Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Welcome to the big leagues.

Favorite moment of the day: sitting in a conference room with a former CEO of Teach For America, talking about how to make life easier for Montessori teachers. Other attendees included a former SVP of Strategy for Teach For America, a tech entrepreneur previously listed on the "Top 40 Under 40," an engineer who built up a platform to remotely monitor the insulin levels of his diabetic daughter in his spare time, and Jeremy who originally built Transparent Classroom on nights and weekends to support the launch of a Montessori school.

There's nothing but all-stars in this room: welcome to the big leagues. It feels like I'm standing among giants, I'm scared witless thinking I'm so outclassed and under-qualified, and yet they still fully engage with my input. It's a positively thrilling experience.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Starting a new chapter: Transparent Classroom.

Today marks the beginning of new journey in life: I have left a rewarding and stable job with my previous employer, Amazon Web Services, to go pursue a rare and exciting opportunity working with Jeremy Lightsmith as Engineer #2 on his startup, Transparent Classroom.


Transparent Classroom is a classroom management software platform for Montessori teachers and admins. It has grown 3.5x annually for the past two years, with over 270 schools now signed up, and is commonly referred to as the most user-friendly and useful platform in the Montessori edtech space. Jeremy accomplished all this over four years as the sole engineer while also wearing all the other hats necessary to get a startup off the ground: CEO, CTO, CFO, admin, customer support rep, trainer, sysadmin, sales rep, and designer (to name a few). Oh, and he's also a husband, parent, Agile coach, and facilitator. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to work with someone so passionate to improve education and so capable to actually make a difference with a product that delights users.

I'm thrilled to work with a small and scrappy team, all of us dedicated to improving education and the lives of teachers and children. I can now apply my skills in software engineering to make the world a better place, which was what drew me to programming in the first place.

I would like to thank Jeremy for the opportunity to join the team, to my family for their support and understanding as I give up a perfectly good job at one of the biggest names in software to go pursue my passion, to my friends and community that supported me as I deliberated over the decision and offered such valuable advice. I am so fortunate to be able to take this risk, and part of being able to conquer my fears of the unknown comes from the support and growth through being part of this amazing community.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Teach 'em how to say goodbye, part 2: Laptop.

It's time at last to replace my beloved Sophie, a 2009 MacBook Pro that is starting to show her age. She's been with me through a whole hell of a lot: unemployment, graduate school, traveling the world as a dance teacher, learning how to program through online courses sitting in living rooms all over Europe. I remember the conversation with Gretchen Metzenberg that convinced me to buy a Mac in the first place, just as they were starting to explode in popularity.

I've lived many different lives with this most wonderful and reliable laptop by my side, there's so much learning and knowledge stored in this machine, so much love and affection and passion it has allowed me to share with the world. It has been my constant companion on my journey through my twenties and has stayed with me as I've changed careers multiple times and traveled the world and grown into the man I am today. I'll be carrying her with me for one last victory lap around the world on my November tour of Europe. When the time comes, it will be very hard to say goodbye to my weathered, sticker-covered laptop.

And also... awwwwww yes the latest line of MBPs look freaking SEXSAY.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Thoughts from the Deschutes River.

(Notes from a fly fishing trip on the Deschutes River, a three-day trip my father, brother, and I take every year in October around our (my brother’s and my) birthdays.) [Author’s note: posted in November, though I wrote most of this before I actually turned 30.]

Day One.

We awoke before light appeared in the sky, dragged our tired sorry asses out of bed, filled up on a hot continental breakfast (a real unexpected treat), then off to drive down to the river to meet our river guide. We've worked with the same guide for multiple years now, it's always good to see his friendly, annual face. We hit the river by 7am.


Within moments of casting off from the shore, the rain started, ranging from a niggling drizzle to an oppressive downpour, and essentially didn't stop for the next 12 hours. Even with all our waterproof gear, it was still an unpleasant experience, defending my cocoon of dryness against the attempted breaches by Mother Nature. Everything around you is wet: your bags are wet, the seats are wet, your snacks are wet; every time you remove a glove to do something with your bare hand and stick it back into the glove, some wetness infiltrates, compromising the zone of warmth you had set up for yourself. The steelhead salmon remained elusive throughout the day, though that’s par for the course for these fish that are infamously difficult to catch. Standing out in the river fishing through a spot, there’s no evidence that they’re even present: we’re a bunch of anglers praying at the alter of the Fish. I can’t help but lose interest or hope after a time, so my mind wanders.

During this trip, my thoughts have been centering on relationships lost. I'm rapidly approaching my 30th birthday and I still harbor a deep, inexplicable, and unshakeable fear that reaching my 30s and still single means I will die loveless and alone, and it's my fault for this situation and I chose this path to destruction and gave up some perfect opportunities for long-term happiness. Standing out here in the frigid waters, feeling the heat leech from my body, there is precious little to offer distraction from these thoughts. 

