(Edited versions of these essays and articles have appeared in various publications. Scroll down to see more.)
(A version of this essay appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Threepenny Review / Table Talk)
When I moved from the Boston area back to New York after 15 years away, I already knew about the spatial anxieties that haunt local residents. With a Brooklyn apartment a third the size of my place in Cambridge, and with a quarter the closet space, my chest tightened as soon as I signed the lease. I knew I’d struggle to find space for stuff, so I bought bookshelves, a wardrobe, a dresser, making a small apartment even smaller. What I didn’t know was that I’d struggle finding space for something else — my body.
My first few weeks in the apartment were chock full of minor casualties. Getting dressed in the morning left me bruised around my funny bone from where my elbow slammed into the corner of the dresser each time I put on a shirt in my tiny bedroom. The bathroom was also a hazard with only about 3 square feet of unoccupied space and several not-so-soft landing spots for flailing limbs. And each time I moved through the alcove kitchen I managed to knock something off the counter. Stuff wasn’t the problem. My body was. In my new space I had to move differently. I had to move mindfully.
If I were a seasoned yogi I’d tell you how Vinyasa now helps me flow through my apartment, injury-free, one Sun Salutation at a time. If ballet was the dance that tugged my tutu, as it did in my youth, I’d choreograph my morning routine. First position: face the dresser. Second: thrust arms through t-shirt, shirt over the head, legs slightly apart for balance. Arms swing downward; corners averted. Pants, third position: one leg in front through each pant leg. (Plie optional). I’d tell you how I learned to make an entire meal with my feet in one spot, pirouetting on one, navigating with the other, arms bending and stretching in time with each meal’s culinary clock.
But these days my dance is the tango; an improvised dance with modest beginnings. In its early days the dance filled tenements and communal yards and brothels in Buenos Aires before it took Paris and later New York by storm. Its musicians told stories of lust and loss and later of nostalgia for Buenos Aires because they remembered they loved there once. It is a dance that started in small spaces and immigrant-crowded streets. In my own small space it helps me mind my frame, reigning in the flailing limbs as I dance around my furniture, carefully stepping sideways and backwards, as needed; ‘round the couch, past the coffee table, eventually out the door and onto the street which, like my apartment, doubles as dance floor.
NY streets also have their immigrant-crowds, of which I am a part. Everyone is from somewhere, with their own story. And everyone has their own dance. Women in heels rushing to work take short swift paces - a Quick Step to the Q line, Cha Cha to the C. Students and freelancers — those with places to be but not right now — do the rumba of the temporally unencumbered: quick quick slow, quick quick slow. Everyone moves to internal metronomes keeping individual beats. Time is nothing if not relative in NY.
My tango is a walking dance, especially good for navigating a bustling metropolis. You can see it in the dance’s lexicon: Arrepentida: steps taken to avoid collision. Bloque: a step in which one dancer blocks the other. Colgada: a quick turn which can take the woman off her axis.I dart through bodies of all shapes and colors, downtown, midtown, lunchtime, happy-hour, passing the insufferable slow walkers. At times I fall behind becoming an insufferable slow walker myself. I do what is at the core of tango. I improvise — a kick here (sometimes to make sure I haven’t stepped in anything funny), a side step there. Corrida: a double-time walk that looks like a run. Golpeteo: toe tap, mainly when waiting on line.
And like everyone else I carry my story with me. On some days it’s a story ofGarcha: screw-up. On other days, thankfully most days, Elevada: not quite dancing on air, but not fully on the ground either. Sometimes it’s “backwards and in high heels" (as the famous quote goes) and always in abrazo: embracing, in this case New York.
In tango, just as in the city, eye contact is used sparingly but significantly. The dance begins with a gaze across the room. (Cabeceo: eye-contact and head nod which in tango constitutes an invitation to dance. If the woman accepts she moves towards him, if she refuses she looks away. The tango begins with the eyes.) Once the dance has begun the dancers look away, even as they’re pressed against each other. The NY subway, like the street, is a dance floor (pista). When I see the woman with the bright orange hair on my morning commute, I look away. I look away from the young guy with the handlebar mustache and calligraphic text tattooed on his chest. I look away from the dark skinned man with black silken hair and feather earrings. I look away, even though my body is pressed against theirs and we move together through the underbelly of Manhattan.
