Philip Lopate headlined the Writer’s Center‘s 32nd birthday celebration last night — complete with cake, champagne and a crowd of well-wishers not only looking back over the first 32 years but looking ahead to the next 32 (and more).
Praised by introducer Richard McCann for writings of great “candor and wit and intimacy,” Lopate sampled selections from his lifetime of work, beginning with the essay “The Bullet-Stopper” (first published in the New York Times in 1992 as “Die for Me, Baby”), in which he considers a “convention of older melodramatic films that seems to have disappeared: the woman who stops bullet for her man.” Lopate continued:
“She was usually, in classic-triangle terms, the redundant woman — say the native mistress of a man stationed in the Orient, a rival of the newly met, supposedly more suitable, white lady. The mistress is beautiful. She is faithful and good, she loves her man, and she has a deeper understanding of life than the while lady. So, the audience wonders restlessly, How can the hero reject her?
“Just try to imagine a love so powerful that it would cause a woman to hurl herself in front of gunshots, when most of us would hit the ground. Such love no longer exists, you say; we live in a more calculating age, or to put the matter progressively, an age in which women are more independent, less masochistic. Am I sorry to see the convention disappear? To be frank, I don’t know whether to pray for such a love or be terrified by it.
“I try to imagine a man pointing a gun at me. As he starts to pull the trigger, my Chinese girlfriend blankets me with her body. She takes the bullet. As grateful as I am, I cannot help feeling there is a certain presuption in someone’s stealing the death that was meant for me. I am so stunned by her act that I forget to knock the gun from the killer’s hands. Now he is pointing it at me again, and she has already given her life for me. Would it be cowardly to prop her in front of me, or would that be a way to honor her original intention?”
Continuing on the theme of love, Lopate read an essay on Valentine’s Day — which took listeners from St. Valentine’s martyrdom to the St. Valentine’s massacre to the schoolroom practice of exchanging valentines. (Perhaps some connections between those three?) Other readings included “Camera Shop,” a memory of his parents that morphed into a lesson in poverty; a great selection from his early memoir Being With Children, in which he offered up the results of his students’ responses to a five-minute free-write and then to an exercise in madness and sadness; a section on Captain Kidd from his latest book, Waterfront; and a short essay called “Real Risks.”
(The length of the program seemed its only real drawback — precluding, it seemed, the opportunity for an expected q&a with the audience. By the middle of Lopate’s quest for Captain Kidd’s New York address, Tara nudged me to tell me me that she was playing a game in her head — one she often resorts to when she gets bored: Beginning with “A,” she challenges herself to find a song title (or sometimes a movie title) for each letter of the alphabet: “Angel Eyes,” “Badlands,” “California Dreaming,” etc. etc. Last night, she doubled the challenge — two titles for each letter — and by the time she told me what she was doing, she’d already reached the letter “S.” And I’ll admit it, even I was glancing at my watch and thinking about the cake and champagne by that point.)
Still, despite that length, the evening offered a rare opportunity to hear one of the great masters of creative nonfiction — charming, funny and insigntful — and to celebrate the continuing success of one of the D.C. area’s, and the nation’s, finest resources for writers and readers alike.