Choice

Nothing evokes my decision-making anxiety quite like the paper towel aisle of Target. Not over the importance of the decision, obviously, but just the sheer quantity–of options, factors, and unsolicited contradictory advice on every label.

1-Ply? 2-Ply? Quilted? Do I want maximum absorption or fastest absorption? Or the best wet-strength? Who’s doing this “scientific testing” anyway? I could get the extra-soft ones, but they’re not made from recycled material. Should I just pick the cheapest ones–by square-footage? By volume? By absorption capacity?

The more options, the more inevitable disappointment. It’s referred to as the paradox of choice: the fact that an overabundance of choice has actually increased anxiety and unhappiness in postindustrial society.  No matter what you pick, the list of what you didn’t get will always stack higher than what you did.

Sometimes it makes me want to buy nothing at all.

So what do you do to avoid standing there forever, paralyzed by the consumer’s dilemma? The recommended strategy is satisficing–just picking something good enough so you can get on with life. And it works. As long as no one questions your paper towel choices. And as long as you don’t find yourself in a mess that really has you wishing for 3-Ply.

Just satisfice and get on with it. After all, it’s just a stupid stupid paper towel roll.

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Unless it’s not.

In a choice-saturated culture, it’s no wonder that the language of choice is at the center of our politics.

“My body, my choice!”

Take Liberal feminism, with it’s spotlight on autonomy as the key women’s right. Putting aside the daunting task of assessing the social causes and implications of each choice–along with the insufferable personal scrutiny involved in doing so–choice feminism instead celebrates the act of choosing itself as inherently empowering.

Bikinis, hijabs, lipstick, nose jobs, leg hair, sex, abortion, careers, babies, marriage, divorce. They can all be celebrated as feminist choices–but especially if  you can profess with unwavering confidence how you made the absolute best decision with your completely independent will.

The main point is spot on: personal choices surrounding one’s body and life path should be made available and respected. But assumption often implicit in the tone–that such choices automatically carry superwoman-type sense of “empowerment”–is another issue.

What if choice doesn’t always feel so powerful, free, and…super? Maybe it’s because no matter which way you turn, you’re still surrounded by flashy signs and crowds cheering for the paths you didn’t choose and against the one you did. Or maybe because you have no “right” decision that you can make proudly and loudly, only a closet full of varying shades of wrong-ish.

Can there be space in the language of empowered choice to talk about uncertainty, doubt, regret? And loss: choice always means loss, big or small, of what might have been.

Almost makes you want to opt out of the whole choice thing all together.

“It’s not a choice!”

It’s also no wonder that not choosing  has become a political mantra and legal defense for the modern gay rights movement.

Denying choice is the quickest and safest way out when when you’re accused of making all the wrong choices. “I couldn’t” needs less explanation than “I didn’t,” and “I had to” carries less moral baggage than “I decided to.” With choice out of the equation, you don’t have to directly handle and detangle those claims of wrongness and rightness thrown at you.

And of course it’s not incorrect. As long as you’re talking about attraction, and not identity or behavior, its basically involuntary by definition. There’s a reason we call it “falling in love” and not “jumping in love” (or lust or whatever).

But we jump into other things–relationships, sex, visibility, politics, communities, futures.  Making “not a choice” the central message of a movement is a decision to treat inevitability of falling as more defining than the courage of jumping.

But what if we need to deal with both? Can we deal with the fact that we all can jump, but not without falling back to earth? Jumping not into the infinite sky like superwoman, but back onto our human legs. Jumping as high as we can, but with the risk of broken bones in the landing.

Jumping without knowing if we’ll be caught. Jumping over the obstacles in front of us, but only when our power exceeds the size. Jumping over dirty puddles, or landing right in them, making messes too messy for even 3-ply to fix. Leaping forward down the best path we can see to get where we can get from where we are.

Choosing to jump, because the only thing scarier is standing still.

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Race Me: Adventures in Off-White

Sometimes, when I fill out racial demographics forms, I have this strange urge to check around me as if there might be someone looking to catch me for lying. Of course there never is. Not literally anyway.

