30 March 2009

I Function Best in an Advisory Capacity

One of the very first television shows that I can remember watching and enjoying is Remington Steele.  My mum and I watched it together right from the first season onward - although how we ever stumbled across it I don't know.  In the first season of the show the Remington Steele character (Pierce Brosnan) did much less than he did in later seasons:  part of the joke was
that he had been hired on purely as a figurehead, knowing nothing about how to be a detective, but that people, believing him to be the boss, nonetheless persistently asked him to take an active role. Whenever this happened, Laura Holt (who actually ran the agency) would say, "Mr. Steele functions best in advisory capacity."  Well, tomorrow I am, amazingly, going to function in an advisory capacity.  I will be joining two men as they go off to buy men's tango shoes (or, as I must call them for reasons I won't go into here, Tango-Related Foot Items).  I am still not quite sure what I will contribute to this particular venture, since I know nothing about tango shoes, let alone men's tango shoes, and since the men's dance shoes I've seen in Cambridge come in a broad range that stretches from black to...black, but off I go to have the experience.  And the boys - or at least one of them - appear determined that I should come.  I must confess, I am charmed.

In other news, my BF is here for the week, and so far we are having a fabulous time.  We played gin!  We had competent conversations with my friends here! (I'm always worried my friends won't meld.)  We had a big discussion about the importance of science!  She has a great haircut!  We haven't yet had a row!  So it's all going smashingly.  I am able to go TRFI shopping because she is giving a talk at a genetics centre tomorrow:  not only is she my BF, she's a person important enough to come and give a talk at the Sanger Centre!

And, finally, I appear to have sustained my first TRI (Tango-Related Injury).  Last night in class I practised sacadas, and in one of them the momentum did not work quite right, which meant that rather than my leg flicking up in a surprising and quite impressive manner (which always makes me laugh with delight, as it's so unexpected, and the sensation of performing an action without the least work on my part is so pleasurable and surprising) I just got my upper calf (lightly) bashed into by the leader's knee.  At the time it didn't hurt at all, but somehow my muscle seems to have been bruised, so today I'm walking with the sense that I have a mild charley horse all the time.  I hope I recover by tomorrow.

Although of course I'll dance anyway.

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28 March 2009


When I was in my Ph.D. program, for the first two years my closest friend there was a woman, I.C.  She was very different from me in her interests and her way of thinking, working on American Literature and being highly theoretical, but despite this we were very close. We possessed for each other an ability I've never experienced with anyone else:  although neither of us did what the other did, if we were in a classroom situation and one was having difficulty articulating a thought, the other would be able to articulate it for her with precise clarity.  

Being close, we would sit next to each other in class, and sometimes, for no reason at all, I would wish intensely to take her hand and hold it.  In fact, "wish" is the wrong word: really, what I felt was an instinct that to hold her hand was simply the natural thing to do - I felt this to such an extent that it felt strange not to be holding her hand.  This wasn't a sexual feeling, nor exactly a feeling of relaxation.  It was more a feeling of weirdly normalised connection, as if the physical link was simply a natural extension of the mental link.

It seems that there is more than one way of telling secrets.

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27 March 2009

Without Title

Imagine yourself a single object, front and back and side and side and top and bottom all joined in one whole, covered and protected by a seamless carapace.  Rotate yourself in your own mind, so that you see what this imaginary self looks like from every angle, from the tender soles of its feet to the tough scalp hardened by exposure to the sun.

In fact, you need not imagine yourself this way, for this is how we all really are, contained in our smooth bolt of skin, our shell as perfect as an egg's, if not so fragile.  But inside...inside is a different story.  Inside we are divided, the outer casing's perfection mocked by the loose discontinuity within.  This division exhibits itself not only in our sloshing viscera and our grinding bones, but also our multiplicitous self, never only one.

In all things we do -- actions we perform and actions we do not perform, each equally a form of doing -- there is The One Who Does and The One Who Watches the One Who Does.  These two may be as separate as strangers who have never met, but they are never as close as twins who cannot quite make themselves one.  The One Who Does simply does:  it is all action, a pure motor self.  The One Who Watches the One Who Does is the precise inverse.  Sometimes The One Who Watches the One Who Does watches and thinks, What are you doing?  That's a terrible idea!; sometimes it thinks, Oh, to be able to do that!; and sometimes it thinks, I will absorb this experience, to recall it later in all its horror or sweetness.  But always, in every case, The One Who Watches only watches:  it does not change the behaviour.  

And yet behaviours do change.  Sometimes they even change as they happen, so that The One Who Does begins an action but does not complete it.  This means that there must be another self, one that might be called The Experienced Self.  The One Who Watches the One Who Does somehow funnels its observations into this one, and it is this one that changes behaviour and alters actions.

More interesting than this Experienced Self, however, is yet another One, this one hardest of all to name.  We might call it The Charioteer, except that it never gives rein, only holds it back.  So perhaps it would be better to call it The One Who Brakes, with the pun intended.  Because The One Who Brakes is the one that keeps The One Who Does From doing.  The One Who Brakes also does not think (although somehow it knows), and thus it might be best to imagine it not as a person inside you but rather as a single hand, gripping the back of your shirt or wrapping itself around your throat, preventing you from performing or speaking.  The One Who Brakes is, I suspect, the wisest of all, but its job is the hardest:  it must exercise main force at all times that it is on duty, most often exercising that force on a self that presses to break free, surging forward against the hand on the bunched shirt or the stopped throat.  The One Who Brakes deserves huge credit, but it gets almost none, because if it does its job well no one but The One Who Does and The One Who Watches the One Who Does is ever aware of its existence.

So this is my conception of the Self, that egg with a thousand yolks, that perfectly joined box with a thousand objects inside, that unopened door with countless murmuring, whispering inhabitants rustling inside the room it shuts up.  Thick with its selves, the carapace moves through the world, like a ship slicing through the ocean.

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26 March 2009


The risky thing about keeping a blog that your friends read is that eventually, if enough friends read it, you're no longer able to write about certain things you feel, or worry about, or have been thinking about, or have been experiencing.  Part of the beauty of this blog, for me, has been that in a way I can feel my words are going out into thin air, so that I am articulating and expressing without anyone's knowing.  There are some things I might like to say aloud, or work out aloud, but to no one.  But that feeling obviously decreases as I know more people I know are reading it, and the decrease is a potential problem.

Of course, mostly I love the idea that people are reading.

I've turned over a number of possibilities as to how I might continue to confide my unaimed secrets in this forum, but none seem right.  The best one I've had so far is that I might indulge my love of acronyms by simply writing said confidences as long acronyms, so that you would encounter something like this:  IAMFA, AITIWDKEOABILID.  But that's irritating to the reader, and slightly cruel, and there's always the possibility that someone like Grigori Perlman might actually choose to take the time to work it out.  So that one's out.

So the only current option seems to be to remain silent.  And so I will.  -Ish.

Because I have a secret.  It's not the secret you think it is, but it's a big secret - bigger than the secret you think it is.  At the moment it's just a quiet secret, maybe even only half a secret, but it's a secret just the same.  And I need to say I have it, out here in the infinite unformed night or fog of the internet.

I wish Jeremy read this.

