No Real Plot.

The Girl With Her Back to the Crowd.

Boating, Gabriele Münter, 1909

Devoted acolyte happily rows genius towards his glorious future.  Right?

There’s a Kandinsky retrospective in town. More than a hundred paintings, drawings, and prints organized to show how Wassily Kandinsky evolved from a young Moscow law professor into the Father of 20th Century Expressionism.

It’s an impressive show, built around the disruptive-artist-hero story that Kandinsky liked to tell (not inaccurately) about himself, a St. George fearlessly slaying the dragon of traditional figurative art and modern materialist culture.

2012_02_28_21_19_030Improvisation III, Wassily Kandinsky, 1909

Most of the exhibited works come from the Pompidou Center in Paris, whose extensive Kandinsky collection was a gift from Nina Kandinsky, his widow and second wife. Or his third wife, depending on how you count it.

Which brings us to the girl rowing that boat.

She’s Gabriele Münter, the German-born daughter of a Jackson, Tennessee dentist and general-store owner, her father an immigrant who’d fled back to Westphalia to escape the American Civil War, leaving in-laws behind in Coffee Landing, Tennessee. Gabriele — or Ella (or Ellchen), as Kandinsky called her — was twenty-five years old in early 1902, when she joined a Munich art class taught by the 36-year-old, married Kandinsky.

Gabriele was looking for a serious art teacher. At that time, Germany’s formal art academies refused to admit women, for the most part, on the view that their biologically passive role of bearing and nurturing children meant they lacked men’s capacity for active artistic creativity. As one critic put it, quoting Goethe: “[S]ince woman cannot be original, she can only attach herself to men’s art. She is the imitatrix par excellence, the empathizer who sentimentalizes and disguises manly art forms . . . . ‘She is not capable of a single idea[.]’  . . . She is the born dilettante.” Women who tried serious art anyway? They became a bitter, de-feminized “third sex,” monstrous and unproductive, no good for babies and no good for art either.

gabrillemunter2Self-Portrait, Gabriele Münter, 1908

So women like Gabriele Münter ended up studying art privately, or in small informal studios, or in Ladies’ Academies that struggled to keep good teachers any longer than it took them to get jobs in the “real” art schools, teaching the men who’d become “real” artists. It was a disorganized, unsystematic, and frustrating way to learn. Thus, Gabriele was delighted to discover Kandinsky’s life drawing class in the Phalanx school he’d recently founded with a few other progressives. She later remembered, “[T]hat was a new artistic experience, how K., quite unlike the other teachers — painstakingly, comprehensively explained things and regarded me as a consciously striving person, capable of setting herself tasks and goals. This was something new for me, it impressed me.”

But Kandinsky began to press her for a more personal, romantic relationship, despite his marriage. By October of 1902, he could write, “I love you very much, and again a hundred times as much. You have to believe it and you musn’t forget it.” Still, he insisted, “When you come [visit him and his wife at home] on Monday don’t let it be apparent that we have seen each other more than twice. Yes? Once in school and once at your place yesterday.”

Gabriele, in turn, wrote Kandinsky (in a letter she did not mail):

My idea of happiness is a domesticity as cozy and harmonious as I could make it & someone who wholly & always belongs to me — but — it does not have to be that way at all — if it does not come about & if I do not find the right man — I am still very content & happy I intend now to find pleasure in work again . . . . At any rate I have always so despised & hated any kind of lying & secrecy that I just could not lend myself to it. If we cannot be friends in the eyes of the world I must do without entirely — I want no more than I can be open about & I want to be responsible for what I do — otherwise I am unhappy.

img042Interior (Still Life), Gabriele Münter, 1909 (Kandinsky in next room)

By the summer of 1903, Kandinsky’s wife had agreed in principle to divorce him, and he and Gabriele celebrated what he called their “engagement.” For the next roughly thirteen years — while he produced much of his most innovative and most famous Expressionist paintings, published his most influential theoretic manifestos, and organized his most well-known art movement, the Blue Rider — they lived and traveled together, a couple. As a couple, they developed their two prodigious bodies of work side by side.

