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The Spirit of Family

Al and Tipper Gore

(Henry Holt and Company)

We Are Family

“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.”
— George Santayana, The Life of Reason


“To the family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, do we ever quite wish to.”
— Dodie Smith, Dear Octopus


You watch the news, you read the paper, you know what’s going on. Al Gore has had a busy couple of months. First off, he is not running for president in 2004. That’s his most recent announcement. His wife Tipper’s is Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night.


Announcing his un-candidacy in Raleigh, North Carolina this week, Gore sought to take the emphasis away from his political past and the press’s speculations about a comeback trail. He’s here to shill books, plain and simple. It’s about his publishing future.


Fortunately for us all, Gore’s got more going for him than his political past. Beyond the politics, the chads that talk the talk but can’t walk the walk, and a most inventive and wicked comb-over ... there’s his ability to pen some contemplative prose. After all, the guy did write a New York Times bestseller, Earth in the Balance in 1992. This is the guy who wrote: “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.” So, with an open mind and an unabashed fondness for his morally self-righteous diatribe concerning our global environmental state of affairs, I began to consider one of the two books he and wife Tipper are currently promoting—The Spirit of the Family.


And it’s damn good.


The Spirit of Family contains 250 photographs of, duh, American families. We Americans just love to take pictures of ourselves. But these aren’t a just couple hundred photos of Olan Mills set-ups with pull-down background screens of photos of the mountains of Colorado or a bookshelf full of encyclopedias behind little Wayne in Mama’s lap with Daddy standing behind, gripping Mama’s shoulder is trying to keep Joannie from jumping up and down because she needs to pee. No glamour shots. These are photographs of real families in real situations. Compelling, honest, and diverse.


Each photo will bring a different emotional reaction. Mitch Epstein’s photo of a family watching football, beer bottles and food spread out on the living room floor like a picnic, everyone laughing, and juxtaposed, on the opposite page, two more families, one seated around the TV in the backyard (taken from behind the TV, the men facing the camera) and below it, the photo of a father, leaning forward on the couch watching three TV’s at once, two turned to Greg Norman and the other what appears to be CNN, while his daughter sits at his feet, cuddling a baby doll, above the mantle, a large black & white family portrait, Olan Mills style.


The common thread of family experiences—poignant and shared—run through each group. Candid moments interspersed with “stylized portraits” illustrate our best moments, families caught in time. A prom photo, a bar mitzvah, a wedding ... a birthday dinner. Chris Hedges in his New York Times review of Mark Hertsgaard’s The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World writes:


The image most of the world holds of America is not America. The glitz and sexual license portrayed by Hollywood, the opulence and inanity on television, the glamour and eroticism on MTV, the prurient fascination for the bizarre and violent on the nightly news and trash talk shows combine to present gross and perverted vision of American life.”


Perhaps The Spirit of Family should be distributed, free of charge, worldwide. It’s a true vision of American life and one we need to export.


Many of the photos are reminiscent of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project from 1936-1942. You can find some of these photographs online at various websites. As a repository for many of the negatives, The Museum of the City of New York [http://www.mcny.org/FAP/wpa.htm] has some excellent examples. Go to The Best of the FAP Negative Collection page and then open, beneath your monitor, open The Spirit of Family to page 142 and Larry Fink’s black and white photo of a woman carrying a homemade birthday cake (with a number 8 candle) out onto a porch full of kids. Then turn to page 94 and Ken Light’s b&w of two young children playing in the yard, laundry hanging over a clothesline anchored to a small tree. Cultural insight? Uh, yeah.


I was going to give this book as a Christmas present to a friend of mine. His son said, “Oh, don’t do that, he hates Al Gore.” Now that’s a damn shame. He’s missing out on a mighty fine present. Disagreements with Gore’s politics shouldn’t dissuade you from at least checking out this book.


James Dobson, Max Lucado, good old Dr. Spock and scores of others have made millions writing pop parenting books containing detailed instructions on “how to be a family.” Perhaps we don’t need workbooks. Perhaps the Gores have it right. Pictures are worth a thousand words.

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