Tango instructors tell leaders to invade the follower’s space. And followers are asked to surrender, entregar. When hands are clasped in a flimsy grip instructors tell us lean in, press back, keep the tension. In traditional tango I was the follower. I learned to turn the subtlest twitches of my partner’s body - a shoulder shift here, a hand pressed there - into a two-for-one motion: two bodies, one dance. I went non-traditional too. I tried learning to lead. In this version it was my body that drove the dance. I invaded, I navigated, I gave the signals, my partner obliged.
But whether you lead or follow you surrender to the dance. You agree not just to move, but to be moved.
Now in New York after a long time away, I sit along the Hudson River listening to the aquatic laps against the banks, each one like a story from an ancestral traveler, and I surrender. I walk up the creaking steps of the Tenement Museum where long silenced voices wove families and industries that are alive and well today and I surrender. At the Ground Zero Memorial my eyes follow the cascading water downward where I once stood as a child looking up, spinning between two towers, not long after we arrived from Romania. I climb the ragged slopes of the rambles in Prospect Park, where I surrender because I remember I loved here once. And the urban wilderness amid the concrete and the community that treasures that park enough to have preserved it (and its slightly older uptown sibling) for over 140 years; I surrender to that too. I surrender to the saxophone cooing from downtown and to the visual mind-benders midtown at the MoMA. To the city’s secrets - its lesser-known streets and tucked away bars, and even to its darker side that presses back intermittently, keeping the tension.
And in this surrender between the two it takes to tango, there’s another fitting term, the culmination of the dance and the hardest term to pin down. By one definition: A beautiful and sensual communication between leader and follower, established during a tango dance when everything fits just right: the music, the style, the rhythm, the ambiance.* By my definition a trance in which two bodies create a storied dance, each simultaneously telling and listening, each surrendering to the inescapable power of the bodily narrative:Connection.
Non-Words With Friends
(A version of this essay appeared in The Word column in The Boston Globe, July 14th, 2013.)
My friend--let’s call him Bob--was playing to win. The game: Words With Friends. His opponent: his wife. His weapon: the alphabet. He saw his chance. He made his play: smeat.
Smeat? Bob’s wife objected immediately. Smite, smote, smear, she told him, but definitely not smeat. How did he get through medical school with that vocabulary? she asked. Though “Smeat” was a made-up canned meat brand in the movie “Waterworld,” as well as a diminutive part of the male anatomy, according to the Urban Dictionary, you will not find it in a traditional dictionary. It’s not a word. But it does kind of sound like one.
In the summer, many of us finally have the time to tackle friends and family in word games like Scrabble or Words With Friends. For the most part, we are stand-up linguistic citizens. We play words we know, or can at least use in a sentence. But when your opponent leaves a choice spot wide open and you have just the letters to spell “verting,” the temptation toward verbal fudging is often just too powerful to resist.
"Smeat," "datish," "gorn," "flavorite," are a few examples I've collected from players who hoped against hope that these pseudowords might be entries in an obscure English dictionary forgotten on some shelf in a musty library. After all, these verbal impostors are built like English words, they've got the right sound structure (in fact the more points we've got at stake in the game, the more they are likely to sound like real words). And, since we can't possibly know all words in the language, we reasonably think that if we tinker with plausible sounds, we'll get something that just might be English.
(Scholars have toyed with the "infinite monkey theorem," which supposes that monkeys randomly hitting typewriter keys will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Surely a few well-assembled syllables tapped into our virtual keyboards might eventually give us a word.)
For the most part, words sound real when they obey linguistic rules. “Ksrast,” for example, does not sound like English, because “ksr” is not a sound sequence found in the beginning of English words.