On a totally different topic, since I was speaking of mathematicians I thought I'd look up Dennis Gaitsgory on Wikipedia.  Dennis Gaitsgory is a mathematician I knew of at the Harvard Math Department.  The reason I knew of him is that once, very early in our relationship, my most-recent ex-boyfriend Dr. Higher and I went out for a cup of hot chocolate at some chocolatier in Harvard Square, and when we got in the door a bunch of people sitting at a table waved at him. He responded by nodding tersely and veering (and veering me) in a completely different direction, then skulking apprehensively as we sat at our table.  It came out much later that he'd done this because he was afraid to introduce me to his math friends: he thought I'd be inadequate.  Unfortunately, one result of this veering was that I only got a glance at the table, and in that glance I saw what I thought was a very attractive man with a giant nose.  This was Dennis Gaitsgory (who turns out to be not attractive at all), and he was thus imprinted on my brain.  Then, once Dr. Higher told me his name (which, you must admit, is striking) I never forgot it or him.  

And would you believe it, Dennis Gaitsgory has a Wikipedia entry!  I mean, Dennis Gaitsgory? Go figure.

Ummm....a joke.  But not the octopus joke (otherwise, what would you have to look forward to?). Instead a Soviet joke, I think.  

Stalin gets up in the morning and goes to stand on his balcony.  The sun is rising, and he says, "Good morning, sun."  The sun says, "Good morning, Glorious Leader."  Stalin can't believe it, and he goes inside and says to his wife, "The sun spoke to me!  It praised me as the glorious leader I am!"  She says, "Of course it did."  He can tell she doesn't believe him, and he doesn't quite believe it himself, so he waits a couple of hours, then goes out again.  He says to the sun, "Hello again, sun." The sun says, "Hello to you, Most Magnificent Father of Your Country." Stalin rushes inside and says to his wife, "Again the sun spoke to me and praised me!"  His wife says, "Mmmm."  Stalin is angry, but he decides to wait and test it again.  So at nearly noon he goes outside and says to the sun, "Hello again."  And the sun says, "Hello, Marvellous One. You are like me; you are the Bringer of Light to the USSR."  Stalin runs in and says to his wife, "The sun praised me again:  he said I was as great as he!"  She looks doubtful again, and he says, "You wait until after lunch, and I'll take you out and show you!"  They eat their lunch, and when they're done an hour or so later he takes her out onto the balcony.  The sun is over its zenith now, so they have to face a slightly different direction, but still Stalin greets the sun, saying, "Hello again, sun!"  And the sun says, "Fuck you, you moron!"  Stalin says, "What?  What do you mean?  All morning you've been telling me how wonderful I am, and now when I bring my wife out to hear your praise of me, you insult me instead!"  And the sun says, "Ah, but now I'm in the West."

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It Behooves Me...

...to tell a joke.  It's been some time.  You have to say this one aloud.

Okay, one day in a tough dusty town, a piece of string walks into a bar.  He sits on a bar stool and says to the bartender, "I'd like a whiskey."  The bartender says, "We don't serve your kind here! GET OUT!"  The piece of string exits hastily.  Puzzled, he walks around the block, then re-enters the bar.  He wiggles up to the counter, sits on a stool, and says to the bartender, "Whiskey, please!"  The bartender narrows his eyes, grabs the piece of string by his stringy throat, and says, "I SAID WE DON'T SERVE STRING HERE!  I TOLD YOU TO GET OUT!!!"  He drags the piece of string to the swinging doors, shoves him through, and throws him out onto the road, then goes back inside.

The piece of string lies there for a minute, catching his breath.  At last he gets up and brushes himself off.  He bends over and sort of loops himself around, then puts up his hand and musses up the top of his head.   He takes a deep breath and goes back into the bar.  He walks boldly up to the counter, rests against it, and calls out, "Whiskey!"  

The bartender comes over, squints at him, and says, "Are you a piece of string?"  And the piece of string looks him squarely in the eye and says, "No, I'm afraid not." (say it aloud)

I love that joke.

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25 March 2009

A Sulk and a Smile

Sulk first.

For some reason, a number of my male friends these days have been bemoaning the fact that women say to them, "I love you...as a friend," but never, "I love you."  Indeed, one of them told me that women "always do this" to him, and that it seemed to him that the solution was "Don't always be there for them."  

So, here's the thing.  All my life I've been a girl that men love as a friend but never desire, and on behalf of all the "always the bridesmaid but never the bride" women, I've got something to say: TURN AROUND. If you're a lovely kind man who's thoughtful to women, you've probably got a woman standing behind you, or to your left, or to your right, who is your friend, but who is dying to have you be more.  If somebody loves you just as a friend and you love them as more, you've got rights and a mouth.  You can say, "I like you as more than a friend, and if you don't like me that way, I'm sorry, but it's too hard for me."  And then some clever pretty girl you like just as a friend could be given a chance.  I'm just saying. 

And now the smile.

In Othello,  the moor Othello is dragged before the Duke of Venice to explain how he won the pure and virginal Desdemona, Desdemona's father believing that it could only have been done by witchcraft.  Othello tells the story of his wooing:

Her father loved me, oft invited me;
Still questioned me the story of my life....
I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth escapes i'the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak, - such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.  This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline....
My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man; she thank'd me...

The Duke of Venice says, "I think this tale would win my daughter, too."  I've always loved that line, because, for this daughter, it's so true.   

My favourite, of course, is the men whose heads do grow beneath their
shoulders.  Travel writers really claimed they existed, you know:

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22 March 2009

I Shouldn't Even Be Up

My illness has settled into being a cold, and while it's not as bad as it was, it's in the snuffly stage, so I'm breathing through a stuffed nose.  I should be in bed, and in fact I'm on my way.

I've been thinking this week, as I walk backward around my college in an effort to learn how to put my weight forward and lead with my feet, that it would be great if someone could invent a leading doll (and, in fairness, also a following doll).  The leading doll would be some sort of human-sized mechanical or robot device, designed so that it would exert a certain amount of force against you and could be programmed to lead you in all different directions and patterns.  Beginners could just set it on straight pressure, so that you could learn how to distribute your weight.  The more advanced could use it to practice certain steps.  In fact, although this wasn't in my original imagining, the ideal leading doll would come with arms, so that it could hold you (me), and lead me through things like cortados and volcados, which nobody I know will practice with me.

The following doll would have to be more stable than the leading doll, and it would have to be calibrated to help leaders to feel how they need to guide in order to produce certain steps.  I guess the following doll would need to have an advanced version that has legs, so leaders could get a sense of what certain steps feel like to lead, so they'd improve in leading them.

Wouldn't that be great?

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20 March 2009

La Dance

Today I had the tango lesson to beat all tango lessons.  First we went over giros (now -pshaw!- relatively easy) and the cross (harder, but also more subtle, and thus deservedly harder).  Then, in a didactic frenzy, we went on to ochos cortados, sanguchitos (I love this move because the follower basically does nothing, then gets to look fancy at the end), volcados (which I couldn't do, in the end, but came pretty close to), and briefly ganchos (which I declined to do after the first time on the grounds that I wasn't advanced enough.  Looking back, I should have done them instead of the volcados).  The VTTT said, "You've just done about six months in an hour."

Fortunately, there is a an open practice session tonight, so I can go along and practice all these moves.  In fact, the VTTT may be there.

