On not falling for Postcard Living

woman on beach in a gauzy windblown dress

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!

Image by jesse.millan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. A beautiful post. Thank you for sharing, and reminding us of what’s outside the frame.
    Hope your health improves.

  2. Thank you! Your modern essay-blogs are always good, often great — but this one is just dazzling….thanks for reminding me (former advertising creative person and now actor …sigh/yay) to remember that everyone is struggling in some way — a key to letting the ebb and flow of life not define one at the low points in contrast to glimpses everyone else’s (personal or manufactured) high points…

  3. Colleen,
    Shouldn’t the woman in the photo be thinner. And have a man? Where’s the energetic dog? What’s the matter with her if she doesn’t have a perfect child(ren)? If my truth can’t be ideal, I don’t think I want it.

    Seriously, thanks yet again for the thoughtful, real-life insights. Wisdom and compassion are fruits of pain.

    1. Haha. Touché!

      It’s funny, because as I was combing through the CC stuff on Flickr I actually found myself getting mad because nothing looked as ridiculously styled and airbrushed as some stupid ad. Ridiculous, but true!

  4. So fucking true. I don’t like being lied to either. Yet, as a commercial photographer, I am at times a a participant to the making of these damned dreamscapes. Ugh!

  5. Thank you for this deep, important insight. A big dope slap for me this a.m., well-needed & highly appreciated. LOVE the running-on-the-beach-dress, perfect metaphor.
    I was enjoying a small moment of pure happiness for absolutely no reason this a.m., and now i treasure it all the more. Because THAT moment is the real one, not the magazine ad. And sometimes I forget that. :^)

  6. Thank you – that was wonderful. I have pinned THIS article up in my internal bulletin board along with the title FORGET POSTCARD LIVING. Take care

  7. Thank you for this, dear Colleen. Just what I needed on a Monday morning. “Most of life is mundane and most of life is work…” Yes, this is the truth. And that is okay. Makes me think of that commercial where the guy makes fun of people who want to buy a vineyard for retirement – ridiculous! Let’s be real, people.

    1. I have not seen this, as I gave up TV some time ago. (Too susceptible, too weak!)

      But yes, a perfect analogy. Especially since it was served up in an ad.

      I just made my own head hurt.

  8. A. Fucking. Men.

    And you are a dear, dear person for divulging (re-iterating?) some writing/resting numbers… your encouraging, *human* hand extended behind you! (’cause I still don’t know how you get it all done.)

    Thank you, Woman.

  9. Thank you for this eloquent slice of reality and a valuable way to think about those idealized images of life. Postcards belong in the scrapbook, while we concentrate on what’s outside the frame.

    Glad you’re back on track – keep feeling better.

  10. oh colleen,

    such yummy food for thought.

    just returned from a rally (rally!) with havi brooks. i had a postcard picture of how that was supposed to work and it was all pretty and sparkly and fun. how it really worked was prickly and “ugh” and “i can’t believe i’m STILL dealing with my same shit” and some sparkly/fun…. so many lessons.

    i think i’m going to spend some time pulling out the postcards i’ve been holding on to and re-evaluate (?) them? like “hmmmm, i spend a lot of time longingly looking at this postcard of my “old” life living in the big fancy house with my husband and a “real” job, etc. but did life really look like that? was i happier?”

    yay….more work….thanks ;-)

    (i love your stuff)


  11. That was a well-spent four to six hours, and its result was far, far from nothing. Telling the truth, which you do so adamantly and so well, is never “nothing.” Thank you.

  12. wow! i found your website through Sarah J Bray, and i must say it’s a revelation. I look forward to your emails and actually cozy up and read them all–every word. I follow hundreds of blogs (occupational hazard) and yours is my new fave! So true what you say about facebook–I have a love/hate relationship with it. It’s a very odd bird, and you explained nicely why. And like Rob Penner above, I am a commercial photographer and do struggle with that artistic pull to create beautiful images that have no real basis in reality. I personally have started documenting my 3 year old in the most normal or moments–in her diaper with crazy hair, splashing in the bath, messy faces–all those real, non-postcard moments–and I don’t share them with anyone. They are just for me. And what do I post on my blog?–the highly stylized ones. The postcard ones. It’s like I’m keeping the real child to myself…again–the weirdness that is facebook. :) Thanks for sharing!!

  13. Another great post Colleen; you gave me a lot to think about. Especially since I disagree. :-)

    I *love* Facebook! I love it for exactly the reason you mentioned: it’s not mundane and it’s not work. And it doesn’t make me depressed; it makes me happy to see the positive, happy parts of my friends’ lives. I go there for escapism and happy-fun-time interacting with family, friends and acquaintances. It’s like looking at someone’s photo albums when you’re at their house….you see pictures of them celebrating life and having fun. You don’t see photos of stress and anger, or sickness and depression. I know everyone has their own struggles and no one’s life is perfect but I only share those parts of my life with a select few so I don’t want to see that side from others either. I’m much happier living in my Brady Bunch-It’s a Sunshine Day-bubble of awesomeness because if I knew what was really going on with everyone I’d be a sobbing mess 24/7.

