Sunday, March 29, 2009

Afterthoughts: Movie: Valentino

I recently went to see Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the now 77-year-old fashion designer who dressed a long line of famous women from Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn to Gwyneth Paltrow.

To my surprise, the screening, at 1:15 on a Thursday, was packed, largely with fashionable women. Were these the ladies who always lunched? Or was this a sign that everyone in the fashion industry has been laid off?

Valentino’s director is a writer for Vanity Fair, which gives you a sense of the movie’s style. It’s splashy and intelligent, insidery and fawning, with all the icky pleasures of high-end wealth and celebrity porn.

The whole world of haute couture often seems purely bizarre to me, but this film gave me a strong a sense as I’ve ever had of fashion’s glamour and allure.

I can certainly appreciate the fantasy element—as a small boy, Valentino fell in love with the fantasia of beauty he saw in fabulous gowns he saw in American movie musicals of the 1940s. It’s so often said to be the outsider’s dream--to create a beautiful alternative universe into which one might escape.

At the same time, fashion (not unlike gossip or other kinds of social arbitrage) can seem like an excellent vehicle for an outsider’s revenge. I can’t think of many other escapist fantasies with the potential to exercise such tyranny over my choices.

If I can’t find a nice, practical item like a black crew-neck sweater, I blame fashion. Science fiction writers can create worlds full of aliens, but you don’t have to wear them.

And then again, it can’t be easy to be dedicated follower of fashion. Even in this movie, those who adopt glamour as a lifetime’s pursuit seem to morph toward a sort of outlandishness.

Some of the aging and cosmetically altered may seem like monuments to the costs of vanity, but others whose emphasis is less on youth and more on style seem simply more unique. I like them better once they’re past their prime—as beauty fades, the will to creation becomes clear. The people seem like works of art. They are their own canvas.

The film closes a celebration of Valentino’s 45-year career—a three-day retrospective bash that culminates with a scene in which models float on wires in front of Rome’s Temple of Venus, their long gowns fluttering in the night breeze. Here, again, is the ambivalence of opulence—the sheer, lush delight of it, and then the obscene extravagance.

The moral center of the film, oddly, is a love story—the nearly 50-year relationship between Valentino and his business and life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.

It made me think of Chris & Don, the film about the 35-year relationship between the writer Christoper Isherwood and his much younger lover Don Bachardy, which I saw in the last year or so, and even further back to Paul Monette’s paean to his partner in Borrowed Time.

I was trying to think if there were any lesbian equivalents in this genre—aside from Gertrude and Alice, who told their own story, none come to mind. Like the men, Stein and Toklas combined the long intimacy with very public lives.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Filing Cabinet: Barack and the Party Favors

This is an item I've been meaning to revisit and then try to forget since early 2008, when I first encountered Barack Obama’s 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream:

It is left to Michelle to coordinate all the children’s activities, which she does with a general’s efficiency. When I can, I volunteer to help, which Michelle appreciates, although she is careful to limit my responsibilities. The day before Sasha’s birthday party this past June, I was told to procure twenty balloons, enough cheese pizza to feed twenty kids, and ice. This seemed manageable, so when Michelle told me that she was going to get goody bags to hand out at the end of the party, I suggested that I do that was well. She laughed.

“You can’t handle goody bags,” she said. “Let me explain the goody bag thing. You have to go into the party store and choose the bags. Then you have to choose what to put in the bags and what is in the boys’ bags has to be different from what is in the girls’ bags. You’d walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode.”

—p. 349-50, Vintage paperback edition
When I first read this, I wondered if it had implications for Obama’s style of governance. I’d read that he’d been encouraged not to establish a track record as a politician, since that would make him less electable. When forced to make actual choices, would he get lost in the aisles of options?

Furthermore: What did this anecdote say about the Obamas’ views on gender roles? I’d read that Michelle could recite episodes from The Dick van Dyke Show, and there was, in fact, a certain resemblance between the Obamas and Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. They were supposed to be so hip, and yet they seemed so retro. Was that such a bad thing? I like a lot of old-fashioned values, even if pink and blue goody bags make me nervous.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cats on the Clock

A day or so after the clocks sprang forward, I had one of those brief exchanges that linger in the mind.

