Tuesday, August 03, 2010

When I was ten I went to a friend's house to play. Her home was long and gorgeous and so unlike anything I'd ever seen. This was 1969 and everything in her house was somehow tasteful and exquisite and outrageously colorful at the same time, like one of Barbie's whoozy mod designer outfits. She walked me through the front door - there was nobody inside but us - back to her bedroom and I remember three things that floored me: she had her own walk-in closet; they had a pool (A private pool. In Oregon. In the backyard where lounge chairs waited like something out of 'The Graduate') and the house had a wall around it, which of course I thought was fantastic. She lived only twelve, fourteen blocks from me but it was more than another world. It was a world of whispers.
See, her parents were divorced.
Whispered over the dinner table like cancer or Lou Gehrig's disease or Republican or as in 'Annie Hall', Jewish. For some reason this all stands out as much as the fact she had at least 100 stuffed animals in her room. And dozens and dozens of Barbies, twice as many as me. She seemed a little sad, this girl. A little bit like the daughter on Mad Men, blonde and distant and odd. But it never occurred to me it was about being divorced. It seemed more because she had everything and seemed to want none of it. I remember she offered me any doll or toy I wanted. I suppose to be her friend. I know I declined, not because of ethics or morality (I was already shoplifting now and then by 8, so ethics weren't really my concern) but only because how would I explain it at home? Nah, keep your own fabulous offerings to yourself blonde girl.
Later I found out she offered toys to a few other girls, too. And then she moved. To California.

Now everybody is divorced. Or about to be divorced or pretty much resigned to the idea, if not the fact, of it. And what used to be called a broken home is now a blended one, something we throw in a jar and hit Liquefy, Crush, Purify, Pulse. Everyone used to say - the media, our teachers, our parents, I mean everyone - that divorce was so horrible, so radically disgusting to both God and Nature, that it would rip the beating heart out of a family, damaging everyone in myriad and complicated ways, and if you didn't stay together 'for the children' you might as well condemn them to an endless merciless hell where all the other 'children of divorce' sat next to their personal walk-in closets, weeping with shame.
My parents stayed married until my dad died, when I was 19. My mother never remarried, never even dated another man, something that equally thrilled and saddened me; a choice that was strictly hers to make, not ours. But we knew many 'children of divorce' and most of those children seemed as blissfully normal as anyone with from a non-ripped-apart family would ever be. We all had our neuroses. We all had our moments in the sun. We all wished we were adopted (if we weren't) and hated being adopted (if we were). We all wanted to be popular, perfect, adored, the center of attention, the only A students in sight, with hair that wouldn't frizz and breasts that would soon command attention and we all had outrageous dreams and hidden secrets we told no one, no one at all. In other words: we were all kids.
Time passed. In the 80's and 90's, it seemed like everyone came from a 'broken home'. I became a stepmom, or stepmonster, actually. My oldest stepdaughter got divorced, and their daughter suddenly had 'two homes' as my stepdaughter once had. My step-granddaughter turned out just terrifically. She's actually better than terrific, she's wise, humane, interested and interesting, and I'm pretty sure she's never even considered shoplifting. She loves her Papa and her mother equally, unashamedly. She loves her father's ex-girlfriend. She loves her new half-sister.
She is not, as far as the eye can see, broken.
And shame on anyone, anywhere, for making her or anyone else feel that way.
Shame on the religious or the censorial for making someone feel deficient. Less. Chipped like a piece of china.
All families are broken and missing and without all the perfect bits. All families are normal and deeply lacking normalcy, we're all a tapestry of blood and love and defiance and need, related by things we can't touch. Sometimes we're even related by DNA.
There's a terrific piece in the New York Times today called 'In Praise of A Broken Home', written and illustrated by Ellen Lupton. Read it. Please.
And then just when you feel broken, get out the tape. -- Janet

Chéri revisited.

After leaving the post about Stephen Frear's film Chéri, I received an email from a dear friend, letting me know that the saga behind the movie was perhaps more interesting and enlightening than the film itself. What I hadn't realized, was that the film project was originally developed (or at least nurtured) by Jessica Lange for many years, clearly with the thought that she herself would play the part of Lea.

