Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hands, lips

I've just come back from the movies, and I swear I don't know how they do it, but I am sure they are trained to do it.

Image from Al tejo, October 2006

It's the hands and the lips. Actors, and especially actresses -- in this alone, in the hands and the lips, there is a difference, so the new affectation of calling women "actors" is peculiarly dishonest -- actresses must be trained to handle their hands and lips in a certain, arresting way, in a way that looks sweetly self-conscious but also seductive, busy, lovely. They don't gnaw or bite or purse their lips as real people do. Actresses' faces are never disfigured by their little gracious tics, but they also never stay still. Their lips are always animated, under their control but always moving, trembling, nearly smiling, half opened, half closing, half finishing a swallow, readying for or recovering from a hesitation in speech, or a chew. Always an attractive, discreet, perfect one.

People don't do this in real life. It's trained. Take up a digital camera some afternoon, and at a party or family gathering, quietly snap candid shots. You'll be surprised by the number of pictures you have to erase, because the photos are so unflattering, and why? Because in normal life, people hold their faces so awkwardly. Even when they keep their faces as active as actresses do, it's never in a nice way to look at. Ordinary people are either eating, or unconsciously scowling, or unconsciously maneuvering their tongues or jutting out their chins in some ugly way. For whole minutes at a stretch.

And the hands. Actresses are trained to use their hands, too. They must be. Even if she has rather beefy, gnarled hands -- Meryl Streep in It's Complicated -- she poses them beautifully. Her hands always look warm and blunt, alive and capable, open and softly poised for action but never aggressive or clawlike. Never stiff. When she pats her hair or gathers up her robe around her collarbone, her hands are like living, pulsing sculptures, looking as if she could speak to them and tell them what to do and they would think, and then obey her. Ordinary people's hands are cold joints, and sagging chilly skin. Of course, in the movies a manicure helps, as do, in today's movie, the choice of thick, tall gold and silver rings for her fine thick strong fingers. Perhaps the rings alone just shout "personality," which little in an ordinary woman's wardrobe ever does. Most women, trying to wear the rings Meryl Streep's character wore in the movie, would suffer the problem a famed fashion designer once rather cattily described when observing a woman too chic-ly dressed: the rings would wear her.

Try, for even an hour, to hold your lips and hands as actresses do. Be aware of them, without seeming to, and without seeming, what? Theatrical, kittenish. Fidgety. Actressy.

And then wonder. Who trains them to know this? And by the way, how long does it take to perfect?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Boy in a garden

He's standing before his -- or his mother's? -- prize hollyhocks. Are those giant mallows, too, to the right, or more hollyhock leaves? And what is the building? It looks industrial, not home-like.

The date? Judging by his pants and haircut, 1940s.

Spot the black kitten, marching busily past.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pearls and Roses, chapter 14

Pearls and Roses, chapter 13

“Wow. We need to get her calmed down,” Trish said to the other three members of the Board that evening, after the meeting had officially broken up and Alice had been the first to leave, still on good terms with at least Mill and Lily, she imagined.

“What’s with her being so by-the-book all of a sudden?” Mill asked.
“I have no idea,” Trish said. “I am so hurt. I am so hurt.”

“Well, it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Pat said easily. “Is she still on the list to go to France with us, is the question? Do we want to listen to that for a whole week in some itty-bitty jerkwater hotel?”

“If she feels that strongly about the bylaws, then she shouldn’t go at all,” Lily said.

“I agree,” Pat replied, “but how much do you want to bet she’ll still go? Wouldn’t you? To France?”
“Can we disinvite her?”
“I don’t know,” Trish said dismissively, busy gathering up her things. “I’m just incredibly hurt. Nothing has to be like this. It’s not worth it. I have other things to do.” They said good night and departed, the joy and the food of their normal meetings spoiled.