During this lessonvaganza I noticed something about myself with reference to tango that I've noticed before:  I am incredibly biddable.  If you show me a step (if you are in the position of 
teacher, or if you are someone who seems to me to know what he's doing), I'll do it.  I mean, I will attempt to perform it, without questioning your directions and as faithfully as possibly.  I do wonder if this has something to do with ballet -- all those years of teachers saying, "Adjust the shoulder"; "Hand further forward"; "So, it's tendu croisé devant, rond de jambe, temps lié derriere, close, repeat effacé.  Here we go," has made me simply respond without thinking to dance directions:  the teacher gives you the steps, and you perform them.  But today I also wondered if it's tied to all my academic training.  In academia you learn to do a lot of stuff automatically, to save time:  you learn the layout of a library quickly, for example, so you can find your books; you learn how to hand in grades at the end of term; you learn how to teach people things.  And it's to your advantage to learn these things swiftly, as they save you a bunch of niggling time in the long run, and even in the short run.  It's also to your advantage to make them automatic as quickly as possible, because it means you can devote your time and attention to the big and fun stuff. 

I suspect I'm a relatively quick tango study (not that quick:  it takes three tries, just as it does in ballet) because I'm used to disgorging demonstrated steps on demand, but I suspect I get used to most steps quickly because I'm now in the habit of automaticizing things.

Wow, apparently my whole professional and terpsichorean life has been leading me to becoming Tanguera Extraordinaria.  My parents would be so pleased!  Now all I need is a rose to put between my teeth. Oh, yeah, and to work on my balance, and my placement, and my posture, and my willingness not to anticipate.  So just a few things, really.

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19 March 2009

Love is in the Air

My friend M. went on a date with my frientance A.S. (a frientance is someone closer than an acquaintance but not quite a friend; a fracquaintance is someone who's slightly more than an acquaintance, but not a friend: the order is "acquaintance, fracquaintance, frientance, friend"). My friend A. is flirting with a girl he likes.  My friend A.L. has a new boyfriend, J.  My friend I. has started seeing someone.  My cleaner has a new man, and she's head over heels.

It's delightful to behold all this.  It's always delightful, for me, to see people falling in love, or enjoying attraction and/or romantic feelings.  All the charm, the bashful pleasure, the happiness... Love is always wonderful, and it's good to have it in the world.  There ought to be more of it.  And because I like my friends, it's even better for me that this love in the world is theirs.

But there's another person inside me, stepped aside from that person, and that separate me would like her own love - just a little bit of it.  

It's funny.  When you tell people that you wish you were in love, or that you wish for a partner, they always seem to assume that there's something wrong:  that you don't have a rich life, or that you're unhappy and looking for someone to make you happy, or that you don't have enough belief in yourself, or liking for yourself, to manage without someone else there to buoy you up. It never occurs to people that you might want someone because your life is full and interesting, and you want someone to share that fullness and those interests with; or that you want someone because you're happy, and you want to share that happiness with someone, or give it to them; or that you want someone because you get pleasure from making someone happy, and you want to do that.  

M. said, "Everyone gets their five minutes," and I believe they do.  But sometimes I feel like that Divine Comedy lyric:  "I know the best is yet to come,/But does it always take this long?"

That's all; that's all; that's all.

You'll want your joke, I expect:

A man walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, "Doctor, I don't know what's wrong with me:  sometimes I think I'm a tee-pee, and sometimes I think I'm a wigwam."  And the doctor says, "Oh, that's easy!  You're too tense."

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18 March 2009

Snuffling Through History

So, I'd say I've reached the apex of my illness.  Fortunately, it's not a very high apex, coming to a point as it does at "cough and scratchy throat, with vague headache."  Fine (or not, if you see what I mean).  I just hope this really is the apex.

Today I went out to lunch with a friend who is a Byronist.  In the course of our conversation, he informed me that some villa in Pisa where Percy and Mary Shelley had lived, over the road from Byron, had been torn down (or maybe it was a villa somewhere else:  it's vague now), so now one could no longer go or see where the Shelleys had lived. Later on, he told me about a lecture he'd attended, given by my lovely friend Jerome McGann, in which McGann said people ought to embrace the internet wholeheartedly, and a medievalist from Cambridge stood up and said, "Yes, but the monks decided to embrace that new technology 'the book,' and they ended up tearing up scrolls and using them to make book boards and book covers," the implication being that this was a terrible loss.

I never know how I feel about this mourning for history.  On the one hand, I understand the desire to preserve everything, and to walk where those I admire or am intrigued by have walked; I comprehend the desire to preserve and visit the past, the sense that any loss is a loss to potential thought or simply to experience and knowledge.

On the other hand - and this side of me cries out more strongly in these situations - I want to say, "So what?"  There are two reasons for this.  Leaving aside the basic fact that I don't much care where Percy Shelley lived and have no desire to tread the magic boards that once held his precious weight, as a person who has trod similar boards I am deeply suspicious of the experiential value of this exercise.  You can stand where Anne Boleyn stood, or tread softly into a room where John Keats lived, hearing the floor creak beneath your feet, and sit in isolated silence in the very chair he sat in, in that very room - but unless you are able to think the very thoughts that Anne Boleyn or John Keats thought, you aren't replicating their experience.  By doing these things you can get a sense of what it's like to be in those spaces, and you can say, "Ah, I see how, sitting in this chair, one would begin to yearn for sleep," or, "Look how high this scaffold is!  She must have felt very small and alone," but what you're really doing is having your own experience of what that experience might have been like.  I believe there's some value in that, but I'm not sure how much.

My second reason is entirely different, I think, and it may in fact be two reasons folded together.  For one thing, it seems to me that such losses (of villas, of books) are part of evolution - not to say part of life.  Yes, we lose, but with that losing we move forward; we gain, too.  That doesn't mean I don't mourn the loss (I do, I do), but I perhaps mourn less for it than I might.  Septimus Hodge would perhaps say, We can only hold so much in our arms, and in order to pick up we must shed.  But the picking up brings us new experiences, new life: newness.  And, with certain exceptions (the ugly building, the empty-headed remake), I think those new things are good.  Which balances out the losses.

Furthermore, without loss there would be no mystery, and that (how Byronically!) would be the greatest loss of all.  Here I can call Septimus Hodge to my aid, because at the end of Arcadia he says, "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore" (which, by the way, I think may be a reference to both Keats and Matthew Arnold).  Those scrolls that scholars must unpick from book bindings; those buildings and the moments that occurred within them that biographers and critics must recreate in their minds, they keep uncertainty in the world.  When they were able at last to say definitively that Anna Anderson was not the Grand Duchess Anastasia, I was sorry.  I don't want to know whether or not Napoleon was poisoned on St. Helena.  There should be mysteries.  There should be mysteries not just because they keep us guessing, keep us thinking, but because there should be things we don't know.  I'm not sure why I believe this.  It might be because I don't think humans should become too egotistical (I don't), or it might simply be because I think life should hold some mystery.  It does us good, in some way, not to know, or not to be sure we know.

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In Bed

I'm in bed at the moment, because my throat is scratchy, my eyes are hot, and I generally feel as if I might be getting sick.  I really don't want to be sick, so I've decided to take preventative measures by drinking a Lemsip and...um...going to bed and blogging.  It's an odd time of year for me to get a cold (which is what this feels like it could end up being), so I'm going to blame it on some anonymous person at one of the milongae I've been to - a friend of mine who goes to them is also sick, so I must be right.  Also, my friend O. told me last night that the assignment of blame does not need to be logical, so if I want to blame it on some unknown person whose germs happened to be floating around a huge room, I can.  And I do, so I will.

