Saturday, March 14, 2015

They Climb Mountains, Don't They?

Laird Christopher submerges himself into his dearest diversion for a third time amongst the merry assembly of the George Washington Ball, as presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers.

Is it a ball, or is it dance boot camp?

I wonder as I go through the pre-ball ritual of hurriedly learning 20 dances in two-and-a-half hours. On paper, it looks so intimidating. Even the easy dances look difficult. At least two of these dances I have done before, but I can't remember how. YouTube demonstrations provide a bit of comfort, but I need to see the dance from the way it will appear to me as I'm working through the set, not necessarily looking at it from the outside.

I'm in my kilt and my Missouri sweater for the rehearsal, and to my great relief, my companions in the dance remember your humble servant.

"Good to see you from parts afar!"

We spend a few minutes catching up before the onslaught begins, the quick run through of the dances so we can at least be familiar if we can't be completely polished. In the big leagues of English Country Dancing -- which this is -- callers seldom call a dance all the way through, if they call at all. Memory and teamwork are crucial, and I'm placing a lot of trust in the people around me to help with the tough parts.

An advanced dance breaks down in confusion, and your humble servant is lost in it, trying to find my place as my partner points and corrects. Dance master for children I may aspire to be, but dance master among grown-ups I am surely not. My partner is reassuring when she reads the agony in my countenance. "It's not your fault. We had so many new people."

With so many dances, I can afford to sit out one without feeling I have deprived myself of the full experience. I choose this one.

The George Washington Ball remains one of my favourites because I can dress up in my 18th Century finery to the hilt and find myself surrounded by those who do the same. This year, I have a big decision to make: gold outfit or blue? I have worn my 1740's gold outfit for the last two years, which I adore very much. Now I feel a need to change things up.

The blue 1770's ball outfit of satin jacquard is beautiful and radiant, but it has become very unforgiving -- or maybe it just seems that way. The coat is fine, but the breeches press tight. I almost hesitate to bow low, fearing I will split my pants. Even though I have modified the buttons and gusset in back to accommodate the realities of weight gain from being around for (2)43 years, the inconvenient truth remains -- I am likely getting too big for my breeches. If all else fails, I have a stark white pair that will suffice in a pinch. I also have my kilt.

However, over the past week in my other life and time, I have worked 40 hours in four days, including three double shifts. The net effect is a crash diet. I figure I dropped at least five pounds, like a prize fighter sweating off pounds before the official weigh-in. The breeches still fit tightly, but they're not choking me. My red baldric -- a symbol of my travels as a dancing emissary -- and the big tricorn complete the look.

"This is how they dress in Arizona!" a friend compliments as I enter the venue with a bow. I gladly point out the coat is unlined, built for comfort of the blistering Arizona heat as well as the heat of passionate dancing.

The passion starts with a minuet. Once again, I'm mostly faking it because my feet don't want to move with grace in those heavy buckled shoes. The lady I have invited to join me doesn't quite know it either. "It doesn't matter," I reassure, "as long as we look elegant."

We do our best, knowing we probably wouldn't pass muster in the court of King George III. What I can't accomplish with my feet, I can substitute with my hands. My tricorn comes off my head, and I hold it out with regal affectation. That's the way I dance, but it's not the way some people would prefer.

"Put your hand down," a gentleman has mildly corrected just hours earlier in practice. I can't help but feel mildly dismayed. Among my dancing companions in Arizona, and in those opportunities where I have taught young ladies and gentleman as a dancing master, affectations are heartily welcomed as an expression of radiant joy. It also kickstarts the wee ones' imaginations, putting them mentally in the powdered wigs and breeches where they would otherwise lack the look. I know people turn up their nose at this, but they haven't danced in our village.

Time accelerates. One dance speeds into the next, and then the next, and then the next after that. We are flying through the evening's selections. I do not sit out until the very end of the first half, where I pass on "Miss De Jersey's Memorial." I am thinking this is the dance that dissolved into disaster just a few hours earlier. On paper, it looks just as intimidating. I am loathe to turn down any dancing challenge, but I am thinking of my fellow dancing companions -- especially the ladies -- and I prefer not to cause disorder and confusion.

After the break, and two cups of strong coffee, I find out I'm wrong. I am soon standing in a set for "Barham Down," and it is too late to step out as the caller reviews the steps. My partner, fortunately, knows this dance well. So do my dancing companions. For the next five minutes, they point and direct and toss your humble servant around like a ship in stormy waters as I try to navigate on my own. Many of us in the line are imperfect, but we are quite merry about it, and some shriek in bursts of excitement upon a sudden turn or change of direction.

"We did it!" I exclaim to my partner, who is equally appreciative with a period-incorrect double high-five. "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!"

