The Package

Dearest M.,

I spent the last few minutes trying to think of other arcs that parallel Susan Boyle’s:  the boldy unpackaged (though I do agree with a previous commenter that “packaging” may be very much at work here) real person that wallops the world with his or her sheer and undeniable talent.  What’s frustrating is, even though I think Boyle’s sudden recognition is the stuff of formula, I can’t actually think of any examples of that formula.   

In movies, the closest I’ve come is Billy Elliott and Funny Girl, but both seem negated because of their reliance on youth and a fair amount of good looks. 

In real life, we’ve got Barbra Streisand, too.  Like Boyle, her voice instantly seperates her from any crowd of wannabes, and she is often critiqued for her looks.  Yet, Streisand also started young, and marketed her looks as part of the package that made her brand more unique, and more irresistible.  Barbra is also famous for her aggressive focus on her career, and her early drive to be somebody in the world. 

I also think of Danny DeVito, who apparently got his break on Taxi by insisting that the producers audition him, and then getting the part through the shock and awe of his acting ability. 

Otherwise, I’m out.  I can’t think of anybody else in our culture that, through sheer talent that did not rely on suped up presentation, made it into the big time.  Boyle might be one of the first that  made everybody stand up and notice that talent has very little to do with looks, and that real talent is quite soul stirring: that art is a big deal for performer AND audience. 

The phrase “talent will out” has always comforted me.  It suggests that, like true love, things find their way and end up very happy indeed.  But, this little reverie has worried me.  Boyle is one case out of bajillions.  Every other form of talent I can think of is usually delivered by a good looking person wearing modern-ish clothes.  Even Clay Aiken had some ferocious highlights.  Perhaps Boyle is not a revelation as much as a cultural dodo bird (or maybe a coelacanth would be better. Dodo suggests dowdy, which isn’t the point)?  

What examples can you think of? Where has talent outed? Do you think the rules are different for writing? Radio? Film production?  I also put forward Jon Stewart as his own fable here, not because of his looks, but because his control of the format and his intelligence were so unexpected, and are now such an exquisite part of our culture. 



Tuesday, Nov. 4

Dear one,

I spent most of Monday soaked to the bone and made my nightly pilgrimage home in a drenched but thoughtful mood. It was dark thanks to Daylight Savings, and it’s not often that I walk down twilit Telegraph Avenue. Usually an aggressive, elbow-happy, passing-lane-for-pedestrians sort of street, in which eye contact is at a premium—the minute you lock eyes, you’re passing or not-passing someone a dollar, or signing a petition, or refusing to buy incense or crystal skulls, or refusing to pose for sketchy photographs—Telegraph Ave. Monday was slick and wet, populated but preoccupied. I had the novel experience of walking home a ghost, maybe the way you felt in your car, with the radio on, sensing the city but remaining for the most part refreshingly unfelt. Invisible, anonymous. Not defensive, not aggressive or impatient or tunnel-visioned or even cold and wet. Just passing through, unhurried, seeing things and letting the fight out of each step.

Tuesday, I woke up overfilled—I use the word advisedly—with the unfamiliar strength of having slept really well.  Drool-into-your-mattress well. It was a sunny clean day. I made tea. I watched Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. Wanted to see them urge us “youth” to vote, wanted to see them lose control just a little bit. I felt elated. Everything glimmered. I knew it would be one of those ultimate days. Couldn’t quite tell if it the prophetic dimension of the feeling was specific to me—that is, to my particular life story—or to our exhausted national stage, but the conviction was intensely, personally felt. This was going to be a day I’d never forget. Didn’t know why specifically (had hopes, of course), but there was no anxiety, not the shadow of a doubt in my mind. I was just waiting for a dream of a story to play itself out.

Voted at an actual polling place for the first time. Mine was around the corner from my house at a middle school. Listened to Michael Jackson’s Black or White as I got ready, was listening to AC/DC when I walked in. Almost tore through my ballot connecting the beginning and end of the Obama-Biden arrow. I love that arrow.

