Dispassionate observation of where one lives and what one does produces the real list. The real list for most of us looks more like this: Comfort. Security. Face.*
An interesting place to observe our true values is the Subreddit /r/malelivingspace, where men upload pictures of their living rooms so that they can be critiqued by others and receive ideas for how to “better” them. Observation reveals that mens’ living rooms are basically algorithmic: a couch pointed at a television. Any other details after that are cosmetic.
A couch and a television as the centerpiece of a living room reveal volumes about the individual: They are the essential symbols of someone who values comfort and face. Someone with a couch pointed at a television is someone “normal.”
This isn’t a value statement: It is not bad to be normal. It is normal to be normal. But be honest: It is impossible to value “love” more than “comfort” and also own a couch pointed at a television. Mother Teresa lived in an orphanage and we live as we live.
Human beings have reciprocal relationships with our environments. One creates his environment just as one becomes his environment. The longer we live in an environment, the more we are that environment.
It’s for this reason that some have noted that where one lives is the most important decision he makes in his life, for it is also the decision about what one becomes. A man who lives in the wilderness grows a beard; a man who lives in the city does not. Look at your past living environments and the trajectory of your own life to discover the truth.
Last month I began studying drawing at Watts Atelier. I’ve been drawing for close to 18 months now and I decided I wanted the art class experience. I was expecting–honestly–something casual. It’s art, after all–not engineering. Instead I found myself in class with Serious artists working Seriously on their craft. I love it.
The art studio is ironically located in the back of a bland and inconspicuous business park. Walk in and you’re immersed in beauty and craftsmanship. Thousands and thousands of hours of study and craft have gone into covering the walls with drawings and paintings.
The Seriousness of the students is the inevitable result of the environment. The environment is the inevitable result of the Seriousness of the organization’s leader.
Watts isn’t exactly tidy by the way. Tidiness is vastly overrated. Jordan Peterson’s edict “Clean Your Room!” is not universally applicable.
The truth is that some messiness goes hand in hand with being a creative person. And Peterson–love him, hate him, or accept the truth of human nuance–is one of the most creative people alive.** Watts Atelier isn’t tidy because creation needs clutter.
If you hear, “Clean your room,” and think to yourself, “I should clean my room,” then you know what to do. Likewise if you hear, “Clean your room,” and think to yourself, “fuck off, old man,” then you know what to do.
But through it all understand the life-altering implications of your tidiness or messiness.
Anyway, I have a couch for sale.
*I’m using the word face in the Chinese sense. Face is every bit as important in the West as it is in China.
**Don’t believe me? Try untangling the convoluted Maps of Meaning.
Ex 1: “History has shown that despite arguably noble aims, socialist leaders always Lennie.”
Ex 2: “Wow, I really Lennied again?”
Though I skipped nearly all of my high school reading assignments, Of Mice and Men lives with me to this day. I recount here only that Lennie, a burly man with the mind of a child, accidentally kills his pet mouse by petting it with too much force.
I’m not intending to belittle intellectual inferiors by saying “Lennying,” by the way.* If you’re as steeped in nonsensical political correctness (Do we still use that term?)–as I am–you might think that I am somehow mocking Lennie. I’m not. I am only using the literary reference to facilitate understanding. If you’d prefer, we can call it “Steve-ing” or “Your-naming.” Simply Copy + Paste this post into a word processor and Find + Replace as you see fit. This essay functions the same either way: I am Lennie and so are you.
If you are reasonably analytical and strong at pattern recognition, it’s easy to spot Lennying in friends, family, and colleagues. They make it easy: It is typical that an individual will do the exact same thing they have done n times before, with n times the number of catastrophic and painful consequences.
When you observe a friend Lennying, you want to grab them by the shoulders, shake, and scream at them: “Don’t you see the obvious downstream consequences of this relationship/investment/action?!” But unless your words resonate, they will be ineffectual. And your words will not resonate.
This is why, by the way, the business of coaching and counseling is presently uninteresting to me. An effective counselor, according to my paltry level of understanding, cannot solve a client’s problems for him. (Doing so would be Lennying on the part of the counselor.) Instead he often watches a client self-destruct in slow-motion.
Call it immaturity, maybe, but it drives me bananas to see an obvious problem lie unsolved. It is likewise uncomfortable for me to observe human emotional or even existential pain. These are two of the principal burdens of a counselor, it seems to me.
While observing Lennying in others is easy enough, it is nigh impossible to prevent yourself from Lennying. The only way, it seems to me, would be to give up taking action altogether. Does that sound Daoist to you? Good. It’s supposed to.
The other possible way to avoid Lennying is to understand yourself and your context. That is: to truly understand your condition, to be wise. That seems to me to be well out of grasp for most of us, most of the time.
It may be the case that you disagree with me: Your actions are just and rarely–if ever–have painful consequences. In that case you are either disingenuous or delusional, and you are definitely more dangerous than you realize.
This, by the way, is close to what Jordan Peterson is talking about when he says “clean your room.” A small action like room-cleaning is perhaps less likely to be catastrophic than implementing some societal social engineering program. Still, room cleaning is an action with consequences. Peterson may be responsible for more Lennying than anyone else alive today.
Insofar as there is a bright side of Lennying, it is that self-inflicted Pain is a brilliant signal of misunderstanding. It is possible to blunt that pain with drugs, alcohol, sex, social media, politics, or what-have-you. But the Pain may also engender a fleeting moment of lucidity. During that time you might create Art.
*It may be the case, actually, that the intellectually gifted have an even greater capacity for unintended destructiveness.
I was training Brazilian jiujitsu and was on round seven of sparring of the night, which means I had been grappling for close to forty minutes. Typically I’ll spar for 3-5 rounds after class, so round seven is the fourth quarter, maybe overtime. After finishing my sixth round I had taken my gi jacket off with the intent to call it a night, but one of the other guys was sitting against the wall looking eager to keep going, so I offered to do one more.
I spent the first three or so minutes of the round comfortably on top in side control. But he pulled off a reversal and I ended up on the bottom. I turtled with the intention of stalling out the final two minutes. My turtle is generally reliable for such deliberate inaction.