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I first encountered those racial checkboxes when I was 7 and starting to take North Carolina state standardized tests (Side note: do 7-year-olds really need to be taking standardized tests?).

I remember thinking it was sort of funny that some of the categories were colors and some were continents, but mostly I just wanted to know the right answer (this was a multiple choice question after all).

I knew that Lebanon was in Asia, so I picked “Asian” a few times, until I got the sense that wasn’t really what it meant. I picked “White” sometimes, since it seemed close enough skin-wise. Once I asked a teacher. The reply: “Um . . . why don’t you just pick ‘Other.’ That’s probably what it’s for.”

Much later on–when the answer to “Which one am I?” became “Google it”–I would learn that the racial categorization of Arabs (like many other “borderline White” groups) in America had been in dispute since the first major immigration wave in the late 19th and early 20th century. Through lobbying and several lawsuits, Arab immigrants asserted their whiteness and the citizenship rights that came with it, escaping the alternative “Chinese-Mongolian” categorization.

The approach was “if you can’t beat [White supremacy], join it”–not fighting racial discrimination as a whole, but just trying to get on the “winning” side.

Did it work? Eh, sometimes.

“Race is a social construct.” That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but it seems particularly true when you look at the borderlines, the categorical edges which keep getting shifted, redrawn, reconstructed to fit the time and place.

Near the edges, your grip on socially accepted whiteness is tenuous and conditional, so you better hold on tight–the wrong accent, religion, name, or even weird lunch food could send you over the edge. And even if you play it right, sometimes politics defines the racial Other. Even as a six-year-old, I could feel that Arabs had gotten a lot less “White” after 9-11, even if I didn’t really understand. This year was another one of those times.

But despite any baggage that could come with being identified as Arab or otherwise Middle Eastern, I was at least as likely to be identified as a whole lot of other things: Latina, Greek, Russian (by people who knew my first name), half-Asian.

And of course, like most people in the “ethnically ambiguous” zone, my most frequent classification was “umm . . . so what are you?”

Fun recurring conversations from my childhood:

Where are you from?

Well, I was born in Delaware.

But like where are you from originally? [That line’s a classic.]

My parents are from Lebanon if that’s what you mean.

Where’s that?

Um, It’s in the Middle East.

Is that where they have a bunch of terrorists and stuff?

Uh, sometimes?

So like, what…are you? 

Um, I’m Lebanese.

What’s that? Does that mean you’re a lesbian?

*Gulp* *Nervous laugh* [Was I? Sort of?]

i feel that

There’s something validating about being identifiable. Even in an arbitrary or messed-up system, there’s comfort in knowing you have a place in it, with a word that everyone can agree on.

When I moved to California in high school I started getting identified as Persian (there’s a significant Persian population in the area). I found the relative geographical accuracy refreshingly close enough.  And hey, I definitely wasn’t the only racially ambiguous intruder into the “White” category on demographics forms.

When I arrived at college in New York, “Arab” was suddenly a recognized and relevant mainstream ethnic category (not to mention a highly politicized one). And just when I thought I had those checkboxes figured out, I also realized that lots of Arabs don’t identify as White.

Race is a social construct, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. Social constructs are very real. They can determine who gets the job, who gets the citizenship, who faces charges, who lives and dies. So if we’re fighting about categories that have no inherent or universal meaning, it’s because they mean something here, now, and to us.

In recent years, many Arab-American activists have pushed for separate census classification, arguing that the current system statistically erases a group with distinct social issues and discrimination. Currently, the Census Bureau is testing out a separate Middle Eastern and North African category for 2020 (though defining and subdividing that category is a whole other messy issue).

I guess what no one told me about multiple choice questions is that sometimes you can change the answer choices.

“How do you self-identify?” That’s a common response now to “Which one am I?” It initially struck me as funny, because identifying me always seemed like a job for the school system, the government, classmates, activists, random strangers, and just about everyone else besides me.

Yes, it’s important to give people agency in defining themselves, but “agency” isn’t as always as free as it sounds: sometimes it just means deciding out how turn a history of judgments and politics and shifting boundaries into the least-wrong multiple choice answer.

