Citizen Media Critic: Past Lives and Deja Vu
Something about The New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” column seems familiar…too familiar.
By James Rarus – November 22, 2004
|[Editor’s Note: Everyone consumes media, and everyone’s a critic, ergo, everyone’s implicitly a media critic. Or at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves. “Past Lives and Deja Vu” is the first in a series of essays by “citizen media critics”—also known as “readers,” “viewers” and “listeners.”]
Because of the volume of submissions, The Magazine cannot return or respond to unsolicited “Lives” manuscripts.
I have an issue with the New York Times commercial on television. Seen it? The earnest suburban man looks into the camera over his Times and cup of freshly brewed morning coffee and says to us, “I know it will tell me things I can’t find anywhere else.” What he doesn’t say is that it’ll also tell us things on Sundays—the same things—we found in it seven days earlier. I guess the they think that with 64 separate sections (and growing), no one will notice.
The Sunday Styles section, for example, seems always to be stocked with stories about golden-skinned girls with names like Kiwi St. John. These “gamines” and “ingenues,” as the Times likes to call them, always seem to have a trust-fund background, and are always profiled after they open therapy centers in upstate New York for dogs of a certain pedigree—until we learn a few weeks later, in another profile, that they’re now working in a TriBeCa art gallery. We learn of their job change as they do double duty in Sunday Styles for their publicists, lounging in “their” galleries, draped in the latest fashions from Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs. But at least Styles—the Kiwi St. Johns and Christiana Alexa VanDerplanktons aside—is colorful, if not always substantive. Sunday Styles does make me think about switching to the Post, but The New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” column makes me think about cyanide, swan dives off tall buildings, and The Rapture.
Each week, it seems, I flip to “Lives” to read about the recently beaten, kidnapped, addicted, raped, and abandoned. Occasionally, I’ll read a near-uplifting tale of a lungless, sightless cripple who almost became an Olympic pole vault medalist, but who was, in the end, just happy for the chance to try out with the team, iron lung be damned.
As each Saturday ticks into a new Sunday, I relish reading the latest story in Styles about women who carry Birken bags so regularly their arms are permanently crooked into “L” shapes, and the newest tale from the crypt in “Lives”:
From “This Side of Fear,” by Rachel Seiffert, published October 31st on the “Lives” page:
When our friends asked us to house-sit, we felt very fortunate…I had lived in this part of London more than 10 years before: once grand, later bohemian, it was now sadly run-down. People in the neighborhood warned us about…
And that one is fairly consistent with the “Lives” that came before and after:
“My Hands Are Tied,” by Bryan Lonegan as told to Paige Williams, published November 7th:
I can’t get the man’s cries for help out of my head. “Please help me, you have to help me, what will happen to my family?” I tried to get him to calm down, and it didn’t work…
“Right-Hand Man,” by Stephen Yadinski, published October 24th:
My old man lives for music. Years ago he was one of the best clarinetists in the country. The night after my birth, he played Carnegie Hall. He didn’t know that before I was grown he’d sell his instruments. … Like many families, ours split apart.
“Something’s Off,” by Robin Marantz Henig, Published October 17th:
A stinky old conch shell is what finally convinced my husband that I had lost my sense of smell.
“A Detour Before Dying,” by Jim Malone as told to Paige Williams, published October 10th:
Nearly eight years ago, just after Christmas in 1996, I tested HIV-positive while I was on vacation in Los Angeles.
“Not One for the Sidelines,” by Scott Hogsett as told to Dana Adam Shapiro, published September 19th:
I was at a wedding recently with my fiancée, and this woman comes up to me and says, “Oh, I hear you’re in the Special Olympics!”
“The Wanderers,” by Adib Matti as told to Katherine Zoepf, published September 12th:
The first time I became a refugee…
Notice a pattern? Nothing about clowns, puppies, or flowers.
Let’s review: Fear; warned; “cries for help”; “[family] split apart”; stinky; “lost my sense [of smell]”; HIV positive; Special Olympics; and, my favorite, “the first time I became a refugee.”
(Once, for that last guy, apparently is not enough.)
