Yesterday, at a party my boss took me to for work, an older gentleman used shaking my hand as an excuse to fondle my wrist. As his index finger caressed my skin and I tried not to barf, I reflected on how many odd face-to-face interactions I have had with people in the last month.
Most recently, I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival, an annual gala where writers and thinkers get to sit in close proximity with the only people who still buy novels. Even when less than scintillating, the panels always give you something to mull over, like when Sigrid Nunez, there to discuss the writing of her new memoir about her relationship with Susan Sontag, said that she doesn’t like to write about people she knows, but if one musts, the trick is to “be harder on yourself than you are on them.”
David Rakoff, also on the panel, said that he avoids writing about people he knows altogether — except his parents. And they, he feels, are fair game.
Jonathan Franzen’s advice on the same topic was to write about whomever you want but mention of any male character that he has distressingly small genitalia. Then no one will admit — or want to believe — that you’ve written about him.
All of that aside, the best panel over the weekend was about contemporary parenthood and featured Alice Bradley, an old favorite of mine from her blog Finslippy, who has co-written the funny/scathing Let’s Panic About Babies!; Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite bloggers and America’s best public intellectuals; and Adam Mansbach, the surprisingly smart & substantial author of Go the Fuck To Sleep. I had gone in with no expectations at all and really enjoyed hearing them all make jokes about children and about trying hard to be both a parent and a recognizable human being.
The panel I was most excited about, by contrast, featured the almighty Fran Lebowitz, the “Inconceivable!” Wallace Shawn, and author-of-my-favorite-short-story (“Days”) Deborah Eisenberg.
The best thing about it was the location (all those Jews in a church on Sunday!). Otherwise, it fell kind of flat. You can always count on Lebowitz to say something hilarious, and she was exactly as sharp as you would hope she would be. “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy,” she said, all but pounding the podium. Later, she had acidic words for America post-NAFTA: “What has replaced factories in the Midwest? Meth labs and mega churches. It goes New York–>meth labs and mega churches–>LA.”
Sadly, Shawn and Eisenberg had only standard leftist Ivory Tower talking points to contribute, and as Lebowitz wandered into the well-worn territory of carping about Kids These Days, the event became steadily less interesting. No one addressed either of the two fundamental questions I have about contemporary political life:
1) In a post-socialism world–which is to say, a world in which the left has no ideological counterpoint to capitalism to offer–what idea should we be rallying around? Less unfair democracy? More restrained capitalism? As Aaron Sorkin might say, I can’t believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that.
2) Bearing in mind that the last progressive US president to get elected to a second term was Franklin Roosevelt, how is Obama supposed to win in 2012, especially without pissing off the left? Clinton sold out to the Republicans with free trade and welfare reform; that’s a large part of why he was popular enough to compete, and even then he got a strong assist from the 3rd-party candidacy of wacko Texan Ross Perot.
So I left a bit disappointed with everyone involved. Unlike the many other people who potentially felt the same way, however, I got to express my feelings (!!) because later that afternoon, as I headed to Trader Joe’s, I passed the three panelists and a fourth individual on the street. There they were, just hanging out, Lebowitz smoking of course. (She’s the only smoker I love and almost certainly the only one I respect.)
Hitching up my resolve, I walked right to her and said, “Can I shake your hand?”
Lebowitz took her cigarette out of her mouth, held it with the fingers of her left hand, and shook my hand with her right.
“You were brilliant up there today,” I said, looking all of them in the eye one by one. “But you were wrong.”
Shawn and Eisenberg looked startled and confused, as though a waiter in a restaurant had lifted the cover off a dish to reveal a live kitten. Lebowitz merely put her cigarette back in her mouth and gave a half-shrug, half-smirk that made me want to make out with her, even though she would taste like an ashtray. Instead, I smiled once more at all of them and kept walking.
VICTORY IS MINE, SAYETH THE LORD. Or perhaps he didn’t, but he should have.
The night before, some friends and I hit up the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival at the Bell House, where we got up and close and personal with more celebrities: Ira Glass, John Hodgman, and special guest star Rachel Maddow. Maddow told adorable, endearing stories about how she was hired by a woman to do yard work and ended up doing another kind of maintenance altogether, if you know what I mean. (In fulfilling that fantasy, for both parties, by the way, she probably deserves some sort of lesbian Medal of Honor.) Hodgman held his own, hilariously straight-faced as always, but Mirman, who I’ve also seen knock over grown people with laughter, was underutilized by the hosts, Elna and Kevin of “The Talent Show,” who seemed much more focused on making sure Ira Glass puked onstage.
They nearly got their wish, too. By midway through, Glass was so sloppily happy that he kept popping up from his chair and beaming at the audience, like a tall hipster prairie dog. Elna and Kevin kept telling him to take shots and, as Mr. Ben pointed out later, it was like improv — he couldn’t say no. By night’s end, we watched a great wave of nausea nearly topple him. His cheeks puffed out; his eyes sunk; and his wife managed to lead him offstage before he blew his cookies in front of everyone.
Also one of the comedians nearly got into a fight with some hecklers from the audience and had to be restrained. In general it was not the best show I’ve seen there but, still, watching Ira Glass turn sea-green was pretty memorable.
More to come! I swear. I have great Montana stories and at some point I’ll get to tell them.