He went for a bow and arrow choke, but I managed to get both of my arms under both of his legs for a “bucket escape.” This is a technique I use all the time, which is why my last conscious thought was one of imminent safety. But I underestimated the strength of his grip on my collar. He pulled up on my neck while pushing down on my shoulders with his legs. I was essentially hanged. Next thing I knew I was waking up from a deep sleep.
When I regained consciousness I was irritated at having been woken up–like when an alarm wakes me up for an early flight. Looking around and recalling my extreme fatigue, I rationalized: I must have decided to take a nap on the mat after training. (A totally normal thing to do at the gym, right?) But my worried-looking training partner explained that I had been choked out. Oh. That made more sense.
I’m trying to convey here that my experience of being strangled to unconsciousness is difficult to decouple from the exhaustion I was feeling at the time. As I laid on the ground staring out the window, I wondered: Is the nausea coming from the strangle or the exhaustion? Is the light-headedness from the strangle or the exhaustion? Is the serenity from the strangle or or the exhaustion?
And perhaps in part because of the exhaustion–I don’t know–I experienced the actual moment of unconsciousness in a particular way: as blissful.
I can’t recall ever feeling such intense tranquility. And yes, I’ve experienced post-coitus twice, since you ask.
Imagine a sleepy Sunday afternoon. You’re lying in bed with a half-dozen kittens, a warm glass of milk, a hotel bathrobe, cucumbers over your eyes, for some reason. You’ve just received a massage from a beauty or hunk of your choosing and Norah Jones is nearby with a piano performing her entire debut album for you–just for you. A bowl of fish bite your feet, if you’re into that kind of thing.
I tell you now: Lying unconscious on the mat in a pool of my own sweat was better.
Let me put this another way: I’ve been practicing meditation for a few years now, but I think in that moment of unconsciousness I experienced, in a sense, the goal of meditation.
Am I sounding like one of those ayahuasca/LSD/Herbalife fanatics? Are you looking around for the nearest pair of burly arms that could help you simulate death’s subtle embrace? Let me dissuade you. Don’t. Because the transcendence was followed by a crash.
Last week while talking with a friend I committed to writing more. I had no plan, no topics I was interested in writing about, no outlines, no inspiration. And then the universe handed me a near death experience! Would you look at that!
I mean, I have got to be one of a handful of people on earth who get recreationally strangled to unconsciousness and then have the impulse to write about the experience, at least outside of the domain of romance fiction. While within the jiujitsu community strangulation is kind of mundane, I understand that most of the population goes to great lengths to avoid strangulation (Imagine that!) and being strangled to unconsciousness is quite unusual.
So this is kind of a “big deal” for me. As a San Diego millennial laptop worker, this is about as close to death as I plan to come until I–you know–die.
So now I’m writing sloppily drafted notes at 2 a.m. the same night I was strangled because I can’t sleep (I rested at the gym, remember). And I’ve got some difficult ideas coming out of me. It feels more like passing a kidney stone than a benign catharsis.
Because I’m realizing that while I did not die in that moment, part of my relationship with the martial art I love did.
In part I’ve been reflecting on how I spar. Jiujitsu is not a tea party, of course. It can be used to kill people. You could die or be incapcitated while training. But you’re not supposed to get choked out. So I must have been doing something wrong.
In general, I train with a certain insouciance, even puckishness, insofar as a 33 year-old, 200lb man can be puckish. I give up top position often and easily, and I expose my back a lot. I escape and recover. But I have noticed that it’s easier to catch a knee to the dome on the bottom or be accidentally injured, generally. And of course you are exposed to more chokes when someone is on your back. So I’m thinking, maybe, that I should abandon some of those practices.
It occurred to me, also, that perhaps I shouldn’t do a seventh round with a giant, athletic twenty-something when I’m exhausted.
But really I think the culprit here is my own ego. It is, frankly, out of control. It’s not lost on me that I was choked out by a blue belt–that despicable lower caste. That key detail I even omitted from the opening paragraphs. Had he been a brown belt I think I would have tapped.
It’s common in the jiujitsu community to talk about the gentle art’s relationship with the ego. A jiujitsu black belt who doubles as a life coach has just written a book called Jiujitsu and the Ego, for example. Listen to a few episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience when he speaks to his jiujitsu friends. I guarantee that they discuss the ego.
Training, allegedly, is a way to keep your ego in check: There’s always someone better than you on the mat. And he could kill you with his bare hands. That idea, I guess, is humbling.
I say to you, reader: Cherish the white belt. Those early days of being indiscriminately smashed and dominated by everyone don’t last. It is easy to be humble when you are so obviously humble. The white belts shall inherit the earth!
But as you climb the skill ladder in jiujitsu, the crystalline lessons of humility become less frequent. You spend more time as the humble-er and less as the humble-ee.
To be honest–and this is silly, even absurd–I even feel some pride at having been choked out. It’s like I’m now part of a somewhat exclusive though tremendously stupid club, a fringe political party or something.
I am never going to say that I am “good” at jiujitsu–that label is reserved for champions, and I am well aware that I am not a champion. But, I am also aware that I can put the hurt on a lot of guys now. I’ve started to feel good about certain positions and techniques. That fuzzy feeling? That’s pride. I wrote an entire essay about the turtle position. And if you read between the lines of that essay, you’ll see my pride. Fortunately, it was strangled to death by a blue belt the other night.
-I have the idea that some distant friends might like to pass an afternoon reading an update from me without actually having to converse. (Vanity.)
-For an internet stranger’s voyeuristic pleasure. You know who you are and you’re welcome.
Rather than try to format my retrospective as a narrative––which I’ve attempted thrice––this iteration uses bullet points. Each point represents some aspect of my life in 2021. I’ve also laid out some plans for 2022. I expect God to laugh at those plans.
Brazilian Jiujitsu: As I remember the state of my BJJ at the beginning of 2021, I was intent on practicing the closed guard for an extended period of time. Per this post, I had the same plan in 2020. But closed guard didn’t really stick, although my hip bump sweep got pretty good. Instead I messed around with butterfly half guard for much of the first half of the year.
My skills developed significantly once my professors began to teach me how to use my length. At 6’1”, I am practically the Manute Bol of BJJ. Short guys train BJJ; tall guys shoot hoops, I guess. I’ve been playing a lot of collar sleeve guard: scissor sweep, triangle, omoplata, repeat. I got my purple belt from Johnny Tama this December. Yay!