The woman who regularly feeds my neighborhood’s homeless and cadging cats had spread her bowls on the sidewalk as usual, but none of the felines were around.

“They don’t know the time changed,” she said. “They don’t know when to look for me.”

I’d never considered the havoc that might result for animals on a day on which everyone in 47 states suddenly shifted their behavior patterns.

The cats have figured it out, however.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Quoth the Raven: Wear a Helmet!

Today there was a flight of hundreds of grackles. As they moved in a black cloud through the tops of the trees, the branches swished and swayed as if there were a wind. My sister has a suspicion such flocks come with death. I hoped they were merely migrating.


The other morning, I ran into a former neighbor who had once been a hospice nurse. We stood in a crowded subway car and talked about Natasha Richardson, the actress who had just died as a result of a skiing accident. I was feeling the fragility of life.

My ex-neighbor remarked that it was medically unfortunate that Richardson had fallen as she did.

“Other places in the body, like your arm, there is someplace for the swelling to go,” she said. “But not in the brain, not with the casing of the skull.”

The person next to us shifted an inch or two away.

As it turns out, my former neighbor no longer works directly with patients. She has a desk job that involves following up on the conditions of people who’ve contracted certain serious illnesses, gathering data for others to analyze.

When she puts in a call to person who has contracted a usually debilitating disease and that person actually answers the phone, she is flooded with joy. “They often say to me, ‘You’re the first person who’s been cheerful!’”

She’s happy because she knows what the odds really are.

As a public health worker, she knows that some percentage of people with certain illnesses is always going to die. The most she can hope for is a reduction in the proportions.

The truth of statistics, however, is no help with grief. “What do you say to the parents?” she said. They’ve lost a child. “It’s—it’s not tragic,” she said, “but it’s awful.”

I had a sudden vision of a flock of birds. Who knows which passing bird will die, or how or when? It could be any of them, any of us, at any time.

Clutching my metal pole, hurtling through a dark underground tunnel on a train crammed with people, I felt a rare sense of communion with all the other beings striving so hard to live.

Quite unexpectedly, I also felt a profound sense of relief.

Some deaths occur for reasons that have nothing to do with flaws, where nothing is specifically to blame, where nothing has gone differently, really, than it should have.

We can always try to reduce the percentages, but still, we’re all just part of a statistical pattern. Whenever anyone goes, it is awful.

Not tragic, but awful.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The PEI Practices: To Arms!

Last week, in its second cover to feature Michelle Obama, the New Yorker went from satirical (the candidate’s wife as a machine-gun-toting terrorist fist-jabber) to sartorial (the first lady on the runway, in three different outfits).

It took the PEI a while to locate the raison d’etre for this cover, which is an extended caption for a photo of two designers who have supplied garments for the first lady.

These dresses don’t have sleeves, which means they reveal Michelle’s arms, the display of which some conservatives see as a deliberate undermining of White House decorum, but which the New Yorker’s Robin Givhan unequivocally supports.

“The arms,” she writes, “imply vanity and power: two things that make many women uncomfortable and yet are fundamental to self-confidence.”

So why, the PEI wonders, does the magazine’s cover feature Michelle in three outfits with long sleeves?

Were the editors afraid that by depicting the first lady’s bare arms they might appear to be endorsing the hateful rightwing fashionistas?

Or—undoubtedly more likely—was the switch to long sleeves simply a nod to Fashion Week, which featured the fall collections?

True, a perusal of the collections suggests that countless women will as usual be going barelegged and bare-armed even as the leaves fall—but, to paraphrase Barack's remark on the day he dared to wear a coat on the campaign trail, “You want a first lady who has sense.”

When the PEI contemplates the pair of New Yorker covers, she worries most that they serve to encapsulate a collective desire to transform Ms. O from armed and dangerous to merely armed.

Among Michelle’s sisters in being bodily scrutinized now, the PEI thinks, are Lindsay and Britney and all the starving models, as well as Oprah (who sadly but perhaps brilliantly often preempts any rival coverage of her weight) and Meghan McCain, who recently told her critics that they could “kiss my fat ass.”

