Seattle, Washington A Sober Assessment of my Douchiness

Hello Matt!

I am interested in obtaining a photograph of you for use in the second season of a series called Is She Really Going Out With Him? on MTV.

To give you an idea of how the image will be used, below is the voiceover that introduces the image of you.

VO:  DANCING DOUCHEBAGGERY IS MOST PREVALENT ONLINE, INCLUDING “EVOLUTION OF DANCE” CREATOR JUDSON LAIPPLY, “WHERE IS BLEEP IS MATT?”’S MATT HARDING, AND EVERY FREAKIN' DANCING BABY.  CURSE YOU, INTERWEBS!

If the proposed use is acceptable, please sign the attached reuse release and fax back…

Thanks for your time and consideration!

__________

Dear MTV

I will consent to use of my image on your show if you can kindly meet the following conditions:

I would like MTV President Van Toffler to sign a consent form agreeing to change the network's name from "Music Television" to "Crappy, Condescending Reality Show Television." I would like him to then issue a statement apologizing to our nation's youth for making them lazy, stupid and pregnant.

Also, please ask Van to get a less douchebaggy name.

__________

The above correspondence happened back in November, while I was in Rwanda teaching a video production workshop to university students in the Orphans of Rwanda program. I know, total douchebag thing to do, right?

The request caused me to do some real soul-searching over whether I am, in fact, a feminine cleansing device. I mean, that's a pretty firm declaration MTV is making, and I have to accept them as a fairly credible authority on the subject. I came to the conclusion that, while I am many things, I am far from the traditional archetype, and neither is Judson, whom I have found to be a thoroughly decent fellow. It is my belief that the show's writers should seriously rethink their definition of the term.

The workshop was a project I'd been wanting to do ever since my brief visit to the country in 2006, when an experience shooting a dancing clip with some kids in a small village gave me the idea to make the most recent dancing video, which of course transformed my life and brought a whole mess of good things my way. I felt kind of crappy about using what those kids gave me and then walking away while they held their hands out asking for money.

Okay, really crappy.

A sizable donation from the folks at Stride to a relevant charity balanced the karmic scales for me on a financial level, but I wanted to put some of my own time in as well. Having limited skills that are worth imparting, I figured I could at least teach a few students how to make short videos and upload them to YouTube, and that learning to communicate in that way might be of some value, so I bought a half dozen Flip cameras and took them with me to Kigali. The ORI folks made arrangements and selected 18 of their students to attend the workshop. With Stride's generous donation, I probably could have made the kids play Mario Kart with me all week if I'd been determined to do so.

The students are all attending university on scholarships from Orphans of Rwanda. They come from backgrounds that we would call "underprivileged" if we were being very polite, and have made it out through natural ability and an intense drive to rise beyond their circumstances. ORI provides tuition, housing, meals, and a stipend for their relatives to account for their absence. Without the stipend, many of them would be kept at home to work.

I happen to come from a background that we would call "priviliged" if we were being very polite, and I made it out through natural lethargy and an intense drive to not do anything useful with my life. So getting up in front of those kids and trying to teach them felt, at first, somewhat obscene. I stumbled through day one until I realized two important things:

1) I actually knew a lot about what I was trying to teach, and

2) The students were genuinely motivated to make use of the time. They actually wanted to be there.

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At the end of the week, each of the six teams had shot and edited a video — some of them actually made several. I put together a 30 minute film festival on the classroom projector. We turned off the lights, blocked the windows, and the students got to watch their work with an audience on a big screen. I got the sense that experience was the most meaningful for a lot of them. I'd been warning them all week, but I don't think they really understood what it would be like to have their work presented like that.


We walked through how to upload their videos to YouTube, but to date I only know of this one, conceived by star student Nicholas Rutakanga.

Nicholas is an incredibly bright kid and a sponge for knowledge. He got himself a job and saved up to buy a Dell laptop, which he carries with him everywhere. He was rendering out his own videos on the first day. He wants to be an airline pilot.

Toward the end of the week I took Nicholas and Janvier, another top student, aside and they helped me make my own contribution to the film festival. It took about 8 hours to shoot and edit, with a budget of $1 for bottled water.

After the festival, I asked the class who the best traditional dancer was. Everyone pointed to Janvier, so I made him get up and show me some moves. For musical accompaniment, he played an mp3 from his computer, but he found that unsatisfactory, so the class spontaneously began singing and clapping for him instead. The sound that emerged sent the ORI staff rushing in from surrounding rooms. It knocked the wind out of me. My eyes got all welly-uppy. Holy crap those kids could sing.

We went outside to the courtyard and they taught me to do the dance as best I could. We shot the first clip for the new video.

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I managed to sort out a way to get home in only two flights. I was able to fly direct to Brussels, and then from Amsterdam straight home to Seattle, leaving only the dilemma of my transit from Brussels to Amsterdam. I had planned to catch a train, but discovered the day before leaving that there was no Sunday morning train. That left either a rental car or a bus for the 3 hour journey. Both seemed like too much of a pain in the ass.

It was at this point that I remembered I have a database of 500 people in Belgium who want to dance with me. I scanned through it for the 5 least crazy-sounding people, wrote to them, and within a half hour I had two people willing to take me on a cross-country road trip the next morning.

Andrew's wife is eight months pregnant. She suspected him of making up a ridiculous story as an excuse to escape from the house. She made him take a photo of me for evidence.

I bought him a traditional American breakfast near the Dutch border.

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I've been taking dance lessons for three months now, working with a local Seattle teacher and choreographer named Aiko Kinoshita. I feel like a stroke victim learning to walk again, but Aiko is a patient teacher and she gets the big picture.

I am also, by the by, taking piano and drum lessons in my spare time. After 30-some years, I'm learning to understand music and movement. Feels like I'm in art school. It's strange and hard and fabulous. I've let go of thinking I have to be great at any of it, and I'm just letting it happen.

Aside from that, been playing a lot of videogames. Over the Christmas break, Melissa and I got all 231 Star Coins in Super Mario Wii, which resulted in a physical condition we call "Mario claw." We've also been watching a lot of Hulu, which got really fun when I suddenly started showing up on it during every ad break.



Community. "Hey, there's me!" The Office. "Hey, there's me again!" Modern Family. "Melissa! I'm on the computer!" 30 Rock. "Look, hon! Me!"

I found someone to take over management of my site from the previous stewards. I put an ad on Craigslist and heard back from a guy named Joel, who was actually dancing with his wife in the Seattle clip of the 2008 video. Anyway, we're working on getting the sign-up page back online, fixing the book store a bit (250 copies sold), and re-jiggering the Videos page. As I start traveling for the new video, we'll be beefing up the mapping page with a lot of the neat stuff Google has made possible since the last big trip. We had a phone call with them this week and there's excitement on both ends about showing off some fancy tech.

As of now, you can see a live display of my current location on the front page, taken from the current GPS coordinates of my iPhone, and at last conclusively answering the question posed by my site's name. I've set it to only show my location at a city level, so I (hopefully) can't be hunted down on a street corner somewhere. That would be really weird.

Tomorrow we head over to South Africa for work/vacation. The tourism board has invited us to shoot a video and they're taking good care of us while we're there. Life continues to be ridiculously amazing, and I continue to worry that I am trapped in some Matrix-like fantasy simulacrum while the real me languishes in the jelly-filled pod of a giant harvesting cylinder.