Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Mighty PEN

Evening moon. 7:30 PM. Photo: JH.
On the first of May
it's a moving day;
spring is here, so blow your job-
throw your job away;

Now’s the time to trust
to your wonderlust.
In the city's dust you wait
must you wait?
Just you wait…

Rodgers & Hart, “Mountain Greenery”

Last night at the American Museum of Natural History, the PEN American Center held its 2007 PEN Literary Gala.

PEN is a professional membership organization of poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, novelists and translators who have pledged “to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the idea of one humanity living in peace in the world.” Really.

It was founded in 1921, and is the oldest human rights organization and the oldest literary organization of its kind. Its past membership has included WH Auden, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, Eugene O’Neill and John Steinbeck

This gala is a glamorous one by any standard, bringing out a large number of authors, editors, publishers as well as people from the world of society and finance who are interested in PEN’s mission which is: to advance literature, defend free expression and to foster international literary fellowship.

Each table is hosted by a distinguished author. Our table’s host was Robert Caro, the prolific (and voluminous) author of biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Caro is currently competing his fourth and final volume of President Johnson. And he writes in longhand!

Gala chairs for last night were Tina Brown, Laurence J. Kirshbaum and Virginia Mailman. The Honorary Chair was Toni Goodale who built this particular evening into the big draw it is today.  Gala Vice Chairs were Christine Schwarzman and Annette Tapert.
Padma Lakshmi and Salman Rushdie with Andre Aciman
After opening remarks by Michael Roberts, the PEN American Center’s Executive Director, Tina Brown took the podium and she introduced Tim Russert of “Meet the Press.”  

PEN evenings are also quite serious because of the work they do but Mr. Russert provided the comic relief with a couple of anecdotes about Yogi Berra. Russert then introduced George Jones, the President and CEO of Borders bookstores which has joined forces with PEN to create the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award.

This year’s inaugural award went to Gore Vidal. Mr. Vidal now gets about in a wheelchair, but is nevertheless still a commanding figure even in his ambulatory vehicle. His thick grey and wavy hair looking slightly windblown, brandishing a cane which he waved just slightly and occasionally, and filling out his seat like Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner, the great American essayist, commentator, historian, novelist and now memoirist turned the floor into his stage, providing the grand and theatrical presence, as we’ve come to expect over the decades.

Gore Vidal. Click on image to hear a few words about being present in the American Museum of Natural History surrounded by modern writers.
After a standing ovation, he moved quickly into his signature provocative controversy congratulating Tina Brown for her great editing, and remarking that she had been “betrayed” by the New York publishing world. “She was a great editor and under her the New Yorker was a great magazine. It’s never been as good as it was under Tina.”

He lamented the loss of Habeas corpus, adding that many had never heard of it and others who had did not know what it was in the first place. He made known again that he hated the funny little island of Manhattan, and referred to the current Administration in Washington as “leprous.” Writers, he said, did not “owe anyone anything nor did readers owe writers anything.” What we all owed each other, however, is the freedom to write. That is the whole point of PEN’s existence.

Gore Vidal’s presence and his words also served to remind one and all that there are damned few of us living today who are as knowledgeable, literate, and perspicacious, not to mention witty enough to command the rapt, bemused and respectful attention of hundreds of individuals who wouldn’t mind possessing the same qualities. Unfortunately for most of us, Vidal’s words are accepted more in a context of amusement rather than alarm.

Nevertheless Gore Vidal’s appearance was also a reminder of what a master he is not only of words but of media and political commentary.

After his appearance Francine Prose, President of PEN American Center welcomed guests, introduced a film presentation of the organization’s work which involves helping even free authors from repressive regimes around that world.

There was the presentation of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award which this year went to Normando Hernandez Gonzalez of Cuba. It was accepted by his mother Rosa Blanca Gonzalez.

Sr. Gonzalez although only 38 years young he is in very bad health thanks to his incarceration. He was sentenced four years ago to 25 years in prison. His crime?  Reporting on the conditions of state-run services in Cuba, and criticizing the government management of issues surrounding tourism, agriculture, fishing and cultural affairs. For that he also got several months of solitary confinement and four hours of sunlight a week as part of his sentence.
Consider what the “great revolutionary Fidel’s” regime is doing to a young man with wife and child and the ability to articulate in words what is hard for his people. Such bravery has Fidel; such valor. Consider what a joke “the great revolutionary” Fidel’s words are.

What's a matter Fidel, you can’t take criticism from a man who has no power except that of his pen?  Tourists from all over the world considering Cuba, should first and foremost consider what its government does to a young vital man like Normando Gonzalez when he simply writes what he thinks and sees. Very brave of you Fidel with all your military might and empty slogans. Once a promise to your people, now an old bully with pockets lined with the same gold that lined the coffers of your predecessor Batista.