And I mean two prodigious bodies of work. You already know his from Art History 101. The power of hers might surprise you.

img035Still Life, Yellow, Gabriele Münter, 1909

Still, as Kandinsky became the increasingly prominent public figure, Gabriele’s status as his unmarried partner left her life confined and circumscribed in the conservative Munich society outside their small circle of artist friends. Even her own family, loving but solidly middle class, found it difficult to understand how she could live so intimately with this man. It was bad enough that he was not her husband, but, worse, he was still married to another woman.

img023Return from Shopping (In The Streetcar), Gabriele Münter, 1908/09

In 1909, urged by Kandinsky, Gabriele bought a country house for them to share in Murnau, outside Munich. He’d still not pushed through his divorce, and in fact he spent the New Year holiday that year with his wife, writing Gabriele: “At the end of this coming year, you might not remain as lonely, as abandoned as has become the case now.”

Finally, we’re back to the boat.

In the summer of 1910, Gabriele Münter began to make preparatory studies for a portrait of herself rowing across Lake Staffel, near their Murnau villa. The figure of Kandinsky did not appear in sketches at first. But by the time she finished Boating, later that year, he’d taken up his dominant, standing position in the bow, like Washington crossing the Delaware. He stares down the viewer, electric blue eyes mirroring the mountains behind him and Münter’s ladylike hat low in the stern. She staunchly grasps the oars, single-handedly hauling him, their two idle guests, and a dog across the lake. Not only is her face turned away, her entire head is hidden, obscured beneath the demure, oversized hat. She and Kandinsky together form one strong, blue vertical beam. It’s a connection of color and direction, but not touch, nor shared viewpoint.

7f5aaffcbea554bef715cf88eacbb50f 3Both times I toured the exhibit here in Nashville, my guide made the same crisp claim: Gabriele Münter painted Boating to celebrate Kandinsky’s growing pre-eminence among the avant-garde, and to show how whole-heartedly she embraced her subordinate role as disciple and assistant, keeping his show on the road (or the lake, as it were). The catalogue calls her his “companion,” a “valued source of advice for the painter”; it notes she “compiled the first inventory of his works,” but says little else about her own work. “Münter’s hiding her face,” explained my guide. “She’s literally self-effacing.”

But I think that’s wishful thinking. Seeing Boating in person, hanging in the gallery near Kandinsky’s rushing blue horse, it struck me that Gabriele Münter’s maybe saying something else, something far harder for the hero-seeking art viewer to swallow. For maybe Boating‘s a portrait of the artist as a faceless, breaking heart.

Talk about Expressionism.

The year after Boating, Kandinsky traveled alone to Russia for an extended visit with his family and his old circle of friends, and the couple entered a period of prolonged separate travels, with shorter times together in between. They wrote letters, often daily, many of them fond and sometimes even passionate. They shared business concerns, a slippery gallery owner, a petty personal feud among artist friends. They made plans to reunite, and they discussed the house at Murnau. But Kandinsky’s tone cools, unmistakably, and Gabriele becomes increasingly pointed about his long-delayed promise to divorce his wife and marry her. They both allude to tension and trouble in their relationship during the previous year, 1910. He insisted they hire a housekeeper who’d once worked for him and his wife, a woman who disliked Gabriele and blamed her for the marriage’s disruption.

img029Still Life with Saint George, Gabriele Münter, 1911

Revising and republishing his essays and manifestos for his growing audience, Kandinsky began to edit out complimentary references to Gabriele’s own work.

