Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hilary's Cleavage Problem; Might not be such a problem after all

At least one good thing has emerged from all of the brouhaha surrounding Hillary Clinton's barely there cleavage on the Senate floor a couple of weeks ago. It's a new turn of phrase, first spotted in Ruth Marcus's July 25th Washington Post column on the subject, in which she referred to herself as, "a person of cleavage." I'm crazy about that phrase, its perfect combination of descriptive simplicity and awkward absurdity. And I'm not the only one. I've noticed it popping up here and there over the last week or so, mainly in the writing about the writing about Senator Clinton's cleavage, of which there's been an astonishing amount. Judith Warner, of the New York Times, went so far as to call it a "Pulitzer worthy phrase." I think that might go a little far, but all the same, being a person of cleavage myself, I am loving those three words.

That's right, I am a person of cleavage. My cleavage is real, and it is substantial. I have the kind of cleavage that makes shopping for clothes much harder than it ought to be. The kind of cleavage that has me constantly tugging at clothes, surreptitiously adjusting straps, and on the lookout for wardrobe malfunctions. They don't happen all that often, but when they do, they are mortifying. And I'm not even running for president.

Having the kind of cleavage that I do also means I all too often look up from my book on the subway, only to find some creepy guy busily staring straight down into my cleavage, so intently he doesn't realize I've noticed and am staring straight back at him. Not until I lift my book, placing it directly over my apparently mesmerizing orbs, blocking them entirely from his view, and give him my evil most evil eye, does this kind of creepy guy get a clue and look away.

I should probably clarify a couple of things right about here. First, I'm generally not traipsing around town in Pamela Anderson's cast offs. I just happen to have these breasts that started growing when I was about eleven, and took the whole idea of growing very, very seriously. Most of the time, I kind of forget they're there, until some creepy staring guy reminds me. Which brings us to the second thing, the enormous difference between looking and staring. Looking at each other is part of what makes living in this city worth all the trouble, expense, and inconvenience it can sometimes require. We're doing it all the time. Comparing and contrasting, envying, judging, and, flirting, are all so much part of our daily lives we don't even realize we're doing them most of the time, all those glances up and down, however brief or lingering. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about staring. The kind that makes its object feel like, well, an object, however cliché that might sound, it's true. It's creepy, offensive, and rude, no matter who happens to be doing it. And in case you haven't noticed, it also tends to make me really mad.

All this is largely by way of explaining my initial reaction to Washington Post fashionista Robin Givhan's July 20th article, "Hillary Clinton's Tentative Dip into New Neckline Territory." It was, of course, Givhan's piece that began all that the writing about Clinton's cleavage. Describing what Clinton wore during a Senate debate on funding for higher education, Givhan goes on at length about cleavage that I, quite frankly, couldn't even see in the accompanying photograph, despite her assertion that, "The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch faced scrutiny was necessary." Givhan went on in this vein for 700-odd words, all, so far as I could tell, without making much off a point beyond something I'd assumed we'd all already known, that Hillary Clinton has breasts. Personally, I'd have found it far more newsworthy if Givhan had somehow discovered that she didn't have any at all. That obviously not being the case, however, her article struck me as the journalistic equivalent of a creepy guy on the subway, desperate for a glimpse of any female flesh at all, however miniscule. And so it made me really angry.

It made a lot of women angry, it turns out. I've already mentioned Ruth Marcus of Givhan's own paper, and Judith Warner of the New York Times, both of whom more or less told Givhan that she was out of line. As did the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman, the Chicago Sun-Times Lynn Sweet, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, and even America's erstwhile Sweetheart Katie Couric. Lines like, "sometimes a V-neck blouse, is just a V-neck blouse," abounded. Just about the only woman, it seemed, who was interested in defending Givhan was, indeed, Givhan herself.

Even the Post's own ombudsman, Deborah Howell, refrained from stating much of a personal opinion when she wrote about Givhan's piece on the 29th, merely commenting that, "Readers deserve substance, but they also want to know who these people are, about their families and their lives," without bothering to tell us whether or not she felt that the question of Clinton's cleavage had anything to do with who she is, her family, or her life. I don't happen to see how it does, and I'm guessing Katie Couric probably doesn't either.

What Howell did do, however, was give Givhan an opportunity to tell her side of the story. In Howell's piece, Givhan said that Clinton's cleavage was in fact newsworthy because it was, "so out of her stylistic character." Ultimately asserting that her point had been that the cleavage, "suggested to me someone who has become more comfortable being a sexual person as well as one of authority, intellect, and confidence." At that point I began to wonder if Givhan had troubled to reread her own piece before speaking with Howell, so directly did her words contradict what she had written, just nine days before.

In fact, Givhan directly compared Clinton with another woman, Jacqui Smith, the new British Home Secretary, who'd recently appeared before the House of Commons showing, we are told, "far more cleavage than Clinton." Smith, however, apparently did it right, unlike Clinton, or so Ghivan thought on the 20th, telling us that "If Clinton's was a teasing display, then Smith's was a full fledged come-on. But somehow it wasn't as unnerving. Perhaps that's because Smith's cleavage seemed to be presented so forthrightly. Smith's fitted jacket and her dramatic necklace combined to draw the eye directly to her bosom. There they were... all part of a bold, confident style package." In case that's not clear enough, in the preceding paragraph, Givhan had described the sight of Clinton's cleavage as, "more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!" Doesn't sound much to me like an effort to describe a woman who's reached a new level of empowerment, sexual or otherwise.

And, let's face it, it's not as if Hillary Clinton is a woman in need of empowerment. Her greatest strengths on the campaign trail are the confidence and clear awareness of herself as a person in possession of considerable power, and more than ready to take on some more, that she exudes. She is a woman in control, without a doubt. My most painfully conservative friend recently conceded in an email that "Hillary, for all her faults, is serious, steely even, and generally competent."

Rereading Ghivan's article, in a vain attempt to reconcile her statements to Howell with what she had in fact written, I became aware of something even odder than those initial contradictions. I realized just how frequently she'd used words rarely used to describe Senator Clinton. Words like "tentative," "noncommittal," "tortured," and "ambivalent," all in the service of exposing Clinton's hitherto unnoticed lack of confidence. Odd, really, isn't all that?

Ghivan's previous pieces about political figures and their sartorial choices have, in fact, drawn a larger point of some kind or other. From the confidence expressed by Condoleezza Rice's boots in 2005, to the disrespect Dick Cheney's Parka and hiking boots showed at an Auschwitz memorial that same year. So it doesn't seem like such a stretch to suppose she'd set out to write about Clinton's tentative cleavage being demonstrative of a greater failing of confidence, somewhere in the Senator's character, but failed to pull off the task she'd set out for herself. At least that credits her with having been trying to make a point at all, which is more than I had gotten from my first reading of her work.

There's no way of knowing, in the end, what Robin Ghivan intended when she sat down to write her piece on Hillary Clinton's Cleavage, though I'm pretty sure it wasn't anything like what she told Ruth Howell. I doubt though, that she'd anticipated the response I found myself having, in its specificity, or that she understands exactly why it is so many women are so mad at her about it.

Reading her article, that first time, I found myself thinking about Hillary, up there at that podium on the Senate floor, maybe realizing her blouse had shifted a bit, wasn't sitting quite where it had been when she'd left her townhouse that morning, or even when she'd stood up from her seat to speak. But she's standing before the Senate, C-Span2 cameras on her, debating education. She doesn't want to draw attention to the problem, or away from what she's saying, by tugging at her top. So she doesn't. And when no one, seems to have noticed she assumes nobody did, goes on about her busy life, forgetting the entire non-event. Until she reads Robin Givhan's column in the Washington Post three days later and realizes that at least one person did in fact notice after all.

I've had that moment. Well, not on the Senate floor, and without the involvement of a major media outlet, but you know what I mean. I've had that moment. Most women have,I guess. And Hillary, it turns out, is a woman like the rest of us, and a person of cleavage,just like me. She knows exactly how it feels, being stared at.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Waiting for Harry; Why isn't Michiko?

I might as well get this part out of the way first, just go ahead and tell you that I'm a thirty four year old woman who loves Harry Potter, and I'm not ashamed to say so. Nor do I think I should be, because I know I'm not the only one, far from it. I'm writing this the morning of Friday July the 20th, a little more than 12 hours before seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's series will at long last be released, and it seems like everyone I know has been counting down these last few days. At least one woman's taking off two days from work, so she can read the book straight through, without distractions, and she's a veterinarian, not some sort of freelance slacker. We've been waiting, patiently or otherwise, for this book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," for an awfully long time.

At a minimum, we've been waiting since the last book, "Harry and the Half Blood Prince," was published in 2005. So that's two years right there. That's long enough, if you ask me. Especially if you consider the kind of cliffs upon which Rowling like to leave her hero and her readers hanging. If you read the Potter books, you know exactly what I mean. If not, well, how can I explain what it's like to finish a Harry Potter book? It's kind of like the end of a really great second date, when you know without a doubt that you'll be seeing the person again, but haven't a clue as to where or when, or what will really come of it. Something like that. Only usually, you aren't left waiting two years for the third date.

Really though, we've been waiting for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" ever since we happened to pick up that very first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," whenever that may have been. For some people, I suppose it was when it very first appeared, all the way back in 1998. Waiting that long seems unimaginable, altogether unbearable, for the impatient likes of me.

I first started reading the Harry Potter books in the fall of 2001. I was visiting a friend who had children, and had them all over her house. I'd been hearing about them, these children's books that adults were reading, that were so popular they'd taken over the Time's bestseller list. So I started reading the first, and then the second, and couldn't stop until I'd gotten through "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." And then I had to start the waiting, for the next, and then the next, and now this next and last. So I've been waiting six years, to find out what will happen to Harry, in the end.