A lack of action in fishing, the insufferable weather, and my melancholic humor combined together to make a rather quiet, withdrawn day. By the time we reached our campsite, all three of us were ready to be done. "Thank god," I thought to myself, "I'm not sure I could take much more of this.” We were all similarly exhausted. It’s strange, thinking about how we were willfully engaged in an activity that we were *relieved* to be done with at the end of the day. Wandering around the camp grounds did treat me to some lovely views, which offered me a welcome respite and a reminder of part of why I make this trip every year.






 Day Two.

If yesterday was the day of rain, today was the day of wind. While I generally find wind to be beautiful and awesome, it is profoundly frustrating to attempt fly fishing on a blustery day. Casting with a fly fishing rod is a delicate art of timing and finesse, a subtle dance that the wind bowls over like a ogre. Despite the impeding weather, we did at last get confirmation that steelhead were there, with my dad and I each landing one within a couple minutes of each other. 

I quickly descended into the same ruminations as yesterday. I don’t know why I obsess over such things, or why 30 is considered a critical checkpoint by which I should have settled down with a partner. It’s been a chief concern since high school, though at that time I was focused on finding a romantic partner who would play video games with me. We’re in a new era where “30 is the new 20,” but unfortunately my expectations haven’t caught up to match, so my gremlins keep telling me 30s is when my prospects of finding a person start to dwindle rapidly. It’s annoying how intransigent they are: I have plenty empirical evidence in the form of so many amazing people in my life, people with whom I’ve formed connections of many styles and forms, which should indicate that I’m going to be just fine and I need to be patient.

I suspect much of my anguish stems for a belief that I nearly secured for myself that desired future (and blew the chance, my gremlin would append). Up until last year, I was happily moving forward with my life, unconcerned about this goal on the horizon, until I met a person that gave me concrete hope in turning that dream into reality, unleashing a bunch of hopes and dreams I had tidily locked away. When that relationship came to an end, my hopes ended with it, leaving me alone with the fears. I still miss her, a lot, I dream (literally and figuratively) of sharing space with her, I’m still hooked on that imagined future I created with her in it.

Admitting it brings on feelings of shame: I should be over it by now, I’ve been grieving for longer than ever before. I judge myself because there have been other impactful relationships in my past and it feels like I’m disrespecting them by being more heartbroken over this one than any other. I don't understand why, and it seems incongruous with my reality of how profoundly I've been affected by others, how much other relationships have meant to me. 

All this hurting certainly confuses the fostering of new connections, as I find myself blindsided by a flashbacks that grip my heart, even when I'm sharing space with other people and being wholehearted. In my last post on this topic, I wrote, "The challenging part is accepting the interleaving of moments uplifting and crushing.” I am just feeling that so hard right now.

Part of healing is finding new love, and yet it’s hard to welcome in that love to heal you when you’re still hurting, and that catch-22 makes the prospect of getting over someone feel impossible. Do people normally carry past loves with them for so long, always aware of those paths unexplored or curtailed? I have a hard time sitting with this reality, for that other path feels like it was ripped away from me, I was stripped of control and had to accept a new harsh reality that I didn't want to accept.

As the night carried on and I poured my thoughts onto the screen, sitting by the river with the rush of the water in my ears, I slipped into a woeful downward spiral, recounting many of my past relationships, recalling their highlights, and feeling increasingly sad about the loss of them. Eventually, I forced myself to sleep in order to break the cycle of derisive and destructive self-talk. It was one of the worst spirals I’ve faced in several months. I had been doing relatively well for quite some time, I guess I had built up a lot of sadness to release all at the same time.

Day Three.

A short and sweet day, and a decently uplifting ending to a rather physically and mentally demanding fishing trip. The rain and wind relented and my brother, whom the fish had eluded for the first two days, at long last hooked a steelhead on our first stop. (As if in a way of cosmic apology, Nathan landed yet another fish later on as well.) In the process of taking some action photos of him, I tripped and fell into the river, flooding my waders with icy water. I fortunately had a spare change of clothes and the weather wasn't as wretched, so I wasn't shivering all day. Even so, it broke my resolve to keep fishing, so I was very glad to see the landing ramp that signaled the end of the trip.




Now it’s off to home, a quick dinner, and then a drive back to Seattle. It’s going to be a busy week — my birthday is Thursday, my 30th birthday weekend shindig gets underway Friday evening, with many logistics still to handle. This pace of life, swooping from one activity to the next with little downtime, is par for the course, and one not maintainable forever.

I’m slowly trying to shift gears toward being more locally focused. Having a place of permanent residence certainly helps. My calendar is not nearly as packed as it has been in the past, and while I’m still traveling a great deal I have been getting a lot out of being home in Seattle. It’s hard to say “No” to opportunities for travel, for visiting new places and old. I see a conundrum in wanting a local partner to build something with, but not spending enough time locally to foster that possibility because I’d rather travel when I don’t have a partner to be with. But as I enter this new phase and learn from the past relationship, I seek ways to create space for something more permanent and rooted. It can be hard to maintain hope that such a person will come, that I will eventually meet someone and I haven’t “used up” all my luck, and I guess that’s just a struggle I’ll always be living with.

