all of the selves we Have ever been
I return home from work to find a bag hanging from my doorknob. I know what’s in there, and I hurry to enter the house, tossing my keys to the table and my work bag to the floor.
A fresh crop of magazines! I have always loved them, but they have become too expensive to purchase often. Some now top $12.99 per issue with not much content, a real budget buster. There have been times when I considered selling my plasma in order to acquire a beautiful, fresh edition, but, thankfully, I have a magazine-loving neighbor, and we chase down back issues and re-circulate them. We don’t care if they are a few months out of date. They don’t spoil. Now and then, I leave a bag for her, and she returns a bag to me. It’s my bag now, and I can’t wait to see what’s inside.
I spill the contents of the bag onto the coffee table and study my options. Should I consume it all at once, or dole it out a day at a time? I brew some tea and settle in for a late night.
Magazines were a much bigger deal before the internet, and I became conditioned like Pavlov’s dog. Throw a magazine on the table, and I start salivating. I grew up with magazines piling up around the house—my father’s National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, Look, and Life, and my mother’s Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and McCall’s. Magazines were meatier back then: beautiful photographs, informative articles, great short stories, recipes, and coupons! As I got older, I added my own favorites: Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and Glamour. I could spend hours on the phone turning the pages while my friend on the other end of the line did the same as we studied the magazine together, an early preview of the now popular Zoom call.
In 2020 when Oprah announced she would no longer produce her monthly print magazine O!, I mourned the death of magazines. If Oprah couldn’t make a go of it, what hope could there be for any others? Look was long out of sight, departing in 1971, with Life expiring in 2000. Mademoiselle said au revoir in 2001 and Teen in 2009. Most shocking of all was when US News & World Report ceased publication in 2010. Was there ever a high school report or a school debate that did not rely upon the facts in US News & World Report? No wonder no one trusts the news any more.
But back to the payload at hand. I begin sorting. I have before me now a familiar title that has managed to hang around since 1937: Woman’s Day, and a few relatively newer ones: Real Simple and Health. A couple of Vogue magazines are at the bottom of the heap. Vogue is the oracle of fashion and began as a newspaper in 1892 with a cover price of 10 cents. I stare at the December 2021 edition with a newsstand price of $7.99. I always thought Vogue was as out of my league. There is nothing haute about my couture, and so I have never been a subscriber or reader. But, hey, today’s price is right! And expensive magazines can afford to pay for good writing. I dig in.
I turn back the cover and my eyes fall upon a very slender woman dressed in a pair of…well, I’m not sure what to call them…Pants? Leggings? Tights? Spanx? Whatever they are, they cover her high-heeled shoes as well. They are…? Again, I am not sure what the word is for that color—somewhere on the spectrum of very old and worn cardboard boxes with the deep green Gucci logo all over. Complementing these, for a lack of proper vocabulary, these bottoms, is a long-sleeved shirred purple top with a thick diagonal red and black stripe. At the midriff is a large jewelry-like piece holding the shirring together. The outfit is accessorized with elbow-length metallic gold gloves, a purple #10 baseball cap, and a large dangling nose ring that covers the model’s lips. It hangs down like a long, thick, and sparkling booger. If I had more class, I would say, “a piece of dried nasal mucous.”
This is called high fashion. Perhaps that is because a person must be high in order to wear it. I come from the low place where young women match their purses to their shoes and jewelry only finds its way up the noses of curious toddlers who get expensive trips to the emergency room. I shake my head. I could never carry this off. I would be picked up immediately for prostitution, a mental health assessment, or a stay in a homeless shelter. My mind drifts to the image of a coffee cup I once saw in a Spencer’s gift catalog when I was still a high schooler. It featured a drawing by a kindergartner with the words: “Your face is ugly and your mother dresses you funny.”
But that’s the first page. Maybe the editor is just trying to get my attention. A few more pages in and I see an ad for Valentino. Three strikingly slender and beautiful people lounge on a red leather sofa. The female models are wearing what appear to be oversized blouses, but they don’t appear to be wearing pants. Perhaps in high society, pants are optional.
