Friday, October 31, 2008


After my colleague Janet's brilliant dissection of Sarah Palin's wink, I've felt at a loss for what to comment on. Her assessment of the anatomy of that manipulative facial punctuation is so right on, so to the heart of the matter. I've got nothing to add except my appreciative agreement.

But this morning in my yoga class, as I began the simultaneously grueling and tranquilizing series of exercises that has become my drug of choice, it came to me. Perhaps it's time for an about face. So what I want to say is what I was saying to myself as I bent my 46 year-old body into a pretzel shape I'm particularly proud of: "Breath." That's it. 
Yoga often hurts. Muscles strain. Your outside life insists on inserting itself into the calm you're seeking. The best way I've found to stop the spinning of my mind and my preference for reaction over reflection is to breathe deeply and rhythmically. Yoga requires that your mind be relaxed even as you prompt your body to attempt the impossible. You learn to observe your physical state without judging it or entering to far into it. The result, amazingly, is that the pain recedes. I'm not an expert, and I don't experience lovely glowing, nirvana-like apparitions. But I have managed to experience waves of peace, which come and go, with the cyclic engagement and relaxing of my mind.
What does this have to do with Sarah Palin? With politics? With next Tuesday? Well, somehow, a lot.
I confess that I'm right up there with the most rabid election addicts. Even when I'm supposed to be working, or better yet, relaxing for one brief minute, I am wasting time clicking back and forth between Rasmussen, Real Clear Politics, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera in English, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish," Salon, Slate and an increasing dose of YouTube (as it provides me all the American stuff I miss by living in Italy) in search of a whiff of where this thing is going "right now." And as we all know the internet and our bottomless addiction to it have reinvented the immediacy that "now" connotes. You can read a story "now," only to have to click to another source to read the latest version, which is already more "now" than the one you just read. All day long between other jobs and responsibilities I follow the polls ticking back and forth by tenths of points in their nervous, incremental, undecided—and very irritating—little dance.
It is, in a word, insane.
But what does this mean—this continuous flow of updates, analyses, commentaries, attacks and counter-attacks? It means, really, that no one's thinking a whole lot. Everyone's reacting. And over-reacting. Who's breathing deeply in the middle of all this? Who's observing, reflecting?Every now and then Sarah Palin does take a deep breath, but like her wink, it's designed for dramatic effect. ("While I take a break to breath you can absorb the truth of my latest lie.")
I can't make this rolling stone stop to gather moss, but I can stop the way I let it infect my mind and my quality of life. Because it is effecting my life, and not in a good way.
This election IS important. I'm not denying that. It may well be the most important thing that happens to us American collectively in our lifetime. But, I repeat, but, it is not the most important thing in my existence. 
I live. I breathe. I love. I have children to raise. And while I'd like to raise them with a consciousness about what's happening in this world, this nonstop participation in the media circus is neither consciousness nor conscience at work. This is addiction. This is madness. This is not helping us.
From here on out in this post, please slow down. Forget about all that mad bubbling stirred up by your favorite internet news source. Breathe. Think about how your breathing feels as it travels in and out of you body, carrying in new air and carrying away old. Breath deeply. Enjoy the fact that you can. 
I'm asking you to do this because what would help us, would be to stop. To still ourselves. To find a silence inside. What would help us would be to breathe deeply, to slow down our processes, to reflect well and long and without hurry or preconceptions about what is happening in our lives. To observe from a distance. What color is the sky today? How does the air feel against our skin? What muscles hurt? How do we really feel? How can the relaxation of the mind relieve our various ills? How long can we sit still and simply observe what that feels like—without input, without stimulus, without browsing. Without judgment of ourselves if we fail, at first, to find stillness.
And then, with calm and maybe with a greater degree of detachment, we can view the news as a deservedly small part of an even larger picture: just existing. And maybe there, we can find a place to contain it so that it doesn't consume us and in so doing destroy our capacity to react appropriately and to live our lives despite it.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why We Get Sarah Palin

The McCain ticket, as well as America's incessantly shrill and one-note corporate media, wanted us to believe Sarah Palin was there to bring women to their side. You know, make Hillary supporters believe Oh look, she's one of us. She's wearing...a skirt. To get us to vote Female First, issues and intelligence and demonstratable ability and country last. Vote with our vaginas, as if our vaginas weren't beyond exhausted as it is.

