Alisa Harris

Alisa Harris has a B.A. in English from Hillsdale College in Michigan. She is a reporter for WORLD Magazine, writer for Patrol Magazine and teaches a journalism class at The King's College. She writes from quirky coffee shops in Brooklyn, New York.

The Pros of Disputation

If you are standing in the school cafeteria with someone on the debate team and you make some ridiculously subjective statement like, “I really feel like eating roast beef today,” the debater will clutch you by your windpipe and cite evidence – using rhetorical markers like Point 1 and sub-point A – saying that according to the FDA’s dietary guidelines from 2005, roast chicken is healthier than roast beef besides being more tender and a better complement to the soggy green beans on the menu. The debater will demand that you rebut him on the spot. If you say simply, “Um I like roast beef and you can like chicken,” it will utterly befuddle him.

That’s because debate is arguing for the pure joy, passion and zeal of argumentation. Clearly, this draws a certain kind of personality. To a true, cross-ex-in-the-bones debater, disputation is simply conversation. The activity of competitive debate is good for him and all of us. When he unleashes his innate disputatiousness in the school cafeteria, he’s annoying. But in the tightly structured forum of debate where his speeches have time limits and there are moments he has to shut up, that orneriness is tamed and polished. He becomes the kind of arguer the world could use more of.

To promote his memoir Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, Mark Oppenheimer held a debate at his high school alma mater Regis High School in New York City. Oppenheimer and a high school senior debater, Joseph Eddy, faced off against journalist Hanna Rosin and Stuvyesant High School debater Claire Littlefield, debating the resolution, “Is American political dialogue in trouble?”

I walked in the room completely prejudiced. How could anyone not believe that American political dialogue was in trouble? Clicking Twitter headlines from my couch, I cringe at the outrageous statements of entire swaths of the American population. How, I scoffed, could anyone NOT believe that American political dialogue is clearly doomed?

But as the debaters stood and gave their opening arguments, I found myself falling back into an  old pattern from back in my debate days: the tabula rasa. This means your mind becomes a blank slate – all of your preconceptions and prejudices erased, your mind wiped clean, and ready to judge each argument on its merit and evidence.

The men, affirming  that the American dialogue was in trouble, gave their case, and the women argued for the negative side against it. They sparred in cross-examinations and gave rebuttals. As Rosin and Littlefield spoke, I found myself switching allegiances. The aff was so obvious, the neg more nimble. The neg had a harder premise to prove and they were creative and spirited in the way they constructed their case. They were more clever about their arguments. Proving their side took more finesse.

Besides that, I almost always feel inclined to pull for female debaters over male. Being a female debater takes poise and a willingness to go toe-to-toe with men who are bigger than you. When I was a 98-pound little-voiced slip of a thing, I debated oafs who were six feet tall. Their voices commanded the room and their figures dwarfed mine when we got up for cross-ex.  Female debaters face what female candidates and female CEOs do: the perennial prejudice that audiences will view spirit as shrillness and confidence as masculinity. Female debaters must root for one another to succeed.

And yet as the debate progressed and I followed each argument, charting its flow (yes, we call it a “flow chart” in debate terminology), the debate came down to a single question for me. Please remember that I am paraphrasing and both might quibble that I’m omitting certain nuances, but the gist of the argument was this:

The women were arguing that the fringe elements of the American dialogue – the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs and Keith Olbermanns – were actually good for American dialogue. They admitted the fringe was fringe but said that despite all that, the fringe was a vital part of American dialogue and denying them their distasteful opinions would be un-American.

The aff argued that this made no sense. If American dialogue is dominated by extremists who care about partisan politics over truth, then how could this possibly be a good thing? If the neg conceded the premise that wingnuts dominated the debate, could they still argue that American political dialogue was just fine? If they admitted extremists were loudest, did they have an argument for why it was good that extremists were loud? I went from one side to the other and back again as I watched the debate. And finally, the question came down not to my personal prejudices but to the question, “Who made the argument the other side didn’t answer fully?” I didn’t hear a satisfying argument for the virtues of wingnuts. If I had been casting a ballot I would have said yes, the American political dialogue is in trouble.

It would be in less trouble if leaders had to debate like those students did. In high school debate, you take turns debating each side of an issue. Imagine if Congress had to abide by the rules of high school debate. Imagine if we presented them with the health care bill and told them they had to switch sides. The Democrats had to come up with the best, most sophisticated arguments against health care and the Republicans had to passionately defend the health care bill against all arguments against it. Whoever won the debate got to choose the outcome of the bill. If Republicans won, they could kill the bill; if Democrats won, it lived.

We would have a different kind of debate I imagine. For one thing, it would be more objective. Each side would be arguing for the side they abhorred, but for the sake of winning for the side they loved. It would cool the heat that comes not from facts but from resentment and fear and pandering. The debate is now about evidence and arguments, not about how you feel.

Doing this helps you see the other side. It helps you see where your own arguments are weakest when you find yourself skewering the argument you believe and questioning the evidence you personally find credible. You discard arguments that are bad and find evidence that has weight.

Afterwards it was said that if students like Eddy and Littlefield were American’s political future, then American dialogue would one day prosper. It was true.

The Message is the T-Shirt

When I was very young, my aunt and uncle gave me a ponderous elephant pendant necklace on a heavy silver chain. It was a necklace befitting a 45-year-old portly professional – the kind of necklace that would go well with an expansive plush suit in a matronly hue.

“We thought of you when we saw this,” they said. I looked at it and said, “Thanks.”

They said this because I made everyone think about elephants. I brought elephants to the mind because I wore shirts that said “W. for President” and had a red-white-and-blue George W. Bush campaign tote bag. I had a collection of small elephant figurines because elderly relatives kept buying them and saying, “We saw this and thought of you.” I was the kind of child who walked her precinct during Republican primaries and attended state Republican party conventions on weekends. I woke up at 8:00 on Saturday morning to attend county GOP meetings. I was accompanied to these meetings by frail old Republican women who wore tapestry suits woven with elephant patterns and dangly elephant earrings. By anyone’s account it was my destiny to one day become a frail old Republican woman in an elephant-patterned suit, in which case the pendulous necklace would serve my wardrobe well.

I did not become that woman, but I have never – even in seasons of political ambivalence – stopped wearing political t-shirts. When a friend of mine said the other day that she would have nowhere to wear a political t-shirt, it startled me. To me, the only wrong place to wear a political t-shirt is church.

In 2008 I was, for the first time, an undecided voter. Never mind the journey that took me from George W. Bush tote bags to a crisis of political faith, but for the first time I felt myself pulled in two different directions. At first I decided not to vote at all, just for the principle of the thing – because it seemed unfair that I should have to choose between so many principles I held equally. But then one bright Sunday I walked through Union Square, which was brimming with campaign regalia from New York’s hippest artists. I could have bought twenty fashionista political t-shirts but my eye lit upon a light blue one with darker blue lettering that said “Blondes for …” Well, I’ll let you guess.


It was perfect. It said, “I am a blonde and I am my own special interest group, like lesbian Latinas or gun-toting Irishmen. This is my vote and while I am confident enough to advertise my vote on my boobs, there is a part of me that realizes if I have chosen wrongly it won’t be the end of the world; but still I am actually making my choice.”

Or maybe I just thought it was cute and I wanted to buy it as a companion for my “Blondes not Bombs” t-shirt. But I bought it – and the moment of buying the t-shirt and the moment of final decision were almost one and the same. My friend said, “Well I guess you’ve made up your mind then.” And I realized I had.

