What we see when we see ourselves
Taking your own author photo in lockdown as a middle-aged American woman. (It isn't pretty.)
On October 8th, 2019, I received a response from the person running Mindy Tucker’s booking calendar. I had filled out the form on the site, asking about the possibility of taking author photos, although I had found her through her portraits of comedians. Of course she could do that, just let us know at least a month beforehand when you’ll be in the city, we’ll schedule it.
October 9th, 2021 is the next time I will be in the city, fingers crossed.
The pandemic warped and undermined (and continues to warp and undermine) almost every aspect of putting a book into the world, including getting new author photos taken. My deadline to get them done was last winter, pre-vaccine, still very much in lockdown. Vermont still had guidelines that included “don’t go for a walk outside with even one person who isn’t a member of your household.” I’m (mostly) a rule follower by nature so I followed that rule even though it meant I didn’t end up seeing my best walking buddy for six months, even though it chipped away at what little sanity I had left.
I upgraded my phone for the camera (don’t we all?). I bought a rickety-ass ring light (didn’t we all?). I asked my then-14-year-old daughter if she could take my photo using my phone. I’d direct her, she just needed to press the button. The white circle, I mean. Buttons aren’t even buttons anymore.
That morning was the first time I truly confronted what the pandemic had done to me, physically, to my body and my face. It had been easy to forget, since the only release and relief of lockdown was not having to see myself. There was no reason to hang out in front of a mirror when the only place I might be going that day was the living room or out to walk the dog. It was the sort of release from vanity that I used to feel at the Maine cottage we rented for years, where the only mirror was old and clouded and its only available view was from my collarbone to the top of my head.
It took hours to get ready. I showered and exfoliated and shaved, for the mental boost. I’m not a big sheet masker because there are regions of my face that breakout if the wind blows wrong, but I was like I can break out tomorrow, who gives a shit. Take one for the team, face. So I used a new sheet mask that required that I lie down for quite a long time and there was so much glop in that mask that it kept oozing down my neck. I had to grab the hand towel from the bathroom, tipping my head back, walking in pelvis first.
I applied silicone patches that I regret to inform you are from a brand called Wrinkles Shminkles and I’m embarrassed further to tell you that they work. So now I’m a Wrinkles Shminkles loyalist, what can I say, no atheists in fox holes, et cetera. When I use every available format of these patches at the same time I look like a mannequin and you might think I’m saying that as a bad thing but the truth is it make me never want to take them off.
I applied makeup and concealer and eyeliner and mascara and lipstick and powder and some sort of reflective photographic makeup shit that I refer to as Barbra Streisand Filter. My eyes watered from having so much makeup jabbed into and around them that I had to keep dabbing my eyes with tissues as if I was having a breakdown (wasn’t I?)
To age in this country, particularly as a woman, is to constantly be giving yourself li’l pep talks so you’ll keep showing up for work at the most bullshit job ever. Post-it notes on mirrors and all that. Sometimes I wrap myself in little squares of inspiration on Instagram like, oh baby, that. Yeah, getting older is totally rad and super ok when you put it in that font like that. And then there are mornings and days like having to take your own author photo when you just wish you could’ve spackled reality and your insecurities with a professional who had infinitely better lighting and equipment, and could make you look like the version of you that you hold inside your own head.
In confronting myself I wasn’t gentle with myself. I guess that’s what confrontation is. Violent. Why had I stopped working out? Why didn’t I eat more (or literally any) superfoods? Why didn’t I apply myself (wait for it) during a global pandemic when we were all just trying to do our best, not die, make money, get maybe five hours of sleep a night, watch over our kids as their lives imploded and could you imagine if anyone had told you when you were pregnant “your kids will be going to middle school and high school during a global pandemic” and you’d be like good one, motherfucker.
We have normalized the grind and the quasi-religion of relentless self-improvement, good-vibes-only, and the worship of youth to such a degree that not even a literal death spiral can shake them.
My daughter, a great sport, took photo after photo. She suggested moving the dumb ring light closer. She was right, the light shifted into a more 80s blown-out vibe, appropriate for this particular book. I looked this way, I looked that way, chin slightly up, chin slightly down, serious face, smile face, half-serious and half-smile face, shoulders down, sit like a string is pulling me from the crown of my head like I had learned in so many exercise classes, so many over my lady lifetime. Apply myself, look confident, fake it til I make it, act like I am somebody.
Her hands began to shake from having to hold the phone at that certain height for so long. I released her.
I swiped through and I didn’t see everything that had worked under such absurd circumstances, I saw only the faults. I saw evidence of age (I AM A HALF CENTURY+ OLD WHAT DID I EXPECT). I saw skin that didn’t look its best (TURNS OUT THAT THAT SKIN WAS WRAPPED AROUND A CARCASS THAT WASN’T DOING ITS BEST EITHER). I saw hair that still hadn’t recovered from me fucking around with scissors not once but thrice (THRICE! WHAT A WORD! MY BRAIN SEEMED OK!) I narrowed down some options. I was reminded that what I want to be my serious or sexy face is in reality a corpse or I’m-gonna-punch-you-in-the-face face.