Ten years after she began her crusade, the film was developed with the younger Michele Pfeiffer in the lead role. The story of this shift and of the cruelty of Hollywood is an interesting read. In this London Telegraph article, all is revealed, at least from one person's point of view, including some valuable insights into the story as written by Colette and where the movie, as finally produced, diverges from her intent.

I add, here, photos of Colette herself, young and old, so that you might see that when the woman writes of youth/beauty vs. age/self-possession, she knows of which she writes. —Charlotte

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Time passes. A story is told.

You are all probably familiar with the photo above left—"The Afghan Girl" photographed by Steve McCurry. It ran on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. In January, McCurry was sent back to find her and photograph her again. The similarities and the differences are stark.

If you are like me, you met her in the earlier photo a long time ago. And you've seen her face almost every time you walked into a Borders or Barnes and Noble. But having become a part of the fabric of our lives, she's gone without more notice. Her eyes have burned into us, but beyond that, we didn't know anything about her other than what we assumed to be true, given the headlines about her country over the years.

A footnote: she was photographed by McCurry with Kodachrome film. Steve McCurry was given the last roll of Kodachrome by Kodak last year when they discontinued production. He went back to Asia to use it. Hear that story here.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Along with its bread, France is characterized by a widespread love and recognition of its own illustrious literary figures. Colette is one of them. She was born in a beautiful town about 45 minutes' drive from here. Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. I've never read her books, but I've gazed long and hard at photos of her, trying to fathom the depths of her gaze, and it is now on my to-do list to tackle her works in whatever language works best.

Her life was full of romantic intrigues with both men and women, so it's hardly surprising that in her book and in Stephen Frears' adaptation, Chéri, a beautiful young man, for whom the story is named, takes his own life for the love of an older woman, the courtesan Léa. Clearly Colette knew how to see women with the eyes of a lover. And what she sees is good for the soul.

I'm not critiquing the film (suffice it to say that though the acting was at times stilted, the film is a feast for the eyes and the middle aged heart), I'm merely here to say that the story did me good. Sitting on the brink of 50, contemplating still what it means to age in this unkind culture and what it means to be truly "beautiful," it was exhilarating to see Michele Pfeiffer holding her gorgeous own next to an actor (Rupert Friend) 23 years her junior. I don't know what she has done to maintain herself, and I don't really care. Her age (and the age of her character)—as I believe it always is—is evident. And it is stunning. Her hands, her eyes, and those rather decisive lines that run from the nose to the sides of her mouth—they don't lie.

If lines speak of years, they also speak of experience. And in this story it is her experience that wins and ruins his heart. But it is also her own knowledge and painful recognition of the truth of Age versus Youth that renders the story warm and real and—there's that word again—beautiful. The struggle, particularly in a woman who's entire livelihood had been based on her physical charms, is a valiant one.

So, girlfriends. If you haven't seen it, rent it, watch it, and love yourself for all that you are. Going back in time wouldn't make you more beautiful. In fact, it might make you less so.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Our Daily Bread

While Janet takes on the enormous, I take on the quotidian.

As every summer, I am in the French countryside until the end of August give or take a week. It's beautiful. And I am thankful for every day that starts anew. And each of those new days starts with a walk to the bakery, where we by our next 24 hours' supply of bread. Three baguettes if we are all here. Just one or two if I am here with my children and my mother-in-law.

As I've mentioned before, my mother-in-law lived here, in this town, during World War II. She lived with her severe grandmother. And they knew hunger.

One of the memories she has which seems to be clear and not rewritten by Alzheimer's is of her grandmother saying, "You must respect the bread." What she meant by this was more specific than you might think. She meant:

The bread should be cut and not torn. Tearing it is disrespectful of its fiber and its integrity.

The bread should be covered with a cloth to protect it from flies.

The bread should be handled with care, even with love, if you will.

The bread should be eaten with thanks. Great thanks.

And most of all, the bread should never be wasted.

