Tag Archives: self image

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The Items We Inexplicably Cherish

Purposeful collecting may matter more than we know. It offers a release from the crazy world we can’t control.

                                                                           The People’s Store, Lambertville N.J.

Anyone’s collection of almost anything is a marker of self-definition. Collecting turns out to be not only one acceptable way to have too much stuff, but usually represents our relationship to a certain class of things that are part of our core identity. In simpler terms, our stuff is emblematic of our enthusiasms. Jay Leno has over 300 rare cars, and stories about each one of them. According to Wikipedia, Mariah Carey collects shoes and Kiefer Sutherland has a number of Gibson guitars. F.D.R. was famous for his stamp collecting. And everyone knows that Tom Hanks collects old typewriters. One of my grandmothers had a prominent display of miniature spoons with the names of such exotic places as Salt Lake City and Tulsa. At least the spoons didn’t take up much space, which is more than can be said for Leno’s passion. My grandkids are avid collectors of Pokémon cards, with enthusiastic explanations that still tax my understanding. To the uninformed they seem a bit like professional sports cards, which have a long history with kids and adults. We even have E. M. Forester’s wonderful character, Helen, in Howards End. She moves through soggy London inadvertently collecting other people’s umbrellas.

Several years ago I wrote a essay wondering if we were done collecting. At that time it was easy to notice that streaming had replaced music collections that used to sit heavily on our walls. But the impulse to convert our passions into material ownership may be deeper than I knew. There is the well-known example of resurging interest in vinyl records. New bands establish their credibility with vinyl albums.  And vintage stereo equipment to play them on is also having its moment. Purposeful collecting may matter more than we know. It offers a degree of escape from a crazy world we can’t control, to a set of things that we can.

Most of us are remain active curators, though we rarely use that word. This is obvious to any user of Facebook or Snapchat. Facebook dramatically displays images of ourselves and the things and images we will allow to stand in for us. Selfies are galleries of the considered self. We sometimes use these images to relay pieces of the culture that we want others to like as much as we do.

Older forms of personal curating continue as well. Model railroaders curate their collections with the passion of medievalists working at the British Museum. Guitarists rarely have just one instrument; most acquisitions represent a new point on their own learning curve with the instrument. A lot of of us can’t resist a rare find carefully brought home to gather dust next to others like it. And more Americans accumulate tattoos to forever memorialize moments when exuberance probably exceeded caution.

Most of us live near a street of antique emporiums, used bookstores and flea markets. All are ready to sell everything from art-deco ashtrays to old film lobby posters, to more Beatles merchandise than any household needs. Those mini stores are a reminder that while many are done hunting for the basics of life, we are still eagerly gathering items that can fill in a narrative that  is a refreshing alternative to the present. The People’s Store in New Jersey is a trove of passions for artifacts, old and older.  The artifact remains after the owner of the passion is no longer around.

Alas, after the original curator of a collection leaves the scene, their collections will probably end up packed away in the attics of their still puzzled heirs.

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Our Fragile Selves

It’s been a burden to go through life having an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant. The great Hollywood star remains an iconic example of the perfect leading man. You can undoubtedly see the resemblance and imagine the confusion.  

I’m on the left.

                Cary Grant

Believe me, it was not easy to be mistaken for the famous movie star.

In his day a lot of guys wanted to be Cary Grant.  Even the former Archie Leach said that even he wanted to be the suave persona he portrayed in movies with Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and others.

Personal Identity is one of the most fragile of our perceptions. Media researchers remind us that the young–especially girls and young women–are  endlessly needled by messages that undermine shaky egos.  “I’m not attractive enough” is the generic effect of viewing advertising and other elements of popular culture. It is delivered incessantly, sabotaging a person’s birthright for an intact and resilient self image.  Even so the Grant example is a reminder that we easily imagine a form of our idealized selves.

Advertising is an interesting case because we usually don’t usually think of it as a vessel for delivering messages of inadequacy.  Ads come in the form of ‘good news’ and upbeat reminders. But those dealing with what the industry calls “personal care products” are filled with remedies to trumped up problems created specifically to sell a product.  Ads destabilize a young consumer.  They beg an individual to worry about problems they might not have known they had: blemishes, hair that is the wrong color, or a body type that deviates from an idealized norm.  In fact, film, advertising and the gatekeepers of media content (especially in fashion, dance and television casting )generally prefer “ectomorph” women who straddle the borderlands of the anorexic.

“Body dysmorphia” begins for some males and females during adolescence.  This  consuming obsession over appearance affects almost 3 in 100.  But much larger percentages have issues accepting their physical appearance.  This is all made worse by the ironic fact that our general appearance is a relatively fixed part of ourselves, often getting more attention than the thoughts we utter: aspects of ourselves that are within our control.

When we are young, we often assume that what we offer as our physical selves should be enough to secure our place and our status with our peers.  It’s one of the vulnerabilities of youth that we regard our lithe bodies as our best calling card. What else do muscled men or pretty young woman need to offer?  A racetrack of a mind or verbal facility might only complicate things.

Soon enough our identities must deepen. Who we “are” must be much more than how we look. For many that takes a degree of self-induced emancipation, as in this personal declaration from comedian Margaret Cho:

I fly my flag of self esteem for all those who have been told they were ugly and fat and hurt and shamed and violated and abused for the way they look and told time and time again that they were ‘different’ and therefore unlovable. Come to me and I will tell you and show you how beautiful and loved you are and you will see it and feel it and know it and then look in the mirror and truly believe it.