When World War I began in August 1914, Kandinsky raced back to his family in Russia, leaving Gabriele behind in Switzerland and Munich with instructions to dismantle their shared apartment and help his wife prepare to join him. Gabriele proposed they meet in Stockholm, hoping Kandinsky would call her onto St. Petersburg. She pressed Kandinsky to join her there, but he refused, saying he had no money to travel and feared being stranded outside Russia. In March 1915, he wrote,

Now I have been living alone . . and realize that this is the appropriate way of life for me. . . . I want to give my heart away and am incapable of doing it. . . . [P]erhaps I lack the ability. . . .This love, of which I speak, you have also never experienced and never had.  That is why I tell you . . . that you never loved me. And life together as husband and wife without this love is a compromise with a greater or lesser aftertaste of a lie, that is, of sin. . . .You must never forget and must constantly feel that I, who ruined your life, actually am prepared to shed my blood for you.

In the summer of 1916, he promised again to travel to Stockholm that next December, to marry Gabriele soon after his fiftieth birthday.

img021Woman Seeking, Gabriele Münter, 1916

Instead, in February 1917, he married 17-year-old Nina von Andressvksaya. He did not inform Gabriele; he simply stopped answering her letters. He never told her he and Nina had a son, who died as a toddler in the chaos of Revolutionary Russia.

In 1921, finally, Kandinsky sent an agent to demand Gabriele return some paintings and other property she’d stored for him. He refused to communicate with her in person, and they never spoke again. But in 1922, he sent her a registered letter admitting that he’d “broken his promise to marry [her] legally,” accepting her as his “wife in conscience” (as she put it), and agreeing to a formal division of the disputed property, which took place in 1926. In the meantime, Gabriele struggled for money, seeking out portrait commissions and informal teaching jobs, and moving among friends’ houses and boarding houses.

As for Boating? It’s probably Gabriele Münter’s best-known work. She exhibited it herself, repeatedly, in Munich, Berlin, Paris, Zurich, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.

But not after 1919, when Kandinsky disappeared truly from her life.

An awfully traditional ending to this high-modernist tale.


Sources: Reinhold Heller, Gabriele Münter: The Years of Expressionism 1903-1920 (Prestel-Verlag, 1997); Annegret Hoberg, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter: Letters and Reminiscences 1902-1914 (Prestel-Verlag, 1994); Angela Lampe & Brady Roberts, Kandinsky: A Retrospective (Centre Pompidou, Paris, & Milwaukee Art Museum; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2014).

[WARNING] Grown-up Life May Trigger Upsetting Thoughts

Thank you, Jennifer Puryear, for including me in your tasty book club!

Guest Post from Laura Cooper:

IMG_4966Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper and husband John have spent much of the fall “coming to grips with the (happy, but still!) fact that our boys are really growing up.  It can’t be said at all that we have small children.  We find ourselves almost frantically attentive to the job of making them good grown-ups, knowing our time is running out (just imagine how much fun that is for THEM!).  But it’s also letting us recall and reconstruct what grown-up life was and will be again for us, too.  Kind of a rich, amazing time.”DSC09938

To that end, she and John “chucked our pre-holiday to-do list last week and ran away to Miami, where we had three wonderful, lazy days of NOT rearing boys.  Bliss!  And a convertible even!”

I’m not sure I believe that Laura spent much time being lazy.  I know she must have been glowing with the knowledge that she had a guest column coming out in the Washington Post this Monday! Check it out while you take a deep cleansing breath:  “Parents: We Need to Get a Grip on Our Own College Application Anxiety”.

She’s thinking a lot about college and life beyond, for her boys and for herself.  In today’s post, she thinks about what it means to live a good – and grown-up – life.

From Laura:

Ever watch super-high-octane action movies?  Play pinball?  Or ride the thrilling haunted-house roller-coaster at your favorite amusement park?  Then I bet you’ve seen this sign: “Flashing lights may cause seizures in some viewers.”

That’s a trigger warning.  It lets unusually sensitive audience members choose to avoid an experience that might trigger a physically harmful seizure reaction.  Sensible and humane, right?

Now consider this.  Students at a growing number of U.S. colleges are demanding “trigger warnings” on school assignments and classroom activities that might cause them to experience upsetting thoughts and feelings about hard topics.  The Great Gatsby? [TW: suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence].  Mrs. Dalloway? [TW: suicide].  The Merchant of Venice? [TW: anti-semitism].