If you haven't read the books, no doubt you're wondering right now what all this fuss is possibly about, why all these grown ups get themselves so worked up over a bunch of kid's books. The thing is, children's books or not, the Harry Potter books are really, really good. The characters are complicated, people have real regrets, with which they have to learn to live, or not, moral ambiguity abounds, even the right actions can have unwanted, unforeseen and unforeseeable, bad consequences, which cannot be undone. Some things are just unfixable. Bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes do happen to bad people. The universe in which the Harry Potter books unfold, for all its spectacle, magic, and wonder, bears more relation to the subjective living of a real life, where nothing ever feels so steadfastly real as we'd like it to, and nothing is ever so simple or so neatly resolved as we tend to thing it should be, than the most painstakingly realistic contemporary fiction, no matter on which bookstore or library shelves it happens to be placed.

And then there's the way the series has unfolded, or, rather, the way we've all had to wait and wait, and wait some more, for each release. That's meant, for a lot of us, that we've read all of these books about a thousand times. I have, at any rate. Which has given me the sort of relationship with these books that I haven't had with any since I was a child myself, pouring endlessly over other series , Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, the Narnia books, or Madeleine L'engle's "Wrinkle in Time," series. There's something so different about the way you read a long series of books, the way you get to know the places and the people, they become so much richer and closer over time. And that seems like such an obvious thing, doesn't it? But there's not much in the way of series fiction out there for adults, not that's struck my fancy anyway, so it's the kind of obvious thing that's easily forgotten. I'm awfully grateful to J.K. Rowling and her Harry for reminding me of it. Thanks to her, I've discovered that Madeleine L'engle's books do in fact stand the test of time, for me at least, though others from my childhood might not. And I came upon Phillip Pullman's gorgeous "His Dark Materials" trilogy. That one was mentioned in an article full of suggestions for Harry Potter fans, in need of something to read while we waited for the next installment.

Have I mentioned that I don't do well with waiting? Really, I don't, it pains me to no end. The only way I can stand it is simply by pushing it out my mind entirely, which has been increasingly difficult, as the publication date's drawn closer. All those posters in the book stores, the publicity events, and then yesterday, there was that review in the New York Times. Did you happen to see that? Or possibly you've heard about it?

I saw it there, in the front section of the Times, and read it eagerly enough, not thinking all that much about it, vaguely assuming Scholastic had sent the Times a review copy, and other than that I was just glad Michiko Kakutani didn't give away any plot points, and had given it was a good review. Then I went back through it a second time, kind of hoping, I'll admit, for a plot point or two I might have missed on the first go round. That's when it hit me, this one little line, "this volume, a copy of which was purchased at a New York City store yesterday." Yesterday. The review was published on Thursday. So "yesterday," meant that someone had been selling the book on Wednesday. Wednesday.

I don't normally have much of a problem expressing my emotions, particularly when they're of the rageful sort. Plenty of people can back me up on that. But this, this left me kind of speechless. We mere Harry Potter loving mortals have been waiting years and years for the final installment, and Michiko Kakutani not only somehow or other procures herself a copy, at a New York City store, she has to rub it in all of our faces in her review? Because I'd really like to know what store it was, exactly, and if the book was out on the shelves, for all and sundry, last Wednesday, when Kakutani's copy was purchased, or if her copy, and hers alone, was made available so very far ahead of the official release date? Or perhaps she was one of a select few, special, preferred, customers allowed to buy their books ahead of time? Whatever exactly it is, that was going on, in that New York City Store, I hope they know that what they did was wrong, and that I, for one, am very disappointed in them.

There. I feel a little better now. But not so much, because I still don't know what happens to Harry in the end, and Michiko Kakutani does. And that is just not fair.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Scooter's Surprise; Happy Independence Day!

Being this contrary sort of person that I am, I have to admit I dread most holidays, or at any rate, the prospect of spending them here in the city. They tend to involve things I simply do not enjoy. Parades, perhaps, or endless rounds of parties I don't really feel like I'm old enough to be at yet. Or worst, so far as I'm concerned, and most predictable of all, the flocks of tourists who descend upon us, thinking of our city as the perfect backdrop for their holiday getaways. So I do my best to make sure I've got a getaway of my own lined up, for most of the major holidays. It's just better for everyone that way.

The Fourth of July's a different story though. It's one holiday New York does to perfection. The slow easy day of movie going, maybe, reading or a little patriotic shopping, finding your way onto a rooftop party, as the day starts cooling down, flag-waving kept, of course, to a merciful minimum. Then an explosion into noisy spectacle, not just one, but two sets of fireworks over the East River. Those few short moments in which we lapse from our usual minimalistic good taste, fall into gaudy grace and generosity despite ourselves, ensuring everyone who's interested a halfway decent view of the pinwheels as they spiral and flame out above our heads. And the tourists even seem happy enough staying in their various and sundry hometowns, on the fourth of July.

This year though, I couldn't really conjure up much in the way of festive feeling. It might have had to do with the holiday falling on a Wednesday as it did this year, but I don't think so. Contrarian that I am, I like the disruptions a weekday holiday brings, the confusions and rushes, the nothing being as it ought to be. That's where the surprises turn up, isn't it? And what's life without surprises?

Some surprises aren't so welcome though, and it was an unwelcome surprise, last Monday, that took the fun out of my fourth this particular July. I probably shouldn't have been surprised, I should know better than that by now, I suppose, but surprised I was, all the same. Last Monday, you see, I was happily playing around online, reading an article about how a Federal Appeals court had declined I. "Scooter" Lewis Libby's request to delay the beginning of his 30 month prison sentence while he appealed his conviction of four felony counts of lying to federal agents, perjury, and obstruction of justice. Scooter, I was learning, had even been assigned his very own Federal Inmate Number by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, 29301-016. It really did look like Scooter was heading to jail. He'd been tried, convicted, sentenced, and the Bureau of Prisons was readying his room. Convicted felons go to prison in a nation that functions according to the rule of law, right? That's the way things work, when things are working, isn't it? So I was having this moment of actual optimism that things might possibly be working. I haven't had a moment like that in a while. I'd forgotten what it felt like, living in a country where things work the way they're supposed to. I have to tell you, it felt pretty great.

But you know where this is going, right? A few minutes later, I got my nasty surprise. A new story popped up on the website I'd been perusing, informing me that President Bush had commuted Scooter's sentence. He hadn't pardoned him, as he'd been rumored to be considering, but he'd commuted his sentence, decided the prison time was excessively harsh, the $250,000 fine, and probation period would be punishment enough for Scooter's crimes.

If you haven't been paying attention to Scooter's legal travails, you might be wondering why on earth our president, with approximately half the executive branch under some sort of congressional subpoena or other at the moment, his Attorney General Gonzalez looking more useless by the hour, the daily flow of bad news from his war in Iraq, not to mention the mystery of what exactly it is his Vice President is doing with all those "man sized" safes he's got there in his office, and everything else a president has to deal with on a daily basis, would be bothering with the details of this guy's sentencing. It's probably because Scooter, prior to his indictment, held the triple titles of Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, Chief of Staff to the Vice President, and last but not least, Assistant to the President. You don't hear too much about that last one, do you? And possibly because, as you've probably heard, his indictment arose from the investigation into the 2003 leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as a CIA covert agent, nasty, and not altogether finished, business that. Still and all though, you'd kind of think the erstwhile leader of the free world might have bigger fish to fry. Wasn't he supposed to be working on some sort of surge? How's that coming along, I wonder?

The real question, of course, is why this, of all things, came not just as a surprise, but as such a blow to me? Why Scooter's sentence, and not Cheney's safes, or Karl Rove's hundreds of thousands of vanished emails, or Bush's countless signing statements, or the twisted path that led us into the disaster that is Iraq? The reality is, Scooter's just a stand in, for any and all of those things. He's bit of a last straw, it's true, but mostly, he's a convenient shorthand for each new revelation of this administration's clear and shameless belief in its own omnipotence, its utter disconnection from the laws that created this country, from which it has evolved, and that have defined and sustained it so well for 221 years now. But now these people are in charge who just don't care. That's what I have finally concluded. The problem's not that they are acting from a different set of principles, one I happen not to understand. It's that they're lacking principles entirely, beyond the most basic, will to power. That's about it. As far as anything beyond that goes, or anyone so unfortunate as to be beyond their immediate circle, they simply do not care. I don't think they even understand that the rest of us exist as real, living, breathing people in quite the way they do. And these are the people we're allowing to run things, to act upon the world on our behalf, and in our names.

For all the destruction they have wrought, I do have to admit that Bush and his accomplices have given me one great gift, albeit unintentionally. They've made me realize just how much I believed in the America I learned about in my eighth grade civics class, for all that I've never been a fan of flag-waving. Remember that America? The one that actually was a "Beacon of freedom and opportunity"? The one that just didn't do things like torture? The place where freedoms of speech and of the press were simply beyond question? Where it never occurred to anyone to seriously question the validity of our elections? I liked living there, so much, in fact, that I never gave it a second thought. Seven years ago, though, things started to change, and suddenly I'm realizing my tax dollars are being spent on man sized safes to which I'll likely never get a key. Assuming, of course, that Vice President Cheney didn't buy those safes with his own money. In which case he really ought to keep them in his bunker, in that undisclosed location where he feels most at home. Otherwise, it's time he starts to wrap his head around the reality that they do not belong to him, no more than any of his other closely guarded secrets do. Each email, every single piece of paper he is so determined to keep hidden, is nothing more than the product of his work, and so ultimately, it's not his property. It's ours, it's yours and mine. Until Cheney and his President go so far as to declare our Constitution null and void they do still work for us. We're the ones who pay their salaries, after all.