If one didn’t know better, one might think “Lives” was being edited by the macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson, or perhaps by his neurotic colleague, Roz Chast, or maybe even by the Mistress of Human Misery herself, famed suspense writer Patricia Highsmith. Would it be better—or at least more accurate—if “Lives” were renamed “Lives That Suck”? I submitted to “Lives” a few years ago—twice—but failed in my effort. That’s almost material good enough for “Lives” right there—submitting to “Lives”, and failing to be published. It’s like shooting yourself in the face with a shotgun and surviving. Loser!
I have a hunch I was passed over simply because my writing wasn’t worthy, and that I can handle. But my subjects were certainly worthy. One submission was about alcoholism and the other about sexual compulsion. I have an intimate relationship with both topics. My father was an alcoholic and I own an escort agency. (How’s that for a Father-Son Day theme?) I never drank, but did spend thousands of hours over several years in 12-step rooms listening to alcoholics share their experience, strength, and hope, and witnessed, first hand, their emotional, financial, and professional despair and sometimes recovery—my dad’s included.
As for the sex: after reading Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese in high school, the study of social and sexual deviancies became a hobby. And now, after years of avidly pursuing every type of legal and illegal sexual activity known to man, whether on the written page, between the sheets, in the streets, or online, what turns me on is exceedingly specific and not necessarily physical.
But back to “Lives.” Other people’s lousy, miserable lives.
I have a peculiar fondness for “Lives”. Even though it’d be a nice change to read about say, a war crimes survivor with a compulsive laugh who suffocated to death (“Sorry! Sorry! I’m…just…just… laughing so hard… I can’t… breathe…”) I do savor a good old-fashioned, tear-jerk tragedy. Like most people, I enjoy rubbernecking the misery of others. But the difference between me and everyone else is that I’m not ashamed to admit it. I have no interest in feeling your pain, but I’ll always fight for a front row seat to witness it.
George Carlin wrote in his book, Brain Droppings, “Just think, right now, all over the world there are people exercising bad judgment. Somebody, right this minute, is probably making the mistake of his life.” That makes me feel good. Next time you’re having a bad day, think about this observation of Mr. Carlin’s. You can always go to church after and confess if you feel dirty, but I’d bet you a dollar it’ll make you feel better.
So, to the Grim Reapers over at “Lives”, please, keep the angst, misery, pain, and suffering coming. In fact, turn it up a notch. Every now and then, instead of publishing the same old been-there-hurt-by-that topic like racism or sexism or the stories about personal sacrifice—(you know the ones: smuggled Palestinian teen spends eight months in cargo hold of Turkish fishing vessel surviving on sea water and rust chips, arrives in America, gets Ph.D. at Yale, returns to Ramallah to help blind, drug-addicted brother run AK-47 repair shop), try to elicit a more candid, lurid, and violent effort from your writers. Like this:
“CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW!?”
Steve woke up one day and killed everyone in his Chelsea walk-up by beating in their skulls with the cell phone he “hated.” Then he showered, hit Starbuck’s for a gallon of “whatever’s fresh,” and split town with a trunk full of quarters for all the calls he needed to “finish” due to a “bad signal”…
“My Higher Power”
Ben was a pot dealer, and a paranoid mess from chronically smoking his product. He joined Marijuana Anonymous and, with the help of his Higher Power, remained high, corralled his paranoia and increased is net profit by 47 percent by selling to the Tuesday night “Beginner’s” meeting at his local Church and to the Saturday afternoon “Regular” meeting in the VA Hospital cafeteria…
“Travis Bickle Redux”
From the time Louie first saw Taxi Driver, he knew he was destined for a psychotic episode culminating in the failed assassination attempt of a politician. What he didn’t expect on his journey into dementia was the degree of difficulty on the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s exam for aspiring cabbies…
Too edgy? Then perhaps try leavening your “Lives” offerings with some style. If you must be formulaic, then why not take a cue from the more interestingly formulaic Styles section?
Glenda, an aspiring fashion editor, chalked up her pilferage of Prada bags from the Vogue fashion closet as a simple constitutional weakness. But when she became Market Editor of The Robb Report, she embraced her inner felon and began stealing, and fencing, really expensive wristwatches and luxury automobiles. She never stole a Prada bag again…
In summary: Keep the same great writing and editing, and the 900-word limit, but try a little crime, mutilation or witchcraft for a change. It’d be a tastier read on Sunday mornings, and while the volume of your submissions would treble, so would circulation for the Times.