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In Search of a  Balanced Diet

Warning: this blog post will probably contain one of my top ten contenders for “most annoyingly smug and pious overused New Age word,” nourishing. Sorry.

I ate a croissant a few days ago. It was a standard croissant and could hold its head up with pride in a lineup of other croissants. But to me the experience was...disgusting. I bought it because I assumed my psyche would appreciate a familiar treat, but my body said, “what the hell are you putting in me? This is nonfood, combined with food to fool me into eating it! Why are you doing this to me? I recognize the butter, but what the fuck is that other thing [flour], it does not have food in it! That other thing just takes up space without giving me usable food! Ew! I feel gross! Stop playing mean tricks on meeeeeee! Never do this again!”

I was shocked because I used to love croissants; until recently they were one of my favourite things to eat. I loved the practical artistry and the rich array of flavours and textures they offered. But recently I started eating a real breakfast every day, and this accidentally transformed my eating habits. These days I feel like feeding myself is veterinary science; all this protein and these vegetables and whole grains and roots feels like feeding an animal. But we are animals. And this animal feels and functions a lot better this way. And without me telling myself not to eat certain things, they have inherently become less interesting, and I've stopped eating them because I've lost the desire to do so. Unfortunately when I try to eat them again, I'm feeding these old foods to a new brain that doesn't react the same way the old one did, and doesn't relay the pleasure messages I used to associate with them.

I was also frustrated. When did I become so high-maintenance? I no longer ate sugar, because every time I tried to do so, my teeth curled away from the offending substance and sirens and alarms went off inside me saying, “poison! Spit it out! Danger, danger, poison, poison! ¡HEY!” And after a while, trying to ignore the sirens required too much energy. Now here I was trying to eat an innocent half-food-half-nonfood hybrid, and still, my body was rejecting it. It wasn't saying “poison,” but it was still pissed at me for playing sadistic tricks on it. “But it has food in it,” I argued.

“Not enough food per square inch of experience,” my body argued back. “Please do not make me do this again. I feel weird with stomach real estate currently given over to concrete, or whatever that was, that isn't giving me energy. Plus I'm going to feel tired and artificially hungry after the sugar spike drops.”

It's tough living in a diva.

I went to a milonga last night. In my era of returning to the tango community with some much-appreciated emotional distance (and with my trusty light box making me placid and peaceful), I have been able to enjoy milongas again, with much lower expectations. I have been enjoying saying hello to people and being in the presence of other human beings. I have been enjoying the music, when the music is good. I have been enjoying seeing what people are wearing. Occasionally I see dancing that makes me smile. And I have even had one enjoyable tanda since my return to the world, which is a high success rate.

But.

While my body isn't saying that this is lethal poison like white sugar, it is distinctly making Croissant Warnings at me. There are vitamins in this food, but not enough per square inch. Milongas here are a combination of food and nonfood, and just like the croissants, they don't fill me up with enough satisfying nutrients. If I feel crabby and undernourished afterward and then guilty for feeling ungrateful because after all I did get to eat something, even something that I used to like, and that's my own mess to deal with. But since this is my life, and milongas are for pleasure, perhaps I should pay attention to that.

In my time of not going out (which we can refer to as “the Troubles”), I felt like I was dancerexic. I was in total control of my physical experience of social dance by denying myself that experience altogether. I spared myself all the bad aspects of social dancing, and although my body mourned its loss of that special way of moving and the positive way it affected my brain, my mind remembered the bitterness of sad stories and sighed with relief. And after a while, as any good anorexic will tell you, I never felt hungry for dance. I remembered all the pain it had caused me and blocked out the fact that it fed me every day and a healthy version of myself couldn't do without it. Every day I didn't dance, a faint last struggle of beating heart mourned and grieved my lost beautiful self, but a bigger voice congratulated myself on leaving behind this earthly vale of tears and struggle. I never felt pain any more, at least, not the pain of dance.

I felt the grey blank emptiness of not dancing, however, and that was worse...but it was hard to see, because I was acutely depressed and didn't even realize this was true until many other life factors finally improved and my heart healed and I got a job and got in to grad school and my foot wasn't broken and I wasn't sick all the time and I started light-boxing and breakfast-eating.

The Troubles, while safe in their isolation, and extremely independent, were like a living death. And when I think of them, and how long I spent in them, I am sad.