My bed is very big, and I lie on the left side (right side as you face it), because that's where the bedside table with the face cream(s) (that's right: creamS) and the hand cream, and the journal, and the stack of books-I-really-mean-to-read-and-two-I-am-reading are.  This means that when I look down and over I see what seems to me a vast expanse of bed, usually with some vaguely mounded-up duvet. This, of course, makes me think another person should be in the bed with me, which you would think would naturally lead to thoughts of sex.  I would think that, too, but in fact it leads to thoughts of...picnics.  Yep, you read that right.  I think it's because the bed is SO big that it looks like an expanse of ground on which you could easily sit and have a picnic, but I also think it's because - since the bed dominates the room - it seems like the most logical place to sit if you want to be comfy.

Also, frankly, I love bed.  First of all, I could sleep for England (or Germany, I guess), and I love waking up with someone beside me.  It's not just that, though.  Bed is so snuggly:  you get in, and it's a bit mooshy but not too mooshy, and if it's cold you can pull the duvet all the way up to your chin and your nose and snuggle down (plus, my winter pyjamas have gnomes on them, so I love putting them on).  If you're sitting on the bed, it's somehow already relaxed and vaguely intimate; probably because the surface is unstable, so you relax your body's natural tensions, but also because "bed" does equal "sleep" and "private."  I've never sat on a bed (feet as well as body) with anyone and not ended up in a situation of revelation or at least semi-intimate discussion.

Which leads me to S.  We were skyping a couple of days ago, and somehow we ended up talking about the times when we were in college and sat up until the early morning talking to each other.  We never did anything else in those times (except eat), but we spent hours surrounded by the silence of the night, talking about the world.  S. would tell me stories from his past (this is another thing to add to the list of highly attractive qualities:  story-telling.  S. had wonderful stories, and he told them very well [well, it was he who told me the pencil story.  I do have a fondness for gruesome stories].  Mr. Fallen had terrific stories, and he told the first two or three of them on the first night we were together - and I was lost [his were funny, another favourite kind]), and I would tell him stories from my past.  He said to me on Monday, "I loved those times."  I loved them, too, and they always happened on his (as it happens, giant) bed.  Perhaps this is another reason why I associate bed with happy non-sexual intimacy.

Which in turn leads, as all roads must, to tango.  Last night I went to the Tuesday milonga, which I think of as the pivot milonga (that is, it's the one I know I'm going to go to; it's the constant).  There was the MfB!  Yay!  And there was the MfB's Spanish friend, R.  I danced with R - not so good.  At the end of the evening I danced with the MfB.  It was terrific, but it would be. Part of its terrificness, however, was that the MfB led me through many, many giros, almost all of which I did with smoothness and comfort (although they were still TOO BIG) - and the MfB didn't even know I needed to practice, so he was doing them for his own enjoyment!  Anyhoo, in the middle of my dancing with the MfB, R. came rushing over and said, "May I tell you something, if you don't mind?" (Note, tango-dancing men:  this is an excellent way to begin asking someone to do something differently.)  It turned out that he wanted to tell me that when I danced I put my head on the MfB's shoulder.  In fact, this is what I do when I dance with everyone, although if they are tall I rest it on the pectoral area.  But, R. told me, he'd used to do this, too, and been told that it actually causes problems with connection and balance. Connection is supposed to come from the chest (the heart) in tango, and if you're resting your head on someone's shoulder your chest naturally moves fractionally away - also, because your head is so heavy, your strongest connection becomes the head/shoulder one, not the chest one. He told me to lift my head - and by God it was better!  Thinking about it as I then danced, I realised that in fact I never plan to put my head on the other person's shoulder or chest:  I close my eyes, and if I'm with someone, the automatic step after closing my eyes is to rest my head against them.  Conclusion:  stop doing this in tango (other, nicer conclusion:  I really am a snuggly person).

I know you're expecting a joke (perhaps even the octopus joke...), but I'm brain-cramping at the moment, so while I think I'll tell a story.  On Sunday I had dinner with a bunch of friends, and after the eating was over we started telling lots of jokes.  As one of his jokes, S.A. told a joke I'd heard before:  it requires one audience member (me, the first time I heard it) to supply a word without thinking, thus becoming the victim of the joke.   It's pretty funny, even if you are the victim.  Being forewarned, however, I refused to be the fall guy this time.  The problem was, I was the only native English speaker in the room, so when it came time for someone to supply the word automatically, no one knew it!  Which in turn meant that S.A. had to sit there going, "Um...um...what's the word?...You know the stuff....Um...um..." for about three minutes, with progressively increasing frustration and apparent insanity (since no one but me and another person knew it was the punchline, he just looked to the others like a man having the world's longest memory lapse and madly refusing to give in to it).  I think this is one of the funniest things I have seen in the past five years.  I actually laughed so much that I cried.  It was WAY better than the original joke.

And now...a joke (not the octopus joke, though.  OWWYHTLFT?).  Mr. Cohen's lifelong dream is to be a radio announcer, and at last he gets an audition.  He tells all his friends about his exciting opportunity.  He goes for the audition, and after he comes back one of his friends calls him up.  "How did it go?" the friend asks.  "I didn't get it," Mr. Cohen says.  "Why not?" says the friend.  "The usual reason," says Mr. Cohen.  "Anti - s-s-s-Semitism."

And now I better get dressed and live some life.

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16 March 2009

What Is It You Do, Precisely?

I promised myself that I'd write a blog post on my work, since I'm worried that this blog makes me seem like an airhead, so here we go.

As you may have already figured out from previous posts, I work on Lord Byron.  In order to explain why you should care about Byron, I'll start by directing you to a brief biography, here. In case you're too bored to read that, I'll just tell you the cool stuff about Byron now:  he had a ton of sex.  A ton.  A ton of sex (with men, with women, with his half-sister). He swam the Hellespont, and the Grand Canal. He gained and lost enormous amounts of weight, so that at 5'8" his weight varied between 120 and 196 pounds. He was apparently dazzlingly attractive.  He was bled to death (his doctors took out roughly 43% of his blood over a two-day period).  He basically financed the Greek Revolution.


Byron at the height of his beauty

Also, he wrote some of the funniest poetry you will ever read.  If you have some time on your hands, read the first two cantos of his major work, Don Juan (pronounced, importantly, Don Jew-an; we'll get to that.  You will avoid seeing me flinch, and having me either correct you or burn to correct you, if you remember to pronounce this name JEW-an, not jew-AHN).  I promise you, you will laugh; you will giggle; you will smirk wittily.

Fat Byron.  How are the mighty fallen!

It's important to say here that Byron was also a very unpleasant man.  He was moody, and self-centred, and he was a misogynist of the first order (he wrote to his publisher of an educated woman, for example, "That sort of woman seem to think themselves perfect because they can't get covered [a word used to describe sex between animals]; & those who are seem no better for it--the spayed bitches."  Nice) .  When people ask me why I picked him to work on, I always want to tell them that those unpleasantnesses are part of the reason why: it's impossible for me to romanticise him, because just when it gets to a point where I think he's wonderful I'll stumble across some terrible behaviour.  I like his complexity, but also I value the repulsion he can engender in me.  

Okay, so what exactly do I work on?  I work on Byron's ideas about knowledge.  Byron is generally underrated as an intellect by Romanticists, but in fact his work demonstrates a very sophisticated set of beliefs about knowing, how we know, and what it means to know, and the beauty of this is that they do so in ways you don't expect, and often in ways that enact the very ideas Byron is asserting.