Online, reliably, the movement’s even sillier.  Which topics should carry trigger warnings?  Try blood, insects, alcohol, pregnancy, bullying, the rapper Chris Brown, and – I’m not kidding – certain plot lines on Downton Abbey.

To be fair, the Trigger Warning movement first targeted graphic classroom material (and online chat topics) that might foreseeably trigger actual post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who have suffered rape or battlefield trauma.  Fair enough.  That’s sensible and humane, like strobe lights and epilepsy.

But at Oberlin College, administrators urged professors to put trigger warnings on all class material that might “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma,” including anything that depicted “racism, classism, sexism . . . and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Never mind, by the way, that sexist privileged men once barred women from prestigious universities altogether – including law schools – because they claimed we were too fragile, and our intellects too tender, to grapple with the full range of human experience found in the traumatic real world.  As Justice Bradley wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, ruling that the Constitution didn’t require States to let women join the Bar: “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the practice of law.”

Is it really progress for college students to demand the right to exempt themselves from the trauma of serious adult discourse, for the same reasons?

So the college Trigger Warning movement just makes me sad. How did it become hip to be so intellectually fragile, so in need of protection?  So unfit for grown-up life?

Unknown-6If that bothers you too, I offer an antidote: Stoner, by John Williams.

Published in 1965, Stoner is a novel for readers determined to be full-fledged adults.  It tells the life story of William Stoner, a dirt-poor Missouri farm boy who, in 1910, enters the University of Missouri to earn an Agriculture degree.  Stoner moves in near the college with his mother’s distant cousins, where he gets meager room and board in exchange for harsh farm labor morning and night.

Stoner’s life transforms when he takes a required survey course in English literature.  The enigmatic professor prods his farm-boy student until he opens his heart to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then to philosophy and history, Latin and Greek, Chaucer and beyond.  Stoner abandons Ag school, earns his BA and Master’s in literature, and then stays on, as World War I erupts, to teach English and work on his doctorate.  Decades later, he dies just days after teaching a last class in that same University, a man who’s spent his life immersed in the literature that first captured his heart.

Sound idyllic?  Well, novels about university life tend to follow one of a few well-traveled paths.  They can be funny and wry, like David Lodge’s Nice Work.  Or they’re dark and eventful, like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.  Stoner is something else again: in outward form, at least, Stoner’s life is a relentless, largely joyless march into disappointment and grinding obscurity.

He marries an unstable, spoiled woman.  She spends their long, unhappy marriage thwarting him emotionally, and alienating him from their only child. At work, the power-hungry department chair becomes Stoner’s lifelong enemy, blocking his promotion and crippling his scholarship.  Stoner does find true love – real, true love – with a young woman scholar, but poisonous faculty politics destroy that, too.

Indeed, John Williams opens the novel with the fact that, after 46 years at the University, Stoner has died without making any kind of mark that anyone would ever recognize.  His “colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all[.]”

And yet, twenty years after publishing Stoner, and nearing the end of his own career, John Williams called Stoner a “real hero,” a man who “had a very good life.”  How can that be?

Maybe it’s because William Stoner is, at the core, a true grown-up.  He finds the things in life that he can love – his teaching, his reading, his daughter, his one great affair – and he loves and tends them despite the disappointments and frustrations, the quite brutal traumas, that crowd in with them.  He loves and tends them even when they fail him, and reject him, and even when they bring him little more than the plain long years of keeping them company.  He digs in and hangs on; he endures, and he does his job.  In John Williams’ later words, Stoner “kept the faith.”

Reading Stoner isn’t easy.  Williams writes with such clarity, with such a cool and unclouded gaze, that much of Stoner’s life is painful to watch.  And yes, reading this novel will surely trigger upsetting thoughts, if you’re paying attention at all.

But if you make it through to the end, to Stoner’s own final days and hours, you might find yourself sharing the state of rhythmic, patient being – not resolution, not revelation, just patient being – that John Williams grants Stoner at the last.

