But I’m also a hedonist and I started thinking about the literary plot device known as the McGuffin.

Made famous and perhaps even coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin is essentially an object or person, important to the protagonist and sometimes other characters, but not necessarily to the story – it is the secret documents that must be found/protected/destroyed, the Maltese Falcon, the shaggy dog. What is important about a McGuffin is that it propels the characters to do the things they do, to meet, interact, have adventures and conflicts – they are storytelling fuel.

So, why shouldn’t we use them to tell our own stories? Perhaps the pursuit of happiness can be driven by a McGuffin? Perhaps it already is? An interest or hobby that motivates, a fandom, a commitment, a secret pleasure – in the big scheme of things, the particulars really don’t matter. Their existence though, drives us into having our own adventures, connecting us with others, and actually giving us a life that’s a worthy story to tell. Thus a McGuffin might just be a key to our happiness. Paradoxically, a McGuffin might also be the thing that makes us authentic.

A McGuffin may even be superior to a “goal” or “objective.” While at first glance they might seem to be synonyms, but so much judgment is loaded into those other terms. Are they worthy? Should we actually be pursuing them? We can agonize too much about what our goals ought to be. Whether our objectives meet some standard as we trot out the usual stuff of resolutions: loose weight, get healthy, help people – blah blah blah.

But a McGuffin, doesn’t have to have some intrinsic or moral importance. It’s just there to move the story along. And maybe that’s true of our goals and objectives too. The journey is more important than the destination, yet the destination is still necessary to undertake the journey.

In as much as our lives can be aesthetic projects, why not embrace a literary device to craft our own stories? We should embrace our McGuffins, no matter how silly, self-indulgent, or absurd. Revisit those goals and resolutions and see them for what they are, clever plot devices to tell a better story. They introduce us to the characters in our life, our conflicts to overcome, and perhaps are the very things that ensure our ongoing happiness.

Here’s to the Existential McGuffin.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Our Truths are Fiction

I recently read this article, Sometimes ‘Introspection’ Is You Just Making Stuff Up, and it both fascinates and disturbs me. The article delves into the “introspection bias” and shared some experiments whereby the subjects formulated clear reasons and explanations of choices they made all contrary to the facts. It reveals that we tend to make things up to explain or justify our actions, even when the facts behind our own experiences are demonstrably false. 

As someone who already spends too much time in my head, I have to wonder how often I fall prey to my introspection bias.

Reading this, I cannot help but think of the discipline of philosophy, and its cannon of introspective thinkers – I mean, Descartes, “I think therefore I am” – where does that leave us if even our fundamental existence comes into doubt?

Existentialists start with a premise that life is inherently meaningless, therefore you must create your own meaning. This however, takes existential angst to a whole new level. The meaning one carefully crafts and creates is potentially based on criteria that also is without meaning – my angst may not even really be angst, but a fabrication or at best some sort of meta-angst.

Plato through Socrates admonished us to “know thyself” but reading this, what can we really know? Worse yet, our continued contemplation may take us further and further from our truth as we craft better stories to explain ourselves to ourselves.

On a more positive take, this article reveals just what incredible story tellers we are. We have a knack for finding connections even when none exist. Pattern recognition and creativity are our super powers. We constantly can write and rewrite our narrative.  Our inner voice is a con man.

This can be freeing in a way.  We get to reinvent our back story by finding significance in formerly insignificant past events through a sort of self-deluded epiphany. Perhaps in a world of alternative facts this is a perfect model for being and becoming. To be more authentic, you tell a more compelling story.

So what does this mean for “Enlightened Hedonism?” Is the truly enlightened hedonist one who focuses more on the hedonism than the enlightenment? Granted, there is always the danger of the paralysis of analysis, something I often suffer from. Sometimes it is just better not to think, but do.  Still there must be some way to calculate what are the choices that lead to a more fulfilling life.

 “Know thyself,” Plato’s words echo. Can we? Perhaps the answer lies in invoking the scientific method. We can still contemplate and navel gaze as we spin out hypotheses of why certain things fulfill us, give us pleasure, or reduce our pain. But until we test those hypotheses, we’ll never know if they are really true.

Do I not like spinach because my parents forced me to eat it? Perhaps I can find someone to force me to eat strawberries and see if I start not liking them too? Maybe my dislike stems from the way the spinach was prepared? I can experiment and try different preparations to see if changes my way of thinking. Then again maybe I just have to accept that my not liking spinach is just one of those things that remain unknowable.

I suppose the test is to ask ourselves in our internal speculations, can I verify my explanations? Or even further, does the explanation even matter? Will it cause me to lead my life differently?

Perhaps it makes no difference whether our explanations are truth or fiction. Leaning on the existentialists, perhaps it is always a fiction – our decisions based on our aesthetics as much as our ethics. In the end, we are just left to tell the best story with the life we are given.