Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New York missive no 36 - Alain de Botton on love

I finally met LF, from whom I’m subletting the apartment while she lives in California. She was as I imagined, feisty, fun and centre of her own universe. In she came like a whirlwind, with her (necessarily, I imagine) calm boyfriend in her wake. She went straight into her bedroom. “Brrrr, winter in New York! Where’s my blue puffa jacket?” Oh-oh. I had never seen a blue puffa jacket in that room but automatically felt guilty. She went through the few coats hanging up in the closet. No blue puffa jacket. I attempted to distract her as she searched by starting a conversation but to no avail. “I know it was here before,” she said. Then a little accusingly, “perhaps your friend A packed it away when he was living here?” Big black sacks were tugged down from on high and rummaged through. Then “Yes! Got it.” Relief, mine as much as hers. Panic over. Now she could say hello.

We chatted by the bookshelves – she ran through my books, lugged over in batches in heavy suitcases from London, and then the ones of hers that I’d pulled out of boxes when I first moved in, to fill up the glaringly empty black Ikea shelf-space. One of hers was Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love”. “Anyone who is ever in a relationship or about to get into one has to read that book,” she said. I didn’t mention that one of her diaries, found up in the boxes along with the books, had also provided some insight on that subject – at least along the lines of reminding me that us 30-something year-old single women share startlingly similar experiences and emotions. It gave me the sense of belonging to a club, albeit a not particularly exclusive one. (Ok I shouldn’t have. But what are diaries for if not to be read by people who don’t have permission to?).

I remembered how GV had interviewed de Botton for the unsubtly-named magazine “SLANT” (tagline “Think Differently”) that we’d produced at journalism school. The first half of her article was skewed with adulation. “He walks into the room, a tall, captivating figure...”… “I gaze into his dark eyes as he considers my questions”…and suchlike. Looking at the picture on the book jacket I couldn’t quite see what she had been getting at. I read the book though, in bed a couple of nights and then on the plane on the way to Switzerland for Christmas. It's essentially a moment-by-moment account of the narrator’s relationship with a woman called Chloe, interspersed with philosophical musings and references that analyse their reactions to each other in microscopic detail. Its voice is very much de Botton's – that of a young (at the time it was published) Cambridge-graduate-confident-he-has-all-the-answers, even if when they constitute new questions. When he mentions in passing that Chloe said one of his problems is thinking too much, I wasn’t surprised. "Relax, Alain (even though yes I know the narrator isn’t meant to be you)…Revel in the moment for what it is! Stop looking for coherent meanings where there’s no such thing to be found", I felt like saying on regular occasions. That said, there are endless observations that ring true. Though the bits I related to were not those that a young LF had underlined in blue biro and annotated in the margins…perhaps our experiences and emotions are not that similar after all. Anyway, a few of the obvious but important remarks I liked were:

“The possibility of an alternative love life is a reminder that the life we are leading is only one of a myriad of possible lives: and it is perhaps the impossibility of leading them all that plunges us into sadness.”

“There is no transcendental point from which we may observe the past, it is always constructed in the present, and changed along with its movements. Nor do we look at the past for its own sake, we do so rather in order to help us explain the present.”

And re wars and relationships: “…an ingredient that might just…save both states and couples from intolerance…[is] a sense of humour.”


In the end neither the former potato-farmer nor the former-marine doula was appointed, because JH’s baby arrived early. Then just a few weeks into his life the baby landed the role of Jesus in the nativity play at Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square (near which, incidentally, I’ve discovered a cosy Belgian bar, Vol de Nuit). Where will he go from Messiah-hood?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New York missive no 35 - Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 60

Today is the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here's a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in drafting the Declaration:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

New York missive no 34 - Reading worlds

How do we read our worlds? On the way back from the paintings of Fulton Fish Market I stopped at the big Borders store on W 34th and 7th (in fact all Borders stores are temptingly, dangerously big. They are brothels of titles, book-jackets and reviewers’ blurbs). I emerged with three books. One was "Up in the Old Hotel", a collection of Joseph Mitchell's writing for the New Yorker. Why? Because the fish market exhibition included a section on him, with photographs of him, articles by him, and articles about him, about his life as a Southerner documenting New York and its people in permanent flux, capturing precious fragments as he went and preserving them for posterity. Another was Michael Pollan’s "Omnivore’s Dilemma", a Natural History of Four Meals. Because when I’d mentioned my own book idea to Si, she recommended it for the way Pollan skilfully serves up the stories behind what’s on our plates. The third was Thoreau’s "Walden". Because one of our Development Director candidates had previously worked at the Thoreau Society and he managed to weave Thoreau’s ideas on the economy into his interview answers – when the book confronted me from its shelf as I headed to the checkout I read that as a message to read it. So people and places I’d encountered had planted signposts in my mind that I unconsciously carried about till I had the opportunity to follow them.

There are layers of reading. From snippets communicating moments, epitomised by Twitter. To the chattering and chewing over news that gathers in the blogosphere and on sites like Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, which offer the service of sifting and framing information for a certain type of reader – for you – creating the illusion of reader-empowerment but in the process moulding you more into that certain type of reader. To “news”, loud and clear but often meaningless, packaged by agendas (today I skim-read a commentary by George Monbiot - discovered while perusing a certain ex’s Facebook page - about the extent to which “news” on climate change is suffused with lies, and about the way in which we choose to read the news we want to be real). To long, investigative articles, an endangered species and all the more noble for it though as a journalist-at-heart I would say that: articles that probe deep, calm, and objectively (yeah right) into a moment, situation or person and by telling it reveal certain universalities though never labelling them as such. To books. Always books. They survive because sometimes we need to be engrossed. We need to be carried along for more than a minute without distraction. Have non-fiction interpret the world for us. Have fiction express it. Last night Ch and I heard Toni Morrison reading from her new book "A Mercy" and answering questions. Listening to her was like hearing a hundred lives in one.