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Fairy dust

We, people, seem to have a faulty wiring.  The only time we can inhabit at any given moment is NOW, yet staying in the present is one of the hardest things for us to do.  Dogs have no problems with it:  my pooch is napping now, begging for a treat when she sees an opportunity (even thought she may have just gotten one a moment ago and knows very well how to score another one from me in another minute);  she greets me with kisses and wildly wagging tail when I come through the door, regardless of whether I was gone for a hour or a day – the joy of my return resides in the instance of me entering her field of vision.  Humans, however, have a hard time with what should be the most basic existential truth.  We are haunted by the past, worried about the future, tortured by the conditionals.  Yet so much of the time nothing especially dire is happening AT THIS VERY MOMENT.

I love tango for focusing me on the moment and suspending the whirl of time and thought.  In fact, when I can’t put my anxieties out of my mind – the scurrying rats that gnaw at scattered remnants of the past and chew holes in the fabric of the future – I dance terribly.  I can’t connect with my partners, can’t find the flow of my inner rhythm, can’t enjoy the music and the movement through space.  This week I’ve been preoccupied with processing some problems.  As I went out to dance two nights in a row, I could not chase away the dark rodents inside my head.  I typically dance for most of the evening, invited by a succession of partners.  But these two nights I must have been radiating tension and gloom, because even the usually friendly faces seemed to shun me, and I sat in my chair most of the time, adding worries about my ruined tango future to other temporal self-flagellation.

Yet on good nights, it is tango’s ability to suspend time and to retain me in the moment that serves as a drug that keeps me addicted to this dance.  The complexity of coordinating my own movements – beautifully and creatively – to those of my partner and the music occupy my mind enough to erase worries about anything else.  The flowing pleasure of gliding to the shifting lines of music compels me to savor a given minute.  The fantasy world tango creates – in which I am an alluring spirit connected to my partner for the duration of the song by fine golden filaments – removes me from my mundane world of money, work, or relationship angst.  I float away from these boulders to peachy clouds that are not weighted down or darkened by whatever traumas that happened before or disasters likely to occur soon.

Tango allows me to live in the now.  That’s one of its holds over me.  Whenever I stray into over-thinking and over-worrying, I fumble my steps and ruin the pleasure of the dancing conversation I am sharing with my partner.  Firmly, yet seductively, tango reminds me to remain true to it, and in return it rewards me with euphoria and fairy dust that draws men to me song after song, asking for the pleasure of my company.

It seems so simple and instantly beneficial to live in the moment with confidence and joy that compel the world to do your bidding.  Yet is it so difficult to achieve in the course of regular life.  Worth trying though.  Worth taking the lesson from tango.

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Ordinary people

I have spent many happy years living in the ivory tower.  I liked my residence:  it was quiet and comfortable, it gave me freedom to do what I wanted – which is write books by myself all day, talking to no one but my pup, it comfortably limited my contacts to a small circle of academic friends, and let me indulge in my self perception as a misanthrope.  Being fairly introverted and moody, I preferred socializing when I felt like it with like-minded people.  Non-intellectuals needed not apply.

Then I fell in love with tango, and slowly, subtly, like a river burrowing its way through a dry landscape, it began to change me.

Tango is a democratic dance.  It brings together people from all walks of life.  So it exposed me to men and women in whose direction I would not have looked before.  What would I talk about with a construction worker, a dentist, or a computer geek?  What do I have in common with a nursing home operator, a media producer, or a television starlet?  Yet suddenly there I was, surrounded by these people whose lives and preoccupations were foreign to me, who did not read books, did not entertain deep thoughts, and spent their leisure hours just dancing.  I found them fascinating.

It seemed a miracle to me that someone who spent his days tromping around building sites in dusty clothes, wielding tools, scaling scaffolding, and issuing orders to laborers could don elegant attire by night and become a swan, gliding around the dance floor with grace and nobility that entirely masked his regular life.  I was amazed to see how tango transformed people into entirely new beings, erasing social and cultural differences.  I fell in love with its cosmopolitanism, the way the Greeks mingled with the Turks, the Asians coupled with the Persians, the Russians spread their wings next to the Indians.  Of course some of this mixing of nations reflected the internationalism of LA.  Yet there is also something about tango that draws people from all over:   ordinary people, unremarkable people, quite uninteresting people – and makes them appealing once the music begins.

