dancing


Beck’s Guero is the record that made me realize there is indeed a Holy Grail of rock and roll records—a record that rock and roll has been reaching for but never fully achieving for at least my lifetime. Here are my criteria for the Holy Grail and then a case for Guero as a candidate:

  1. It’s a great rock and roll record: consistent, very strong songwriting, arrangements, performances, great sound, and adventurous or at least beautiful production that also stands the test of time. It has to work as a whole—larger than the sum of it’s songs. It has to be musically interesting enough to get you and keep you even if you couldn’t understand the lyrics.
  2. It is a great dance record. Based on the evidence, this may be the most difficult criterion for a great rock record to meet. Records that you can sway to or jump around to, but are not made to dance to, fail this criterion. (If you can’t or don’t dance, you don’t get a vote on this one.)
  3. It is a great pop record. It’s accessible, catchy, melodic, and makes good use of harmonies.
  4. The lyrics occupy that evocative space between the boring extremes of story telling and completely cryptic. They are also not limited to pretentiousness or goofiness, and are at least occasionally poignant and/or profound.

These criteria are a lot to ask from a record, of course, thus “Holy Grail.” When I presented them to my friend Zen, he said something like, “Wait a second, rock records don’t need to be dance records. Is it really better to try to do both?” Very sensible. In fact, that’s the point. It’s generally a bad idea to try to do too much with a rock record—you end up doing less. There are tradeoffs.

This is why I chose “great” in criteria 1-3 instead of “perfect.” It was partly so that I could nominate an existing record—every perfect rock record so far miserably fails at least one of the other criteria—but also because I’ve come to think there are structural constraints at play. The consistent punchiness of a perfect dance record, for example, probably works against the dynamics and introspective moments of a perfect rock record.

So anyway, Guero:

I call Guero a great rock and roll record. It’s not perfect, so it could be vulnerable to a new record coming along; it has its lazy moments, notably the intro to “Rental Car,” and to a lesser extent the verses of “Missing” and “Earthquake Weather.” Guero’s songwriting, performances, and sounds, however, are consistently great. The songs flow together. The production is top notch, adventurous, occasionally beautiful (notably in “Emergency Exit”), and has stood the test of nine years, which is pretty good.

Not every song makes you want to dance, but most do, and insistently, so I call Guero a great dance record. It is undeniably accessible and catchy, with strong melodies and some harmonies—great pop record. The lyrics are in the right space, somewhat cryptic but not boringly so, and not, as Beck’s lyrics so often are, over-the-top goofy. And the light-heartedness in the music and goofiness in the lyrics is balanced by real introspection and dark themes: deserts, dust, imagining death, and loneliness punctuated by peeking into others’ lives.

Guero

Holy Grail of Rock Records?

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Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

I saw this on All confirmation bias, all the time, a collaboration between the band OK Go and the dance company Pilobolus. It is great:

My dad bought me my first Rubik’s Cube for my 9th birthday, in 1980. I tried to solve it most days for months with nothing like success. I never gave up, but I probably would have eventually, as the method I had come up with, solving one side and then trying to solve adjacent sides, would never work. I had not grasped the logic of the puzzle, that the center pieces never unscramble, so that there is a preordained, final resting place for every piece of the cube, and that you have to solve the pieces, not just the stickers. Without those insights, Rubik’s Cubes are maddening. You solve one sticker and mess up another.

One morning I woke up to see my solved cube sitting on top of a copy of James Nourse’ The Simple Solution to the Rubik’s Cube. That solved cube is still such a vivid memory for me–magic! It turned out that my dad had bought the book for me and then stayed up all night, deciphering its codes and solving the cube. That gave him his fill of cubing–I never saw him touch it again–but I went through the book over and over, learning the method, eventually memorizing enough of it to reliably solve the cube. By mid-1982 I could solve it in just over 3 minutes.

It turns out that while I was doing my 3-minute solves, there were already national speed-cubing competitions. The world record solve at that time was 22.95 seconds, held by a 16-year-old kid in Los Angeles. I did not meet anyone else who could solve one until I met Greg Alkire in 1985. He had actually come up with his own method–a feat of reasoning that is to this day far beyond me. My genius, if you can call it that, is more in the realm of persistence than reasoning.

I bought a new cube in 2007 with no premeditation, and without having played with one for at least 20 years. I saw a display in a department store and thought it would be fun. I started watching people do these super fast solves on YouTube, and soon realized that Nourse’ “simple method” was actually very complicated, that lubricating my cube made everything easier, and that it was much faster (and cooler looking) to use my fingers instead of my wrists to make the moves.

I have been in grad school, so no time for real practice, plus my 39-year-old knuckles start to hurt a bit if I work too long, but I am down to averaging just over a minute in my solves, using Badmephisto‘s beginner method. I am also using F2L, which is (slightly) short for “first two layers,” meaning you solve two layers of the cube at the same time. Here is my most recent average of ten solves on cubetimer.com:

It has been slow progress, but very entertaining and challenging. As Badmephisto says, solving the cube is easy, but solving it quickly is very difficult. It’s this intense mixture of pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, spatial reasoning, and memory. In his great little book, Mastery, Leonard says you have to “love the plateau.” With cubing, I do. I go slowly. I practice looking and thinking ahead. I practice keeping track of where the important pieces are when they are out of sight.