I wear political t-shirts both to make friends and make enemies. It’s my way of stubbornly standing up for myself when I feel stifled, and finding out who’s standing with me. I bought a t-shirt from Brooklyn Industries that showed Sarah Palin crowning a beatifically smiling Hillary Clinton Miss America. The artistry was ambiguous. (Hillary Clinton was hotter on the t-shirt than she was in real life). The message was somewhat ambiguous, too: Was Sarah Palin crowning Hillary Clinton the next woman in the White House because Palin had already won the White House? Or was Palin ceding First Female President to Hillary Clinton? I gave it my own interpretation. I bought it, loved it, got into arguments over it and lost it when I went to a primarily Republican wedding in Ohio – a memory that still makes me bitter as I search eBay for a replacement I have not yet been able to find.

Sometimes I like to buy my t-shirts a little to the left or right of where I actually am. My latest acquisition is a little pink vintage number that says, “Vote Democrat: A clean sweep.” I am not a Democrat, but I wear it to be a little perverse when I meet up with friends who campaign for Scott Brown. I want a t-shirt with a Jimmy Carter slogan of a grinning peanut, but Jimmy Carter is so lame that I’m torn. Perhaps a McGovern t-shirt with a dove of peace instead: obscure enough that pretty much no one will get it but relevant to today.

I wore that “Blondes” shirt right up until and on Election Day. Campaigners loved it. Elderly black women loved it. A boy staggering drunkenly through the West Village on Election Night also loved it. It’s ratty now but I still wear it to the gym, where nobody comments on it anymore. The big 2008 moment has passed. The hope is all tired and worn out – like my shirt – and no one will care to wear political t-shirts until 2012. Except me.

Resolved: Placemats

My goal for 2009 was to stop setting goals. Having been a compulsive goal setter from the age of 10 when I posted my New Year’s Resolutions on a lined paper beside my bed, by my enlightened mid-twenties I had come to believe that I should accept myself, flaws and all. So I made the difficult resolution not to make any resolutions at all.

Well, I didn’t keep that resolution. So my goal for 2010 is to become a scarily literate, well-educated, sophisticated person who can summon cogent opinions on every topic from healthcare reform to tannins in wine, and someone whose apartment looks like a page from Martha Stewart Living (if Martha Stewart Living featured apartments in ghetto neighborhoods).

And yet one of the several shrinks my family frequents said that you accomplish big goals by setting very, very small ones. For instance, instead of deciding you are going to batter your lumpy body into the shape of Kim Kardashian’s by next month, you first set the goal of putting on your gym clothes every day. That’s all. No gym, no workout-just wearing your gym clothes. Once you achieve this goal, then you drive to the gym. No working out-just driving your car to the gym. Then, of course, eventually you start working out and then look like Kim Kardashian. Surely.

My final goal is to become the type of person goes to the farmer’s market with a canvas bag and cooks gourmet food and knows what pate is and can totally taste the difference between a locally-grown organic peach and a regular one. But I am currently the kind of person who opens a container of cottage cheese, gets a spoon and eats it sitting next to her computer. I spend about 3.5 minutes total on meal prep and eating each day.

Despite wanting to be the Martha Stewart of ghetto New York, I am currently the type of person who gets claustrophobic walking into Crate and Barrel because the thought of identifying two complementary colors is overwhelming. (Ok, honestly-I am not the type of person who walks into Crate and Barrel. Ever.) My apartment isn’t a slovenly hovel. It’s just that I have never gotten around to getting curtains because I’ve been meaning to buy a new bedspread but I’ve never gotten around to that either because I am paralyzed at the thought of finding a bedspread that matches the walls. I have also never gotten around to putting pictures up on the wall because I am waiting until I become an art connoisseur with taste and tens of thousands of dollars.

There are moments at the end of the day, as a writer working from home, that I look around and realize my hair looks like a train-wrecked bum’s, I have been working from on top of my rumpled bed all day while wearing pajamas, my work has spilled over all my home and I can’t get away from it and sadly, I have not talked to a real live soul face to face all day.

So my goal is this: First, to get dressed every morning. Then to make my bed every day. I’m not going to start with cooking one meal a week or even cooking one dish a week. I’m going to start with closing my computer once a day. I’m going to clear the table of electric bills and J. Crew catalogs, put a placemat down, put a fork on the left and a spoon and a knife on the right, fold a napkin, put food -not glamorous, not made-from-scratch, not organic or locally-grown or Whole Foods-bought, just food-on a real plate and sit down and eat.

I want to do these things not for appearance’s sake but to claim order, sanity and humanity. I want to learn to cook not because I want to become more feminine or domestic or more a part of the Whole-Foods-eating New York City crowds. I want to cook because taking the time to sit down and chew and swallow food that you put on a glass plate with a fork on the left and a knife on the right is part of being civilized, which is part of feeling human. Every time I do it, I am telling myself: Having a daily rhythm of rest and work is good. Taking time to nourish yourself will help you do your work better. Getting dressed every morning will tell me: There is a separation between work and the rest of life. When you are working you’re a professional, whether anyone is there to see it or not. When you’re done, you can climb back into pajamas. There is a time to work, and there is a time to stop.

Maybe setting these daily rhythms will help me set others and by January 2011 at the latest I will have become the scarily literate, well-balanced, locavore I imagine I’ll be.

Or not. I have just one more goal, one regarding becoming a wine expert: Drink more wine. Drink more slowly. Learn about brix and bouquets sometime before 2020 or so.

Read My Pins

Ask Sarah Palin after everyone learned she spent $150,000 on clothes. Ask Cindy McCain after the media slammed her for wearing an outfit that totaled $300,000. Ask Hillary Clinton when the media needled her for restlessly changing her hair style again and again. Ask Michelle Obama after Robin Givhan gushed that when Obama “bounded onto the stage in her sleeveless dresses, with her muscular post-Title IX arms in full view, the definition of a strong woman changed.”

It matters what a woman in politics wears. Every sartorial choice has significance-painting a political woman as shallow or thoughtless or mannish or callous or strong or rebellious or docile. But while women in politics should know all of this, the choices they make are often either thoughtless (wearing a $300,000 outfit while your husband tries to brand his opponent as an elitist) or carefully constrained by the rigid roles the country expects them to play.

The messages are either clumsy and wrong or so subtle that people find in them what they will. For instance, after XX Factor’s Hanna Rosin saw a picture of Obama delicately plying a shovel while wearing a long belted sweater and stylish boots, Rosin said, “I’m beginning to think Michelle rebels against the strictures offirst lady life silently, through her outfits, the sartorial equivalents of a middle finger.” A fashion analyst wondered if Obama wore her famous purple sheath dress at the convention because purple is a mix of red and blue. But who knows?

However, a display at the Museum of Art and Design shows a leader who walks a bold but dainty path in female political fashion. These fashion choices are bold. The messages they send are clear, but they’re also whimsical and utterly feminine.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State and famous for using her collection of costume jewelry pins to send gentle diplomatic prods. The display shows over 200 of her signature pins. Some of them are delicate but most of them are ponderous-the kind of pins you would need a very serious, sober suit to sustain-and so big that they tore holes in Albright’s serious suits, which she then covered with larger pins.

She began using pins to send messages after the state-run Iraqi press called her a serpent in a cunningly titled poem, “To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings.” It went something like this: “Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night.” The writer went on to weave in a menagerie of animal imagery, penning, “Albright, no one can block the road to Jerusalem with a frigate, a ghost, or an elephant” and calling Albright an “unparalleled serpent.” The next time she went to Iraq she wore a jeweled serpent entwined around a stick, with a diamond hanging down for its tongue. When the media asked her why, she said it was because the Iraqis thought she was a snake.