Then I remembered what attracted me to tango in the first place, many years ago, before I the thought occurred to me of learning the dance myself.  There was a show touring the country, called something simple and predictable, like Tango Argentino.  I went to see it in LA.  What impressed me then, and stayed in my imagination for years, was not the sexiness of the younger performers with lithe and erotic bodies, but the sensuality of older dancers, men built like refrigerators and women whose bodies have born children and expanded in all predictable directions.  Yet as they danced together, they became weightless, breathtakingly graceful, indescribably sexy.  They looked like ordinary people, but they moved like gods.

And now I was witnessing this miracle first hand as I myself began to dance.  I, who have long thought that I do not like people and do not care to know their lives, became suddenly curious:  what was hiding behind this or that tango persona, what did this man do in his normal life, what about him was capable of the metamorphosis from the mundane to the sublime?

My old, skeptical, curmudgeonly self mumbled that I was being idealistic and giving people undue credit.  My new self, freshly lured out of the ivory tower, chirruped back:  “Maybe there is something to everyone, something more interesting than first meets the eye.”

Or do people come to tango in order to become someone else, someone more interesting, more exotic, more passionate, or connected, or glamorous?

The promise of some kind of ascendance is definitely one attraction of this dance.  The fantasy of escaping one’s reality for the evening – a great allure.  The pleasure of meeting people outside my comfort zone – perhaps briefly, for the span of a tanda and the length of a couple of sentences between songs – has been a revelation to me.

Those of you who know me are well aware of my tango habit.  Those who are not familiar with this dance need to understand that it is a powerfully addictive substance.  Once you get hooked on it, you crave it despite its strange rituals and contradictions.

For example, you would think that tango is a very social activity.  People take it up to meet others, to become part of a community, to have a friendly pursuit to look forward to at the end of the day or the week.  Yet tango is full of anti-social behavior.

If you are a woman, you do not get to know many other women, and if you are a man you know even fewer of your own kind because, if under normal circumstances men are sparse talkers with each other, in tango they are even more so.  While tango is all about making a connection, you connect mainly with members of the opposite sex, for a few minutes, then, like a bee, fly off to another flower.  You exchange several words in the pauses between songs, and once the dance is over, get busy looking available to be invited again, if you are a woman, or finding an available woman if you are a man.  Chatting with others, and particularly with your own species, distracts you from the crucial task:  making eye contact.

Invitations to tango are a fraught affair.  A woman is not supposed to ask a man to dance.  She must wait for him to make eye contact with her and incline his head subtly towards the dance floor.  So between dances she scans the room in search of a pair of eyes that would propel her into the next tanda (a set of 3 or 4 songs one daces with the same partner).  However, making eye contact has its constant counterpart—averting eyes or letting them glide along non-committally in order to avoid undesirable partners.  For eluding people you find for some reason disagreeable is as important as capturing the desirable ones.

Rejection is abundant in tango.  A woman can sit unbidden in her chair for many tandas, watching enviously as her more fortunate sisters glide past her and wondering what allures they possess that she lacks.  A man can muster enough courage to approach a woman directly and ask if she would like to dance, only to hear, “I am resting at the moment,” which is a polite form on NO.  Solid, mid-level dancers pine for the best partners who do not even look in their direction.  For tango is cliquish, and elite dancers stick together and do not mingle with mere mortals.  Meanwhile, former novices who had been grateful to be invited by anybody when they were making their first steps learn to ignore their erstwhile benefactors once they become more proficient.  Dancers whose skills or style have somehow displeased their partners are doomed to be shunned not only by the displeased party, but also by his or her friends.

Even when a man and a woman do successfully couple up for a dance, it is not an opportunity to get to know each other.  The rule of tango is that you do not talk during the dance.  It is considered bad form because it distracts you from the music and the movement.  If you are chatting away, you are apt to stop paying attention to your envorons, crash into other couples, kick them with the deadly stiletto heels worn by the women, or lose balance and fumble your moves.  In fact, you don’t even look into your partner’s face.  Men scan their immediate surroundings so as to navigate successfully around the crowded dance floor;  women tend to dance with their eyes closed so as to follow the lead better.  When the dance stops, you say thank you and move on to the next person.  For, as one friend described tango, “Dream over.  Next.”

