Sunday, August 29, 2010

Life Would Be Perfect if I Subscribed to That Magazine

The best book I read this summer was Meghan Daum's Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House. As I mentioned before, I was hooked by the quality and tone of her writing. You'd think a book that's a long documentation of the author's various moves and dwellings wouldn't be interesting at all, but the author's later insight into her own behavior plus the way she tells the story make it fascinating. More than that though, it's that in reading her own personal revelations about how she sought an ideal identity for herself through where she lived and how she decorated, we can see ourselves. As I read this book, I kept having to stop and take a breath after realizing that, wow, oh my God, I have thought that way too and for the exact same reasons.

For a lot of people it is houses. Others have a thing for clothes. It can be anything though or any combination of things. So many people seek to create and become their version of "perfect" based on their stuff. We think "If I have this or do that or go there then my life will be perfect." Or at least, we think other people will think we're perfect. Then we'll have friends and be admired instead of made fun of. We'll be included, elevated even. We can even escape our pasts or transcend our origins if only we have good taste and get good stuff.

On a couple of occasions my former friend A and her husband called me and my family white trash, igniting my competitiveness with her I'm sure. They also constantly talked about things I didn't understand and corrected my pronunciation. Once, I dated a guy who said my family may as well have been black (can you imagine?) and I was dumped by a doctor who said I was not on his level because I did not have an education like he did, although ha ha I do now. My already low self esteem was confirmed by all of these comments and I felt I had to escape it. I didn't want to be trash.

For me, it wasn't houses that were my thing, although I confess they certainly could have been if I could have afforded one. When I owned my house in Atlanta I certainly felt proud of it and I did delight in the fact that it was all mine, but that unfortunately was fleeting. I loved my apartment, but not with quite the zeal of Meghan Daum.

My thing has always been magazines. I admit it, I'm obsessed with magazines and their appeal for me is double layered. I escape in the content of the magazines, but I also relish the prestige of being able to say that I read certain magazines.  Because of this, magazines are like joy squared for me.

Like all weird behaviors, my magazine fixation began in childhood. Growing up with my grandparents, they had a permanent subscription to Readers Digest. This didn't interest me. When I went to go live with my parents in New York, I was eleven and while my parents weren't readers and would never subscribe to anything, they always picked up copies of a magazine called the Robb Report at the convenience store where they bought cartons of Vantage Ultra-Lights.

Together my parents would sit on their bed smoking and stubbing out their butts in half empty soda cans as they flipped slowly through the Robb Report, a magazine which highlights in high-gloss, the playthings and amusements of the extraordinarily wealthy. They sighed over opulent cars and homes, vacation spots and exclusive clubs all over the world. They planned together how they would get these things, even choosing the upholstery in their future Rolls and they never spoke in the subjunctive tense of might, could, or would love to have. They spoke only in absolute terms. We're getting a Lamborghini. We're buying an estate.

In the back of the magazine were listings of luxury items for sale - everything from yachts to mansions to racehorses. My parents combed through these listings as if they truly believed these things were within their realm of possibility. They went so far as to set up appointments with real estate agents on the weekends so that they could visit some of the houses for sale and they always brought me along to showings in Alpine and Saddle River, New Jersey or Tuxedo Park, New York. I remember one estate that had an aviary of exotic birds and there was a real live toucan. Another time we toured the home of Audrey and Judy Landers who lived with their mother. I had never heard of them but apparently one sister was on Dallas and both had been on The Love Boat. All I remember is a mildewy indoor pool and the way the chlorine hung in the heat and humidity of that room while snow clung to the windows.

All that from a magazine.

At some point that year, I asked my mother for a Seventeen and my obsession was born. The people in the magazine had perfect lives, but so did the people who read the magazine.  My grandparents bought me a subscription for my birthday when I told them that was all I wanted.

A couple years later I broke up with Seventeen for good. I remember the exact moment that it happened - the moment I found my true love in print.