Seriously, with all the laundry and coq au vin family suppers and spontaneous acts of complex multi-tasking our nifty anatomical regions must perform on a daily basis, how ever do they find time to cast a deciding vote? Oh so that's where the term ballot box comes from! 
But wait, once again, I digress. 
For six, seven weeks—although, dear reader, it feels like 107—everyone propped up Sarah Palin as if she were the crimson-clad answer to all things womanized. Even Geraldine Ferraro, whom I used to respect, acted as if Palin deserved extra girl credit simply for being utterly X instead of nasty old Y. Gravelly-voiced newscasters trumpeted how wonderful it is that someone from tiny Wasilla could shatter our eternal glass ceiling. My husband turned to me in utter horror after the VP debate saying 'Will women honestly fall for that?' because even an intelligent man such as he was wondering if the pundits were right, and there's some sort of female gender switch which automatically ignites, requiring we vote for the one most 'like' us, regardless if she's completely unqualified, against every ideal we espouse, dangerously inept and incurious, strangely arrogant and oddly over-confident, miraculously uninformed and stupendously dangerous for our democracy. 
And to my husband I screamed a mighty No! Only women who are (all those words above) would vote for her! 
And then, friend, I got angry. And I've been growing steadily more angry ever since. 
This Governor wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. This Governor would enforce a Constitutional Amendment on gay marriage. This Governor wasn't simply into banning books, she was into pulling books off library shelves with her own evangelical hands.  This Governor believes she is on a mission from God and this God can pray the gay right out of you. And 'win' Iraq. She doesn't believe climate change is man-made, but she does believe in Armageddon. She doesn't believe in sex education unless it's abstinence-only, but she does believe in making rape victims pay for their own rape kits. 
She has opposed clean water regulation and has approved legislation allowing oil and gas companies to nearly triple the amount of toxic waste they can dump into Alaska waters. She loves earmarks as much as she loves aw-shucks folkisms, believes creationism should be taught in every school in America, believes in unlimited off-shore drilling, thinks slaughtering wolves and soon bears from on high is not simply good clean fun, but a God-given right, too. 
She believes in cronyism and nepotism but more than anything, anything, she believes in what got her where she is in the first place, and that's the last refuge of the female scoundrel: The Almighty Wink. Winking at cameras and crowds and world leaders as if she's....she's....gosh darnit, the second-prettiest lady in Alaska. Winking as if that, forget the nod, can make all sins wash away in the night.
But see this is where my anger ends. And my chromosomes stand up and applaud. 
Because women, regardless of our political affiliation, regardless how far left or right we are, know the shallows that lie beneath a lady who winketh. And last week, as her numbers plummeted, I was proved right. See, we know she's part Mean Girl we knew in high school and part Human Being Who Doesn't Deserve These Heights. We understand her wink-ness is a way of deflecting any sort of intelligent response, of leveling the playing field to something truly subterranean. She can't answer the question, so she bats it away with an eyelash. She squeals Gosh and Darn and because it worked for Bush, perhaps it will work for her. She uses mascara, liner and shadow like they're the Holy Trinity of Vanity, projecting the humble unity of 'we're all in this together don'tchaknow.' As well as 'See how easy breezy this whole running the United States thing really is?
But we see it and we're embarrassed. Not embarrassed because she's a woman but embarrassed that anyone believes she represents us, as Americans. As thinking individuals who care desperately about the direction this country takes. 
And it turns out, as it always turns out, her biggest appeal isn't to women and never has been. As it turns out, her biggest appeal is to—ta da—men.  
Men in trucker hats and baseball hats turned backwards and inside out, men who think Barefoot and Pregnant is the name of a sweet new cologne (Man where can I buy me some?) men who yell 'You tell 'em baby' at rallies and wear buttons proclaiming 'Proud to be voting for a hot chick' and who far, far overuse and misunderstand the word 'dude.' Men, in other words, who think she's winking at them. Because she sure as hell isn't winking at us. 
And that is why, with fingers crossed and hope in my heart, I hold my breath and await Election Day. 
My vagina is voting for Obama/Biden.
I hope yours, no matter how exhausted it may be, is too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My mother, myself

My mother was a beautiful woman.

We all say that about our mothers, it must be some evolutionary impulse I suppose, and we hope that by saying so we reap the genetic benefits that follow. But in this instance it takes no amount of exaggeration for me to say that my mother was quite beautiful, and that I have always paled in comparison.

When I was young it seemed as if all my friends had mothers straight out of Happy Days or The Waltons or All in The Family (seriously) and mine seemed like nothing less than a young Lauren Bacall, which both intimidated the hell out of me and made me alarmingly proud at the very same time. How she managed to look lovely regardless of how little money we had (and how less and less it became after my father was struck with cancer) I will never know. But how she felt about beauty is something I will always remember: it mattered only a little, and in comparison with generosity and grace, kindness and humility, intelligence and tolerance, it mattered not a whit at all. Her aim in my life - in the life of all three of her children - was to raise the best adults, the best human beings, she possibly could. What we looked like, and what we achieved with those looks, meant absolutely nothing to her.

What mattered was the number of novels we devoured and the grades we brought home, those words teachers scrawled on report cards as to whether we were a pleasure in class or utter hell, the friends we coveted, the loves we reciprocated, whether we knew enough to do something brilliant in this world, whether we had the grace to fail and get back up. She told me a hundred times that looks were temporary - a blessing when acne sprung upon me with Wagnerian ferocity; when pizza and chocolate became my Prozac of choice and thus poundage did apply - and that to judge ourselves either too harshly or too lovingly was a trap. A joke. A lie.

