Tuesday, December 8, 2009

all anthropologie apologies: what else should I be?

I've been alerted to a TV show called "Man Shops Globe" about the guy whose job it is to travel the world in search of wares to duplicate and sell at Anthropologie. Racked, Jezebel, Salon, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, and Effortless Anthropologie have all written amusingly about it, and about the kind of person who admires Anthro stuff (wants to be Zooey Deschanel; would name her baby Emma).

I didn't know, before this, what machinations led to the production of the stuff at Anthropologie. I knew they weren't the literal items found at flea markets in the French countryside, but it also seemed unlikely that some designer in New York was just sitting there dreaming up this stuff, whole cloth, based on an inner understanding of what antiques from Provence, or whatever, look like. So it makes sense that how it happens is, this guy finds an actual ceramic ear of corn in China, he brings it back to HQ, and developers develop ersatz versions of it to sell in the stores for high prices.

So the main difference between you and this guy is he gets paid to travel the globe and look for this stuff, but you would have to take time off from work AND pay to go on the same kind of trip, which isn't really feasible for you, so therefore you would maybe deign to buy something at Anthropologie. This is true even though the dude claims you can get a ceramic ear of corn for $1 in China, and you would probably pay $40 for it at Anthropologie, so in that way, if you bought enough stuff, the trip might save you money. Ultimately, Anthro is the closest you can conveniently get to the real thing.

It's widely looked down upon to buy mass-produced copies of one-of-a-kind, "authentic" items, as illustrated in the episode of Friends (which itself is undeservingly looked down upon, just by virtue of being a sitcom with a laugh track) where Rachel buys a coffee table from Pottery Barn and pretends it's from a flea market because Phoebe would be horrified if she knew it was from Pottery Barn. And yet, it isn't considered quite as gauche to have faux-authentic things decorating your living room as it is to have things from a chain store that don't even attempt to look like they're from a flea market (for example, the perfectly serviceable Room Essentials 6-Drawer Dresser from Target). One would think that if actual authenticity were the goal, and your authentic life didn't give you enough free time to tour international bazaars, then the not-even-trying, mass-produced stuff would be like the pinnacle of awesome, but sadly, it just communicates that you don't have as good "taste" as someone who would recognize a good copy of an authentic coffee table when she saw one. (You will always be safe with Ikea, however, because although it's both cheap and mass-produced, Ikea stuff has a contemporary-design look that keeps it in the realm of "taste.")

Two cultural tropes associated with elite liberalism always dominate this discussion of authenticity. One, that those who seek "authenticity" seek it because they want to imagine themselves connected to the calloused, leathery hands of "indigenous peoples" who wrought (not just "made," but "wrought") the original stuff, because then they can feel worldly and also philanthropically supportive of these "peoples," who are defined by how underprivileged they are. Two, that buying stuff (especially at a store, but also just in general) is stupid and meaningless, and only those neanderthals who have been duped by the corporate ad industry think that there's any meaning in the act of buying anything, implying that a well-educated, urbane sort of person would never decorate their living room with anything that can be bought in a store, whether hand-wrought by indigenous peoples or factory-made. You can maybe make things yourself, but if you're not a talented artist, displaying those things in your living room might not meet the demands of taste. (see also: Regretsy.) Utilitarian stuff, such as a wine rack, is exempt from this ban. As are gifts bestowed upon you directly by indigenous peoples after you stayed for a week in their village, if you have the luxury of taking such vacations.

(This is linked to using the word "find" as a noun. "It was a real find" implies that you just found it on the side of the street, and isn't your life marked by an enviable sense of childlike whimsy and wonder unmarred by the daily slog of adult life, indeed like Pippi Longstocking when she declared herself a "Thing-Finder." It implies more serendipity and experience-orientedness (rather than commerce-orientedness) than even a flea market. But whether you find a "find" at a mall store, or a one-of-a-kind-handicrafts store, or a flea market, or an antiques shop, or eBay, or on your travels to distant lands, you didn't just find it, you shopped for it. There is just no way around the fact that you shopped. Sorry.)