I study a multi-page ad for a high-fashion line of purses, something I understand. The bags look sturdy and reasonable, but reasonable ends at the price tag. They run from $328 a piece to $568. Since the price is shown for each bag, I am assuming that, in the Vogue circle, these are considered a real bargain. But I cannot afford the purse or a security detail to follow me around just to protect my bag.
I continue flipping pages. I see an ad for a skin care line I’ve never heard of. It is a two-page spread. The left page features a picture of the very fit and handsome founder and CEO. How come he gets to wear pants? And not just pants, but some comfortable blue jeans and a plain old white t-shirt? He looks handsome instead of ridiculous. I check him out online. If I stick with him, I can remove my eye make-up for $30.00 which is more than my monthly water bill. This makes me think he can afford a better t-shirt.
The next article is about “fringe benefits.” The fringe is four-inch eyelashes “for everyone.” Apparently, eyelashes are “rewriting the rules of who gets to be glamorous.” Uh-oh! More bitter confirmation that I am not in that club either. Even if I wanted to be a member, I would have to trade my vision for glamour. I would not be able to fit my glasses over those lashes. Perhaps it is true at a certain level of society that “men never make passes at girls who wear glasses,” but I’ve grown partial to my eyesight. I favor it over fringe benefits.
Another article describes a new class of at-home devices that lift, smooth, de-puff, re-plump, and revive pandemic-weary complexions. This silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for costs $2,499.00, but don’t think that will save the female consumer from the need for micro-current…and you do also have to be “reasonable” in your expectations: “No device can turn back the clock.” Well, maybe not, but it can certainly set back the 401(k).
Now in a low mood, I close the book on high fashion. It is confirmed: I do not own the right bag; I am not glamorous; I cannot afford silver bullets. But I sulk only for a moment because those are not the things I wish for or dream about.
I return to my familiar magazines, to my life of soap and water--sans electric current, and I put on some pants.
Up ahead, a banner flutters in the stingy summer breeze.
I squint into the sun. Words bob like surfers on visible waves of hot, humid air: Estate Sale Today.
A lover of old things and needing respite from the heat, I take a detour off the walking path and into the parking lot of a large office complex. Following the crowd, I enter a cramped showroom. Excited shoppers who were chattering in the parking lot turn silent at the threshold as though entering a church.
Carefully arranged furnishings overflow onto an outdoor patio at the back of the store. The overall effect is both stunning and quaint. There are extraordinary ancient pieces mingling with items from the more recent past. I recognize a set of blue and white Currier & Ives Old Grist Mill china, and my eyes fill with tears. This place is a merger of the Louvre and my beloved grandmother’s house. Mona Lisa, are you here too?
There is little room to walk. I suck in my breath and my stomach as I squeeze between tables covered with stacks of fine china and delicate glassware. I say “excuse me” over and over again as I navigate around the many browsing customers. I pray that I will not bump into a table or chest and destroy the inventory or the mood.
A group of people gather on the east side of the room. I work my way to the perimeter of the crowd and catch a glimpse of the object of their collective admiration. Against the wall stands an exquisitely crafted old wooden cabinet. Though plain in appearance, the cabinet reigns like visiting royalty over this otherwise showy gallery.
A young couple is first to step up to the throne. The woman stretches her arm across the width of the cabinet, commenting on the smoothness of its finish. She stands there for a few moments as though locked in an embrace. The woman’s male companion is even bolder. He takes hold of the aged metal pulls and opens the drawers. We all continue to gaze in silent awe. The man and woman step away, passing reverent words between them. Others from the crowd slowly step forward to examine the cabinet. When everyone has moved on, I move in for a closer look. I slide my hand across the smooth, curved edges. I touch the drawer pulls and study their delicate yet sturdy square shape. I admire each detail of craftsmanship. I open the lower door and the aged wood whispers its story to me. Already on my knees, I pray that I can hear. The cabinet is empty, but I am filled with longing. It is hard to walk away.
