Thursday, March 31, 2016

Primates of Park Avenue

Primates of Park Avenue: a memoir
Wednesday Martin (Simon and Schuster, 2015)

    What's it like to be a wealthy young wife and mother on the upper East Side of New York? Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue is not just a memoir, but an anthropological study of a rare and strange way of life. As a child, Martin was fascinated by pioneering anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall. When she grew up and moved to New York, she earned a doctorate in cultural studies and comparative literature. She was well placed to experience, and study, the contrast between the collaborative mothering practices of primitive tribes and the solitary urban mothers around her.

    Those mothers are not merely solitary (armies of nannies notwithstanding), but competitive, verging on cutthroat. The perfect children they are raising require the perfect nannies, tutors, play groups, and schools; the mothers themselves maintain fiendish exercise and makeup routines, and dress to the nines to go out for milk. They also maintain a social hierarchy Martin has to crack, by means that would make a sixth-grader blush: at her son's new school, the other mothers overtly ignore her, and exclude her child from play dates. "It was clear that on the Upper East Side, moms and toddlers had their pecking order worked out and their places set and their dance cards full long before the wee ones were out of their Robeez."

    Why are these women like that? They have everything they could possibly need. (In anthropology-speak, they live in a state of 'extreme ecological release.') They're the richest and least vulnerable people on earth, by most measures. But there is one scarce resource: men. Women of child-bearing age outnumber eligible men by two to one in these precincts, so a woman who lets herself lose status, or look weak, risks getting pushed out of the tree by a younger, more aggressive female. Martin comes close to making us feel sorry for them, or at least see the pathos behind the glossy facade. Keeping up with the neighbors, in a state of self-imposed semi-starvation, is extremely stressful. It's no wonder some women take pills, or become a little too devoted to their afternoon glass of wine.

    Still, the extremity of the circumstances makes the book funny. Witness the observation that very high heels are a declaration that one has a driver at the ready, or the back-of-the-envelope calculation of what it takes to look that good, ("Something like $95,000, on the low end, just to be beautiful enough...") She's not naming names, exactly; the discretion extends to which nursery school she maneuvered her way into, and what her own wealthy, older husband does. But the machinations about acquiring the Birkin bag by Hermes, and worrying about which playgroup can get you into the right kindergarten - if it weren't funny, it would be terrifying.

    Cultural observation often involves the risk of going native, and that's what happened here. It doesn't sound like Martin really minds. "Yes, I found myself wanting smooth blond blond blonder hair, and a Birkin, and a Barbour jacket, and whimsical emerald-green velvet Charlotte Olympia flats with kitten faces on them. And I surrendered." More power to her, say I.

Any Good Books emailed
April, 2016

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic

Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic
Nora Gallagher (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013; paperback, Vintage, 2014)

   Before that day in the fall of 2009, when she was lighting a fire and her vision blurred, Nora Gallagher's map was her Daytimer. She led a stressful life, coping with the deadlines at her day job (editing copy for Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company); keeping up with family obligations; and jetting around the country giving talks about her books. Driven by 'things not yet happened,' she had no time for prayer or relaxation. "I traveled like this to talk about my spiritual life, but the irony was lost on me."

   But she went to the doctor to see what this new blurring was; you really don't want a doctor looking at your eye to say, "Darn." And with that, Gallagher's crowded schedule was yesterday's news. "It was like falling into Oz. I walked right over the border without knowing I was crossing it. It had no border patrol. I did no planning. I had no map." This book is the map she makes as she goes along, as a coastal mariner might, of shoals and lighthouses.

   The first thing that was hard is that no one could say what was wrong with her. She had an eye doctor for a case of uveitis that she'd had for years, but the extreme fatigue and weight loss pointed to something more complex. On general principles, the doctors started her on steroids, and the tests started to multiply; she was treated like "a thing to test, not a person to heal." The nurses who didn't look at her, the residents who scoffed at her questions, and the world famous specialists who didn't accept follow-up appointments, appear in the book by only their initials.

   The other kind, the doctors who listened, are named. They obviously saw her as a person, and cared about her, but no one knew what her trouble was, so she won the golden ticket to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, where the whole place might as well be Oz. The Mayo Clinic has figured out some best practices: the local hotels connect to the clinics by tunnels to avoid the winter weather, there are strange and beautiful things to see everywhere you look, and the staff always tells you what to expect. Eventually, they even figured out what was wrong with her.

   She didn't do all this alone. Her husband, Vincent, was right alongside, though on the other side of the glass wall that separates the healthy from the sick. The priest at her Episcopal church, I'm pleased to say, was another good companion, a veteran of waiting rooms. His advice to stop and consider 'what is real now' resonates: "If you stayed in the present, if you paid attention thoroughly to the now, what it had in it might come to you. And if you did not pay attention to the present, you might miss essential information that might be exactly what you needed."

   This kind of openness to the present posed a challenge to her faith. The triumphalism of the Nicene Creed, the Almighty Father, the Mighty Fortress, came to seem ludicrously at odds with the Jesus who made mud with his spit to heal a poor man's sight. "The man Jesus had had quite a lot to say about losing. He was -- now I understand -- preoccupied with loss: lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. His own lost life." She can still identify with that Jesus, because now she can hear, and tell, the everyday stories of loss, and of having nothing left to lose. "It is a kind of desecration that we made of this man, a crown, a king, a Lord. Jesus is about as far away from a king as a person can be."

   But he's willing to go where people are lost, hurting, and scared. Jesus is a voluntary citizen of Oz. When the losses mount up, as they inevitably will, that's information I want to hold onto. 


Email edition, March 1, 2016