06 May 2009

Cheek by Jowl

This past weekend the Cambridge Tango Festival was held.  There was an all-night milonga! There was an all-day tango "café"! (with soup made by my very own VTTT)  Homer and Christina were there!  That's right, I said Homer and Christina!! (one of the most charming things about society, for me, is the fact that there are all these little subcultures thriving that you know nothing about until you join them, and that all these subcultures have their own storylines, celebrities, and so on [see 1:53 here].  In the tango subculture - or at least the Cambridge tango subculture - Homer and Christina are a huge big deal.  They are also a huge big deal in tango on youtube, where, if you type in "tango" plus a step name, they will almost certainly be one of the first clips offered).

At the all-night milonga I danced with all the usual suspects, plus a couple of more experienced male dancers that I asked to dance, but also a couple of new people asked me.  One of these people was a man named Dave, who also asked me to dance at the tango café.  Dave (who was an excellent dancer) was wearing a kilt for the all-night milonga:  not your usual milonga outfit choice, I think you'll agree, but since one of my friends felt that  he looked like an idiot and another admired him for making a bold choice, I leave the question of its appropriateness to the individual viewer, and reader.  At the tango café, Dave was not wearing his kilt; he was wearing a normal shirt and trousers.  Kilt or no kilt, however, all-night event or no all-night event, soup or no soup, on both occasions when he danced with me Dave attempted to Give Me the Cheek. To which I say, Hey, now, Dave!  

I don't think people should nestle their cheeks against yours the first time they dance with you
- in fact, I don't think they should do it until they know you quite well.  In fact in fact, I think cheek-nestling in tango should be an indication that the people know each other quite well, or are very comfortable with each other (as it is in life!).  I have already talked about touching my cheek to R's, and how I didn't care for that, and thinking about it now I can count only five tango people against whose cheek I would wish to rest mine while I tango:  the FTT (obviously), my friend O., S.A., the VTTT, and the Guy Who Dances Really Well (hereafter, the GDRW). In the case of S.A. and the VTTT, I can't put my cheek against theirs, as I can't reach their cheeks (with the VTTT, I'd have to wear chopines!); and given that O. is a girl, we're unlikely to be dancing together; and given that I don't actually know the GDRW, we're unlikely to be dancing together.  The point, however, is that in all these cases the wish only occurred after a certain level of comfort and intimacy was reached (well, okay, except for the GDRW - he just looks very comfortable and relaxing.  But, hey: made up comfort is still comfort, until actuality proves it wrong).  So I don't think people should be slapping their cheek against yours the first time they step onto the milonga floor with you.

I Gave Him the Ear.  Not meanly, but just because it seemed the closest thing to the cheek, and thus seemed to me to be polite while still preserving my own ideas about cheekdom.

Which leads me, laterally, to a little rumination on pronunciation.  When I first knew the FTT (see the connection?), when he was just a friend of a friend, we ate a couple of meals together as part of a larger group. And at one of these meals he said the very first thing I remember him saying in my presence (which my memory has made the very first thing he ever did say in my presence).  That was, "Where is Sasha?"  Okay, this hardly seems like a sentence to be burned on the brain, but it is burned on mine, and what's more it's burned to such an extent that it's persistently reproduced:  I have had occasion to ask this question myself, and whenever I do so (even if I'm only asking it to myself), I always hear the FTT's voice saying it immediately afterward.  The reason for this is the name. Everyone else who knows the person pronounces the name with the emphasis slightly on the final syllable - Sa-sha - and with the final "a" slightly drawn out - Sa-shah.  But he shifted both the emphasis and the length, so that the stress fell on the first syllable, and the final syllable was shortened:  Sa-shuh.  This made the name snappier, tighter, and with those tiny changes made the whole utterance somehow 

so memorable that it's associated forever with him (and, incidentally, remembered even when I just say that name).

A person named Sasha

In the same way, I remember once asking another friend if there was any high ground at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens (as opposed to its just being smooth flat rolling greensward).  He answered, "Yes.  There are rogs."  I said incredulously, "There are rugs?!?"  "No," he responded. "ROHKS."  Rohks? Oh, rocks!  And now whenever I look at a rog, or even encounter the word, I think of this pronunciation.  Which makes reading Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" quite a difference experience from what it was before:

A slumber did my spirit seal,
I had no human fears;
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees:
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
With rogs, and stones, and trees.

When I took an introductory linguistics course in college, we learned that everyone has an "idiolect," the particular speech pattern, vocal emphases and pronunciations, and other verbal markers that make their voice theirs.  Whenever I've encountered non-native English speakers, speaking English perfectly, and pronouncing their perfect English perfectly, has been very important to them.  And no wonder:  when I speak French, or German, I want to speak them perfectly (and part of the reason why I don't speak them is that I can't speak them perfectly). But that's a pity, in a way, because part of what makes non-native speakers in any language so charming, and so much themselves, is their slight mispronunciations, or their fractional confusions over things like idioms and phrasal verbs - in short, their idiolects.  When my friend M.X. says, "Let me explain you" when he starts to make a situation clear to me, it makes me smile because I know it's he who is speaking, and these days I say it to myself inside every time I say, "Let me explain it to you."  That's the thing - such arresting quirks make you unforgettable, because different.  When the FTT first learned from me the expression "Knock yourself out," he said it in a way that made it plain it wasn't comfortable in his mouth, that he was still tasting it:  "Knock. Yourself. Out."  Now he just says, "Knock yourself out," and it's nowhere near as delightful or unique:  that's the way everybody says it!  When my friend M mentions the country she's from, she calls it, "POH-lan," and it's lovely.  I think if you really want to be charming in your non-native language, you should keep a couple of mistakes and confusions hanging around.  I endorse linguistic imperfection!

(just to go off on a tangent, this deep remembering has happened to me only once in English.  My friend J.W. told me once that the first Japanese sentence he learned to say was, "I have an earthquake in my pants" [his Japanese girlfriend taught it to him].  Then he told me that in Japanese the word for earthquake means "confidence," too - so he was also saying, "I have confidence in my pants." From the moment that I heard that ridiculous sentence, I have been unable to say, "I have confidence" without mentally adding, "in my pants," then giggling.  The end result of this is that I've had to tell this story to many people, most of them my students [who need to be told that I have confidence in them, then wonder why I giggle right after I say it], and that we have thus all ended up saying, "I have confidence in my pants about [insert subject or incident here]."  Thanks, J.W.)

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