I wish Michelle (and her daughters) luck. Can her psyche survive the assault? In an interview, ABC’s Robin Roberts comments, “We see the workouts are doing very well for you.”

MO responds, with the faintest hint of sarcasm, “Well, I covered my arms up.”

“You couldn’t resist! You just couldn’t resist! I didn’t go there! But you did!"

“I know, “ said Michelle.

Monday, March 16, 2009

March of Time

7 March:
Saturday night, nearly midnight, turning the corner of the park. Lots of kids. Not huddled against the monuments as they often are. Milling. Something vaguely electric in the air. They look artsy, not dangerous. A punk hairstyle, a pair of black and white camouflage pants, the sounds of a skateboard on the pavement. Weave purposefully through them, head for home.

8 March:
New York Post:

A teen was beaten to death early this morning near Prospect Park by pack of young thugs, cops said.

The 18 year-old victim, whose name was withheld pending family notification, was jumped by the gang of four teens at 12:02 a.m. at Prospect Park Southwest, officials said.


16 March:







Sharif Abdallah
May 6, 1991 — March 7, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Filing Cabinet: David Foster Wallace

(A whole lot of commentary inspired by a New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace, RIP, a novelist and nonfiction writer whose work I have never read.)

Quotes from “The Unfinished: David
Foster Wallace’s struggle to surpass ‘Infinite Jest,’”
by D.T. Max, in The New Yorker, March 9, 2009.

During this time, he traced his breakdown to his not really wanting to be a philosopher [like his father]. “I had kind of a midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn’t augur well for my longevity,” he later told McCaffery.

He began to write fiction. Until then, Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information….But he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could, and also provide some of the same comfort. (51)

David Foster Wallace’s father was a philosopher and his mother an English teacher. Lately, as part of an effort to forge a truce with a legacy of writing, I’ve been wondering if there are any particular difficulties in growing up under the influence of a life of the mind. I wonder if Wallace’s existence was in part a struggle to break free of the particular burdens that come with being raised in an unexpectedly oppressive climate of writing and ideas.

I don’t actually know that his parents were writers, and I’m certainly not trying to blame them. What I suspect writing and philosophy have in common, however, is that they are often the tools of a mind trying to order, control, contain, or even trump experience. People with minds like this are often mesmerizing, even magical—but nonetheless, I’ve begun to wonder if many of their offspring don’t share an urgent, often unconscious, desire to escape.

I came up with this hypothesis very recently, and ever since I’ve been scouring my world for examples that may possibly support it. Here are two I’ve come up with in the last week:

Michael Gates Gill: I’ve just read his memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life. The son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, he grew up surrounded by books, but simply could not learn to read until age 10. Gill goes on to be the creative director of a top ad agency, but after a fall from the corporate ladder and some dubious personal choices, he winds up serving coffee. He’s 64, in new neighborhood, working with new people, and for the first time he’s happy.

The book blazes with a convert’s zeal. He loves mastering the challenges of the store, the fellowship of coworkers very different than he is, and the simple pleasures of casual exchanges with customers. The book’s a page-turner, and it feels distinctly unintellectual. But I think I know how he feels: I loved working in a store myself. None of the interactions were complicated. I was endlessly meeting people’s needs, feeling useful, and making them smile. Often it seemed there was nothing better than that.

Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr. I’ve just started reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Sheldon/Tiptree, a science fiction writer who famously wrote under a male pseudonym. Sheldon/Tiptree was the daughter of Mary Hastings Bradley. Bradley “is forgotten now, but in her daughter’s lifetime she was a famous writer,” Philips writes. (9)

“…Mary took up a great deal of emotional and creative space, writing her daughter’s story, literally, in two children’s books about the Bradley’s African travels. It took a radical subterfuge—taking on a new name, pretending to be a man, turning into a new person—for Alli to get that story back, to become something other than her mother’s daughter.” (5)

Philosophy seems to have been too crushing a burden for Wallace, so he shifted his attention to fiction, where he seems to have got caught up in the same concerns.

