More on winter in BsAs: cold, insanity, contact, dance, and death
Kragen Javier Sitaker
kragen at canonical.org
Fri Jun 10 02:29:21 EDT 2011
In response to my previous message, one person wrote:
> You know who else goes off in lots of different directions? Those
> who are drawn and quartered.
There were a number of topics I wanted to tie together in that mail
that I didn’t quite get a chance to.
First, winter. It has begun to get chilly here. People on the
streets universally wear scarves, and nearly all wear coats or
jackets. The actual outdoor temperature ranges from about 5° to about
20°, according to the Weather Underground.
(The Weather Underground was a project of the University of Michigan;
it’s been providing weather forecasts on the internet since 1991.
It’s one of the few dozen services that was already on Scott Yanoff’s
list of information services on the internet when I got my first
account in late 1992. The Weather Underground spun off as a company
in 1995. It is not actually related to the communist terrorist group
of the same name, except for being from the same university.)
Today, while I may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind
blows, I do need a web site on another continent to tell me what the
temperature is outside, because despite all my affection for tools and
measurements and computers, I don’t have a thermometer outside.
Despite the winter, we continued to have mosquitoes each day in our
house, and each night we have been sleeping under a travel-size
mosquito net to keep them out of our bed. This has occasionally
worked, but not reliably, since the net can easily fall open.
Yesterday, Beatrice looked behind our washing machine in the laundry
closet and found a puddle. We’d noticed before that the washing
machine leaked a bit, but we’d had no idea of the extent of the
problem. So the washing machine had poured us a substantial muddy
puddle, hidden from view behind the washing machine — a puddle full of
Now that we have drained the swamp, the mosquitoes seem to have
diminished substantially. We’ll see if they disappear entirely in
another day or two.
As I write this, I’m sitting in front of my computer sipping yerba
mate from a bottle gourd, wearing a rugby shirt (a gift from one of
the friends who came over for sushi) and shorts, occasionally killing
a mosquito. I can hear the compressor upstairs heating our bedroom;
it shouldn’t be rattling that way. Perhaps it needs some maintenance.
My habit of walking around in weather like this wearing T-shirts,
shorts, and flip-flops astonishes people; they believe I’m insane. I
tell them I adapted to the cold when I lived in Ohio, where the
temperature is below 0° for three or four months of the year, during
which there is about 30 cm of snow. To porteños, such a climate seems
positively antarctic; here in Buenos Aires, which is about the same
latitude as Los Angeles, it’s snowed only twice in the last century.
So this snow of volcanic ash is even more unusual than it would be
A little physical adaptation goes a long way to being comfortable in
the chill. Physical activity helps, too. I often travel around the
city by bicycle, which is an easy way to generate more body heat — if
I work those big thigh muscles against a brake for a couple of blocks,
I no longer feel cold at any Buenos Aires temperature.
I’ve also been dancing contact improvisation pretty frequently,
usually two or three times a week. This is a lot more effort than
riding a bicycle, and also more demanding on my strength and sense of
balance. There’s a pretty big group of contact dancers here in Buenos
Aires. This video, showing Laurie Ellington and Brandon Gonzalez
dancing, is what I usually show people when they ask me what it is:
I think contact improv is exertion sufficiently intense that I could
do it naked in a snowdrift without getting cold. I’ve had to get used
to being covered in other people’s sweat.
Dancing does not leave artifacts, the way flintknapping, pottery, and
bottle gourds do, but sometimes people have made paintings of dancers.
And some of these paintings are from about the same time as the
domestication of bottle gourds, about four hundred generations ago.
But dance may be much older than that; just as there are many more
videos on the internet of naked chicks with huge tits than of dancing,
there may have been many more Paleolithic ceramic figurines of naked
chicks with huge tits than of dancing, so that none of the dancing
figurines happened to survive. And it might depend on where you draw
a somewhat arbitrary line between dancing and other kinds of movement.
Chimpanzees and bonobos are my closest living non-human relatives; our
last common ancestors are about three hundred thousand generations
ago, almost a thousand times longer ago than these paintings or bottle
gourds, and two hundred times longer ago than my ancestors first
started making naked chicks with huge tits out of carcinogenic clay.
And chimpanzees dance. They dance alone at waterfalls, in
thunderstorms, and in the face of grass fires. They move rhythmically
back and forth, stamping their feet, and they “display” to demonstrate
their physical prowess to other chimpanzees — sometimes using handy
objects as percussive instruments. Hmura Hmura documents that they
seem to respond to human music by dancing and singing in time to the
rhythm of the music. And they embrace one another to form social
ties, just as humans do while dancing.
It’s possible that humans invented all of these means of communication
through movement, and that chimpanzees merely copied them. But to me
it seems more likely that we share the same instincts for expressive
So it seems that when I dance, I am communicating with my fellow
dancers in a pre-linguistic, pre-rational way, the same way my
ancestors have been communicating for three hundred thousand
generations. In a way, I wasn’t fully human before I learned to
dance, just as I wasn’t fully human before I learned to use language.
But I’ve only danced seriously since late 2009, after some inspiring
acquaintances at Wikimania, so my level of skill in dance might be
similar to my level of skill in English when I was two.
I’ve always loved sex, I think much more than most people; but as I’ve
learned to dance over the past two years, I’ve learned that sex is
only one small part of a much larger universe of kinesthetic
expression. Lovemaking and orgasm is only one way among many to let
go of the fiction of a separate self, that fiction through which I
usually understand the world.