Let's start with one of my favourite Byron lines, from one of my favourite Byron poems, Lara (this is not my favourite.  My favourite is a poem called "Darkness," which makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I read it). The hero of Lara (Lara is his surname) is allegedly a Spanish nobleman, returned to his home estate after a mysterious absence of many years.  In describing his behaviour after his return, Byron says, "Not much he loved long questions of the past."  So, a smart reader says, what do I know from this?  Well, obviously something bad has happened to this man while he's been away - I know this because he doesn't like to talk about his past.  

Now this is the tricky part.  Because what you've done here, as a seasoned reader, is read a series of cues.  That is, what most readers do when they read is recognise, consciously or (more likely) subconsciously, a series of tags that the text offers, tags that have meanings we've acquired from reading hundreds of previous texts.  Here, the cues are "not" "loved" "questions" "past" - in fact, Byron helpfully puts stress on three of these.

The problem is, readers recognise these tags out of context:  they tend to extract the familiar elements and elide the ones they don't know.  Byron, however, reminds us that meaning, and knowledge, cannot be treated this way.  Read the sentence again, read it not as a clued-in reader but an attentive one.  Here is what it actually says:  "He didn't really like being asked long questions about the past."  Well, what does that mean?  Does he not like being asked questions?  Does he not like being asked long questions (but it's okay if they're short)?  Is he happy to answer questions about the present, but not the past?  Does he not particularly like ("not much") being asked questions, but he'll answer them anyway?  This declaration, which appears to provide a central piece of important information about the poem's hero, in fact provides no information at all.  What it does provide, however, is a good deal of information about knowing:  it tells its reader, if its reader is canny enough to pay attention, that knowledge is formed serially and cumulatively (since we know something very different about Lara if we know he did not like "long questions" than we do if we know he did not like "long questions of the past"); that pieces of information can have radically different meanings depending on their setting and on the way they add up.  Most importantly, it tells us that what we think we "know" may very well not be what we know at all:  it may merely be what we believe we know, or -- much more worryingly -- what someone has coerced us into thinking we know (since Byron the author has created the "knowledge" that Lara is troubled by his past by manipulating the reader to ignore what the sentence actually means).  In this way, the declaration points out to its readers that knowledge is a created item, not a constant, a given, or a certainty.

At this point you have either clicked away or think this is all pretty cool.  Since I agree with you if you think it's pretty cool, I'll go on.

Lara is a poem from the middle of Byron's career.  It's generally agreed that his masterpiece is his final long poem.  Don Juan tells the story of a young man from Seville named Juan ("in Seville was he born, a pleasant city / Famous for oranges and women") who keeps being seduced by predatory women.  Byron starts his story at the beginning of Juan's life ("My way is to begin with the beginning" -- actually, before, with a description of his parents' marriage), charting his "fall" into being a seducer.  As this plot summary will suggest to you if you know the usual Don Juan story (and here in a sung version, starting at roughly 2.28 - my favourite line is "La piccina e ognor vezzosa" - "the little one is always cute."  This is true), Byron is still playing with the question of what we know.  The very fact that he tells the Don Juan story in this way hints, obviously, that he still wants to suggest knowledge is versional (that is, there may be another side to the DJ story, or another way of telling it.  Have we ever actually heard Juan's version, or how it all began?).  Here, however, what he does is much more total and much more sophisticated.  

Don Juan is 558 pages long (all of it in ottava rima: abababcc, a very difficult rhyme scheme in English.  Writers the poem influenced:  Auden, Pushkin, Yeats.  At a cocktail party, you will want to say, "It's all based on Whistlecraft, of course," then smile in superior way), so I'm certainly not going to undertake a thorough analysis here.  Instead, I'll lead you quickly through the first stanza:

I want a hero, an uncommon want
When every year and month sends forth a new one;
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.
We all have seen him in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.

("I should not care to vaunt," in case you trip over it, means, "I wouldn't want to speak well of")

First of all, look at the first phrase, "I want a hero."  It seems pretty clear, especially given that it's the opening of an epic poem ("My poem's an epic, and is meant to be," Byron says later): "I'm looking for a hero."  But "want" doesn't just mean "am looking for."  It also means "desire" (a very good meaning for a poem about a man associated with sex), and, more importantly, it also means "lack."  So here we have a word that means at least three things, and two of those things are a concept and its opposite. Note, please, that readers can't dismiss any of these possible meanings at this stage: we don't have any context to cancel any of them out, and in fact the two opposite meanings depend on each other (you "want" a hero because you "want" a hero).

Now, as the stanza progresses we get some filler info that turns out to be important:  all the heroes that the gazettes (which can also mean military gazettes) hold out as heroes are eventually unmasked as unworthy of the title.  Because Byron doesn't want to praise or give page space to such men, he's going to choose Don Juan - all his readers have seen Don Juan on stage, being sent to hell, so they can't be disappointed if he turns out to be bad.  The thing is, this apparently straightforward statement turns out to be just as confusing as "I want"; what Byron is saying is that all the heroes who have lately been held up as heroic have turned out to be flawed, and therefore the best hero is one who is already flawed.  In other words, the best of heroes is one who is unheroic.  

Not only that, but Byron promises us a hero "we all" know:  "our ancient friend Don Juan."  But the previous line endings have prepared readers for the "mis"pronunciation of Don Juan ("new one/true one" must lead to "Jew-an"), which means in fact that we don't know this hero; we know Don Wan (or Hwan), but we've never encountered this Jewan guy.  But "we" must know him, because Byron tells us we know him, and even tells us how we know him, and indeed "we" do know a Don Juan this way (this pantomime was very popular in B's time, and does tell the story of Don Juan's seductions and fate [yes, he is sent to hell, and what's more by a stone statue]).  

So what we have here is a hero who is a hero only because he isn't a hero, different to the Don Juan we know but somehow still that Don Juan, desired and/or lacked, and desired because he is lacked.  If in Lara we knew that we had to pay more attention in order to be sure that we really know, what we learn in Don Juan is that we can't really know anything.  Things can mean one thing and their opposite simultaneously; in order to know we must remember what we don't know as well as what we do.  Most importantly, Byron shows us that in order to make meaning, we must choose from a number of possible different "knowledges" (in fact, what philosophers call "knowledge claims"), all equally valid, in order to produce a meaning that works for us.  And, if we have to do this to make meaning in a poem, that would seem to suggest that...this is how we make meaning in the real world, also.  All knowledge is subjective, is selected, and is thus not really knowledge at all:  knowledge is guesswork, inclination, assumption, determination (and, to be fair, legitimate need) to make things mean something, and a good deal of persuasion.

In English lit, you cannot stop at this conclusion, because you must say why that matters. Normally I say, and believe, that this is important because Byron thus moves the power of knowledge from the hands of outside authority - philosophy, culture, government - to the hands of the individual (note, incidentally, how much like William Blake this makes him).  Each person can make his or her own meaning.  Indeed, Byron says this later in Don Juan: "Why, I'm posterity -- and so are you."  

Here, however, I will end by saying that for some reason this vision of knowledge as fragmented, subjective, and dependent makes me intensely happy.  I've never been able to figure out why.  No doubt it's partially because Byron makes this point with such wit and bite ("But, oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly: have they not henpeck'd you all?" What a rhyme!  So unexpected, yet so perfect).  But there's something else I can't put my finger on...Perhaps I like it because it's so freeing?  Really, I sometimes think, I like it because it's so true.  This is what knowledge is, and what it is like, and to have that truth revealed (even with all the problems it raises) is intensely pleasurable to me.  