I think she watched her wrinkles come and her red hair turn dark and was glad she had Updike and Cather and McCarthy and Dinesen to keep her company, but I also know that growing older pained her. Not in the expected ways, because she believed Bette Davis when she said 'Old age is no place for sissies.' What pained her was the invisibility. The gradual fading away while younger, newer takes over. How she went from having all doors opened to just a few. How years became a slight cross to bear, although she bore them so regally, and how inside she still felt 32 and could not understand how no one saw that. The way that years should add up to something, not detract. She despised my admission that at 42 I felt 'too old' to begin a real writing career. For if I felt 'old' at 40 what did that say about her at 70? Was I negating her still being on this earth? Could I not see she was just as viable if not more so?

And of course that's not what I was saying at all.

It had nothing to do with numbers or wrinkles or chronological gravity: it had to do with fear of a blank page and a new start and it was personal, all mine, just me. If she were still here I would tell her that. If she were here, my beautiful brilliant mother I would take her hand and tell her that nothing ever diminished her. Nothing cut her down. Nothing made her less. But she is gone and I am left with a blank page again. At 49, I do not know how old I feel. Sometimes I'm happy to merely feel anything at all.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Where to draw the line

I've been working freelance this week on a European line of products, found in the pharmacy, that help combat cellulite. By all accounts—pharmacists and friends alike—the stuff works. It's been around a long time, and I suppose that one could argue that its dated look in packaging and advertising contribute to the sense one has that the brand is "trustworthy". There are no sleek modern graphics to seduce you. No minimalist lines or frosted glass. Instead, the company's claims are specifically spelled out on the packaging. "Increases tone around the waistline by 37% within 4 weeks of use." Stuff like that. The names of mysterious active ingredients appear as well, in hefty Helvetica Neue expanded. Along with this rigorously Swiss typeface, the advertising has featured—as do competitive campaigns for brands such as La Roche, Vichy, Collistar, etc.—a perfectly perfect woman, or parts thereof. When asked to take a stab at refreshing or modernizing the campaign, one of my first thoughts was to back off on the retouching. Too much perfection a dead body makes.

Nonetheless, in the end, I hesitated to even broach the subject. This company is not Dove, and they could easily argue that their success, which is enormous, is based on these very perfect, inhuman images. Further, I discovered that as I was presenting my own updated versions of the ads, I too was tempted to retouch the photos I'd been given to work with. I wondered why?

I can't really answer the question, other than to say that the model the agency had photographed was so close to perfection, that certain flaws felt like they had to go. On the other hand, as I poised my Photoshop airbrush over her tanline, I realized that the retouching I was doing, was nothing compared to what they would want eventually. In the end, she would be truly airbrushed, resculpted, scrubbed clean of any and all variations in skin tone. Her curves would no longer appear soft, but as firm and cool as marble. She wouldn't be she, she would be a platonic ideal. Both boring, and a lie. And this coming from a company which takes great pains to precisely quantify its promises.

I'm not laying blame here. I'm just tossing it out there for thought and consideration. Because the other thing that bothers the brain is this: how many of us would buy the product if the images were "real." How do you show "37% more tone"? Compared to what? Without the ideal of perfection dangling carrot-like before our eyes, do we take the otherwise honest bait? I don't know. Maybe not. And in fact, it doesn't even feel like a lie; it merely feels like what it is: an obvious idealization. I know that won't be me, but I don't really care. 37% of something moving in that direction seems like a fair shake.

Then I remembered a fascinating article entitled "Picture Perfect" which I read in the May 12 issue of the New Yorker about perhaps the best photographic retoucher in the world, Pascal Dangin. He was the retoucher behind the Dove campaign, behind all those "real" women that we assume are appearing "as is." Don't be fooled; even they have been doctored for presentation.

When he explains that he'll leave an actress' crooked teeth and laughlines because they make her who she is, he is telling us from a position of great visual authority that there's a significant difference between beauty and perfection. Aging is hard enough, but we would be greatly accomplished if we could assess ourselves in the mirror with as much humanity: what of our reflections is simply who we are? and what would be left if we erased it?


Friday, October 10, 2008

Growing up.

Funny how time warps and weaves and folds back on itself.

Our last entry was in 2006, and perhaps frustrated that our book sales weren't doing better (that's another story for another time) we stopped posting onto Ripe: The Movement. But the fact of the matter is, our book may have slowed down, but the movement of ripeness goes on with or without us. We were happily reminded of this by a reader named Wendy.

When last we were posting, we'd both been hit by a series of deaths within close range, and our moods, world-views, and words were colored accordingly. Even though we said "Boing" in May 2006 with the intention of jumping back into action, the fact of the matter is that springing back takes time.

But time has passed: more than two years. And in that time, we've both regained a sense of youth and resilience. Some experiences are just to be waded through. There's nothing to do but hold tight and see where you end up. We're happy to say that we've ended up "up."

In the past weeks, we've also decided to dive back into our working partnership, and to take advantage of the ways in which we've both grown individually and professionally in the past few years. As Janet always said, "you don't grow old, you just grow."