I am tossed around again through "Monticello," a dance where both my partner and I are confused on a key figure, meaning we must quickly reset ourselves when we cannot resolve the problem. These are the times that try the gentleman's soul -- frustration and confusion and the errors. By a great miracle, the problem does not spread throughout the set. We survive to dance again with no hard feelings.

The minutes accelerate once more, and we are soon in Jack's Maggot (the "maggot" part being 18th Century terminology for an idea, not a slimy pest). During the hands-across figures, where we turn in a star, my free hand is raised in an open joyous display of those discouraged affectations. Mine is the only raised hand in the room, although a lady or two will briefly indulge me.

"I don't care if I am tossed from every ballroom in Virginia," I whisper in the passion of the moment. "I shall let my light shine through! I shall teach this to the wee ones!"

In a rush the night is over. Twenty-one different dances have come and gone, and I have danced twenty of them -- with as many different ladies as possible, as is tradition and custom. That's a scorecard of accomplishment.

Throughout the evening, I talk with others about other dances at other times. People on the East Coast, and especially Virginia, have the opportunity to attend balls similar to this one multiple times a year, and in the full attire, just like this. Your humble servant, on the other hand, only has time and budget for one, and it's worth it.

Yet in the afterglow of the evening, when we are all mingling and enjoying snacks in an adjoining room, I see part of myself as abnormal. My dancing friends are amazed I have traveled cross-country to be here. Some have traveled a few hundred miles, but I have journeyed the farthest. The expense is significant. I confront myself with the possibility that I am a junkie looking for a fix. What is wrong with me?

In times of distress and doubt, sitting silently among my dancing companions, I must reach back to GOD and to reason. Some climb mountains. Some people sail. Some travel. Some geek out at the "cons." I dance in a tricorn. A conventional passion it's not, especially for a man. It's something I lament in a discussion with some young dancing friends.

"Why don't we have any equivalent of Jane Austen for the young aspiring elegant gentleman?"

"We have Horatio Hornblower," one suggests.

"True," I say. "But I don't think he loved to dance like Austen did."

And what about Mr. Darcy, another points out.

"I don't think men read Jane Austen for him," I observe. At least none of the men I know do, unless they're unwilling to admit it.

We agree a better source for gentlemanly inspiration is sorely needed... if only to prod more men into dancing at the balls. In Colonial times, they could've played cards apart from the cavorting. Not anymore.

The next day, at a meeting of the local Jane Austen Society, an opportunity presents itself.

"Who here has not done English Country Dancing?" our dance mistress asks. A young lady in an Empire dress raises her hand -- the only raised hand in the room.

"This is your chance, Dancing Master!" a newfound lady friend next to me goads, vocalizing my thoughts.

She is a most graceful and measured pupil, a receptive and quick study. And she embraces affectations.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Who Really "Loves" America Anyway?

People are still grousing about former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's doubts on whether President Obama really loves America, or at least loves it in the same way as Americans who say they love America. While the right laps up this musing and the left decries it, I'll let you in on a dirty little secret: I'm not sure a lot of people in power really love America, either.

Let's start with the most glaring example: as I write this, Congress has just kicked the can down the road on funding the Department of Homeland Security, passing a short-term bill to avoid a partial shutdown for one measly week. Presumably, this is time to find more votes to pass a longer-term bill. This Congress got here because it can't resist tacking divisive riders onto must-pass legislation. It can't resist throwing temper tantrums at all the wrong times. The Senate got stuck on a DHS funding bill because Republicans insisted on attaching language that rolled back President Obama's executive actions on immigration. Two different issues got rolled into one. Give Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell some credit for getting a clue and pushing a clean funding bill through the Senate. Now it's stalled out in the House because conservatives insist on an executive rollback which they don't have the votes to ram through.

Stuck in the middle of this are tens of thousands of DHS employees who may have to work without pay or get furloughed because of this political playground. Art Del Cueto, president of the Border Patrol union in southern Arizona told Tucson News Now, "We send politicians to Washington to solve problems, not to use agents and their families as political pawns for their policy warfare." Mr. Cueto gets it; why doesn't Congress?

As I have said before, Congress could solve many gridlock problems if it did two things: 1) dump the filibuster and 2) give the president the line-item veto. I don't expect either one to happen because power is what congresspeople crave. It's like telling your dog to go neuter himself. Congress would rather have these shutdown threats and temper tantrums. I say they love power more than they love America. (Props to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has just come out and said the Senate needs to ditch filibusters.)

