Desert Dance by Nolan Winkler
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll
Have you ever had a day when you heard the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase over and over again from a variety of seemingly unconnected sources? Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, I wrote a piece for the Sacramento News & Review entitled Recurrence of Ninja, a true story of a single day in which I encountered the word ninja several times in a variety of contexts, spoken and written. Why ninja so many times on that particular day? I came to no conclusions, but I felt certain the unfathomable universe was trying to tell me something.
I was reminded of that day of many ninjas by what happened yesterday. I woke early (for me), had toast slathered with sesame butter accompanied by a banana-kale-flax seed-chia seed-apple juice-rice milk smoothie with Marcia, she the smoothie engineer, I the toaster, my bread free of gluten, her bread infested with the stuff. Then I answered a few emails, posted my Anderson Valley Advertiser article on my blog (I like to wait until the piece is in newsprint before I send the words into the ethers, silly me), worked for two hours on my new novel, and then set out on my walk to town—the day windy and cool.
Not far from home, I came upon a man in a bathrobe standing in front of his house and frowning at the sky. I said hello as I walked by and he replied, “I have a tenuous grip on reality today.”
I might have taken his self-assessment as an invitation to engage in conversation, but I did not. In the past, more often than not, I would have inquired further, but of late I am less drawn to strangers professing emotional fragility than I used to be. So I walked on and did not look back.
“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire
The wind off the ocean was fierce and the air was full of smoke from a number of burn piles unwisely lit on such a blustery day. I crossed Highway One, the road blanketed with smoke, and said hello to a tall bearded man standing on the corner gazing into a cell phone.
He frowned at me and proclaimed, “They chose a very bad day to burn.”
“Yes,” I said. “Ill-advised.”
“Because they have a tenuous grip on reality,” he said, lighting a large hand-rolled cigarette and taking a prodigious drag.
“Indeed,” I said, so amazed by his choice of words that I almost told him I had just heard someone else use the very same expression. But because I had seen this tall bearded man on previous occasions lecturing loudly to companions invisible to me, I was not greatly tempted to enter into a lengthy discussion with him.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein
At the post office, I mailed two small packages and was heartened to find a few actual letters in our post office box along with the latest AVA. As I was sorting out our real mail from the junk, I overheard two women talking on the front porch of the post office, one of them saying, “So I said, ‘Rick, you gotta get a grip,’ and he said he was hanging by a thread and…”
There it was again, not the exact phrase, but the word grip and the implication that Rick’s grip was tenuous.
“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” Tupac Shakur
In Corners, buying several fundamental comestibles, the lovely woman at the cash register made a few unforced errors (as they call them in tennis), laughingly corrected her mistakes and explained, “I’m still kind of…not all here today. Stayed up way too late last night. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“A somewhat tenuous grip on reality?” I ventured.
“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Life is but a dream.”
“For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” Jean Dubuffet
Walking home from town, the recurrence of the phrase tenuous grip on reality put me in mind of my eleven years in Berkeley where I enjoyed life without a car and patched together a minimalist living as a writer, editor, ghost writer, arborist, and babysitter. I was single for many of those eleven years and on the few occasions I found myself mixing it up, so to speak, with women more affluent than I, there always came a time, usually around the fourth date, when the question of my economic viability became the focal point of conversation and I was recurrently judged to fall far short of what was minimally acceptable to these attractive pragmatists.
One of the women, bless her heart, who I had theretofore thought to be a wild and crazy gal in the best sense of those words, interviewed me as if I was applying for a house loan. At the end of the interview, she opined, “The only difference between you and a homeless person is that you currently rent a house and don’t walk around pushing a shopping cart.”
“I beg to differ,” I replied. “I am gainfully employed, I…”
“You’re very nice,” she said, rising to go, “and we get along wonderfully well, if you know what I mean, but you’re poor and I’m not about to jeopardize my life savings by hooking up with some medical crisis waiting to happen. Better to end things now before I like you too much.”
The last of the women I dated who was more affluent than I, a successful psychotherapist who sure seemed to like me, terminated our connection after the recurrent financial disclosure date by telling me that my lifestyle choices were, well, indicative of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, though she didn’t use those exact words. She said that someone as intelligent and personable as I, with so many marketable skills, who chose to live without a car or health insurance or a viable retirement strategy, must be at least somewhat delusional and possibly a borderline personality. Ouch.
I remember replying that as far as I was concerned anyone who judged other people solely on the basis of their economic status was either insane or a member of Congress, which I knew was redundant, but I was trying for a bit of levity as she ran out the door.
Thereafter the few women I did get involved with beyond the fourth date were as financially deficient as I and didn’t worry about their nest eggs because they didn’t have nest eggs. And, yes, those sweet paupers did at times seem to have a somewhat tenuous grip on reality, but who doesn’t now and then?
“Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” Bob Dylan
As I thought about the recurrence of the expression tenuous grip on reality I found myself wondering: is the universe asking me to examine the current state of my grip on reality? And what came to mind was a night when I was thirteen and attending a ballroom dancing class with forty other boys and forty girls, an ordeal my mother insisted I undergo once a month for the two years preceding high school. To attend the class we were forced to wear a suit and tie, which meant I had to learn to tie a tie, which I did, and I had to wear shoes that required polishing, which I also did.
Upon our arrival at the country club where the ordeal took place, the boys would stay away from the girls, who were wearing long frilly dresses, and the girls would stay away from the boys. Then our instructors, a champion ballroom dancing couple, would somehow get the boys paired up with the girls and try to teach us how to fox trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing. After an hour or so of rigorous practice with a variety of assigned partners, the ordeal would conclude with a half-hour of dancing without instruction. Boys were supposed to ask girls to dance, not the other way around, unless one of the champions announced that the next dance was a Sadie Hawkins (role reversal) dance. For those boys too fearful to ask girls to dance, our adult overseers would arbitrarily pair such boys with those unlucky girls remaining to be asked.
And one night, when the four or five girls I knew from school (so they were not terrifying to me) were paired up with other boys, and I was just about to make a break for the bathroom where I hoped to remain undetected for several minutes, a gorgeous young woman (as opposed to a girl) named Luisa Hernandez asked me to dance with her, though it was not a Sadie Hawkins dance! Luisa was by far the best female dancer in our mob and was often called upon to dance with one of the better male dancers to demonstrate a fox trot variation or a cha-cha turn or whatever those things are called that our champion instructors wanted us to see done well.
“I have two left feet,” I said, anxiously. “I’m no Fred Astaire.”
“You move beautifully,” said Luisa, looking deep into my eyes. “You just need a good partner.”
So we danced the next several dances together, and I can truly say that until I danced with Luisa I had never really danced with someone. I had gone through the motions with others and simulated dancing, and even had a little fun going through those motions, but with Luisa I danced, and our dancing was divine. And what I learned from her was that dancing with someone didn’t have to be about gripping the other person or being gripped by them, but was a way for two people to move together in harmonious time. Holding each other facilitated fueling off each other while enjoying the synchronous flow—the dancing never about trying to control the other—and so our physical connection was light and sure and flexible and tender.