Dancing with Nietzsche: “The Deed is Everything”

“There is no ‘being’ behind the doing, effecting, becoming.’The doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.”

–Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals*

You know that feeling when you read something that resonates through you with this funny sense of being both mind-blowing and intuitively real–like it hit something you didn’t quite know you already knew? This line did that for me the first time I read it, though it took a while for me to put a finger on why. It’s an idea that has a lot of implications in relation to modern philosophy and identity politics, but I think it especially clicked for me because of my experience as a dancer.

To most people, a world of all verbs and no nouns might seem like an interesting mind trip, but but too abstract to matter to practical reality. For dancers, it can describe the economics of our profession.

For the most part, all that we create, all that we sell, all that we build our lives around is doing. A dance piece or performance can be referred to as a “product,” but only metaphorically: ultimately, it only exist as long as there are living people doing actions in the moment.

The identity is just as alive and fleeting as the creation. You say “I am a dancer” not because you have achieved a status, reached a certain level, earned a degree, or signed a contract, but because you are dancing today, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future. And increasingly, being a “professional dancer” is meaning less and less of having a stable, static company position and title, and more of going out there day after day to find a new job to take, a new dance to do so that you can keep on being.

And it’s not just a theory. The statement comes with a driving imperative: Don’t stop moving. Don’t stop doing. Because if I stopped doing, what would I be?

If I’m not dancing, could I still be a dancer? Could I still be me?

(These questions hit particularly hard when I’m on a forced break from dance–and I’m sure they hit harder for dancers approaching a career transition.)

The nice answer is yes, that my experiences have shaped me and inform any future path, and that once a dancer is always a dancer, and that who I am as a person is not defined by any pursuit or activity.

I try to believe that–and I do, sometimes, somewhat. But if I’m being completely honest, part of me is not so sure. Because so much of what it means to be me, to really live as myself, has been experienced in the action–in the daily rituals, the gestures, the sense of exertion and the electrifying sensation of being alive that comes with it. And if that stopped . . . well, I don’t think I would be nothing, but I wonder if I might unavoidably be less in some way.

And I really don’t know what the answer to that is. So I just keep on doing. 

*Note: Like a lot of Nietzsche, I like this quote way better out of the context, which is pro-oppression and bleh.

(Nietzsche was really into dance though.)

Why Sports Should be Considered a Form of Dance

If you’re a dancer, you have probably heard various forms of the “is dance a sport?” argument for longer than you can remember. You probably got into debates about it at some point and even used it as an essay topic in middle school (with a quote from Martha Graham, Balanchine, or Einstein thrown in for good measure).

It got old, but somehow people are still regurgitating “Dance is a sport”/ “No it’s an art” like it’s new.

Whatever. Yes dance and sports have some similarities, but I say they’re asking the wrong question. Sure, I get why people would want to align dance with something which has more funding and social support in our society, but what if dance was the standard which we compared other things to?

You know what’s more fun and mildly subversive than arguing why dance should be considered a type of sport? Arguing . . .

Why Sports Should be Considered a Form of Dance:

It is true that sports can be performed purely for competition, but at least in the professional world, athletic teams rely on the support of audience members (either live or though the use of film). Therefore, it is fair to assume that sports are primarily a form of theatrical entertainment which attracts audiences through both the virtuosity and dynamism of the movement itself and ongoing narrative arcs (which typically have predictable outcomes, but the exceptions can move entire cities to the streets).

Some people have been inclined to exclude sports from the category of artistic performance because of their largely un-choreographed nature. However, this ignores the importance of improvisation in today’s concert dance world. Furthermore, it is a mistake to assume that improvised movement lacks structure or intention. Football players, for instance, engage in a rule-based structured form of contact improvisation centered around a creatively-shaped ball prop. 

Then there are the performers themselves: while it is difficult to generalize about their training, it is fair to say that many of them work hard at shaping their technique and consistency of movement, while also developing serious expressive abilities (tennis players, for example, even expand their expressions of anger and frustration to the realm of dance theater with vocal embellishments).

