Colosseum and memoriam

Approaching Century Link Field in a throng of green-and-blue people, flanked by an ecstatic marching band, I couldn’t help but think about the Roman Colosseum, and how sporting events have been experienced by humans in the exact same way for as long as civilization has existed. The same spirit of adrenaline-spiked tribalism that motivates Seattlites to show up in droves to watch grown men skillfully kick a ball around motivated the Romans to show up in droves to observe the clashing of gladiator against gladiator, Christian slave against starved lion.

We are the same. As Tim Urban wrote recently on Wait But Why, if you were to swap a newborn from a Medieval farming village with a newborn New Yorker today, no one would know the difference. That’s because the modern human brain hasn’t evolved in over 10,000 years. Some evolutionary psychologists think our brains are the same as those belonging to humans from as far back as 50,000 years. For context, that’s the stone age, around about the time humans invented the needle.

It’s not often that I’m reminded of this fact. At the game, what triggered me were the rules and the rituals, the pomp and performance. Not being a regular sports viewer, I felt like a foreigner. The real Sounders fans knew how and when to hold up their scarves as banners, to call out the players’ last names during announcements, to call back during the marching band’s chants. I gawked at the parade of flag bearers followed by the parade of uniformed children escorting the players onto the field, at the fireworks which punctuated the beginning and end of each half, and at the Mad-Max-style flame-throwers blasting out of the tops of the goal posts. I thought: the only difference between us and the Mesoamericans from 2000 B.C. is that we don’t decapitate the losing team at the end of the ballgame. But we are totally those people. We live for the show.

This week, Chris and I had to say goodbye to our pet rats, Ruthie and Yoyo. They were both over two years old and had developed tumors, as rats do. Ruthie in particular was acting sluggish and her fur was standing on end—from pain, we guessed. On our way out to Kent (to one of the few remaining veterinary hospitals which accept non-cat-or-dog patients), we mentally prepared ourselves to accept that Ruthie and Yoyo’s time had come.

It didn’t come as a surprise, then, when the vet recommended euthanasia. What did come as a surprise was how casual and routine the whole visit was. How, when the vet picked up our babies’ cage to take them away, it didn’t feel like we weren’t going to get them back. When the vet asked if she could keep Ruthie and Yoyo’s cage for a litter of newborn weasels, Chris and I didn’t expect to feel so…empty.

We speculated about this on the way home. Was it because Ruthie and Yoyo were just rats, which, like fish, don’t ping our attachment instincts as much as cats and dogs do? But that didn’t sound right to me. I thought of how, back in the early 2000s, people used to cry out, “Wilson!” making fun of that scene from Cast Away. Except, I’d bet many of those same people, viewing that scene within the context of the film, would have bawled their eyes out, just like I did. Humans are attachment machines, whether or not the object of our attachment is sentient or cute or even alive. Chris and I loved our rats.

Only when thinking back to the Sounders Colosseum did it occur to me what was missing when we had to tell Ruthie and Yoyo goodbye: The process was unceremonious. Without even the smallest gesture of ceremony, it didn’t feel like saying goodbye.

It didn’t feel like saying goodbye until Chris tweeted their epitaph. He wrote: “2 years ago, I bought some rats for my book launch party. I made them a house out of copies of my book, ripped up pages as the bedding. When the paperback came out, Ruthie (full name: Notorious RBG) helped me navigate the maze of anxiety to find the Coors Light of peace. Yoyo (full name: Yolandi Vi$$er) chewed through my stereo cables, my cell phone charger, and my heart strings. Never thought I’d own rats. A lark became an unexpected joy. Today, I said goodbye. They’re still close to my heart. RIP Ruthie & Yoyo.”

And it was a relief to feel tears in my eyes.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 05/03/2017.

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Sibling rivalry

In my pre-teens, I chose to ignore the sour tang that had crept into my relationship with my little sister Deanna. I dismissed her suddenly miserable, disdainful attitude towards me like it was nothing more than one of her frequent bouts of carsickness. She’d get over it.