Plan for 2022: Learn judo, wrestling, leg locks, back attacks, collar chokes––in no particular order. Teach some beginner classes, perhaps.
Dance: I intend to publish a long reflection on teaching dance soon. TL;DR: Some friends and I started dancing together to Cuban music. We invited more friends. It became a class. We are now an “entity.” Or at least we have an Instagram and a name: Timba San Diego. I love these people.
Plan for 2022: Continue to invite more friends. Throw some parties. Perhaps teach a second class. Spread the love.
Baduk: Baduk is hard. I reached a 4 kyu rating on OGS on two separate occasions this year. That makes me a “pretty darn good” player. Someday I’ll reach a dan rating, but I’m not in a hurry. Climbing the ranks at this point requires a level of focused attention which I don’t presently have the energy to dedicate.
Plan for 2022: Play whenever I feel like it and have fun.
Consulting and Recruiting: I retain two jobs. I work as a recruiter for technology companies and as a management consultant for a coaching business.
After close to a decade in recruiting, I’m proud to share that I have figured out a system that works for me. Turns out I’m a pretty darn good recruiter.
As a management consultant, my client grew over 100% YoY in both revenue and profit in 2021. I should really have a book to sell you. Instead, just give me a high five next time you see me.
Plan for 2022: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Art: Maybe the most interesting thing I did this year was let go of my fear of visual art. Followers of my blog might remember my posts from earlier in the year. I’ve now left behind the exciting part of the learning curve, so I have less inspiration to write about the process, but I’m still drawing!
My main interests are in portraiture and figure drawing.
Plan for 2022: One of the highlights of 2021 was attending a drawing group with a live nude model. It would be great to find a regular group like that in 2022. Also: pastels are in my future.
Reading: For most of the last decade I’ve read perhaps one book per week. My pace slowed a bit this year, but I still read a lot. My favorite books of the year were: The Kingdom of God is Within You (Tolstoy), The Silence of God (Carse), The Kingkiller Chronicle (Rothfuss), and the writings of Malcolm Muggeridge.
Plan for 2022: I implemented a “no devices after 8pm” rule for myself which accelerated my reading. I expect to crush a lot of fiction in 2022.
Spirituality: As you can probably tell from the list of my favorite books of 2021, I spent a great deal of time this year “doing” spirituality. I went from zero to N in terms of my understanding of the Christian tradition this year.
I’ve also maintained a practice of around one hour per day of silent meditation. Insofar as there is a “secret” to my creative output, it is meditation. Highly recommend! (Yes, I’m one of those people now.)
Plan for 2022: Learning more about Eastern mystic traditions and meditation practices.
Blog: I published over 20,000 words on my blog this year! That’s about a quarter of a book, apparently.
The other secret to my creative output is that I maintain no expectation for writing here.
I don’t adhere to any “best practices” for blogging: I’m not optimizing for length or readability or SEO or sharability. I simply write whatever I feel whenever I feel inspired. That goes against basically everyone’s advice for writing. Oops. But I have no ambition as a blogger except to amuse myself, some friends, and the occasional anonymous internet lurker.
Plan for 2022: If it ain’t broke.
Social Media: An unexpected twist of 2021 was my embrace of social media. OK––“embrace” is probably too strong a word. It’s more like a tepid arms-length dance between middle school sweethearts than an “embrace.” Nevertheless, I am now on Instagram. Oh––and Substack (update coming soon).
I was principally inspired by two friends who are both active on social media. I observed first-hand as one of them built a community at our gym through his activity on social media. I never posted about this but he interviewed me on his podcast a while back. I was famous for a day.
My other friend persuaded with me with an argument: “In 2021, the better your online presence, the better your life.* And your life lags behind your online presence.” He has since started a business inspired by this thesis. Cool!
*At least materially. There must be some miserable Influencers out there. Right? Right?
Plan for 2022: Now that I am one of the drivers of an organization, my hand is basically forced here. Instagram is the best thing after a firm handshake for introducing people to the music and dance I love. So I’ll probably be experimenting a lot this year.
Social Life: I’ve cultivated a wonderful network of jiujitsu people, dance people, creatives and entrepreneurs. I’ve been able to find some wonderful friends and mentors in their 40s and 50s. Young readers take note: Older people know stuff; wisdom matters.
Plan for 2022: I’ve been trying to bring together the jiujitsu and dance people for a party for months. It’s been like trying to stick together the north ends of two magnets. It’s going to happen in 2022 and it will be glorious.
Lightning Round / Other Random Things on My Mind:
-Vehicle Maintenance. At some point in 2022 I will buy a car or motorcycle. I’d really like to learn a bit about motor vehicles.
-China. I still speak Mandarin, though it’s getting really rusty. I’d like to find a way to bring China back into my life somehow, someday. I was previously taking baduk classes with a Chinese professional. Perhaps I’ll start again. Any Chinese speakers in San Diego want to hang out?
-Magic: The Gathering. I reached a mythic rating on Arena twice this year. Oops. I’m happy to report that my non-baduk gaming is down roughly 90% year on year.
-Acroyoga. This unusual activity seems to be an intersection of dance and BJJ. I keep meeting “acro” people. So maybe I’ll give it the ol’ college try in 2022.
-Fun things to do at night besides dance?
-Squat / Bench / Deadlift form check. I’m weightlifting again 2x/week.
It occurred to me recently that I likely listened to more timba this summer than any other non-native Spanish speaker on the planet. Seriously. My eccentricity represents an opportunity: For fun and––I hope––as a service to the musicians whom I appreciate so much, I plan to publish a quarterly or semi-annual roundup of new timba music. My hope is that I will help to make timba more accessible to the English-speaking world.
If you’re reading this and thinking “WTF is timba,” I advise you to peruse SonYCasino.
There is also Timba.com. Unfortunately, its interface has a real “early 2000s” vibe and it’s currently plastered with jazz music news. It could use a makeover. It’s also occasionally in Spanish. In other words: It’s got some problems.
Finally, there is an excellent guide to timba rhythms written by Rueda con Ritmo, the San Francisco Bay Area’s exemplary organizers of Cuban-style dance.