Yes, I should end with a joke, but I think I'll let Byron end with a joke - it's even a dirty one. 

Juan has become the lover of Catherine the Great of Russia (who is by this time elderly), and he is thus greatly sought after in her court:

Juan, instead of courting courts, was courted, -
A thing which happens rarely.  This he owed
Much to his youth, and much to his reported
Valour; much also to the blood he show'd,
Like a race-horse; much to each dress he sported,
Which set the beauty off in which he glow'd,
As purple clouds befringe the sun; but most
He owed to an old woman and his post.

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This Is the One to Skip If You Find Literature Boring

One of my Facebook friends is mad for doing those various lists and questionnaires that make the rounds.  I tend to avoid them, but three have lured me in.  Two were only Facebook-worthy, but this third one vexed and challenged me so much, and allowed me so much latitude to talk about literature, that I decided to list it on here.  Plus, I've just come back from a lovely dinner with friends and am not at all sleepy, and this will waste some time.

The requirements are that you list twelve lines of poetry, prose, or song lyrics that have stayed with you; you are allowed to list more than one line if necessary for meaning, rhyme, or impact.  Being me, 

Oh, my God, there's a small but threateningly ovular bug on my desk diary!  It just landed there.  Oh, no, it looks like an oversized flea, and now it's scurrying about!  Okay, just a sec....

Rest easy, bug lovers (and you know who you are), I blew it out the window.  Now, where were we?  Right...

Being me, I wanted to write an explanation for why I like each line or lines, but I could see how, also being me, that would stretch into the most massive of all my massive posts.  So I've limited myself to providing one sentence of explanation per line, one semi-colon allowed per sentence. 

Here we go.

1.   I've never felt so colourfully see-through head before
I've never felt so wonderfully me-you-want-some-more...

It's the second line I like; I always think it should be punctuated and pronounced, "Me?  You want some more?"  For me it describes exactly the experience of a certain kind of love - the way you can't believe this person you fancy would want more of you; you can't believe the luck of that.

2.   True love travels on a gravel road.
(Nick Lowe/Elvis Presley, "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road")

Because it's RIGHT:  true love sticks around for the tough times, and that's what makes it true.

3.   It is best to accept what we cannot change.

I cannot tell you how many difficult situations this has got me through.

4. Oh, we have time, I think.

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long, and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.
(Septimus Hodge, in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia)

The first because I always use it to remind myself how long time is, event the time period of one life, and how much can occur within it, but also because it's infinitely useful and malleable, the import altered by the pronunciation (Worldly-wise:  "Ooooh...we have time, I think"; knowledgeably witty:  "Oh, we have time, Ithink"; etc.).  The second because I find it a beautiful image of the way knowledge is acquired, known, and lost, only to be found again.  On some days, I find it deeply comforting to think that knowledge is an independent entity, loosed from its discoverers and waiting patiently for more to show up and re-capture it.  Also to think that my ideas could just as easily have been thought by someone else, that claiming knowledge is thus very unimportant.

5. All who joy would win must share it;
Happiness was born a twin.
(Byron, Don Juan, Canto II.162)

This somehow manages to be both happy and sad at the same time (a common Byron manoeuvre, as we will see when I discuss my work).  I must confess I also like it because I can relate to it (the feeblest reason to like something): for me, happiness is realer if I have someone to share it with.

6. So let us melt, and make no noise
No tearfloods nor sigh-tempests prove;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

This is a wondrous poem, like honey in the mouth, and it's nearly impossible to single out any portion of it as more wonderful than the others.  This quatrain is the one I remember, though, probably because of the portrayal it gives of love as increased in value by its secrecy - or perhaps it's better to say, as decreased by being revealed to all and sundry.    

7. Lovely whore, though, 
Lovely, lovely whore,
And choosy -
Slept with Con
Slept with Niall
Slept with Brian
Slept with Rory.

Slide then,
The long slide.

Of course it shows.
(Early Irish poem, translated)

Okay, so this is a bit cheaty, because it's the whole poem.  It's the last three lines that have stuck with me, but the problem is that their tenacity is inexplicable if you don't know the rest of the poem.  These lines pop into my head frequently, usually followed by my wondering, What on earth do they mean?  Here's my interpretation, for what it's worth:  the speaker is a man in love with a woman he knows has had sex with several men; he's speaking to himself.  It's embarrassing to love such a woman (a whore)...but she is lovely.  The slide is his own unstoppable slide into loving her, and the final line I take to be expressing his own rueful recognition that this embarrassing love, which he hopes to keep hidden (thereby sparing himself humiliation), is obvious to everyone: "Of course it shows."

8. We're one, but we're not the same:
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
(U2, "One")

Again, it's the second line that sticks with me:  it's the word "get."  Very very cleverly done; we get to, we have the opportunity to and the privilege of doing so, but that doesn't mean we do. Almost everyone I know thinks this is a love song, but I find it a quite sad record of a love relationship filled with anger and resentment (incidentally, Bono repeats this gesture in "The Sweetest Thing," in which he says, "A blue-eyed boy meets a brown-eyed girl;/You can sew it up, but you still see the tear," and I think to myself, God, what happened in that relationship?  An extraordinary admission in the second line).

9. Ophelia:   I was the more deceived.
(William Shakespeare,  Hamlet, III.1.120)

Hamlet:  You think I mean country  matters.
(Hamlet, III.2.116) 

The first because it seems to me contain a world of sorrow in one tiny utterance.  The second because I love the fact that the English language's greatest playwright slipped a pun on "cunt" into his best play.

10. It's the though of him undressing you - or you undressing.
(Elvis Costello, "I Want You")

A pithy evocation of the pain of imagining infidelity:  it's terrible to imagine someone else taking off your lover's clothes, but how much worse to imagine them voluntarily disrobing for that someone.

11.  Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.
(John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn")

Listen to those sibilants, the open a of "unRAvished," the lisping fading of the "ness" at the end of the first line, and the perfect, sleepy rhythm and alliteration of the second:  these lines do all their work not through meaning but through subconscious aural and cognitive effect. Masterpiece.

12.  We borrowed the loan of Kerr's big ass...
(Patrick Kavanagh, "Kerr's Big Ass")

Because if you can't have one stupid, schoolboyish, play on words, what kind of list is it?  And it does always make me laugh.

Not bad:  I believe I didn't exceed my self-imposed strictures, and I've now wasted all the time I needed to before going to bed.

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15 March 2009

Get the Balance Right

I think striking a balance is really hard for me.  Earlier this summer my father said to me, "I'm not an 'all or nothing person,'" and in thinking about it even as he said it I knew, I am.  I throw myself into the things I decide to do, and because of that throwing they become terribly important to me.

I think about this today because at tango last night I was twice told to relax, and when I was able to do so it made a huge difference to my dancing (which made me think, How do you relax and yet learn or perform new steps?  I suppose the answer is, you practice those steps to perfection before you perform them [which is what I would do, not being able to strike a balance], or you decide that your partner will be forgiving of the fact that you're just beginning, and you stumble about a bit until you don't stumble about anymore [which is what I'd like to be able to do]).