For a little while, coming from this new happier post-Tango, post-Troubles place, the prospect of what's available to me in tango here and, soon, Seattle, was enough. The folks in Seattle in particular are friendly, solid, decent, nice people. It would be enough, to have a community of people to talk to, to dj, to enjoy the music when a good dj played, to have a reason to dress up once in a while, and to learn how to lead as an intellectual challenge.

But last night I realized it wasn't enough, and like with the croissant, every unit of mixed nonfood I consumed made my petulant body hunger more and more desperately for a full square nutritious meal.

I finally saw Our Last Tango a while ago, and there was an unimportant shot inside a cheap pizzeria in the movie, and when I saw it I started to cry. I had been in that cheap pizzeria on my way back from Vivienne the Souple Woman's lair, carrying five bags of dance shoes worth much more than their weight in gold. I didn't even remember going in there until I saw the place in the movie. And it ripped a scab off a dark, deep, aching pit of homesickness that had been sadly suffocating away ever since the day I left Buenos Aires.

It took me three years to get enough frequent flier miles and enough money to go to Buenos Aires, and I could only go for a couple of weeks, and I spent 66% of my time there suffering from a bad case of ocular influenza. (My apologies to the innocent milongueros at Salon Canning who probably should not have touched my hands.) But within a single hour of arriving, my heart was at home in a way it had never in its life before been at home. There, in that deeply fucked-up city so far away from everything that I was supposed to identify with, I felt like I could breathe deeply and be free and be myself and live. I could finally relax things that didn't know they had been clutching themselves their whole life. I remember tears falling out of me in a subway station at the pure relief of finally feeling at peace.  I felt like I was one thing with my surroundings, in a way I had never felt here. After a lifetime of being an outsider, I felt like I belonged.

Feelings are so irrational and so unconcerned with practicality and real-world needs. I could spend an hour talking about things I don't like about Buenos Aires. My friend once said, “our country is like Africa, but with beautiful buildings,” and he's right. There's so much not to love. First of all, I refuse to take my son there, and therefore, I could never live there. He would be toast in five minutes there. He hasn't grown up with street-smarts fed to him every hour of every day, he is unarmed. And even if he were mentally ready, I would worry too much about him getting stolen, or both of us getting stolen if we went out together. I would worry about him getting killed by a bad driver. And even if he weren't there, I would worry about myself getting killed by a bad driver. And the chances of getting mugged, assaulted, attacked, and chased are pretty darned good. On the other hand, I've already been mugged, assaulted, attacked, and chased here, many times, and somehow I'm over it. ….And there was the time my other friend was out alone with her little daughter in the stroller and she (the friend) was so badly attacked and bones broken that she had to have surgery. ….And there's the food, or rather, the inordinately high proportion of nonfood. Steak is great but what about all the other stuff they eat down there that I don't? And the way people can just hit you with their car and then scarper off, or, if you get raped in a dark alley at 2 in the morning, the police will just laugh and say, you were an idiot to be there at that time. And all the repression and the cast-in-stone gender roles, which would be so bad for my little boy.  And the flip side of their acceptance that not all is within their control is that maddening defeatist attitude, like just because some things can't be accomplished, nothing should be attempted.  And the way if you have one thing to do, it will take all day and maybe all week to get it done, be it going to the bank, copying a key, laundering a little money on the black market, or buying something. And the terrible state of the sidewalks, and the anti-Jewish graffitti, and the way the women have to be so skinny and they can't eat, and the dyed blonde hair and the pushup bras and the thongs and the makeup. And the downtrodden demeanour of the people on the street, and the repression (worth mentioning twice), and the chaotic and corrupt government, and the way things break down all the time, and the strikes, and the suffocating heat and smog of winter (do they call it summer there?). And the way you take your life in your hands every time you cross the street, even every time you set foot outside your door, and the way there's one rule for men and another for women, and the way the women put up with all kinds of bullshit from the men and go along with male bad behaviour. And most people do not live in beautiful old houses like my friend, most people live in...apartments I would prefer not to live in. And the tourists are ruthlessly exploited, and everything is done on the down-low, and most things do not work most of the time....

And yet.