Alice kept on researching her views. That night and for some weeks afterward, she called and wrote other non-profit organizations and even wrote Monique Boyd herself. She said nothing about her work to most of her fellow employees, not wanting to frighten or bore them. She never revealed to anyone that she had contacted Monique, for she had only recently learned about the exclusive birthday parties at her apartment in Chicago and she knew that Trish especially, already upset, considered Monique her own property. Alice only wanted to know, privately, if she was right, because evidently they had no intention of listening to her for her merits.

What she learned made her feel marvelous. “Absolutely, this is wrong,” Monique wrote her back in November. “You have my total support. This has always been my baby, Alice, and I’m going to rock it.” When she read those words, Alice put the letter back in its envelope elated, determined that the next time they spoke on the phone – for they had done that, too – she would ask Mrs. Boyd gently why then she had vetted so many trips to Europe and Canada and Mexico in the past. Why did the rules matter now? And what of France now?

And she would feel marvelous, too, after hanging up the phone with a secretary of the hundred-million-dollar-a-year Cooper Foundation, or the three-hundred-million-dollar-a-year Steele Foundation. A secretary’s charming anonymous voice, usually young, would ring in her ears. “Wow!” it would exclaim. “You operate like that? That’s weird. No, that’s not normal. Aren’t you afraid of the IRS?”

“I am,” Alice would laugh, feeling like a character in a science fiction movie who has finally made long-distance contact with a real person from a telephone booth in a town being taken over by space pods. “But no one else seems to be.”

"Well, good luck,” the voice would say from a high silver office building in New York or Boston or Los Angeles, and Alice would return to the pods in Naperville armed with everything – and with nothing they were prepared to care about. She tried to make her case to Pat with all these massed statistics and earwitness affidavits, and Pat summed up, hard, “Well, I don’t know that that’s true.” Emphasis on two words, as needed: I don’t know that that’s true, or I don’t know that that’s true. In either case, I, Pat, am who matter, and my knowledge is what matters. I represent outrage, and I shall be unsatisfied, because all is well and we are good. You shall not make us feel other than we do.

As a matter of fact, though, Trish and Pat were shaken enough to double-check Alice’s research. They called Monique Boyd, each in turn, and they called the same billion-dollar non-profit corporations that Alice had. And they learned the same things. They called each other then, and compared notes. “Most of them I think we can just discount, they were so rude,” Trish complained. “People like that don’t even belong dealing with the public. But even Monique was kind of clipped with me.”

“Well, you saw the way she looked at her party this spring. And can you imagine being pestered by Alice since then? Who, I think, never said Boo to her since the day she was hired? I’d be clipped, too,” and Pat laughed the whooping, wheezy laugh.

“That’s true. Yeah. We really need to calm her down.”

Peter’s experience that autumn at Fontevrault, working all unbeknownst to them, was different. He was a man, a scholar, an expert, a professional. His reputation was such that he had been asked to perform a task of awesome importance and delicacy, asked by a nation-state. He had been invited to cross borders and put his hands upon, alter, save, history. He too dealt with committees under laws. Though he had a rough time of it, sometimes, convincing committees that his advice was sensible, and sometimes he failed, his kind of debates were at least conducted on a sensible level. They dealt with soils and water tables, not the validity of women’s souls. Once he had proved his point and found support through a show of hands, the project, any project, was his and he was obeyed – by men – as if he were a general. In this case, for instance, there was no question but that the saving of the lovely old abbey, Eleanor’s abbey, trumped all petty emotional quarrels. A man who had lost the vote – who believed that Peter’s way of saving the abbey would lead to its collapse – had no recourse except to fume, to talk, to write angry letters, and to wait and watch the work, more than half hoping it would all fall down and he would be proved tragically correct to no avail. But he could hardly actually stop it.

Meanwhile Peter paced the city’s archives, alone, he attended meetings at which he wore headphones because he couldn’t understand the language perfectly, but everyone still knew full well that he was in charge. He walked the city’s streets, knowing full well that probably some of the passersby recognized who he was and with what he had been entrusted. In between his trips to Chinon he returned home to his career and his wife. He and Elaine had been married twenty-one years. It was 1998. He was sixty.