It was the summer between ninth and tenth grades. I was at Aunt Kiki's house for the summer. I've written about that summer before. I sold blackberries on the side of the road and loved a boy who played tennis at the Country Club and who, many years later, made fun of my Mary Janes when he was dating a San Francisco heiress and cheating on her with me, but that's another story. I was almost fifteen that summer and I rode my bike all over Millpond. One of my favorite destinations was The Chicken Shack, Millpond's answer to the Quickie Mart and which, in addition to the usual cold drinks, condoms, aspirin and candy, also sold fried chicken. 

The Chicken Shack had an impressive magazine selection. By that time I had added Vogue, Elle and of course Cosmopolitan to my reading list, though in all honesty I only flipped through Elle and Vogue to look at the super models in the ads, which I then ripped out and taped to my bedroom walls. I only actually read Cosmopolitan, because, though I had barely just kissed a boy, I really believed I needed to know how to drive a man wild in bed. I spent a large portion of my money, mostly gotten through blackberry sales and as gifts from Aunt Kiki's drug dealers, on magazines at the Chicken Shack. Just the usual ones and by now I had developed a disdain for Young Miss. I think this was before it abbreviated itself into YM, KFC style.

But then I saw it. There was a new magazine and on its cover was a girl in red lipstick who looked confident and gorgeous and slightly pissed. This girl would never be a cheerleader. She listened to music you've never heard of and ate Indian food. She had already backpacked through Europe before she even graduated high school. She read books they'd never make movies out of and enjoyed french cinema. Boys threatened to throw themselves off of bridges for this girl.  This girl was Sassy.

I've always felt that Sassy was the cheesiest name for the greatest magazine ever published for teenage girls, but the name wouldn't deter me from never missing a single edition until it folded and broke my heart. I felt like I knew the staff of this magazine. I felt like the girls in Sassy, though they were no more real or authentic than the girls in Seventeen, were who I wanted to be. Sassy girls wore vintage prom gowns, had short hair, listened to The Smiths and went to Sarah Lawrence when they graduated. They could write beat poems, protest social injustices and travel to Africa to single handedly install a clean water system and save an entire village from Cholera. The Sassy girl could tell a boy how to touch her without blushing and stuttering and then have the confidence to break up with him.  I was nothing like this girl, except for The Smiths, but she was who I wanted and needed to be. In many ways, I still aspire to this goal.

Sassy had a contest every year to find "The Sassiest Girl in America." It was my greatest wish to be this girl. Every year when they'd profile the winner I'd read about these girls who all had weird names and could skateboard and I would just die inside that I could never be that cool. I remember one girl who was named after a thrift store and I hated my mother for not being more creative when I was born. I wanted to be named after a thrift store too, but with my luck I'd have been stuck with a name like Salvation and it wouldn't have had the same flair.

I wanted to be the Sassiest Girl in America so badly that to this day I still remember the full name of one of the winners - Rinnan Henderson. How is that name still floating in my head? I even googled her.  

Another time I made out with a guy who had apparently dated one of the Sassiest Girls in America and I remember, at the time, thinking HOLY CRAP he dated her and is kissing me!!! That must mean that there's some Sassiness in me too. There is hope! I am a little embarrassed to admit this, so please let's just keep my enthusiasm between all 550 of us.

By the time Sassy ended, I was in my twenties and needed to move on anyway. I grew up. I remember my initial excitement at finding Jane in an airport bookstore and hoping it might restore some much needed Sassy-tude to my life. I never missed an issue of that either, though I never loved it as much. I was a huge fan of the "make-under" section though.

Martha Stewart wrecked me. Every month I'd buy Living in the grocery store line and wonder why I couldn't drill Moravian stars into pumpkins. Why couldn't I have a picket fence to whitewash and edge in heirloom hollyhocks? Why the hell couldn't my family have special brown turkey pattern Thanksgiving china and individual, amber Depression glass turkey soup tureens on our holiday table?? Clearly my mother was a failure and so was I now because neither of us could weave our own cornucopias out of dried grape vines from the vineyard in our backyard and where was my private beach in the Hamptons where I could bake lobsters in the sand? No magazine has ever made me feel as inadequate and deprived as Martha Stewart Living, but damned if I don't still buy it, hoping that if I at least look at the pictures that I can one day be a better person - one with a special room in her house dedicated to nothing but gift wrapping and of course I'd only use vintage ribbon.