She wore wasps when she wanted to send a message with a bit of a sting. She wore a jeweled bug, made of amethyst, chalcedony and gold, to Russia after a Russian official bugged the State Department. She used turtles to complain about the slow progress of peace. She wore balloons to symbolize satisfaction when talks were going well.

When she met with Vladimir Putin and wanted to send a message about Russia ignoring human rights violations in Chechnya, she wore three chubby, Buddha-like monkeys miming “hear no evil,” “see no evil,” “speak no evil.” When she met to navigate talks about nuclear arms, she wore an abstract representation of an arrow, made of anodized aluminum. A diplomat looked down at her pin and said, “Is this one of your interceptor missiles?” She told him, “Yes, and as you can see, we know how to make them very small. So you’d better be ready to negotiate.”

She seems to wear them with a knowledge too many women in politics forget-the knowledge that’s she’s a woman and not a man, and that any disadvantages to being a woman are best deflected with a sly sense of humor instead of acting like a man. A foreign minister mistakenly told reporters that he enjoyed hugging Albright because of her “firm breasts.” Of course outrage followed, which Albright deflected when reporters asked what she thought and she quipped, “Well, I’ve got to have somewhere to put those pins.” Then, of course, she bought a red fox pin-for when she was feeling flirty-to commemorate the occasion.

She told Newsweek, “I love being a woman and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men’s clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am.” It’s an intentional, dignified use of femininity to send a political message that’s bold and clear. It’s fashion that bends the rigidity of female roles, while at the same time not sacrificing the femininity it’s absolutely just that female leaders keep.

The Thing About Bruno

After I watched Bruno, I left the theater desperately praying to gays, blacks, Jews, Arabs, babies, Baptists, and God for forgiveness. Then I stood in line at the Shake Shack for 45 minutes because drinking alcohol felt too dirty and it seemed the wholesomeness of a milkshake was all that could purge my soul.

Disclaimer: I am not a prude. In fact, I went to see Bruno because, frankly, trashiness often beats classiness when it comes to my entertainment choices. For a 24-year-old girl, I believe I am fairly solid on the tawdry bromance list: Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, I Love You, Man, and Superbad. Some I enjoy more than others, but I usually don’t mind them. I knew that some Christian organizations thought Bruno a “disgusting, abhorrent movie,” but I assumed they would attach the same warning to every movie I watched, so I blithely went.

And was revulsed.

I realize that Bruno’s humor has a point – shattering political correctness, forcing us to confront our own prejudicial niceties – so the thought kept nagging me: What makes Bruno different from those other crude movies?

The difference is that while those other movies humanize the world’s weirdos, Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor dehumanizes people – and not just a “type” of person but a real person who sits down trusting that the interviewer will show him as he is. Cohen doesn’t just expose prejudice but manipulates it, twisting real three-dimensional people into ugly, one-dimensional caricatures. Take the climactic scene, where he whips people up into a gleeful hatred and then shoves what they hate in their faces, as the camera zooms in on every shade of horror. Of course the prejudice and the hate is already there, and yes, it’s ugly. But the way he teases it out of people – with no thought to their humanity and no grace for their weaknesses – dehumanizes them.

These other movies take the world’s weirdos and even while mocking them, make us see behind their shallowness and love them. I just watched Role Models to contrast the two. A sour jerk (Paul Rudd) and a dim-witted hottie (Seann William Scott) are forced to mentor 10-year-old jailbait (Bobb’e J. Thompson) and a severely socially-disabled young man (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But in the end, you see that the sour jerk has a begrudging unselfishness, the dim-wit has his own wisdom, the jailbait is sensitive and the socially backward kid has guts. It’s the same with Knocked Up, which helps us love a bong-loving loser, and 40 Year Old Virgin, which humanizes the lame guy who has never had sex.

I’ve said before that I think the very best satire comes from affection for the satirized – a realization that they don’t live up to their worth. Satire, especially the kind that bites the deepest and wounds the sharpest, should have some exhortatory affection behind it.

So yes, I felt sorry for Paula Abdul, because it is embarrassing enough to watch her even when she sort of knows what’s going on, and because apparently this experience scarred her for a year. And I felt sorry for Ron Paul, because I was frankly terrified that Bruno would rape him and because old, quirky statesmen deserve a little peace and respect.

And I felt sorry for the Alabama Christian pastor who tried his simplistic best to help Bruno change his sexual orientation. But I thought his forgiving response when the movie came out – that he hoped his interview would be used for good – reclaimed some of the humanity that Bruno took.

No Country for Old Mades

L: Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
R: Michelle Monaghan and Patrick Dempsey in Made of Honor

Warning: here may be a few spoilers.

I recently read No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. A few nights later, I thought I should rewatch No Country for Old Men, to compare the book and the movie and re-grasp the plot, which was fuzzy in the book since I always lost track of where Llewellyn had last hidden the $2 million he had filched from dead drug dealers, and who exactly was after him and who was after the people who were after him.

Exactly five minutes and 27 seconds into No Country for Old Men – after the second brutal murder and right about when Llewellyn is ready to murder an innocent deer – I remembered I hated this movie. I do not enjoy seeing people getting holes neatly blown in their heads by a homicidal maniac with a terrible haircut! Reading the book was squirmy enough. Why did I want to relive this experience?

So I switched. To Made of Honor. Five minutes into it, Tom (Patrick Dempsey) – dressed as Bill Clinton – gets maced with perfume by a girl who will subsequently become his BFF and ask him to be her maid of honor, after he discovers he’s madly in love with her. This is more my type of movie. (It stars, after all, not one but two Grey’s Anatomy actors.)

I picked Made of Honor not just for the stunningly witty pun in its title but because I wanted to see an “emotional retard” get severely punished. This is what happens in the original, My Best Friend’s Wedding, when Julia Roberts loses the love of her life because she is a puerile brat. It would be good to see the same happen to the infantile Tom. I reflected – and I should know, because I am a romantic comedy expert – that this actually rarely happens in movies. Most of the time, in the alternative reality romantic comedy world, things work out for the brats and their dreams come true if they can just effect a change of heart.

But about two thirds into it, I got squirmy again. Something was not quite right. I began to remember hearing that Made of Honor didn’t end quite like the original My Best Friend’s Wedding. By the time Tom had filched a Scottish horse and was galloping headlong through the Scottish moor into a church door to tell the love of his life, “I love you” after only having the emotional maturity to say “I love you” to dogs, I was cursing the cruel caprice of the romantic comedy gods. I was outraged. I felt that my sense of justice had been shot like a lamb and minced up like the haggis Patrick Dempsey had served at his best friend’s bridal shower.

I had seen enough. I now felt like watching people get holes blown in their head by a serial killer with a terrible haircut, so I once again turned to No Country for Old Men.

Thirty minutes in, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has killed four people and would have killed six if not for a toilet flush and coin toss. I had no better grasp of the plot, and the moustaches bothered me very much. I lost track of the murders because I closed my eyes too much. I missed the book’s gentle, troubled inner musings of the sheriff and the way his humanity relieved the brutality.

In the end, Anton shoots his last victim – although, as she notes, he doesn’t have to – steps out on the front porch, checks his boots for her blood, and drives away. There’s a moment where we think that after all this, he’ll get caught. But he walks free.

In the end of Made of Honor, Tom weds his bride atop a skyscraper. In No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh gets to waltz off into the sunset with a bone sticking out of his arm. In both our sense of justice is assaulted.