If tango dancers do not socialize much during the dancing, they seem even more reluctant to do so when the music is not playing.  They may hang out in small groups before or after the milonga (the dance party), but at events that try to precede tango with dance-free conversation, tangueros show up once the music has begun so that they could plunge right into the dance’s Byzantine rituals.

So, given all these anti-social aspects, why on earth would some get addicted to tango?

Ah!  I’ll have to tell you that in the next post.

On evil

I got an e-mail this morning that broke my heart.

Some time ago I have signed an electronic petition protesting the closing of the UCLA art library, a measure induced by the current financial crisis.  Since then I’ve been receiving all sorts of pleas for help.  A couple of them stare at me every day as I turn on my computer.  I will admit that I tend to trash them because I cannot sign on to every cause.  But today’s message unmoored me.

It told a story of a lovely Great Dane that had been locked in a garage by its owner and left to starve.  The dog weighed 53 pounds when it was discovered – astonishingly, still alive – having lost at least half of its weight.  It was literally a skeleton, its spine and ribs barren of any meat whatsoever—just a carcass covered by tight white skin.  The American Humane Association that found it has a Second Chance Fund which helps give such pets the necessary medical treatment.  They were asking me for a donation.

Fighting back tears I reflected on this message as I went on my morning walk with Audrey.  (I petted and kissed her with great tenderness and gave her extra snacks, as if such little acts of indulgence could help that poor Dane — who has, fortunately, been adopted and brought back to health by a loving family — and other such abused pets.) I find it incomprehensible that people can be so horrifically cruel to defenseless animals.  Why not take a dog you don’t want to keep to a shelter, or, as awful as it sounds, kill it quickly, rather than subject it to a torturous demise?  I am, of course, a dog lover, so naturally this story resonated with me.  But it also made me think of unimaginable instances of children being subjected to abuse.  And of how much – or little – can be done to stop this kind of suffering.  Some animals and children are, luckily, discovered and saved.  But not all, and not for all times.  The money I might send today to the American Humane Association will not preclude other cruelties from happening again and again.

We are all regularly approached via regular and electronic mail, telephone calls and street campaigns to contribute to charities of all kinds.  There are so many problems needing to be solved.  Most of the time I walk away from these entreaties.  I may be in a hurry, or deep-down indifferent to a given issue, or feel hopeless to make a difference.  I am pretty broke at the moment, so would $20 I might be able to give really do much good?  Or is that a lame excuse for inaction and washing my hands of someone else’s troubles?

I have been mulling over these questions all day, feeling dispirited by the endlessness of evil and haunted by the image of that miserable dog.  What can I do, can be done, to remedy such disasters?  Are small acts of kindness towards those around you meaningful contributions to making the world a bit better?  Are big financial donations a more effective solution?  What constitutes a significant act of goodness, given that wickedness will never vanish?

It feels important to me to give time to such reflections.  Perhaps to try to do something more specific:  send a check, or maybe spend some time caring for pets in a shelter.  At the very least, to not let myself fall back into complacency and forget this and other such stories, and to more consciously do any little thing that might be put in the scales to counterweigh the evil.

Russian New Year

When I was growing up in Moscow, our winter celebration was New Year’s night (well, it still is, though until a few days ago I have been thinking about it in the nostalgic past tense).  Since religion was deemed by the Soviets the “opium of the people,” Christmas was not much in evidence.  We put up and dressed in fragile glass toys and tinsel a New Year’s fir and gathered on December 31 with family and friends for a great feast.

As the day progressed, apartments filled with anticipatory buzz (Soviet citizens did not live in houses, but crammed together in tiny flats, with 9 square yards allocated per inhabitant).  My grandmother spent hours in the kitchen, stirring up magic over the miniscule stove.  Our next-door neighbor concocted the Napoleon (layers of filo pastry interspersed with velvety crème patissiere) the very thought of which kept me salivating for a full week beforehand.  Towards 10 pm we set the table, crowding it with a profusion of salads, cooked beef tongue stuffed with slivered garlic, bread and herring, potatoes and cheeses.  Bottles of vodka, cognac, and wine provided vertical accents.  Having hungrily awaited this moment since morning, we took our seats with delight and, to the sound of smacking lips, toasts, and anecdotes fluttering over the plates, devoured the lovingly prepared food.