For the past ten years I've been hooked on the Real Simple aesthetic. I love that matte paper. I am sold on the idea of spare, sensible and extremely expensive. I want to live in an airy farmhouse with a mudroom too. I want that zen-like sense of perfect organization and balance. If I buy the magazine, maybe I can have it.

Last year I was featured in two (TWOOOOO) editions of Real Simple. One time a total stranger recognized my name off of a form and said "Are you the same XX that was in this month's Real Simple??" No kidding. That really happened and I almost peed my pants. It was truly the highlight of my writing life. Me. In a magazine. Me. In Real Simple. It was like I was suddenly a legitimate human being after 35 years. 

But these are the magazines whose content promises me a perfect life. There are the others whose prestige I covet. These are the magazines I want guests to see on my coffee table. I want these magazines peeking out of my laptop bag in the first class section of the airplane. These make me look smart, accomplished and elegant.  The New Yorker. The Paris Review. The Economist. Vanity Fair. The Atlantic.  

If I were the kind of person who read The New Yorker (and not just puzzled over the comics) my life would be perfect. I know it. If I could get through an edition of The Economist I swear I'd finally believe I was intelligent. The Atlantic, arriving monthly in my mailbox, would magically turn me clever, informed and hip. I'd be like the Sassiest Girl in America all grown-up. And of course a subscription to The Paris Review would mean I was a real writer. I haven't even dared to daydream about being in The Paris Review so we won't even talk about that. I just want to read it knowingly.

I subscribe to two magazines right now: O and Real Simple. I felt I owed Real Simple for publishing me twice. O I love for the book suggestions and stories of women overcoming hardships. I like the pictures too. I've long since given up the fashion magazines and Cosmo. My husband would have a heart attack if I tried that trick with the Altoid and the ice cubes, so I don't think it's quite safe to try to drive him wild.

I limit my magazine buying, but I confess that I love going to the doctor just so I can read all the magazines in the waiting room. I seek the longest line in the grocery store so I can flip through Coastal Living and Saveur if I'm at Whole Foods. Lately I've started wondering if I should start reading some of those New Agey parenting magazines about feeding your baby edamame and how young can you do yoga with your infant. You know, these are the ones printed on recycled paper. 

The mothers and children inside all look perfect.


Green said...

I wonder what the girls featured in Sassy and Jane grew up to become.

I've never thought I could be the other girls featured in the magazines. When I'd look at their lives, I'd view them the way you view the Eskimos you learn about in sociology class.

kerry said...

Am I the only girl who never had those magazines as a kid? I had National Geographic. I don't know what that says about me. :)

Do people actually do any of those projects they profile in magazines? I file things away that I find in herb magazines, with all the intentions in the world of trying some. But somehow it never crosses my radar when it comes to actually doing them.

I think my mother wanted one of those Sassy daughters- the overachievers, saving entire villages in third-world countries, and graduating college within two years with a perfect GPA and class president.

Heather said...

Girl! I am so right there with you and the magazine thing. I met one of the original writers/editors of Sassy many years ago and yeah, she really is that cool. Married an Internet guy who actually made money, both so smart. I love Real Simple more than anything, that and the occasional tabloid that is. Good for you getting published! As far as parenting mags go, do NOT get the one the sell at Whole Foods. I am still upset over an article I read in there about the evils of c-sections right after I had to have one. I went from feeling really good about my birth experience to shame and guilt in seconds. Ugh. Just get Parenting, it's much more down to earth and most of the time you can get 1 yr free with other things. Buy one of the toys they recommend imthink.

JoeinVegas said...

I was always impressed with Martha Stewart, then caught her on some gardening show planting tulip bulbs. There she was in sun had and gloves on her kneeling pad putting in bulbs after showing pictures of the millions of flowers from last year. It seemed like she really worked that yard. Then the camera pulled back and accidentally caught the crew with a backhoe and crates of bulbs waiting for her to get out of the way.
It's the money; you can buy people to make all that for you.

Unknown said...

