Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Green Dress

Sirens of temptation!
It's not buyer's remorse. It's more like a reflection on the power of temptation.

We went to the mall yesterday evening, JC and Olivia and I, just to stretch our legs and enjoy a change of scenery. I had it absolutely clear that there would be no more clothes purchases. We had already bought a small mountain of baby clothes for Olivia, plus a few extras here and there for moi and a certain husband. So... no more space in our suitcases, no more clothes.

But then we got to Anthropologie... and I was sucked in.

I love everything about Anthropologie: those antique-looking wooden floors... the artfully arranged racks of frocks and sweaters... all the space to walk around and admire the outfits from different angles... the artistic wall decorations that make you feel like you are in part art gallery, part clothing store... the giant tent with rustic furniture in the middle of the store, incongruously surrounded by long, glittering necklaces and bracelets (or are they napkin holders?), the rows of enticing teacups and-- look at those spoon handles! Inhale deeply: the air is scented with lemongrass and sandalwood. It's like being at a hybrid vintage clothes fair, antique show, and multicultural bazaar.

As for the clothes, it's the enticing display of different ideas and approaches that look so fabulously artsy on the size 0 mannequins, and that could possibly make me look fabulous, too...

And I wonder if that's the appeal of fashion: that mixture of tangible, wearable art and the fantasy of becoming someone different when you slip into an outfit that incarnates a certain attitude or idea. In fashion, idea becomes image with seamless elegance. You are what you wear. What you wear speaks volumes about how you think, how you view yourself, how you approach the world-- and of course, if shapes the way others view you.

In Anthropologie, it seems as if the governing idea is the image of a woman with an artistic flair, a fearless willingness to try new shapes, a sensitivity to unusual colors and prints, an adventurous spirit (hence the tent?) with a sense of playfulness and an eagerness to embrace the mood and ethos of other cultures. Anthropologie is for women who could possibly get away with wearing an asymmetrical Indian sari-type dress to work, smartly accessorized with a statement necklace and maybe some sandals. Or wedges? I'm not sure, because I'm not that woman. I would love to be, but nature didn't give me the designer genius gene. It's sort of okay, but not really, because the truth is, I love fashion and deep down I believe that lack of taste and lack of money shouldn't prevent me from bringing out my inner fabulousness.
Fifties housewife splendor!

Back in Anthropologie, I was floating along in a sort of ethereal contentment, absorbing the mood of the place and the thousand tiny details that make it shopping heaven (or hell, once you see the price tags), when I saw The Dress.

It was love at first sight. It was a shirtdress, reminiscent of the prim 1950s dresses that January Jones wears in Mad Men, with a fitted bodice, a trim little waist, and a flared skirt that goes to the knees. And the color!  It was a lovely autumn green. Perfect for tights and boots amidst falling leaves.

The temptation begins with imagination, you see. Then it comes to fruition in action. I trucked it over to the dressing room with my treasure.

In the outrageously spacious changing area, the saleslady was oh so enthusiastic and nice.

"Oh, you picked the shirtdress!  Oh, that's going to look fabulous on you! I can't wait to see it!"

Temptation gets stronger when someone else voices your own secret hopes with such uncanny precision.

"And what's your name?" she asked, with a bright-eyed smile, writing it on a mirrored panel on my dressing room door. Personal attention duly noted, I thought, just like Starbucks in the olden days when they used to write your name on your cup for you and then shout it out with a hint of peevishness and anxiety over the noise of the coffee grinders.

Back in the dressing room, the dress was too small. As if on cue, the dressing room lady chimed out, "Do you need anything, Trish?" There's that touch of personal attention again. I wasn't fooled, but I was almost touched.

She must have flown to the rack and back, because three seconds later, the Object of Desire was helpfully proffered through the door.

Missing the tights and boots, but this is the idea.
Once it was on, I was turning this way and that, admiring it in the mirror. Oh my God, I actually look kind of good!  I was thinking. That was almost enough to make me buy it. That and the mental image of pairing it with tights & boots amidst autumn leaves. I would be the incarnation of the Autumnal Girl. Idea becomes image.

"Let's see the dress!" said the sales lady, as if she were my best friend, eager to share a great find with me.

I came out a bit shyly.

"Oh my GOD!" she exclaimed. "It's perfect on you! That color with your skin and hair is just perfect! It's like the dress was made for you!"