As Wallace noted in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you can construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” (50)

It’s been a big breakthrough for me to arrive at a point where I agree with Wallace, about freedom at least. I used to think it was a form of brainwashing to look on the bright side. I’ve heard research suggests that pessimists are better about predicting events, but optimists, despite repeatedly being proved wrong, are happier. There’s also the argument that “optimism is a moral imperative,” and lately I find that notion more compelling than accuracy.

Last summer, reading for the umpteenth time some Buddhist dictum about changing your mind, I realized that they were talking about something you could actually do. I’d thought of my mind as something like a shower in which you couldn’t adjust the temperature. But in fact, I could turn up the hot water if I wanted to. This was a power I had—not to deny experience, but choose which aspects of it to emphasize. Instead of moaning about life’s having yet to begin, I could actually live.

Once you begin to understand that that this sort of thing is within your reach, you may get a lot more curious about your experience and whether or not you actually like it. You don’t have to be thinking all the time about keeping things out, because you’ve got some flexibility about how to approach the things that come before you.

There’s something very strange about working consciously to change the way you frame your experiences mentally. I’ve had the sense that I have disconnected completely from “reality,” which was something I’d previously believed in. As you make the decision “not to believe everything that you think,” to quote a bumper sticker, you may have the sensation that everything in your life is a fiction. You may feel untethered. In my case, I’ve come to see that the stories I used to live by were as much made up as the new ones I’m choosing to discover. I think, often quite happily, that there is no truth.

Something else goes on, however, and it is perversely grounding. I used to think that my interpretation of my experience was what I had experienced. Now I realize that there may be one experience, but multiple ways of experiencing it.

For some reason, this makes me pay more attention to the experience itself—so that I can see what my options will be. Because I want to feel better, I experiment with ways of framing that are positive—well, maybe it wasn’t what I wanted, but what good things can I see in this? There’s almost always something. It doesn’t mean that the bad feelings go away, but the good things are lurking, there for a taste if you want them. And if you go into the world in a sunnier mood, the interactions you have are more likely to be nice.

This is exceedingly trite, I’m sure, but the truth is, the more that I practice this effort, the more I am forced to confront the possibility that things like love and connection are real forces in the world after all. I can see how a person could move in the direction of god or some sense of an underlying oneness—you know, what all those religions might consider a universal truth. I don’t think I want to go there, but there you are.

No truth and universal truth, both at once. Everything is paradox. More and more, I think that’s where the real action is.

The halfway house also showed him that less intellectual people were often better at dealing with life. They found catchphrases such as “One day at a time” genuinely helpful. To his surprise, so did he. “The idea that something so simple, and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting—which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff—can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can’t, that seems to me to be important.”(54)

I’ve heard this idea about less intellectual people being better at dealing with life before. The way I internalized it went like this: “Only stupid people are happy.” But it’s possible that all the smart people have tripped themselves up.

It has often seemed to me as a nonfiction writer—and I thought this up many years ago while studying the New York Times columns of William Geist—that the really hard work lay in working with ideas or images until they seemed so simple that anyone could understand them, and all the work that went into arriving at this easy, colorful expression was invisible.

One of the famous dictums in the writing world is Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words.” Perhaps you could call this maxim “simple” and “aesthetically uninteresting” as well. On the other hand, as many writers know, putting it into practice can be brutally difficult.

I think it’s also a misconception to imagine that “paying attention” or taking "one day at a time” or anything that implies staying in the so-called “present moment” is simple. Years ago, one of my Zen books (I can’t find which one, unfortunately) made the point that our experiences and feelings change from minute to minute and second by second. This idea was new to me at the time.

The author suggested that we imagine our moods as colored beads, and string them together over the course of the day. In the end, he said, we’d have a long and brilliantly varied necklace. For me, this has been an invaluable image. It makes any given second bearable, and it makes the entire day potentially fascinating. As you can tell from these blog posts, I can take even the most minor experience and find all sorts of shadings in it. This can feel like a kind of playing.