The oddity is that both of them – while Tom’s badness is so much more feeble – are alike in one respect. One character says of Anton, “You might even say he has principles,” just as Tom has untransgressable “rules.” The rules are absurd: Anton thinks that flipping a coin is a fair way to determine whether he will blow someone’s head in and that it would be terribly wrong not to let them call heads or tails on their own. Whereas Tom doesn’t see women two days in a row or say “I love you” to non-canine creatures. “It’s just shocking how you use it as a shield!” exclaims his prescient future love interest. Yes, it is shocking! Shocking that both the serial heartcrusher and serial killer use “rules,” in a twisted way, to justify their sociopathic inability to fathom others’ pain.

But Tom’s happy ending is less realistic than Anton’s. Anton’s ending depends on chance – like the flip of a coin – on forces outside himself. Had he not crashed his car, had the ambulance come just a bit earlier, had the boy not given Anton his shirt for a sling, things might have ended differently. Anton might have come to justice. We can wrap our minds around that: chance can let a guilty man go free.

We can also understand chance thwarting romance. But this isn’t the case with Tom. Tom should have an unhappy ending because his ending doesn’t depend on chance – it depends on his own emotional maturity. His emotional retardation – his too-recent inability to commit to another person for longer than, oh, two days – should make that skyscraper fairytale impossible. Anton’s ending depends on chance, but Tom’s ending should depend on his will – and call me a Calvinist, but his will, which until now has been tyrannized by his childishness, is too feeble to commit.

But the universe is not always just, I suppose. Sometimes the serial killer gets lucky and the serial heart-pulverizer goes free. Sometimes the fat bridesmaid who hubristically squeezed herself into a size 8 receives her due reward when her bridesmaid dress splits. But sometimes all the groomsmen happen to wear kilts and are able to supply massive safety pins to close up the tear. The caprice of the rom com gods causes it to rain on the just and the unjust – and makes the sun shine, too.

The Almost-Rich Get Famous

Caitlin Macy, Spoiled: Stories,
Random House: New York, 2009.

In Spoiled: Stories (Random House), Caitlin Macy explores the anxiety of women trying to sidle their way into the next social class, ready to take the next step up in the American Dream. “My book is about this somewhat afflicted group,” she told the New York Times. “These people on the edge of where they’d like to be: almost rich, slightly rich, very conscious of their place in the world.”

The social climber isn’t new to fiction, and neither is the female scrambling up Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Nanny Diaries shows us the imperious mothers, Candace Bushnell gives us the empowered singles looking for love to round out their status and power, and Real Housewives of New York City shows the reality is not far from fiction. But Macy touches on something different: the anxieties and insecurities behind the irrational cruelties we always see portrayed. And she does it with a talent for delicately needling satire that the others lack.

Macy’s protagonists live by what David Kamp calls in this month’s Vanity Fair, “the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United States must live better than the one that preceded it.” Children of unglamorous beginnings, they inch their way up with looks, luck and bitchiness, by letting the drama teacher feel them up so they can get the lead, and by running roughshod over other girls in the designer stilettos they once had to buy on the clearance rack. They marry up, and thus view their husbands with a near-resentment. Their mothers embarrass them, with their TV dinners and their apologies to panhandlers for only having change. They make their own children even more imperious and sophisticated.

But Macy shows the crippling diffidence beneath the sophistication. These women collect props-the model nanny, the Old World cleaning lady, the hedge fund-manager husband-not for the life they have now, but for the life they seek. They are anxious about what the actually rich think (one character crushes another with the line, “Oh, you’re just renting?”), but their insecurities extend to the “help.” Will the model nanny love my child best, and how dare the cleaning lady say my small apartment is easier to clean than a “classic six”? These insecurities manifest themselves in acts of flailing, childish cruelty. One character accidentally hires a cleaning lady who is too much like her old self-“a young woman she might have hung out with, in her single days, on a Friday night.” She reacts to the woman’s confidence with an act of sabotage that finally allows her to exercise a condescension that fulfills her fantasy.

Macy writes like her characters talk: with a wounding, unobtrusive pleasantness. She has a knack for details that capture unconscious snobbery and for lines that impale in passing. (For instance, children are “little trophies, one presumed, to fill up that bottomless pit of dissatisfaction” and pregnancy is “an absurd moment in their otherwise genderless lives”). Yet she’s not without compassion. The “spoiled” in her title seems too dismissively judgmental, since Macy can make us pity even her most repellent characters. Those characters, though, are hard to differentiate since they have similar backgrounds, live similar lives, marry similar men (the type who makes money and reads The Economist), are at the same “almost-rich” stage, and share the exact same neuroses. Their personalities and stories blend together until it feels like the same story told over and over again-albeit with a clever turn of hand.

In a time when everyone worries not just about moving up but about sliding back, their anxiety touches an uncomfortable chord. These women could accept the fixity of their position, could strive less frantically and learn to live with less-but so could we. Kamp says over the years the American Dream has morphed from a simple desire to achieve within our abilities, to the “unattainable” need for “stardom or extreme success.” It’s become “a moving target that eluded people’s grasp; nothing was ever enough.” Frederic Morton recently made the same point in the Los Angeles Times, saying the American Dream “soars beyond check or balance; it is updated continuously by whatever glitters beyond the edge of our means.”

There’s an economic toll to this bloated dream, but Macy’s protagonists show the real price of always grasping for what’s just out of reach. One woman reflects on the fact that no matter how hard she works to bring in x amount per year, only time can increase it: “But time ate up your life. … A decade, two decades of your life would have gone by before you attained it. The fixity of x was the most bittersweet thing I had thought of in ages.”

The woman chooses to let the chasing of x swallow her life over time. It’s a choice we also make, and one that Morton asks us to reconsider when he asks, “Do we have the courage to free ourselves from the fixation on the exceptional? Shall we try to dream a dream less extreme?” Macy shows the extremity of the dream, and the absurdity of the cruelty it inspires.

This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.

We’ll Always Be Here

Watching Everlasting Moments, Sweden’s official 2008 selection for the Academy Awards, is like walking into one of those old sepia photographs and learning the stories that set the lips into grim lines and sketched weary furrows onto the faces.

Even the warm, golden tints of the cinematography give that feeling the film its aged quality as it slips into the lives of a poor family living amidst the commotion of early twentieth-century Sweden. A young couple named Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) and Maria (Maria Heiskanen) win a camera at a fair; he insists it’s his, she says he’ll have to marry her to keep it. Their union immediately produces a brood of children, and Maria forgets the camera until Sigfrid slips deeper into alcoholism, goes on strike in a fit of socialism, and begins philandering. The family slips into the same dissolute slide foreshadowed in a song the children sing at a temperance meeting early in the film.

Maria tries to sell the camera to a kind photographer, Mr. Pederson (Jesper Christensen), to get money for rent. Instead, he teaches her how to use it. She begins documenting her life in snapshots, developing the pictures in the kitchen at night by draping a blanket over a chair. The estranged Sigfrid watches her from outside, through a crack in the door. The camera that started their romance now digs at their rift as Sigfrid becomes jealous of her friendship with Mr. Pederson and her obsession with the world that she sees through her lens.

Everlasting Moments is about the dignity that art brings to even the worst human conditions-the ability to see beyond the squalor of this world into another. Its most uncomfortable moments play out like a sprawling series of shameful vignettes. In one of opening scenes, a coveted visit from Maja’s (the oldest daughter) teacher ends abruptly when Sigfrid stumbles in, wasted and singing at the top of his lungs. Later, he walks off with another woman at a picnic-in broad daylight, in front of the children-and doesn’t show up until the next morning, when he takes the family careering through the streets in a drunken carriage ride. Maria-pregnant after Sigfrid essentially raped her-has to take the reins as her husband’s head sinks to his knees.