But it's not just tango.  I think I often have trouble relaxing and finding a balance in something as simple as a conversation.  If there's anything at stake - the possibility of friendship, a desire to be found amusing or interesting - I tend to try too hard, which means (unsurprisingly) that I often put my foot in it.  Or, alternatively, I worry that I have put my foot in it, this worry possibly lasting for hours, or even days (and, incidentally, in the case of friendship this mindset can persist for YEARS).  This would seem to have little to do with balance, being rather about relaxation (which, like everyone else, I find difficult when I'm in a situation that matters).  But in fact, I think it does trace back to balance, because if I could put less emphasis on, say, a given conversation, or a given dance, or a given chapter, I would relax more.

One thing I always wonder in situations where my lack of relaxation has made me say something awkward, or flippant (the worst), is the degree to which the other person noticed.  I suspect that often people don't have a problem with the remarks I consider to be mis-steps - perhaps they don't even process them.  At the very least, if other people are with me the way I am with them, they just think that sometimes people say weird stuff, and they write it off.  I'd love to know, though.

I'm not going to say that I'm going to work harder on striking a balance, because I think that the very phrase "work harder" suggests the lack of balance I would experience as I practised trying to strike a balance.  So instead I'll say that I'm going to try to relax a bit more about the stuff that matters to me, and to remind myself of facts that I already know: that things often come slowly, and certainly they come better with relaxation, and are much deeper and richer and more certain for that slowness and relaxation (tango as well as personal relationships). The middle path is the path to enlightenment.  


Oh, oh, oh: an addition.  At last night's milonga the final song was one I actually knew:  a cover of "It's a Wonderful Life," by Black (actual name:  Colin Vearncombe; dubious distinction: having a nose too big even for me).  This is one of my most-beloved songs in its original version; it's some serious Blood Music, but simultaneously Grace of God music. So for the very first time since the first time I danced tango, I danced tango to a song I knew, and could understand the lyrics of.  And I got it!  I was relaxed, and I could feel myself simply melting into the lovely known music, and into my partner.  And the cover is fantastic.  Herewith, both versions.  You may choose between the original and the Mathilde Santing cover, or you may (as I do) believe that each is a chip of Just Right in its own way.

And, of course, a joke.  It's not the octopus joke, though (otherwise what would you have to look forward to?).

There's an old woman in a wheelchair sitting by the side of the road, and as people walk by she calls out, "Please help me!  I've never been fucked!  I'm so sad; I've never been fucked!"  She wails this over and over again, but as the people pass they just ignore her.  At long last, when she calls out, "Oh, God, I've never been fucked!"  a gorgeous man is walking by.  He runs over to her and sweeps her up in his manly arms.  He kicks the wheelchair across the road in one swift move and throws her down on the grass in front of him.  Standing above her, he looks down and says, "Now you're fucked."

The lead singer of The Cure told that joke.

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14 March 2009

A Declaration of Love, and a Tiny Rant

I do believe I love dancing more than anything in the world.  My former boyfriend J. said to me once that he thought you shouldn't compare anything to sex, or sex to anything:  sex stands outside comparison.  I agree with this, and with those terms set out I feel safe in saying, I do believe I love dancing more than anything in the world.  All dancing.  Any dancing.

But I'll tell you what I don't like:  I don't like people who stand on the dancefloor.  I have many assumed hates, but very few actual hates.  But this is one of them.  

There used to be a group called The Dead Milkmen (whom I was required to like because they were from Philadelphia, and you have to feel pride in nice people from where you live who get famous), who had a song called "You'll Dance to Anything."  It was a very amusing song for its time, a long rant against those people in the '80's who only danced to British New Wave music (not that I was one of those people.  Oh, no).  At one point the singer tells these pretentious fools not to clutter up his bar:  "I came here to drink, not to get laid."  Whenever I see people standing conversing on the dance floor, I think of this line, but change it to, "I came here to dance, not to get laid."  Dance floors are for dancing on, people.  If you want to chit-chat, step to the bits on the side.  If you're not dancing, get off the fucking floor.  Goddammit. (and I am not someone who says fuck very much.)

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13 March 2009

Bad Day

So, this was my schedule yesterday:  

Get up, eat breakfast, faff around
Go to tango lesson (with the Other Fabulous Tango Teacher, this time.  Although he is indeed fabulous, I'm going to call him the Very Tall Tango Teacher from now on, because that's  how I think of him)
Go to lunch
Go out for coffee (well, tea) with nice man from seminar
Do shopping
Go to dinner
Do ballet barre
Go to milonga

...and as I was sitting at dinner, I suddenly realised that I had nothing of interest to say - in fact, I had nothing to say.  At first I thought it was because I'd had a busy day (and that is a pretty busy day, especially given that there were no pauses between any of those things). Then I realised that I'd had nothing of interest to say all week.  So I had a bit of think while I was doing ballet, and it suddenly occurred to me that for the past two weeks I have basically done no work.  I'm now supposed to be revising the chapter I dislike, which is about a poem I don't really know what to make of and therefore am not comfortable with, and in the best tradition of my dealings with this chapter and poem I am engaging with the problem by throwing myself into social occurrences and activities and totally ignoring the work at hand.  Well, that's not new to me, but what is new is the discovery that I need to work if I'm to be an interesting person.

When I was writing my Ph.D., and for the three years since then, I've been consumed with an obsessive conviction that any moment away from my desk is a moment wasted. Simultaneously, I've been very worried about that obsession, and wished that I could have more social life - obviously, it seems mentally and physically healthier to spend time doing stuff other than work.  Also, it enriches the work.  My worry has always been that there's too much work, and not enough stimulation from stuff outside work.  

Imagine, then, my surprise at discovering that work, too, offers necessary stimulation - or, more surprisingly, that the working being stimulates the social being just as much as the social being stimulates the working being.  Who knew?  Upshot:  it's back to working tomorrow (although I'm going to aim for a balance).

One thing that did suffer from yesterday's schedule, though, was my dancing.  At the lesson I asked the VTTT if we could work on some turning steps, because at the moment the only way I can really turn is if the man steeeeeers me around in a circle, with the result that I do a kind of dizzy pivot.  At the milongas (milongae?) I've been to, though, I've seen women doing all sorts of elegant fancy-dancey turning moves, and I'd like to be able to do them, too.  So we worked on a step called "giro" (although I'm so thoroughly anglocentric that I kept looking it up as "hero" on youtube, and it wasn't until I found it under the general tango lesson videos that I remembered that of course it's a Spanish pronunciation.  Nice.  For years I've regretted not sticking with my Russian classes, and vaguely thought I ought to learn Spanish.  Now the lack of Spanish is more than a vague irritant).  The version you see in the clip is more complex than what we were doing, but even though our version was much simpler I absolutely could not get it.  The nice thing about a private lesson, of course, is that you can repeat one move for half an hour, and by the end of that time I was managing it with a certain fluidity, but still the teacher was going, "It's too big; it's too big."  And it was.

When I got to the milonga, though, I couldn't do it at all.  It was all gone.  I first danced with The Man from Budapest (that's not a nickname -  he really is from Budapest), who is excellent, and he helpfully led me through many many giros.  But The Man from Budapest is so good that no matter what he leads me through I look fabulous (although they were still TOO BIG.  The VTTT was there, and I kept imagining him watching me and wanting call out, "They're too big!").  I couldn't do them with anyone else.  