The PEN evenings can do that to you quickly.  There was also the presentation of the 2007 Jeri Laber International Fredom  to Publish Award. This went to the Independent Iranian Publishing Community c/o the Shirin Ebadi Center for Defenders of Human Rights. Members of the Iranian publishing community are under siege as never before. Since the election of Ahmadinejad, state authories increasingly harass, imprison and drive into exile writers, intellectuals, journalists, publishers, editors and bloggers.

After the awards, the diners adjourned to the gallery above the hall for desserts and champagne. Hundreds of people who still have the freedom to write, if indeed threatened at times by the political pressures that Mr. Vidal made less than veiled references to. Billy Collins, John Behrendt, Hannah Pakula, Brad Gooch, Ron Chernow, Francine Prose, John Guare, Jackie Weld, Barbara Goldsmith, Salman Rushdie, Fran Lebowitz, and on and on. A great night for New York, a great night for writers with freedom to write. “the heart of PEN,” as Barbara Goldsmith put it.
Lesley Stahl
Lila Azam-Zanganeh and Diane Von Furstenberg
Vanessa Grigoriadis and Holly Peterson
George Farias and Jay Snyder
Boaty Boatwright, Toni Goodale, and Barbara Goldsmith
Tina Brown
Michael Selleck and Brad Gooch
Chris and Simone Mailman
Olivia and James Hoge
Meanwhile, back to Sunday night at the Four Seasons restaurant and the Irvington Institute’s “Through the Kitchen” benefit which raised $300,000 for the immunological research organization. The buffet at this event is astounding. It reminds me of the phrase I used to hear as a kid: “his eyes are bigger than his stomach.”
A scene from the Irvington Institute's "Through the Kitchen" benefit.
Sunday night there was a lot of that going on.  It was a feeling impossible to avoid: you wanted everything laid out before you, even the things you’d normally turn down for sensible (caloric, etc.) reasons Very hard to resist and very little resisting going on from what I could see.
Bambi de la Gurrunniere, Nancy Missett, Dr. John Espy, Polly Espy, and Nicole Limbocker
Judy Taubman and Cece Cord
Jeff Peek, Nancy Paduano, and Gillian Miniter
Jim Zirin and Joe Missett
Sid and Mercedes Bass
Cornelia Bregman, Nancy Silverman, and Pamela Gross
Henry Silverman, Jimmy Finkelstein, Bob Hormats, and friend
Linda Wells, Nancy Jarecki, and Barbara Tober
NIna Rosenwald and Dalia Leeds
Mr. Slattery and Lisa Burns
Jimmy Finkelstein
Louis Rose
Alex von Bidder
L. to r.: Somers Farkas; Barbara Cirvka and John Schumacher; Joel Klein and Nicole Seligman.
Joanne de Guardiola and Jessie Araskog

Yesterday's Diary which included comments about the tantrums and behavior of very young children provoked a lot of comments from readers. Here are some examples of their thoughts on the matter:

I am always amazed at how many children I see on a daily basis having a public melt down on the street while the parents and/or nanny remains silent. It is not surprising that given this busy city, there is tremendous room for over-stimulation, for adults and children alike. And while tantrums are nothing new, the frequency and regularity of them strikes me as an alarming display of parenting techniques(or lack thereof).

As a child, I was mostly well behaved, in part because both my parents instilled a certain amount of fear and respect that prevented me from exercising my full lung capacity while out in public. Should I exhibit behavior that was unacceptable to them or the public at large, I was forced to pay the consequences. Whether this was a light slap on my rear end (yes, I did get spanked from time to time but never hard) or forced seclusion in my room, I learned how one is expected to behave. I am grateful to my parents for creating structure and discipline for me so that I could behave accordingly as I got older. This type of thinking has clearly gone by the way side. Children are allowed to behave as they please and often are the ones in control of the situation, even while having a tantrum.

There must be well-behaved children out there, just not in Manhattan!

Now that I live downtown, I witness less and less of these tantrums as there are less families in my neighborhood.

It would be nice to think that society as a whole will take notice of this behavior and do more to change it but I'm afraid our ear drums will all have to suffer in the mean time!

David- you are SO right about the approach to childcare today- both my husband and I were raised on the  premise that we had to behave (I will say my dad took it a little too far when he spanked me at age 3 for not saying hello to someone). While our kids have their moments I am in agony when any of them has so  much as a hint of a tantrum in public and quickly remove them while making sure they know thats not the way to get anything! Without a doubt the kids who are allowed to do whatever they want end up being adolescents who do whatever they want and grown ups who do whatever they want! (I bet insider traders ran rampant all over their homes!)