For me, paying attention has made life much richer and more complex. It is physically, emotionally, and intellectually engaging. I live an extremely privileged life, and I have come, gradually, to feel genuinely thankful for that. For whatever random reason, I am one of the lucky ones. But I have read Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, too, and I can see that these same techniques can lead to salvation even in the most dire circumstances—in his case, the concentration camps. I doubt I’d have his fortitude. I don’t think these techniques come easy, but I do think they build strength.

A number of years ago I went to a series of lectures at Tibet House. I’m no longer sure who was speaking—possibly Mark Epstein, Michael Vincent Miller, and Robert Thurman. I think, although I am not sure, that it was Miller, but maybe it was Epstein, who talked about depression as a telescoping of experience.

In other words, as I understood it, depressed people actually blotted out their experience. They could look to the future and they could see that the end would be grim, and so they refused to experience anything in between. This statement really resonated with me. It reminded me of many things I’d experienced growing up. And indeed, I’d often wondered why we should bother to live at all, since we were only going to die.

I should say, as an aside, that I have never been suicidal. And I would also say, as an aside, that I don’t think I’ve ever been clinically depressed. I was raised with a depressive outlook, and I have often felt extremely bleak, but I have never had the sense of being in the grip of a darkness or a chemistry that is beyond my control. I have known a number of people who have, however, and I don’t have any idea if any of this would resonate with them.

In my case, the act of being present is a way of defying this depressive outlook. It insists on the value of individual moments of life even though this sort of watching makes you even more acutely aware of change and your inevitable end. Here, again, is paradox.

The other memorable idea that I heard on one of those days at Tibet House was that our job as humans might be to arrive at a “second innocence.” I’m probably botching this concept, too, but I thought the idea that we were born in a state of openness and presence as children, and in the course of learning to survive we took on all sorts of ideas and defenses that gradually crowded our openness out. Along the way, we lost a lot of joy.

Our task, as I understood it, was to fight our way back to a state where we weren’t ruled by our defenses and other mental formulations, and to once again be able to live in the world of experience. As I say it, this “second innocence” was something it took a great deal of hard work and rigor to attain. We weren’t going to be children again; we were going to be adults who could regulate our behavior and make sophisticated choices and still soak up the world in child’s eager, unbiased, and expressive way.

Most of us wouldn’t simply be able to lie back and start gurgling again; it would take real discipline to get there. The discipline is what is involved in this endless task of working with our mind to reframe our experience.

I don’t know why I like the idea of discipline and rigor so much, but I do. Maybe these two words are simply the tricks I use to fool my mind into thinking the project I’m embarked upon is serious, intellectual, and worthwhile.

I do think these are important concepts, however. I think they have a great deal of relevance to our national politics. I think the problems of dealing with multiculturalism require discipline and rigor and, as attorney general Eric Holder might say, courage.

It isn’t easy to look at every person individually, to note your responses, to be honest, to have all the conversations that might be required to really work together. I haven’t done this myself. But I think the process is completely parallel to the process of paying attention, being in the moment, and going one day at a time, until, at long last, you can omit needless words.

We all crave the kind of simplicity that eliminates complexity. I think this is why multiculturalism was for so long such a hated word. We’d like to eliminate the whole mess of contradictions and just announce that we’re all on the same page. But I think this involves the same sort of telescoping mechanism that goes on with depression.

In his final major interview, given to Le Nouvel Observateur in August, 2007, he talked about various writers he admired—St. Paul, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky among them—and added “what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit---rather than technical abilities or special talents.” He was no longer sure he was the kind of person who could write the novel he wanted to write. (60)

Here again, I think I know what Wallace is getting at. What is writing? It is many things—a way to share information or ideas, a tool for thinking, a means of entertainment. None of these seem to have been enough for Wallace. I’m guessing he’s like many people, including me—people who got confused by the idea of having to Write.

What is this Writing with a capital W? Apparently it’s a thing that lives through the ages. It’s never nonfiction, so it must therefore be fiction—something imagined, something that somehow transcends time and space.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine what makes the Really Important Books live on is that they are communicating some feeling or experience or the essence of life to others. The writing probably isn't in itself the message, but rather the vehicle to convey it (although, admittedly, a really nice car is a really nice car).