Maria’s husband is a constant source of shame, disgrace, and fear, but her photography-that ability to see the beauty in a disabled child or an icicle hanging off of a barn-awakens something in her and makes her life bearable. She feels guilty sometimes but can’t stop, even when she tries. Pederson tells her she has the ability to see a different world when she looks through a camera lens, and “those who see that world can’t close their eyes.”

When Sigfrid tries to kick out the people whose photographs she’s taking, she finally stands up to him with a kind of dignity so deep it transcends anger. Her art has awakened that part of her humanity that gives worth apart from being loved or abused, and strength to make an unhindered choice about whether to keep or leave him.

Despite its tenuous beauty, Everlasting Moments has its flaws. It’s a sprawling family history that covers over a decade, and some of the details are haphazard. The film is based on a true story-the story of a real Maja’s mother-but the film’s perspective is inchoate. Maja is initially presented as the narrator, but she drifts in and out, and her character stays hazy. We’re far more interested in what’s happening inside her mother’s head, so it’s hard to see what Maja’s filter adds. Sigfrid’s character also seems inconsistent; He’s capable of both sincere penitence and the deepest brutality, and the things that trigger either one don’t quite make sense.

The ending leaves you feeling wistful and unsettled because of what it keeps untold, but some of the final lines are the most evocative. Maja remembers that when her mother took a picture she would say, “Just imagine it-we’ll always be here. These moments will be everlasting.” For a woman who endures so many degrading moments, the ability to see and capture another world lights her way.

“Everlasting Moments” opened on March 6 in New York and Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared on Patrol, a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.

A Kegger in Your Brain:
The United States of Tara

Toni Collette as Tara in
The United States of Tara
Photo: Courtesy of Showtime

T. is a rebellious teenager who wears a thong poking above her low-slung jeans and a zebra bra flashing through her top. Buck is a biker who watches porn and crushes cigarettes in his son’s muffins, which he mocks as “homo-made.” Alice walks out of the 1950s and all over everyone in her high-heeled shoes. And they all are really the same woman: Tara, a beleaguered mom who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, which splits her personality into T. and Buck and Alice. “Having multiple personalities is like hosting a kegger in your brain,” sighs Tara. “Only you’re passed out cold while everyone else is trashing the joint.”

United States of Tara, just premiered on Showtime, could be a gutsy look at the confusion of human identity – if the producers use Tara’s split personalities as more than a plot device. It boasts a starry cast of Toni Collette as Tara, John Corbett as her long-suffering husband, and Rosemarie DeWitt playing almost the same self-righteous sister she played in Rachel Getting Married. Diablo Cody writes and produces it, with Steven Spielberg as consulting producer.

The show so far has explored the question of whether Tara’s “alters” are really her, and suggesting that maybe all of us, on some level, are a mess of different identities. The writers put this idea in the big mouth of a vacuous vitamin salesperson whose house Tara is redecorating. When it becomes clear that Tiffany knows the gossip, she tries to reassure Tara: “I kind of feel like everyone has it, you know, a little bit. Like in the course of a day, how many different women do we have to be? Like ‘Work Tiffany’ or ‘Sexy Tiffany’ or … ‘Dog Owner Tiffany’!”

The thought is suggested more seriously when Tara is talking to her therapist and says she worries that her husband only wants to have sex with the alter identities but not Tara herself. The therapist says people want what they can’t have.

“He can have me,” Tara says.

“He can’t have all of you.”

“The alters? They’re not me.”

But are they? The prim Alice tells Kate, “I want to let you know that even though I deeply disapprove of the way you carry yourself, your mother loves you very much.” She means that Alice disapproves of Kate but Tara loves her anyway; but Tara – when she’s in full possession of her true identity – deeply disapproves, too. She just doesn’t know how to say it, so Alice says it instead.

Maybe we all adopt different personas to face different situations. The show seems to suggest this in the first episode, when we see alternate identities echoed in her children. Her son is a soft-spoken, sweater-wearing, sensitive kid. Her daughter is a rebellious punk-ass with a swathe of blue hair and chains hanging off both her army fatigues and her boyfriend. But it’s impossible not to see an echo of Tara’s alternate identities when her daughter has a dance concert and is suddenly transformed into a pirouetting china doll, and when the soft-spoken son suddenly starts pummeling the pierced boyfriend.

The paradoxical wisdom of insanity comes through, too, when Tara’s insanity is more in tune with reality. Tara’s alters say the true things no one really says. Buck says that Marshall is gay, Alice says that Katie is a slut and that Marshall’s teacher (Tony Lane) picks on the nerdy students because he never fit in himself.

Movies and TV usually use DID as a cheap plot trick – to create the surprise ending where we find that the villain and the hero are the same person. But DID is a dark disorder, usually developed to cope with shattering childhood trauma. The alters do emerge when the real Tara can’t cope. T. comes when Tara doesn’t know how to relate to her daughter. Buck comes when Tara needs to drop-kick Kate’s abusive boyfriend. Alice comes when it’s time for chaos to stop running their lives.

But DID develops when you experience a shattering trauma that you can’t escape except by becoming someone else. So far, there’s nothing about Tara’s life that is harder than anyone else’s. Her daughter is your average rebellious teenager but her husband and son are saints. The show hasn’t hinted at a traumatic past and if there was one, Tara’s put-together sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) doesn’t seem to have shared it. There’s a moment when “Dog Owner Tiffany” suddenly blurts that she was abused as a child to draw the attention from Tara to herself. The moment is supposed to be mocking but many people who suffer from DID were abused as children. Was Tara?

Instead of just using DID as a plot trick to let Collette to show off her acting skills, United States of Tara has an opportunity to show the side of human identity – not just Tara’s but everyone’s – that’s laced with darkness and deep confusion. If they can show the darkness while still depicting the journey towards clarity, this could be a truly thoughtful show.

Financial Frenzy:
Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis

Don Delillo, Cosmopolis,
Scribner: New York, 2004.

Eric Parker is a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager who wakes up with one mission: to go across town for a haircut as he wagers his fortune in a daring financial bet. Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis describes Eric winding his way through Manhattan in a limo glittering with the latest technology – meeting with his advisers and encountering his young wife, exiting the limo for sexual encounters and food. He pops into a rave, stops for a funeral procession, and has his limo defaced in an anarchist protest. He feels the thrill of possible death as he sees assassinated titans on his limo’s TV screens, and rumors of his own assassin follow him.

The whole time, he is pouring millions away in his bet against the yen. As he sinks his fortune in the belief that the yen cannot go higher, the yen continues to climb and his millions dissipate. Finance tumbles along with his fortune.

The novel is about a suicidal, mad pursuit of knowledge – about the desire for immortality through information – and the crash that follows. It is one of those prescient books that resonates more today, with our own financial titans falling, than when it was written in 2003. The story is set in 2000 – pre 9/11 when New York seemed invincible – “all this optimism, all this booming and soaring,” as one character put it. When you add the shadow of 2008 to the shadow of 2001, Parker’s fall is even more spectacular.

Eric bets against the yen because he believes that he – with his financial omniscience that hasn’t failed him yet – can see a pattern that no one else can see. Deep beneath, beyond detection through analysis, there must be a pattern in the chaos – “a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.”

“There’s an order at some deep level,” he tells his chief of finance. “A pattern that wants to be seen.” Eric seems to have a hyper-consciousness that sees the future in his security cameras seconds before it occurs. But even with this heightened sensitivity, the yen defies him. The yen can’t go higher, he tells his chief of finance. That’s right, she says: “Except it just did.”

Eric worships information. He and his chief of theory emerge from his limo to watch data roll by on the electronic tickers – too fast to read, too fast to absorb – and to genuflect in information’s glow: “We are not witnessing the flow of information as much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable.” It’s this hidden knowledge that Eric seeks. He wants to read the unreadable. Analyze what defies analysis. He believes that he knows – and if he really knows, he has to act.