Of course, if we are to consider athletes as dancers, it is completely reasonable to judge them by standards of aesthetics, movement quality, musicality, and emotional appeal. Basketball players do quite well, impressing with their complex footwork, suspended jumps, and lively sense of rhythm, along with tense and quickly shifting partnerships. Baseball players are not as engaging on their feet, but their occasional floor work sections are delightfully fearless. I find golf players lacking in this department, but to be fair, I’ve never been much of a minimalist.

One might even argue that athletes deserve the same respect, pay, and access to medical treatment that dancers do.

So yes, I’m kidding, but I’m also a little serious. While I’m sick of dance getting the short end of the stick, I’m really not interested in claiming superiority over athletes.

In fact, on some level I honestly think that there is something radically beautiful in seeing sports, and any other movement in the world as dance. It means the viewer is the one deciding what is art (even if the creator thought they were just chasing a ball). It means the viewer has the authority to give art meaning. It means anyone can watch dance whenever they want. It means that we don’t have to teach people how to watch dance because they already do it all the time.

And then there’s the idea that dance is enough* in itself. The idea of “dance” is a perfectly legitimate and valuable framework for looking at what dancers do, and even for looking at the rest of the world. We don’t have to associate it with sports or other art forms or other academic fields for it to become legitimate.

Now get that football costume on and dance.

*An phrase I stole from this awesome post about Dance Movement Therapy

The Art of Over-Interpretation: O Christmas Tree

So we’re listening to Christmas songs, and I’m like:

It has kind of a cruel irony to it, right? Because it seems to be talking about something that’s constant and reliable in an otherwise changing world. But if you think about it, it’s a Christmas tree. It’s probably already been chopped down and it’s gonna get thrown out on the curb some time between February and March. So even though they’re singing about how it will stay green through all the seasons, you know the tree isn’t even gonna last to summer.

It’s like everything is temporary, even the things that have given you the impression of permanence and constancy in the past.

Then again, my Christmas tree is plastic, so . . .

Reality note: turns out (according to Wikipedia, the true source of all knowledge) even though the original song wasn’t about cut Christmas trees (just evergreens), historical interpretations were pretty much just as sad:

“Joachim August Zarnack (de) (1777–1827) in 1819 wrote a tragic love song inspired by this folk song, taking the evergreen, “faithful” fir tree as contrasting with a faithless lover.”

So Merry Christmas people! And/or good luck on your post-Hanukah recovery! And/or Happy Kwanzaa’s Eve! And/or Happy Thursday!

Dropping In

I’m done with the semester and back at home! What I wrote on the plane last night between episodes of Full House and JetBlue popcorn chips:

Since my finals week this semester lasted longer than my actual finals (don’t hate me–I had a lot of paper finals that were already turned in) I spent a lot of the time taking open dance classes around the city. Particularly, I spent some time in classes that I’ve never taken before, probably won’t take again anytime in the foreseeable future, and didn’t expect to be particularly good at.

Steps Lobby

See, there are two types of people in an open class: the regulars and the randos.

The benefits of being a regular are pretty obvious. You form relationships with teachers and other dancers. You become more familiar with the style and can work on a deeper, more detailed level. You hopefully get more personal attention and corrections over time. You have a name.

So why be a rando?

Sometimes it’s out of scheduling necessity (e.g. your schedule only lets you take that class during finals week), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its perks.

Worst case, you’re invisible. Best case, the instructor takes personal interest in you, wants to know your name and background, and gives specific feedback.

But either way, you get thrown into a strange, new world with nothing to lose. Sure, there’s a chance to make a first impression, but there’s no reputation, no expectations following you. Whatever you do now is what you are here. (But only for 90 minutes.)

You’ll get confused and a little lost and thrown off your game, and you’ll have to get a little stronger and smarter as you find your way back on. You can ride that first, fast part of the learning curve, even if you don’t look amazing while doing it.

And there’s something kind of special about knowing that whatever happens in that 90 minutes has never happened to you before and may never happen to you again. It’s not a replacement for what you do every day, but it has its own charm.

Because eventually, all dance studios and dance classes start to feel a little like home, no matter where on earth you are or who you’re with. And dropping in is like a little test of how quickly you can find a home in an unfamiliar setting, at least until you let go of it once again to find a new one.