I don’t think writing can force life into existence—it seems that the most affecting writing would have to have been spurred into existence by life. In the end, it’s not the typing that does the job—it must be living. Right? So probably in the end all we can do is hope to be as alive as we can—and we can’t really have any idea of what we will bring to others.

That’s today’s thought about it all, anyway.

Thanks for listening.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I’m a Winner! (Hic!)

A few days ago the owner of my local wine store called to tell me that I had won the monthly drawing for a $25 gift certificate. “Thanks!” I said. “You’ve made my day! I’ll never be able to say ‘I’ve never won anything’ ever again!”

When I hung up, I felt weird. An entire sentence had been barred from my repertoire. A tiny piece of my identity had been stripped away.

What is winning, anyway?

I don’t know why any of us feel that we ever should win anything. Or why we don’t think of having a roof over our head or enough food to eat as winning.

I began to wonder when “I have never won anything” emerged as a familiar phrase.

It occured to me that the popularity of these words may have risen in conjunction with the expanding universe of coupons and sweepstakes, both of which burst into vogue in the Depression years of the 1930s and boomed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Scrimping and shopping were a housewife’s work. I’d bet that “I’ve never won anything” has been repeated exponentially more often by women than men.

My mother said it all the time.

Back in her day, women didn’t “win” by dint of their labor. They won by random drawing. Homemakers could only hope that their diligence and frugality would somehow yield a material prize—and if not, I suppose you could say, their virtue went unrewarded.

In theory, “I have never won anything” is strictly a statement of fact. But in our culture, it seems like so much more. When my mother said she never won, it felt as if she were suggesting a genuine deficiency. In other words: she was one of life’s losers.

Well, that’s not me. I shopped regularly enough to fill up a wine store’s card, and as a result I got a 99-cent bottle of excellent booze and a chance to win something much more.

Thanks be to the gods of commerce, for I am now officially someone who has won, and for whom winning will always be a possibility.

This calls for a drink!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Daffodilirium


And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth (from "Daffodils," 1804)

Better than a groundhog, these daffodils: the true harbinger of spring. The ones in the soil are still shoots, but the ones in the stores are a wonder. You can still buy bunches of a half-dozen or so tightly closed buds; the most thrilling batches will look like yellow-dipped paintbrushes in a jar. For years I avoided the closed bunches because I was sure they would never open. But they do!

One day, two, or even three, and then comes that moment when you walk into a room and startle at the explosion of color. It's the flowers! The newly opened blossoms point radiantly upward; they seem so hopeful, so sunny. Typically, I want more. I want to get every last one while the season is still here.

I’ve been asking, and the daffodils come from places like Florida and New Jersey. They're practically local! I'm a locaflore! This year, daffodils started at $6 a bunch in some places, but now they’re abundant, and the price has dropped. $3.50, $3. For three to four days of delight? I can’t think of a better buy.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sign O the Times



Passed this the other day on my way up Lafayette. Initially distressed by the appropriation of “yo” and “howdy,” two of my favorite salutations.



As for the similarity between the Pepsi and Obama logos, well…in the primaries Obama was said to look like Pepsi, but after the election Pepsi switched to look more like Obama.

3.
I’m fascinated by this idea of president as brand. Remember when New Coke ruled in taste tests but people freaked they realized there was a reformulation? They wanted Coke just the way it was. Maybe people won’t care about the flavor of his policies. Maybe they’ll just want him.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Buddha and a Beer

For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.

It is selfish, undoubtedly, to want to hold onto the ragged edges that make me feel genuinely connected, not perhaps to humanity, but to the people I love.

—Judith Warner (both quotes from “Being and Mindfulness," a post on her New York Times blog, March 5, 2009)

The other day in therapy, I was (in my own stultifying way) exploring my own ambivalence (which is not unrelated to Warner’s) about my continuing journey through the places that scare me to the path with heart.

“Loving-kindness, blech! I am sick and tired of being sincere, I’ve had it with being wholesome and life-affirming, I want 13 glasses of wine and 6 cigarettes!”