Now for the disclaimer: Compared to the above sources, I am a dilettante. I am not an expert in anything musical or Cuban. My Spanish isn’t even very good. Yet I’ve written this before and I’ll write it again: What I lack in expertise I hope to make up for with enthusiasm.
I love this music and the musicians behind it. That means I’m writing with the same refined critical voice that you’d expect from a child reviewing candy loot the night after Halloween.
Some of my favorite writers––Mencken, Postman, Muggeridge––are all critics of what is referred to as the “education system.” If I could write like those guys, perhaps I, too, would write a broad takedown of The Man. With humility, I’ve lowered my sight on a smaller, though plumper and much slower-moving target: Physical Education.
P.E. avoids broad social criticism by being, I think, taken for granted as horrible. Social expectations for P.E. are final-round-of-limbo low. Imagine, for example, a concerned mother making an impassioned plea to the school board about the poor performance of the district’s phys-ed program. There would be a collective eye-roll; sugar-rich soft drinks would be prohibited from campuses; and discussion would move back to the string of student suicides and replacing the German language program with Chinese––how practical.*
However our schools fall short, classes besides P.E. at least have some superficial intention to edify.
In U.S. History class, for example, students learn some history. We gloss over some unsavory events such as the American eugenics movement and nearly everything the C.I.A. has ever done. But one course can’t cover everything and for what’s leftover there’s always Howard Zinn.
Likewise in English Literature, students are asked to read the classics, which surely have some educational value. And feedback from teachers can last a lifetime. A memorable comment on one of my papers: “You should try reading the book next time.”
P.E. requires no such educational pretense.
I do remember taking an occasional written exam in P.E., which you might recognize as something of an oxymoron. To my memory, those written exams tested students on the rules of the sports we played: How many downs to progress ten yards? How many strikes ‘til you’re out? How many wombats in a standard cricket match if the buzzer doesn’t go off?
Tests about rules speak volumes about our culture, of course. What did you learn in P.E. class today, Billy? How to follow the rules!
There is a superfluousness of educating children in the rules of sports, as though we were training the next generation of referees and judges.** Physically-inclined children learn the rules of sports through media and play. To illustrate, I share below a brief story my childhood friends like to recount about our sixth grade basketball B-Team. Understand that “sixth grade” means that I was 12 and “B-Team” means that I was a mediocre basketball player.
The opposing team was shooting a free throw with just seconds left on the game clock. My team led by one or two points. The free throw rattled out, and I jumped to grab the rebound. Upon landing, I was pushed––no foul called––and began to fall out of bounds. I had seen this moment play out on TV hundreds of times, so I called a timeout. We won.
My point is that kids gain a precocious understanding of rules and sporting nuance without intervention. This is social game theory probably written more elegantly by someone like James Carse or Eric Berne: If you don’t follow the rules nobody will let you play. No written exam required.
There were other exams in P.E., too––exams with absolutely nothing to do with education. These physical exams remain one of the most puzzling events from my childhood.
As every child learns, the government has some interest in how close you can come to touching your toes, how high you can jump, and––most infamously––how fast you can run a mile.*** The last of these exams seems to be so important for American children that they must run one mile at the beginning of each P.E. class nearly every day from the ages of 13-18. Upon age 18, the government loses all interest in how fast you can run. Which is a shame, because I’d like to show them that I can run really fast.
In other countries P.E. data is actually put to use. I dated, for a while, a Chinese woman who, at nearly six feet tall, was a statistical anomaly. In middle school she was already tall enough to be spotted by the omnipotent Chinese P.E. authorities, so she was placed in a special school for athletes. This was how she became––for a few years at least––a hurdler. Seriously.
But back to the United States: the arbitrary exams and data gathering, the awkward uniforms, the uncomfortable locker room changing in front of peers, the “I used to be someone” teachers, the meaningless mile-length runs. It all takes you back, doesn’t it?
These things are a deeply embedded part of American culture. Yes, P.E. is absurd––we get it. But it’s P.E.! What would become of teen movies if we could no longer have 30 year old actors in gym class scenes?
But P.E. class doesn’t have to be like this.
Another story about an ex-girlfriend, this time from Colombia. (The whole point of this website, by the way, is to paint a picture of myself as a very-knowledgable, very-cosmopolitan, very-seductive most-interesting-man-in-the-world. And because of this, Dear Reader, I reserve the right to make up any facts that help me tell a story. But this story is true.)
Anyway, this Colombian woman and I were one day comparing notes about our musical schooling. In the U.S. it is common to have an option to attend band, orchestra, or choir class. And in my cultural myopia, I assumed that in Colombia, too, music students had the option to take “band” class, and thus learn the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, or tuba. But my romantic interest told me that while she had taken a band class, she had learned to play la clave.
As with music, a look around the world teaches you that there are a lot of ways to teach P.E.
In China, for instance, there is the tradition of zaocao, or morning calisthenics. When I was teaching in China, every morning at around 7 a.m.,**** this would happen:
I still get a bit uneasy hearing that man count to eight repeatedly in Mandarin.
In Japan, as I understand, judo is sometimes included as a part of the P.E. curriculum. This led to the greatest moment in democratic history:
It would, of course, be impossible to implement a judo curriculum in American schools. By the time I finished elementary school it was prohibited to play tag while on concrete––grass only! It is impossible to see the American cult of safety embracing students learning to uchi-mata each other, no matter how physically educational it would be.
I should address the irony of someone like me writing a criticism of P.E. I was––OK, am––a jock. Growing up P.E. was often my favorite class of the day. My gym teachers and me were bros. Sometimes they were my coaches; other times they just looked the other way when I showed up late. I remember feeling like the Fresh Prince of P.E.
“Hey Teach,” I’d say, “I like sports; you like sports; did you catch the Niners game? Nice.” And then I’d crush some nerds in badminton.
But there’s more to the story: my artistic side––think “Oz” from American Pie. And upon reflection, any real physical education I received from schooling came from my involvement with the theater program.
While P.E. may have been the rules class, theater was the break the rules class. The most memorable theater unit we had was a few weeks of musical improvisational theater. The way to do musical improvisational theater is to discard the rules of rhyme and rhythm: In musical improv, everything rhymes.
In theater class, students learn to use and move their bodies for different purposes. In other words, they receive physical education.