Throughout these weeks of conflict, while she told her tales to brother, son, father, friend, Bethany gentlemen – and sisters-in-law, who were surprisingly sympathetic – Alice had always to endure other people’s ruefully rubbing their chins and remarking that it was difficult to deal with the strong. The few times she talked about the situation to the men on the staff, to Charlie or Ted, they would say, “You know, if it were a bunch of guys, we’d just say ‘Fuck you, let’s vote,’ and that’d be it.” And Alice would laugh and answer, “Yes, but these are women, Ted. Voting isn’t good enough.” She would grip his forearm, mocking but really angry. “They want to be emotionally understood.” And she would let him go and he would laugh and go home.

Always it was Trish and Pat who got to be strong, never herself. Even her wizened little friend Abigail, with her Bible and her attractive gray curls, hissed gently and said, “Ooh. You’ve got some powerful women to confront there. I guess you have to decide if a power struggle is worth it. Worth it spiritually, to you.” Alice gathered from all her interlocutors that defeat was pre-ordained and that really only a very dull soul – a horse in need of a sedative, of “calming down” – would not see that. Well, perhaps it was true. They certainly got their way and Alice had never, since playground days, encountered people who were so determined to get their way. And how ironic after all that they were supposed to go and film Fontevrault, an abbey, once a great mother-house of order, of downright religious work, everyone in it equal and divinely tasked. She had no weapons but the ten-year-old’s thrill in joining a club, and maybe in being an abbess, too.

So Alice’s first defeat (“I wouldn’t worry about it”) was really the only one necessary. She kept on trying little things. She resurrected the twice-monthly Business Meetings during office hours, in Room 4, and tried to introduce the barest note of formality into them. “Well, ladies, let’s get started,” she would say to perhaps six good little people at ten-thirty on the allotted Tuesday mornings, when she and everyone else knew full well that there had been another productive and very gossipy Pie Night the night before, with many decisions taken there. “Baby steps,” she told herself, “it took us years to get into a mess like this and it will take us years to get out. Baby steps.”

Baby steps. She determined to give up writing the newsletter after the first of the year. Then, miraculously, Trish and Pat began to come to the official on-the-clock meetings, and Alice thought that was a triumph. But they immediately used this concession to legitimacy to trump her anyway. The first thing they did, in early November, was to bring in a sign-up sheet for the Fontevrault trip and lay it on the table. Stupid Alice was thunderstruck. She had imagined the trip was still open for Executive Board discussion, newly private and newly formal discussion. It was not. Nor did anyone, executive or not, care.

"Aren’t you supposed to post this kind of thing on the tech board for a couple of weeks, so that everyone gets a chance to see it?” she groped in front of the six good little Tuesday souls. That had always been the way, the improper way. She thought desperately that in appealing to traditions Pat and Trish had always liked, she would gain time and fend off her growing reputation for being a misery – a horse.

"No,” they both said together. Pat turned on her the full effect of her big, clanking-rod body, and Trish of her flaxen hair and open, puzzled expression. “The business meetings are where everything should be done, and besides, we need to do this now,” Pat said. Trish went on, “The checks you and Mill and I signed in August are still outstanding, and we’re going to pay some hefty fees if we don’t follow through on this.”

Good Lord, was this what that money had been for? August, a million years ago. Yes it was. So now they had caught her in responsibility for previous actions, dangerous ones involving the company’s money, that she had undertaken before she suddenly cared about all her horsy technicalities. Rule-flouters had good memories and they knew how to take care of people, not rules but people. And they were now pretending to care about business meetings, in front of witnesses. Maybe it all evened out. Baby steps.

She bit her lip and signed up to go to Fontevrault. Pat and Trish exchanged looks. Oh, yes, they had invited her and they were not going to get away from her and have a Pie Night every night in Europe at her expense. Perhaps it would soothe them, appear less threatening, for her to be a hypocrite than an enemy and a martyr. She imagined herself on the plane, smiling and relaxed, assuring people merely by her presence that she was not such an ogre as to put a stop to this project which Mr. Boyd had wanted to do, even though legally they were all out on a limb and she hoped their jobs were not too much in jeopardy because if it.

