Religion & Beliefs

Urban Zen: Access Hollywood

Getting into the first panel I attend, “Doctors, Embracing a New Way of Thinking,” isn’t easy. After I arrive at the Stephan Weiss studio, deep in the West Village, I get in line to check in with one of many … Read More

By / May 22, 2007

Getting into the first panel I attend, “Doctors, Embracing a New Way of Thinking,” isn’t easy. After I arrive at the Stephan Weiss studio, deep in the West Village, I get in line to check in with one of many frazzled-looking event coordinators in black headsets. While another writer and I languish at the entrance—“The problem is the PR people have never given us a list of press!” growls a pretty blonde—women carrying bags made of ostrich, lizard and snakeskin are waved in right and left. I am not particularly bothered by what some might consider a snub—this scene is no different from waiting for backstage access to a fashion show, which I did for years covering beauty and fashion trends for glossy magazines. The VIPS there and here came from the same guest list—in order to attend this series of panels and workshops, one has to be a patron of the Urban Zen initiative; sponsorships range from $6000 to $250000, roughly the same price range as a piece of couture. According to the Urban Zen website, sponsors help fund the attendance of nurses, medical students, and other healing practitioners who would otherwise not be able to attend. After about ten minutes of waiting outside, my fellow press buddy and I are ushered inside the building to wait some more in the gallery, where a silent auction of serene art photographs is being displayed. In this corral with all the other seatless people I have a good view of the audience, who seem to be getting to know one another, eager for the panel to start. “I am meeting with Donna next week to discuss strategy,” says the woman I met outside, who is getting anxious that everyone seems to be getting seats but us, “They obviously don’t know who I am.” She is the publisher of an established alternative medicine newsletter, and her sense of entitlement is sort of charming. She may have been to Washington to lobby for universal healthcare, but she’s obviously never been to an NYC PR extravaganza. Harboring no delusions about my own importance in this crowd, I settle into a conversation with another woman who’s waiting to be seated, a doctor of Chinese medicine. She is in her mid-thirties, Asian-American, and so fashionable and pretty I might have mistaken her for someone from the W magazine society page. She tells me she left corporate America to practice Chinese medicine and I second-guess my assessments of the other people I saw whiz past me at the door. Maybe they were all in the healing arts, too? Five minutes after the scheduled beginning, we’re still not seated, but a hush comes over the crowd as the panel moves toward the stage, the actor Michael J. Fox, who is living with Parkinson's Disease, at its tail end. Everyone is trying to stare out of the corner of their eye. He is magnetic. With the layout of the room—the stage at the very front, mics, photographers—it is easy to pretend we are attending a press conference for some new TV show. But this is not TV, it’s real. Fox’s gait is a little shaky. And when he gets to the stage, he’s seated next to his neurologist and a melanoma survivor and the head of integrative medicine at Beth Israel medical center—not Meredith Baxter Birney or Justine Bateman. This is real. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that celebrities are regular people, it’s deeply disturbing when they become sick. I could offer some pat explanation about the secret sense of satisfaction we feel when the mighty fall, but I don’t think it’s that simple—or that heartless. Once illness or trauma penetrates the placenta of celebrity, affecting those who dwell in our fantasy worlds, it seems, ironically, much more real and threatening to the rest of us. Plus our sense of empathy for them is artificially inflated. We feel as though we know them, so it’s like a good friend or relative is in danger. Because of this, celebrities can—and should—bring awareness to their diseases by speaking openly about them. This can lead directly to progress, both medical and sociological. Think what Christopher Reeve did for paralysis—he humanized it, brought a real sense of strength and dignity to the wheelchair, and he did more for stem cell research than any other individual. So why does this who’s who of Hollywood healthcare at the Urban Zen Initiative make me a little uneasy? Why, when the session opens with a moving film featuring Donna Karan, her husband (who passed away), and other famous cancer patients such as Edie Falco, do I catch myself doing an inner eye-roll? More on this later.