Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Walk Out To Winter

I read an article today in Slate bemoaning that the holiday song canon appeared to be closed. Later on in the morning, I found myself in Ulta where, predictably, they were playing what I assume is their Christmas tape and it was, as anyone who has attempted to do any shopping this time of year might expect, annoying. I was doing a pretty good job of blocking out the music when what to my wondering ears should resound, but Walk Out To Winter. In Ulta, of all places. So this is a Christmas song now? Did anyone listen to the lyrics first? Yeah, sure, there is the word "winter" in the chorus, but it really doesn't seem--you know, never mind, congratulations on those residuals, Roddy!

About fifteen minutes later, I was in Trader Joe's, talking with one of my friends who works there (I am there so often, it would feel wrong to refer to her as a mere acquaintance at this point) about how cold it was and how people at the Bear's game last night must still be defrosting. She said there was no one she would sit out in single digit weather to see and I agreed because, let's be honest here, it is crazy to freeze for such things as sporting events or rock concerts or plays (but most rock concerts and plays don't ask one to suffer such indignities). Then, because clearly the universe wanted to remind me that I am not so sane, the opening guitar riff of Oblivious began playing over the speakers. While this was not the first time I have heard that song in Trader Joe's, the timing was almost too perfect. Recognizing this for what it was, I swiftly recanted and admitted that, yes, I probably would risk frostbite to see Roddy Frame perform, that, yes, I would walk out to winter if I knew he would be there.

The universe works in mysterious ways.

Aztec Camera played in two stores within 30 minutes of one another! It's a Christmas miracle I tell you!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Unflattering Photograph

There is always a disconnect between the image one sees in a mirror and the image one has of one's self in one's head. This chasm grows wider when it involves recordings of one's self; just as a tape recording of one's voice always sounds off, a picture often feels like it presents a far shallower and less attractive shadow of one than the one we see in our mind's eye or even one's reflection. Of course, just as some days are better than others and some mirrors are kinder, just as we grow to know ourselves and how to manipulate our appearance to downplay what we consider to be our flaws, some pictures do not do us an injustice and we learn, over time, how to reduce the number of photos which do.

But sometimes, a bad one slips through the cracks.

In the old days (i.e. before digital photography and social media) you just and to live with the ugly picture and or destroy it before anyone saw it. Now, though, we have the power to take five hundred pictures of ourselves and only keep the one good one, which makes us feel like we should never have a bad picture of ourselves out in the universe. Except, of course, other people take pictures of us and distribute them, so instead of it being in a frame at one's parent's house which one can stand next to and prove that that is not really what one looks like, it is a picture on the internet seen by many people whose primary knowledge of one's appearance are photographs. That photo is up and seen and liked by so many people before one has even seen it one's self, at which point, it is too late to do anything about it. One has to live with it.

So this happened to me over the weekend.

I am totally aware that it is a first world problem and a fairly recent one at that when one considers all of human history. Sure, aristocrats and royals may well have gnashed their teeth when viewing bad paintings of themselves or felt betrayed by portraits which presented a potential wife in a way that was more flattering than real (at least, from their perspective). But, really, this is a ridiculous problem to have and it demonstrates the parameters of one's vanity in a way which is also less than flattering, not to mention generating a number of unanswerable questions.

What do I mean by an unflattering photograph? Is it a photograph which does not look like me or is it a photograph which does look like me, but seems to highlight all my flaws and does not depict any of my strengths? Did the person who posted this think this was a good picture of me? Is that what I look like to them? Or, maybe, they know it is a terrible picture of me and posted it to hurt me? Or maybe, which is the most likely, it was the best picture of the other people in the photo and they posted it because they never even looked at me in the photo--so, would I do the same to them if the tables were turned? Is it insulting to other people that I think this is a bad picture of me?

