I was seated opposite to a friend of a friend of a friend — a stranger really — some sturdy South African national of Chinese ethnicity. I tried focusing on my food, but every time I glanced up, I’d catch her eyes. They were uncomfortably penetrating.
This was to be our first and only time we broke bread together.
As dining gave way to conversation, she suggested that we play a little game. Her mother, she claimed, was a fortune teller; she should have inherited some of her intuition and craft through blood and years of observance. She asked us to think about one question that troubled us, and to write the sequence 1-9 nine times, one row stacked above the other, on a scrap of paper.
“Will I live a happy life?” I wrote.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9…etc
My handwriting was orderly, but lacked the refinement of a typeset.
After collecting and analyzing what we had written, she turned to me and said, “You’re the type of person who speaks first and thinks about it afterwards.” Her eyes kept moving. She redirected her gaze to my date (who has impeccable penmanship) and said, “You’re the type of person who thinks a lot before speaking.” I was crazy about her, my date. I didn’t want to be her opposite in terms of speech, conduct, and thought processing. The fortune teller’s daughter had planted seeds of thought in my mind, and it was unclear when any of it would take root and grow. But that’s probably what psychics and fortune tellers are trained to do. Sometimes, I think of them as practicing a perverse form of psychotherapy.
In any case, things didn’t last. With the woman I was dating, I mean. We discovered over time (more like I found out a little too late) that the fundamental differences in how we communicated and acted would lead to our estrangement. The very things I feared from that night with the fortune teller’s daughter came to pass.
Now, I consider myself to be a fairly straightforward person. I try to embrace new social circumstances without pretense or barriers. I’m a terrible liar, but I’m fairly good at exercising denial. I imagine I give people the impression that I’m optimistic and naïve because I readily give parts of myself to others in a way most people cannot; it’s a fool’s trust and I suspect that it will always be a part of me. I put my emotions on display and ride them up the flagpole. All of this may appear uncouth and perhaps even childish.
A little bit of self-deprecation: “What I lack in finesse, I make up with pure enthusiasm!”
Finesse. It implies refinement and methodology. It is cultivating a certain level of self-awareness that allows one to adjust oneself to his or her liking. Finesse is the result of premeditated action and practice. Finesse is grace, elegance, and tactfulness. It is displaying to the external world a carefully poised version of yourself. It is both a form of self-control and an exercise in caution. Largely, I feel, people are attracted to those who possess and utilize finesse, yet are unable to fully articulate what exactly they find so compelling. To describe what “it” is in its entirety would be a futile enterprise, for there are many ways to be graceful. There’s finesse in body language, in posturing, in the way one raises an arm, scratches an eyebrow, and consumes an ice-cream cone. There’s the lilt of a well-trained voice, there’s the mesmerizing movements of an instrumentalist’s fingers; there’s the aesthetically pleasing particulars of an outfit, and there’s the manner in which one navigates through social function. There’s also the charm injected into speech, words teasing you with sharp wit, titillating innuendo, and endless possibility.
Which brings me to Disney Villains. They’re usually tall, lean and graceful figures that rely on very subtle duplicity to further their ambitions. It always seemed to me that Disney artists put a lot of effort in making the villain’s face extremely plastic and their movements deliberate, especially when compared to the protagonist and secondary characters. This also goes for how the villains sound and how they carefully hide their disdain and disinterest and convey just the opposite. Cruella De Vil? Jafar? Scar? Judge Claude Frolo? Hades? Yzma? All those gaunt and pallid shrews who want to assassinate/ poison/ enslave/ their step-daughter? How about that slim black dude who dabbled in voodoo? Heck, even though Ursula had junk in the truck, she sure knew how to carry her weight gracefully.
I kept wondering why so many of those villains were modeled that way. Why in our subconscious are we attracted or intimidated by, perhaps at the same time, those who act like those villains? We cheer for the villain’s disposal at the end because they went too fucking far. But what of those who still operate within the acceptable parameters of society? Perhaps an appropriate analogy to use here is the game of chess. Sometimes, you just wonder how many moves ahead or behind your opponent is. Although you can’t really read them, it’s intriguing nonetheless. Unfortunately, life is an entirely different game, a game where consequences have weight and absolute trust is among the rarest of commodities.
Of course, the art of finesse, of refinement and premeditation, is usually a secondary, perhaps tertiary concern to most of those among the living. Yet we observe these merits safely and anonymously through the venues of public entertainment. American Idol? America’s Best Dance Crew? Glee? Pick whatever strikes your fancy. Be inspired and try to be like them, if you’ve got the talent (or money).
I personally enjoy dancing. After all, moving to a beat has been hard-wired to us long before most other forms of amusement; I feel it’s the most natural and accessible form of self (or social) enjoyment that does not involve consumption. For those who convince themselves otherwise, I call bullshit – it’s just not possible to NOT enjoy SOME form of dance, unless you happen to be morbidly obese or have chronic joint pain. Being the shameless creature that I am, becoming a public spectacle of flailing limbs and hip gyrations is not offset by social anxiety. I have fun simply because of the sheer spontaneity of it all.
This is obviously a far cry from ballet, which is often considered to be the most elevated form of dance. The dedication and sacrifice that a dancer puts in is mind-boggling and insurmountable for most of us. Even the orchestral accompaniment, the intricate dress and costumes, the architecture of the venues, and the type of patron associated with ballet… they all are representative of our general consensus of what high culture is. Finesse to the max. Natalie Portman’s duality in Black Swan provides us with a stark contrast between a desperate insecurity around unattainable perfection and a deep and primal, almost lustful, urge that demands satisfaction. We see her vacillate between the Black and White swan personas, and as she wobbles further off of her normal equilibrium, she becomes, in her dying breath, complete and actualized. She delivered a performance that was solely for herself, something utterly sublime to those who have never witnessed a perfect display of finesse infused with passion.
Angela Carter writes, “We would rather align ourselves with angels, than the primates we are actually descended from. Those who are most afraid of this side of themselves, who are the most repressed, they are often the most dangerous.”
Honestly, I still don’t fully understand how the fortune teller’s daughter influenced me. But through one chance meeting, she gathered just enough about me to deliver some seemingly innocuous statements that return to haunt me time and again, in my dreams.
I wake up now with longing, with desire.