“Maybe you can have both,” B. says, in her patient way.

“So anyway,” I tell her, “I was walking to your office, I was thinking all this, and then I pick up the Voice to look at Rob Breszny’s astrology column. And listen to this!”

I unfold the paper as theatrically as possible, and begin to read:

“TAURUS: Your key theme for the week is "Healthy Obsessions." Not "Melodramatic Compulsions" or "Exhausting Crazes" or "Manias That Make You Seem Interesting to Casual Bystanders," but "Healthy Obsessions."

I roll my eyes, making sure the long-suffering therapist is catching that Mr. Free Will Astrology is talking directly to me. It appears that she is. The oracle continues:

“You will have to take really good care of yourself as you concentrate extravagantly on tasks that fill you with zeal. This may require you to rebel against the influences of role models, both in your actual life and in the movies you've seen, who act as if getting sick and imbalanced is an integral part of being true to one's genius.”

Oy! I toss the paper up into the air. (Thankfully, it’s now stapled, so the pages don’t fly all over the room.)

Okay, so maybe I’m stuck with the consciousness and the spirituality and the community and all that gunk. But I don’t want to lose the ragged edge, either. I go off on a long, hyperbolic rant about why my friend who just the other day was rooting for the Dow to drop—“Come on, baby, 300! Do it for me!"—is frequently more appealing than people who talk about love all the time.

If you move toward mindfulness, how do you tell a joke? Can you really not gossip anymore, ever? How can you possibly practice criticism?

Although on the other hand, I can think of two people right away who seem funny, edgy, quick-witted, endlessly good-spirited and supremely alive. In both cases their virtues seem to arise from an apparently effortless practice of observation—or attention, as they might say in the mindfulness trade. They are so alert to the world—so present—and they are so generous in offering it up. I like this! You might like that! Look at that! Isn’t that interesting? There’s nothing mushy—or ragged—about it.

In my earnest moments, I declare that I have realized that when I act out of my own fear and habits of self-protection, I can cause other people pain, and somehow, finally, I just don’t want to do that anymore.

In other words, I guess, I want to open my heart, and to try to bring love rather than hurt into the world. This is where it starts to feel icky. Who am I, Pollyanna? And where does this line of thinking end?

If I start thinking about pain, I find myself saying, I have to include the animals. It starts with the dog and moves on to the birds, and before you know it it’s chickens and cows. You’ve read about industrial farming, you finally (after years) let yourself absorb what that is, and now what are you going to do? Sometimes it makes me think about all the people who had inklings of the Holocaust. How do you know what you know and turn away without acting?

“I want a burger and beer!” I yell to my therapist.

There’s no particular resolution to this thing. Okay, I think at the end of the session, I’ll stick with this path. Later, I go out for dinner with a friend who is so kind as to treat, and I show no hesitation in consuming her out of a big chunk of her income. I have a Scotch at the bar. Then I order a huge steak, medium rare, with frites. We both drink three glasses of wine.

By the end, I do not feel well. I am just at the edge of that point where things start to spin. Luckily, I have almost two miles to walk. If the police stopped me, could I walk a straight line? For a while I follow the sidewalk cracks, and then I veer into a crust of snow.

I look up into the crisp night, see twinkling stars, and then feel an urge to just close my eyes. Lurching, I open them again, this time taking in the soft green of the traffic lights glowing along the planks of the park benches. Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to just lie down?

No, not a good idea.

I make it home, guzzle water from my new eco-friendly metal bottle with the elaborate plastic sip top, and collapse into bed.

It’s not a great night, what with a car alarm going off for hours, but when I wake up, it’s not so bad. I’m grateful. More water, a muffin, some coffee, a Tylenol. Geez, why did I want to poison myself?

I walk to the yoga center. I should feel bad, but on the other hand, sometimes there’s nothing like a hangover. Life gets too stimulating, and right now it feels good to have energy for nothing beyond climbing this hill.