A common warmup exercise in theater groups, for example, is to learn to represent different states or statuses on command: Start walking, now walk like the mayor of your city, now the President, now like a turtle, now like a shelf! How do you walk like a shelf, you might be wondering… Head down to your local improv class to find out!
Once I was asked to perform a short monologue as The Taming of the Shrew‘s Petruchio. My teacher asked me to portray an ultra-manly alpha male. Afterward he schooled me in a dozen ways my physicality had fallen short––a rather humbling moment for the class’s football jock. But I learned.
I remember, too, practicing the wonderfully physical Suzuki method. To this day I don’t really understand what we were doing when we made ourselves into Suzuki Statues, but this video should give you an idea.
Another time a French mime named Bili visited us for a few weeks. Despite being a titan of physical education, Bili neither boasted nor bragged.
Finally, in my participation in the school musical, I received my first exposure to dance.
OK, so it wasn’t really my first exposure to dance, because I should give credit where credit is due: middle school P.E. class.
In middle school P.E. there was a unit dedicated to square dancing. Yes, some bright mind in phys-ed thought leadership decided that the ripe age of 13 was the appropriate age for students to be forced to square dance with one another. “Kids, now that none of your clothes fit and that you have body odor that you’re unaware of, we believe this would be an appropriate time to dance with one another.” Thanks, State of California.
If I’m being honest, I’m still a bit scarred from the experience and––despite being a “dancer” today––I would probably turn down an invitation to go square dancing this weekend.
It didn’t help, I’m sure, that our P.E. teacher had no interest in square dancing. Remember, American P.E. teachers are ex-jocks. They’re the “watch football on Sunday mornings” type, not the “out dancing until 1 A.M. on Saturday” type.
In retrospect, though, I think our square dancing P.E. teacher must have taken a kind of sadistic pleasure in seeing a group of punky 13 year-olds have to do something so uncomfortable for them. 13 year-olds are smart, of course, but it would take extraordinary precocity to lean into the absurdity of bureaucratically compelled square dancing. Had I been that P.E. teacher, I would have been laughing maniacally on the inside watching those teens muddle through something so needlessly painful.
My English teachers of old liked to harp… So What? And given that this is my blog, I’m certainly entitled to say F*** your “so what” and send you back to Reddit or wherever you’ve come from. But, Dear Reader, you’ve read this far and so I think you’ve earned something.
The inspiration for this essay was my own experience as a P.E. teacher. I am not a public school gym teacher, of course. I have been teaching dance to adults. But each time I have tried to reflect on my experience as a teacher, I think of the missed opportunities of my own physical education.
I believe that dance, the martial arts, and theater are areas in which American P.E. has been woefully inadequate. And it seems to me that there is the potential for phys-ed to actually have “a moment.”
With all the talk of remote-learning and post-COVID education reform, perhaps P.E. should be part of that discussion, instead of being left out because of its status as an educational afterthought and a cultural hangover.
What does it mean for P.E. that:
-More and more students are being homeschooled?
-Online education is taking off and will surely get better and better?
-Public schools are “safety first” institutions, run by liability?
-COVID is here to stay?
*Or perhaps this was just my high school experience?
***Honorable mention for the pernicious swimming test, in which still-growing teens adorn bathing suits in front of their peers and an unfortunate lot have to reveal that they never learned to swim.
****It may have been later than 7 a.m., but it always FELT like 7 a.m.
Two weeks ago I––for the first time in my life––taught a dance class. Someday I will write a memoir about the exceedingly unlikely sequence of events that led to me teaching that class, starting with a glitch-in-the-matrix literal “woman in a red dress.” But today I’m focusing on documenting for myself––and anyone who is interested in pedagogy––what I believe makes for a good dance teacher and a good dance class.
I bring this up to show that I pay a lot of attention to teachers. That attention in part manifests in my learning. In general I’m a good student: I become at least competent in whatever it is I try to learn. But teaching a class––and not just learning––has helped me to understand that I have also incidentally learned from my teachers how to teach.
By imitating the great teachers I’ve had, I stand on the shoulders of giants. And I think one day I will be an excellent teacher like those giants.
Below I’ve outlined a few of my teaching tenets. These are the pillars on which my classes now stand. They are subject to change as I develop.
Let the Material Do the Talking
I’ve explained before that I did the heavy lifting of my learning of partner dancing in Buenos Aires despite a poor understanding of Spanish. This led me to the conclusion that for dance teachers, speech is unnecessary. It may even detract from the students’ experience.
I also noted sparse speech in classes with Yismari. Basically the only words you hear in her class are numbers (for counting) and que rico, que rica la vida (forpraising the musicians who make our music).
The fantastic Chinese language teachers I had at Oberlin understood this as well. Language students learn by speaking, not by listening to their teachers instruct.
I’ve come to view speech, in fact, as something almost pernicious. At worst, lecturing is the teacher’s egoic energy-sucking tool. Think of how one of your college professors used to drone on, stroking his own ego. He took the spirit, adventure, and discovery out of learning.*
Keep it 100% Positive, Always
I remember the exact moment I gave up studying math. I went into the office hours of my MIT-educated multivariable calculus professor and came away feeling stupid.
The most important thing I’ve ever learned about teaching and learning––all credit to my mentor––is that validation leads to motivation. Period. If you want your students to learn something, they must be self-motivated. If you want them to be motivated, they need to hear how well they’re doing.
But to the knowing teacher, just by showing up they’re doing extraordinarily well! Certainly much better than yesterday, wouldn’t you say? And if you come to my class, you’ll know it.
Let the Kids Play
There’s a part of me that’s a patriarch. That same part of me wants a plan and curriculum. And to stick to that plan and curriculum. And by executing that plan and curriculum, the class will therefore be fun and the students will have fun. Diktat: Fun will be had by all!
But that’s not how fun works.
In the first class I taught with my teaching partner, we lost control of the class a couple times. In those moments, if I’m being honest, I experienced momentary panic. But as I looked around I observed taht the students were actually enjoying themselves. They were playing! They were having fun!
Teaching involves some toeing-of-the-line between chaos and order. It’s almost like a dance, if you will. I think there’s likely a lot I’ll need to learn about managing this dynamic.
Lean in to Your Own Love of What You’re Teaching
I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while now: Since all of the world’s information is online there is no reason to go to an in-person class for information. This might sound a little too SoCal for some readers, but I believe the modern teacher’s job is less about impartinginformation and more about curating a vibe.