In the case of the photo (or photos, I should say, because the problem extended beyond just one) the problem is a convergence of the wrong bra with the wrong dress. In person, I think, the dress is quite nice, but in photos, it caught the light in such a way that all the extra fabric looked like it belonged to my body and my breasts looked enormous, so, as my mom pointed out, I look pregnant. Or like I weigh a good deal more than I do. Isn't immature of me to be complaining about my weight, or looking like I am overweight? Shouldn't I have moved on to worrying about wrinkles? Because, if I am completely honest about those pictures, even though my body looks pregnant my face looks great and at the age of 41 and 11 months I should be taking comfort in that. As Catherine Deneuve observed (well, this quote is credited to her and, also, Meryl Streep), "When you get older, you have to be ready to trade your ass for your face." So, yeah, at my age, shouldn't I accept I can't have everything?

Yes, but that isn't what I look like. I have a flat stomach. I do pilates three times a week and five days of cardio. I want documentary evidence of all my hard work. Except freaking out because I look like I weigh more than I do is kind of insulting to people who do weigh more than I do, isn't it? Why am I so vain? Why do I care if everyone on the internet thinks I have a large belly, whether I have one or not, is there something wrong with having a belly? Am I fat shaming others by being unhappy with my body's appearance in these pictures?


However, there is that desire we all have that a photograph of ourselves, while it may not depict the person we see in our mind's eye when we imagine ourselves, is true. When we see a picture of ourselves which causes the people one knows best to say "that doesn't look like you" it feels like a lie.   And while we should feel that way about all the pictures that lie, the ones which are photoshopped to make us look prettier as well as the ones which make us look uglier* the reality is we tend to only focus on the bad and overlook the good (*even when we understand that what we consider pretty and ugly are a result of our cultural conditioning). Or we tell ourselves the alterations which make us look better are merely shifting reality to conform with our inner version of ourselves, so it isn't a lie, it is showing what is really real, whereas the unfortunate accidents of lighting and timing are false visions, a bad dream. Because we are all vain creatures and we are all products of our culture.

A photo which makes us look taller than we are is a good thing because our society deems height to be a positive thing, a photograph which makes us look drunk is not so good because losing control is considered a bad thing. Isn't that is what this is really about, a loss of control? There are images of me out there which do not belong to me, which I cannot alter or eliminate. The only recourse I have is to untag myself, which doesn't make those pictures go away, it just makes it slightly harder for others to see and connect to me. But they still exist and they still are records of a period of my life. Whether they are accurate or not, to deny them is to deny a part of me, perhaps a part I would like to ignore. If I am going to do that, I may as well refuse to allow people to take pictures of me, ever, which is hardly an acceptable alternative. A friend of mine once told her mother-in-law, a woman who refused to have her photo taken because she hated how she looked in photos, "Someday, you will be dead and your grandchildren will want to know what you looked like. Sit down and smile for the camera." I don't want to be the person who never lets anyone take her picture and I don't want Julian to be telling everyone that he has so few pictures of me because I was paralyzed by my own vanity.

So I will leave the picture up and accept it for what it is, a moment in time. Of course it doesn't look like me because I am no insect trapped in amber, I live in four dimensions, how can any photograph truly do me justice? Yeah, it may be worth a thousand words, but you know me, a thousand is not nearly enough.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


This is an animation imagining the moon orbiting Earth at the distance of the International Space Station. I have the same reaction every time I watch it. If I had to script that reaction, including articulating all the inchoate emotions I can't really describe, but which arise every time, it would probably sounds something like this:
Oh that looks cool. Hey, it almost looks like the moon is transparent. Wow, it is just up there, looming, isn't it? Um, am I breathing? I'm not, am I? Yeah, I do not have a good feeling about this. Hey, wait, if it is that close, what happens when it blocks the sun? It would block out the sun, right? I wonder how they-OH MY GOD, THE SKY'S GONE OUT! Oh, wait, there is some light coming off the moon, it can't be sunlight...is it us? Oh that is interesting. Oh THANK GOD the sun has returned. I love you Sun, I will never talk smack about your sun cancer causing rays ever again! Never leave me!  Oh, look, the moon is gone. Good bye Moon!
While I am not proud of this reaction, I strongly suspect I am not alone in having it.