A gift to you, from one determined grown-up to another.

To read this post in its original form, see:

And For more of Jennifer’s delicious picks and posts, visit her here:

Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post

My new essay — in the Washington Post!


Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post.

By Laura Fitzgerald Cooper November 17 at 12:47 PM

My oldest son just turned 15.

His birthday slid by, nothing like a milestone. He’s been a teenager for years. He won’t vote for ages. Kind of a holding year, right?

But, actually, something’s going on. Like the matter of his birthday cake. He wanted just a plain homemade one, not the bakery-bought extravaganza we’ve had for years. No 3-D dioramas built out of icing? No. Apparently not.

He cleaned out his room and carted boxes of dusty action figures to the attic. He’ll give me a hug without being asked. He even had a Homecoming date.

And then came College Night. I almost didn’t catch it on the 9th grade calendar, so unaccustomed am I to considering him – or myself, for that matter – far enough along to start the college chase. Yet off we marched, and there we encountered the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality, displayed for us all to see:


Yes, you’re reading it right. All those red dots? Pretty much every kid below (and many above) a 3.5 GPA? Denied.

And then there’s Princeton:


Look closely at that clot of 4.0 Denials. Now shut your eyes and picture all those Red Dots up late perfecting homework, school night after school night. All those urgent anxious heart-to-hearts with Moms and Dads who just knew that Red Dot was capable of more than he was producing. It’s actually a compliment that we push you to aim so high. Now, off to your test-prep tutor.

To be fair, my son’s school made a heroic effort, there at College Night, to stress the well-rounded application. The sports, the community service, the extra-curriculars. Essays, teacher recommendations. They joked it helps if your last name’s also what admissions officers call the college library. Funny.

But once they shoot the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality up on that giant auditorium screen, it’s hard to think about all the other intangibles, those pieces of your child’s intellect – of your child’s heart – that are random, unquantifiable, ungraph-able. The pieces that emerge in fits and starts, the quick passions so quickly abandoned, the restless curiosity chased by bland inertia. All the spiky, tangled bits that can’t be groomed, that simply can’t be curated, to please an admissions officer down the road.

Infuriating? Terrifying? Absolutely, yes, to the parent facing down the barrel of the Dreaded Graph. I looked up behind me, at my son sitting with his lovely, goofy classmates. Do we really need to launch this race? When he’s just started the pivot from childhood to, well, whatever comes next? When he’s just slowed the gyrations of adolescence enough to begin the practice of introspection, self-inquiry, self-knowledge? When he’s just given up diorama birthday cakes?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about what should be the purpose and goal of college education, especially in the elite schools rejecting all those Red Dots. Last July, William Deresiewicz threw the first bomb, charging, in The New Republic, that our top colleges doggedly seek, and then relentlessly promote, “people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” In other words, “excellent sheep.”

Predictably, the Empire struck back. No, complained Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, the real problem with elite college admissions these days is that they’re too soft, too “squeamish” to rely heavily enough on what he calls that “magic measuring stick”: standardized testing.

And, by the way, elite employers should hire college graduates that way too, using more “magic” standardized tests. Others waded in, guns blazing. If elite colleges shouldn’t simply spot and polish highpowered hoop-jumpers, those most “excellent sheep,” what should they try instead?

From where I sat at College Night, under the glare of the Dreaded Graph, all that talk sounds almost fantastical. How can we seriously discuss what our children should learn in college – once they’ve won the race to that starting line – until we address how distorting and disabling the college race itself can be? Must I really let that Graph direct the rich years my son and I are entering together?

It’s not like his heart and mind will re-bloom, start fresh, the day I drop him in some freshman dorm.

I can’t say for sure what college should teach its students. But I do know one thing about the mad sprint to get in: parents like me need to slam on the brakes, and get a grip on our own anxiety. It’s time to question our own devotion to the hoop-jumping path, and give up our own ambition, however dark and secret, to join the best possible flock come that first Parents’ Weekend.