It’s not like I had done something. In fact, from the way she seemed to be angry with me about everything, I deduced that her frustration wasn’t really directed at what I did, but at me. Me personally. And it was baffling. What happened to the kid who crawled into my bed whenever she had a nightmare? The little girl who counted on me to look after her on the playground, and be her voice when she was too shy to speak? Why didn’t she like me anymore?

The answer was obvious to everyone else. “It’s just sibling rivalry,” the adults said. “Don’t take it personally.” But it felt personal, and I was at turns skeptical and angry. I wasn’t competing with my sister, so why should she compete with me?

Now, nearly two decades later and in the thick of Deanna’s wedding planning, we texted the following exchange:

Deanna: Get pregnant! Tell Chris I want to be an aunt! It’s 7 months till my wedding so you will be a cute pregnant belly

Me: We don’t have the means yet. Why do you want me to get prego?

Deanna: So there can be a baby and I can be an auntie! Total selfish reasons!

Me: OK, well, I get that. Totally not prego yet, though.

Deanna: Damn!

It was a light-hearted exchange, but still, my sibling senses tingled. Though Deanna’s and my relationship has smoothed out since our adolescence, I’m still sensitive to signs of that dreaded, unconquerable obstacle—sibling rivalry. Was this a sign? Did Deanna feel weird about getting married before me, and was she trying to compensate for that by encouraging me to have children before her? Was this in unspoken reference to her anger towards me from so long ago?

I decided to give her a call to finally get to the bottom of it. This is what she told me:

“I remember a very distinct moment when it all started. You had just graduated from eighth grade and had received that special award for being an exceptional person. And because you were the first student to ever receive that award, it seemed like it was specially made for you. I was in sixth grade at the time, at the same school, and I remember thinking, ‘My sister is such a bad ass.’ But then, when school started back up in September and I went into 7th grade, I was called into the office. At first I thought I was in trouble, but then the teachers said, ‘We want to make sure that you don’t feel like you have to live up to your sister.’ I know they were trying to be supportive, but what they said had the opposite effect on me. It was at that moment that I realized that other people were comparing me to you.

“After that, I constantly compared myself to you. You got better grades in school than me. You were better at soccer. And it made me angry. I felt like, because you were better than me at these kinds of things, people loved you more.

“I felt that way all the way through high school. I felt it right up to when you were imprisoned. On top of everything, you became famous, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be defined as your little sister forever.’ Meanwhile, my whole support system fell apart. Mom and Dad were freaked out and focused on saving you.

“There was too much going on. I had an identity crisis. Deep down, I knew that my insecurities were coming from within me. I had to figure myself out, or else fall into a bad place. I had to make a decision.

“So I did. I thought, ‘No. I’m not just Amanda Knox’s little sister. I’m Deanna Knox.’ And it was such a relief, not to compare myself anymore.”

So why all the baby talk? I asked.

“Well, I realized that a lot of the attention you’ve received hasn’t been good. I want you to have big, positive moments in your life too. And besides that, you and Chris are great together and I can’t wait to be an auntie.”

Thank you, Deanna. I love you too.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 04/10/2017.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged | 12 Comments


In my experience, conferences can make you feel high. Between the panels, plenaries, and a sea of old and new faces, you end up inevitably spread thin, over-stimulated, and under-slept. And it’s great, because during those few days packed with professional, social, intellectual, and emotional activity, you’re swept up by a frantic, inspired joy that’s supposed to carry you through another year.

So it was at this year’s Innocence Network Conference. Giddy and exhausted, Chris and I rode the elevator up to the fifth floor of the hotel towards an out-of-the-way conference room, purposefully set apart for a therapeutic session lead by a foundation called Healing Justice. As we stepped inside, I felt more than I heard the soft instrumental music sweep over me. It was so different from the exciting and incessant chatter of the rest of the conference rooms below. The leaders of the session, Jennifer Thompson and Britt Stone, explained in whispers that this session was about the masks we wear to hide our emotional scars: only by first acknowledging the cover can we reveal and address the trauma beneath. They steered Chris and I in front of individual prepared work stations equipped with paints, markers, glue, stationary, newsprint, and our canvas: a plain, white mask. Quietly, we set to work.