I felt at home there. I felt the duende in the air. I felt how joyously people celebrate when anything goes remotely right. I felt family, kinship, brethren, and a sense that we're all in this together. I felt that I was part of a community. I felt soul, and I felt roots. I felt that people were attached to the place, were growing out of the place, were coming from one big root-ball like they say in the African tribe, as opposed to this land of tumbleweeds I live in. And the dancing...every milonga was like a prayer session at a monastery. It was what beauty is. You don't have to be a genius to dance tango, you just have to live in the right place, and then it's in the air, the signal is broadcast everywhere like free wifi. You don't have to work at it, you just plug yourself in and there you are, tango coursing through you. I said once that tango is the voice of Argentina. I don't mean that there are women in fishnets doing volcadas on every street corner. I mean that this dance expresses the sum of experiences and cultural heritage that defines Argentina. And Stephen Sondheim will tell you that in order to make anything universal, you have to make it extremely specific. The more specific, the more universal. This is why this local social dance grabs the attention of people all over the world.

I looked over Seattle's tango offerings and panicked. There was nobody. There was a woman who had started teaching one year after beginning to dance. There was a man who did flashy awkward tango nuevo. And there was the one Argentinian couple, whom I had discounted after getting ignored by the man for the entirety of a group class. Would I ever dance again there? What about my journey? What about my art?

I felt pretentious even thinking the phrase to myself but I knew this was something I had to do. I had always known. Even when I didn't dance any more, that was a kind of dancing. It was an exploration of the dark side of the moon. I was born under a dancing star. How could I move to this land of nice people, healthy living, and ample water, where there didn't seem to be any tango? I would dj. I would learn how to lead. But dance...there did not appear to be any hope of that.

My soul started to preemptively starve. My scarcity anxiety complex kicked in.

I thought about what I was headed for. Three years of sitting down, spending a lot of time working at computers. And if I was lucky, the best possible scenario was that this would win me the opportunity to spend the rest of my life sitting down, spending a lot of time working at computers.

Yuck. My throat started to close up. I, who needed to move, who needed to be in my body, to feel, to dance, who hated computers and hated sitting down, how could I possibly do this to my precious self? And yet, at the same time, how could I not?

I remembered how crabby, bitchy, bad-tempered, and unhappy I had been for the four to six months I spent developing a portfolio to get in to grad school. How crazy I got glued to the computer, how crappy I felt sitting around. I thought about my motivation for going to grad school: the need to support myself and 50% of my child. But I was not “passionate” about landscape architecture per se. I didn't really give a shit about landscape architecture itself. What I cared about was people, and connecting, and bonding, and feeling, and roots, and human animality, and community, and neuroplasticity, and healing, and rewiring brains. So, whatever the intersection between all that and “what people would pay me for” ended up being, that's what I would do. But I could just as easily have gone in any number of other directions, it didn't have to be landscape architecture. Tango, on the other hand, I had to do because I had to do it and I could not not do it. Even the time of the Troubles was a way of growing out of the dancer I was and into the dancer I would become. I thought of myself becoming a landscape architect as a gracious favour to the universe. But tango was for me.

Why couldn't I have both? A wife and a mistress? One to do the dishes and clean the house, and one to have sex with? You wouldn't expect one woman to fulfill both roles, so why would you expect one city and one profession to do so? They say it's the thing you don't actively choose, but rather that chooses you, that is what you should do, but I knew I'd do a lot better as any kind of architect than as a dance teacher. My friend's friend, a porteña, a professional dancer since forever, and she's literally homeless here, she lives on people's couches when she's in California, she has nothing. And I have a child to support.

 

And yet the dream....

 

And what if you were a dance teacher, Jordana, I poked myself. Your reward for spending your life learning how to dance would be working with people who did not yet know how, and for every additional degree of fluidity you had, their lack would hurt you more. If you were a dance teacher, first of all, you would have to be five times as good as everyone else to make up for not being a porteña. On top of that, you would have to be five times as good as everyone else to make up for not being young any more, and for not being thin. You would also have to be five times as good as everyone else to make up for not having a partner. You have such limited time...if this were to happen as a side thing, where would you find time to practice and study around the main dish of grad school and work, and then since it could only be a few grabbed hours here and there, it would take a lot longer than usual anyway...and there would be no one to study with up there anyway, and no one to dance with.... If you were a dance teacher, you would have to travel, which would be awesome, but how would that work with having a child and having a presumed Real Job and a life and no money. But most of all, if you were a dance teacher, you would have to invest a lot of time and money into something that would not pay you back much money.