I hate to harp on walking, but I have to tell you what it felt like to walk up Telegraph afterwards. I don’t enjoy walking to work. My bag is heavy on one shoulder and strains by back, my knees are always a little cramped and stiff from sitting (sloth being our watchword in academe), and I’m never at ease on my way. My stomach is in the clutches of the purely personal, slightly pathetic and sickly anticipation of seeing someone I find pretty. I’m in the throes of various physical and intellectual flavors of self-consciousness. (An example: I tend to walk like a camel, and sometimes I catch glimpses of myself in the storefront windows, bobbing absurdly against the backdrop of Amoeba Records.)

Tuesday the wind was blowing my hair back, out of my face. I had incredible forward momentum. Felt like I was in a movie. I locked eyes with everyone on the street—old men, students, vagrants—and people big-broad-goddamn-can-you-believe-it-smiled.

Got to my place of work exploding with energy, screeched at people in the library. Punched a friend. Ran (literally) up and down the halls of my building. Had lunch with the friend I punched, spilled egg salad all over myself. Walked back to work way too fast—she had to ask me what the hurry was.

I’d planned to attend an election party in the city, hosted by a friend of a friend who works for Google. The linking friend thought we might get along. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of having to be “on” and living the night with strangers.

Instead of walking home I walked to the park around the corner where I stood for a long time listening to music and watching the dogs run around, dribbling balls and jumping around each other. How much fun it must be to be a dog.

I told my friend about my reservations for the evening and she felt the same way. We wanted to stay in the East Bay. Home, as she said. So she called a friend with whom she’d promised to spend the evening too. We told him our thoughts, and he suggested we get takeout and booze and he’d let us in to Pixar, where he works, where we could WATCH THE ELECTION COVERAGE BY JON STEWART AND STEPHEN COLBERT ON A TWENTY-FOOT SCREEN IN A THEATER. JUST US.

And so we did. I have pictures of me with Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc to prove it. There are blue velvet couches. And air hockey. And ping pong. And fabulous water-saving bathrooms where you pull up for number 1 and down for number 2.

When Jon Stewart announced the outcome, I spent the next thirty minutes choking back tears. I’m so happy Jon got to make that call, and that we got to watch him make it. We had champagne. We ate Indian food. My friend spilled the champagne. I sat in the Indian food. I don’t know if we’ll ever be invited back, but oh, was it an experience.

It was strange, in the immediate aftermath, to switch to CNN and see the footage of the reactions. The footage was so moving, and the narratives by pundits, journalists etc. were so jarring. I wanted them to shut up. I wanted them to shut up.

After watching the concession speech (which moved me deeply—John McCain managed to add beauty to the evening and mustered real generosity of spirit) we watched Obama’s.

The snag in my Tuesday was this: I was so moved by his victory, and yet his speech left me cold. The end was better, but all in all I felt like he—or I—had slammed the brakes. The elation evaporated. Maybe it was too much champagne, maybe there was no way Obama could demonstrate in ten minutes the conceptual range I think he’s capable of. I don’t know why our insides work the way they do, but I was unmoved, even found myself giggling at one point (with my friend) at the sheer girth of the podium.

But oh, the fact of him there–the extraordinary rightness of the thing. The strange and wonderful tension between the image of this one man and the millions of people all over the country and the world, the hordes celebrating this achievement. The incredible voter turnout. To watch so many dishonest and criminal things crumble into incoherence and anarchy. To watch a vote count. To watch democracy redeem a country that had—in the last two presidential campaigns—redefined what “dirty politics” meant on both sides. To see the opposition concede with grace. To see this move, in subsequent days, towards unity, even from disappointed McCainers. It’s been astonishing.

We finished the evening driving through Berkeley, where everywhere cars honked and humans hollered “Obama!!!” Shout it through a window and it would come back to you in triplicate. We joined friends at the Albatross (remember?) and celebrated. Went home, where, exhausted, I immediately watched the coverage again.