Happy belated Independence Day!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Staunch Women and Their Guilty Pleasures; "Grey Gardens" at IFC

I've never really grasped the concept of the guilty pleasure. I don't watch "American Idol". I believe in the literary merit of the first "Bridget Jones," book, though the second made me want to hurt myself., and I think everyone who appeared in Sascha Baron Cohen's brilliant " Borat" movie was only being him or herself, and all those people who are so busy suing him just now, would be well advised to reconsider their lawsuits, before that truth becomes glaringly apparent to large numbers of people in open court. Generally speaking, the things I like, I also think are good, in one way or another.

So, when I tell you that, from the very first time I saw the documentary, "Grey Gardens," it gave me a new understanding of what a guilty pleasure could be, you'll realize I'm not talking about the cinematography. I love that movie. I'm not sure how many times I've seen it, but I'm pretty sure I could have it on an endless loop, and never get tired of it. But I've felt guilty about watching it every single time. Because, you see, in case you don't already know this, it's a documentary about two crazy old ladies, a mother and daughter, with countless cats, at least one raccoon, and a house that's falling down around them, exploiting their insanity for our voyeuristic viewing pleasure . Or so the story goes. Having seen it on the big screen for the first time recently, though, I should tell you I've begun to have some doubts.

"Grey Gardens" is one of those movies that's just about impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't seen it, but I'll do my best to give you the basic facts. Albert and David Maysles made it over about five weeks in the summer of 1973, filming Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Little Edie, at their decrepit mansion in East Hampton. The two had lived there alone together, with their menagerie, ever since Edie had moved out of the Barbizon Hotel in New York in 1952, when she was 35. The two of them sing and dance, argue, mostly about why Edie came home, and why she's still there, and lounge around in the sun. Edie vamps it up fetchingly in what she calls her "revolutionary costumes," all of which cover her head, takes care of the animals, says the most astonishing things, swims, and pines for New York. Then they have a little party for Edith's eightieth birthday party. And they happen to be, respectively, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnasis.

So there's not all that much happening. I know. The thing about "Grey Gardens," is its subjects, mostly Edie, though her mother has her moments too. Most notably when Edie tells her, by way of reproof as she's been reminiscing over her youth, and failed marriage to Edie's father, "You can't have your cake and eat it too," and Mama answers, "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it, and had everything I wanted." It's a little disconcerting, to hear an eighty year old woman, whose house is in pieces around her, so pleased with herself. But she's got nothing on Little Edie.

Edie on camera is more than disconcerting. She's disturbing to watch, in her turbans and fishnets, declaring that "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." As though it was the most reasonable of all possible things a person could ever say. It's not so much the things she says, or wears, or even does, though, that make Little Edie so difficult to watch, and impossible to turn away from, all at once. It's more to do with the way she directs her eyes right at the camera, directs the action, seems somehow to be controlling events in a way she's not really supposed to be doing, as the subject of a documentary. She's not supposed to be the one with all that power. Edie's not settling into the space she's supposed to occupy onscreen. She's everywhere at once. It gets awfully difficult, trying to keep track of who's running the show at Grey Gardens. Things become much easier if we stop trying, and just agree that Edie's not so much disturbing as disturbed. We have to deal with the guilt, it's true, of taking pleasure in watching a crazy lady disporting herself for our enjoyment, but we are relieved of the necessity of questioning our most basic assumptions about who's got the power, in this whole filmmaking setup. And frankly, dealing with the guilt requires much less effort on our part. This arrangement almost works, so long as we keep Edie, and her movie, within the confines of a tiny TV. screen.

A few weeks ago, though, I went to a midnight showing of "Grey Gardens," at the IFC center. Up there on the big screen, Edie would not be kept to the terms of a deal she'd never entered into in the first place. Watching her, larger than life, rather than miniaturized this time, I realized just what a slap in the face the film's existence was to her famous cousin, who hadn't wanted it made at all. Who had, in fact, been very nearly willing to let Edie and her mother be evicted from their home by the village of East Hampton a few years earlier, when they'd run out of money to keep the place up, and had managed to violate just about every sanitation ordinance the village had on its books, from a lack of running water to an abundance of dead cats. Only the media coverage, full of photographs of Edie in a house piled high with garbage, had finally forced Jacqueline to come to their rescue in the end. She must have been delighted to see Edie in her costumes, feeding raccoons in the attic!

A line I'd never noticed more than any other struck me too, this time around. In telling the film crew about an argument with her mother, Edie says, "You see, in dealing with me the relatives didn't know they were dealing with a staunch woman. S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There's nothing worse. I'm telling you. They don't weaken. No matter what."

On the big screen, it becomes apparent that Edie does more than merely command all of the attention available at any given moment when she's onscreen. She raises questions. Her costumes require the film crew to ask questions that allow her to deliver the monologue du jour, the photographs she pulls out require questions about her brothers, and why they are nowhere to be found, or about her history, or her mother's. Her very presence raises in the house raises questions The question of why she's there, when she'd endlessly saying she'd rather be in New York. The question of why she left New York in the first place, when she doesn't seem to have wanted to. Neither of these questions ever receives anything like a satisfactory answer, in the film or elsewhere. Talking to Gail Sheehy, in 1971, for instance, Edie says that she had to come home because "Mother got the cats." That's hardly an answer, now is it? It is a funny dodge though, and unanswerable too, I'll give her that.

In any tedious sales training, one of the first things you learn is that the person asking the questions is always the one who holds the power. In the case of "Grey Gardens," Edie didn't have to say a word to take control. No one else ever stood a chance.

After her mother's death in 1977 Edie had a cabaret act for a little while, at a place on West 13th st. Her singing, apparently, was not so great, no big surprise there, to anyone who's seen the film. But she ended each performance with question and answer sessions which, judging from the snippets to be found, down towards the ends of all the bad reviews, were kind of brilliant. One night, for instance, when asked her opinion of premarital sex, Edie replied, "It's economical." I'm choosing to see a secret life inside that answer. One in which Edie got to have, love masticate, chew and even eat a little cake of her very own. You, of course, should do with it what you will.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Choose Your Own City, and Bridge and More, in Chuck Palahniuk's "Rant"

Did you read any of those "Choose Your Own Adventure "books, when you were a kid? I remember one year, somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, when I plowed through a ton of the things. In case they somehow passed you by, they tended to be mystery or adventure stories, set in exotic, if not terribly realistic, locales, and every few pages, there'd be some sort of cliff hanger, requiring you to make a choice about what the main character ought to do next, and to turn to one page or another, depending on the choice you'd made. The stories themselves weren't always all that interesting, but it was the openness of their narratives, limited as it was, that I loved about those books. Until the day came when I understood the limits they imposed, understood that I could exhaust the choices offered by any "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in a single afternoon, and moved on to better books entirely. Books that made me look a little harder to find the places where they opened up whole worlds of choices, not just into their own narratives, but into my life, if I simply took the trouble to look for them. Books in which the possibilities were limitless. But limited as they were, it was those "Choose Your Own Adventure," books that first taught me that a narrative doesn't have to follow one straight line.

I hadn't thought about those books for years and years, until I came across this passage, in Chuck Palahniuk's latest book, "Rant", "picture time travel as nothing more than knocking your half-read book to the floor and losing your place. You pick up the book and open the page to a scene too early or too late, but never exactly where you'd been reading." While those lines didn't prompt me to start tossing my books across the floor in an effort to get back to, maybe, the spring of 2000, so I could try to explain to all of those foolish Nader voters exactly how much of a difference there really was between Gore and Bush, it did, by reminding me of those long ago page turning choices, serve to help me figure out at least a part of just what it was I liked so very much about the reading of "Rant."

If there's a working writer more subversive than Palahniuk right now, who's managing to get his or her books published, and on to those sought after Barnes and Noble shelves, I can't think who it is. In the world of "Rant," Palahniuk steadfastly refuses to give us any of the things we take for granted in a novel. Just about the only point of stability is the story's, and it's erstwhile protagonist's, point of origin, the rural town of Middleton, everything else is up for grabs. And by everything, I really do mean everything. All the things that matter most to us, both in our lives and in our reading, from time, place, identity, the nature of reality, possession of truth, to the sources and uses of power, that's a big one, wherever you turn, isn't it?

"Rant" carries the subtitle, "An Oral Biography of Buster Casey," so we aren't dealing with a consistent, coherent narrative voice. Instead, we've got a plethora of voices, not a chorus, blending easily together into a harmonious whole, but a disparate bunch of storytellers, each with his or her own version of events, his or her own interests to protect, secrets to reveal or to keep, reputations to construct or to maintain. Buster Casey, also known as Rant, is, of course, the silence at the center of this vocal storm. He may or may not be dead, at this particular point in time. But wherever he is, whatever he's doing, the one thing he's not doing is talking, that much is certain.

Everyone else is though. From his childhood years in Middleton, we hear the voices of his mother and father, early friends and enemies. Then his city years bring in the voices of his girlfriend Echo, other friends and acquaintances, plus the government officials, and epidemiologists, thrown in for good measure. Everyone who ever met Rant, and more than a few who didn't, has something to say about him, now that he himself is nowhere to be found.

Predictably enough, out of all these voices, emerges not one story of Rant's life, but three, at least, depending on which threads you pull together, where you find coherence, whose truth compels, whose bores, whose leaves you disbelieving. Rant could have been the superspreader of a new strain of rabies, so virulent it's lead to something like martial law, in this dystopian near future, and threatens to wipe out approximately half of the population. Or, Rant could have been a time traveling near super hero, who's discovered just how his destiny's been manipulated, and is determined to do some mysterious sort of something about it. Or, he could just be a dumb, good looking, half crazy, country boy, who came to the city, went all the way crazy once he got there, and committed a spectacular suicide. Or he could be all four at once, or someone else altogether. I love a book that asks me work this hard, leaves so many blanks for me to fill in, so many connections for me to make myself, or not.