And yet the dream....

I remembered how I got touched-out on full days of body-work. There's a special kind of burnout that comes from touching people for money. And on top of that there's guilt, because I know that if I were really grounded and really clean with my boundaries, I wouldn't get burnt out, I'd be able to touch people all day long every day from now until infinity and it wouldn't wear my energy out. But I'm not a bodhisattva yet.

Which was less bearable? The bitchy unhappiness of a desk job, or the weary burnout of a touching job? If I did a little of both, would that be manageable?

For that matter, could I live with the possibility that I might never get “there” enough to teach? That there might be so many other things I had to do and responsibilities in my way, that I would never accumulate enough hours to invest? On the other hand, where I was going, people were teaching who really should not be teaching. One woman started teaching one year after she began, which not only breaks the “you have to study for ten years before you're allowed to teach” rule, but also brings into question the standards of a community that would financially endorse her services. And that class they offered at the UW milonga...I don't know what dance they were doing there.... A couple other men pointed out to me as “teachers,” and I suppose they might be proficient in telling people where to put their feet, but again, I don't know what dance they were doing there....

Tango is a simple thing. You invest a ton into making your body into a solid, clear, functional boundary that belongs to yourself, and then you make your outside invisible and you goosh your inside yumminesses together with your partner and everything is simple. You both say, “it's this.” And that's all. It's surprising how much it is not about sex. It's about everything. Since sex is usually avoided as a topic of conversation, having it crop up on the plate often catches people's attention, but it's not the main point. The point is hanging out with the This. The Thing. The one thing that is all that there is. We can do it on our own, but it's easier to do it with someone else for company. And when a whole milonga is doing the Thing together as a group, it's so easy, it just happens by itself, you don't have to do anything. (Aha.) It is easier than everything. When others are doing it. When you're alone, you can catch glimpses of the Thing if you spend a lifetime regularly developing a meditation practice. But it's different.

The Thing does not travel well. It's like a soufflé. By the time it gets outside of its native habitat, it deflates and goes away. You can catch nibbles of it from fresh visitors but in general it does not exist in the US. Americans don't know how to un-do the Thing. And they aren't often shown the Thing by visiting Argentinians because even the best-intentioned and most energetic of porteños has to bring a battery pack of the Thing with them when they leave, and live off the battery while they're away, and day by day their battery wears out. Then they have almost nothing left and have to go home and swim in the juice again.

I brought a battery pack of the Thing with me when I left. But that was a long time ago now and I feel so peaky. Would you say to a starving person, “but you had a square meal two years ago, why are you complaining?”

Joining my Breakfast Club taught me that acquiring resources can't be a one-time thing. People are inefficient leaky systems. They need regular infusions of nutrients otherwise they quickly wilt. ….But hungrily going in search of nutrients and finding myself some croissants turned out to be an ambiguous pleasure. Way better than starving...I guess. But it's not the same.

I just want some red meat, some leafy greens, and some whole grains.  Every day.  I could also go for some fish, some root vegetables, and some fruit.  It is not a lot to ask, except when none of those things are available.

How would I ever get back to Buenos Aires? Could I take a month off between school and the summer and hand the Boy to his father and say, “see you in four weeks?” More to the point, where would the money come from for the plane ticket? Once there it would be easy: I would stay with my friend and her daughter and her new boyfriend, and I would teach English lessons, and life would be cheap with my US dollars. But the ticket. And moreover, I had to have a summer job, and where would I find one that would give me a month-long gap after spring classes end?

And why didn't the university publish their academic calendar? What if I took a couple weeks in the middle of winter (also perhaps known as “summer” there)? It might be cheaper to go in winter because it would be gross, hot, humid, smoggy, hot, and...hot, down there. But again, the money. And, the time. It's always something.

Moving to Seattle turns out to be a good thing hidden inside a bad thing, dancewise. My abject terror at living in a land that doesn't even have nibbles of the Thing forces me to know that I have to return to the Source. I don't want to live in the Source, but I need, sometimes, to get back there.

If you try, sometimes...you get what you need.

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