A student said to me last week, “I love how much you love this.” In my view, there is no better compliment for the modern teacher than that. It is precisely the foundation of the vibe I would like to curate.
Make it Relatable
One reason bachata has exploded in popularity is that it has adopted mixes with pop music in a way that salsa has not. To be clear, I don’t advocate for salsa to go the way of bachata. Due to some cultural-historical factors that I don’t really understand, I don’t think it even could.
That said, there is a challenge for me to remember that when my students hear Cuban music, they don’t hear what I hear. For this reason I start the class with reggaeton and end the class with reggaeton––a strategy I’ve seen employed by Yismari and some other teachers I’ve had.
Give Students Individual Attention
Recently I took a Brazilian jiujitsu class that I regard as probably the best BJJ class I’ve ever taken. There were several factors that made it a great class, but one in particular was the level of individual attention I received from the teacher.
Specifically, the teacher noticed I was making a mistake. Beyond that, I consistently made the mistake each time I executed a specific sequence. The teacher stopped the entire class and demonstrated the proper technique. (Kindly, my teacher did not call me out by name in front of the class for the error.)
It disappoints me how often I see teachers in all fields check their phones during classes.**
Remember Your First Class and Keep it Simple
A good portion of our students come in from a nearby hostel in Ocean Beach. Classes are Monday nights, and since there’s nothing else really happening Mondays, they follow the hostel’s activities coordinator to our class.
Many of those hostel guests are taking their first ever dance class with me. That means we have students who are feeling a jumble of nervousness, anxiety, enthusiasm, cautiousness, defensiveness, excitement, and a handful of other tingles. For many of those students, we are combatting lifelong “I can’t dance” personal narratives.
For this reason, it is essential that the students succeed. There is a part of the teacher’s ego that wants to demonstrate a flashy figure or technique. But the students are better served by the most basic of basics––if that’s what success means.
The upside to this, I hope, is that some of those students will cherish that small success and be motivated to show up again. Either in our class or to another class.
I still remember going to my first class, nearly eight years ago. And it is not lost on me that some of these Day 1 students may be unlikely dance teachers themselves eight years from now.
*There’s a time and place for droning on and stroking your own ego––and that’s a personal blog that nobody is required to read for a grade!
**The exception here is to document class for social media, which I regard as an essential tool for “vibe curation.”
After seven years of consistent dancing, I guess I am now seen by beginners and onlookers as someone who “knows what he’s doing out there.”
I want to emphasize that this is still surprising to me––I still haven’t completely come to terms with “dancer” as part my identity. But it’s happening.
Last night a young man at a dance event asked me if I had any advice for new dancers. I gave the guy a couple of pointers, but his question rattled around my head afterward. In retrospect my answer was pitifully incomplete. With the benefit of rumination, hindsight, and a delete key, I’ve taken another stab at it.
Let’s be real: Most guys show up to their first dance classes with some idea that they might meet a woman (or two!) sometime in the future.* Hell, maybe even at their first class! And that means partner dancing.
Partner dancing is, of course, social. Maybe romantic. It can be sexy. And gosh, during those first partner dancing classes you will talk to a lot of women. Probably more than you’ve ever talked to before in your life––how exciting!
The thing about partner dancing, though, is that you don’t really learn the basics of dancing. If I were to design a college-level curriculum of Latin dance, partner dancing would not be included in the first semester. Learning to partner dance right off the bat is kind of like a beginning boxer learning jabs, crosses, and uppercuts, but neglecting breathing, footwork, and head movement.
The consequence of doing so for a boxer would be getting punched in the nose a lot. For dancers, the consequence of this––which is very apparent on dance floors in North America––is a lot of men who can lead complicated figures but can’t actually dance very well, a condition Son y Casino cutely calls turnpatternitis.
If I could go back in time, I would have started with a salsa suelta or men’s styling class like the class I took with Yismari. Of course back when I was just getting started you couldn’t have paid me to attend a class that was essentially indistinguishable from Zumba for me.** But doing so would have been wise.
This leads me to the idea that…
Yo Perreo Sola: Dance at Home
Real exponential growth in information technology only began once Bill Gates put personal computers in every home in America. Once every nerd in America could tinker with software from the comfort of his mom’s basement, the world started to change.
Cross Bill Gates with Bad Bunny and you get the idea: To get better at dance you have to take it home with you. It can’t stop at the end of class (or it can––but you won’t improve as fast).
I feel kind of silly putting this in writing, but these days I’m always dancing around my apartment. If I’m cleaning, cooking, putzing around, hell––I’ve been dancing while writing this. A friend of mine coined the term “perreo en silla,” to describe the low-key reggaeton grooving she did at work. No partner needed, by the way.
Learn to enjoy dancing by yourself as soon as possible so that you can take it home with you. And again, this is something a salsa suelta class helps with.
It’s cool to “just chill” for a few eight counts. In fact, it’s good dancing.
Upon visiting a dance club, someone who doesn’t dance is likely to be cowed by the dancing couples’ complicated figures. Some see it, turn on their heel, leave, and never come back. Others say to themselves, “I want to learn to do that,” and begin to do so.
My point here is that the impetus to learn––insofar as there is one beyond just meeting women––is often those beautiful, complicated figures. And so the dance student attends class after class, commits figures to memory, and maxes out his mental hard drive.
The result is frequently turnpatternitis. I was once a sufferer myself. I still cringe at the memory of a woman once telling me to “dance the music” mid-song.
A dancer exhibiting symptoms of turnpatternitis as I was must go through a period of unlearning: Less is more; it’s OK to just do nothing.
I have a theory that this is an especially difficult concept for culturally North American dancers. The same way that meditation is a struggle for the unquiet mind, an easy two-step is fear-inducing for the insecure dancer. We want to move move move, turn turn turn, figure figure figure. But brother, chill out.
If you look at great Latin dancers, you consistently see tempered, quiet moments in their dances. (And I should distinguish, here, between big and gaudy “Dancing with the Stars” TV dancing and the kind of easy improvisation you’ll see at a dance club. I speak here to the latter.)
When the music slows down, great dancers slow down with it. It’s time to relax. It’s time to enjoy the moment, or your follow’s beauty, or the music, or the lighting, or whatever.