As I prepare for this thirtieth trip around the sun, I certainly didn’t want to be flying solo, but such is the way my life has unfurled, through a meandering sequence of decisions and events that have brought me to this moment. Reflecting upon each turning point in my life, each career decision, each relationship started or ended, it’s unclear whether this reality is my own "fault," if I made an error along and now I am reaping what I sowed. I branch off from each place into an alternate universe where I took a different course, forecasting a rose-colored life where I’m somehow far more happier than I am right now. It’s a useless, unproductive habit, and one I can’t help but indulge in from time to time. At the end of the day, there’s not a thing I can do to change it: there’s only one way to travel the river of life, and that’s downstream. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Teach 'em how to say goodbye, part 1: Hair.

Two and a half years ago, I cut my hair while in Boston as I was just embarking on a journey to be a nomadic dance instructor.

Since then, I've traveled around the world, shared with so many communities, and met countless amazing, talented, loving people. I visited a new continent and contemplated what I want in life 30 meters deep in an ocean. I’ve cuddled a koala bear. I learned what it means to dare greatly and be truly vulnerable. I taught myself how to be a software engineer and added a new career path that allows me to balance engineering with traveling for dance. I feel vastly more in tune with my self, I feel more self-actualized than ever before. I lived through the blossoming and passing of two life-changing relationships that have permanently altered my character and course in life. I’ve loved so intensely it terrified me, so hard it felt like my heart was ripping out of my chest. I’ve felt unimaginable grief and learned how to really, truly cry. Living in a suitcase taught me innumerable valuable lessons about myself and what I want in life, it forced me to strip away so much of my life and look at what lies at the core of my existence. It allowed me to explore a career as a dance instructor and to share my passion with the world. All the while, my hair continued to grow.

I'm now ready for the next phase of life. One focused on setting down roots, forming deeper bonds, traveling (a little) less, diving into the great unknown of laying a foundation for my long-term future of family and children. A new stage of adulthood. As part of the metamorphosis, I need to say goodbye to the accoutrements of my past iteration of living, of the materials that linked me energetically to a certain way of being.

First up: my hair. My hair that has been with me for over two years, growing steadily along with me. It's been put in man-buns, ponytails, caked with playa dust, shaped into beautiful braids, and had many flowers woven into it. It allowed me to express a feminine side of myself. There are so many memories embedded in my hair, and now it's time to move on from them, look forward to the next memories to be formed. I'll be donating the hair to a charitable cause.


I could not have stepped through this pivotal transformation without the adept support of Gretchen Metzenberg. Thank you, Gretchers, for all your emotional labor in helping me along this journey. You are a loving and amazing friend.

And now: the photos...

We began with Gretchen banging me that morning, because why not get some laughs before cutting off all my hair.



And then it was off to the barber. Me preparing for it to be chopped off...



Having some fun along the way...



I couldn’t believe how much hair was there.


The end result!




It has been such a long time that I’ve had a trendy men’s haircut, I hardly recognize myself. Having long hair was fun, I always enjoyed the commentary about my blonde mane, and it allowed me to express a feminine side.




It was a lot of fun and deeply playful, gender-bending in this way, but at the end of the day when I'd look at photos of me it didn't quite… look like me. At least when I didn't have my hair properly maintained. I will always think the braids look fantastic and masculine in a Nordic sort of way, but I guess it was just time for a change, time to change my hair along with so many other things in my life. I’m sure there will be times I will miss it. But it will always be with me in spirit, these memories and learnings, I will carry them in my heart. And, if I really want to, I can always grow my hair back out. It feels good to exercise control in through these sort of drastic, pseudo-permanent ways.

It’s thrilling and bewildering at the same time, having a traditional haircut. I hardly recognize myself, and yet I can’t really imagine myself any way but with the shorter hair, it just seems to fit me right now. But I’m quite excited for this redefinition of self. It’s identifying with the mainstream in a way I don’t normally do, but I’m more accepting of it this time around. I feel more masculine, which is interesting because it’s all because of an arbitrary societal preference for shorter hair among men. But, it works. I feel attractive and lively and bright in a way I had lost touch with particularly over the past six to twelve months.

I feel like a new man. Hello, world.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Thought of You.

One year ago on the last Tuesday of June, I (re-)met a person who instantly gave wings to my heart. I had found a Soul Mate and was granted the greatest gift on Earth to call this person my partner. I was convinced that I'd spend the rest of my life with her. I had never experienced passion on this level, or such confidence that we would happily grow old together and experience rich and sustaining lives.

Six months ago, I was blindsided by the partnership coming to an abrupt end when she called it off. The reasons were legitimate, we both had stuff to work through. It was out of my control. I was beside myself with grief.

Four months ago, I began to work through what I wanted out of life and love and partnership, and reflected on how to be a better, more attentive partner. I've grown into a new phase of life centered around roots and family and focusing energy on one person. These changes occurred organically, through a natural coming to certain realizations about myself. It resolved conflicts at the root of our breakup, but tragically it was too little too late.