But let's leave aside, for a moment, that people are aiming to look like they're (a) worldly philanthropists and (b) somehow above buying things in stores, and let's focus on the psychology of why we love things that have the qualities Keith Johnson, the Man Shops Globe guy, is looking for in his travels. After all, he doesn't come home with just any item from the Avignon Fair; it has to be the right item. From Salon: "Johnson wants 'things that let people know more about this very
extraordinary country' and 'things that have real resonance' but not
things that are in every craft market or import store in New York City,
but 'just the right thing has been eluding us.'"

So what provides that resonance?

I've been rereading Little Stalker by Jennifer Belle, a great novel about a 33-year-old New York City woman obsessed with a 60something neurotic Jewish NYC film auteur named (heh) Arthur Weeman, who comes out with a new film every year that she ritualistically goes to see at the Ziegfeld the day it opens. Rebekah, the woman, has no furniture in her apartment, because she hasn't found any furniture she likes. But then she gets wind of an Arthur Weeman prop and costume sale, filled with furniture that was used in all his movies! She hires a van to take her to the sale and spends $22,000 there to furnish her apartment with things like a gondola. She rationalizes, "You would pay that much for a few ugly things at a horrible store like Crate & Barrel."

Rebekah's shrink tells her she's "obsessed with symbolism," that she needs everything, including furniture, to symbolize something: "You want the couch to represent something else. Sometimes it's okay for a couch to just be a couch." The stuff from Arthur Weeman's movies is perfect, then, because they reference the movies and symbolize her obsession and decades-long identification with them. The furniture is about her life story. She's also obsessed with the idea of a life story, or "timeline," like the timeline she made when she was a kid, for a school project, of the important events in Paul Revere's life. "What's his timeline?" she asks another woman who tries to set her up with a guy. When the woman responds, "You mean his schedule?" Rebekah quips that she and the woman have nothing in common.

This made me feel like I had everything in common with Rebekah. How many times have I expressed some abstract, meaning-laden concept to a person who interpreted it as something flat and banal because they just didn't have the depth or whatever to get what I was talking about? I think Rebekah is an N, like me. N for iNtuitive, as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, as opposed to S ("Sensing"). S people are concerned with the facts, the schedule, what is said; N people are concerned with what is meant. If something doesn't mean anything, an N considers it worthless. The kind of resonance that N people are looking for in a home decor item is some sort of personal meaning, that it's tied to something from your life story. If it's just some square-shaped plain old thing from Target or even Crate & Barrel that anyone could have, it's too random, too impersonal. So when something seems special, beautiful in just the exact way you like, poignant (or at least evocative of something else that's poignant), it has that resonance.

The first time I went into an Anthropologie store, in 1998, I didn't know it was owned by Urban Outfitters or that the company donated money to anti-choice politicians or anything. I knew it was a corporate store, because it was in the Third Street Promenade mall-thingy in Santa Monica, CA, but the feeling I got from it was that everything was so beautiful. Just so rich in details and sweetness and poignancy. It spoke to me. I bought a skirt. Actually I became obsessed with the skirt that day and waited till I got home to New York to buy it at one of the Anthropologies there. I still have the skirt, 11 years later, and I still think it is beautiful.

What the beautifulness (as opposed to beauty) of Anthropologie says to me is, YOUR life is better than all the fast-fashion-eating-disorder-cube-farm drabness of the everyday. Life can be fanciful! Like a movie! Like Amelie! And as insufferable as it is to listen to people rhapsodize about that feeling, actually feeling the feeling feels great. Twee aesthetics make me feel happier about my circumstances. As if actual life were more about the things that make your heart go pitter-patter than the mundane limitations that your circumstances place on you. And I'm also shameless enough to buy something from Anthropologie instead of the original antique or indigenous artifact that it is a replica of, just because it's beautiful in the same way. The fact that it's a fake, mass-produced copy just doesn't trump the beautifulness factor. Objects from that store make me feel like I have a timeline and everyone else just has a schedule.