I take the long path home that I might have time to savor this experience. While deep in thought, I pass a young man who has stopped in the middle of the path to take a selfie. There is nothing particularly lovely about the spot. I am irritated as I navigate around him, an irritation that I did not feel navigating about in the crowded showroom.
I take a mental inventory of the countless selfie-headlines that greet me each time I open the web browser page on my computer: Elizabeth Hurley Slips into a Revealing Bikini Ahead of Her 56th Birthday; Demi Lovato Celebrates ‘Body Confidence’ in Stripped-Down Selfie; Miley Cyrus Crawls All Over Billy Ray Cyrus’ Truck in Risky T-Shirt and Gold Gucci Heels. Why am I repulsed? Perhaps because these selfie-headlines scream to me of a cheapening of art, a corruption of beauty?
I recall an early visit with the orthodontist as my daughter prepared for braces. The orthodontist explained to me, “We know what attractive people look like,” as he shared his measurements and treatment plan. I did not know such rules existed. I suppose this is also what plastic surgeons do in their quest to make a more beautiful world. Can beauty be achieved through braces, scalpels, and implants? Do I even know what beauty is? I mentally survey my limited knowledge on the subject.
Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Beauty ages well: “its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” Beauty is more than fashion or style, and without it, the world is dark. Keats reflected on the beauty in nature, the things that endure: the sun, the moon, trees, sheep, daffodils, cooling coverts, streams, and daisies.
The architect Moshie Safdie elaborates on the beauty in nature: “economy and survival are the two key words in nature. Examined out of context, the neck of a giraffe seems uneconomically long, but it is economical in view of the fact that most of the giraffe’s food is high on the tree. Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary.” No plastic surgeon pursuing a lucrative career would ever put those big eyes on such a tiny face, and yet…in nature, form and function unite in the unique and stunning beauty we call a giraffe.
I continue to ponder the question of beauty and the ways in which beauty defies measurement. How, then, can we know what beauty is?
Arriving at home, I turn to a different expert, another poet, Kahlil Gibran, and a favorite book of answers, The Prophet. The people of Orphalese pose a series of questions to the wise Almustafa. I will see if he has anything to say on the subject of beauty.
Sure enough, on page 74, Almustafa answers the question, What is Beauty? Almustafa provides a measurement I understand. Beauty, he said, is “a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.” Yes, I do know what beauty is. It was a gift to me today from an old wooden cabinet.
I see a lawn tractor ahead.
The contraption is so loud that it sucks me into its sphere and deafens me to the whooshing sounds of passing highway traffic. Even my own thoughts drown in the cacophony. A spray of dead clippings showers the asphalt walking path. As I step among the grassy remains, I witness a resurrection.
One-by-one dandelions spring up in the mower’s wake. They rise tall and regal in this field of stubby grass. Brilliant and moist, their lives are a sharp contrast to the brown and lifeless trimmings that cover my shoes. Like golden-haired ballerinas, the dandelions know just when to bow and when to rise for an encore. I laugh out loud as each milk-filled stem unfurls and reaches toward the sun. This troupe of tiny dancers has outwitted both man and machine.
I doubt that these sassy blossoms ever considered succumbing to the executioner’s blade. Dandelions have work to do. They are every man’s flower, a poor man’s medicine, a starving man’s food. Despite war and climate change, the rise and fall of civilizations, dandelions have been going strong for 30 million years. More recently, they immigrated to this country aboard the Mayflower along with our Pilgrim ancestors.
While adults may have forgotten the dandelion’s proud heritage and may call the humble bloom a weed or a pest, little children are still capable of awe. They can see the beauty in a simple thing without cataloging its faults.
Despite adult efforts to eradicate them, dandelions are loved by children. A child’s love trumps pesticides, and, I believe, turns these flowers into masters of survival. Just the right size for small, chubby hands, dandelions are everywhere and within a child’s reach. These common flowers are not temperamental like orchids or thorny like roses. Generous bouquets can be gathered at no expense and proudly offered to people loved. Small bouquets fill teacups that adorn countertops and kitchen tables. Blossoms are jewels to be woven into crowns and necklaces. Colorful “stews” are concocted inside tents and treehouses. Magic wishes travel on puffs of dandelion seeds. Dandelions are a child’s birthright. They deliver a message of hope that life is abundant, persistent, and renewable. How else could a child survive?