Musings of a Process-Oriented Perfectionist

(Shameless navel gazing below)

I’ve always had difficulty categorizing myself (because, you know, categorizing is one of humanity’s favorite hobbies) as a “type A” or “type B” personality. Too intense and workaholic-y for the latter, not competitive or results-driven enough for the former. Nor would it make sense to say that I’ve found a “balance” between the two–both because aiming for the midpoint of a (false) binary has never been my favorite way of resolving conflicts and because my approach to life feels too dogmatic in its own way to call “balanced.”

Okay, good luck with that, Natalie.

While dancers are often stereotyped as perfectionists, and I can certainly relate to having high standards, unlike Natalie Portman here, I’m totally okay with the idea that I’ll never be “perfect.”

I’m not really that type of traditional result-oriented perfectionist. Getting angry about not reaching unattainable standards of perfection isn’t really my thing. Not that I haven’t tried that. There was a time when I would get upset about having bad natural turnout. Then I realized that I could be doing rotation exercises instead of complaining.

My current mindset is different, though maybe almost as obsessive. I consider myself a process-oriented “perfectionist” for lack of a better word. Paradoxical? Maybe, but let me explain.

When most people first hear phrases like “change what you can and accept what you can’t,” they are most affected by the second part, finding peace in letting go of worries over uncontrollable factors in their lives. I saw that aspect, but I focused particularly on the first part of that phrase, taking it as a challenge. I became determined to test the boundaries of my controllable universe, to milk my agency for all it was worth, to turn every last changeable possibility in my favor before I started blaming the outside world.

I’ve always been a bit bothered by the way people most people throw around phrases like “do your best” or “try your hardest” like they mean nothing, like they’re just feel-good consolation prizes to give to people when they achieve less-than-satisfying results.

“Oh, you got cut at that audition? At least you tried your best.”

But did I? How can you assume that? While you’re trying to console me, I’m freaking out over that moment when I zoned out while one of the combinations was being given, the way I neglected to pay attention to my head positioning in that last phrase, how I held back just a bit during the improv section, that time last week when I spent an hour on Facebook instead of doing floor barre exercises–all the ways in which I was capable of doing better and didn’t.

“I know you’re worried about that test next week, but just do your best.”

Just do my best? Seriously? Literally, you’re saying that I merely have to do every possible thing within my power in terms of preparation and execution to make that test go as well as possible. And that’s supposed to make me relax? Why am I even talking to you when I could be memorizing a textbook? AHHHH!

Or at least some part of me is thinking these things. Obviously I can understand that people are just trying to be nice and–at least in this extreme literal sense–don’t really mean “your best” when they say it.

But that’s what gets to me. Because in my world “your best” should be reserved for the highest possible standard of work towards a goal: the most effective, effortful, well-directed, rewarding process that could exist within the given circumstances. It’s an ideal that is a little more achievable than unattainable perfection (in that it is technically possible) but is usually more difficult and less common than mere “success” in results.

Some people just want to be perfect. Some people just want to get that contract or that trophy or that picket fence. I just want to be able to look back at the end of the process and–no matter how it turned out–know that there was nothing else I could have done. And if I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t think that I have ever 100% achieved that.

I’m not saying that this mindset is necessarily a good or bad thing. For me, it helps me develop a generally good time management and a sense of agency over my life. It also means that I frantically try to force every single person around me review my papers right before I turn them in, which is pretty annoying for people with better things to do. It means that I’m usually the first person to show up at a dance studio to warm up and the last one to leave, trying to take advantage of every moment I can find.  It means that I won’t get upset about a bad grade on a legitimately hard test that I couldn’t have anticipated, but I will freak out over missing a single question due to a careless error. 

It means that I take too long to make decisions, trying too hard to make them right. It means that I don’t spend time thinking about what I can never be. It means I’m trying to live without regrets. I have some anyway.

And just like “normal” perfectionism, it isn’t inherently neurotic or all-consuming: of course I waste time sometimes and make bad decisions and still forgive myself.

I’m just saying, there are more than two types of people in the world.