Next in our rogues gallery: talk radio and television. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and others in their vein may claim they love America. But I'll tell you another dirty little secret -- they love it mostly because it gives them the ability to make money. At least Rush Limbaugh admits it, and he did so in his first book, The Way Things Ought To Be. He says on page 22...
"I do not look upon my show as a chance to advance an agenda. I do not view it as an opportunity to register more Republican voters or to expand the number of conservatives in the country. I don't view my radio who as a forum for conservative activism of any kind."
And further down the page...
"You might be wondering if this means that I don't really care about my beliefs, that I am simply using them to attract like-minded people. Wrong-o. To the contrary, they are my heart and soul, the essence of my being, and I never betray them or misrepresent them in the pursuit of audience, other than when I am doing satire and parody... Still, I am first a broadcaster, bound by the dictates and requirements of broadcasting, as I take to air each day. The important thing to remember is that I also have the freedom to be myself, which means that sharing my passions and beliefs, as well as my commentary on events, is a very close second on the list of reasons why I chose to be on radio and TV."
In other words, when it comes down to ideology or entertainment value, entertainment is going to win out every time, even though he also realises how much weight he carries as a conservative opinion leader.

I've heard the others. Sean Hannity thinks the right can do no wrong. I'm amazed Mark Levin hasn't had a heart attack on air from his ceaseless rants. They are selling a product -- themselves -- and people are buying with audience and ad dollars. Their success depends not on taking an ideological position that is necessarily beneficial or desiring to make America work better; it's about delivering what people want.

Always remember this: talk-show hosts are not elected to their positions. They have the great freedom to espouse because they have all of the platform with few responsibilities beyond ratings and FCC regulations. Their audience does not vote on them at least every two years. They do not have to logroll, negotiate, deal or vote on any bills. They do not have to step in to help constituents. I wonder how many of them would badmouth politicians as much if they had to do their work, even if it didn't change them ideologically. I wonder how much time they would devote to telling us how much America bites because of the people in Washington.

And before you ask me, I do know about Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Alan Colmes, Ed Schultz and the Rev. Al Sharpton. I don't consider them in the same league of talkers because they don't draw the same kinds of numbers. I submit they have their jobs more out of charity, because somebody in a position of power decided the media needed more liberal voices. It's a noble cause, but it isn't making them filthy rich. Progressive shows certainly aren't helping low-rated MSNBC, which would not be airing them if it didn't have NBC money to lean on.

Up next, political parties: anybody who thinks their leadership loves America hasn't heard about dark money. It's dirty secrets time again: if the Republicans and Democrats really, truly loved America as much as they claim, they would get rid of it. But they can't, because they need it. Those dark dollars do the dirty work of bashing the other guy during campaign season, and they don't have to spend a dime. That's a hard deal to walk away from. The Supreme Court may say it's legal, and it's a matter of free speech, but not everything that's legal is beneficial. During the last election cycle, I heard more about how much the candidates stunk rather than how much they accomplished.

It doesn't stop there. Here in Arizona, we underwent a congressional redistricting process that was based mainly on drawing competitive districts -- ones where either a Democrat or Republican had a reasonable shot at winning. This led to some funky geography, where northern Arizona was lumped in with parts of southern Arizona, and Cochise County ranches were lumped in with Tucson. I call it gerrymandering; the parties call it "fairness." Ask former congressman Ron Barber how fair it was for him to have to straddle the conservatism of Cochise County with the liberalism of Tucson. He ended up alienating at least one chunk of his district on the tough votes and the compromises he had to make. His reward for toughing it out was to get booted by a razor-thin margin.

Barber didn't lose because he was unpopular or committed some grievous legislative sin. He lost because he was forced to do a job that should have been handled by two different elected officials. He lost because the parties wanted what was fair to them, rather than what was fair to the voters. The overriding irony is that Arizonans are increasingly ditching party affiliations, making attempts to create competitive districts absurd. If the D's and R's loved America as much as they claim, they'd abandon this farce.

I can't close without pulling out a mirror. How much do we really love America? Somebody had to vote all these people into office. Maybe you and I didn't vote for that guy, but somebody did. To whoever that somebody is: Are you voting on the basis of what's practical, workable and real rather than what's ideologically holy? Are you voting on what you can get versus what America can get back? Are you voting your values to such an extreme that one rotten tree means the entire forest has to go? Are you doing your homework and understanding the issues? And are you afraid to write in, "None of the above" if none of the candidates is right for the vote after you've gone through this analysis? Love takes work; ask any married couple or parent.

Judge Judy has said about divorced parents, "You need to love your children more than you hate each other." Congress should listen and heed. So should a lot of people. Many times love is tender, but it also needs to be tough. Love means doing what's right even when it's not easy or downright painful. Love means caring about the greater good of others. We can still wave flags, salute our military, wear three-cornered hats and play fifes, but it's got to go further. We've got to sacrifice. We've got to admit to ourselves ideological purity and combat politics are not the answer. We've got to swallow some of our own pride in the name of national pride.

It's all doable, but do we love America enough to do it?