There’s a moment in The Jerk that’s definitely not the funniest from that excellent Steve Martin film, but that’s stuck with me the longest.
Navin Johnson, the lovable, Candide-like fool played by Martin, sits across from his beloved Marie in what is for him the scenario of his dreams: through a combination of optimism, hard work and being in the right place at the right time enough times in a row, he has recreated down to the tiny bamboo umbrella a cheesy print ad showing a mustachioed man in robe and ascot, self-actualized and potent via the rum drink in his hand. It’s an ad that has driven and haunted him since he first saw it, so much so that he carried it with him like a treasure map, projecting himself into that ad, using it to propel him forward toward his dreams of fulfillment.
Shortly thereafter, of course, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and in the process Navin learns the meaning of true happiness: love, friendship, and hootenannies on the front porch with your family of awesome musicians. (For the record, not far off from my ideal.)
There are better moments and there are funnier moments, but that moment wormed its way under my skin over 30 years ago and stayed there. Because I walk around with a collection of folded-up, idealized images of life tucked into my back pocket at all times.
* * *
I dislike ads. Or I guess I should say, I distrust them.
I distrust them because I have watched stylists fuss over too much Jell-O and too many English muffins. I distrust them because my father assured me that all shampoo was the same even as he sat there on the fold-out couch of his Divorced Dad Apartment, plotting the treasure maps that told America differently. I distrust them because I saw what the real mothers of the children whose Fake TV Mom I played looked like, and they all looked 10 years older than my child-free self, even when they were 10 years younger. I distrust them because at the height of my own adhole glory, I knew exactly how hard I could push up against a parity claim so the FTC wouldn’t push back, and how to bedazzle it so the public filled in the gaps for me.
This is not to say that I was impervious to their charms. Quite the contrary, ads could make me laugh and cry and feel as much, maybe more than they could your average non-ad-dynasty, non-copywriting, non-acting schmuck who hadn’t stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man behind the curtain at the craft service table.
This, more than anything, may be why I distrust them so.
* * *
Do you get depressed looking at Facebook sometimes? I do. And there’s officially and scientifically a reason for this: we’re looking at a curated stream of happy moments and pretty pictures, for the most part, which makes us feel worse about our own sad sack state of affairs.1 I get so depressed looking at Facebook sometimes that I have to stop looking at Facebook sometimes. There’s a fairly direct correlation between my enjoyment of Facebook and my health, for instance: much like my sex drive, I know when I’m getting worse because the desire falls away, and I know when I’m getting better because it returns.
In other words, I’m no better than anyone else; I, too, tend to share the good and crawl away into the radio silence of my cave for the bad. Which is odd in one way, because I certainly have no problem talking about flailing here, and I’ve never had an issue with showing how ridiculous I look. Even then, though, I’m conscious of the curation, of the action of choosing the most hilariously unflattering shot, or phrasing the pain in a particular way. And I know that people who don’t blog have a hard time believing this but trust me: no one who is blogging is sharing everything. Even the oversharers. It’s impossible, for a variety of reasons, starting with time and ending with the observation of a thought changing the thought. (Although some people really do push the envelope, bless ’em.)
We see what we see, and that’s all we see. We don’t see the Photoshopping, unless it’s obvious. We don’t see the restrictive foundation garments, the crying quietly into pillows or glasses of Chardonnay, the cranky, low-blood-sugar moments with loved ones, the sad lapses when too much traffic intersects with too little sleep, the worry and self-doubt in the wee, non-posting hours of the morning. Most of life is mundane and most of life is work, and most of Facebook is not. Which, you know, is probably a good thing both for Facebook and us. But the imbalance is a little, a LOT more in Facebook’s favor than it is ours, is all I’m sayin’.
* * *
My last art director used to have a phrase for those pretty, impractical things that ended up crowding out the utilitarian inhabitants of her closets: running-on-the-beach dresses. This was back in the early ’90s, the apex of the J.Petermann/J.Crew/Victoria’s Secret era, and a big, big time for gauzy, billowy, running-on-the-beach dresses. Because the early ’90s were, of course, the true 1980s, one of the most bullshit-laden decades I’ve lived through. I mean, any era that serves up Pretty Woman, a hooker twist on the Pygmalion story, as a feel-good romp with shopping montages is one sick fucking era.
This is what we see, though, on Facebook and Twitter and the rest of it: rack after rack of carefully selected, highly styled, running-on-the-beach dresses. And we think, “Damn! How are these ladies prancing about on these beaches all day long in these dresses? When does the work happen? How do the dishes get done? Is there sleep on Planet Awesome, or do they power through with pixie dust? Loser! Loser! Loser!
I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as postcard living: that outside of the beautiful framed shot, there is every manner of squalid something-or-other. That what is within that postcard frame is only a version of the truth, from a moment in time.
It takes me four to six hours to write a blog post like this, this! a little nothing of a blog post! I am thin largely because I have a debilitating chronic illness that interferes with digestion and absorption. If I am full of energy and warmth when we meet at an event or a conference, it is because I am genuinely happy to see you, but it is also because I have spent days resting up before (and will likely follow it up with days more on the other end).
* * *
More than any other type of email, I get email that says “I had no idea anyone else felt that way.”
For now, for always, for that day I finally hang up my spurs and buy my own billowy dress to hang in my own seaside shack, everyone feels that way. Everyone feels good/bad/ugly/hopeless/mighty/sad/small/indifferent.
And it always takes longer than you think it will (except when it doesn’t).
And there is always a backstory (even if its a boring one).
And an ad is rarely the truth.
And the truth is always the only way out of wherever you are…
1I do have several friends who provide a valuable service as Debbie Downers, posting about their ill moods, misfortunes, and Armaggedon. I pause here to thank you. Bring on those horsemen!