The moon should not be this close to us and, in reality, if  for some reason the moon did try to snuggle up to us, it would be ripped apart by tidal forces and while this may mean we'd suddenly get Saturnian rings around our equator, we would not be around to enjoy it as Earth would be turned into a volcanic wasteland, not to mention the moon does life on our planet an enormous solid by taking a lot of the asteroids that come our way so no moon=giant bullseye on our planet's bum. So, really, my reaction to the video is absolutely normal given how impossible it is. I should absolutely freak out when presented with slow moving animation of our collective deaths, right? Why don't we just go visit a black hole while we're at it?

It can't just be impending doom and the fact that it cannot be which causes me to feel so much dread when imagining a looming moon. I mean, there are a lot of things which are totally wrong which don't make me want to throw up. Why should this make me want to hide under the covers until it goes away?

I think it is the silence.

The sky makes no noise, the addition of a soundtrack is the addition of one more thing which ought not be. However, music adds that little sensory oomph and pushes this out of the uncanny valley and into pure fantasy, turning something unnatural into something beautiful. "There is music," thinks my lizard brain, "it is not real. I can sit back and enjoy it. Pretty."

I am glad we cleared that up. Now I can go back to being angry with the sun for being so very bright, but not sharing enough of its heat with us in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year, by making me wear SPF underneath all the layers.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Is This Thing On?

So you probably have noticed that I am a good deal less active 'round these parts than I once was. I have reasons for this:

1) I am trying to write a novel. Fiction writing does not come easy, at least not for me; the ideas are in my head, but, for some reason, translating them onto the page is very, very hard and seems to require a different set of skills than the nonfiction essay writing I do here. It feels like this thing I want to do requires a whole set of skills that are adjacent to, but different from, the skills I already have, so I need to spend my limited time and energy working on the fiction writing.

2) I ran out of things to say and it felt too hard. There was a time when I could easily whip out a few words on a topic which caught my fancy in what seemed like minutes. But as time passed, it just seemed like I had less and less to say. World events and scientific discoveries did not provide the same inspiration they once did and it felt like I had nothing left to say. Besides

3) Facebook serves a similar function while requiring less work than a blog. I can just post a link to an article and one quick sentence in between playing Words With Friends and commenting on someone's cute picture of their kids. Oh, and people will actually see it, which brings me to

4) No one reads this anymore. I always used to joke about only having three readers (my mom, Tracy, and Fred). And then Fred stopped reading. He will probably be sad that I said that publicly, will think I am criticizing him for not being more supportive, which is so not my intention. I am just saying that one starts to wonder if there is a point to writing when one can't even get one's husband to read one's work. I mean, I have already given up on most of the people who claim to be my friends reading this, but really, if this can't even hold Fred's interest, that is probably a sign that it is time to pack it in, right? It isn't just Fred, by the way. I am fairly sure my mom and Tracy have given up as well.

5) Isn't a blog, like, the most self-centered, arrogant thing in the world? Who cares? I need to spend less time gazing at my own navel, not more time, and I certainly need to get over the notion that anyone else is interested in the lint I may find therein.

All very good, solid reasons, I think. They sound very reasonable, right?

However, if I am being completely honest, the big reason, the reason which can serve as the umbrella under which all the other reasons can huddle under to stay dry, is that my life changed and my needs changed and I fell out of the habit of writing here and lost my nerve.

Julian was a baby when I started this blog. I needed an outlet to the outside world and I needed to put stuff I wrote out for public consumption, I didn't have a lot of time to work on long form pieces and I didn't feel comfortable asking people in real life to read my work, so a blog was a perfect fit. I soon realized I didn't have it in me to create a readership and, as I indicated in my list of reasons, most of the people I know are unreliable and unsupportive, but I told myself it was okay that no one read it because I wasn't doing it for them, I was doing it for me. But something happened in my head. Because I wrote this during the free time I squeezed out of other areas of life (while Julian was napping or before I went to bed) and because it often felt like it came easily, I didn't consider it to be valuable. It's just a blog, no big deal, really, everyone has one, right? I ignored the work I put into it and told myself it didn't matter. I mean, I knew, objectively, that some of the pieces were good, but really, it wasn't as if it was important or anything. So as Julian grew older and I started to have more and more time I could depend upon, I began to think I needed to spend my time doing something IMPORTANT, something people would want to read. 