"I'm not totally sure," I demurred, although I was just on the verge of the tipping point.

"Let's go to the mirrors," she said. At that point, I knew I was a sunken ship.

As we walked across the dressing room lobby, I discreetly noted her outfit: a multicolored sweater dress paired with a chunky statement necklace in complementary colors and some fun boots. There are some women who make an effort to look good simply because of a personal sense of aesthetics, or perhaps because of an artistic quality that spills over into the way they dress. Good for them! They make the world more beautiful with that little bit of extra effort.

In front of the three-way mirror, she found the secret button to push me over the edge.

"You know," she said, stepping back and eyeing me up and down with a connoisseur's eye, "that dress would look sooo good with maybe some brown tights and some booties? Do you have any brown ankle booties?" she asked.

With that, I was sold. Never mind that I felt the wind go out of me a little when I signed my name on that credit card receipt. When the sales lady wrapped my beautiful green dress in tissue paper and sealed it with a little sticker before carefully placing it in the bag, I felt like love had come to fruition. I was going to walk through autumn leaves with a lovely little 1950s shirtdress in the perfect green (to complement my hair and complexion, of course) and all would be right with the world. I just need some brown booties.

But of course, I won't be buying anything for a few months. I am, after all, firmly resolved...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Bad Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, my ally in absurdity. 
There's Virginia Woolf... and then there's Tom Wolfe. It's been a few decades since I read To the Lighthouse, so I don't have much instant recall of scenes and characters, just the memory of a tremendous melancholic nostalgia after reaching the last page. If books have flavors, Woolf's would be subtle, bittersweet, and lingering, with hints of cherry and oak...

Wolfe, on the other hand, would be like a plate of something spicy and brash, something that hits you like a slap in the face and makes your eyes widen with surprise and delight. Spiced calamari, perhaps?

I love Tom Wolfe and I chuckle my way through his novels and essays. So far I've read The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Maumauing the Flak Catchers, and The Right Stuff, which I'm about halfway through on my Nook. My next conquest will be A Man in Full, which took him fourteen years to write and was his attempt to "cram the world into a novel."

Wolfe is... a different breed, yet thoroughly American. His novels, set in the modern cityscape, are full of keen observation of the absurdities and hidden vanities of human nature, and rich in the kind of unforgettable description that makes you see the world in a different way. Best of all, they are based on real experience of the world as it is, the result of Wolfe's journalistic approach to novel writing. When writing A Man in Full, for example, Wolfe spent hundreds of hours in the newsroom setting, watching and observing the flow of conversation, the atmosphere, the way people interacted, the demands of the different jobs and how they interacted. When writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, he spent hours on Wall Street watching how the bonds salesmen worked and related to each other. He got the flavor of the place and the rhythm of the dialogues because he was there. He had enough interest in "the real" to immerse himself in it. Then the novel flowed from his real experience. He could create "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," as Marianne Moore would say, because he had studied real toads in their natural habitat.

And toads they are. Many of Wolfe's main characters are very flawed men, which provides endless fodder for keen-witted comedy. This is what I particularly enjoy about Wolfe. It's not just that he is so good at getting us to laugh at other people; it's that, through his so delightfully flawed characters, he helps us to laugh at ourselves and to accept that this world is laced with more comedy that we would perhaps care to admit.

Through the lines, Wolfe invites us not to get too pompous about ourselves, not to take ourselves "so goddam seriously, for chrissake." I love it. I love the crassness, the rudeness, the directness, the pages full of characters who curse and scrabble after their petty interests... the flashes of generosity and the immediate relapse into private cost-benefit calculations, and then the surprising moments of self-transcendence amidst the everyday reality of all-consuming vanity and self-seeking.

Wolfe exaggerates, of course... but his exaggerations are just the magnification of something that is really there, like a skilled caricaturist who captures the subtle signs of an unconscious, habitual disdain in a subject's face and magnifies it into an all-out sneer. Just a few strokes of the pencil and the person's inner world is exposed, like Bill Clinton's bulbous nose as the emblem of a bumbling personality, or George Bush's close-set eyes as the dead giveaway of myopic determination. That's Wolfe. It's not that his characters are total caricatures, but that he has a knack for capturing and exaggerating certain traits to comedic effect.