So he acts, but financial forces act beyond his control. Knowledge is out of his reach and when he grasps for it he falls. His chief of theory tells him he may seek a pattern but he cannot control frenzied forces that act on their own:

You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you’re dealing with a system that’s out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.

This is where the novel resonates so deeply with our situation today. Suddenly this frenzy – these mass convulsions – are no longer barely noticeable. We finally feel the hysteria that drives the market forces and our helplessness to control it. The individual decisions of people – whether they happen to feel panic or confidence on a day – create mass convulsions. Stocks rise and fall. Hysteria swells and bubbles burst, and it all acts outside our authority.

Eric is exhilarated by his own destruction. Pouring money away lends a kind of euphoria – a way to feel his power to create his own convulsions. As his assassin tells him when they meet, “Even when you self-destruct, you want to fail more, lose more, die more than others.”

It’s the classic Faustian story: A man trades his humanity in a desperate thirst for knowledge because he believes that through information, he can somehow live forever. Eric’s chief of theory tells him, “People will not die. Isn’t this the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information.” At the story’s end, as Eric faces his killer, he wishes he could “live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in whirl, in radiant spin, a consciousness saved from void.”

But then he realizes his prosaic humanity – the pain he feels in his wounded hand, the ache in his knee, the wart on his thigh – can’t transfer to a chip of data. His own bloody crash nears, and Eric realizes the impossibility of immortality through information.

Dysfunctional Festivities

The holidays are happy because they force us to leave the warmth of the illusion of adulthood and watch our years of therapy slide down the sink with the scraps of Christmas dinner and our dignity, as our pretensions to maturity explode into the sibling rivalries we founded at the age of three. A Christmas Tale and Rachel Getting Married – both black comedies about cripplingly dysfunctional families – let us take a sullen consolation in the fact that our dysfunction doesn’t reach that height. As the tagline of Rachel Getting Married half-reassures us, “This is not your family . . . But this is your family.”

In A Christmas Tale, matriarch Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) has just been diagnosed with cancer and needs a marrow transplant. She must choose as donor either her mentally tortured grandson or her shiftless son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), whose sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) had him banished from the family. There is rage, rivalry, paranoia, depression, alcoholism, adultery, and a sprinkle of anti-Semitism and incest thrown in to top off the holiday cocktail. Rachel Getting Married takes another festive occasion and inserts Anne Hathaway as Kym, a chain-smoking bulimic on leave from rehab for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt).

It’s no coincidence that films about dysfunctional families are set against a festive backdrop, as their titles like to make quite clear. It’s because this is when all of us, no matter how humdrum our family dynamic, feel imperfection most acutely – the imperfection of our human relationships and the imperfection of the moments that are supposed to be the happiest.

Festivities force us into physical proximity and make us face not just everyone else’s ugliness but our own ugliness mirrored in them. Kym’s deepest wound is knowing she’s wounded her family, but who caused her wounds and who reopens them? She blames herself for the car accident that killed her younger brother, but she blames her mother for letting her drive. Rachel can’t forgive her, perhaps because Kym’s self-loathing makes forgiveness almost impossible, but Rachel’s judgment also deepens Kym’s self-loathing. Family violence is a cycle without a beginning or an end. There are no innocents and you can never trace the bitterness to a single source. Humanity itself makes human interactions imperfect and this is true for everyone – yes, even for the tediously stable.

Human imperfection also mars the moments we want to be perfect, and we cling to the belief that weddings and Christmases should be one long unbroken moment full of peace and joy and love. But talk to any savage Christmas shopper or hyperventilating woman trailing lace, and they will you tell that some imperfection always mars the moment. Perhaps your brother-in-law will begin to pummel your brother beneath the dining room table, or your nephew will attempt to stab his mother, or your wife will find she could have loved your cousin, or your sister will decide to use her wedding rehearsal toast to complete an Alcoholics Anonymous assignment to make amends.

We compound our discontent when we assume that other people’s Christmases and weddings reach perfection. We think that no one else’s family teeters on the edge of mental instability and no one else’s siblings make drunken, inappropriate displays. They do, of course, and that is why these films console us.

But there’s another reason these movies are set in festive settings, and it’s why they don’t leave us feeling hollow. There are always moments of perfect, unadulterated joy. Rachel Getting Married ¬≠is full of them – always rough, uncut and rambling, as if it would be wrong to cut them short. Rachel’s private dance with her groom and the toasts at the wedding rehearsal are beautiful – corny songs and circuitous jokes and all. In A Christmas Tale, the moment comes when Henri wakes after his bone marrow extraction and tears groggily down the hallway in a hospital gown to sit with his mother. These moments can’t last long enough because you know they’ll end: Kym’s mother will announce she’s leaving early, or Kym will take the microphone and stand up and murder the moment. You cling to these moments because you want them to last as long as possible for these people, just like you want them to last as long as possible for you.

The most dysfunctional families have their own odd kind of closeness. Maybe it’s just enmeshment, but they love each other in their own awkward wounding ways, and it’s because these little moments heal. You can’t erase the memory of all the wounding things said to you by the people you love, but you also can’t erase the moments where you love each other – imperfectly, but still it’s love – in spite of that.

Belief in the Bones

It’s Christmas at the Jeffersonian Museum, and a team of freakish forensics scientists is clashing over the meaning of Christmas. Seely Booth, the Catholic, sees it as a time to revisit the man upstairs. T.J. Hodgins, the paranoiac, says just because organized religion is another political movement designed to control the masses, “that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love me.” And Zach Addy, the least socially adjusted scientist, says, “I’m an empirical rationalist all the way, unless you talk to my mother. Then I’m Lutheran.”

Debates like this recur in Bones, a FOX drama that tells the story of a painfully logical forensic anthropologist, Temperance “Bones” Brennan, and her soft-hearted FBI partner, Seely Booth. Bones (Emily Deschanel) is brilliant to the point of social maladjustment. If she has a god, it’s logic. If she has an ethic it’s based on anthropology. Booth (David Boreanaz) is her partner – an ex-military FBI agent who sees all in black and white.

Bones and Booth are fiercely devoted to each other and just as fiercely disagree on everything. It’s Bones’ bones vs. Booth’s theories. Bones’ science vs. Booth’s psychology. Bones’ evidence vs. Booth’s intuition; and most of all Bones’ empirical rationalism vs. Booth’s devout Catholicism. Bones and Booth show the tension between the rationalistic worldview and a view that places some faith in mystery. Whose view wins in the end?

Bones’ plots detail the gruesome and extreme. When it comes to morally aberrant behavior – from fetishism to cannibalism – Bones can understand the behavior from an anthropological point of view and give the logic for its evolution, but Booth reacts viscerally. Immoral behavior disgusts him. Bones and Booth argue about a group of fetishists with Booth stubbornly standing for traditional sexuality:

“When you turn someone into an object of sexual pleasure, it’s wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s in the Bible.”
“It is not.”
“Then it got left out by mistake.”

In an episode where Booth and Bones catch a cannibal, Bones says she can intellectually understand the evolution of cannibalism and might even consent to try it if she was trying to inculcate herself into a culture for anthropological study.

Yet when they capture the cannibal and Booth explodes that he doesn’t want to listen to his “psycho speech,” the cannibal turns to Bones expecting she’ll listen to him. She lobs a bedpan at him and echoes Booth: “No one wants to hear that rambling psycho speech!” She can rationalize cannibalism but when she meets one, she throws bedpans.

And it’s Booth, whose puritan modesty she sometimes mocks, who wins the discussion about sexuality.