The Innocence Network Conference is perhaps even more overwhelming than most conferences. Just this year, over 750 people attended, 190 of which were exonerees like me. Altogether, we had served 2,953 years of wrongful imprisonment, 222 on death row. 42 of us were newly exonerated within the past year, most after decades in prison. This was Chris’s first time at the conference, the fourth for me and my mom. As usual, Mom blossomed with boundless energy; she stayed out late and was immensely popular with exonerees, family members, and lawyers alike. Chris was particularly inspired by the measurable difference these lawyers and scientists had in real people’s lives, and by how the Innocence Movement was founded above all upon inclusive, honest, critical thought. As for me, I return to the conference every year to reconnect with my tribe, with that profound sense of purpose and community.

As I dabbed at globs of paint, I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing with my mask. Though I used to be pretty good at drawing when I was a kid, I don’t consider myself a very visually creative person. I thought about the prompt—What is the mask I wear to hide from the world?—and I felt a jolt of anxiety. I didn’t know. For all my introspection, this question stumped me. I didn’t feel disconnected from the way I presented myself to others, but surely I felt shame and fear and inadequacy that I didn’t like to advertise. My ever-simmering anxiety came to mind, that vague pressure to prove myself socially fit and emotionally whole. It was complex, contradictory; it made me feel disfigured and dysfunctional, but also strong. Could something cripple you and empower you at the same time?

I was asked to present my mask at the final plenary, and going up to the stage, I barely knew what I would say. So I said this:

“Hi, I’m Amanda Knox. I was imprisoned in Italy for four years for a murder I didn’t commit. This is my mask. It’s ugly. What it says up here is “SMILE SAD GIRL” and it has this gruesome smile that is contrasting with a lot of darkness and depth. You can interpret that however you like. The thing that I want to say is—and it was really hard to make this, surprisingly—I wanted to tell a story to explain it. After I was convicted, that was this huge, devastating, existential blow, because I knew that I was going to be found innocent when it all came down to it and it didn’t happen. So that’s when I realized that your innocence doesn’t necessarily mean that you are freed. I had to wrap my mind around the idea that I was never going to leave again and that was my life. My mom noticed that the tone in my letters changed, that I was suddenly taking on this tone of, “How do I make meaning out my new life that is here inside prison?” And she kept telling me, “You can’t lose your optimism. You can’t lose who you are. You’re the smiley, cheerful girl. You need to smile.” But I didn’t have a smile. I didn’t. And that was the truth. That was the truth, and that’s what mattered. I’m not trying to call my mom out for saying, “Smile, damn it!” but it was a little bit like that. I’m just trying to say that smiling brings back the light in your life. You should smile through the stuff that hurts. But you also have to know that it wounds.”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 04/03/2017.

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Back-breaking, heavy-lifting

I’ve never liked being in a rush. I forget things: my coat, my wallet, my keys. I bump into doors and doorways and stumble over cracked pavement. Or, as was recently the case, I back out of my mom’s driveway and accidentally knock over her mailbox.

Oh, don’t worry—the thing’s a tank. It’s a security box made of seamless steel, including a post sheath. When the back of my Subaru Forrester drove into the mailbox, what gave way was the twelve-inch stretch of exposed 4X4 between the bottom of the sheath and the ground, where the post was secure inside an 80lbs lump of concrete. Chris and I cut the engine, rushed out of the car, and found the mailbox lying in the grass, impermeable, scratch-less even. Meanwhile, there was now a hole in the back of my car, just below the rearview window. A quick Google search on Chris’s phone revealed that the punctured part was called the “garnish,” and replacing it would cost about $500. Ugh.

With the sun going down and our tails between our legs, Chris and I vowed to return the next day. On the way home, we stopped by the Home Depot, wandered around lost and confused (Is concrete the same thing as cement?), and eventually picked up an 8ft weather-treated 4X4 and three 60lbs bags of concrete, just in case. Somehow, lugging those back to the car, we still didn’t realize the magnitude of our imminent endeavor. We were young, healthy. We had all the materials. How hard could it be?