Today, I woke up with the whispers of a dream about her fading from my memory, my heart aching, thinking about everything she has meant to me. I watched the animated short "Thought of You," missed her with every fiber of my being, and cried uncontrollably.

I strive to live fully, open-hearted, and in the present, but damn this is hard. I can still feel utterly alone and adrift. I have a brilliant life filled with amazing people and dancing and adventure and growth, for which I'm so deeply grateful, and yet sometimes all I can think about is that she's not in it. Every time I hear her name or see her face in memory or on a photo or in person, my heart squeezes. It's a squeeze made exquisite with a mixture of excitement (here is this person I love so deeply!) and anguish (here is this person I love so deeply and don't get to fully express and live in that love!). 

When I feel this heartache this intensely, it raises internal concerns that I’m hanging on, not letting go, not processing completely. It’s easy to view the breakdowns as signs of weakness, of being incomplete or not fully healed or not “over them,” but the reality is more nuanced. It could mean that processing is incomplete, or it could signify being present with a deep and real sorrow, a loss that can never be recovered. That kind of sadness doesn’t disappear, it stays with us; we just come to accept it as a part of our existence. I’m reminded of the last half of Taylor Mali’s “Time and Tears Enough”:

If all of this were happening...
If this were your first Christmas alone...
wouldn't you expect broken glass to bloom at your feet?
Little flowers of destruction
bursting like the blossoms of shattered flutes
sown in the springtime of a hardwood floor.

Wouldn't you expect chaos for a time?

When things break,
the jagged pieces draw blood.
This, at least, makes sense.

But there is time, and tears enough.

So you wait and you cry,
and you cry and you wait.
For as long as you want.
Or as long as it takes.

The breakdowns will happen, and they make sense. The challenging part is accepting the interleaving of moments uplifting and crushing. Being present in this way is hard because there are so many conflicting experiences of life. I may be surrounded by caring, wonderful friends who make me feel appreciated and cherished, and at the same time I want her to be in that room with me. I may flirt with some beautiful and interesting and talented people over a dance weekend, and at the same time I desire nothing more than to be with her. These feelings seem conflicting on the surface, that they can’t both be genuine and occupy the same heartspace. But that’s the curious things about hearts: they’re quite adept at genuinely holding conflicting emotions. My only choice is to continue being present with my emotions, the elated and the downtrodden, the hopeful and the despondent, the confident and the insecure. I must allow them to flow through me and trust that they’re all in due course. 

My relationship with her induced cascading realizations about what I wanted in life and what were my priorities. Our breakup gave me the space to take a long hard look at myself and how I want to operate in a relationship. As we grow, we grow in random and unexpected ways, heavily influenced by the people in our lives. We’re like a mosaic, where each diversely colored piece is an experience. Every once in a while, falling apart into a million little pieces allows us to begin again with a clean slate and take all those same learnings to assemble into a more coherent, elegant whole.

We all carry remnants of past relationships that touch our soul, they help form the pieces that form the mosaic of our being. In losing it all, we can choose how to put those pieces back together, we get to determine what kind of art we wish to create. That is a tremendous benefit, coming at a devastating cost. When in the depths of despair, when a life of being solo seems inevitable, I can take some comfort in knowing that I am actively reshaping the entirety of my being. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Blues Garden.

Last weekend was one of the most wonderful, magical, and loving blues weekends I’ve attended in many years, called Blues Garden, which takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden. The organizing team, “the gardeners,” infuse their warm character into the event and sprinkle magic everywhere. Here were some highlights...

The Prelude.

Not part of the actual event, I arrived in Gothenburg a couple days early to help adjust to jet lag and not roll into the event super exhausted. On Friday, I joined a dear friend for a jaunt about a nearby wilderness park, where we had the pleasure of seeing all sorts of Nordic wildlife.



I've never seen a penguin in real life before.


Hipster goat.


On to the dancing!

The Musicians.

Listening to Christoffer Johansson perform. He’s without question my favorite living Blues musician. I turn to putty every time I hear him on stage. He captivates the audience, puts them under a spell, so that people can be at a dance event and spent part of his act just listening and swaying gently, transported to another dimension. I’ve never heard anyone quite like him. Part of his power is the genuine emotion with which he shares his music. Even when they’re classics from a century ago, he connects with him in a heartfelt manner and sings the songs as authentically as when they were probably first formed.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

You can’t help but empathize with him and feel your own wellspring of emotion stir in response. It actually came to a point of comic climax during one of his songs. He just finished a long, sustained note/wail in the middle of a song, a note filled with such anguish the room was utterly silent in its aftermath. I, feeling a surge of feeling in response, couldn’t help but groan/growl/grunt (some weird mixture of the three, probably) in response, but it came out way louder than I anticipated, so that everyone in the entire ballroom heard me. In the microseconds that followed, which felt like minutes, I wanted desperately wished for the ability to retract my primal utterance, but it was too late, and I feared the worst. To my astonishment, the floor of over 200 dancers erupted into gales of laughter that lasted at least a minute, completely derailing everything; even Christoffer broke his stage character, cracked a smile, and laughed. Happily, my dancing partner took it in stride and found it equally amusing rather than mortifying. 