All told I had spent hours, three hours easy, prepping for twenty minutes of photo taking. In professional terms — I’ve been on plenty of photo shoots — this isn’t outrageous! But it certainly felt like it. I had put everything I had into this process, but all I ended up with was me. A few days later I got a haircut, a professional haircut, and realized I’d need to retake my photos. I would need to do this shit all over again, the haircut making that much of a difference. But this time I was used to the process so it took less time, was less painful, and wasn’t that big of a fucking deal. Basically the way our lives used to be, more or less. Back when everything didn’t have to mean anything.
We didn’t have to go from zero to sixty, confronting ourselves in such a sudden and stark moment of visibility. We were able to hide just a little bit each day. We were able to offset our loneliness or fear or the fucked up thoughts inside our heads with distractions, like a meal inside a restaurant served by someone who hadn’t been screamed at her whole shift by adults who tantrum while school children dutifully wear their masks. And do lockdown drills. And have been set a To Do list for climate change while they’re at it. We got used to the makeup. We got used to bad hair days and all they meant were we had bad hair that day. End of story. We didn’t have to process quite so much. I miss that.
And that is why my daughter now has a photo credit.
And that is why if you see me promoting my book you’ll realize I don’t look exactly like my author photo because I will not be spending three hours getting ready to talk about my book. And I won’t have the lighting. And I won’t stay perfectly still. My face will move and my mouth will move and I won’t be able to do anything about that.
And that is why I’m here to tell you that even if nothing big and bad happened to you during this pandemic, it has changed you. It has changed all of us, because it has been 566 days and it’s still not over because we live in a country committed to dying and being shamed to look good doing it.
I am here to tell you even small sadnesses count. I am here to tell you that if you have a fucked up idea in your head about how little you’re worth or how old you are (and you’ve been led to believe that’s bad (!!!) like actually still being alive!) or how you should just be somehow better, odds are you aren’t the one who originally planted it there. And I am here to tell you, you are not alone, no matter how alone you might feel right now. It has been 566 days. And you are not the only one who’s counting.
NEW FROM ME — PUB DAY EDITION
• A book. A friggin’ book, y’all. In Burying The Lede News — my second book, BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY, is out TODAY. No one is more relieved than I am to stop badgering you to preorder. *confetti* You can just straight up buy a copy anywhere books are sold! Whoop!
• I am pleased as proverbial punch that the first excerpt from BYSSH appeared in The New Yorker last week: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Be a Gen X Girl.”
• I was interviewed by the best in the biz, Mitch Wertlieb, on Vermont Public Radio. You can listen to our extended interview here.
• I will be in conversation TONIGHT with Kate Baer, hosted by Phoenix Books! I’ll be in conversation with Laura Benanti on THURSDAY (please note the time change, this is now 3PT/6ET) hosted by Book Soup! And next Monday I’ll be in conversation with Emily Flake IN PERSON at Powerhouse Arena! You can find all upcoming events in one place here.
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE — GEN X EDITION
• “On Hickeys” by Sarah Miller. I laughedddddd:
“I know how sex works,” I said. “I’m just wondering how it is that people get hickeys and then act as if the matter were fully out of their hands, like an earthquake.”
“Ha Ha Ha,” my friend said, “An earthquake, that’s pretty funny.” I could tell she was just repeating the last word she’d heard me say. She and her hickey shuffled off to the deli, because even people who have just gotten off the night bus from Fucktown need to eat lunch.
• Read Nick Cave’s response to this question in The Red Hand Files, here. “I’m struggling a bit with the fact I’m turning 40 in a week. Some people say ‘You’re in the brightest part of your life’, others say you are an ‘old man’. What is your perspective on getting old?”
• I’m discovering as I get older how fucking weird my cultural touchstones are given I gasped at each of these deaths. I mean, Whitesnake video? My prom dress for a prom that, sure, I attended even though I had been dumped two weeks before?
• “A 1985 Action Movie Hero Brings Way Too Much Heat and Weird Slang to His Scenes” by Dan Kennedy on McSweeney’s.
• Good luck watching this now and experiencing how quickly your perspective shifts from OMG THESE ARE MY BOYFRIENDS to OMG THESE ARE MY CHILDREN 💀
• If you haven’t had a chance to watch The Last Blockbuster yet, you totally should. What a trip back to a really formative part of our lives that we’ve basically forgotten about?
• “Silver Linings” in The New Yorker. These portraits of women who let their hair go gray during the pandemic are just stunning.
• Truly a SNL monologue with the strongest of slacker Gen X vibes.
• I include the Wild Life newsletter often in this section. I just find it to be such a perfect blend of charming illustration, insights into and facts about the natural world, and calming and delightful writing — imagine feeling charmed by anything right now. “Monarch Butterfly / Meeting Mr. Butters”. “How does a squishy, crawly caterpillar—or larva, to be more precise—become a colorful slip of sail floating high in the sky? It’s an insane thing to watch firsthand and inevitably inspires existential thinking about life and the possibilities of transformation.”
Buy (!!!) BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY here! You can find my copywriting and creative direction work here. You can find my writing-writing work here. You can find me on Twitter. You can find me on Instagram. For a limited time you might be able to find me (or my signature) at these places.