At eight o’clock the next morning, we woke up to the alarm as usual, but instead of spending the next hour in our pajamas, making breakfast and listening to NPR, we bundled up in work clothes, drove out to West Seattle and stepped out into a light, but frigid rain. With heavy hearts, we set to work dismantling the garden patch around the splintered remains of the mailbox post. This involved removing three layers of cement garden blocks (heavy and covered in moss), uprooting tender flower shoots, and shoveling away the soft mound of dark topsoil.

That part was all fine and well. The trouble began when we hit actual ground. Tough and stony, we had to chip away at the dirt rather than shovel it. Chris hammered away, and I wandered around my mom’s backyard until I found a second shovel to help. My short-handled, pointy-headed one was a better fit for the job than Chris’s, but even so, I made only an inch of headway at a time. Worse, I often struck against rock (or dirt so compacted with rock that it might as well be rock), and bounced off, the reverberation stinging my wrist like being hit on the funny bone.

By the time we had finally unearthed the splintered stump and the two top inches of the cement, our hands were numb from fatigue and cold and we were tempted to try tying the rope around it somehow, and wrest the rest from the un-giving ground with the car. But then we remembered my Subaru doesn’t have a hitch post.

We got back to digging, hinging further and further at the hips as the hole got deeper, and eventually the cement lump began to wiggle. Chris and I tooks turns wedging our shovels beneath the lump and leveraging our weight against it. Once one of our shovels finally found purchase from beneath, Chris hulked the lump out and threw it aside. Panting, he cried, “Why don’t we have robots to do this yet?!”

Our reward for exposing the hole and getting half the job done was a half-hour break to consume coffee and Quiche Lorraine. Meanwhile, the light rain picked up.

When we returned to our hole, it was partially-filled with rain and groundwater. I grabbed an empty flower pot from the front porch, and Chris bailed most of the muddy water out. Then, as I held the new post level, Chris cut open the first bag of concrete and poured a little into the hole. As he stirred with a length of broken 2X4, the grey powder was absorbed by the accumulating groundwater. We poured, stirred, poured, stirred. We took turns on our hands and knees, dragging the stick through the gluey muck. The attendant at Home Depot had recommended using just one 60lbs bag of concrete, but the bag said to avoid a “soupy” texture, and we couldn’t keep up with the groundwater seeping in. All three 60lbs bags wound up in the hole to get the texture right, and we hustled to shovel the rock-dirt on top. Finally, there was nothing more we could do except cover the lot with cardboard and plastic garbage bags. We had to wait for the concrete to set.

We returned bright and early the next morning. Sleepily, almost mechanically, we went through the remaining motions: we carefully slid the mailbox sheath onto the new post and screwed it in; we set the cement garden stones back around the hole, shoveled the topsoil back into place, replanted the flowers, threw away the garbage, called it good as new. Chris took a picture of me posing in triumph, but really, we were both just sore all over, and grateful to return to our privileged normalcy, where the only back-breaking, heavy-lifting we do is done with our minds.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/21/2017.

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Fandom and fan fiction

We did it! This week, Chris and I finally finished all seven books of the Harry Potter series. For the last six months or so we’ve been immersed, listening to the audiobooks during car rides and at the breakfast table, and watching the films. Now that it’s over, I feel the same confluence of emotions that I felt after closing the cover of last book for the first time. On the one hand, deflation. What in the world do I read after Harry Potter? On the other hand, reverberation. A good story sticks with you, but a great story is a world you want to continue exploring—in all directions, at all depths—long after the last word was read. In other words, a great story inspires fandom, and in that regard, Harry Potter is one of the greatest.

