My suggested New Year's resolution for 2014? Let's spend less time spying on each other and more time waltzing.
I came to this profound conclusion at the annual Salute to Vienna - a pure unadulterated celebration of schmaltz- where the waltz is elevated to true cult status, and the New Year shines bright.
The brief foray into the world of turn of the century Vienna -- now exported annually around the globe- was the perfect antidote to yet more revelations about the spying conglomerate that the NSA has become.
Just as I learned that they had highjacked Micrsoft's internal reporting system to spy on their targets, the dulcet tones of Strauss -- played well by the VSO and conducted with élan by Vienna's Matthias Fletzberger - could not have been more seductive.
I was in the mood to forget all about our brave new world, and embrace the old - one whose priorities included coffee, cake, beautiful ball gowns, and fanciful recreations of Venice. Vancouver in 2014 -- with its sterile obsession with body fat ratio and zero attention to social graces, charm or wit -- was not doing well to my mind in any popularity contest with Vienna.
Intriguingly the two places often duke it out for "best city in the world" status based on quality of life - and yet they embody totally opposite aesthetics. One is antiseptic, empty and freshly scrubbed, while the other is caked in decadent layers of history, architecture and culture -- in Starbucks terminology it's a full fat city.
And yet, as I watched the sylph like Salute to Vienna dancers waltz in lacy garment confections, it occurred to me that this dance has many uses. If employed correctly, it could be -- and in fact was -- a powerful method of information extraction.
Now, if you google "waltz, Vienna, gossip, intrigue" do you know what comes up? An Amazon entry on an "historical mystery" called "Vienna Waltz."
As one reviewer (from a place called "Lumberton, New Jersey" -- a name that practically aches with escapist urges) describes it: "The setting: Congress of Vienna, on the cusp of a world at war. Tracy Grant masterfully evokes all the trappings of an era gone by...velvet cloaks, satin slippers, elegant ball gowns, men in boots, dazzling uniforms, immaculate linens, maids, valets, liveried footmen, champagne and strawberries, grand mansions and candlelit chateaus. It was also a world where nothing was as it seemed - where honor and betrayal teetered side by side, marriage vows seemed meant to be broken, scandalous love affairs were common and subterfuge prevalent."
Now doesn't that sound a lot more fun than IT geeks turned spooks logging your credit card purchases and listening to your cell phone calls from some anonymous office in Washington? (I confess I'm not the first to observe the modernity of the 'waltz"- it was considered daring for its time- and Stanley Kubrick made it au courant with his use of the Blue Danube in 2001. And Leonard Cohen really nailed it with his 1986 take on a Garcia Lorca poem Take this Waltz)
What I'm suggesting is that with a little practice and some dance classes, espionage could become sexy once more. After all even if grand balls in Vienna were never formally spy fetes, the very intimacy of the dance exploits the human propensity for extracting information from one another: a confession as you pause before a turn, a choice bit of gossip revealed at the end. Up close and personal- not high tech and far away- is the old world way of spying.
It's a tradition that lives on in for instance, certain neighborhoods around Toronto's College Street - where front porch "grandmother watch" - especially the Portuguese and Italian variety - safeguards countless homes. It's a method that worked surprisingly well in Saddam era Baghdad, where journos knew who was watching them - because the "minders' we were assigned ate lunch with us. We knew our phone calls were being monitored, because we could hear the night desk man at the al-Rashid breathing down the line.
And we knew our movements were being monitored, because there were "elevator guards" at every turn. One especially enthusiastic one actually used to use New Year's as an opportunity for closer interaction with his "targets". He was the one most women avoided -because- as I discovered whilst en route to a CNN party on the 11th floor one December 31st - he would regularly lunge forward and attempt a kiss with a barely understandable happy new year greeting.
If only the poor fellow had been around in turn of the century Vienna, he might well have whisked away his "target" on the dance floor, extracting information through charm, grace and wit, rather than clumsy espionage. And yet I - and miliions of Iraqis - are surely nostalgic for those pre-regime change days, when there were no bombs exploding daily in market places and "al-quaeda in Iraq" was an oxymoron.
While the idea of a "golden age" is as much a part of being human as our need to observe each other, I have to say the future looks bleak.
How will our age be remembered? As a time when people communicated via facebook and rarely met in person, when our every move was monitored by a Super Agency and yet one where people felt more isolated from each other than ever?
I'm not suggesting that the waltz industry could ever rival the military industrial complex. But there is nostalgia for another time - before the distance of the drone and the silence of the spy. So this year let's dance- and look our partner squarely in the eye; it's a more human and more honest way to keep tabs on one another- and could give a whole new meaning to the term grace under pressure.Suggest a correction