And that is part of the brilliance of "Rant," the work it requires of the reader. By virtue of it's structural conceit, the oral history form, it is exceedingly light on physical detail. A we know about what Rant looked like, for instance, is that he had green eyes, stained black teeth, and that he was covered up in scars from childhood animal bites. His girlfriend, Echo, we know has an undersized right arm and leg, courtesy of a mysterious childhood car accident, which killed both her parents. People who are more or less average looking, without deformities or disfigurements, go essentially undescribed, leaving us free to imagine them however we see fit, without limits. The descriptions of Rant and Echo, when they come, function most decidedly as reminders of the author's right to impose limitations when he chooses, coming as they do after both characters have been hanging around in our minds for quite awhile. We've been hearing about Rant's green eyed good looks, his popularity with the girls of Middleton, and picturing him thusly, long before we hear a peep about his blackened teeth. Similarly, we've heard Echo described as a sex worker, heard her talking about having all kinds of sex with rant, been influenced by her pretty name, well before learning of her "withered arm," or facial tics. Palahniuk really doesn't want us getting too comfortable inside his story. Not here, not there, not anywhere. The world he's created is a slippery slidey kind of a place, but it's his creation, and we're well advised to remember that fact.

In the midst of all this slipperiness, Rant inevitably leaves the relative solidity of Middleton, for "The City." That's all it's ever called. Not Chicago or Los Angeles or Seattle or Miami or New York, just, "The City." Allowing us to fill in that blank with the cities of our choice. So for me, that of course meant he'd headed for the city of New York, as all sensible people leaving small towns in search of something ill defined and other will do. Even though much of the story hinged on cars, for me "The City," was this city, and that was that. Any time a gas station was mentioned, I pictured that BP at the corner of East Houston and Broadway. And as for the pivotal scene when a hipster type drives his car right off a bridge and into some nameless river? Well, that would be the Williamsburg Bridge of course, no problem there.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Paris Hilton Jailed for... Driving? That's what you get for moving to LA!

Walking around the West Village on any ordinary old day, lingering over coffee in the Grey Dog cafe, when I should be writing, or hanging out with my dogs in Washington Square Park, when I really should be writing, if I notice someone who looks vaguely familiar, she's much more likely to be Drew Barrymore, or Sarah Jessica Parker, perhaps, than anyone I've ever actually met. I've gotten so used to this fact of downtown life, that, I must confess, it takes me completely by surprise when it occasionally happens that whoever I've been stealing those furtive glances at, trying to place, to remember exactly which movie, what HBO series I know her from, comes up and says hello, isn't Chloe Sevigny after all, but is instead that girl I used to work with, the one I'd forgotten all about.

Things don't really work that way in most places, you know. For one thing, if you go around furtively glancing at strangers in most cities, people will think you're a little creepy. I know this, because I've been spending more time outside of New York lately, specifically in Alabama, where I grew up. When I'm down there, if someone looks familiar, I've learned it is extraordinarily unlikely to be because she is an Olson twin, or Parker Posey, and very likely indeed to be because she's someone I went to high school with, or elementary school even. But the fact of familiarity never ceases to bring its own brand of disorientation, all the same.

I'll probably be down there next weekend, in fact, when the Gay Pride march hits Manhattan. So I'll miss, among other things, all those ersatz celebrities making their way down to Christopher St., those gorgeous drag queens, with their meticulous attention to detail, their impossible perfection, and the different sort of vertigo their presence always induces. And in the midst of all that beauty, those Madonnas, Anna Nicoles, Marilyns, and all the rest, I feel pretty safe in guessing there'll be bound to be a Paris Hilton or two somewhere, having the time of her life, while the real thing is languishing away, in the LA county jail.

Paris has become the embodiment of all things LA to such an extent, that it's easy to forget that she did in fact start out right here in Manhattan, was born here, no less. But think back, if you will, to those halcyon, turn of the century days, when Paris and her pals dominated the Post's Page 6, with their underage drinking, table top dancing, club hopping ways. Remember those days? Fun times, all around! Then, of course, she hit it big with "The Simple Life," and headed off to Hollywood, hoping, we were told, to further her imaginary acting career.

That hasn't really worked out so well, as far as I can tell. If you've seen so much as a second of Paris's film debut, "The House of Wax," which she once mysteriously described as being the thing of which she was the very most proud of ever having done, you have a pretty good idea as to why. Paris has been wildly successful, though, as we all know, at turning herself into a brand. She's pulled the silliness of "The Simple Life," through into it's impending fifth season, signed seemingly endless licensing deals, and reputedly gets oodles of cash just for showing up at other people's parties. And perhaps most impressively, she's successfully convinced the entire world of her own attractiveness. This one's always stumped me most, as I find her singularly strange looking, and not in any sort of exotic, jolie laide, kind of way. It's more that she's always looked to me as though she'd had way too much work done, before she'd ever turned eighteen, unlikely though that is. But as they say, there's no accounting for tastes, and a good publicist can work wonders for any girl.

These days, Paris's looks have taken such an LA turn, it's hard to imagine her anywhere in Manhattan, if you think about it. That blond, blond hair, the glossy lips, all of that mascara, and of course the permatan. Not to mention the colorful wardrobe, and the constant tiny dogs with whom she chooses to accessorize. She'd fit right in with the other tourists in Time Square, I suppose, or possibly on the Upper East Side, but I really can't see her happily partying with the Olson twins downtown, for instance, not without a serious style overhaul, can you?

And that's kind of a shame, because watching all of Paris's legal woes unfold this last week or so, one thoughts been running through my mind. I can't help thinking that, if only Paris had stayed here at home, in New York, she'd never have gotten into all of this trouble in the first place. If only for the simple fact that here, nobody drives, not even the celebrities.

Paris's problems all began with an LA DUI, last September, after which her license was suspended. For some reason though, she just couldn't bring herself to stop driving, was, predictably, pulled over twice more, and wound up with the jail sentence she's now serving, in the "special needs" section of the LA County jail, whatever that means, exactly.

LA's celebrities do seem to have these endless legal problems, don't they? As I write this, Paris, of course, is doing her time, while her off and on best friend, Nicole Richie, awaits sentencing for a DUI arrest last December, and her sometimes rival, Lindsay Lohan, is in rehab, with a DUI charge, at the very least, stemming from a car crash last month, hanging over her expertly styled head. And if we look back, just a little, we have to remember Mel Gibson's DUI arrest, with those bonus PR points he earned for his bizarre anti-Semitic ranting and raving, just last summer. And who could forget Robert Downey Jr.'s epic legal battles, culminating, as they did, with his year long imprisonment? His problems, like Paris's, began when he was pulled over for speeding by the LAPD, and happened to have a surprising smorgasbord of drugs, from heroin to crack, and an unloaded gun, in his car at the time.

I'm not suggesting that New York's celebrities never get into any trouble with the law. Of course they do, they're only human, after all. But when they do, it's usually for something more interesting than a mere DUI, which I personally appreciate. Naomi Campbell throwing cell phones, or whatever object happens to be handy, at her assistants, or Russell Crowe having tantrums at the Mercer Hotel,, if nothing else our celebrities are never boring. And then of course, 50 Cent had to go driving around in midtown last fall, almost inevitably leading to his arrest, because really, celebrities just shouldn't get behind the wheel, whichever coast they're on. No good ever seems to come from it.

Nor would I want to imply that there's less celebrity intoxication happening in our fair city than in any other. Sadly, I don't get invited to those parties, so I haven't got a clue. I'm just saying that, when celebrities here engage in whatever overindulging they may or may not be prone to, the opportunity does not arise for them to drive, and place themselves in any further legal jeopardy, not to mention danger.

So Paris, in the unlikely event that you might be reading this, once you've paid your debt to society, you really might want to consider moving back home. Here, we have these great things called cabs. They can make a starlet's life ever so much easier!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Small Towns and Big Surprises; Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress"

Most of the writing about director Adrienne Shelley's latest, and last, film, "Waitress," has been at least as much about her murder last fall in her West Village office shortly after its completion, as about the work itself. Given that Shelley went to all the trouble of writing, directing, and even acting in "Waitress," it's seemed to me pretty grotesquely unfair that her death has not only deprived her, and her audience, of another thirty or forty years of productive life, but is also going a long way towards preventing us from viewing her last film through clear eyes. So I wanted to wait a little while to see "Waitress," to give myself a better chance to see it on its own terms, in the context of Shelley's quirky and distinguished body of work, rather than through the long shadow cast by her death.

Shelley began her film career in the early nineties, starring in a pair of indie favorites, written and directed by Hal Hartley, "Trust," and "The Unbelievable Truth." Even in these, his first two films, Hartley was already working with what would become his signature, off kilter style. His tales of people on the edge always feel as though they're occurring within a slightly alternate universe. One very like our own, but just a little chillier, and operating under its own unique rules of logic. Characters in Hal Hartley's movies don't act quite like you or I would, they act like, well, characters in Hal Hartley movies, there's really just no other way of putting it. They talk a lot, and think a lot, and are forever on the brink of something undefined, and are prone to self destructive, sudden decisions, that rarely have quite the consequences they would here, in this reality you and I inhabit. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. When Shelley was onscreen though, Hartley was able to rely on her slight, but commanding presence, the warmth she brought to her performances, and her frizzy haired, otherworldly looks, to pull his pieces together into something tightly bound. As Maria, the pregnant cheerleader at the heart of Trust, for instance, Shelley provided the center of gravity through whom the audience could enter the film's cracked world, and around whom the other characters could all twist and turn. In her absence, Hartley's emphasis on style over substance has often been more glaring, and his tendency towards the cerebral over the soulful more apparent.