Some of the most enjoyable moments of a night of dancing are a few eight counts of justfeeling yourself.
Oh––and by the way––I promise your dance partner will appreciate it. After a night of being yanked around through figures on figures on figures, a little chill is welcome.
A final note on this: There’s probably an aesthetic argument to be made here. It may be that the quiet moments of a dance highlight the complex figures. Perhaps a yin and yang dynamic creates a truly brilliant dance.
Don’t forget to bring a towel!
Seriously, though. When you’re super sweaty nobody wants to touch you.
If You Enjoy Athletics, You Will Enjoy Dance
Now that I can dance I find it absurd that so many of my friends entertain the narrative that they cannot dance or that dance is not enjoyable to them. As a rule, any guy who has ever been any kind of athlete can enjoy dance and has the potential to be a great dancer.
Joe Rogan is our cultural paragon. Despite being a famous personality, accomplished comedian, and wealthy beyond imagination, Rogan is bitterly fearful of dance. In 2019 his friends challenged him to do a “Sober October” dance challenge. Rogan would not participate. He “doesn’t dance.”
While martial arts might be the easiest to compare with dance, all sports share some technical aspect with dance. Take the drop step in basketball for instance (a half turn). Lynn Swann, one of the greatest to ever catch a football, was a ballet dancer. Mario Lopez, Bayside High wrestling champ, is an avid salsero.
While I’ve had a bit of trouble adjusting to the music and culture of the San Diego dance scene (timba and the Cuban style are not big down here), one thing I like about San Diego dancers is that they smile. It really makes a big difference.
Start every dance with a smile. And if you mess up, smile bigger. And laugh. I know there are some self-serious dancers out there perfecting their craft with tremendous gravity, but to me this about having fun at the end of the day. So smile.
Watch People Dance (and find some favorite dancers)
One of my cousins is an absolutely incredible dancer. He’s also about 13 years old. The little man just goes on YouTube and copies what he sees.
As far as I can tell, this is how you develop a style. Once you have a base level of body control––perhaps developed in a salsa suelta class––it’s simple to mimic models on YouTube. It’ll happen subconsciously, in fact.
Don’t Start Learning with a Woman (or if you do, get a head start)
The learning curve for leads (typically men) is much steeper than it is for follows (typically women). A follow becomes a competent dancer within a month or two of consistent dancing. For leads it takes more like six months. This means that if a man starts dancing with his wife, she is going to be competent several months before he is.
I’m just going to tell it like it is: For most couples, this is a challenging dynamic. Men don’t like to be incompetent––especially in front of their partners. (“I don’t need directions.”) For their part, women can sometimes be impatient (insensitive?!) with incompetent men.
Take that uncomfortable situation and then add the fact that a couple typically takes lessons in a roomful of strangers, triggering an absurd “they’re all looking at me” (they’re not) personal dialogue. Then take that and add a lifelong narrative of “I can’t dance.”
I have never met a man who is totally cool with being obviously the least competent person in a room in front of his partner. Unless you are that perfect man, I suggest that you start learning before she does. If you are that perfect man, I’d like to shake your hand.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy / Dance Like No One is Watching / Nobody Cares if You Suck / Insert Your Favorite Cliché
During my year taking 3-5 dance classes per week in Buenos Aires I developed a substantial crush on one of my classmates, as is wont to happen. I’m not going to say I was infatuated or head-over-heels, but I was in deep enough that I was tripping over my words in conversation. Not that I’m normally silver-tongued, but that means something coming from me.
Anyway, one night she and I found ourselves at the beautiful La Viruta ballroom in Palermo attending their weekly salsa social. She looked stunning with her characteristic laid-back summer-of-love style: big hair, big earrings, a simple top, and a long flowing skirt. I asked her to dance and she accepted.
For a moment it was bliss. But then…
You see, that long, flowing skirt was truly a long, flowing skirt. And as I led her through a basic left-hand turn, my foot landed on her skirt’s hem. As she walked through the turn––ever gracefully––her skirt unravelled. She finished the turn with her skirt around her ankles, leaving her nalgas exposed to the entire ballroom.
In a flash, I let go of all romantic intention. God bless her, she pulled that thing up and finished the song, cherry red in the face.
I still cringe every time I think about that moment––I’ll never forget it. (And P––, if you read this… I’m sorry.) But I love to tell this story to beginner dancers because, look: What happened to me (and to her) will not happen to you. And even if it does, you’ll survive. There are a maximum of two people in the world who remember that moment. And let’s face it, she likely repressed the memory.
Of the thousands of dances I’ve had in my life, I have only accidentally undressed one woman. And it wasn’t so bad.
In Summary: Dance like an Old Man
For a while here in San Diego I was meeting regularly with a dance partner to practice. She was 21 at the time, and early on in our meetings she told me that she most enjoyed dancing with old men. I explained that I was only 32 and she clarified that she meant “really old” men––los viejitos. You can decide for yourself what “really old” means.
But my dance partner was really saying something. If you watch old guys dance, they do everything I’ve described in this essay.
1. They do not give a f–– if anyone is watching them dance.
2. Complicated figures make their knees hurt; they keep it simple.
3. They’re OK with “just chilling.”
4. They smile.
5. They always bring a towel.
**The irony, of course, is that there are always more women in salsa suelta classes than there are in partner dancing classes. Take note you would-be seducers.
There’s an idea that’s very trendy in tech and internet culture that inspiration is bullshit. For my blogging peers who write for the Big Audience, the “best practice” is to make writing mechanical: Force yourself to sit down and write for thirty minutes per day. Or an hour per day. Or 1000 words per day. Even better: Make it a morning routine! That’s what the Great Masters did, according to some productivity pornographer, somewhere.
But it doesn’t work for me. It never has. I’ve tried several times to make my writing habitual or like clockwork. The result is always the same: writing that is rote and uninspired.
To be satisfying for me, writing must be paroxysmal.
Jiujitsu Drilling as Dancing, for instance, came to be after nearly four years of thinking about the connection between dance and Brazilian Jiujitsu.
It’s been two full months since my last post in my “Learning to Draw” series. Where I left off I had just made a switch from graphite to charcoal and I was beginning to “paint” with a pencil.