I'm still often guilty of tearing bread (I feel like I become one with it when I rip into its crust enclosed softness), but I think about her words every, single day. About the depth and breadth of the statement. It goes beyond kitchen and table, into field and factory. If one is to respect the bread, one respects what goes into it. And one respects the earth that gives rise to all those ingredients. And one respects the hand that made it.

The man that makes the bread in this small town, wakes up every day at 4:30 or 5:00. He feeds everyone of the 375 souls who live here. He does not take vacation. His name is Gérard, and he is missing some teeth. He greets me always with a smile and chatter that I have difficulty deciphering. He is covered with flour. His cat sleeps in the bakery on a stack of newspapers.

Tomorrow is another day. And another loaf of bread. I cannot wait to taste it. If there is a 'God Particle,' it will be baked inside it. —Charlotte

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And Buddha says Make Me One With Everything

How many physicists does it take to find God? Apparently 1000. How many of those physicists are wearing a clown nose and Groucho Marx hair? Eight.*

For those of you who haven't been watching, let me pull back the veil and reveal the search for the origin of the universe, genius-style. One thousand physicists have been working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory trying to find the 'God Particle', also called the Higgs boson, which is said to be responsible for for creating the universe as we know it. For taking the Big Bang and letting it linger, thus giving life to our unbelievable planet, our wondrous animals, our skyblue seas, our seablue skies, our far from endless bounty, BP, good things happening to bad people, bad things happening to everyone else, BP getting away with murder, Rush Limbaugh, movies featuring a naked or semi-naked Ewan McGregor, and yoga. Not necessarily in that order.

Over the last decade physicists - yes, God bless them - have examined a thousand trillion collisions of protons and anti-protons looking for signs of that singular spark that created us. All of which begs some serious questions.

First, how does someone count to a thousand trillion? That has to be exhausting. Five hundred trillion is exhausting enough and I'm not counting I'm merely typing. Secondly, is God truly in the God Particle and what does that name actually mean? GP: It's the Theory of Everything, and finding it would explain how all the forces in the universe interact to produce the world we know now. It's a theoretical energy particle that would reveal why things have mass - and why we, our planet and everything around it - was created out of chaos. It's never been observed. Never located. It's a phenomena that remains hidden, a mystery. What's essential is invisible to the eye.**

Origin of the Universe. Dark Matter. The Reason We're Here. 'Scientists Inch Towards Finding God Particle' the headlines screamed today. Will we ever get there? Or will the universal rug be pulled out from under us, Harpo honking in the background, Loki laughing at our misery? God, you trickster you, waiting behind the curtain, always in the details.

*This number subject to debate.
**Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince. Read it. It's beautiful.


Sunday, July 25, 2010


I couldn't agree more with what Janet wrote. And, in fact, immediately after writing her last post, she suggested we not blog anymore. She said, "We both have lives to live." And she's right. Why are we doing this? We're not sure.

It does seem that the world of interactivity is more and more a life of inactivity. If we are at our computers conducting our social lives, we are by definition NOT doing other things. We are sedentary, mostly passive participants in other people's dialogs. Trying to be wittier. Trying to be "seen". Trying to drum up larger numbers of "friends." So much of it is so highschool. And we're done with that, aren't we?

The blog is a little different. It's a way of recording what we're thinking. A way of sharing something with ourselves and with others. And yet, the exigencies of "real" life always take precedence. It's hard to do this with regularity when what really interests you in life, when you get right down to it, isn't talking about life but participating in it.

I was doing a freelance project a few weeks ago for Telecom Italia. It was a new business pitch and their strategy was to encourage Italians to use the internet. Italy is, for the most part, wired with high speed connections. But usage in Italy is lower than in Slovenia, which, when we lasted checked, was a "less developed" country. Italy is 27th or 28th in the world, if I remember correctly, in internet usage. So my job was to encourage Italians to spend more time sitting at their computers. More time writing emails and blogs and comments on Facebook. My actual job was to tell them that they'd be "missing out" if they didn't stop doing all that other great stuff they were doing (like actually spending real time with real people) and start seeing what "life" is all about online. Wow. Weird. I'm simplifying a complex argument, because yes, it's possible that being online more could help some people in remote areas economically, but let's get real: how much has it improved our lives? I think it's a serious question. And probably one that has to be evaluated on a case by case, very personal basis: how can I use technology to improve my day-to-day existence? Is it improving it? Is it damaging it? How do I really want to use it?