By the late nineties, Shelley had shifted her focus from acting to writing and directing films of her own. Her first two features, 1997's, "Sudden Manhattan," and 1999's, "I'll Take You There," both have the feeling of a filmmaker in search of her own voice. "Sudden Manhattan" is the story of Donna, who is trying to be a writer in the West Village, and may or may not be losing her mind, but is unquestionably surrounded by a pack of lunatics. It is very funny, and very loopy, and very much one of those movies people either love or just can't stand. As is "I'll Take You There," in which Ally Sheedy's Lucy has most definitely lost at least a bit of her mind, but gets enough of it back by the end to charm her captive love interest into sticking around, even once he figures out that her gun isn't the slightest bit loaded. These films show an confidence uncommon in a beginning writer and director, as well as Hartley's influence, in their willingness to challenge the audience to take them on their own terms, to join them in their unlikely, temporary, worlds.

"Waitress" undoubtedly benefited from having a higher budget than either of its predecessors. The sets look better, the editing is smoother, the lighting is prettier, all of that certainly helps. But more than that, it's clearly the work of a more practiced writer, and a director whose gained clarity of vision. Watching either "Sudden Manhattan," and "I'll Take You There," felt like being caught up in a whirlwind of sorts. They picked you up, tossed you around, then dropped you off when they were done with you. Watching "Waitress," is a different kind of experience altogether. Slower, sweeter, and much more of a sense that someone is actually in control of everything that's going on.

Unlike Shelley's first two films, no part of "Waitress," takes place anywhere near Manhattan. Instead, it is set in the kind of small town that is nowhere and everywhere all at once. It feels vaguely southern, but really, could be found off just about any exit ramp off any highway. Or rather, it's the kind of small town we'd like to think is waiting for us out there, if we could ever get past all the Wal-Mart's, and the Cost-Cos. It's a fairy tale kind of place, sleepy and pretty, with lots of trees, and a pie diner, where Keri Russell's title character, Jenna works.

Jenna is, of course, a waitress. But more than that, she makes pies. Amazing concoctions of pies, with names like, "Earl Kills Me Because I'm Having An Affair," pie, or "I Don't Want Earl's Baby," pie. The scenes of Jenna alone in the diner's grubby kitchen, making her pies, are gorgeous. She's absorbed in the moment, doing what she loves, spooning out the filling for, perhaps, her "Chocolate Mousse Falling in Love Pie." I had no idea Keri Russell, of "Felicity" fame, could be such a good actress.

Jenna's husband, Earl, is horrible. In every way imaginable, just horrible. Yet, she finds herself pregnant, and not especially happy about it. As she says she, recognizes "this baby's right to thrive," but isn't feeling any motherly love towards it. On the contrary, as her pregnancy progresses, the baby seems more and more like part of the trap that will keep her stuck in her life, with the horrible Earl, forever.

Not that there aren't any bright spots at all in Jenna's life. She's got her two fellow waitresses, played by Cheryl Hines & Adrienne Shelley. Hines and Shelley each gets a good subplot of her own, and the rapport the three women share feels real, in a way that is rarely captured onscreen. They work and play together, bump up against each other's soft spots, and do the best they can for one another, in the end. Friends like that can take a girl a long way, if she's paying attention to what she's got there.

And then there's Jenna's doctor. Dr. Pomatter. He's new in town, and married, and somehow or other, becomes Jenna's boyfriend, horrible, jealous husband, notwithstanding. As Jenna says, in a long letter to her unborn, unwanted baby, who she often addresses as, "Damn Baby," their affair is all about the sex in the beginning, but then shifts into something else, when she starts really talking to him, and finds herself "addicted to saying things and having them matter."

There's old Joe too, played by Andy Griffith, the cranky owner of the diner where Jenna works. Nobody likes old Joe but Jenna, and, in this fairy tale of a film, he turns out to be a most unlikely fairy godfather of sorts.

It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone to hear that, as much as Jenna dislikes her baby throughout her pregnancy, referring to it as an alien, a parasite, and, of course, "Damn Baby," the minute the baby is born, and in her arms, she falls head over heels in love with her. Is, in fact, completely undone by how much she loves the little parasite, once she's looking at her. The biggest surprise to me about Waitress was just how good Keri Russell is in it. I couldn't bear "Felicity," and didn't expect to like her in anything ever. But I have to admit, she's great here. Her Jenna grounds the film's whimsy, serves up suffering and elation in equal measure, and gives Shelley's fairy tale world just the dash of realism it needs to work.

Of course, now that I've seen "Waitress," and know just how much I like it, I can't help thinking about the fact that it's the last film we'll have from Adrienne Shelley. She has left me wanting much, much, more, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Waiting Game in Union Square: Al Gore Comes to Town

In case you haven't heard, Al Gore came through New York last week. His first stop was on Thursday, at the 92nd st. Y, for and interview with Charlie Rose. Those $50 tickets had sold out before I even knew they'd gone on sale. And, honestly, 92nd st. is just so far uptown it feels to me like another planet altogether. So it's entirely possible that it might never have occurred to me to go to that event, even had there been an infinite supply of tickets. I'm not even sure what train I'd need to take to get all the way up there.

The next day though, last Friday, he hit the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, for a short talk about his new book, "The Assault on Reason," and a signing. Much more conveniently located, not to mention free, and altogether impossible to resist, at least for the overpoliticizied likes of me.

And apparently for plenty of other people too. The event was held on the fourth floor, and the place was packed. In keeping with the biggest surprise of the day, which was how unprepared the Barnes & Noble staffers seemed to be for the size of crowd, attendance estimates have varied wildly, from 400 all the way to 750 people. Whatever the number was exactly, there were a lot of us, all there to see what the former Vice President had to say, and willing to wait, and wait, and wait some more, in a very orderly fashion, in our lines, that snaked all the way through the fiction, memoir, and, if I'm recalling correctly, even eastern religion sections, as the day went on.

Ordinarily, I am terrible at waiting in line. Horrible. Patience is not one of my virtues, not by a long shot. This one though, was not so bad. I'd even go so far as to say that it was kind of fun, in a strange sort of way. Not just because we were all united in our wait, and in our frustration with the confusing, contradictory instructions given by the Barnes & Noble staffers as we waited, and not just because we'd all read, or were all in the process of reading, the same book, though all of that certainly helped. But mostly, because everyone there, at least everyone who I passed by, had one question on their minds, one I've been asking for months and months now, one the media dances around here and there, now and then, but never gets too far with. You know the one, don't you? The is he or isn't he, will he or won't he? Will Al Gore be running for president in 2008, or not?

Granted, it's just one question, but, fortunately, given the length of that fourth floor line, it's the kind of question people can go back and forth and back again about for hours. There's the fact of the book itself, of course, and its timing. It does seem to have become almost a requirement, doesn't it? To write a book when launching one's presidential campaign? And Gore's endless iterations within that book of his own personal religious faith. Again, a bizarre requirement for those with aspirations to the oval office, in twenty first century America, but not really the kind of thing people go around blathering about much otherwise. And then, the book tour, offers such a perfect opportunity to test the presidential waters, which, given Gore's reception in Union Square, and the speed with which his book shot up to number one on both Amazon the New York Times bestseller lists, would seem to be looking pretty welcoming indeed. So there's all that.

And did I mention how much everyone in line wanted him to run? Very, very much, that's how much. There was definitely something comforting, after all these months of hearing that my choices had boiled down to Hillary or Obama, and I'd better make up my mind, between those two, lickety split, that I was not the only one holding out, waiting to see if Gore might not come through after all. It's not that there's anything wrong with Hillary or Obama. Not at all. In another year, I think I'd be delighted by either one of them. But somehow, this year, the two of them feel like children playing presidential candidates, and Gore feels like the grown up, who knows how to do it properly. That's the best description I can come up with, for the trouble I have with the two of them, and the reason I'm still playing this waiting game with Gore.

Because in spite of all the reasons to think he's going to run, there is that one little glitch in the works. He won't say he's running. But then, he also won't say he's definitely, absolutely, positively, not running. This, we all agreed as we waited in our lines, was enough to drive a person mad. He's not running until he's running. Or he's running until he's not running. He's the world's biggest tease, is what it comes down to.

This is around about where we were, in line, in our conversation, when Gore showed up, to begin his talk. He was, I must add, surprisingly prompt, and very much the new Gore he's been for the last year or so. Smart and funny, comfortable in his own skin, and most importantly, saying the things no one else on the political scene seems to be saying. He hit the high points of the new book, talking about what exactly it is that's gone wrong in our political discourse, how it has happened that we know more about Paris Hilton's life than we do about what's really going on in Iraq.

Then he went on to talk more specifically about the Bush administration. Talking about the feeling he has, which we in the audience shared, that something has gone terribly wrong in America. One of the biggest applause lines was a near direct quote from the book's introduction, about it's being too easy to place the blame for what's gone wrong on one political party or one president, because we are all equally responsible for what happens in this country, and for what is done by this country around the world.

As much as I had personally responded to that line when I'd read it, I was surprised to find the rest of the audience reacting in the same way. After all, it's not really what you usually think of as a crowd pleaser, to be asked to take personal responsibility for horrible mistakes. But please the crowd it did.

More than that, though, as we applauded his speech, and prepared to move into the next phase of our waiting, to get our books signed, it reminded us of why exactly it was that we were there. Why we were willing to do all this waiting for him, in and out of that line. Because he has become the person who tells us things we might not want to hear, but have in fact been longing for. Because he has stopped playing the endless games of political calculus that keep Hillary and Obama and all the rest of them so careful of each and every utterance. Tell me something clear and true, even if it's hard, and I'll wait around, to hear what else you have to say.

I'm still waiting to hear what Gore's planning to do about the 2008 elections, but I did get my two copies of his book signed. At least that's something.

Friday, May 25, 2007

"The Assault on Reason," by Al Gore; Politics of Substance? Seriously?