However, it's not just that I'm a romantic, sensitive, poetic, semiotics-crazed, insufferable solipsist. There's still an element of class-conscious one-upmanship going on here. Because not only does the Anthro fantasy make you feel elevated above mundane concerns, it also tries to make you feel elevated above OTHER PEOPLE who are mired in those concerns. They all have to wear suits to work and I can wear a big fluffy skirt festooned with pinwheels! They are ordinary, while I am special! Those who decorate their homes in the manner of Anthropologie, then, could be cultivating the mythology of being special rather than ordinary, having an interesting life. If these people were merely interested in owning things that were nice and appearing rich, they wouldn't go the Anthro route, they'd be more attracted to "luxury" items from purveyors even more expensive and snooty than Anthro. If you go to any wealthy suburb of New York City, you'll find that most of the houses are decorated more in this "luxury" way than in a way that tries to convey brilliant, frothy whimsy, and the owners seem to be cultivating a mythology of wealth rather than of specialness. And wealth is intertwined with specialness (Anthro costs more than Target; a life of serendipity and beauty implies not being overworked and poorly paid at an unglamorous job, unless it's a type of unglamorousness that can be glamorized, like bartending; the matter of "taste" is wholly bound up in class/education), but each of these two mythologies is a separate subculture.

So I guess the answer that Keith Johnson is looking for, in my opinion, to the question of which things are the right things that provide the right resonance, is: Things that suggest the owner's life is an aesthetically gorgeous, lush one replete with breathtaking interestingness. And that the owner has to have a certain type of elite education, a sensibility, that has to do with foreign travel ("worldliness"), in order to recognize the wonderfulness of the objects—they're not some Ugly American who thinks the height of sophistication is a pastel metallic patchwork Coach handbag with little C's all over it.

Still, any act of buying something at Anthropologie involves shopping in an engineered, corporate store—a mundane, unsophisticated, unwhimsical act, to be sure. Wouldn't it be better just to focus on living the most aesthetically exciting, serendipitous life of mind-opening cultural experiences that you can? Is it a problem that I feel like that experience would be incomplete if I weren't wearing the right outfit for it?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

the Facebook disconnect

A couple of years ago, I participated in the Cringe Reading Series, an event where you get up and read your diary from when you were 14 years old to a bar full of strangers. It was great fun and I have happy memories of it; the only reason I stopped doing it was that I ran out of material. I have a handful of screamingly funny diary entries from my adolescence and hundreds more that are just depressing, and not in the "so bad it's good" way either. When I first read about the event, I had an unstoppable desire to participate in it, and the interviews I did with Paste Magazine, NBC News, and the LA Times were also fun.

But I didn't mention anyone's first and last names when I read my diary out loud. Two of the three entries I shared, in my three appearances on the Cringe stage, concerned a boy I'd been romantically obsessed with who had a very uncommon first name, and I didn't say his name aloud when it was mentioned in those entries—I shortened it to just his first initial. The last time I talked to this guy was 20 years ago, and I felt like there was something unkosher and creepy about saying intimate things about him while naming his name, especially since one of the diary entries was filled with colorful epithets condemning both him and the girl I suspected of making out with him (though I knew only that the girl had made out with someone on the gym steps, and I was afraid it might be him because he often hung out at the gym after school, but had no evidence that it was). If he heard about it he might think it was funny, because he had always been a good-natured sort, but I still felt uncomfortable with it.

Lots of the other people who read at the Cringe Reading Series were a lot more forthcoming with the first and last names of the people they were in love with as teenagers. And I didn't understand it. Those first and last names could have ended up on TV, in news articles, and in the Cringe Book, a compendium of scans of people's real diaries with ironic commentary.

Of course, the ideal situation is that you're still friends with those people, and the two of you have grown into such angst-free, well-adjusted adults that you can just laugh and laugh and laugh about it together now, plus you have the miraculous good fortune of still being enough the same kind of people that you can speak to each other as adults and understand each other. Like when Stephanie Klein, author of the fat-camp memoir Moose, appeared on a talk show with the guy who had been her boyfriend at fat camp 15-20 years earlier. Or when one girl at Cringe gave a shoutout to one of the very guys she was reading about, who was sitting in the audience that night. But a lot of us aren't still friends with the person we were obsessed with. Too often, we kinda NEVER WERE friends with them, which means that if we wrote a memoir about them and then contacted them to be on a talk show with us, they would be like, "Jenny WHO?" and possibly even be skeeved out. Maybe we had had one conversation with them, which we analyzed to death, but knew in our heart of hearts was completely meaningless. And, maybe even more to the point, that shit from age 14 was painful, even if the diary entries are funny now. A lot of us have no desire to laugh with the person we scribbled anguishedly about, in the days when our self-esteem and taste in music and clothes were not as good as they are now. The past is in the past. Moldy old first and last names, forever etched in black and white on the Grecian urn that is your eighth-grade yearbook.