I stopped writing as much here because I was going to spend my time creating something of value. Except most of the time, I wasn't and that lack of production on my part was making me angry and depressed. What the hell was wrong with me? All writing, not just fiction writing, became too hard so instead of writing better stuff, I stopped writing anything at all. I would try, but with the exception of some fits and starts-a thousand words here, a thousand words there-I haven't really written anything in months. Oh, I am still working on the story in my head all the time, but I have nothing to show for all that work outside the parameters of my skull.

Which is where I was yesterday.

It started out like most days. I went to Pilates, then I showered, then I stared at the computer screen and felt like a failure, then I let the internet do what the internet does best (i.e. distract me from my own despair, but also prevent me from overcoming said despair) and started reading articles. 

I started with reviews of Roddy Frame's Sunday night show (argh! I am so filled with envy for all who were there) and stumbled upon this essay about discovering Aztec Camera as a young teen and how that shapes one's life
I also took the three year gap between Knife and Love much as you might take the extended silence from a girlfriend who moves out of town and ignores all your attempts to contact her. After a while, you get the message and move on. Hence, in 1987, when Love appeared and Somewhere In My Heart took up residency in the top three, I felt happy for Roddy, but also embarrassed. I’d just turned 18. I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the 14 year-old who had written all those letters, lovingly bordered with hand-drawn facsimiles of the mountain and flower motifs that had adorned early Aztec Camera sleeves.
and I felt I could have written something quite similar myself. I mean, I am a bit younger than the writer, but I remember that sense of embarrassment over a musician one once loved, especially as one enters the age of irony and snark and the music is all hope and earnest honesty. When I was thirteen, instead of writing fan mail to Roddy Frame, I wrote poetry, all of which I am pretty sure I threw away. I am pretty sure my bitchy roommates Freshman year would have eaten me alive if I admitted to liking such "uncool" music (oh, wait, they practically did anyway).

Later, I was scanning Facebook, and found this post over on Rookie
One way to avoid killing your heart is to decide that you will spend your whole life growing up. I am not saying you should aspire to the maturity level of the characters in Hot Tub Time Machine; I am suggesting we resist a life that looks, in line-graph form, like it goes up and up and up and then it stops, and then it levels out, and then it stays on that flat plane until death. I hope to live a life that goes up and up and up until the end, with the inevitable dip here and there. I hope to continue to learn and change.
The whole piece is so amazing and makes me happy, but also a bit sad that I was not so wise at seventeen. Or maybe I was. As I said, I threw away a lot of what I wrote back then because I thought it was too naive and naff. But, more importantly, this piece reminded that a well crafted non-fiction essay can be every bit as important as a work of fiction.

Then, after dinner and bedtime, I was reading a not very good blog ranking the worst Christmas songs ever and found myself thinking "I wrote about that song" and "Oh, I wrote about that song, too" and with the intention of posting links to all those old essays of mine, I came over here and read them and then started reading other essays and, well, I was really impressed by how good they were. Sure, not all of them are great and there are some typos and grammatical errors which I have failed to fix despite having many opportunities to do so, but overall I am surprised. I know that sounds conceited, except, as often happens when encountering something I wrote long ago, it didn't actually feel like mine anymore, it felt like I was reading someone else's work.

I went to bed determined to make a change.

Which brings me to today.

I don't really know what I plan to do with this, but I am resolved to do things differently. Maybe I will start posting more of the poetry and songs I write. Maybe I will post bits of the fiction that is already written and see what you all think (yes, I am going to back to pretending I have an enormous readership who just are too shy to leave comments). Maybe I will just keep writing about music since I never stop having stuff to say on the topic. As I said, I don't know, but then, that is part of what makes this so scary and exciting.

Thanks for joining me on this journey.