I'm sure there've been lots of great things going on downtown this week, there always are. There've probably been gallery openings galore, movies here there and everywhere, bands playing up a storm, and I hear the weather hasn't been half bad either. So I hope you've been having a great time with it all. I wouldn't know much about any of that though . I've been holed up inside all week, busy with my favorite new toy, Al Gore's latest book, "The Assault on Reason." Right this second, I'm so in love with our once, and if you ask me, hopefully future, next president, that I'd even consider having his babies, and
I'm really not the kind of girl who suffers from baby cravings, generally speaking. But I'm pretty sure the odds of Tipper quietly stepping aside on my behalf are minimal at best, so I'll take what I can get. And what I can get, in this instance, "The Assault on Reason," is a more than adequate consolation prize.

I didn't always feel this way about Al Gore. Not even close. Back in 2000, like a lot of other people, I thought he was kind of just fine. Better than that other guy, but not anything to get all excited about. I didn't do anything crazy like voting for Nader, and I wasn't one of those people going around saying things like "Bush, Gore, what's the difference?", the differences were abundantly clear to me, even then, but I just wasn't that into him. That all changed when I heard the speech he delivered on Jan. 16, 2006, Martin Luther King Day, at Constitution Hall.

In that speech, Gore became the first national political figure to call into question, loudly, passionately, and cogently, the attacks the Bush administration had been making on our constitution. Finally, in that moment, I heard someone saying out loud, on TV, all the things I'd been thinking and talking about for the past five years, and doing so incredibly well. It was one of the best political speeches I'd ever heard. Since then, I've been ranting about it to anyone who'd listen, and watching Gore's every move, looking for any clues they may offer as to his plans for 2008. And of course, he insists he isn't running, but then again, he's not not running either. He may just be trying to kill me.

I'd vaguely known he had a new book coming out this month, but had assumed it was going to be another about global warming. And granted, he's right about that, and it's all very important, but, to be honest, it's a little boring to me at this point. So I was not so much planning to rush out to the bookstore and grab the first copy I could get my hands on, of another book about the melting glaciers and boiling oceans. If I were a better person, I'm sure I'd have an inexhaustible interest in all of that, but I'm just being honest here. Save the planet, I'm all for it, even glad to help out if I can, but I don't really want to read about it anymore right now.

I did end up rushing out first thing Tuesday morning for "The Assault on Reason," though, because it's not about global warming after all. It's about, well, as the title suggests, the alarmingly diminished place of reason in our public discourse, and, ultimately, the slow disappearance of our public discourse altogether. Once again, Gore's gone and gotten at the very things I'm ranting and raving about all the time.

For a political geek like me, "The Assault on Reason," was a real page turner. Once I picked it up, I really did not want to put it down until I was all done. Gore asks the important question of how we as a nation have allowed our public discourse to arrive at this point, of so little debate, so little reason, and so much fear and secrecy, and offers some compelling answers.

There are moments, though, when "The Assault on Reason," feels almost like two books crammed into one. First, there's the more abstract question of American political life and public discourse, it's history and future, which is certainly worthy of a book of it's own. Then, there's the very specific subject of the Bush administration, and the ways in which it's policies and practices have pushed us in certain directions. Again, a topic that could fill shelves full of books on it's own. One thing is very clear, Gore has really just about had it with Bush, and his lawless ways, and the impunity he's enjoyed.

There's not much in the way of new information about Bush and company, but given the inexplicable timidity of our media these days, there is something incredibly refreshing about having it all laid out, clearly and cleanly, page after page, with footnotes and everything. Fact after indisputable fact. Here's what was done, here's what was not done. Iraq, Cheney's energy commission, 9/11 warnings, on and on. Fact based writing. Lovely stuff, that.

More interesting to me, ultimately, are Gore's thoughts on how America has allowed itself to arrive at this point. As he notes in his introduction, "It is too easy - and too partisan - to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes." And somehow, or other, an awful lot of us, at some point along the line, decided that was more responsibility than we wanted to handle, and bowed out, not all that gracefully either.

Gore, for the most part, pins the blame on TV's having taken the place of print as the main media outlet for news. In addition to everything we usually hear about television news being entertainment driven, profit driven, biased to the right, left, wherever, and just plain bad, Gore argues that print media, back in the revolutionary day, was more interactive than television. That, I'm not so I'm convinced of. I'd like to believe that any old literate citizen could, once upon a time, walk into a newspaper office with a well reasoned opinion piece, get it printed up and disseminated to his or her peers, but I'm pretty skeptical on that one.

The larger point he's making, though, is that our public political discourse has somehow stopped being much of a two way street. Information comes at us, through our televisions, radios, and even through our newspapers, but we don't have much of a chance to talk back in any meaningful way, nor are we really doing much talking to each other. The solution Gore offers is a utopian vision of the internet, with it's low bar for entry, citizen journalists, and the possibility it creates for anyone, anywhere in the world to communicate with anyone else, at least in theory. I'm big fan of the internet too, but I'm not so sure I'm buying it as the big solution to this particular problem either.

While Gore's critique of television as a one way medium is certainly valid, as is his suggestion that people will feel less attached to a political process in which they feel they have no means of engaging in dialogue, is spending more time at home alone with our computers really the answer? Gore ignores the extent to which television was, and remains, an isolating influence on American culture. Rather than going out into shared public space, looking for company, conversation, and entertainment, we started spending more and more of our time at home, alone, with our TV screens. Granted, the internet does put us in front of interactive screens, but a screen is not another person, the quality of the interaction will never be the same. It remains a very private sort of discourse, never truly becoming public, subject to the scrutiny of witnesses, and the clear light of day.

All that TV we're watching isn't doing anyone any good, it's true. But bringing one more illusory companion into our solitary lives won't help matters much. An return to a culture of actual public discourse, between people, in public, however, might go a long way towards setting things right. All of that said, I give Gore tremendous credit for being the person to begin this much needed conversation, to publicly acknowledge the presence of something very, very wrong here, something deeper and more widespread than the actions of a single White House resident, however intellectually dishonest and morally vacuous that resident may be. Though he states the many cases against Bush, he refuses to fall into the easy trap of blame, and so denies his reader that safety net as well. Gently, Gore reminds us of our own ultimate accountability for what is done in our name, and of our responsibility to reinvigorate our public discourse, one way or another.

And on that note, I think I'll take my own advice, and go find out what's happening outside right now myself. There's a book signing in Union Square today that I’ve been thinking I ought to check out!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Once Upon a Time Downtown; Witches on Wall St. & Rubyfruit in the Village

I watch CSPAN the way normal people watch ESPN, complete with yelling back at my tv and the occasional drinking game. So when someone whose opinon means a lot to me says that,,when I write about politics, while he might agree with my opinions, admire the logic or the thoughts expressed, he can't find the same connection with my words he does when I write about almost any other thing, because he is not a very political person, I have a hard time understanding what it is he means,. It's something he's tells me often enough. But whenever he says it in reference to my writing, I find myself surprised, in defiance of all reason. Partly, I suppose, because being such a ridiculously political person myself, the idea of someone who isn't, is as alien to me as those people who do calculus for fun, or the ones who don't eat sugar. I know they're out there, somewhere, I've even met a few . But I still have trouble believing they exist. So there is that.

More than that though, I try to write, most of the time, about the things that matter most to me. Otherwise, really, what's the point? So when I do write about politics, the writing itself doesn't feel any different from writing about any of the other things that make their way onto my pages, from my dogs. and my relationships, to life, death, sex and sanity, and the ways they all roil around together in my head, our downtown neighborhoods, and the whole big world at large. Writing about politics, for me, is part and parcel of all of that. The work of the writing itself feels just the same. Those times it doesn't, no matter what the subject is, when it comes too hard or too easily, or from the wrong place altogether, I know something's just not right. . So, when the writing has gone more or less the way it goes when it goes well, it comes as a surprise to hear from any reader that the reading of the finished piece feels somehow different from the reading of any other, just because of what it happens to be about. Maybe what I'm trying to get at here is simply that, for me, the political doesn't exist within its own cleanly defined category, neatly cut off and held apart from the personal. For me, the political feels very personal, so much so, I can't imagine trying to tease the two apart, to figure out where one begins, the other ends.

Flip that around, and you get the old seventies feminist slogan, "the personal is political." Hearing it today, we hear a reminder of the unintended repercussions all of our small everyday can have, on the lives of people we will likely never meet, and the continued existence of our neighborhoods as we know them. Spending the extra dollar on a bag of fair trade coffee, or going a block out of my way to East West books instead of Barnes and Noble, can feel like such inconveniences, in the moment when I have to choose. It's so easy to forget, at least it is for me, that these small things matter, that I am just one person on a planet teeming with its billions, and that whatever might be easiest for me at any given moment, is not necessarily the best thing, for anybody else. Not for the Ethiopian coffee farmer, chances are, or anyone trying to keep an independent bookstore going in the West Village, in spite of all those Barnes and Nobles everywhere All of that is true. It's real and important, and much too easily forgotten. But it's not much to do with what I mean.

And even though it's what we think of when we hear that phrase these days, it isn't really what those seventies feminists meant by it in the first place either. Rita Mae Brown, racking up degrees at NYU, and writing her raucous first novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle." A group called WITCH, the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, declaring capitalism the true oppressor, and putting in a surprise appearance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, dressed in their witchy best, one afternoon in 1969. Kate Millet in her studio on the Bowery, working away in quiet anonymity on art, life, and doctoral dissertation, until that dissertation was published as "Sexual Politics," and became possibly the least likely bestseller in the history of books. Shulabeth Firestone and Ellen Willis meeting with their Redstockings and issuing manifestoes from a lower east side apartment. All of these women, and many more besides, making their homes downtown, talking, thinking, and arguing \, about all the possibilities they saw before them for taking the world as they'd known it apart, examining it carefully and closely, piece by piece, and using everything they'd learned, trusting everything they felt along the way, to help them in the hard work of rebuilding something unimaginable, something altogether new and different from the world in which they lived. When they said, "the personal is political," questions of shopping weren't really foremost in their minds.