Not only that, though, but aside from the MfB, I couldn't seem to manage to dance at all.  I stepped on feet; I couldn't feel the lead.  I enjoyed it, but I knew I wasn't doing well.  To give you some idea of how not well I was doing:  in tango, the way you indicate that you no longer wish to dance with someone is to smile kindly and say, "Thank you."  I'm not sure, but I think the earliest etiquette decrees you can do this is after one set of three songs (for which there is a Spanish word that of course...I have forgotten).  And last night, twice, a FRIEND said, "Thank you" to me after three songs.  I was ditched by my friends.  That, as we say in the States, is cold. But it's also an indication of how I was dancing.  God bless them, one of them said, "I'm having all sorts of trouble dancing with everyone tonight," and the other (the FTT) said, "You're really improving; you're learning a lot."  Still, I knew. One of them said to me, while we were dancing, "I'm not feeling you"; you need to lean into the person, so they can feel they're guiding you, and
I wasn't doing that sufficiently (incidentally, he also said, "Are you standing on your toes?"  Grr...This is a chronic problem for me when I dance with the tall.  I mistakenly think I should try to match their height, but in fact standing on your toes makes you less heavy in the arms, and thus harder to feel. Plus, for the stander it's easier on your balance and calves if you don't go up on your toes.  Alas, I repeatedly forget that).  What's more, the FTT had to remind me of the second thing he ever taught me:  that standing still is okay.  Oh, the humanity!

This is bad.  Don't do it.

And a creepy guy who danced with me creepily gave me a cd of tango music, in a vaguely creepy way.

So, a lousy tango night.  Upshot: I'm going to pack less into the day.  

On the other hand, I did get a free tango cd, which seems to suggest there's no cloud without a silver lining (albeit a creepy silver lining),

And now, a joke. No, not the octopus joke (otherwise what would you have to look forward to?):  There were two peanuts walking down the street. One was plain, and one was a salted.

That is the very worst joke I know (it's from Monty Python), so all the jokes will be better from here on out.

Incidentally, my counter widget shows me that the post "Flotsam and Jetsam" gets a lot of hits from Cambridge.  ????  Is it the shirt?  It is a very nice shirt, and it always makes me think of the beautiful eyes that went with it.  So perhaps Cambridge is filled with people who like to imagine lovely eyes.  Or people who like highly lyricised writing.  Or people who are looking for a specific shirt.  As my friend H. used to say, we may never know.

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12 March 2009

Ah, the French! Ah, L'Amour!

Tonight I watched a very odd French film, L'Appartement
It wasn't odd because it was French; it was just odd.  Since its oddness lay mostly in its treatment of love, it got me to thinking about love - or rather, it kept me thinking about it, since I've been pondering that pretty much all this week, anyway.

On Sunday, as part of a discussion about Pushkin (just so you know it's not all dimwittery round my way), my friend M. told me that my friend S.A. (he of the tango skills) has a theory that women prefer men who treat them badly - indeed, she called it "a belief."  I was already sort of aware of this, only I would have called it "a fear."  In any case, as I said to her, it's not true.  But as the week has progressed this theory has rolled around in my head, and I've been giving it some more thought.  I don't like men who treat me badly, and I never have, but in fairness I have to say that in my time I've stuck with some people who were highly critical of me, and I have to admit that there are a lot of women who stick with men who treat them badly.

Sometimes when I'm trying to unwind a mystery I pretend that I'm explaining that mystery to someone in my head:  by articulating my ideas as if to someone else, I somehow find them clearer to myself.  I did this in this case, and this is what I came up with:  some women, maybe even many women, do seem to prefer men who treat them badly, but those are women who dislike themselves.  That is, those women believe they deserve to be treated badly, so they find or remain with men who do so.

A couple of years ago a therapist told me one of the most interesting things I've ever heard. He said to me that, whether they realise it or not, people often get comfortable in certain patterns or behaviours, and then they repeat them.  They may not like those patterns or behaviours, he said, but they're used to them, and for many if not most people stepping outside what you're used to is scary - essentially, the fear of the different outweighs the desire for happiness.  This made a good deal of sense to me then, and it still does.

I think many women - and perhaps many men, too, for all I know - dislike themselves, or (what I fear) believe that in some way they are dislikable:  not good enough in some nameless but nonetheless (or, and thus) terrible way.  Believing this, they find someone to reinforce that belief.  This is awful, and strange, but in a funny way not illogical.  To put it at the most obvious level, it takes a lot of guts to like yourself in a world that's constantly trying to sell you stuff to make you better.

That being said, though, I think you have to make some kind of allowance for love.  Love moves on a different line from good sense, and often by the time you see someone is not good enough for you, or not right for you, you're already quite deeply in love with them.  I've certainly been in relationships where I realised that I was unhappy, or that my partner was not right for me, but I've loved the person very much, and the pain that ending that love would bring me has seemed so awful that I've stayed in the relationship past its sell-by date.  

That being said, love is an excuse for an occurrence, but I'm not sure it can be an excuse for a pattern.

When I first heard about this theory/belief/fear, I thought that what I would like to say in response is, Women who stick with men who treat them badly are women with problems you will never solve.  But not all women are like that.  The world is filled with women who want to be treated well, and who want to be happy, and who want to treat others well and make them happy.  Trust me, and hold out for one of those.  But, as I know from personal experience, if you are someone who wants people to be happy, it's very very hard indeed to turn your back on someone who's being made unhappy, even if you know that at some level they want to be made unhappy.  If you care for someone, as a friend once said to me, you want them to be happy.  

Also, thinking further on the topic this week, it occurs to me that women of course have similar ideas about men (and I do not exempt myself):  they believe that men (the collective) like weak women, or stupid women, or women who treat them badly.  But surely if the women who like men who treat them badly have some problem lurking round the back, the men who like weak women, or stupid women, or women who treat them badly have some problem lurking round the back.  And if you were a really strong or capable person you'd realise that about whichever gender you fancy, and hold out for someone who didn't exhibit those tendencies.  But that would take enormous strength.

So what is to happen?  As usual, all my pondering gets me back to I Don't Know.  I said to MCLSJB a couple of weeks ago, "Love ought to be simple.  It should be that two nice people discover they like each other's company, there is some amount of attraction on each side, and they decide to enjoy sharing each other's company. But it isn't."  People (and again, I do not exempt myself) feel that love ought to be difficult; or they want to be treated poorly; or they have any one of a thousand other difficulties and foolishnesses that I can't think of at the moment.  And so frankly, as I remarked to someone tonight, it's amazing that anyone ever gets together with anyone else at all, or that they manage to stay together.

But they do.

Believe me, I just want to call out, smart women, good women, worthwhile women, do not want men who treat them badly.  They want men who will love them, and treat them well, and make them happy. And they will love those men back, with dividends. On this one, I know. 

So, let's end with a joke, since the jokes seem to have gone over well.  No, it won't be the octopus joke (otherwise what would you have to look forward to?).  And it won't be a play on words, either.  It's late, so it will be a genuinely stupid joke:

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't return?

A stick.

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11 March 2009


The moon shines bright:  in such a night as this, 
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night 
Troilus, methinkins, mounted the Trojan walls
And sigh'd his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
(The Merchant of Venice)

All right, so there is no wind, and it's rather chill, but the moon here is as full and bright as a perfect disc of white silver; in fact, I'm writing this by moonlight.  I went to a wonderful milonga, and when I came out the air was chilly and the full moon was almost in the middle of the sky.  It was midnight, and we cycled home in the quiet, and as we came up to Lammas Land there was thick fog.  A bright moon, a cool night, fog, and cycling quietly both separate from and with a group of people I like:  ah.  Shhhh.

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