"Datish" is, I will admit, my own play. Not my proudest moment, but there was a triple word score at stake. With a combination of the noun “date” and the boundary-blurring suffix “-ish,” I’m wondering how we’ve gotten by without it for so long. Datish: of ambiguous romantic intent.
Then there’s "gorn," played by a friend in a genuine moment of confusion between English and the world of Star Trek. "Gorn," as I learned, are a species Captain Kirk battles. But I would have believed it's a wholesome breakfast food -- a solid old Anglo-Saxon cross between "grain" and "corn."
"Flavorite" was not in the Words With Friends dictionary, but it has stuck in my mind ever since a friend tried to play it. "Flavorite" is "favorite flavor": a classic portmanteau, or word blend, and much easier on the tongue in its blended form. Why do we need those extra syllables? Vanilla is my flavorite. There. Done.
“Vax” (with the high-scoring V and X) failed the word-integrity test, but it would be a useful short cut to “vaccine.” (Those who militate against childhood vaccines are pejoratively known as “anti-vaxxers.”) “Scos,” a fake conjunction contraction, failed, too, but how much easier it is to say than “it is because.” Why do we invent words? Scos we can't help ourselves.
Then I have a friend who tries re-, -ing, -ed, on any word. “Kiboshing” and “kiboshed” both work. But “rekibosh” doesn’t. Pity.
Even "the show about nothing," Seinfeld, satirized the phoneying (why not?) of Scrabble words. In an episode called “The Stakeout,” Jerry's mom plays the word “quone.” Jerry challenges her, while Kramer jumps to her defense. “We need a medical dictionary!" he says. "If a patient gets difficult, you quone him."
In the online versions of these games a message pops up on the screens telling us nicely that our word doesn't exist. (If Siri was in charge of the game, she'd undoubtedly be snarkier.) In the board games, however, you could actually get away with it if your opponent didn't challenge the validity of the word. (According to the National Scrabble Association's official tournament rules, if your word is successfully challenged -- that is, you made it up and someone called you on it -- you lose your turn and get no points. If the word is valid, the challenger loses a turn.)
But why do we do it? We're not bad people. We're not trying to lie, we're just testing verbal boundaries. Maybe it's glorified babbling, a reversion to early childhood when all words were new and sounds meant whatever we wanted them to.
Making up words comes naturally to us, we do it all the time, says linguist Suzanne Kemmer of Rice University. In English in particular, we're a linguistic melting pot. "We have a funny history where people came over in waves and we've gotten used to taking words from other languages," she said. Our openness to new words has made us creative about breaking down and reassembling their parts. Kemmer created a site for neologisms created in an undergraduate linguistics class. Among the entries is "slambulance." Its meaning: "a vehicle to take care of someone who has just been insulted (been slammed)." This is one I think we should keep.
History has, in fact, given us a long list of productive neologizers (again I'm defying my spellchecker). Sarah Palin gave us "refudiate" and George W. Bush, "misunderestimate." Perhaps, like "quone" these were failed Scrabble words, and by historical accident successful sources of humor. (Lahahanguage - language that makes us laugh?)
Even schoolmasters dabbled in the verbally dubious worlds. In 1903 Andrew Ingraham coined the phrase "the gostak distims the doshes," to show that we can understand the relationship among these words without knowing the meaning of any of them, except "the". (We know, for example, that the doshes are distimed by the gostak, though we have no idea whether the doshes are enjoying it.)
Psycholinguists have also fabricated words, all in the name of science. In 1958 Jean Berko Gleason created the famous "wug test" to examine how children learn plurals. She showed them a picture of a bird-like creature she called a "wug," and asked them what they would call two of them.
And of course there's neologizer extraordinair, Lewis Carroll, who gave us mimsy, slithy, vorpal, and a plethora of others. Perhaps we should create a new Carroll-inspired game, Alice's Wordland. Anything verbal would go, except that which can be found in a dictionary. Until then, we'll continue to be hopeful monkeys pounding on our smart phones waiting for an actual word to come out.