They were thinking more about their growing recognition that many of the problems women experienced as personal, their bad marriages, financial woes, the impossibility of finding childcare that kept them feeling trapped at home, had causes more political than personal, and so would ultimately require political, not personal, solutions. With that came an understanding of each choice made, each step taken, as in one way or another an act of acquiescence or resistance to the dominant hegemony of the day, that self-sustaining narrative of class, race, gender, and above all power, and the great lengths to which it goes in its efforts to entice us all to choose it over ourselves, and over one another.

They were right, of course, the personal is political in all of those ways too. How brave they were, to even begin asking the questions they did. And how optimistic to suppose we'd be up to the challenge. What's more terrifying, after all, than the possibility that the stories into which we fit so neatly, the options with which we've been presented for longer than we can remember, by those who truly love us best, are nothing but a fraction of what's out there in an endless universe, have perhaps been offered less for any benefit they'd bring to us, than for the sake of minimal disruption all around, and leave us not an inch to spare for taking anything apart, deciding what's unnecessary, and putting whatever's left back together in some way the world has never seen before? Terrifying most of all, because once you do start asking those questions, it's just about impossible to stop pestering yourself about them, until you've come up with some kind of answers. And the answers never turn out to be the ones you'd hoped for, never offer you an easy out. .

It's heartbreaking, really, thinking about those women, walking down sixth avenue doing their errands, sitting in Washington Square on a sunny day, and having so much faith in us, our willingness to take a step away from what feels like such solid ground beneath our feet, and find our what it's like to walk instead on something that looks thin as air.

That gets much closer to what I mean, when I say the political is personal. It has to do with willingness. Willingness to ask the scariest questions, take the riskiest chances, and take responsibility for whatever happens next. It also has to do with my Buddhist practice, undisciplined as it often is. Buddhism teaches the interdependence of all sentient beings, the illusory nature of individual identity. So long as any one of us is suffering, we all are. There are only so many options open to us, in a world so big, if we have aspirations of easing any of that suffering, and don't happen to be Bill Gates. Political engagement offers one way of acknowledging our responsibility to one another, of doing what little we can to make a world we want to live in, rather than allowing it to make us into what it needs. And that all feels very personal to me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Layer Cake, in Letters: "The Mistress's Daughter," by A.M. Homes

“As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together.” This graceful sentence, coming as it does early on in A.M. Homes’ new memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” has delighted me, all by itself, brought me into a text that continually surprised me, and returned me to one of my favorite writers, all in one fell swoop. That’s a lot of work for one sentence to do, and to do so very well. So I feel like I should begin by thanking Homes for having written it. The whole book does some astonishing things, but I keep coming back to that one line.

First off, was the shock of recognition. It’s nothing so shocking, really. I’m sure plenty of bored suburban kids across America have put in their time with those World Book pages, folding and unfolding them, this way and that. But for just a moment, I felt the stiffness of those pages, against the others in the volume, heard their crackle as they folded in and out, and nearly yelled out loud, “Me too! Me too!”

Then there’s the contribution it makes to the spare structure of Homes narrative. "The Mistress's Daughter" is about a lot of things. Identity, storytelling, family, and language among them. It takes as its point of departure the author's less than storybook reunion with her birth parents when she was in her thirties, living on Charles St., and becoming successful as a novelist. Thanks to this sentence, and others like it, I didn’t need much in the way of direct description of the life she’d led with her adoptive family. I got it. It was somewhat privileged, it was sometimes boring, it was all in all pretty good, though not without it’s problems, some of which she does in fact delve into. But much more than that would have distracted me from the heart of the story being told, much less, and I’d likely have wondered what it was she had to hide.

Finding it so early in the book, on page seven, to be exact, was important for me too. I hadn’t quite made up my mind about “The Mistress’s Daughter,” yet. It is so many things about which I am ambivalent. To begin with, it is a memoir. When they are good, well, they can be very, very good. But when they are bad, they’re really quite horrid aren’t they? And, possibly worse yet, it’s an adoption memoir. I remember reading “The Search for Anna Fischer,” when I was little. It was one of the first such books, possibly even the very first, and is often credited with jumpstarting the adoptees rights movement. I remember it’s having been part of a Reader’s Digest condensed anthology that I was carting around one summer. Who knows where that thing came from? I remember reading it at the lake, and in some doctor’s waiting room. Most of what I remember about the story itself, is a lot of some poor woman trying to get people to give her information they had, but weren’t allowed to give her, which I thought was stupid and unfair, but not terribly interesting, and then an anti-climactic meeting with her birth mother. Having finally asked my parents so many times if they are really, truly sure I don’t have any DNA but theirs that even I suppose I must believe them, adoption memoirs hold even less appeal for me.

The title, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” was intriguing, obviously, but almost too much so. As though perhaps someone in Viking’s PR department had been charged with coming up with a titillating title to boost sales of a mediocre book. Things like that do happen sometimes, you know. Then there’s Homes herself, a writer about whom I’ve been squarely on the fence for years.

Do you remember that nineties literary trend, so trendily referred to as, “transgressive fiction”? The best known work of “transgressive fiction" would probably be Brett Easton Ellis's novel "American Psycho," later adapted into the film starring Christian Bale, in which a questionably reliable narrator by the name of Patrick Bateman enjoys impressing us with his knowledge of eighties era designer labels, sexual prowess, and creativity in dismembering women. Transgressive fiction could have meant all kinds of things, but mostly, it turned out to be a convenient label for books dealing in transgressions upon the usually female body, with literary aspirations thrown in. It was a marketing ploy cleverly disguised as a literary movement, or maybe a literary movement co-opted and creatively transgressed upon by marketing departments until it found itself at the bottom of some river, in a million little pieces. But I digress. A few of those books lived up to their literary aspirations, maybe even managed to commit some more interesting sorts of transgressions. One of those was "The End of Alice," by A.M. Homes.

I loved everything about "The End of Alice." It's an impossibly beautiful book about unimaginably ugly things. I loved the language, the structure, and narrative. I loved the ways in which it surprised me, and the simple fact that it did. I loved the unclassifiable follow up, "Appendix A: An Elaboration on the Novel 'The End of Alice'". I loved the sense it gave me that the writing I wanted to do myself was possible, and that someone else was out there thinking about words and stories, and even about bodies, in a similar sort of way. I loved that book.

Which, of course, led me to read more of her books. But it just wasn't the same. It's not that there's anything wrong with "In A Country of Mothers," or "Jack," or "Music for Torching," or any of the rest of them. They just haven't done for me whatever exactly it was "The End of Alice," did, haven't given me that same gift. And so, unfairly I'm sure, but that can't be helped, reading each has felt in some way like a betrayal. As if, having shown me that she could write something that spoke to me so clearly, Homes owed it to me to keep it up, and was simply choosing not to deliver the goods. The reading of someone else's words is really such an odd sort of intimacy, isn't is?

So, there I am in the bookstore, doing the thing I do, where I read the first few pages of a book, and only buy it if I cannot possibly imagine living happily without completing it. There being, after all, so many books, and so very little time, not to mention money. I'm giving "The Mistress's Daughter," it's chance. And I come to that sentence. "As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together." Not only did it tell me this was most definitely the book I wanted that day, it made me wonder if my A.M. Homes, the one I'd loved so much, once upon a time, might not have come back to me. And so she has.

There is something I love about the language of the body. The solid sounds of the words we use to describe something so fragile, broken down into its very smallest parts. The ironic abstraction of a skeleton on the page. Perhaps the best thing Homes' sentence does is to provide her reader with a key to "The Mistress's Daughter". I'll give you a hint: You don't always need layer upon layer of acetate anatomy pages to build a person. Sometimes, the way words and pages layer themselves up along the way will do the trick just fine.

Yours, Mine, and Ours... What exactly is the difference anyway?

The West Village probably shouldn't feel like such a cozy nook of a neighborhood, given how many people are always moving in and out. All those NYU students coming and going all over the place, recent grads who'd heard "the village," was the place to be, but realize within 6 months or so that Brooklyn, or maybe the Upper East Side, is the place they can afford, the long time renters getting priced out and moving east or up, or who knows where, and new people coming every single day. The thing about the West Village, though, is that when you live there, you almost never need to leave, unless, of course, a job requires you to do so. Otherwise, where else would you ever want to go? Really? I can't remember the last time I went much above Union Square, below Houston St., or east of the Bowery, unless I was heading out of town entirely. I do like the Natural History Museum, and the Met, I'll go uptown for those two, but I think that's pretty much it.

Living here, it's hard enough maintaining any real connection with the rest of the city, let alone with the other inhabitants of that huge place called America. We just don't have much in common with them, do we? They wear pastels, and shop at Wal-Mart. They value things like a good night's sleep, and eating breakfast. They are the ones responsible for both the Simpson and the Duff Sisters' celebrity. They drive SUV's and live in actual houses with backyards. We live in apartments the size of their SUV's, if we're lucky, and think of our fire escapes as private terraces. We walk everywhere, or take the train, and get to feel superior about our independence from the petroleum economy. They come to New York expressly for the purpose of asking me for directions to stores they'd have e no trouble finding back in their hometowns. I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure there's a Gap in every mall this country has to offer.
More importantly though, we don't seem to think about anything the way those people out there do. CNN tells us we live in a divided nation, shows us a map made up of sharp red lines and hard blue angles, footage of angry protestors at funerals, proud little boys dressed up in soldiers uniforms they cannot possibly be old enough to wear. A woman with pink cheeks and brown curls assuring an interviewer that yes, she absolutely does believe God hates. Their world feels nothing like mine. Down here between west 14th and Houston, give or take a block or two, we're afloat in a soft, warm sea of indigo agreement. If anybody's waiting impatiently for the Rapture, over on Perry St., worrying just a little bit about being left behind when that great day finally dawns, well, he's keeping it to himself for now.