When I get to class, my body does what it is asked to. It is so forgiving, so much better to me than I deserve, I could cry. Leaving, I feel as if I have been granted a reprieve. I walk home feeling solid on the earth and once again bouncing like helium balloon, buoyed by something that feels really good and clean. I want to go deeper, I want to be mindful, I want to live!

Ah, well. It is what it is.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This Is Not My Shovel!

The morning of the big snow, I went out and set to work, but the shovel felt clunky and was leaving a ragged line. It was dinged, it was curled, it was metal, and it was red!

As some of you may know, my shovel is black.

My neighbor and snow-removal buddy reported that someone had rung her bell earlier to ask if she needed help clearing her walk. Had anyone rung mine? Nope. I surmise that the entrepreneur opened my gate, climbed the steps, and swapped out his own shovel for something better.

This theft, like the pilfering of my pumpkin, was essentially benign. Despite the loss, I felt in both cases that there might be some enchantment afoot--as if I might be keeping company with a a community of vaguely nefarious elves.

The real story is probably much harsher than that, and my experiences could be as well. I was grateful at least for the exchange, and besides I was fortunate enough to have a spare. As with the pumpkin, I hope the shovel helped.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Fiction Theory

One of my recent theories arose from a combination of my experiences in therapy and something I read for the book group at the yoga center.

I was talking in session about how the road I was traveling in therapy often seemed epic to me—I’ve got sirens, I’ve got monsters, I’ve got shoals and gales, and somehow the tattered boat sails onward.

Somehow, it’s difficult to convey the drama to other people. First, there’s no real reason why they should care. Second, the truth about oneself is so often embarrassing and unpleasant. And third, the journey is so full of particulars.

For me, having two friends for dinner might be the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. For you, it might be effortless. There’s so much context to understand.

On the other hand, whatever the particulars, the trip that is epic for me is entirely ordinary. It’s the nature of life to be striving at something. Whatever I’m doing is only one version of what every other person on this planet is doing.

So: how to reconcile these two things, the greatness and the insignificance, the uniqueness and the universality?

Enter a thought stirred up by a book I read with the group at the yoga center, namely The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, a book by the noted psychiatrist Robert Coles. Per Houghton Mifflin, it’s “a study of how listening to stories promotes learning and self-discovery.”

Coles talks about how a handful of provocative texts, by writers from Tolstoy to Tillie Olsen, are received by a wide group of readers—children, patients, doctors in training.

No matter their background, readers were likely to identify with some aspect of character or plot. As they explored these connections in conversation, they often experienced a deepening of compassion or startling insights about themselves or their families or their work.

With a slight tweak, this became the basis for my new theory, namely: that fiction exists because it provides us with a set of particulars that can be widely shared.

A fiction provides us with the details of various lives and events, and we happily pore through them to find the underlying lessons. We can do this in the company of other people, and we can share our discoveries.

We may develop a broader sense of empathy than we might have imagined. Isn’t one of the hallmarks of great literature supposed to be that we can all see that the story is universal, even when we’ve never experienced such circumstances?

Fiction may also exist because it provides a vehicle that allows us to go through the process of sorting through the particulars of human experience in a manageable way. What we are doing as we read and think about what we’ve just absorbed is a microcosm of what we do at every moment of our lives.

We are trying to decode the narrative. We are trying to make sense of it all.

Perhaps fiction’s virtue lines not only in its content but the fact that it creates the space for people of all varieties to share in the same experience of seeking understanding.

People who love to read probably have no need of an elaborate philosophical pretext to justify reading a novel, but I was excited. I decided I might want to start a book group to read fiction. And then we would go through this process of finding the universal in the particulars of our chosen story together.

A few weeks later, a handful of people came over for supper, and at the end of all the evening, someone remarked: “That was like a book group, except no one had to read the book!”

At which point I remembered what book groups are often like. Some participants have read the book, others have read half of it, and others didn’t have time to start. People make various insightful remarks, but the conversation fragments, and before long nobody is talking about the book.

Oh, well. There is a difference, I thought, between an idea about connecting and the actuality of connecting, and maybe this is still a divide I have yet to cross. Which isn’t to say that one couldn’t connect in a book group, even if it isn’t actually about the book.