So my suspicion is that most of the people who name names are not still friends (if they ever were friends) with those named. And this goes not only for the tiny cross-section of the population who has performed at the Cringe Reading Series, but also for the much larger group of people in early-to-mid-adulthood who blog about their adolescence using the first and last names of people who loomed large. In fact, their current lives seem so many lightyears away from that era of pegged acid-wash jeans that it almost doesn't seem like those people are real. They achieved a sort of folkloric otherworldliness during the era in question, one that can be bestowed only by an overwrought teenage girl given to dramatization, and this status as more mythological character than just, you know, some guy has only grown more stable in the years since you've seen the person and the memory of them becomes ever more mysteriously hazy. This idea is reinforced by movies about people who used to be teenagers, who moon up at the ceiling and go, "Bobby Riley...oh, he was so dreamy..." and maybe there's a time-travel plot involving bobby sox. (I'm thinking equally of Peggy Sue Got Married and the sock-hop episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

My other suspicion is that it's easier to imagine that the people aren't real if the coastal, cosmopolitan city where you live now is very far away, both geographically and ideologically, from wherever you grew up. If you grew up in some work-at-the-mill-until-you-die town where you were the only person in your high school class to go away to college, and everyone else had babies and found Jesus the second they graduated from high school, it's easier to imagine them living in a totally separate universe from you where they couldn't possibly Google themselves and find something you wrote about them (because in their world people don't use the Internet?). I grew up in the New York City area and am still here. People who grow up here don't tend to leave. They are alive, doing their thing, and you might run into them anytime. Even if they moved away, they're in touch with plenty of people who are still in the area. And plenty of them grew up to inhabit the same cultural milieu as you, where marriage is optional but college is not, where it's considered normal for someone in their 30s to spend a weeknight at a bar reading out loud from an old notebook, where the irony of such a practice is understood. They might even be at the bar on Cringe night.

But what's extra strange is that, concurrent with the upsurge in blogs and stories that name names, Facebook has grown to such proportions that, if you wanted to find someone from your past there, you probably could. There's a page where you can look up the entire graduating class of any high school in any year. Not everyone in the whole class will be there, but most of them will. And even if you choose not to actually contact any of them, lots of them will have contacted each other, and you will feel tempted to join in. You'll be able to look at most of their pictures and see which of them are friends with each other. It will all seem real again, both in the same way and in a different way than before: It'll seem the same in the sense that all the clique ties that were so important are in evidence again now, when you look at the friend lists. That the juxtaposition of certain names with one another conjures memories that you thought were long buried. That if Jessica and Nicole are friends on Facebook now, you should probably be friends with them both or else it's like getting excluded from their party just like in sixth grade. But it's different too, in that the folkloric quality that the people have come to have, in your mind, is shattered by the receding hairlines, unattractive spouses, flat-footed status updates. (If you hear every other day that the person you once kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle is "tired," you too will become tired.) You start to feel like the girl in the Meryn Cadell song "The Sweater" who realizes "love made her temporarily blind" when she reads the label in the Sweater Belonging to the Boy of Her Dreams: 100% Acrylic.

If you're especially unlucky, your old crushes may use your Facebook connection to proselytize their religious beliefs to you or try to sell you Amway products. It'll appear in hideous HD how much wittier and brighter your current, real friends are than these shmoes. You'll make the connection between your erstwhile worshiping of them and the fact that, at that time, you also worshiped the song "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins because it was so beautiful and sad.

