Saturday, September 15, 2012

The World is Too Beautiful for Me to Live In

Ed "Rat Fink" Roth Fights to the Death with Elle Decor (and loses)

Being average is of course a bad thing in American culture, even though by definition, most of us live there most of the time --- most of us have (statistics would remind us) average intelligence, and then with that, an average sex life, and (more or less) average grades in school and average car payments on cars that, give or take, are average. Few of us drive a Maserati, yet by definition, all of us drive cars that run, so we don't inhabit the bottom tier either. Just normal, just routine, just average: that's us. We're not supposed to say so: no presidential candidate would have a slogan that would say, "vote for me, I'm average."

We can't be average and we can't even be a bit more than average. The standard is much higher than that: as the bumper stickers used to say, you can never be too rich or too thin. The gap between the ideal and the real has become so large that it really is beginning to make me feel like I am so far below the desired goal that I may as well give up now. Time to go live in a cave, or maybe join a vegan commune in Oregon. Dreadlocks and soy milkshakes, here I come.

As a writer, I thought I could be okay. Sure, we expect movie stars to look nice: they're fifteen feet tall on screens for an hour or more straight. I can promise you, nobody wants to look at me that big ever, and certainly not for that long. Other occupations too, we expect looks to matter. Rock stars have to look sexy on the cover of Rolling Stone as well as on the Jumbotron screens at concerts. I get that. But shouldn't writing be a place were us average folks might be okay? Who cares if Emily Dickinson had great hair or not, or what basketball shoes Walt Whitman would have worn? We write in the dark, some of us not even wearing clothes as we do so, struggling daily to produce clean and pure language that should (we assume) float free of the burden of good looks and bright teeth.

It also follows that writing doesn't need to be linked to gender: either one writes well or one doesn't, and being man or woman shouldn't enter into it.

Alas, not so, not so. Times have changed. Consider a recent book of poetry, out now for about two weeks --- Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey. Just look at her author photo, taken here from the dust jacket.

I've heard her read at a number of events, and in person she is smart, gracious, human. But because she is a woman, she is expected to be "pretty" as well (and not just pretty, but darn near gorgeous.) Let's compare what her publisher expected of her to what men have to do.

Here are three things from the top of the pile next to my desk. Simon Montefiore just published a book titled Jerusalem: The Biography. It pushes well past 600 pages and is amazing scholarship. He's well-known, as much so as Ms. Trethewey, but oh how their photos differ.

He didn't even have to put on a tie. (As a side note, both AVC's Matthe Jaffe and I both recommend his book very highly.) Next on my stack was a book about World War II, Inferno by Max Hastings. He has a tie and probably combed his hair first, but he gets away with the more tasteful (and forgiving) black and white option.

Last, somebody whose fame now is so well-established he can be black and white AND hiding in the corner of his author shot, Cormac McCarthy, from a too-little known novel, The Orchard Keeper.

Let's go back now to Natasha Trethewey: not only must she be something that is "normal plus x" (something far beyond average), but as a woman, she's expected to out-glam the men, too. The hair, the lighting, the pose: we're in a top-end studio, paid for I assume by her publisher. As AVC English teacher Nicelle Davis said, "This wasn't shot at Sears in the Mall."

One can't even be a poet these days without having to be so beautiful one might qualify for a cover shoot for a fashion magazine. It's really unfortunate, since in her case in particular, her language is so deeply felt and so exquisitely rendered, we do not want any distractions. The marketing department no doubt wanted this particular pose, but I wonder if there was any discussion about what a difficult standard this now poses for the rest of us. How can one top this?

But this escalation of the standard of beauty (not an arms race, but a Makeup-and-Botox Race) spans many facets of our culture. Take this ad for skylights.

Once in a while I stay in converted attic rooms, either in hotels in Europe or else if visiting friends in Maine or other places with hundred-year-old houses. None of them have the cathedral vault space that this room implies, where there seems to be twenty feet of space above the bed. You would have to take out the top two floors of the house to have this much vertical headroom. This is what I should feel guilty for not having? To have a nice bedroom (this ad implies), I need to be a Chinese acrobat in a room painted green with cherry trees on the walls, bathed in enough sunlight to power a small city, while white doves of peace flutter and coo. Hell, I am lucky if my wife and I can half-heartedly drag the quilt over our bed to "make" it, and instead of doves and cherry blossoms, we have allergy pill bottles, yesterday's socks, and about 800 unread books.