There’s been some wonder about what it is that makes Harry Potter so popular. What’s not up for debate is that the Harry Potter franchise is worth at least $25 billion. While this doesn’t touch the $41 billion of Star Wars, the popular consumption of both series are remarkable similar. Each are embodied in books, films, toys, theme parks, fan clubs and fan fiction. Each are conduits for a great expanse of emotional resonance—love, joy, fear, hope, hurt, compassion, grief, thrill.

As Chris and I excitedly make plans to visit Universal Studios’ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the next time we’re in L.A., I’m reminded of the days (during high school) when my Harry Potter fandom found satisfaction through much more unofficial means: fan fiction.

I didn’t know it back in high school, but recently I was intrigued to discover that the production and consumption of fan fiction has always been dominated by women. It turns out, back in the late 60s and early 70s, when fan fiction was first widely popularized surrounding the Star Trek series, women represented as many as 90% of fan fiction authors. Today, estimates that 78% of its users are female. Pamela Kalinowski examines why this is true in her article, The Fairest of Them All: The Creative Interests of Female Fan Fiction Writers and the Fair Use Doctrine. She posits that women in particular are motivated to broaden the scope of the original material we admire with examinations of more closely personal issues, all the while maintaining the framework that gives us a sense of belonging to a community. In other words, when a great story comes our way, a story that we relate to, that moves us, and for which our enthusiasm finds solidarity in others, we want to keep using the original source material to practice the kind of empathy it originally inspired in us, and we want to share that empathic and imaginative exercise with others.

What are other motivations? One, I think, is a combination of curiosity and nostalgia. Fan fiction, like spin-offs, explore histories, subplots, and tangents—just last year the play The Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them were added to the Harry Potter saga. Another motivation is to take advantage of an established framework within which to explore new ideas—my personal favorite of this kind of fan fiction is by far Elizer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

And finally, sex. There’s little research quantifying the kinds of fan fiction that are out there, but a simple Google search will reveal a culture and quantity of erotic fan fiction that is well-established and not hard to find. (Intrigued? Check out: E.L. James’ erotic fan fiction of the Twilight series was so popular that it was sold to a major publisher (characters’ names were changed) and published as its own series: Fifty Shades of Grey, which carried its weight as a franchise—movies, merchandise, and all.

I’m just as entrenched as anyone, unwilling to let go of stories and worlds that have helped me discover who I am. I realize that I’m lucky to have had to opportunity to relive Harry Potter over again as an adult, and though I’m sad this second time around is over, I feel closer to Chris because of it, and I’m already thinking about how excited I am to share it with my children. All I can think to say are the words of a fan: thank you, J.K.R., for your mentorship and imagination.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/13/2017.

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Just under a year ago, my sister Delaney asked me to read and help edit her senior thesis project—an essay about her year volunteering at a local youth tutoring center. “You gotta help me, Amanda,” she pleaded. “I can’t use the verb to be.”

“That’s weird,” I said. English uses to be not only to define states of being, but also as an auxiliary verb, a necessary component of many verb conjugations. Without to be, light is neither a particle, nor a wave. Without to be, I will not be! I scowled. “That can’t literally be what your teacher wants. She probably just doesn’t want you to use passive voice, like, the milk was spilled, as opposed to, I spilled the milk.”

“No!” Delaney huffed. “I can’t use to be at all! I’ll get marked down! Help!”

So I helped, but I still didn’t understand what was wrong with a sentence like, “The program provides after-school tutoring to youth who are considered at risk for low academic achievement, poor school attendance, and high dropout rate.” I understood encouraging Delaney to think and write more directly, clearly, and concisely, but I didn’t understand advocating for to be’s removal altogether. In the end, I encouraged Delaney to keep what I considered to be a few perfectly innocent and justified to be’s in the edited draft.

Can’t use the verb to be. Ludicrous!