All of these thoughts fill my mind as the noise of the lawn tractor fades. Nature is a miracle. How does something so small, so ordinary, contain so much strength, agility, patience, and resilience? It is my turn to bow. I honor the dandelions as I pass. They are the heralds of spring, the rebirth I hungered for during the pandemic winter. The flowers comfort me with their familiarity and remind me that life goes on. In a time of shortages, they reassure me with their effortless abundance.
When I die, bury me under a blanket of audacious dandelions gathered by the sweet, chubby hands of true believers. Send me down into the earth to mingle with these enduring roots.
There are two mirrors in my house.
The one I rely on is over the bathroom sink. That mirror is also the door to the medicine cabinet--a handy combination. I might need a sedative or an antidepressant depending on the day and how close I look.
The other mirror is a full-length one that hangs over the closet door in the bedroom. The hangers attach loosely to the top of the door, so the mirror slides around depending on the force with which the door is opened and closed. That mirror was a hasty dorm room purchase which translates to disposable and uncomplimentary. It is more like a fun house mirror. Depending on the angle and the light, I might look like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon or a tipsy lawn gnome.
At this stage of life, there are no “Mirror, Mirror on the wall” questions in this house. I try to minimize interactions with my reflection. I barely recognize her, and we are not on speaking terms. The day is coming when I might have to scrape a DNA sample off the glass in order to secure proof that we are the least bit related. I keep in mind that the Magic Mirror was the invention of Brothers Grimm, the tellers of dark tales.
I am now of a practical age which means visually challenged even in glasses. If I were to interrogate my mirror, I would not waste my first and only question on “who is the fairest of them all?” I would demand answers to questions that might be of some real help to me such as: “Is there an intruder standing behind me?” Or “Where are those pesky chin hairs I feel but cannot find?” “Is that a liver spot or a melanoma?” “Do I have spinach between my teeth, or have I lost a tooth?” “Is that a smudge on the mirror, or am I having a stroke?”
Typically, I use the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror for the purposes of basic hygiene and to ensure that I have combed my hair before leaving the house. I check myself in the tall mirror to make certain that I am wearing matching shoes and that there is not a string of toilet paper attached to either one.
Of course, I don’t leave my house much during the pandemic. I might be as horrified as the Wicked Queen when next I talk to my mirror. I accept that there is someone fairer than me. What I fear is that there is no one worse. I doubt there is enough magic in any mirror to make up for the damages done by months of social distancing. My attitude has gone to hell along with my wardrobe, make-up, and visits to the beauty salon.
The kind of magic mirror I need is the Romper Room kind: “Romper stomper bomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do…Magic Mirror tell me today did all my friends have fun at play?” Miss Nancy would then name all of the friends that she could see through her mirror, and she would tell us what they were doing.
I don’t know about you, but right now, I would much rather be looking at my friends than myself:
"Mirror, Mirror on the wall, let me see them one and all…Romper stomper bomper boo, tell me, tell me, tell me do…Magic Mirror, tell me today when can we all come out and play? “
Diet was my first four-letter word.
I can recall fifty popular diets faster than I can name the fifty states. Go ahead, give it a try.
I bet you can do it too.
Here’s a head start: Fletcherism, also known as chewing your food until it becomes liquid.
That would slow me down! I could probably fit in
one meal a day if I went light. But I don’t have the patience, and I do have a life. Then there was the 1950s Pray Your Weight Away Diet. Self-explanatory.