I am not saying I don't like the lime green paint: it just seems like it represents a few hundred dollars in primer and finish (and about five weekends' of labor) that I just am not likely to spare, separate from how many cups of coffee I would need to drink before being able to jump in the air even four feet. (And looking at the ad, she's not so much jumping as flying, since the bed itself is not rumpled in the least.)

This is not all that atypical though. Consider this paint ad, from the October 2012 issue of Elle Decor.

Okay, so this says that an ideal couple is (a) just that, a heterosexual (if ever so slightly ethnic) couple, a couple that (b) paints rooms while wearing designer clothes which (c) match, while (d) having the time of their lives with slightly sexual hi-jinks. I should be in my twenties and fit, and, if a woman, I should apply full makeup before starting to do household maintenance, or, if a man, I should go for the metrosexual, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy vibe.

Heck, I am so far from this ideal, I don't even own a smart phone that can scan the QR code at the bottom of the ad.

By contrast, whatever happened to reality just being okay with being reality? I was looking at cars designed by the Rat Fink himself, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. An icon of the 1960s, his hot rods and dream cars remain legendary. They had a local origin: though he worked in Los Angeles, he comes out of a dirt racing tradition that used to take place on the roads of Palmdale.

In looking at a book about his work, several things struck me.

The first of course was that there were no production codes he worried about. Seat belts, impact ratios, license plates, disability access: none of that mattered. What mattered was getting a big engine in a light body that when they were done, looked cool as all get out.

Some of these cars I saw in person at Auto Shows with my dad; some, like this one, I knew from model kits. (This is the real one, not the scale model.)

This is sort of James Bond meets the Jetsons, and I love it. But in reading about the designer, "Big Daddy" Roth, I was struck by how normal we all used to look, back in the day. Here he is in black and white, running an auto paint business with his then-partner.

This photo and the one above come from the book shown first; out of print, you can find this book used via Amazon. There's also a great 2006 movie about this social movement called Tales of the Rat Fink, which has brief clips of Palmdale racing.

Compare these putzy guys to a two-pager from the August issue of Architectural Digest. Pages 48 and 49 open onto a centerfold spread more lusciously false than any airbrushed Playboy fantasy.

Copy on the left reads, "Kelly Klein and her son, Lukas, in the living room of their Palm Beach, Florida, home." The lad in question, wearing what looks like a jammies top, holds a Lego car or some similar toy, while mom relaxes in cut-offs and an over-sized Oxford shirt. That white sofa? Uh-uh. Not in my house, not with my family. I am not talking even about my cat or my kids. Heck, I couldn't keep a house like that as clean as it appears here --- I would spill my cranberry-and-vodka in about two minutes, not to mention the mud I would have tracked in from my last day hike with Lucy the Dog. And raising kids in a room like this? I don't know who Kelly Klein is, or rather, didn't until I googled her (she shoots covers for Vogue and is ex-wife to Calvin Klein, and is, apparently, celeb enough to make the NY gossip pages for which parties she does or does not attend), but all I can say is that she has one heck of a good housekeeping staff if she can keep her rooms looking like this while raising kids.

Of course she's under pressure to give us this image: after all, don't we expect that the women today be all of this --- perfect careers, perfect bodies, perfect moms, perfect taste in interior design. Everybody needs to amp it up, but women most of all. "Her house is the house we all should want" is the implied message, and with that a second message, "Her body, her blonde hair: she's what you should be, or at least, what you should try to marry."

I think I miss the bad old days, when writers drank too much and we all were sort of ugly. For me, with one book due out in spring and a few more simmering on the back of the stove, it makes me wonder "what's next" in this trend. Should I think about plastic surgery before submitting my next manuscript? Join Jenny Craig? Here's one possible solution for my own author photo for the back of whatever book of mine next blunders into existence. I will take the head shot in my own garage, using that most effect of beauty treatment of all: my own hands.

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