    This is probably the reason I like Disneyland so much. It’s fake, it’s pretty, it’s a controlled environment and it makes me happy. There are too many bad things in the news, and in my personal life, so I enjoy and prefer the escapism of the postcard. (I also prefer movies with happy endings! ha ha)

    I freely admit I’m more than a few steps behind you on the path to enlightenment so maybe I’ll change my tune in the future. I guess we all have our own ways of coping and maintaining the sanity. Thanks for always sharing yours!

    1. Hey, I love Facebook (when I don’t hate it) and I really love Disneyland. I also love my BBC porn, red wine, rag-picking at thrift stores and Marshalls, and, when I’m in hotel rooms, The Real Housewives of Any Place You Can Name (Except Boring Miami). As I like to say, thank god I never tried heroin—I can only imagine where that might have led.

      You already have an awareness of these things being escapist, so you’re already pretty far ahead of most people, as far as I can tell. And as long as your “vices” aren’t getting in the way of your growth, more power to you and the Happiest Place on Earth!

      It’s when you recreate Pirates of the Caribbean on your ranch in the Valley, or buy a season pass and spend every spare minute there that I start to worry.

  14. Thank you Colleen. My hardest one is the posts about long, happy marriages;). Read one today. Now I’ve read yours, I feel better.

  15. Great post. I’ve been taking long breaks from Facebook lately. It’s better for me to just check in occasionally than to have that daily barrage of everybody else’s seemingly great life. You put things in perspective. See you on FB!

  16. We do all fall for the beautiful life myth, don’t we? Thank you for reminding us, a very good turn indeed.

    I’ve just found your blog, thanks to Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project, and I’m better for reading it. All good things to you, Communicatrix.

  17. Aw man, this is just right.

    I spend a lot more time than I’d like to admit looking at other people’s postcards and thinking they’re real and saying words like “wish” and “shoulda” and “goddammit” and “ugh.” For me, the really powerful stuff isn’t as much the ads or the TV as it is the internetty “real life” curated artfully crafted well-presented blogged ‘n’ photographed and carefully tweeted “reality.” (Although sometimes the ads and the TV are just as bad.)

    Thank you for this. I try and tell myself: Remember not only is there always a backstory, but there’s always a “more-story” – never are you seeing the whole picture. And anyway, it’s not your story. So quit mooning over someone else’s story and go make your own. All that time you spend staring at someone else’s postcard, you could be finding out what yours is. Or something like that. Is what I tell myself.

    So yes, most grateful. xox

  18. wow, this is fantastically true. I often have been realizing how in general the internet is wonderful, but it’s also really hard—it makes it easier to see what other people are doing, but that leads to more dangerous comparisons to one-dimensional representations of life. I so very much appreciate you writing about this–I very much needed to hear/read it right now.

  19. So well said. The other problem is, those postcard moments we have in our lives, we’re often busy thinking of something else while we’re right in the middle of it.

  20. I’m really glad I read this :) I think I may put this bit on my wall:

    “Everyone feels [everything]… And there is always a backstory (even if its a boring one).
    And an ad is rarely the truth.”

    Thanks for sharing :) So much.

  21. Alice Bradley sent me here, and I’m glad of it–you said (much more eloquently than I) something I’ve been thinking recently. Two of my Facebook friends, both men I knew in high school and now only know through FB, have recently commented on my wall that my life looks “perfect.” My life is faaaaaaarrrrr from perfect–my husband is depressed and unemployed, my daughter is ill, money is an issue always–and I cringe that people might think that it *is* perfect (or that I believe it to be that way), just because I only post about the good stuff. I don’t want to post about my husband’s struggles because that’s too personal for FB, but I don’t know how to walk a line between being relatable and over-sharing the bad things.

    Facebook: it’s complicated.

  22. Two things:
    1. I think you should add Victorian novels to this list of “postcards.” Rampant consumerism isn’t the only thing that puts us in romantic frames of mind (and I use “romantic” quite broadly here). For years I hunted for a man that grunted and spoke in gravelly tones like Rochester, or who beat his breast over me like Heathcliff. Wrong, wrong, all wrong! And that’s just the tip of the ice berg.
    2. I am a former J. Peterman catalog writer. It was my job, as well, to fabricate romantic postcard images, and although I won’t say I didn’t have a load of fun making up stuff, I also won’t say I didn’t sometimes get lost in my own copy.
    Thanks for another great post, Colleen!

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