These two early diets posed no real hazards except wear and tear on your teeth and maybe taxing the Lord’s patience, but all that changed with the Sleeping Beauty Diet made popular in 1966 by the book, The Valley of the Dolls. I would not have been allowed to read such scandalous literature when I was in grade school, but from what I understand, the Sleeping Beauty Diet encouraged the use of sedatives to sleep up to twenty hours per day. A dieter might be able to get in one quick smooch from her prince, but there wasn’t time for much else regardless of how thin or beautiful she became in the process. Enter eating disorders. Exit Elvis Presley, a proponent of the diet.
The first actual diet book I saw in my home as a child was the 1961 bestseller Calories Don’t Count. It was a hopeful thought, but turned out to be the first popular no-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet that was supplemented by the use of safflower oil in cooking and in capsules. I was curious about the book’s appearance in our home but too young to be thinking about diets. I did notice that my extended family became spokespeople for safflower oil. I always wondered how folks from the Middle East turned on olive oil. Now I know.
By the time I was ten years old, I was nearly my full adult size and shape. It was rough going always lining up next to the teacher. And I became very self-conscious about my proportions which I confused with weight. In addition, I grew up with a grandmother whose motto was “food in proportion to the love.” You can see where this is going…
My grandmother ran a grocery store and managed to feed her entire community throughout the Great Depression. She was an artist in the kitchen. My grandmother also had seven daughters who had the gift. In my extended family, women outnumbered men by at least three-to-one. When we were all together, the men watched TV while the women chattered about food and diets. Talk about a mixed message: Food was love; it was also poison.
To make matters worse, food was always available. There would be pie or raisin bread on the counter top, kielbasa on the stove, flank steak in the oven…No need to bother looking in the refrigerator. In my grandmother’s house, the words, “taste this,” were said more often than “amen” was uttered in church. A spoon was held to your lips like it was Holy Communion. What good Catholic would turn down a free sacrament?
By the time I was a teenager, processed convenience foods had flooded the market along with vending machines. There were so many new ways to eat and still remain starving. As teens, we worried about our immediate satisfaction, not the long run. Today, my long run is significantly shorter. Now, I worry about the long run!
But back in high school I teetered between junk food and the latest diet craze. A frequent lunch was a drink and a sandwich. That would be a sugary orange ade in a container that looked like a milk carton and an ice cream sandwich. If we had Home Ec class earlier that morning, I might also have eaten my share of a cherry pie. In my defense, I was in a hurry at lunch time. My friends and I grabbed something quick and headed up to the French classroom where our after-lunch class was held. We would talk and eat and prepare for the entertainment. When Peggy finished her red hots, the box became a kazoo. Peggy accompanied Angele as she stomped her foot, clapped her hands and sang:
“She was ten feet tall and had one purple eyeball. It took eight of us to milk her every day. She had twenty-seven spigots, and the neighbors all bought tickets just to see us milk her and to hear us saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay-ay: Pass the udder udder over to my udder brudder…”
High on sugar and our own cleverness, we howled with laughter. I still remember that song, but don’t ask me to say anything in French. We all lived through high school in spite of ourselves. I don’t know what happened to Peggy. Angele went on to Phi Beta Kappa status in college and later became a distinguished writer and poet. I reached mid-life without developing diabetes.
Basketball season meant hanging around after school waiting for the games to begin. Parents weren’t able to drive you back and forth. Such an occasion usually meant sharing a bag of watermelon candies with my friend Patricia until we got home later that night and devoured real food. Patricia went on to become a physician. I suppose I ate far more of the candy than she did.
In the summers, when I had more control over my day, I either read about or tried many of the fad diets: the Grapefruit Diet, Cookie Diet, Slim Fast Diet, Scarsdale Diet, and the Cabbage Soup Diet. I guess I did not get too extreme because my parents never interfered. I usually managed to lose weight and return to school in September as a slimmed-down version of myself.
Following high school graduation, I went to work in the city. I continued my love-hate relationship with food. I didn’t make much money starting out, and McDonalds had arrived on the scene. For eighty cents, I could get a hamburger, fries, and small soft drink for lunch. More diets came and went through my adult years: Beverly Hills Diet, Jenny Craig, Liquid Diet, Low-Fat Diet, the Zone, Medifast, Blood Type, the Subway Diet, Atkins, South Beach, Master Cleanse, Raw Food, Nutrisystem, Special K, Apple Cider Vinegar, Gluten-Free, Paleo, Keto…am I at fifty yet?