So I have a plan. Not for my son, but for myself. Sure, it’s fine for me to push him to work hard, take school seriously, and do his best. I can insist he treat standardized tests like any other essential skill he must work to improve, if he’s not a natural. I can rant when he lets cross-country interfere with Geometry homework. I’m cleared to reward him when effort earns a good grade.

But I also promise to watch closely for the signals his own heart and mind will send about what the real purpose of his life might be. I promise to stay alert for signs and hints of his authentic strengths and interests, not just the ones that might game the Dreaded Graph someday. I won’t skew his college search to the highest-ranked schools that his numbers make possible. And I’ll listen more to what he wants to learn there than to how many alums are hedge fund billionaires or high officials in the White House. I swear I’ll dig deep for enough imagination to picture him on paths without traditional college if it comes to that – quite a dramatic leap for this former academic. I pray he learns to think this way about his own life, too.

Just let it not be me who’s the most excellent sheep of all.

Lessons from Queen Charley.

So, it turns out that claiming you’re too tired and creaky to go for a walk doesn’t mean you’re too tired and creaky to climb up on the picnic table and lick up chocolate ice cream. Lesson learned.



Living up to Big Data.

Last July, my sons were jolted into mild uproar by the rumor that I had packed — simply packed, mind you — a swimsuit for our vacation at the beach.  Since baby number three, me in a bathing suit’s been much like the ivory-billed woodpecker:  someone’s always claiming to have seen it, but the reports remain unconfirmed and uncorroborated. Or they unravel as mere exaggerated speculation. Did my cheerful mom-worthy tunic in fact hide a demure black full-coverage tank suit, with strategic waist-level shirring?  That’s just a hypothesis, boys.

But out there on the internet, a tireless algorithm nurtures a parallel vision of me and my swimsuit mojo.  It wants me to know I belong in a different league.  A braver, prouder, more ambitious league.  And it’s finally sent me a sign.


Inspired?  You bet I am. I’d hate to let Big Data down.

Mornings at the jockey club.

Three sons. One van. One race to school.  How hard could it be?

Yet we just barely make it out of the gate.

Guest Post: Laura Cooper on The Fourth of July and Mischief Abroad

What I’ve Done So Far This Summer:

Guest Post: Laura Cooper on The Fourth of July and Mischief Abroad


DSC09139Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper recently returned from a family trip to Italy, where her army of three sons and a husband were equal parts barbarians at the gate and consumers of gelato.  Today, she thinks about the American abroad, historically speaking.  For Laura’s bio and to read her prior post, please click here!  I’m so happy to share her thoughts again today.

From Laura:  It’s nearly the Fourth of July – our 238th anniversary as an upstart start-up.  As a Nation, we’re having a great run, but there’s no denying our persistent fascination with Europe.  That forever push-pull between rowdy independence and backwards-glance yearning makes for great fiction.  And a terrific summer beach read.

Nope, I’m not going to talk about a Henry James novel.  Though I could, since he perfected the plot where a modern, clean-lined American travels to Europe then slips into the murky, entrancing embrace of a culture where social values are fatally foreign and obscure.  Instead, here’s a book that bumps the classic plot line up a few notches on the creepy scale: The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, a prose master so personally peculiar that she carried live snails in her handbag to entertain herself when bored at dinner parties.

First published in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley tells the story of an American father, a shipbuilding magnate, whose adult son, Dickie, has run off 9780393332148_p0_v1_s114x166to a tiny town on the Bay of Naples to escape his future as heir to the family business.  The father, desperate to retrieve his son, makes a terrible error: he mistakes a penniless, small-time conman named Tom Ripley for one of Dickie’s college friends, and he asks Ripley to travel to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home to New York.

Classic set-up.  In fact, Henry James’s The Ambassadors starts almost exactly the same way (minus the conman).  But where James explores how the benign, innocent American messenger is first enchanted and then ensnared by European culture, Tom Ripley carries to Italy a ruthless self-regard, a raw hunger for wealth and experience, that remains fully American, in its own twisted way.  Henry James, on the Dark Side.