I have been reading New York Social Diary ever since a friend told me that a picture of my little boy and I sledding in Central Park had appeared on your website. Even though we have never been introduced, you were always friendly and pleasant if I passed you on the street or at Swifties, back when I used to do things such as meet friends for lunch. Good manners of course may not make the world go round, but it certainly greases the wheels.

Most parents of children of any age prize good manners and proper behavior and work to instill these values. There is, however, an increasing number of children with 'behavioral' issues. This can be a consequence of ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or pervasive developmental delays and disorders. My own child has acquired epileptic aphasia and migraine headaches. I have been taught, by an excellent behavior therapist , to not react when a child has a public tantrum, but rather to ensure that the child and others are safe. It is critical not to feed into the attention the child may be seeking - or worse, pacify the child to keep him or her quiet. Believe it or not it is often neccessary to take the parent out of the equation when teaching a child how to behave well in a stimulating environment like NYC precisely because it is difficult for parents to remain calm and quiet during a child's 'meltdown' .

It appears from your description that the parents you saw did the right thing by not giving in to their children. Distressing to see, absolutely. Much worse however, if a child learns that tantrums will get him or her what he/she wants, without fail.

My child can get frustrated by his inability to communicate on
certain days and will pick his spots to stage a protest where he knows I will be embarrassed. When he was little, I used to take him down to Greenwich Village where there were not so many children and people were not critical at all. If my child was lying on the sidewalk in the rain while I pretended not to care, people would just say "oh, isnt he cute with his blond hair and frog wellies" On the UES, I would encounter smug parents which is hard to take. Everyone wants to be proud of their children's good manners.

I think you may know a number of parents who perhaps have to factor possible meltdowns into their lives but who want to teach their children to regulate themselves and enjoy the great city of New York.

an anonymous, faithful reader

Dear DPC:

Mega Mega thanks for being so brave in your thoughts on over-excessive-out of control "Kids", or little people, who aren't used to the word from their mommy's or nannies mouth's: NO! I applaud you for being so critically wise in your observations. You know of the horror stories of out of control kiddies in high end eating establishments making me, and other patrons trying to eat their food in peace cringe at the thought of going over to the parents and giving them some critical parental advisement. And god forbid, if we tell the managerial staff to go over and tell the 10021 stressed out mommy, her kid's a nut case, the hostile retort that might come forth along with the threat " I'm going to call my lawyer buddy, so shut your mouth".

Thanks...a grateful reader.

Thanks for your comments on the increasingly horrifying behavior of kids in public. As the owner of three small children (8, 5 & 5) I’m keenly aware of their manners and civility.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that my wife and I, both in our mid 40s, are pretty old-fashioned when it comes to child-rearing.  We couldn’t possibly love our children more and would honestly do anything for them, but it’s our responsibility to make sure they understand that this is an adult world, and they need to behave with some modicum of decorum.  So we are persnickety when it comes to manners – at the table and in public as well – and the difference between public comportment and letting it all hang out at home.  I think it irritates them a little because they see their friends being given different set of rules.  Yesterday as I was supervising my son (one of the 5-year old twins) as he dressed for church, be was complaining about having to go to church and I told him that he should get used to it, because it wasn’t going to change and that’s just who we are – that’s part of our identify as a family.  

I think it’s paying off because as you well know one of the driving forces behind a good set of manners is to make the people you are with feel comfortable, and to develop an empathy or awareness at least of others around you.  I think our children seem to have that sensitivity.  Plus, literally every time we go out to a restaurant (table for 5 please!), we get unsolicited comments from servers and fellow patrons about how well our children are behaved.  If they’re loquacious, they’ll go on to lament the current state of affairs with child-rearing and the generally bad behavior of kids everywhere.

So what’s the cause?  Both my wife and I had older parents who emphasized and taught us good manners.  So we have good manners and understand how important they are.  But not everybody does.  Near where we live in Locust Valley is a very fancy, and very expensive, restaurant named Barney’s.  We go there for special occasions – mainly because of the price.  It’s not a children’s place – we’ve never brought our crew there, and I’ve never seen other children there.  But I’ve seen plenty of bad manners there.  Starting with dress.  If we go to a fancy restaurant, I’ll put on a jacket and tie and my wife a dress.  It’s part of the experience, and it’s just the way we are.  But we’re definitely in the minority at Barney’s.  Usually there’ll be several tables (it’s a small restaurant) of loud people dressed far too casually braying on about themselves and how much money they have in voices loud enough to be heard throughout the restaurant.  It doesn’t take a PhD to think about what kind of behavior their kids demonstrate.

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