Almost a year later, while tumbling down a Google rabbit hole, I stumbled upon E-Prime, as in, English Prime. In the 1940s, a semanticist named D. David Bourland Jr. devised E-Prime to exclude all forms of the verb to be from the English language. Bourland argued that most, if not all, usage of to be not only uselessly clutters written English, but also perniciously fails to distinguish between fact and opinion, objectivity and subjectivity, and is used to avoid attributing agency. Take, for example, the following:

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. The first little pig was lazy. He built his house out of straw. The second little pig was somewhat lazy too, and built his house out of sticks. Then, the rest of the day was spent playing together. The third little pig was industrious. He worked all day and built his house out of bricks. It was a red house. It was that night, when the pigs were sleeping in their houses, that the wolf came. The straw and stick houses were blown down by the wolf’s great huffing and puffing, and the little pigs inside were eaten. But the third little pig was safe. The wolf wasn’t able to blow down his little brick house.

In E-Prime, this would read:

Once upon a time, there existed three little pigs. The first little pig didn’t want to work, so he built his house out of straw. The second little pig worked a little harder, and built his house out of sticks. Then, they spent the rest of the day playing together. The third little pig worked hard all day and built his house out of red bricks. That night, when the little pigs slept in their houses, the wolf came. With great huffing and puffing, the wolf blew down the straw and stick houses and ate the little pigs inside. But the wolf couldn’t blow down the little brick house, and the third little pig survived.

On a purely quantitative level, the E-Prime version is more concise (120 vs. 114 words). The E-Prime version also corrects the structural problems of the normal English version, like passive voice: “the straw and stick houses were blown down.”

But most importantly, the E-Prime version communicates the writer’s subjectivity, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact. For example, “the little pig was lazy” is not allowed; the writer must instead clarify the source of their judgement: “the little pig didn’t want to work.” Thus, writers and readers avoid the mistake of misrepresenting subjective experience and judgement with the objective, fundamental nature of things. This motivation resembles another pedagogical writing technique: show, don’t tell, which writers employ to enable readers to experience a story through sensory input rather than through the writer’s exposition. “Amanda is in love with Chris” reads very differently than “Every time Chris looks into Amanda’s eyes, her heart catches, and tingles ripple down her neck and arms.”

I’m not advocating for E-prime all the time. It’s not colloquial or poetic. Without to be, we wouldn’t have “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But I do understand why Delaney’s teacher challenged her students to learn how to think and write analytical essays in E-Prime. Like show, don’t tell, E-Prime is a useful pedagogical tool that forces inexperienced thinkers and writers to better define their terms and always take responsibility for their opinions. If only those representing our highest office were similarly challenged. (“Sad!”)

Published by the West Seattle Herald 03/06/2017.

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Sudden separation

On Valentine’s Day, my friend and I were walking along the waterfront at Lincoln Park. We came across a large stone on which someone had assembled a bunch of shells to spell out “LOVE” in large, capital letters. My friend stared at the word for a moment, then looked me square in the eyes as she swiped her arm across the stone, scattering the shells to the ground. I gave her a half-smile and we walked away.

Looking back on the latter half of my twenties, I can’t help but notice how much romance has characterized these years. Romance in my own life and romance in the lives of my peers. Many of my friends have been getting married, one after another, a wedding every few months. The first of my three sisters is getting married this November. This is both great (I love Love!) and unsurprising. Millennials are tending to get married in our late twenties; our parents and grandparents tended to get married in their early twenties. It’s a notable difference, but it’s no cultural revolution. Just like so many generations before us, we’re excited to celebrate and officialize our most important adult decision: life partner.

It’s partly because I am myself also swept up in the momentum of these especially love-laden late twenties that I feel dumbstruck as I try to support my friend through her sudden separation from her husband. She’s not my first friend to get a divorce, but hers is the first that is involuntary, and the first that I’m witnessing up close. To console her, I can’t really draw from my experience of breaking up with a boyfriend, or even breaking off an engagement. It’s not the same as the breaking up of a marriage. The crisis is more existential. Your life partner, by definition, is the last person you’d expect to suddenly decide to abandon you without warning. That sudden fracture feels as confounding and viscerally terrifying as if reality itself had ruptured.

