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Patterns in Carpets

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Today's New York Times magazine features novelist Margaret Drabble who, at 70, has just published a memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet:  A Personal History with Jigsaws.  Kudos to Drabble for taking the topic of games, researching its history, and weaving the metaphor of play through a history of her life and the lives around her.  I've been a Drabble fan since the 1970s when I read her novel, The Needle's Eye.  A friend had recommended it after our lively discussion on Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  Both novels focus on class and people's preoccupations with money (or the desire to eschew it) and the career choices or interpersonal decisions they choose when they place money or reputation based on wealth as the object of desire.  In the article, Drabble's family is described as "first-generation bourgeois, one foothold removed from working class."  Margaret and her sister were the first in her family to go to college.  This perspective is key to her work, key to creating such multi-dimensional characters whose desires lead to compromises that then lead to incomplete lives.  Her characters are like watercolors:  layers upon layers of washes that add up to truths about themselves, about our human condition.  

On another topic (that may or may not be connected but this is where my head is going):  This past week, Ellen Degeneres was hired on to replace Paula Abdul on "American Idol".  I have always been an Ellen Degeneres fan for her comic timing, her sharp wit.  This past summer when she sat in on one show of "So You Think You Can Dance," her comedic remarks interrupted the serious business of judging. Perhaps they asked Degeneres to judge due to critical comments about the show's homophobic bent but if this is true, the solution doesn't fit the problem.  I was not a fan of Degeneres sitting on the judge's panel.  The judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" are all veteran dancers and choreographers.  They speak the technical dance jargon; they know dance.  Ellen's comments during the episode focused on a dancer's cute face and eyes.  Some may think this is essential to a TV show in order to draw viewers.  I say keep it serious in order to educate viewers about dance and the craft of dance (and maybe this is why I am not in the TV business).  Simon Cowell (who creates and produces all these 'rags to riches" reality contests) often decides to comment on a singer's costume, body shape or hair cut instead of what is most important:  how the singer sang the song. It says looks trump talent (not that this is a new adage--it's older than Dreiser's Sister Carrie).  

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to hear Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal in concert.  They were fabulous.  Looks had nothing to do with their breathtaking vocals.  And anyway, we could hardly see them--we were way in the back.  It didn't matter!  Bonnie Raitt once said in an interview that if she were to start her career now, it would never happen because the focus is all about looks.  She said the focus on craft and the time needed to hone your craft is not often valued.  Susan Boyle (from "Britain's Got Talent," another Cowell show) shattered Raitt's comment but just for a little while.  

All these shows:  "American idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Britain's Got Talent," etc. remind me of little Caroline Meeber at the beginning of Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  There is Caroline on the afternoon train with her faux alligator-skin satchel "full of the illusions of ignorance and youth" on her way to "fame and fortune" in Chicago.  I think of all the thousands of people who line up to audition every year for American Idol, etc. and often wonder--are they there because their desire is to be famous or rich or because they truly are passionate about the craft of dance, music, singing?  

In England, Margaret Drabble writes about people who have misdirected desires and carefully reveals what they do to achieve their desires, how it forms who they are (specifically those who have been raised as working class or "one foothold removed from working class").

During my senior year in high school, after feeling the pressure of so many people telling me what I should study in college to "get the job," "make a lot of money," "rise above my working class background," I approached a career counselor I trusted and still value his words today. He said not to even think about a job or career.  Instead he told me to take those classes that would make my heart sing.  "Follow your passion and use that passion to develop what you love to do."  I've tried to do that but as I have discovered, it's never easy.  Bonnie Raitt at times has swerved into the pop music realm (going for catchy simplistic tunes) to stay afloat or paid the big bucks to keep her hair that lovely red.  The pressures are intense:  a jigsaw of a puzzle at times.  At 70, Margaret Drabble is not flashy or pretty.  She's smart and wise.  Her novels have consistently returned to the theme of choice.  "Can we . . . unmake our beginnings, or are we always acting willy-nilly on the promptings of the past?  Are our individual stories foretold, or do we create them as we go along?" To answer these, Drabble has always chosen family to work out this puzzle but I have always broadened her theme to include social norms, societal expectations. Can we really disengage ourselves from desiring what society and family want us to desire or from what society and family deem an authentic life?  Can we truly seek out our own desires to arrive at an authentic truth?  

What do you think?  

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