“Making love – making love – that’s when two people become one.”
“It is scientifically impossible for two objects to occupy the same space.”
“Yeah but what’s important is we try and when we do it right, we get close.’
“To what? Breaking the laws of physics?”
“Yeah, Bones – a miracle. All those people with their role-playing and their fetishes and their little sex games – it’s crappy sex. At least compared to the real thing.”

Booth is startled when Bones replies, “”You’re right.”

Bones is about logic’s power but also its limitations. The team finally solves the case of Gormogon, a serial killer who targets the members of secret societies, when they discover Gormogon’s apprentice is one of their own team-members. Logic leads Zack to become the Gormogon’s apprentice. When Booth and Bones confront him and Booth says, “I’d love to hear the logic of killing people to save the world,” Zach replies, “The Master’s logic is irrefutable.”

Then Bones points out Zach’s inconsistency. Zach believes that he’s justified in killing members of secret societies, because secret societies adversely affect the human experience. He should believe that the historical human experience is more important than a single human life, but Brennan notes that he sacrificed his cause and himself to save his friend.

Zach sees the truth of the value of a single life immediately. Both the logicians and the mystics share this belief and it’s the show’s whole premise. But where does that premise come from? Isn’t it more logical that the entirety of the human experience is more important than a single life? Does this premise come from logic or some truth that transcends it?

The show never comes down on one side or the other. The question is always open for debate, and the sparring never ends. It’s clear, though, that the logician and the mystic need each other. Booth and Bones are a good team and sometimes, Bones needs Booth’s beliefs even though she doesn’t share them. In one episode, she makes a promise to a foster child that only Booth can help her keep. He helps her keep her promise:

“I knew you’d back me up. I knew you wouldn’t make me a liar. Because you want to go to heaven.”
“But you don’t believe in heaven.”
“But you do.”

Sometimes the empirical rationalist needs to lean on the mystic’s belief.

Playing God on Private Practice

I watch Grey’s Anatomy for the fast-paced gore and the overblown personal dramas. I watch its spin-off, Private Practice, for all that along with its thoughtful treatment of bioethical dramas – the same dramas we’re seeing in real-life hospitals and public debate.

The bioethics debate isn’t just a clinical and scientific debate or an abstract and philosophical one. It’s a debate about how to best fulfill the human longings for long life, good life, health and family. There’s all sorts of humanity mixed up in it – competing human longings and fallible human judgment deciding human life’s creation and existence. While philosophers and politicians squabble, doctors practice bioethics every day; and they don’t always have the time for debate when human life is at stake and the ethical choice isn’t clear.

In Private Practice, Kate Walsh plays Addison Montgomery, a neonatal surgeon working at a wellness clinic with her friend Naomi (Audra McDonald). The second season premiered on October 1, and the show’s writer Shonda Rhimes says that this season will raise more medical and ethical dilemmas.

The first episode launches into an ethical dilemma when a woman six months pregnant comes to the clinic, desperately demanding that Addison deliver their baby immediately. Their seven-year-old son has leukemia and his donor has fallen through. Their son will die in a week, and their unborn baby’s cord blood is the only thing that will save him. Their baby’s cord blood matches their son’s because they screened their embryo to create a match. They created a baby to save their son, and now Addison and her coworkers face a painful choice: save the son’s life and endanger the daughter’s, or protect the daughter and let the son die?

Bioethics deals with questions where the best and strongest human longings compete. Doctors and ethicists and patients have the same good end: to enhance the quality of life and protect it. But are all means ethical to accomplish that end, and what happens when one human life becomes the means to protecting another? People begin to make dubious ethical decisions – often out of pure respect for human life – and they eventually have to decide whose life comes first: The premature baby, or the seven-year old with leukemia? To the mother, the seven year old comes first because she knows him. She says she can’t love her unborn baby in the way that she loves her son.

Private Practice is interesting in that unborn humanity is assumed. There’s a legitimate debate – the life of the unborn child, or the life of the seven-year-old – and it’s clear that Addison’s outrage is righteous when she faults the parents for sacrificing an unborn life for the life of their son. “The problem is that she is carrying a child, except to her it’s not a child,” she confronts Naomi. “It’s organs for her dying son.”

The desires for a long, healthy life and a family are strong – so strong that they sometimes blind people and create a passion so consuming it becomes dangerous and skewed. The mother ends up forcing Addison to delivery her baby when she induces her own labor, pleading that she’s only doing the best she can to save her family. In another episode, a man whose wife underwent fertility treatments switched his sick baby with a healthy baby. When confronted, he’s livid with the clinicians for taking “three years and 250,000 dollars and all my wife’s hopes and dreams” and giving him a faulty product. They spent their future so they could have a child and if his child is sick, he wants his money back.

Naomi’s response is, “I never promised you perfection. I promised you a child.” But the idea of customer satisfaction is almost implicit in what Naomi does since she can manipulate the product to fill the parent’s wishes, just like she did for the couple who needed a genetic match for their son. When Addison interrupts Naomi as she fertilizes an embryo in her lab, Naomi casually drops a thought-provoking line: “I’m creating human life here.” If you can create a human life, why not make her grow up to be 5’10” with blue eyes, athletic ability and a high I.Q.?

The first episode highlights another human motivation influencing the bioethics debate: greed, which always capitalizes off of the strongest human needs and wants. The couple offered Naomi $80,000 to implant an embryo that could provide a match for their son. The practice was in financial trouble, so Naomi fudged the ethical boundaries to save it. There’s money in baby-making and in life-saving, and sometimes the desire for money trumps the ethical considerations.

Private Practice shows why the bioethics debate gets so heated. These are issues in which one decision – sometimes one that seems ethical – can create a situation where it’s less easy to differentiate between black and white. It is easy for each side to believe that it is the side protecting human life, and the other side is destroying it.

Playing God can be exhausting. Dr. Charlotte King (KaDee Strickland) shows a rare vulnerability when she says, “I miss the good old days, when life and death was decided by God instead of doctors. It would be good to just not be in control, to just let go, let God.” Letting go is impossible, though. They have the medical ability to give life, and now they have the ethical responsibility to use their ability well.

Private Practice airs on ABC on Wednesday nights at 9:00pm EST.

Shutting Up Our Inner Censors

In a chapter of his beautiful and esoteric book of essays, Maps and Legends, novelist Michael Chabon reflects on the fear of writing. In an essay about the golem, a man-made being that comes to life through enchantment, Chabon compares the creation of the golem to the process of writing. Just as the golem you create can get bigger than you intended and slip out of your control, like Frankenstein or the Golem of Prague, so Chabon says, “Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid.”

Some writers have to weigh each word because of the fear of censorship or persecution. Chabon writes that for him, it’s the fear of exposure since people sometimes confuse him with his characters – assume that he’s homosexual, or uses drugs or is a terrible father because his characters are. People assume that he thinks what his characters think.

Chabon writes that a writer has to get past this fear of exposure:

Telling the truth when the truth matters most is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach, and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.

Someone who can use words well – aim them as weapons – has the power to inflict greater damage than someone who can’t. But she can also tell the truth the best and have it matter the most, which always means arousing general wrath. Writers trying to tell the truth when it matters will always have the temptation to anxiously submit everything to their “internal censor” to avoid inviting the world’s unrighteous wrath. It’s a censor both miserably cowardly and harsh, and listening to it shrivels your creativity.

I discovered this during my latest bout of writer’s block. Like Chabon, I’ve had people make sweeping judgments about me – sketch the entirety of my character, identify my sins and point them out – based on a couple of sentences in a couple of my blog posts. Friendlier people have read my writing and assumed they know all about me – made breezy generalizations, even given me advice – because they imagine the fraction of myself that I show through my writing is actually the whole.

