Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chocolate or Vanilla?

There are moments in life when it seems that everything comes down to two choices: Elvis or the Beatles; the Sharks or the Jets; steam room or sauna; innie or outtie; tomato or tomahto; boxers or briefs; Israel or the Palestinians; Tylenol or Advil; Paris or London; dogs or cats; pro-life or pro-choice; creation or evolution; morning person or night person; Tom or Jerry; red wine or white wine; Hillel or Shammai; vanilla or chocolate; Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Such a moment is now, of course, with the people in my life divided neatly or messily into the Hillary or the Obama camps, with leakage into the McCain case Obama gets the nomination.

Such a situation exists in my household as well, with HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) swept up in the cult of Obama while I stand staunchly behind Hillary, trying to communicate to my two voting age children my political preference without being overly heavyhanded about it.

Restrained though I may be on the homefront, except in arguments with HOBB where I defend myself against his assertion that the Jewish resistance to Obama is covert racism, every time I leave the house, the question hangs heavy in the air and I happily volunteer my opinion.

"What do you think of Obama?" asked my friend, a Hungarian poet and filmmaker I bumped into yesterday in the hallway of the Jewish Theological Seminary, prompting a discussion where we discovered that we share the same perspective. "Who you vote for?" the Korean manicurist asked last week as she painted my nails. "My parents are voting for Hillary Clinton. Who are your parents voting for?" I overheard Little Babe's seventh grade friend ask yesterday as they played Go in the living room.

If the election could be held in the locker room of The JCC in Manhattan, my preferred hangout, Hillary would sweep. Within the JCC locker room reside Hillary's staunchest supporters - tough and smart Jewish women from New York who are incensed by Obama's easy wrestling of the party's support away from hard-working Hill. As they see it, Obama is a Ken Doll with poseable limbs, a young, charismatic white guy who happens to have black skin, an exercise in smoke and mirrors, a rock star, a media creation, the Britney Spears (pre-breakdown) of politics, an undeserving and possibly dangerous choice for president.

And I think it is safe to say that among members of my parents' generation, it would be impossible to find even one person who thinks Obama is a good idea. A journalist friend and I exchanged emails recently comparing notes on our liberal parents' adamant opposition to the junior senator from Illinois.

Though I am not a fan of Elizabeth Wurtzel, the famously-troubled author of Prozac Nation and other books, a disgraced Ramaz alum seven years my junior who ruined her life publicly through drug addiction, random sex and plagiarism and who is now, inexplicably, a student at Yale Law School at the age of 40, I must heartily recommend her op-ed of last week in the Wall Street Journal, entitled Hillary Agonistes. Therein, she nailed the Obama mania sweeping the nation, deconstructing it in a rather brilliant manner. Her main thesis: the Hillary-Obama drama is the story of women and success in America. Smart woman works her butt off to succeed, plays by society's rules, defies society's rules, has it all, pays her dues, proves herself worthy and young upstart guy just waltzes in and steals the corner office out from under her.

Yep. That's exactly what is going on.

To mix media metaphors and to riff on the pundits: in the reality show that is the 2008 Presidential Race, Obama is our American Idol and Hillary's just been kicked off the island.

Dumb Bunny

Bunny got on my Amtrak train in Philadelphia, alighting with her Coach bag, Searle jacket, True Religion jeans, bleached, Japanese-straightened tresses, Tiffany's necklace, Converse sneakers and a bouquet of flowers, balancing her Blackberry Pearl to her cashmere-clad shoulder.

"Is anyone sitting here?" she asked, pausing from her phone conversation to address me from her considerable height. I was on my way back from a kinetic convention in DC, had logged about 10 hours of sleep over the four nights of my stay, had been sustained by my morning Venti from Starbucks and a nightly glass (or two) of Pinot Noir...with a Caesar salad or two in between...had spent untold hours on the phone with reporters and had now finally ended my fact-checking with the Washington Post and was slumped low in my window seat, lovingly caressing the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde that I had just pulled out of my bag with the intent to read.

It was a Thursday afternoon and the train was packed. From Baltimore until Philadelphia, I shared my seat with a forty-something guy I guessed to be a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He had been an ideal seatmate; nodding courteously to me in welcome, then spending his travel time reading Evelyn Waugh and dozing. Pulling into the Philadelphia station, he hopped off the train. His replacement was a student. U of P, it seemed. Rich kid, based on the clothes, accessories and attitude. Mediocre scores and transcript, I guessed. Sorority girl. Boyfriend at Yale or Princeton. Twenty years old.