What it has given me is the chance to keep friendships and familial bonds alive. Living overseas was a choice I made in the era of digital connectedness. If it had been fifty years before, either I would have chosen to forsake love to stay with friends and family. Or I would have chosen to give up friends and family for a chance at making my own family elsewhere. Fortunately, I was spared that dilemma.

And being here with Janet, in this weird digital space, has been a privilege and a joy. I understand why maybe we should stop. But there's a part of me that doesn't want to. I'm not trying to make friends or influence people here; I'm just trying to participate in our own little experiment. But maybe the experiment needs to yield to new experiments. Other forms of dialog.

So what are we to do? I don't know the answer. But we'll all find out soon, won't we?

But maybe there's a clue in this stupid little anecdote: after Janet wrote her last post and asked me if we should stop, I wrote her back and said, "Maybe, but there's something I want to write right away! I'm gonna do it tomorrow!" Well, tomorrow came and went, and did I post? No. I harvested lavendar. And it was, I have to admit, satisfying in a way blogging never could have been. My fingers smelled of lavendar. The house was filled with its herbal perfume. And this winter, back in Milan, I'll make sachets for our underwear drawers. Hand stitched and filled. And every time I see or smell them, I'll remember this summer. Blogging assures sweet memories too, but it will never smell so sweet. —Charlotte

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Facebook v. the world

Love this from today's New York Times because it's not simply timely and true, it's really fairly sad. Ben Brantley writes first about Garbo, her mystery and fascination. And then about our culture's supposed 'democracy of technology', which honestly has become more of a dictatorship, ironic even to me as I write - oh sorry, blog - this. Brantley starts below:

The world, you see, no longer has any tolerance for — let alone fascination with - people who aren’t willing to publicize themselves. Figures swathed in shadows are démodé in a culture in which the watchword is transparency.

Increasingly, the perception is that everyone is knowable, everyone is accessible and that everyone is potentially a star. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, personal Web sites with open-door chat rooms, the endlessly proliferating television reality shows are now commonplace forums for the famous who want to seem like ordinary people and for ordinary people who want to seem famous. Us magazine’s rubric “Stars, they’re just like us!” has now been inverted to “Us, we’re just like stars.”

The theory appears to be that if you never shut up, no one can forget you. And that to shut up is to withdraw from life. I was seated not long ago next to a magazine editor, discussing a former glamour girl who had disappeared to a farm in South America. “I think it’s cool she was able to go cold turkey on being a celebrity,” I said. The editor answered sadly: “Really? I see it as giving up.”

Fame has become an existential condition: If your image isn’t reflected back at you, then how do you know you’re alive? The problem is that, people being people, 24-hour visibility will ultimately breed if not contempt, then weary familiarity. That’s why the tabloids need a new generation of cover girls and boys every year or so, a breeding process facilitated by reality television. Jake, Vienna, Heidi, Spencer: blink and you’ll miss them, though you can bet they’ll keep using Twitter until they die.

A hunger abides in us to see mere mortals approaching perfection and I, for one, would just as soon not be asked to separate the dancer from the dance, or for that matter the beauty from the beauty....When we first fall in love with people, they always seem remote, unattainable. Holding on to love after you’ve crossed the divide between you and the object of your desire is a chapter in achieving maturity; it’s what marriage is supposed to be. But there’s a part of us that needs to keep falling in love with the girl in the mists in the distance or the boy riding away on a horse. You’ve been there, I’m sure, and you know what happens when these dream girls and boys open their mouths or scratch themselves. The mystery dissolves like fog at sunrise.

So to honor a nearly forgotten time when there was romance in the unspoken, and human mystery wasn’t something that could be solved by the end of a television episode, might we now have a moment of silence?

No? I didn’t think so.

-- JC