Tuesday, February 17, 2009

La Vida Communista

Both Man Yung and I are feeling so sick and so doped up on antibiotics, cough syrup and advil right now, it's the perfect time to hallucinate and reminisce about all the "fun" that Man Yung used to have when he traveled to The People's Republic of China on business right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

Man Yung admits the first time was a pretty shocking experience. From the colourful cacophony and chaos that is Hong Kong, he was confronted by a world of monotonous grey, navy and brown. Everyone he met was dressed in the same standard unisex uniform. No matter if you were locals or visitors, if your pants were too long or your haircut unconventional, the ubiquitous "Red Guards" would cut off the offending length of hair or pants for you in public right in the middle of the street, and then surround you and chant communist slogans so that you can be indoctrinated with the right kind of thinking.

All movies were supposed to follow the "Eight basic plots" (anything else would be frivolous or immoral) - and not deviate from this.

All cultural and artistic works were permitted to be dedicated to the praise and glorification of "the Worker, the Farmer and the Soldier" and nothing else.

Of course, people were not only expected to look and act the same, they were also expected speak in the same way and to think the same glorious thoughts about the eternal Maoist revolution.

Even Man Yung thought that all that conformity was a pretty good idea at the time (and sometimes he still does). The comrades were very organized. The uniforms they wore were so comfortable and practical (lots of pockets) - it sure beat having to think about what to wear in the morning. Everyone was working towards the same worthy ideals! Utopia.

I can see how conformity can be seductive. Having certainty and being fully convinced that you are right 100% of the time must be nice.

Am I wrong to be a bit wary? Maybe I don't buy into all this lovely "conformity" (like I don't buy into religious fundamentalism, everyone having an ipod or every newly-minted tango professional dancing in exactly the same way in every new Youtube video since 2007) only because I am a little wrong in the head.

What I may need is a big crowd of very self-assured people around me chanting phrases from "the little red book" of the rules of the tango salon campeonato that they are waving ardently in the air. Then perhaps I can join in and enjoy the macabre hilarity of the radiant, conformist tango future.

* All paintings by the contemporary chinese artist Yue Minjun.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bird Strike

This may be old news to some, but every time Man Yung and I have seen news on the emergency Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549 over the past few weeks, we have been simply amazed. We are amazed at the calm, courageous handling of the situation by the crew and especially the Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the orderly evacuation and rescue operation, and the fact that no lives were lost despite the perilous landing. We are further amazed at the humility and grace of Captain Sullenberger throughout the media frenzy that ensued. Captain Sullenberger, the crew of Flight 1549 and all the participants of the rescue effort justly deserved all the accolades and awards they subsequently received.

While we are on this topic - patrons of Toronto milongas are also often prone to bird strikes. I'm sure that many leaders have experienced the same thing. You're drifting peacefully with a partner on the dance floor to a lovely Di Sarli melody, minding your own business - only to be rudely awakened by a head-on collision with flocks of crazed wild geese unable to alter their "pre-set migratory patterns" (also known in the tango world as "figures"*).

So, when confronted with a "bird strike" on the dance floor, is Man Yung able to exhibit the same steady, calming grace of Captain Sullenberger and his crew?

Unfortunately, Man Yung has much to learn from the behavior of Captain Sullenberger and his crew. Instead of trying to land safely on the Hudson River, Man Yung goes into full retaliatory mode. He has even been observed trying to duplicate that famous scene in the 2000 blockbuster martial arts action movie "Romeo Must Die" with Aaliyah and Jet Li - by using the follower (usually me) as an impromptu melee weapon.

"I'm going to use my partner to kick YOUR ass!"

Take it easy Man (Yung)! How about trying to land the plane instead of trying to nuke the gaggle of geese?