Ripley finds Dickie, befriends him, and falls in love.  He falls in love with Dickie, but even more with Dickie’s life, with his money and easy social confidence, with his leisure and his personal charm, with his privileged, educated way of talking and standing and dressing and sailing his small boat in the Bay.  Dickie’s the American golden boy, the perfect Jamesean expatriate, and Ripley is ravenous to be him.

So one day, when they’re alone together in a small boat off the Italian Riviera, Tom Ripley bludgeons Dickie to death with an oar and dumps his body into the sea.  He then assumes Dickie’s identity so seamlessly – cashing his checks, wearing his clothes, forging letters to his friends and family – that it takes months and a second murder for the Italian police and Dickie’s circle even to notice that something strange is happening.

All the while, Tom Ripley chases his fantasy of the cultivated European life, as alluring to him as to any Henry James heroine.  He rents an elegant palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, where he carefully polishes his custom antelope suitcase and admires his new collection of leather-bound books. He’s a fixture on the expat cocktail circuit.  He daydreams about collecting fine art, and even funding young artists like a modern de Medici.  He plots his travels through Europe, Asia, and South America.  He keeps his crimes well out of mind, at least most of the time.

Will Tom Ripley get caught?  Or will he fool everyone with his trail of intricate stone-cold lies, rooted so deeply in that most American of ambitions: to rise above his origins and live the life he thinks he deserves?  That’s the mystery in this novel, that magic spot where Agatha Christie meets Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  If you can bear the suspense, and the sheer claustrophobic company of the talented Tom Ripley, this book is a thrilling read.

Nothing more fun for the Fourth of July.

To see this essay in its original form, see

Mom, the Obscure.

Mother’s Day is coming.  And the blitz is on.


My inbox is crammed with gift guides.  These high-end hawkers must know what they’re talking about. Right? All that big-data firepower aimed at just one demographic, for just one Sunday in May?  Surely we can learn something deeply insightful here about women and desire.

So what do mothers want?

1.  We want pink purses.  Large or small.  Shell or fuchsia.  We want them to cost at least $1500, though if someone wants to spend up to $3000 and more, we’ll just have to accept that extra tribute to our mothering excellence.

2.  We want heavy gold bracelets that look like bridle bits. Here too, there’s room for variation, and our donors can use their own judgment, if they dare. Gucci recommends one for $7600.  True, that’s a lot of filial love, but then Gucci’s proposed pink purse only costs $1100. So there’s that.

3.  We want candles.  This one surprised me.  I myself love candles on cakes and dinner tables, and every once in a while I’ll light one in the kitchen if I sautéed onions without the hood fan on.  But it turns out the demographic mother can’t get enough candles in scents of, say, tobacco and tiger.  There’s even a candle that claims to smell like a particular hipster neighborhood here in Nashville. Yes! A neighborhood scented candle! I just didn’t realize I yearned for that.

4.  We want lipstick.   Boy, do we want lipstick!  Obviously, pink is mandatory. Though I admire the aspirational genius behind “Jungle Queen” lipstick: “one killer accessory.”  Say no more.

These aren’t all, of course.  There’s also scarves and flowers.  Books about flowers.  Books about famous women who grew and/or arranged flowers.  A cocktail shaker made out of a Mason Jar.  Jewelry galore.  All completely lovely, and they’d all be unwrapped with joy on the big day.

Still,  I offer a modest alternative.  How about a Mother’s Day tribute that really captures what’s true about mothering, when you dig deep into it.  Not the rosy pink, scrubbed surface we might aim for.  But the authentic, grubby grist of real family life?  All those days we spend negotiating the gap — sometimes narrow, sometimes cavernous — between the mother we aspire to be, for the family we aspire to have, and the mother we end up being, for the family we actually have.

So this year, I propose we celebrate how ludicrous the whole enterprise of family can be. For this, I recommend the master:

Enjoy.  And happy Mother’s Day.