However, I have a less transcendental purpose, as well. Although I
keep sustaining minor injuries when dancing (when I stub my toe, or
fall off someone’s back onto my head, or get kicked in the face, or
simply when my knees become irritated and red from bearing so much
weight for so long), I have hope that it will improve my life
By strengthening my muscles, improving my falling technique and sense
of balance, and losing weight, I improve my chances of surviving
By exercising, I strengthen my immune system, reduce the harmful
effects of stress, and reduce my risk of heart disease and cancer.
And, by forming these pre-rational ties with my fellow dancers,
perhaps I will ultimately be happier and in a better position to deal
with life’s unexpected losses and setbacks.
There’s a beautiful 20-minute film in Spanish on YouTube of a contact
improv festival last year in Brazil to which I couldn’t go, featuring
many people I’ve danced with over the last year:
In contact improv, we focus a lot of attention on the points of
contact between bodies, where one supports or communicates with
In much of my life I exist at the point of contact between bodies.
I live in Argentina, but I remain a US citizen, still bearing
many of the values I grew up with in the US — and in pain at the
prospect of perhaps not being able to attend the weddings of family
and friends in the US this year.
Buenos Aires, where I live, is a port city, at the physical point of
contact between land and river, and the economic point of contact
between Argentine agriculture and the rest of the world.
Last night, I went to a meetup called “Hacks/Hackers”, a point of
contact between journalists and programmers. Among the speakers was
Malte Spitz, the German politician who obtained a copy of the dossier
maintained on him by the phone company, and used it to construct a
minute-by-minute movie of his motions for six months. I spent time
with friends there who are active in ameliorating
intellectual-property law, and also with a fellow who would like my
help on his high-tech startup. I’m a point of contact between
idealist networks and capitalist networks.
It’s difficult living at the point of contact. In contact improv, you
must constantly pay attention to the communication there, or at best
you’ll fall on the floor.
But living at the point of contact between different cultures is much
more difficult, in part because it turns out that madness is
culturally defined. This is not to say that it’s just a matter of
perspective; we all have experienced moments of greater or lesser
lucidity, and some of us are condemned to live our lives in constant
psychotic confusion. (My own direct experience of this, during my
childhood, was induced by Ritalin, which I was coerced into taking.)
There is a real and important difference between these states of mind.
However, the human capacity for rational thought seems to be very
limited indeed. We all depend on our cultures to support us in our
daily life, so that our failures of judgment and logic are rarely
fatal. It seems to be wired into our brains that, when we are
surrounded by people who agree with one another about something, to
eventually accept their point of view.
By means of this herd instinct, we generally manage to muddle through,
even with the very limited ability we have to engage in rational
thought. Most of the things we believe aren’t plausible or even
consistent with one another, and most of the things we habitually do
are not coherent with our beliefs. But we generally don’t even
notice, because the gentle pressure exerted by the real world on our
collective consciousness usually prevents our irrational beliefs and
nonsensical plans from being too severely destructive, at least to us
And so we notice that people are mad when they develop new irrational
beliefs and behaviors that depart radically from the socially-accepted
irrational beliefs and behaviors. We can’t actually tell whether
they’re rational, at least not with any degree of reliability, but we
can tell that they’re different. And so Semmelweis, having quite
rationally and correctly accused his fellow obstetricians of mass
murder, ended his unhappy days in a madhouse.
Unfortunately, at the point of contact between cultures, we are
deprived of this protective buffer. To the extent that I internalize
the new culture, I will seem mad and immoral to the old one, and to
the extent that I fail to acculturate, I will seem mad and immoral to
the new one. And there is no particular reason to believe that either
culture would be incorrect in its assessment.
And so I walk down the street in my T-shirt and shorts as everyone
around me shivers in their scarves; I drink yerba mate from the same
mouthpiece as my friends and acquaintances; and I lane-split on a
bicycle while yelling at cars so they don’t hit me. I tentatively
retain the Gandhian hypothesis that nonviolence is always a better
method for resolving conflicts than violence, while simultaneously
tentatively retaining the conflicting hypothesis that some degree of
regulation by a state that controls a geographically-limited monopoly
on state violence is a desirable state of affairs, and indeed that it
is largely responsible for the long lifespans we currently enjoy. I
eat no meat and drink no alcohol, but spend long nights out dancing in
close contact with sweaty strangers.
And I never, ever discuss the Malvinas islands, called the Falklands
When I first arrived here, I was surprised to discover that all of the
expatriates except for me were insane. Today I realize that I was
mistaken; like Alice, I simply had not noticed yet that I was insane
If you live long enough, even your own home town becomes a foreign
culture. Decades ago, Alvin and Heidi Toffler coined the term “future
shock” for this phenomenon; I speculate that this loss of social
context is a more important cause of insanity among the old than any
kind of organic malfunction.
It’s been a difficult week for many people I know. One person
couldn’t come to the sushi dinner tonight because she’s been helping a
friend get his cancer treatments back in order. Another lost a close
friend to suicide this weekend; his parents are not even holding a
funeral. Two other old friends of mine are getting divorced from one
another (one involuntarily), and two other old friends of mine have
just finished a power struggle within the board of a nonprofit, which
one of them lost. Other old friends are emigrating. And apparently
Slink may die soon; that’s the cat who walked into my life and my
ex-wife's life seventeen years ago, the cat who I left behind in
California five years ago.
And so we continue, all of us human beings, doing our best to support
the weight of our fellow humans as life happens to us: with embraces
and attention, each supporting the other as we dance this insane dance
of life and death and love and hope and fear, despite our severely
limited ability to understand what is happening, despite all the ways
we pour our own mud puddles full of mosquitoes — as our ancestors have
been doing for three hundred thousand generations or more.
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