The attendees of Blues Garden were also treated to repeat performances of the exceptionally talented Gothenburgers Mattias and Hannah. Mattias is a freaking wizard on the piano, able to improvise the most incredible Blues songs with a musical deftness that rivals (in my opinion) Gordon Webster or Josh Fialkoff. Meanwhile, Hannah treated us to her dulcet singing voice that never failed to delight. She also sings a convincing muted trumpet, complete with a handy (hah!) pantomime. They put together a 30-minute set in roughly 10 minutes, and it was nothing short of fantastic. The attendees relentlessly tried to keep them on stage with ovations. 

The decorations.

Their venue was transformed into an enchanted wonderland at night. Flowers adorned all the staircases and door frames. There was a space for communally crafted poetry. All the fixtures were properly dressed to cast warm, diffuse light. Inside the main ballroom, the space was converted into the Enchanted Forest straight out of Narnia, complete with the lamppost in the middle of the dance floor. The brought in real trees from the forest and decorated them with flowers and fake birds. The only thing missing was a snow-dusted wardrobe. I’ve never seen decorations before in all the events I’ve attended; Blues Garden is simply unprecedented.




Note those are flowers that were manually affixed to the tree. 

The food.

My god, the food. It’s a Swedish tradition called “fika,” and I think it’s the best tradition ever. It involves making delicious food and serving it with coffee/tea at dances for a nominal fee. And by “delicious food,” I mean “hand-made just-cooked-in-the-kitchen” food. Salads with myriad toppings, all sorts of gourmet breads and cheeses, more desserts than I could bear to sample. It makes such a difference to maintain a steady blood sugar level, especially as the hours wear on. 

I didn't capture any photos of the fika, but as a case in point about Swedes and their food, here's a "simple breakfast" according to them.


The people.

No dance would be worth attending without the dancers. Blues Garden manages to attract like-minded people: warm, friendly, open-hearted. And so many of them are fantastic dancers. I had more quality dances than I can remember to count, on par with some of the largest Blues events in the world, except experienced in a quaint and homey regional event in Sweden. While at some events I find myself being placed on a pedestal as a teacher and everyone wants something from me, here I felt like one of the crowd, and people wanted nothing more than to connect with me as human beings, to share recognition of one another. 

This is something where I always wish I was taking more photos. When I reflect upon my travels, I often think of the people that were a part of it, yet so rarely I photograph them, or me with them. Mostly because it's awkward, it kind of takes me out of the moment. But then, I look back and see a woeful dearth of ways to remember all the lovely people I spent time with. Sometimes I quietly wish that I had a full-time photographer following me around at these events, surreptitiously candid photos of me so I can remember later. My memory is a sad thing, generally spotty and quick to log moments into archival storage, not indexed, and only retrievable when someone asks specifically for that memory. Photos serve as the way to jog my memory.

My words cannot capture the love and positive energy that coursed through this event. It felt like a huge family reunion, minus the uncomfortable family interactions. Nothing but smiles and laughter and heartful conversations. I cherish these kinds of events, the ones where everyone comes ready to participate, to give rather than consume. It creates an incredible atmosphere, a gift economy of love, where everyone is constantly giving and thus also constantly receiving, but in gratitude and humility rather than expectation. The Gardeners clearly set a pathos for the event, one that attracts like-minded people who want to grow together and celebrate this brief shining moment. I was so floored by the energy at Blues Garden, it is without question the most vulnerability-encouraging event I have ever attended in Europe.

The teachers.

Gas and Alba, Vicci and Adamo, and Annette. (And me.) I respect each of these teachers for myriad reasons, and I think we formed an excellent teaching team. We all brought something different to the table, but always presented with humility and love for dance and respect for the event. There were no egos here, nothing but eagerness to share and inspire.

The leggings.

Knowing about the enchanted theme of the weekend, I came prepared to dress up in a different way on Saturday night: leggings and a collared shirt reminiscent of a pirate’s costume. What I didn’t realize was that no one else would dress up in masquerade. Everyone dressed super nicely, but in the traditional sense. I was the only person to look fanciful. The moment I stepped into the dance space, eyes were falling upon me. I felt out of place, dressed garishly and vulnerably, form-fitted and with little to hide behind. I had gone all-in, dove head first, but as I jumped I realized I was diving into an empty pool. People would be overtaken with laughter upon seeing my leggings and teased that I looked like Peter Pan — not maliciously, but due to my rapidly developing insecurity it impacted me harshly. Immediately the waves of embarrassment began to crash over me.

You’re dressing outlandishly to get attention.

You couldn’t pull off those tights anyway, joker.

You’re being inappropriate.

You’re making people uncomfortable. 

You should change yourself. No, not just your clothes.