Not so long ago, I wrote a hasty blog post courting “disapproval, reproach, and general wrath.” I was telling the truth but I was also mocking somebody, who then found the post and responded without figuring out who I was. This unsettled me and because I was also tired of the lazy judgments people made about me, I decided to subject everything I wrote to a strict internal censor. I set up a list of rules for myself: only write things I would not be ashamed to attach to my name, only write things I would not be ashamed to have the person in question read, and wait 24 hours before posting anything.

Instead of writing good things, I wrote nothing at all. At first I composed blog posts and deleted them. Then I didn’t write at all. Whereas before, the impulse to express myself was instant and important, I lost not just the urge but the ability to communicate. The internal censor shriveled up my creativity, like censors always do, and I experienced a miserable case of writer’s block.

I only recovered after I was forced to write in The Curator and Patrol. The prospect of an inexorable deadline meant the internal censor had to be squelched. Once I muffled it and submitted something imperfect and full of flaws, it became easier to muffle the censor again and eventually restore a measure of my shriveled creativity.

My dad worries that I’ve put too much of myself out on the Internet for people to read and that when I’m old and wise, I’ll never be able to escape my young and foolish self since nothing on the Internet goes away. My philosophy is that expressing my young and foolish self will help me to become old and wise. For me writing is not just what I think but the way I think. It helps me think things through.

So yes, the things I write are sometimes half thought. But a censor is someone who takes away not just the freedom to say what’s true, but also what’s false. If you submit all you write to this internal censor – paralyzed by the fear of saying something that your old, wise self will regret – then the source of your creativity dries up and you never learn. Sometimes it’s only by submitting your work to the critical world that you can discover what’s false. It’s only by inviting the wrath of your friends, family, and strangers that you can find out that you’re wrong.

The world’s general wrath can also temper your own. Once I made the mistake of picking a theological fight with someone who liked to fight dirty. It was another case of telling the truth but impetuously, at the wrong time and in the wrong forum and to the wrong people. Seeing how gladly someone would defame an opponent in the name of doctrinal purity tempered my own zeal. You learn to check your own anger when you feel a similar anger directed at you.

Chabon goes on to say, in the last line of his essay, “The writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s, is at once terribly imperfect and full of astonishing life.”

The internal censor tells us the “terribly imperfect” isn’t worth creating, but it is. We have to be willing to write something bad – even something false – before we can write something good and true.

Maps and Legends , by Michael Chabon, was published by McSweeney’s and is available on

McCain, Barack and 30 Rock

There’s only enough time in the day to choose between watching last season’s comedy shows online and reading the news. Of course, I choose 30 Rock – an NBC show about insecure, work-driven variety show producer Liz Lemon and her boss Jack Donaghy.

Liz (Tina Fey) is the “godless, glassy-eyed Clintonista.” Jack (Alec Baldwin) is the Reaganite who is dating Condoleeza Rice. It’s the same political head-butting without all the pontification – the racial guilt and gender angst of the swinging American voter, told in a way that shows it’s really all ridiculous.

30 Rock even anticipates political headlines. For example, in one episode, Jack struggles to find a celebrity entertainer for a John McCain fundraiser. They can only drum up a decrepit anti-Semite and Jack pouts, “The Democrats have all the good celebrities.” In recent real life, just the ancient, ugly Jon Voight defended John McCain, while the enamored Scarlett Johansson claimed to be engaged to Barack Obama and the inspired Ludacris wrote Obama a song:

Said I handled his biz and I’m one of his favorite rappers
Well give Luda a special pardon if I’m ever in the slammer
Better yet put me in office, make me your vice president
Hillary hated on you, so that b**** is irrelevant.

Like other white American voters, Liz carries the crushing weight of racial guilt. Her aspiration to color blindness makes her both excruciatingly conscious of race and judgmental towards anyone who is conscious, too. In one episode, she dates an impossibly tedious black man who collects tote bags and blogs about missile defense systems. She bristles when Jack calls the man a Black (although it’s his last name) and brushes aside Jack’s warning about the cultural tensions he and Condoleeza Rice experienced. Liz can see past all that: “When I go home I am just riding on a subway car of scary teenaged people.

Her attempt at racial blindness is scrambled when the man accuses her of racism when she won’t go out with him again. She makes a plea that neatly sums the bulk of our racial drama: “I truly don’t like you as a person. Can’t one human being not like another human being? Can’t we all just not get along?”

This election has scrambled America’s attempts at racial blindness, too, dredging up both white racism and white racial guilt, proving that it may be impossible for anyone – even Barack Obama – to run a color-blind campaign right now. When white voters listed race as a deciding factor in their primary votes, they were twice as likely to vote against Barack Obama. But did racial guilt motivate the others who voted for Obama? In the words of Stuff White People Like, white people like Barack Obama “Because white people are afraid that if they don’t like him that they will be called racist.” Why can’t we just dislike our candidates as people?

There’s racial guilt, and then there’s gender angst. Liz is the unhappily liberated woman. When intern Cerie gets engaged to an old, rich man she’s known for three months, Liz gives Cerie a feminist pep talk that quickly transitions to racking self-doubt: “You’re so young, Cerie! There’s no big hurry to have babies. I mean there are other things in life, like having a career and working and … having a job and … working.” Cerie’s shallow self-assurance always shatters Liz’ self esteem: “You can have a career at any time. But you only have a really short period where you can be a young hot, mom.”

Liz follows it all with a bout of hysterical baby-crazy sobbing (“What if my junk goes bad?”), some “trawling for seed,” a period of denial (“My body is trying to make me think I want to have a baby but my body is not the boss of me. My brain is!”), some deranged baby-stealing and finally the hollowly-ringing feminist mantra: “Maybe it’s impossible to have it all – the career, the family. But if anyone can figure out how to do it, it’s me.”

But she doesn’t even have the willpower to break up with her beeper-selling boyfriend or stop eating Cheetos laced with bull semen. She’s trying to live out dreams that contradict reality: We can be happy (all alone), eating Chinese takeout (while worrying about our weight) after coming home from our important (stressful) jobs! But it’s easier to cling to false definitions of fulfillment and happiness than face the fact that we’re neither fulfilled nor happy. It’s easier to say race doesn’t matter than face the embarrassing truth that we still can’t just dislike each other as people.

There’s the ambivalence inherent in our guilt and angst, and there’s also the ambivalence of balancing our guilts. This is why the Democratic primary produced so much anxiety: It pitted racial guilt and gender angst; so while some feminists endorsed Obama, other feminists decried them. All of this internal tugging creates the swing voter, and the hunt for the swing voter’s heart drives campaigns. Liz – the godless Clintonista – is one of them herself. In a litany of humiliating secrets, she confesses, “There is an 80% chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends that I’m voting for Barack Obama but I will secretly vote for John McCain.”

But why? Why do we have to choose between our insecurities? Most of us are complicated people, like Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), a “forward-thinking” black guy who likes the fact that the GOP supports lower taxes and guns but can’t turn his back on his people by becoming the celebrity face of the Republican Party. So he ditches this GOP commercial: “My fellow Black Americans, Dr. King once had a dream, a dream that we all share – to build a 200 foot high wall to keep Mexico out. And he also hated the estate tax.” And replaces it with this one: “Black people: Don’t vote! Just don’t do it! In the amount of time it takes you to vote you can play three games of pool! Three!”

Maybe Kenneth – the sunny, Bible-quoting, innocent Kentuckian – has the best solution: “I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin so I always just write in the Lord’s name!”

Oh, wait. As Jack points out, “That’s Republican. We count those.”