Sometime around 11 pm we began to usher out the old year, recalling its travails and drowning them in glasses of clear, amber, and burgundy spirits.  Then we turned on the TV, and in place of the Time Square ball dropping, watched decrepit Soviet leaders mumble their holiday address to the by now thoroughly inebriated and well-disposed nation.  As the clock on the Kremlin tower struck midnight, we greeted the new year with champagne, hopes for better times and more freedoms, and presents – exchanged then, often just one per person, and received with genuine gratitude and joy since there was so little to be bought in Russian stores and everything seemed precious.

It’s been years since I’ve celebrated the New Year in this way.  There is something to Russian gatherings – the directness of interactions with no carefully guarded personal space (physical or emotional), the quantities and types of food piled on the table, the small rituals that order the proceedings — that is different from such evenings with American friends.  Somehow, for most of the New Year’s eves since I left Moscow, ions ago, I have not made the transition from the old to the new calendar in the company of Russians.  Immigrants can be quirky that way.  Some stick primarily with their kind, others make a break from their past as they forge a new life in a foreign country.  I’ve been the latter kind, never cultivating friends on the national principle.  Yet now, as of five days ago, I feel that I may have lost some lovely opportunities.

This year I made Russian friends for the first time in many years.  Not because they are fellow-countrymen, but the commonality of culture – the fact that we “get” each other without having to explain anything – has nurtured the bond between us.  They feel like family to me, and they are subtly returning me to my roots.  I met the New Year at their table – a table nearly invisible under bowls of salad, plates of pickles, bread, cheese, and cold-cuts, home-made blintzes of sublime tenderness and tastiness, and other treats in such quantities that there was enough food for many subsequent meals.  We ate ourselves to the point of breathlessness, said our farewells to 2009, and at the stroke of midnight clinked champagne glasses and exchanged presents.  It was not a rambunctious celebration, but there was something to the tone of it, the warmth of our rapport, the coziness of the atmosphere, the pace of the evening that was distinctly Russian, bridging the gap between my childhood and the present, the old continent and the new.  I think I would like to commemorate the passing of each year with my people from now on, marveling at how even as I tried to spin out into another orbit, I ended up returning home, spiritually, if not geographically — and relishing the fact.  I could not make this discovery without my Russian friends.  I think I am going to dedicate 2010 to them, and to the powers of friendship.

Cheery in death

I went to the cemetery the other day:  Forest Lawn, in Glendale, CA.  It was a bright afternoon, though freezing by local standards, with temperature in the 50s and whipping wind that cleared away all the clouds, revealing every crisp detail of the surrounding hills.

Somehow I imagined this place to be like an old European or American graveyard—a gathering of picturesque statues and stones rising over aged tombs.  I love wondering around such evocative grounds, reading weathered names, looking at sad-eyed stone angels and faithful hounds, peering at grand mausoleums in various architectural styles.  But I encountered none of this at Forest Lawn.  Its founder, Dr. Hubert Eaton, had a very different idea when he founded his memorial park in 1906.

A believer in joyous life after death, Dr. Eaton deemed traditional cemeteries, with their assortment ofmournful monuments, depressing.   So he created instead a sprawling terrain of rolling hills covered with emerald lawns into which are inset flat horizontal plaques marking the graves.  (Dr. Eaton was also a clever man:  this kind of burial ground is much easier to maintain:  you can mow the lawns with ease, passing over the markers, and not have to weave between the upright monuments.)

The pristine appearance of undulating green slopes is a bit of a bore.  What makes it more interesting, though, are occasional statues livening up the scenery.  Eaton was an art lover and he purchased statues both for his pleasure and for resale to cemetery clients.  What’s remarkable about these pieces is that most of them are conspicuously non-funerary:  a great number of them depicts scantily clad or quite naked young ladies sitting or standing in romantic poses, their white marble buttocks and breasts seemingly pulsing with life and promise of earthly delights.   They make for peculiar guardians of the cemetery’s inhabitants, especially those interred at the time of its founding, since they belonged to the Victorian age.

It is still more strange that Eaton combined these beauties with a distinctly more Christian art:  he commissioned copies of Michelangelo’s statues including David, Moses, and San Lorenzo Madonna and Child, a stained glass version of Leonardo’s Last Supper, an enormous panorama of the Crucifixion measuring 195 feet in length.   He also set up a museum on the grounds to display his collection of stained glass, coins, Western bronze statues, and even an Easter Island head.   The museum also puts on three exhibitions a year on various, equally diverse subjects.