I'm going to second Heather and say DO NOT get one of those hip urban, cute-looking parenting magazines at Whole Foods. My friends who have kids say that those make them feel WAAAY worse about themeselves than just the plain old regular mainstream dowdy parenting magazines. Like, "Oh my god I'm not doing an hour of baby yoga with my baby after my ten hour shift, and our food doesn't remotely come close to being raw organic vegan! I am a horrible parent!!" Yeah, just no.

Also, I am 33 years old and still totally pine for Sassy and Jane. What are the tweens of today going to do without make-unders? So sad. Although, I will blame Sassy for getting my hopes dashed after I came up with some exceedingly extravagant college plans that could have never been possible. Damn them for their profile of the American University of Paris! Damn them all to hell! :p

FreeDragon said...

Urgh- Martha. My mother buys month old mags from the flea market (so we can appear chic while being cheap) and passes them on to me. I hate Martha. But I have to admitt I like her stuff so I read Real Simple and Living cover to cover. But I like the country magazines better- Country Woman, Country Living, Cottage Style, Country Sampler. They seem more 'real' to me, like I could actually live like the people featured.

Donna said...

Just the idea of reading a magazine seems so decadent to me. These days I mostly read spelling lists and frozen dinner ingredients. But, if anyone ever publishes a magazine for single, over 40 mothers who have to kick laundry out of the way to get into the bathroom, well, I’d make time to read a publication like that!

Kate said...

OMG, Wide Lawns, to this day I lament the end of Sassy. The best girl magazine that ever was and ever will be. Oh, Sassy. Thanks for bringing back a fond memory. :)

CharmingDinnerGuest said...

When I was 18 or so I used to read a young women's magazine religiously and try to absorb the pictures. I think it was Cosmopolitan before Helen Gurley Brown got her talons into it.
The magazine had beautiful, sunny illustrations of what we were supposed to be wearing. I remember the wording, "country brogues, thick chunky bracelets, sunny streaked hair, touseled good looks."
The models, deliriously confident and happy, were looking out at me saying, "You could take part in our wonderful adventures if you would only dress like this."
They would also, so kindly, have examples of what we should be looking for in fashion, layers of golden tweeds, matched with turtleneck sweaters and layered gold necklaces, Founes gloves and shimmery soft leather bags.
I could barely afford the magazine and had no thought of trying to buy any of those looks but my heart was carried away with imagining how much fun life would be and how easily successful I would be if I were decked out like those girls in the magazine.

CharmingDinnerGuest said...

My page refreshed itself as I was saving this so I don't know if this comment reached you. I hope it's not a duplicate.
When I was 18 or so I used to read a young women's magazine religiously and try to absorb the pictures. I remembered it was Glamour Magazine. The magazine had beautiful, sunny illustrations of what we were supposed to be wearing. I remember the wording, "country brogues, thick chunky bracelets, sunny streaked hair, touseled good looks."
The models, deliriously confident and happy, were looking out at me saying, "You could take part in our wonderful adventures if you would only dress like this."
They would also, so kindly, have examples of what we should be looking for in fashion, layers of golden tweeds, matched with turtleneck sweaters and layered gold necklaces, Founes gloves and shimmery soft leather bags.
I could barely afford the magazine and had no thought of trying to buy any of those looks but my heart was carried away with imagining how much fun life would be and how easily successful I would be if I were decked out like those girls in the magazine.

Anonymous said...

Don't read Parenting! Or Cookie! Or Amy of the print ones, really. They are mostly ads for stuff interspersed with terrifying, inflammatory article on the latest thing that will kill your baby if you don't buy all the stuff in the ads. The best I've found (as a fellow Sassy lover) is an online magazine called Babble. There are still ads for gear, but in a special section, they are a lot more measured in reporting the latest research (as in "such and such study says this will kill your baby if you don't buy X, but it was funded by the makers of X, so maybe it's BS), and the writers really take the judge-not approach. What works for you may not work for me, but neither of us are bad parents because of it. Plus, celebrity baby sightings and gossip, which sounds up your alley. I don't work for them, I just read, and it's a good resource.

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