Now I’m older and the metabolism is set on slooooooooooooooow. The lack of activity during this pandemic isn’t helping. I could probably get by on three meals a day each comprised of a communion wafer and some water. Maybe I’ll write a book about that…
PS: If you are considering the Juicing Diet, think about it:
I attended a beauty pageant.
It took place at a busy, suburban Bureau of Motor Vehicles office.
Arriving at the venue in the middle of a weekday morning, I was asked to sign in. The digital tablet told me the wait-time was 27 minutes.
The area was already crowded. There were no ushers, so I scouted out an empty seat on the opposite side of the room and sat down in one of the hard plastic chairs lining the wall that faced the stage. This position gave me a broad view of the entire audience and a bird’s-eye view of the runway.
Despite the crowded conditions and a wait that approached two hours, people were calm and friendly. Experienced with watching beauty pageants in my youth, I knew what to expect. These programs tended to be long and go on well past their scheduled hour.
Most people in the waiting audience stared into their smartphones. A few chatted with their neighbors and with me. The pageant staff was exquisitely kind and patient. This turned out to be a gracious setting.
One-by-one, individuals came up the runway. There were people of many ages, genders, and ethnicities. I didn’t see anyone in an evening gown or a swimsuit. That would have been gauche in this enlightened age. I reminded myself this was not a beauty contest, it was a scholarship program. Despite that, I could not help but notice the beauty of many of the people on the runway. There were people with beautiful complexions of many colors and heads covered with thick, dark curls or long blond pony tails. I noticed beautiful slender fingers and long, lean and muscular legs with pedicured feet and bright polished toe nails. I noticed big brown eyes and stylish eyeglasses. My jaw dropped when a particularly attractive young woman stated that she was 34 years old and had lived in Ohio her entire life. I’d have bet my last dollar that gal was no more than 19. And I could only imagine the beautiful face of an older man whose back was toward me. His speaking voice was as lovely as a tenor singing opera on one of the world’s great stages.
During the talent competition, there were no fiery batons, no ventriloquists, no tap dancers. There was no singing aloud, but I am pretty sure one of the women had a song in her heart. At the end of the long program, the talent trophy went to a husband and wife team. I am not sure if the act was magic or dance. It went like this: the wife kept one eye on her phone and one ear on her husband. Each time the husband was asked a question, the wife pulled papers from her purse. The man would turn to his wife, but before he could state what he needed, the wife handed him the correct document. This woman was prepared! An older couple, they likely had practiced this dance or this magic for a lifetime.
During the interview portion, no one was bold enough to suggest that world peace was possible during their reign. No one had a plan to save the planet, but several folks did agree to give organs to save a life. No one submitted to having his or her measurements taken, but pageant authorities did ask for confirmation of height, weight and hair color. Many people admitted to wearing corrective lenses. All of the contestants primped in front of a tiny mirror before having their official pageant photos taken.
The congeniality award went to the woman sitting next to me. Despite the length of the program, she did not once pick up her phone. She chatted kindly with other people and with the waiting children. I now know where she shops and the troubles she’s had with digital coupons. She’s been married twice and regrets having changed her name but not her husband, and she knows how to play nice with squirming children.
The last award of the day was the Quality of Life Award. It went to a sweet, brown-haired preschooler. He knelt on a chair chatting to his mother as she stared into a smartphone her finger sliding up and down the screen. In an act of courage, the little boy grabbed his mother’s face between his two tiny hands. He turned his mother’s face toward him and demanded, “Mommy! Please! Listen to me with your eyes!” I wanted to stop the program and hand that tyke the Nobel Peace Prize right there on the spot. He might be the one who saves the planet and brings about world peace during his reign.
All of us left the BMV as winners that day. I passed the eye exam in time to witness a pageant of beauty in a most unexpected place.