You may be disappointed to learn that I have not had any higher-order conceptual breakthroughs since then. But I have done some cool stuff and have greatly improved as a technical artist.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve done since my last post was attend an in-person figure drawing class, complete with nude model.* A few observations about the class: First, it was around 80% women. In a flash, my collegiate experience made much more sense. Second, the most useful part of the class was not the drawing, but looking at my peers’ sketches at the end of class.
It occurs to me now that non-artists only ever see finished products: things on display in galleries, on walls, or wherever. I was able to learn a lot about how great drawings are made by seeing my classmates works-in-progress.
For example, it may be characteristic of novice draftsmen, but compared to my classmates, I was conservative with my use of paper. To date, when I sketch a human figure I meticulously draw an arm, then a torso, then a head, and so on until the figure is complete. All of this confined neatly to a portion of the page.
The most skilled artists in my class, however, took a different tack. In a single sketch a figure might have three, four, or five arms, each protruding from a torso at a different angle. After class I actually asked a young woman why her sketches looked that way, to which she responded that she simply “didn’t like the first couple arms.” I see.
If I had to guess why beginners tend to be conservative like me, it’s that we can’t bear to see our mistakes glaring up at us from the page. We have some attachment to the ill-drawn arm. I imagine that skilled artists who have drawn thousands upon thousands of arms have an easier time letting go of their deranged phantom limbs.
Besides the figure drawing class, I have continued to draw on my own. I can basically break down my efforts into four categories: gestural drawings with vine charcoal, copying the works of master artists, still lifes, and cartooning. Each of these categories presents its own set of challenges.
Gestural drawings with vine charcoal, for instance, require a kind of looseness and release from self-criticism that is almost antithetical to my inclination as a beginner artist. All I want to do is use a well-sharpened pencil to delineate this from that. But vine charcoal won’t allow it. My hand is literally forced.
I have been copying some famous drawings from the pages of Nathan Goldstein’s books. I flip through these books and when a drawing catches my eye, I’ll try to make a copy. As far as I know, there is no better way to gain an appreciation for a drawing than to try to replicate it. I am in awe of the economy with which the masters work. While perhaps not the most creative work, this practice has helped me make considerable technical strides.
I’m on a low-carb diet, so the only fruit I keep in my house are limes. It turns out that they make a fine subject for an artist, so I’ve been drawing a lot of limes. And sweet potatoes. I just began drawing still lifes in the last week or so, but I expect to draw a lot of limes and sweet potatoes in the coming months.
Finally, I retain an interest in cartooning, which I have mentioned before. (Oh, and speaking of cartoons, I helped to produce this hilarious cartoon animation.) But I have a few thoughts on my mind about cartooning.
First, I realize that I’m living out an archetypal experience in my art education. My out-of-nowhere interest in drawings still lifes in the past few weeks is coinciding with a shrinking interest in cartooning. I remember from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that this is precisely what happens as adolescents artists grow into adulthood.
I think also that I have more difficulty getting “lost” in cartooning than I do when doodling or doing representational drawing. The meditative “lostness” of drawing and making art is perhaps the best part. As Einstein said, “When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute.” It turns out that in case you are short a pretty girl, a similar experience can be had with sweet potato.
*If you were to time-travel to tell my 20 year-old self that he will someday attend such a class, he would not believe you. Actually––I’m not sure that even my 31 year-old self would believe you.
I thought perhaps sharing my timba Spotify playlist and a few of my favorite songs could inspire some new timba fans and casino dancers. I’ve had a difficult time discovering new timba music and, were I a beginning dancer, I would love to discover a playlist like this.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a music expert. What I lack in expertise I hope to make up for with enthusiasm.
What is timba? I quote SonYCasino* blogger and Cuban dance authority Daybert Linares Díaz, who writes:
It is impossible to be part of the Cuban dance community and not know what “timba” is. By this, I do not mean know as in: to have a definition of it; rather: to just know what it is when you listen to it, in the same way that you know love when you feel it, even as you cannot define it.
As a Supreme Court Justice might say, “I know it when I hear it.”
I was introduced to timba while learning to dance in Buenos Aires. I shunned Argentine tango in favor of the modern brand of Cuban casino (widely known as Cuban salsa) popular there. That form of modern casino is danced to timba music. Some people actually refer to the modern casino dance as timba as well––mistakenly, according to SonYCasino.
I’ve highlighted a few of my favorite songs for those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by a six-hour playlist.
This is my favorite song at the moment. And––I’m not gonna lie––my enjoyment of this song is completely biased because of the video featured above: an improvised social dance between Yoandy Villaurrutia & Nina. My dude’s sunglasses fly off while dancing and he manages to catch them on beat and put them back on. What the f––– man? I like Yoandy’s “NewStyle” so much that I’m currently taking his online classes. He’s next-level.
But even without Yoandy, this song from 2004 still hits.
Barbaro Fines y Su Mayimbe – Vuelvete Loca
Likely my most-listened to song of all time. It is exceedingly difficult to dance unless you’re truly listening. It was probably Vuelvete Loca that inspired me to begin learning how to dance and not just partnerdance.
And I’m no linguist but…
Es que tus ojos me matan
Es que tus labios me envuelven
Tú me seduces el alma
Y haces que yo te recuerde
Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera – Me Dicen Cuba
I couldn’t make this list without a song from Havana D’Primera. By my account, they’re arguably the modern timba band and it was hard to pick a single song. I picked this one because it stands out as more subdued than a lot of the timba I enjoy. Subued or not, I swear you can understand the lyrics of this song without knowing a word of Spanish.
Elito Revé y su Charangon with Alexander Delgado (Gente de Zona), Serguei Yera Madera
Yo no soy una gua-gua mamita
Yo soy la aplanadora
Gente de Zooooona.
Honorable Mention: Dario Alvarez y El Team Habana – La Noche
Just this evening this young timba band popped up on social media––and their single has hips! Timba bands tend to be older in general than your average face on Tik Tok. It’s nice to see some young blood on the scene. Hope sharing their stuff along with some all-time-greats helps their cause in some way.
*If you’re into Cuban music and dance at all you need to browse SonYCasino. Díaz has answered all of your questions. Seriously. And if he hasn’t already, you can email him and he’ll answer them personally. (I did just that!)