Yes, she would go. She was not horrible. There was nothing to be afraid of. Besides, she wanted to see this old medieval abbey, and maybe she wanted to meet this Englishman for whom they were all, even at this distance, frankly agog. My goodness, yes – she was the only one of them unmarried, wasn’t she? Maybe for a change they would all have to be circumspect.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 15

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Vintage shopping

Let's go to the Antique Mall on Main Street in Crown Point, Indiana. It's right across the street from the old courthouse, where young things used to elope to, say in 1937 (my aunt was eighteen, her new husband seventeen -- there was hell to pay), and it's right across the other street from the old jail that couldn't hold Dillinger. Johnny Depp filmed part of Public Enemies here. The locals were suitably agog.

First floor: the best is usually here. The second floor offers things of only middling quality and interest, and the third floor is given over entirely to holiday shlock, year round. Even before it was turned over to that, it was the place to find Pez dispensers and little troll dolls. But the first floor -- well, you might find here a big scarf which is almost certainly silk, and even looks like Hermes. The colors a bit drab, but otherwise a fairly good fake, perhaps?

The things people save. Old, empty bottles of celery tonic. Perhaps it was the Red Bull -- or the green tea -- of 1906.

If you are an antique dealer and you'd like to rent this space,

-- this, the courthouse, will be the view out your window.

Random finds: only the French would make a lamp like this. But if the dealer claimed, on the little handwritten price tag, that this was Polish or Argentinian, would it seem as beautiful?

Good heavens: my parents' old bedroom set.

Why yes, it's a radio. They were more decorative in 1934.

And a unique piece of Americana: a black family places a portrait of Woodrow Wilson on the mantel piece, below the bunting around the picture of the absent soldier father, and near both Abraham Lincoln and, a bit hidden behind the price tag, George Washington.

Friday, January 1, 2010


All the famous political commentators, the pundits, the Krauthammers and the Hansons and the Rubins, keep on writing, keep on predicting, as if the president will now act logically. Now he will respond, in some non-perfunctory way, to events that are not about him and his godhead. He will "cool [favorite] motifs" (like apologizing for American history), transfer Napolitano to some other job, start taking terrorism seriously, in short, grow up, grow in office. A few weeks ago, poor Max Boot at Commentary's Contentions actually praised Obama's "boffo" speech accepting the Nobel Peace prize, calling it a masterpiece and another example of the president growing in office. Two weeks later, Boot was complaining about the administration's "foreign policy incoherence."

They are all trying too hard. Where the future is concerned, I see emotional scenes. Bits of a novel or a movie. It is simple enough, to see a complete, finished man acting in character.

Twenty years of membership in Jeremiah Wright's church mean something about him. His declaring, in the very month he was inaugurated, that returning wounded veterans ought to pay for their own medical care meant something. A man like that doesn't start growing in office at forty-seven.

I see: either the withdrawal of worship -- for he is being criticized, even by his acolytes, it seems -- combined with the true burdens of the presidency will lead to private breakdown; or he'll be caught on tape expressing absolutely outrageous personal truths of a "I don't give a f --- about this country" sort -- although he might be forgiven for that, as he was for his seat in church; or he'll be caught in some sort of personal scandal overwhelming enough to utterly change the terms on which anyone looks at him: the way it is now impossible to watch Tiger Woods play mere golf. This last vision derives from an insight not my own, but the insight struck me and I've mused, let's say.

Wild eyed, I suppose. The pundits lose nothing in keeping their predictions calm and reasonably respectful, albeit still angry and stern, bewildered and sad. They might be proved right, and if not, who will notice? And they are keeping within the conventions of gentlemen's political discourse, keeping their careers safe. The funny thing is, the longer they approach this man as if he's normal, as if he's fully adult, the more professionally frustrated they are going to be by his incoherencies. Maybe they should get out to the movies more.