At Cal, the students all congregated and went crazy. I wish I’d seen that.

The next morning I relived it all and spent the first hour of my day blubbering.

Having bored you with my story, allow me to tell you how thrilled I am that your talk with your students about abortion went well. What a victory, to create a classroom culture where you can converse and not dictate, where they trust you enough that they respond to you with openness, if not acceptance. That’s incredible.

Speaking of teaching, I taught a Dickinson poem yesterday–“I felt a Funeral in my Brain—” She writes about the mourners in her head, “treading–treading” in Boots of Lead. The walks to work are changed forever. Same distance, but a lighter step.

We have a new President.



(For other posts on Election Day see “And You?” and “To New Walks!”)

Nitpicking the Beauty Queens

Dearest Carla Fran,

I may have to switch careers. I think you hit the difference between Meg and Debra Messing’s hair squarely on the, er, head. Dyan Cannon I know from Ally McBeal, where she was marvelous, wattle and all. She pulls off a certain kind of old broad glam in a way that Meg can’t (partly because she’s still actually kind of young.) Dyan’s face doesn’t try to look younger; it looks sexual and sultry almost because of its lines and droops. And the hair is the feather boa to her sequined dress.

I was so touched by your description of our gawky companions at the shooting range. They were uncannily like us, as you say, and the offer of an upgrade was indeed polite–courtly, even. In hindsight I have a full-fledged crush on the blond British one with the brown shoes. These other ones were a different species altogether. They were the bullies in A Christmas Story, all grown up.

I’ve regressed a bit in the last day or so–the sudden contact with the outside world proved to be too much for me. The speeches! The Alaskan beauty queen with her glasses and impressive jawline, her self-command and humor and sarcastic spite. (Or “withering sarcasm,” as Christopher Beam calls her tactic against Obama.) She’s like Maurice from Northern Exposure–likeable in a way, admirable, even, and someone you might not even mind being in charge of your Cicely. But that’s because it’s Cicely–a place governed principally by interpersonal pressures and poetic spats and clashing versions of a particular kind of triumphant frontier philosophy. The nostalgia of that show is precisely that its world is so utterly dissimilar to the America we know.

It’s at times like these that I’m particularly grateful to Jon Stewart. The drama takes over and I get glassy-eyed, not from the political problems, but from the problems of celebrity. It’s an issue, for instance, that she went last (McCain doesn’t count, right? In fact, he’ll be slightly anticlimactic, right?). So. How much does chronology eclipse what came before? Can the Democratic convention get wiped out by an evening of one-liners? But in sail Jon and the TDS staff with their archives of footage documenting an entire tradition of self-serving sophistry, and they restore a smidge of accountability to what otherwise seems to be a competition for whatever can most fully occupy our minds at THIS PARTICULAR MOMENT RIGHT NOW, NEVER MIND WHAT CAME BEFORE LALALALA.

(Not that I think this is the exclusive province of the Republicans, but they’ve certainly been forced to do more of it under the current administration.)

It’s a coincidence that my final course is forcing me to deal with another irritating specimen of feminine beauty and (similarly problematic) talent. It’s being taught by a tall lissome spectacularly proportioned woman with red hair, fair skin, dimples and all that makes women of her caliber stop traffic and undergraduates in their tracks. I find her unbearable. It’s all I can do to keep from making faces at my colleagues. She is lazy. I find her incredibly hot and would probably be slightly in love with her if I felt she approached us with seriousness, rather than with an almost sickening friendliness and a slightly overdone need to be liked in that way.

It’s pure mischief that associates her with Palin in my mind, as they are in no way alike. It’s just dealing with two physically gorgeous women who have (and it is progress, in some weird way, that everyone is forced to regard one of them so minutely) other qualities too.

I hope you are well, and that the doldrums have abated. If not, I send you lollipop nickels for your Phantom Tollbooth. May you cross safely.