I knew there was a showcase that night that I was to do with Annette, and suddenly I felt terrible for dressing this way, thinking I would make us look bad. I had been irresponsible and unprofessional. There were multiple times that I wanted to run away, to go back to my host’s place to change into more traditional clothing. But it was too late, I had already committed, I might as well stick with it. So I swallowed my pride, tried to ignore the countless comments and stares received, and performed the showcase (a medley of seven different songs and styles).


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

Even though the night went off without a hitch, even though I slowly overcame my crushing embarrassment, even though people were on the whole very nice and a few genuinely complimented my costume, my physique, and my willingness to just go for it, my heart sank to my toes when I saw this photo for the first time. I look like an idiot, I thought to myself. 

Shakespearean fool or no, I left quite the impression. People were talking about it constantly. During a panel discussion on Blues dancing the following day, one person asked, “Are tights the new trousers?” The room exploded into raucous laughter and applause.


Photo credit: Joel Höglund. Link.

As part of the feedback form for the event, one question asks “What was your favorite part of the event?” A few people put down “Andrew’s leggings.”

At the end of the day, I am able to laugh about it, but I went through an unexpected range of emotions to get there. I have a curious relationship with being in the spotlight. All my life, I tend to exist on the outskirts. I’m not the life of the party, I’m not able to hold the attention of large groups of people, I don’t like to draw attention to myself. In fact, I can be a bit judgmental of those who I deem to be “acting out” for the sake of receiving attention. Dressing up in this way, I subjected myself to that same criticism.

The irony is not lost on me that I, a person who habitually avoids the limelight, fell into a profession where I exist in that light constantly.  Perhaps it has to do with the “teacher cap” I put on, the metaphysical costume I drape over myself when I step into the role of Teacher and beneath which I can hide. I, Andrew Smith, am not occupying the center of attention, this is Teacher Andrew. But that’s not entirely true anymore, that I protect myself in this way: over the course of the past several years I have learned to more often remove that guise and just be Andrew Smith, a person who is also a Teacher. Northwest Blues Recess in 2014 was a pivotal moment to that end, where I was unabashedly myself and also the recipient of a lot of focus and awareness. Still, it’s a learning process, and it can be downright scary to share in this way. (Yes, I realize I do the same through my blog, but for some reason it feels even more real when I do it among people in real life.)

There was one quote I recently encountered while reading The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer, which has given me valuable food for thought:

        There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

        When you are looked at, your eyes can stay blissfully closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, as you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

        One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

        Not everybody wants to be looked at.

        Everybody wants to be seen.

I think it has helped frame my thinking about people giving me the gift of their attention and awareness. I always feel undeserving of it, yet I am so humbled and grateful to receive it. It is simply being seen, but by a lot of people. And that can be quite unnerving. But I’m kind of a connection junkie.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Down Under in the Down Under.

For my final week in Australia, I ventured up to Queensland, famous for the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest (among other natural beauties), its proliferation of dangerous aquatic life (such as the box jellyfish), and its slightly offbeat people (because you have to be slightly crazy to live in a place like Queensland). I spent four days on the Great Barrier Reef learning to SCUBA dive.

My base of operations was Cairns, a small resort town toward the northern end of the GBR. Primarily composed of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and shops, Cairns doesn’t have a nightlife or much liveliness to speak of, but if you have money to burn it can be quite a pleasant experience to participate in the tourist activities. I booked myself a trip on Reef Experience for a four-day, three-night stay out on the GBR. Called a “liveaboard,” you take a transfer vessel out to a boat permanently stationed out in the reef. Most people will tell you that you can get a complete experience of the GBR by snorkeling, but I decided to be a little adventurous and sign up for a certification course in SCUBA diving. I’d never done it before, but if there was ever a place to learn how to dive, it’d be out in one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World. 

The day we set off was woefully rainy and windy, so the trip out to the reef was tumultuous. Even with a motion sickness tablet I get moderately seasick and lost my breakfast partway into the trip. The vague sense of seasickness stuck with me for several hours, lasting through the transfer to the liveaboard vessel and past lunch. Not the most portentous way to begin a four-day commitment to being on the ocean. When they announced the first water session was about to begin, and new guests could go for a snorkel, I exulted that I could at least leave the boat and maybe escape this unpleasant sickness.


It failed to occur to me that as a snorkeler, you’re still floating on the surface of the ocean, still subject to the whims of the ocean’s movement. My body immediately was tossed up and down. Sticking my face into the water, I saw nothing beneath me but endless and intimidating depth, and water kept leaping into my snorkel pipe to be choked upon by me as I inhaled. When I’d lift my head out of the water, I was treated to large choppy waters that would crash into my face and be similarly difficult to establish a calm breathing pattern. I swam feebly and anxious (despite being a pretty strong swimmer), a sense of dread coming over me: was this going to be my experience? What had I gotten myself into? Also, where the hell was the reef? I saw just a few fish swimming around in the depths, but nothing to write home about.

Fortunately I persevered and kept swimming forward, following the procession of other snorkelers, not knowing where I was going. At last, I reached the reef, and suddenly a deep calm overtook me as I beheld the most colorful array of aquatic life in my entire life. It simply defied imagination. I was cast under a spell. Every way I looked, prismatic fish rushed about. Coral of all shapes and types and colors decorated the calcified floor.