I was slightly tempted to put up a video of myself doing one of these solves, but became too embarrassed. I can love my plateau, but I don’t yet love you seeing my plateau. Speedcubing is like dancing, that way. If you can’t do it, you think anyone who can is amazing. If you can and you watch an intermediate-level dancer or cuber, all you see are the problems. All I see when I watch myself dance is the awkwardness and the neck-jut. When I watch myself cube all I see is how long it takes me to find pieces that I am looking for. And I’m a solid intermediate Lindy Hopper, but still a beginning cuber. I think you have to be doing 40-second-average solves to qualify as intermediate.

Here’s the current world record solve of 6.24 seconds:

Here’s the current world record for a blindfolded solve, at 30.90 seconds:

If you are interested in learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube, I recommend buying a good cube here right off the bat (they  don’t cost much more than a crappy one from a department store), and learning Badmephisto’s beginning method (here for excellent video tutorials), which is both easier and will cause fewer problems than the method that comes in a new cube package when you eventually ramp up to more sophisticated methods.

Here’s the video of me and Karly performing in downtown Eugene. (Thanks to David for filming!)

I wanted to learn this sequence because I wanted to steal some of Todd Yanacome’s moves and some of his style. Watching this I’d say I’ve been partly successful. I learned a bunch of moves, most of which I’ve been able to lead in improvised dances. I’m still quite a ways off on style, though. That’s my major criticism of my performance (not Karly’s–I think she looks great). I don’t have Todd’s relaxed poise, I hang my head a lot, my arms are not graceful or precise, and I look a little frantic. It’s good to see what I need to work on. (I posted Todd and Naomi’s original (improvised) version of it here, if you want to compare.) I was having fun, too–that’s another sign of my improvement. Performing Lindy used to freak me out.

It’s the nicest I’ve ever dressed up to dance. I came right from the clinic, so I’m in my therapist costume.

As a kid I was in the newspaper every month or so. It was a small town and I performed in a lot of plays, played in a lot of concerts, swam in a lot of swim meets, made a lot of honor rolls, etc. Plus, my dad is a professional photographer, and in those days supplied a high percentage of the photos the High Desert Star ran. I’m pretty sure they just ran anything he sent them, to make their papers look professional, and write little stories to justify running the photos. My local fame paid off at least once, when my car broke down on a highway 40 miles outside of town. Within minutes, a woman stopped and offered me a ride. She said, “You’re one of the Lester boys, aren’t you? I thought I recognized you from the newspaper!”

The pace has slowed considerably since then, so it was a little thrill to get a photo of me and Karly performing in downtown Eugene for Summer In the City.

It’s very difficult to photograph dancers so they look like they are dancing. At least one of them, usually me, looks as if they are just standing there. This is one of the first photos of me dancing where it really looks like I’m dancing. Thanks, Kevin Clark!

Our check-out at the end of group supervision last night was naming our “guilty pleasures.” My cohort-mates mostly talked about TV shows they were watching, plus some fiction reading. When it was my turn, they shot down every single extracurricular activity I offered. Not one qualified as a guilty pleasure. Here’s the list:

Reading Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz

Listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing on audiobook

Listening to This American Life, Radiolab, and a couple other podcasts

Recording Reanna a cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Dancing every week

I think they might have given me dancing if I hadn’t tried their patience with the other stuff first. I didn’t think to say writing for my blog, which is probably the pleasure I feel the guiltiest about, but they probably wouldn’t have given me that either.

It doesn’t seem like I have time to watch TV. I don’t even have a TV, come to think of it, and I haven’t figured out how to get TV shows on the internet. I’m watching a little of the jazz doc each night as I brush my teeth, but it’s hard to imagine watching multiple seasons of TV shows, like my cohort-mates are. It would take a major shift in lifestyle. I did listen to Murakami’s (excellent) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last spring, but only while I was driving, so it took 15 weeks to finish.

I feel conflicted about my lack of guilty pleasures. I’d like to have that kind of laid-back lifestyle. I want to be more relaxed. This summer–this next four weeks of this summer–is my only even partly unstructured time before I graduate next June. And who knows after that? I’ll have loans to pay off.

On the other hand, it doesn’t sound relaxing to add something to my schedule! Plus, I like the stuff that I’m doing, and I’m working on wrapping my head around something with infinite depth. When I finished my two-year record-production program in the 1990s, my teacher Josh Hecht said, “This is a deep subject that you have scratched the surface of, but you now know what you need to be able to do. The next step is figuring out a way to do it for 14 hours a day, every day. In 20 years or so, you’ll be very good at it.” That was his lifestyle, and it made him an excellent record producer. He worked all day, had no time for non-audio entertainment, read only the two very best trade magazines, participated in only the two very best trade organizations. He slept five hours a night.

This is a path of mastery like Erickson’s 10,000 hour rule; to get good at any complex endeavor, you have to put in about 10,000 hours. Being a therapist certainly qualifies as a complex endeavor! The catch is, weeks after Josh told us how to become a good record producer, he got very ill and was forced to take a long vacation–his first vacation in decades, I believe. I think that was the point my supervisor was making about guilty pleasures; this is a demanding career in many ways. How do I master it while maintaining my health, motivation, and clarity?

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