Of everyone I know in the West Village, I can think of exactly one self-identified conservative. One. A lawyer, I believe. Even she is the kind of conservative who makes me disconcertingly nostalgic for the Reagan era. It's possible to have a reasonable and interesting conversation with her about things like the Iraq War, or the budget deficit. She's not interested in the radical religious right's agenda. She's an old fashioned conservative, focused on fiscal responsibility and military strength. I disagree with her opinions, but they are not those of an insane ideologue. Conservative though she calls herself, this woman has nothing in common with the people currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tucked away here in our village, surrounded by like minds, all the happy lesbian undergrads, the shaggy guys with their sunglasses and guitars, the all night lights of the sex toy stores all over Christopher St., it's often almost inconceivable that anything they might be doing in America, or even just down in D.C., could ever touch us here. They might have some problems, out there, it's true. But us? Here? Nothing really changes here, we'll be o.k. These are the things we say to ourselves, and to each other, aren't they? When elections don't go our way, when the housing market starts to crumble, when the economy starts looking dicey. It's nothing to do with us. And who can blame us? Who doesn't want to feel safe? That's what so many of us came here for in the first place, I think. So we could feel safer than we had, one way or another, growing up out there in America. And then there's the sense I have sometimes, and I don't think I'm the only one, though this isn't something we talk much about, this feeling that America didn't really want me, that I was just a little bit too something, too loud, too smart, too crazy, too confused or too confusing, or maybe just too much, I don't know, for America's liking. So I skipped out on America, and I wound up here instead. Here, I finally felt safe.

Nothing good lasts forever though, does it? Every so often, something happens to jerk me right back into America, remind me I've never really left. No matter how I feel, who, and where, I am remain the same. I'm an American in America, like all the rest. It's certainly much nicer to feel safe, but the dangers we're dealing with these days are altogether different, and if the safety isn't real, well, what's the point in that? All the differences about which we are so insistent become meaningless when confronted by the fact of citizenship shared. Distance, metaphorical or literal, can't push you beyond the borders you're willing to cross.

There's a long, sad list of Americans whose home proved their undoing, but just one who's reminding me of this right now. Jose Padilla, remember him? He was arrested by the FBI in Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, getting off a flight from Pakistan. He was then declared an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody, held in solitary confinement for the next three years. An American in America, he faced the prospect of indefinite detention, was denied access to legal counsel, the right to confront his accusers, the right to a speedy trial by a jury of his peers. Why? Because Donald Rumsfeld said so, more or less, that's why. That was all it took. I've known the basic facts of this story for years, you probably have too. Whenever I stop to think about them though, give them just the briefest moment to sink in, I am stunned by it all, all over again. All the power this government has, and our protections against it vanished somehow, while we were busy with other things.

By 2005 Padilla's petition for a writ of habeus corpus made its way to the supreme court. At that point, the government transferred him from military to civilian custody, adding him to an existing indictment in Florida's federal court. This conveniently allowed them to avoid a confrontation with the Court and a potential ruling definitively prohibiting such treatment of American citizens in the future. The charges Padilla and his co-defendants face are in no way related to the dirty bomb allegations which prompted his initial arrest. The evidence against them includes allegedly coded wiretapped conversations about going on "picnics," so they can "smell fresh air, and eat cheese." Sounds pretty sinister to me. Then there's something in there about a zucchini. It's all pretty nonsensical, and would be laughable, if the first act hadn't been so bleak.

And if it didn't force us to remember that we're still in Kansas after all, still Americans, still in this America we have somehow created for ourselves. Just as we are all equally vulnerable to the power of this state we've made, we are also all equally responsible for the fact of its existing as it does. None of us, in this America, is as safe as we deserve to be, not even on Bleecker st., nor are we innocent. Those other people out there, the ones we'd like to blame, they are our own, like it or not and we are theirs. And nobody is innocent. We can protest as loudly as we like, wear the t-shirts, march with the banners, proclaim, "Not in our names!" but it is. Every bit of it is. It's all in your name, and it's all in mine.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Birthdays, Boys, and Buddhas; An afternoon at the musem

Gifts can be treacherous things. They can delight or disappoint us, offer sudden revelations or accessorize deceit. Such a lot of power, isn’t there, underneath all that shiny paper? I, for one, am never content to take the object at face value. I’m always looking for something else, for what it can tell me about the way things really are. How much effort was expended, how much thought given to its procurement? You can probably tell, I’m a lot of fun to shop for.

It’s not so surprising, I guess, that birthdays don’t bring out the best in me. It’s nothing to do with getting old and dying, I don’t need a special day to worry about those things. For the birthday problem, I blame my mother. That probably sounds awful, but I don’t mean it to be. She’s always been great at birthdays. Growing up, my birthday was my day, simple as that. Perfect cakes and perfect presents and me, me, me. How could I possibly expect anyone else’s efforts to live up to hers? And yet I do, and so am endlessly disappointed, through no one’s fault but mine. Not always, but often enough you’d think I might have learned better by now.

At their worst, presents can confirm all of your worst fears. The generic necklace snatched up at the last minute from the boutique next door to his office yells out, loud and clear, “He’s just not that into you.” And somehow you’ve still got to get through dinner. That was a great night.

The best gifts, though, can knock you down and take your breath away, with the force of the messages they carry. It can be quite a shock, discovering just how well know, and loved, you really are. Those don’t come along that often, but when they do? Wow.

My membership to the Rubin Museum of Art, in Chelsea, was a gift like that, a couple of birthdays ago. Boyfriend had planned a nearly perfect day. There’d already been a sweet, sweet morning, brunch I think, and a massage I’d been desperately needing, complete with aromatherapy and hot, hard stones. I could do with one of those right now, come to think of it. My neck is knottier than an old pine tree.

In spite of all those good intentions, all that thought and effort, it was my birthday, and I was in rare form. My mood was mean, and I was in a panic over all the weight I’d gained since we’d moved in together. If anyone had warned me just how bad cohabitation would be for my beauty, I might have reconsidered. Then again, the break up diet does work wonders. My skin’s never quite recovered, though.

So, off we went to the Rubin. I’d been wanting to go since I’d first walked by it, months before, but somehow just hadn’t done it. We live here so we can have these things close by, and then end up too busy, or too tired, too overwhelmed, or just plain lazy, to do anything about them, until someone else has the good sense to drag us out.

Just getting me to finally go through those doors could have been gift enough. Before we’d even passed the admission desk I knew I’d found something important. And I was right. However lazy I may ever be in my own meditation practice, however distracted and disgruntled I may allow myself to become, an hour in the Rubin, surrounded by the centuries of Himalayan art, all those Buddhas and Bodhisattvas hanging on the walls, reminds me who I am, and what I’m looking for.

One of the exhibits up that day was called Eternal Presence, Handprints and Footprints in Buddhist Art. Paintings and drawings by and of celebrated Buddhist teachers and deities, incorporating their traced hand and footprints. Looking at an eighteenth century painting of the Shamar Lama, an important, and often problematic, figure within the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, I would swear to you I felt time stop, if such a thing were possible.

It was the hands and feet that did me in. They brought an intimacy and immediacy to the painting I’d never imagined possible. The Sharmapa’s hands were there, right there, so were his feet. I’d never experienced anything like that in a museum, or anywhere else, before. I have since, though, right there in the Rubin.

Bringing me to that could have been gift enough. I can be awfully lazy. It’s entirely possible that, left to my own devices, I could have walked by those smooth glass doors a million times, without ever opening them once. A membership of my very own though? That was almost more than I could bear. I can’t think of a time when anyone with whom I don’t share DNA has tried so hard to please me, or to know me, to bring me to a place that felt so much like home.

But things aren’t always what they feel like, are they? After we broke up, I did lose all that weight, or most of it at least, and lots of other things as well. One of them, for a while, was the museum I’d quickly come to think of as my own, the Rubin. I went out of my way to avoid even the sight of it, that whole block of Seventeenth Street ceased to exist, as far as I was concerned. Out of sight, out of mind, or so they say.

I missed my museum, though. I missed it a lot. I had gotten into the habit of popping in a couple of times a week. My office at the time was just a few blocks away, so whenever I felt my mind skitter skattering around itself, I could head down to the Rubin, for that quick hit of equilibrium, and the reminder it offered of the importance of disciplined daily meditation practice. I could only stay away for so long.

I’d been thinking myself in, out, and all around the Rubin for months, keeping myself well away from it in the end. One day, when for once I wasn’t thinking, I found myself walking past, and still without thinking, went right in. I couldn’t help thinking, for a minute, when I pulled out my membership card, but I put a stop to that as quickly as I could, and kept on going. Thinking is often highly overrated.

This time, it was a painting of a thousand armed Avalokiteshvara, that drew me in. Avalokiteshvara is sometimes referred to as the Compassion Buddha, sometimes as a great Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved perfect enlightenment, and could be released from this cyclic existence and all of its suffering, but chooses to stick around, out of compassion for those of us who are still muddling around, far from perfection of any kind. A Bodhisattva’s entire being is dedicated to helping all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. In the case of Avalokiteshvara, he is sometimes represented with one thousand arms, as his ceaseless compassionate activities require nothing less.

Buddhist practice, like any other, demands discipline and diligence. Unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered, though, it rewards the practitioner with an awareness of the world’s boundless compassion. Pay a little attention, and you might even catch the occasional glimpse of your own infinite compassionate capacities. Who do you thank, though, for a gift like that?