This moment marked the turnaround in my entire trip. When I came out of the water, I was hooked. I was in a truly magical, unique place.


The rest was, on the whole, a blissful and wonderful experience. I would do four training dives per day, always with an instructor, and most of the time in a 1:1 setting. I did two night dives as well. To write about my journey, I’ll begin with my delightful dive instructor, Fabian, a thick-jawed, sturdy Aussie originally from Germany.


His combination of a German accent with Australian slang kept throwing me for a loop. He would regularly say common phrases as, “No worries, mate, too easy!” but with the same intonation as the weight lifting brothers from SNL (“we will PUMP *clap* you up!”). Bar none, though, my favorite expression of his would come whenever he began to explain the skills I would practice on the present dive: “We’re going to smash some skills.” It tickled me every time. And smash some skills we did.


Over my first three days on the boat, I completed the SSI Open Water Diver certification, the entry level certification, which allows me to dive autonomously up to 18m. We covered all the basics: equipment maintenance, handling emergencies underwater (how to remove and replace your mask underwater, remove your air regulator, remove your tank, maintain buoyancy, ascend and descend safely, etc.). It was actually quite fun, the process of learning these new skills, many of which I practiced repeatedly. 

Diving is an experience unlike any other. Some people say it’s like flying, except underwater. There’s truth to this comparison, but it misses just exactly how surreal it feels to be underwater for 40 minutes without dying, able to glide about with minimal effort and swim among the fishes. The first couple times, my brain would panic and think I was running out of air, that I couldn’t breathe, because it is so engrained to think of being underwater as being without oxygen. It felt like I was watching my life through a camera lens, as if I weren’t actually there. But I kept reminding myself to breathe slowly and fully, and gradually my respiration slowed down as my experience grew and I became increasingly calm in the water.


Diving is vastly more fun that snorkeling, in my opinion. For one, you never have that jarring experience of water suddenly splashing into your snorkel pipe and on into your mouth or lungs. For another, you can see an entirely different world of marine life. Also, as a snorkeler you don’t get the special privilege of gliding along underwater with a sea turtle.



I went for a couple night dives, which is a different world altogether from the day dives. I was quite thrilled.


It’s thrilling until you look off the back of the boat and see sharks swimming around — they feed in the evenings — and you think to yourself, “Wait, I’m diving into that?” Yes, yes, you are. 


Underwater, you can’t see anything save for the path illuminated by your light. Between the moonlight, your flashlight, and your inner ear, it’s reasonably easy to keep track of up from down, but turn off your flashlight and you’re treated to floating in almost pitch blackness. Amazing.

It turns out that the eyes of a shark glow green when you shine your light upon them. It only adds to the their chilling appearance, seeing this lithe killing machine skulk about in the water with complete ease. Reef sharks are entirely harmless to humans (in fact, all shark attacks are accidents — sharks don’t hunt humans) and are particularly non-aggressive, but I still felt my stomach turn into a knot when when swim at us and slithered right beneath us, probably no more than 10 feet away. 


I completed my Open Water Course in three days, which left me an entire extra day of diving. On a whim, I decided to go through the Advanced training as well, which would entail another five training dives. It worked out that I could squeeze it all into the four-day trip originally planned. Being certified as an Advanced Adventurer allows you to dive down to 30m, giving you access to a lot of popular shipwrecks, as well as expanding your skillset and confidence under the water. 

As an added bonus, it meant I continued to have mostly 1:1 dives with extraordinarily qualified dive instructors. This time I was working with Jon, a smooth American who looked completely at ease under the water. He was astonishingly adept at pointing out aquatic life, so my trips were punctuated by some truly wonderful discoveries. He could spot them long before I ever figured out what he was pointing out. One of my favorites was an octopus, hidden among the coral.


He discovered morays crouching under coral, noted peacock soles (those weird flat fish with eyes only on one side) camouflaged on rocks, and pointed out found rays hidden among the sands.


I encountered a few jellyfish, but the larger kind that are evidently not harmful. Also, apparently turtles love to eat them.


There’s a fish named Frankie at one of the reefs that loves to play with divers. During one of my dives, he followed us around the entire time like a puppy, for the better part of half an hour. 



I even found Nemo. Anemonefish (there are many varieties) are absolutely adorable, the way they peek out from their home, venture out for some food, and then scurry back inside when they’re spooked. Pixar actually really captured their essence in their scenes.



You get to know the passengers and crew rather quickly. There were never more than 30 people on the boat, so even if you don’t get their names you recognize their faces. The roster would change from day to day, as some people would come and go; I felt a bit unusual to be a constant figure for four whole days, as most people stayed over for only one or two nights. Meals were communal, so I was able to forge some friendships over food. I met a lovely couple from Copenhagen traveling the world for the past eight months on vacation, and a friendly technical analyst at Google, and a young pair of college friends taking a holiday in Australia while on break from school, and a few other people. The food was always exceptional: healthful, delicious, upscale, and high-quality. I still don’t know how they could accomplish so much with a small kitchen on the ocean. The crew were surpassingly courteous and friendly, creating a convivial atmosphere on the boat. Aside from the dive instructors, most of them were 20-somethings thrilled to be working on the GBR. 

