A screenwriter friend of mine refers to Ang Lee's film "Sense and Sensibility" as "a white woman's 'Waiting to Exhale.' " Be that as it may, I confess to renting the video more times than I care to admit, and watching it over and over under cover of night. Mostly for the romance. But also for the tea. I also confess that I envy the sisters Dashwood their piano and sonnet recitals, their lazy summer afternoons, cricket and country picnics.

"You talk of idleness," complains the eldest unmarried (played by Emma Thompson) to suitor Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). "But you will at least inherit your wealth. We can't even earn ours."

Yes, I know it's a contradiction. Privileged white "ladies" of the 18th century had leisure because they weren't allowed to work. We moderns, on the other hand, are leisure-starved precisely because work we must. And this is what makes the ritual of tea so fascinating to me. It symbolizes that which is both abhorred and desired. Luxury. Privilege. Power.

China painter Lissi Kaplan of the Lissi Kaplan gallery in Woodland Hills, Calif., takes a slightly different tack on the idea of tea.

"There's something about the warmth of it," she offers, cradling a hand-painted cup of English Breakfast in both hands. Priced between $1,200 and $2,700 for a six-person setting, Kaplan's 24-karat gold-rimmed tea sets have sold to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and actress Fran Drescher, among other noted clients. This morning her tea table is covered with strawberries and homemade scones, clotted cream, jam and fresh orchids. We sip and nibble for more than an hour, with Kaplan's husband and business partner of 10 years, Richard. The Kaplans, I find, are steadfast believers in the healing power of tea.

"Women come in all the time," says Lissi, "and the conversation just flows over tea. It's real human emotions. A daughter going off to college was saying how much her mother meant to her. And maybe she had never said that before, but the mother just started crying. Most people are so shut down. And I wonder, what are they saving it for?"

In their spare time, Lissi and Richard often watch cows graze near their Calabasas home. Or visit dog parks just "to watch the action," as Richard puts it. As with the sisters Dashwood, I envy the Kaplans their leisure as well. They, too, enjoy meaningful pauses and romance; companionship and afternoon tea. Minus the socioeconomic and political constraints, of course, of an antiquated worldview.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary A. Gooden Terrell is spreading the word about tea to inner-city girls. Her High Tea Society has inducted 30 youngsters ages 12 to 18 since its founding in 1997. By exposing the girls to high tea at five-star hotels, ballets at the Kennedy Center and Broadway plays in Manhattan, Terrell hopes to offer a glimpse of "civil" life, as she puts it. Culture and serenity.

"Somewhere between the '60s and '70s, there was a 'do your own thing' mentality," she says, "and children today know nothing about traveling abroad or opera. So they turn inside and feel alienated. Tea brings a sense of elegance and grace. It gives them an alternative so that they can make [better] choices." And this requires knee-length skirts, white gloves and hats because . . . ?

"Because everybody understands hats and gloves," says Terrell. "When you walk into a room, you don't have to say a word. There's an expectation of special treatment and courteousness and seriousness."

Indeed, centuries-old notions of "special treatment" continue to appeal to women of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"We all love the romantic ideal," says Lissi Kaplan. "The Jane Austen movies. . . . I don't want to go back to the 19th century because women were repressed. . . . But," she says, pausing, "I like how they cherished their time with friends. Women are so lonely now."

The Palm Court at Manhattan's famous Plaza Hotel has offered afternoon tea since its opening in 1907. In thinking about tea and leisure, I thought it only appropriate to visit the place where tourists experience a traditional English tea -- sandwiches of watercress, cucumber and egg salad, as well as the "deluxe aristocratic" service: caviar blini, prosciutto on ficelle, and hickory-smoked turkey on carrot bread.

Marco Kolanovic, a Palm Court waiter since 1971, approaches my table to offer a bit of history.

Before previous owner Donald Trump bought the Plaza, he notes, "there were vases from Vienna all around. Originals. Antiques." He lifts a tablecloth to reveal a solid marble surface. "This is the only one left. Before, they were all marble."

A matchbox cover serves as a testament to Kolanovic's memory. With corseted ladies and cigar-smoking gentlemen treading plush burgundy carpets, the room is a wide-open, sun-drenched space -- its high atrium ceiling (now covered) showering afternoon light on towering palms that seemed to reach for the sky.

The Palm Court still attracts "older ladies in hats and gloves," says assistant manager John Meadow. Like a dignitary's wife, a former flight attendant, who orders her own special blend of orange pekoe and chocolate mint teas every time. And the red-suited woman in pearls who comes three times a week for juice and tea. And the women who recently came to celebrate an 80th birthday. "They all dressed in pink," recalls Meadow, "with a pink tablecloth and pink cake, and they all ordered rose{acute} wine."

Which reminds me. Isn't the whole idea of afternoon tea just a bit -- elitist? "It's historical," offers Mary Terrell. "Not elitist. In our community, women who've had any sense of self-respect have always known that hats and gloves were important. Their parents and grandparents wore them in church." The High Tea Society is merely an extension, says Terrell, of those positive role models.

Even handling Kaplan's delicate china makes me feel more fragile somehow. More "feminine." But it's not a feeling I'd want to wear around the clock. I also need running shoes, a sports bra and a good, rugged sweat every now and then.

In the end, there's just something about traditional tea that will always strike me as more make-believe than real. So I sip. And remember how brave Colonel Brandon rescued the heartbroken Marianne Dashwood from a thunderstorm -- gathering her frail body in his strong arms and whisking her home. And how Elinor nearly burst with pent-up "sensibility" upon hearing Edward's long-awaited marriage proposal.

Just as I allow myself to be transported back to a time that was both easier and frightfully more difficult for women, a lipsticked young thing in a Paul McCartney T-shirt cruises by the Palm Court, flanked by hip girlfriends. I watch as she takes in the sight of us all: tourists, seniors, live harpsichordist and one journalist. I can almost anticipate her reaction, dropped jaw and eyes wide with disbelief at the uppity scene. And then it comes: She lets loose a loud, jarring snicker from somewhere deep in her young soul. And with that one sound -- vocal and unadulterated and way past post-feminism -- I'm jolted right back to the present. Summer 2002. Manhattan, U.S.A. Exactly where I want to be.

The High Tea Society at a 2000 gathering. Judge Mary Terrell, above, wants to offer the city's young women a glimpse of "civil" life. Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in "Sense and Sensibility": They had time to take a walk.