I'm in a better position than average, with respect to the uncommonly-named boy. For one thing, I know he's still a nice person. He was visiting his parents in our hometown one weekend four years ago, right before my wedding, and saw my parents outside when he happened to drive by their house. He stopped to say hi to them and ask after me, which was sweet in the same way he always used to be. (Of course I had a zillion questions for my parents about how he looked/seemed; it was semi-exciting that they'd told him I was about to get married.) For another thing, I actually was friends with him for a time, before I went and ruined it by making him my "boyfriend" for two months in seventh grade. (Then he dumped me, and I pined after him for years.) In childhood he spent lots of time at my house. So at least there'd be no "Jenny who?". I could still send him a Facebook friend request. It's not out of the realm of possibility.

But I still kind of prefer to think of him as not quite real, and this goes double for the countless other crushes I had who I wasn't really friends with, who never came to my house or met my family, who I barely talked to but thought about constantly. And I think I have plenty of company in that, based on all the bloggers and performers who name names so cavalierly that it's as if they were talking about a soap-opera character. Facebook is shattering all that. I don't know how we're going to reconcile those two realities. In the future, will we all be privy to the mundane day-to-day trivia of everyone we've ever known, in their dull adult lives? Will the phrase "I used to know him" become obsolete, because now a classmate is forever? Will there cease to be any distinction between the past and the present? And how will this impact the angst of future teenagers if they know they will never, ever really be able to leave their hometown?

Earlier this year I went to a talk by Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite pop-cultural writers/speakers, where he put forth the theory that "people believe that things are going to happen that aren't really going to happen, and the reason for this is technology." He meant that technology lets you very clearly see unrealistic things happen to other people, on the Internet and in movies and on TV, and it starts to seem likely that those same things will happen to you, even though they almost definitely won't. Like maybe you'll cover Michael Jackson's "Black or White" before a national audience, like Adam Lambert did on American Idol, or Clinton and Stacey will make you throw out all your harlequin-print stockings and replace them with structured cotton twill blazers like on What Not to Wear, or you'll slay vampires like Buffy or carjack cars like the guy in Grand Theft Auto or blow up enemies like in any action movie or maybe get whacked by the Mob. People think fantasies are closer to reality than they really are because they seem so real on video. Right now I'm fantasizing that Chuck Klosterman will see this blog post and respond to it. I'm probably friends on Facebook with someone who's friends with one of his friends, so maybe someone will pass along the message.

So I wonder how Chuck would apply this theory to the Facebook disconnect. Are we to conclude that the Facebook connections we make with people from our past aren't really real, we just fantasize that they are, and that Facebook is sort of a video game about our own life where unrealistic things happen? There is some truth to that. If the only connection you have with a person is from junior high, you're kind of kidding yourself if you think you really know them. The type of interactions we have on Facebook—"liking" people's status, etc.—are so trivial and 2-D that they don't really constitute a relationship all by themselves. But on the other hand, Facebook resurrects these people. It puts you back in touch with them, either directly or just by virtue of your being listed with your high school class. All you have to do to talk to them is hit "send a message." And if you do, you'll soon be brought unceremoniously back to earth from your fantasy-driven perceptions about them. You're uncomfortably aware that these people still live and breathe, and if you spoke in public or blogged about them by name, they might find out and have a reaction that you don't like. Does Facebook coincide with Chuck's theory or oppose it?

I think the answer will lie in how memoirists and bloggers evolve into this new reality where everyone we've ever known is available online, neatly catalogued, reachable with a click. Maybe it'll become the norm that if you're gonna read old diary entries about someone in a public forum, you have to message them, and interview them, and have a whole horrible conversation about what went on between you all those years ago, and consider their point of view as well as your own, and hope they think it's as funny as you think it is, and invite them to come hear you read as if you felt nothing but affection for them and no dread. I hope that doesn't happen. Or maybe people will just start using pseudonyms more, or first initials, or nicknames, or just "he," because they're wise to the fact that dreamy Bobby Riley is alive and well and owns four delis in the Pittsburgh area, so they're not as carefree with the naming of names.

Your story is your story, it's a piece of creative writing about how you feel, informed by your memories. A pseudonym may be a lie, but so are your memories. They are fictionalized by the passage of time, as a story you tell with ironic distance.