All this makes for a strange cemetery visit.  Is one supposed to feel reverent, amused, educated, inspired?  I may be too traditional in wanting my museum experience to be one thing, a stroll through the cemetery another, a perusal of lascivious 19th and early 20th century beauties something else again.  But maybe it’s a perfect LA experience – having it all, in a somewhat kitschy version, with a doze of old world pretentiousness and California outdoor spaciousness.  Maybe Dr. Eaton was right and this is a cheerier way to go.

In search of a hero

One of my favorite writers is Barry Unsworth.  He is a master of historical fiction.  I like his work so much because like me, he gets curious about a certain moment in time, or a person, or a work of art, and dives whole-heartedly into research so as to bring his subject to life.  He is also a consummate craftsman.  In his Sacred Hunger, to cite on example, he takes as his theme the slave trade in the 18th century and explores it through the lens of a ship that sets out from England to buy human cargo in Africa.  Unsworth begins the book with the sorry lot of men recruited, and sometimes abducted, to serve on these vessels, and the picture becomes grimmer from there.  You meet the down and out riffraff manning the ship, the miserable slaves loaded on it, the heartless captain brutally lording it over his subordinates, the idealistic doctor who is in the process of losing his lofty notions.  Life aboard the ship is horrendous.  Yet the story is so compellingly told, the writing is so rich, that you keep reading, and the book remains vivid in your mind long after you’ve closed the back cover.

The same is true of Unsworth’s other novels, but the one I was smitten with the most isLosing Nelson, which paints a portrait of the legendary English war hero as well as a 20th century Englishman who obsessively researches and ruminates over his idol’s life and greatness.  Both of the main characters are fatefully flawed.  Yet Unsworth presents them as such complex, multi-dimensional, tangible men that even as you gradually see their shortcomings, you are riveted by their psychological types.  Unsworth achieves this depth of characterization by showing people in action.  I happened to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of stories after Losing Nelson and felt that I was being offered a watery and saccharine beverage after a deep, aromatic, lingeringly-flavored cup of tea.  She is a good writer and a clever one in being able to create situations that resonate with readers:  conflicts between parents and children, spouses, lovers.  But she tells you what they think and feel.  Unsworth makes his protagonists reveal it through their behavior.

Nelson, a glittering hero at the beginning of the book, loses his shine as you watch him in battle, giving orders oblivious of the human cost – including the men serving under him.  His vanity and thirst for glory render him incapable of perspective, or humanity.  A neglected child, he never grows up and finds a nurturing, flattering, adoring mother substitute in his celebrated lover, Emma Hamilton, a woman who is his match in vanity and need for affirmation.  Their willful immaturity cause a great deal of harm, for both of them crave and attain great power.  Nelson’s treatment of the revolutionaries in Naples, the culminating point in the story, is a calamity.  Promised safe passage, this cream of Neapolitan culture is, instead, horrendously executed in the public square of the city, their deaths irreparably damaging Naples as well as Nelson.

Losing Nelson grapples with what makes a hero and whether his achievements can excuse his conduct, whether his behavior, when examined closely, is heroic, or abominable and criminal.  These are major questions that can be profitably asked of many great historical figures.  Impressively, Unsworth does so without overt moralizing.   The voice of consciousness that keeps poking holes in the splendid cloths of Nelson’s legend is a humble secretary who transcribes the biography of Nelson being composed by the book’s 20th century protagonist.  This narrator, the man who studies Nelson’s life in minute detail, including recreating his battles on his tabletop on the days and hours they took place, is mad.  Literally.  Unsworth depicts him, too, with astonishing skill, showing his functionality in public, his derangement in private, his struggle to get a grip on his troubled mind by losing himself in Nelson.

As a writer, I am awed by Unsworth’s accomplishments:  by the depth of his historical research, by the range of his interests, and by his ability to construct and bring to life people of such veracity and so many conflicting layers.  I wrestled with this challenge in my last book.  Granted, my character lived in the 15th century and is far less documented than Nelson, and writing a work of non-fiction, I could not supplement the scant information at my disposal with fictionalized details.  But more than these shortcomings, I grappled with how to show a person with his unruly blend of virtues and foibles, ideals turning into dogmas, a cultural hero who is also flawed.  I aspire to reach Unsworth’s level of mastery.  But there is a long road ahead of me.  Painting an outstanding portrait in words is a great endeavor.