* Why is it that so many leaders have to moronically complete the "figure" they are engaged in, no matter how dire the lack of space and the crowded conditions? We're not even talking about complicated figures - it could actually be the same two steps repeated over and over again. If it is clear that step number two will lead you to elbow the adjacent couple in the neck - just DON'T DO IT! As for those "I don't do figures, I just walk" people - don't think that you are any exception. You may be mesmerized by your own "elegant" and "musical" walking, but if the only way you are going to complete your elegant "step" is to push some body else out of the way - well, forget about your fantasies of the Campeonato Mundial. What you are is just another bird strike waiting to happen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Chapter 10 5/8: The Big Milonga in the Sky

In the last chapter of "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters", Julian Barnes presents a vision of heaven.

Apparently, it is a place where you can shop with limitless credit, have sex with whomever you want and improve your golf score so much that you will be scoring 18 every time - FOR ETERNITY.

So, at the end of the road, for all those tangueros and tangueras who have managed to avoid going to "the other place" by being either super-duper good, fairly well-behaved, or even "just ok" (it seems that for Barnes, admission requirements are not terribly high) ---

What would it be like, that "Big Milonga in the Sky"?

Of course it follows that it will be a nice place where the music is always excellent and danceable and the cortinas are never annoying. The floor is never sticky and champagne is always on ice.

I'm also pretty sure that there will be the usual heart-wrenching sentimental eye-misting stuff like:

- Those absolute favourite tango shoes with heels that you have worn down to a nub and have thrown away are miraculously resurrected. They are almost brand new, just a little worn in to fit you like a glove - so you can dance for hours in them like you used to in their glory days in perfect comfort.

- Or alternatively, you suddenly find that you are the proprietor of every single style of Comme Il Faut known to man (or not yet dreamed of), and dancing in any pair is just like dancing on air.

- Not only that, you have your own personal foot masseuse on call 24/7 who is never grumpy or tired and gives the best foot massages for HOURS. Oh, and you have a free foot massage card that expires in - well, never.

- You get to see all your Tango friends again, and every single one loves you and is happy to see you. Your conversations consist entirely of good news:

"How are you?"
"Never better! My arthritis is gone and my doctor says my blood pressure and cholesterol levels are so sublime I can eat and drink anything I want. How about you?"
"Just super - my son has won the lottery again and all my grandchildren just got accepted into Princeton."

- Instead of people disappearing from the milonga by becoming too sick to dance or dying, more and more people are appearing at the milonga, and they can all dance like no-body's business.

But realistically, that Big Milonga in the Sky cannot all be about good music, comfortable feet and happy people (or Argentinians dancing to rock and roll and "tropical" every second tanda). Most people we know will insist in any or all of the following:

- The dancers always follow the line of dance and they never ever collide - either because they have improved their navigation to the nth degree in the afterlife, or because they simply don't have to improve their navigation. The laws of time, space and physics don't apply and objects can't collide - they merely pass harmlessly through each other.

- Everyone is dressed like they were competing in the Mundial and what's more, there's plenty of space to take great big whopping elegant "walks" and complex and intricate enrosque sequences which elicit polite or even enthusiastic applause from the afterlife versions of people like Miguel Angel Zotto or Fabian Peralta.

- Or alternatively, everyone is dressed up like they were hanging out at La Viruta (all the girls have great skinny legs in those leggings and all the guys never have pot bellies to complement the "shirt out of pants" look) and there's plenty of space to make great big whopping colgadas and complex and intricate enganche/gancho sequences. Ditto the applause (but this time from people like Gustavo Naveira and Chicho).

- There are Tango talent scouts everywhere and due to your spectacular performance on the dance floor they will single you out and sign you up to be the lead dancers in the best Tango Show in all of Creation.

- You can put away your loudspeakers and impromptu missiles - not only will you never have to throw a tantrum or throw things to get the waiter's attention, you can dance with whomever you want, whenever you want, sometimes even without asking.

- And wow, they charge the same entrada for locals and tourists!