A few minutes into the train ride towards Manhattan, my first impressions were confirmed. My seatmate -- Bunny , believe it or not -- was a senior at U of P. There was a boy or a friend or a suitor of some sort who wanted to take her for drinks and dinner but she didn't see the point. There was a party that night at the Yale club that she was bound for. She complained about a dress whose pleating was ruined. She should have sent it in a steamer trunk. There was a test she took that she was unprepared for. It had something to do with geopolitics. Her mother thought she should have studied more. Actually, she thought she did okay and her mom shouldn't worry about it.

Bunny's private cell phone conversation rang clear and loud through the Amtrak car. The frumpy, chubby, Jewishy college girl across the way, who got on in Baltimore (Goucher student? University of Maryland? Towson State?) shot annoyed glances Bunny's way but Bunny was way too involved in her conversation to take note. Finally, Girl Across the Way plugged in her i-pod headphones. A guy in front of GATW turned around a few times to gape at Bunny who was oblivious to the fact that she was pissing off the entire Amtrak car, probably because she was so vexed about her dress. But evidently not so vexed that she didn't go into great detail about another dress she just bought. Then she talked about a friend and her sorority. Then she talked about Hong Kong, where she evidently grew up.

Long-limbed and slim, blond and utterly bland, Bunny kept rearranging her legs on the seat arm in front of her, trying to find new ways to tuck her five feet nine inch self into the cramped space. She compulsively referenced the Yale Club, as if it might disappear unless she kept saying its name, as if afraid that her fellow passengers might miss the news that she was going there. Tonight. For a party.

She talked about a Harvard-Yale event. She talked about last year's trip to Madrid. She talked about her upcoming trip to Acapulco and how insane she was for going! That adventurous, globe-trotting Bunny! And to think that I had the honor of sitting next to her!

While the tales of Bunny's life were certainly riveting, I was finding it rather difficult to concentrate on "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," the short story I was currently reading. After ten minutes, difficult evolved into excruciating and after fifteen minutes, excruciating became impossible. I was stuck in a loop where I could only read and re-read the paragraph where Mr. Podgers, the chiromantist, foretells the murder he sees in Lord Arthur's palm.

We stopped at one of those forgettable stations between Philly and NYC. As the conductor came around to collect tickets, I half-stood, looking around the crowded car for available seats. Seeing none, I blurted to the conductor, "Do you see any free seats?" Scanning the car, he told me that he didn't see anything. Bunny turned towards me and our eyes locked. I fixed her with a look that I hoped was at once calm yet hinted of underlying violence.

"You are talking extremely loudly," I said. "Could you please try to keep your voice down? It's really annoying."

Bunny was taken aback; indeed her expression conveyed surprise mixed with mild affront.

"You are sitting next to me," she finally said. "This is a small space."

I sniffed the air for fear and picked up only the faintest hint. While it normally takes very little to provoke me into confrontations with strangers, I found myself loathe to have a showdown with Bunny, perhaps because she was the same age as Middle Babe and I could foresee my daughter in a similar situation on a train, annoying the hell out of a middle-aged woman whom I hope would give my girl the benefit of the doubt.

However, I was in touch with my inner vigilante and paid tribute to my desire to slug Bunny in her privileged, white bread face. Or chop up her creased dress with gardening sheers. Or pour Nair on her Paris Hiltonesque locks.

If there is anything I hate more than loud public cell phone yapping, it is entitlement. Of which Bunny had plenty. And narcissism. And lack of consideration. And self-absorption.

"That's right; it is a small space," I conceded, gazing down at her with folded arms. I hoped I sounded just like one of her English professors, telling her that the paper she handed in on Zadie Smith was substandard. "That's why when I speak on the phone -- which I did the entire way from DC to Philly -- I do so quietly, out of consideration for the people around me. Also, out of respect for my own privacy. I think I know every detail of your life right now. I hope everything turns out okay with your wrinkled dress."

Well, that shut Bunny's mouth but alas, the lowered decibel yapping lasted for, oh, about five minutes...and then resumed at full volume. By this point, I wanted to borrow some poison from Lord Arthur. When the train pulled into a new station, I stood up, grabbed my Swiss Army knapsack, Oscar Wilde collection, Old Navy pea coat from 1999 and H&M black leather bag, stepped over Bunny with a haughty, "excuse me" and went in search of a seat where I could enjoy Wilde's acid-penned depictions of people just like Bunny, written more than a century before the invention of the cell phone.