Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Kennedys in Georgetown

Last time I walked through Georgetown, I saw Maria Shriver.  Via my British tabloid habit I learned later she'd been in town for her daughter's graduation.  In an auction later this week, photos of her Uncle Jack and his young bride in their early years together will be on the selling block.

I've been besotted with the neighborhood since reading Katherine Graham's Personal History some fifteen years ago.  I loved her stories about throwing dinner parties with all the young stars in town, the best and brightest in the early, heady post-war years in Washington.  Later I would devour tales of Julia and Paul Child feeding friends Francophile dishes, drinking good wine, and of course smoking lots of cigarettes while solving the problems of the world.  The reading was a great thrill, if only a vicarious one: I was a new mother with a lot of laundry, and the idea of getting to visit, never mind work, in DC, seemed as unlikely as landing a cameo on West Wing. 

It turns out my life is charmed as such that I have now have a boss in the nation's capital and a reason to visit every few months.  When I am there, I sometimes get to perch in a visiting office with a view of the White House. Even among the jaded souls in the city, views from our conference room elicit gasps and shots from smart phones.  Everybody in the town is still the smartest kid in the class, but when I committed to my line of work, I knew I'd assigned myself to the back of intellectual bus.  I don't care.  Every time I walk down Connecticut Avenue, I pinch myself. 

When I have time in the morning or after office hours, I trek over Rock Creek to Georgetown, which still looks almost exactly as it did when JFK and Jackie strolled through it, at least once off the main drag, which is a crush of cupcake shops and upscale clothing stores.  But even there, one sees men wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and matrons in well-preserved Chanel suits.

T and I visited together last May, and on our Sunday walk he brazened our way into an open house--it was a gorgeous-looking, red brick townhouse--on what looked to be a coveted street. I would never have had the nerve, but I really do have a lot more fun now that I hang out with him. Fully restored and four bedrooms, it was breathtaking.  There was a stuffy, manly study on the second floor and some very tasteful and convincing chintz wallpaper in the bedrooms. The footprint was intact, which meant the kitchen, though beautifully finished in white marble, was still designed for the help and so about the size of a walk-in closet in a Texas tract house. The pricetag was $4.1 million. As we attempted to skulk out, there was a woman, clearly a neighborhood fixture, crowding 80 and wearing a sweater with holes in it, cornering the realtor and commenting about the streaks on the windows. 

Of course, there were later black moments for that golden generation that lives in my imagination.  On days when I leave my Dallas office for home, I drive past the grassy knoll and think of Jack each time.  But I also remember he turned out to be an epic philanderer.  Jackie had herself an interesting time and a career after that, but those cigarettes caught up with her early. Katherine Graham oversaw the biggest story of the century at the Washington Post, but not until after her husband blew his head off.

After we walked through that expensive house, T and I talked about how it lacked soul, and even that there was an air of sadness about it.  A morning later, I took a walk on my own along P street and took in the quiet, outward perfection of it all.  Now I saw a little tarnish on the brass door knockers.  Dreaming about it was somehow more fun.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Only Children Can Gain Emotional Intelligence Through Literature

I'm not friends with anyone who's called me stupid.  Or needy.  Or a bitch.  That's because I don't have a brother or a sister. 

Kids from big families seem to have skins so thick.  As an adolescent, I gravitated to these large broods, hanging around their houses like an anthropologist.  The way they spoke to each other!  Especially the boys, who called each other all manner of homophobic slurs and whacked each other around.  The girls played passive aggressive games until someone borrowed the wrong pair of jeans and then screaming and hair pulling ensured.  I was horrified and thought surely their relationships were severed for good.  Then I would see them at dinner laughing about some ancient family joke.  I was mystified at how their bonds held even in the face of what I saw as violent conflict.

When an only child has a fight with a friend--and in my case, even approaching fifty, a long silence or remark that I might require a little too much care and feeding can sting--it feels like the end of the world.  We are, if we're lucky, the third pin in triangulation with our parents.  In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo writes from the perspective of twelve year-old Griffin, driving to the beach with his father and permanently disappointed mother.  He sat in the back seat while each June they underwent an (initially) unarticulated discussion about the rental in front of them his father's meager academic salary had purchased, versus the description they had read in the advertisement.  Charming, rustic. Which meant, "crappy."  He made himself as small as possible in an effort to stay out of the inevitable fray.  I am grateful that my own children had one another through the dissolution of their parents' marriage.  At least later in life they can compare notes and be assured of their own sanity, if not that of their father and mother during this time.

I didn't have Netflix, so once I got through the Gilligan's Island re-runs, there wasn't much to distract me after school.  Books became my refuge and my way of understanding the world.  At thirteen and babysitting through the summer, I blasted through the romance novels of the mothers who employed me, and got bored with them quickly, although the Judith Krantz books held my interest through the lascivious parts.  

Then I pulled A Turn of the Screw off a bookshelfI remember trying to figure out what was going on with the governess, the housekeeper, the little sister, and why things turned so sinister.  It was fascinating, and my heart pounded as the plot rose.  This was no formula book, and who knew who the bad guy was?  At that point, I stopped reading for entertainment and started reading for empathy.  Literary writing was a window into how others lived, how they felt, what they dreamed about and plotted against one another.  Why do people do what they do?  I'll never tire of considering the possibilities.

This week, a study published in the journal Science leads to the conclusion that sitting with a book is not a dreamy waste of time.  Though short-term, the study demonstrates.. "that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies." Reading books that focus on character development rather than plot helps us read other people.  It seems a pleasant way to overcome an experience deficit.

In my vocation, I help lawyers promote themselves.  Surpassed perhaps only by doctors as the least self-aware profession, they can be pretty brutal in their assessments of my efforts, although I have a pretty strong skill set in securing their trust. My high brow reading would seem to have provided me a good living.  And a thicker skin.