Sounds pretty great, doesn't it? Except I have a few questions -

- Who are those waiters? Does it mean that some people's idea of heaven consists of waiting tables in the Big Milonga in the Sky? You may still be able to find some folk who find endless pleasure in massaging feet - but taking orders and bussing tables?

- Are there people who really want to spend their time in Tango Heaven scouting for talent or applauding other people's "talent" on the dance floor? Wouldn't most people want to be "the talent" themselves?

- If there's a bunch of people who want to dance Nuevo Tango with other Nuevo Tango people, and another bunch of people who want to dance Villa Urquiza Tango with other Villa Urquiza Tango people, and a bunch of people who want to dance Milonguero style Tango with other Milonguero style Tango people, etc. etc., does that mean that there will be several different style-dedicated "Milongas" in the Big Beyond? Will there be power struggles between the different groups for Tango Heaven Supremacy? Which will emerge as the true and most "Authentic" and "Victorious" style in Heaven?

- If both locals and tourists pay the same entrada, who are the locals and who are the tourists? Do the tourists get recycled every million years or so? Or do they stay and try to renew their tourist visas?

Truly mind-boggling.*

*If you are curious, Man Yung and Irene's vision of Tango Heaven looks pretty much like the Buenos Aires on earth, warts and all. Just give them a table way at the back of the milonga where they won't be disturbed - and where they can have a beer, hold hands and collect material for incorporation into this blog - and they are all set.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Man Yung and I bought several of these "Rhodia" notebooks from the top floor stationery section of "La Samaritaine" department store on our trip to Paris in 2004.

I didn't really like them. The glaring orange cover and the uncool, rustic logo (what are those? mountains? pine trees?) were completely unappealing to me, especially since I had been a big fan of stationery by the always refined Clairefontaine* since my first trip to Paris in 1993. I always felt that having the right kind of (European) stationery connoted the right kind of cachet - and set the stage for real creativity! Bland, boring Rhodia didn't quite make the grade.

Man Yung used the Rhodia notebooks to take notes while he was reading, but I didn't even think about the Rhodia notebooks until just before our first trip to Buenos Aires in 2007. I realized I needed a small notebook so I can write down the addresses of places we needed to go to for easy communication with taxi drivers. So out came "Bloc Rhodia No. 11", with 80 sheets of 2.9 x 4.1 inch "Papier Vélin Supérieur".

This notebook is tough. Since I didn't particularly care for it, I certainly didn't treat the notebook with kid gloves. I have bent it, ripped pages out of it, spilled water over it. I have scribbled in it using markers with ink that go right through the paper. It has been crushed along with all the other junk in my handbag and tossed around.

Short of being stomped on or set on fire, this notebook has taken a lot of abuse. And it doesn't even show the slightest sign of falling apart.

Some people have eye-popping "publication worthy" travel journals with pithy observations, photos, drawings, and collages of receipts and ticket stubs. I have a tiny Rhodia notebook with addresses of places I remember (Bragado 6875 - Glorias Argentinas; Arenales 1239 - what else? Comme Il Faut) and addresses of places I don't quite remember (Arribenos 2137? Suipacha 259?). There are email addresses of people I still regularly write to, and email addresses of people I will never see again.

The wittiest thing I have written in the entire notebook would be a toss up between "7:45 am" (crossed out with double lines) and "Tuesday 12:00" (not crossed out). Not exactly earth-shattering. Nevertheless, I have become quite fond of my Rhodia. Not only has it followed me twice to Buenos Aires - it has also taken me everywhere I wanted to go.

As a contrast to my tattered old Rhodia, I have quite a few really beautiful hardcover Clairefontaine notebooks that have stayed completely and pristinely blank since 1993. It just shows that life isn't all about fancy appearances (although being beautiful and elegant is certainly nice). It is how it's lived - that's what really counts.

* I had no idea at that time that Rhodia and Clairefontaine were produced by the same company. By the way, it surprised me to find out that Rhodia is currently "cool", "relevant" and "hip" - and sold by American Apparel in online and in stores.

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