Social interactions and befriending others mystifies me, and this situation was no exception. My conversations with others never went beyond being friendly, making small talk to pass the time. I felt a kindred spark with the couple from Copenhagen, they seemed quite engaged with the world, but we only had a day to interact. I didn’t connect on a deeper level with anyone else for the entire trip. My experience reminded me of how terribly shy I can be outside the context of dance, which baffles me to this day. The process of getting to know people can feel so forced sometimes, yet when I’m at a dance event I’m all bubbly and it all comes as second-nature. It’s like there are two different people living inside me. Anyway, it was good practice to exercise my socializing skills while in an introverted state. I just never know what to say, each prompt is unnatural and like lobbing some heavy inquisition across a chasm. Once I run out of the sterile conversational starters — “How long are you staying in Australia? Where else have you visited? Where are you from?” — I find myself at an utter loss for what to say. Sometimes I just don’t care to connect, but other times I want to know more about them and don’t know how to start the flow. I feel unsure whether they actually want to connect. I just can’t manufacture the connection. But then, maybe they don’t want it either, and that’s what I’m picking up on. I suppose charisma is partly about being able to form that connection with anybody, but I completely lack it when I don’t have my dancer hat on. Why don’t they do classes on this stuff? 

I found myself not fitting into the usual demographics of the boat: either early 20s and footloose, or middle-aged and settled down. Sure, I don’t have many tethers, but I want them. I have a decent idea of where my life is heading professionally, at least for the next 5 years. So while I no longer identify with the young and wandering crowd, I also don’t yet connect with the settled-in crowd, the married couples without or with children, for I am single and don’t even have a permanent place of residence. I didn't fit in with any group, and I think was perplexing to other passengers, for I defied common patterns, they didn’t know what to make of me. (“You’re a software engineer, okay… Oh, wait, you also teach dance around the world? And you live in a suitcase? Well, that’s… that’s something.”) At least being on the boat reinforced where I want my life to go next. I found myself looking to the settled-in crowd with a touch of envy. I was particularly fond of the Copenhagen couple, for they were very clearly in love with each other and shared a deep and strong bond, but also remained curious about the world and wanted to be outwardly focused as well. That’s precisely the kind of dynamic I hope to have with my future mate.

Unsurprisingly, I did a fair amount of introspection while on board, wrestling with difficult and depressive emotions as articulated in this post. The quiet moments are when these thoughts would intrude into my mental space, the small 30-minute breaks between water sessions and meals or whatever other activity was happening on the boat. The schedule was generally busy, but you would always have these moments, long enough to leave you wondering what to do with your time, but never long enough to let you get into something substantive. Some would take to non-committally reading a book, others sunbathing on the top deck, I often took naps. But when I couldn’t nap, I was left alone with my thoughts, as the other passengers tended to stay to their cabins when not engaged in an activity. 

Lying on my bed alone in the middle of one of the most magnificent natural wonders, feeling sorry for myself and at a loss for what to do next, it struck me then yet another powerful lesson of traveling alone: learning how to be alone with your thoughts. It Because it’ll invariably happen, no matter how hard you try to cram your schedule or visit places of staggering beauty or keep distractions close at hand — there will always be moments when you must be alone with yourself. It made me think of how, as a society, we look to our partner to distract us from those moments, and how that can be an unproductive pattern. We think that finding a long-term partner will save us from loneliness. Sure, living with a partner will mean less time spent alone, but it’s always a losing battle: there will still be times when it happens. If we lean on our partner to shield us from being alone, we become co-dependent, we become less unconditionally loving. A partner can never save us from feeling lonely; we must learn on our own how to be alone and not lonely. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve actively worked on it throughout my time here in Oz, and there are at least stretches where I’m successful.

I wondered to myself how I would be acting if I were around another person, what I would be commenting on, and how that diverged from what I was presently doing. What was its significance, the way I can spend so much time in utter silence, breathing and staring at the water and allowing my mind to wander? What does it say about me, the way I am not relentlessly driven to make conversation, even if it’s with myself? These questions still lazily roll in my mind, I turn them over endlessly as I ask myself how I can be a better, more interesting, and more loving partner in the future.

By the end of my stay, I was ready to disembark. I had my fill of routine, of being underwater, in one place, and alone. I was tired of trying to make friends and finding mediocre connections. I was proud of myself for making so much of this adventure to the Great Barrier Reef, of organizing it and having the courage to sign up for SCUBA diving and have this otherworldly experience, but it was time to move on, time for a change of scenery, and time to recuperate. I have no idea where my new diving certification will lead me, whether it’ll remain an occasional hobby activity or turn into something more avid. But, without question I’m grateful for the experience I had out here on the reef, it showed me a whole new world, and allowed me to discover more about myself in the process.