I feel bad about my brand.

My personal marketing strategy is a disgrace.

I should have known it would come to this.  For some time I’ve sensed that the world as imagined by literature majors was steadily giving way to the world as constructed by advertising majors.  We can’t help ourselves:  the minute that Instagram app installs on our phones, we’re all our own Don Drapers.

Of course, the personal brand divas set a very high bar.

Brand Diva One LabelledStill, there’s no shortage of advice out there for someone like me, coming late to the self-marketing party.  A quick Google tour taught me a few powerful basics.

First, I need to re-conceive my entire life as one complete, integrated brand. Nothing is tangential to my core mission, that of promoting myself.  And no aspect of my personal brand should be left to chance. I can’t even tell you what brand chaos I’ve brought on myself by not articulating a comprehensive mission statement. Here are two that, really, just say it all:

Diva Mission StatementSecond, if I’m going to embrace the personal brand of (1) being a woman who works at all aspects of my life while also (2) living beautifully in an effortless way, then I need to rethink my clothes.  Not just for the big outings, when I already know to take that shower and pull something nice from the back of the closet, there behind the neglected Pilates ball.  Nope.  My personal brand must be tireless.  As one guru explains, “It’s the way you leave your house every morning, unaware of who might cross your path that you want to pitch, impress or partner with.”  No more assuming I’m actually invisible when racing from carline to grocery.  Or that others think I’m just deep-conditioning my hair.  Time to straighten up.

20090918shiffpost1And, by the way, don’t believe your own front door protects you from brand failure either, warns “Forget PJs, Dress Your Brand Even at Your Home Office.”  By “PJs,” they presumably also mean to ban jeans and the same T-shirt/sweater combo that cling conveniently together when you slough them off at bedtime. Just because they’re still lying next to your toothbrush the next morning doesn’t mean they can be worn again and again beautifully, no matter how effortless that might seem.  Beware.  Learn from my mistakes.

Finally, I’ve come to accept that my husband and sons carry their own responsibility for advancing my personal marketing strategy.  For too long I’ve let the stragglers and slackers in that group tarnish my brand at will.  No more. I’m imposing some overdue brand discipline.  It’s time for a little team work.

Divas with kids labelledIt’s for their own good, and for mine.

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I’ve got a lot to catch up on.

Be Strong.

I first posted this last year.  But March marks the annual invasion of the bikini catalogs, so it’s a good time to revisit first principles:

This woman gave birth one month ago.


She’s stunning, of course.  But for merely mortal mothers, this is not helpful. Instead, I draw inspiration from the great moms of literature.  Like these:

Sal's Mom in Kitchen

Sal’s mother has a real J.Crew-meets-Etsy-Vintage vibe that works for most of us.  Note the chic choppy bob and her sheer cheek color, from her afternoon out rescuing Sal from blueberry-drunk bears.

Olivia's Mom in Talbott's

Here, Olivia’s mother wears a day-to-evening sheath, which adds authority to her bedtime negotiations.  By day, she’ll out-shine the other moms (“Is she working again?”) on her urban school run and, perhaps, be photographed for a street-style blog.  She also knows how to get on with the business of wearing a bathing suit, even when she might rather not.  Similar sunglasses by The Row available at Barneys New York and Net-A-Porter.

Olivia's Mom in tank

For dressing up, it’s hard to beat the mother of Iggy Peck, Architect.  She’s like Edie Sedgwick married to a banker instead of mooning after Warhol. Love how the haircut complements her look of constant consternation.  Now, that’s real mom style.

Iggy Peck's Mom in 60's print

She also wins the prize for fully committing to date night.

Iggy Peck's Mom in Evening

Finally, a word about accessories.  One great statement piece can really make an outfit, define your personal style, and lift your spirits.  None better than this knockout necklace on Ferdinand’s mom:

Ferdinand's Mom

Most covetable of all, that smile from knowing she’s “an understanding mother, even though she was a cow.”  I vote we all aspire to that.

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