In the past week, I’ve clutched my friend’s limp hand as she stared blankly out the window. I watched her write and rewrite and rewrite her texts, muttering furiously under her breath. I’ve admired how another friend managed to get her to eat by making hilariously lewd gestures with a pair of churros. And I’ve embraced her helplessly as she dissolved into hysterical fits of crying and hyperventilating and dry-heaving as she was forced to say goodbye to the life she loved.

As a friend, I can do two things to help. The first is to remind her that life goes on. She will love again. She is not as alone as she feels. We, her people, love her. This requires being present and especially engaged. The second is a variation of the first—to bear witness, to respect her grief and loss by acknowledging it, by feeling its weight with her, by taking an echo of it into my own heart and mind. And as a result, be struck dumb.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/27/2017.

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Social dance

This week Chris and I learned the shim sham. Without getting technical, I’d describe it as a social line dance combining tap-style stomping, gliding, kicking, wiggle-walking, and swagger. The shim sham is what our instructors Mark and Katie K. call the seventh evening stretch of every social dance—at least on swing nights at the Century Ballroom. It’s the one time we shed our roles as leader or follower and synchronize instead with the whole room full of other individual dancers.

You can feel the difference. Your mind shifts from honing in on your partner to honing in on both yourself and the entire group, from “couple” to “individual + collective.” So, though I adore partner dancing, I was excited to finally also participate in the shim sham, for the same reason that I love participating in a choir or a theatre chorus or a flash mob. It’s magical when individuals come together and the resulting organism is greater than the sum of its parts—like a flock of birds.

I’m not talking about mob mentality. I feel claustrophobic in a crowd. Just a few weeks ago, Chris and I went to see Run the Jewels at the Showbox in SoDo. We stood towards the back, but even so, by the time RTJ hit the stage, the crowd was pressing in on us from all sides. Chris liked it. He said that losing himself amidst the jostling pressure of so many bodies made him feel safe and snug, and that he drew from everyone’s compressed energy. Not me. I felt like the encroaching crowd was treating me like an object, an obstacle even. I couldn’t breathe—not so much from being squeezed as from my rising panic.

My anxiety was grounded in the fact that, in the mob, I was just another body. For the other people in the crowd it was okay to block my view and push me around without concern for how their actions were affecting my experience. And they weren’t wrong—the show and the venue were meant to be appreciated that way. I was the one who couldn’t feel the high of the hive mind, of losing yourself in the spirit of many, of socializing by being collectively antisocial.

The shim sham—and all social dancing—is very different. These are activities which can only function if everyone acknowledges everyone else’s agency.

In the first place, the dance floor belongs to everyone. A big part of the role of the leader is scanning the dance floor so you don’t end up throwing your follower into another couple’s space. And sure, on a busy night, it’s not uncommon for dancers to accidentally bump into each other, but you always try to avoid run-ins, and you always acknowledge them when they occur.

Secondly, just as the dance floor belongs to everyone, so do the dancers themselves belong to everyone. By that I mean that anyone can dance with anyone else. Sure, you can decide that you’d rather stick to dancing with just your date—something rookies often do out of shyness or skill-level insecurity—but the spirit of the party is that you switch partners song to song, and in so doing, socialize.

It’s this second aspect of social dancing that some people find particularly challenging, and I understand why. By entering the ballroom, you’re inviting physical contact with strangers. And not the impersonal pressure of jostling bodies kind of physical contact, but eye-contact, personal attention, and touch communication. In order to dance, leaders and followers must radiate towards each other a purposeful, collaborative glow that’s at the very least playful, and often even a little bit flirtatious.

I get why that can be intimidating and anxiety-producing in people, but not for me! I love how personal it is, how I can learn a lot about a dance partner without exchanging more words than, “Care to dance?” When I dance with Wiley, for instance, I know our unique combination is going to be a little funky and playfully improvisational. When I dance with Derek, he’s going to be super fluid and I’m going to slip around him like the floor’s made of butter. When I dance with Chris, our moves are going to be crisp and precise, and we’ll always be gazing into each other’s eyes like the rest of the world isn’t there.

Social dance—whether partnered or in line—is interpersonal awareness at its most playful, which suits me just fine.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/20/2017.

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