A delightful description of Park Avenue through the main character Sherman's (money obsessed) eyes:

"The median strip on Park was a swath of yellow tulips. There were thousands of them, thanks to the dues apartment owners like Sherman paid to the Park Avenue Association and the thousands of dollars the association paid to a gardening service called Wiltshire County Gardens, run by three Koreans from Maspeth, Long Island. There was something heavenly about the yellow glow of all the tulips. That was appropriate. So long as Sherman held his daughter’s hand in his and walked her to her bus stop, he felt himself a part of God’s grace. A sublime state, it was, and it didn’t cost much. The bus stop was only across the street. There was scarcely a chance for his impatience over Campbell’s tiny step to spoil this refreshing nip of fatherhood he took each morning."

The "nip of fatherhood" -- fabulous! The sublime and the stingy side by side -- love it!

And then there is the description of strange happenings that disrupt the ordinary flow of the universe, especially for a bystander who watches in a state of disbelief. (Note: Kovitsky is a judge in the Bronx, and the "enemy" on the other side of the mesh are the defendants being transported by van from the prison to the court for their trials. This event is seen through the eyes of one of the court's lawyers.)

"Kovitsky stared at the window, still trying to make out his enemy through the heavy mesh. Then he took a deep breath, and there was this tremendous snuffling sound in his nose and a deep rumbling in his chest and throat. It seemed incredible that such a volcanic sound could come from out of such a small thin body. And then he spit. He propelled a prodigious gob of spit toward the window of the van. It hit the wire mesh and hung there, a huge runny yellow oyster, part of which began to sag like some hideous virulent strand of gum or taffy with a glob on the bottom of it. And there it remained, gleaming in the sun for those inside, whoever they might be, to contemplate at their leisure."

The last phrase, "to contemplate at their leisure" is just as fabulous as the nip of fatherhood. 

I know there are those who say that Tom Wolfe is more of an entertainer than a true writer. Wolfe has three critics (John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving) who have denounced him as such. Wolfe calls them "my three stooges" and wrote a fascinating essay about how these writers in particular are perfect examples of why there have been no truly great American novelists in recent years. He calls them "effete" and notes that their books, full of sentimental characters with vague "inchoate longings" and "wistful glances," lack the force and power of true observation. The problem with The Three Stooges is that they write from their belly button, not from reality. They need to get out of their comfortable mansions and out on the street. They need to talk to someone else. They need to learn about how other people think, and stop creating characters that are just projections of what they think a properly literary character should be.

Wolfe's rebuttal to his Three Stooges was quite a challenge. But it's refreshing and it applies in a broader spectrum of ways.

What about "religious folk"? Don't we fall into the same trap as the "literary folk"? Religiosity divorced from reality... can it have any value? St. Teresa of Avila said that the saints are found "amid the pots and pans." I think that was her way of saying to the more mystically inclined sisters, "Get out of your room and get real."

When I look back on my own "religious experience," I cringe a bit. God, I was so naive! So gullible in so many ways! And so quick to believe myths that fit the flawless image that I thought priests and religious people were supposed to have! Reality is so different from what I imagined then. I was living in some kind of a fantasy. I was so out of touch.

I don't suppose I will ever be fully in tune with reality the way God sees it. But each day brings me a step away from naive idealism and a step closer to a faith built on reality. Through the process, I am learning that one can get upset and angry-- which is, I confess, a reaction I have been struggling with very much-- or one can develop a deeper sense of humor, maybe a gallows humor that is able to laugh at absurdities even when they hurt. It has only been through prayer that I'm finding my way to that second reaction, mainly because there have been a few times when I almost felt like God was laughing at me with conspiratorial sarcasm, in the way that only a dear friend can, in the way that makes you break down and laugh with him.

I do think that God teaches us to laugh at the absurdity of our own expectations. It must be that humor and humility walk hand in hand.

This is, I think, why Tom Wolfe is so dear to my heart right now. He paints terrible, tragic scenarios that overwhelm his characters, who lose everything (no happy ending in Bonfire, unlike the movie!)... and yet, he does it with such trenchant irony that you find yourself looking at the comedy hidden within a character's downfall. And then, when the main character does fall, he discovers himself more fully through the process; it is not a fall from grace, but a fall into grace and into the revelation of his true humanity.

So Tom Wolfe gives us these imaginary gardens with real toads hopping through them, toads that teach us about our own warts and help us to have a good laugh. I don't care what the Three Stooges say. To me, that's good literature.