As I mentioned in my last post which I’m sure you’re getting around to reading, I’m in San Francisco this week. I want to send up a hearty high-five to God for pulling a fast one on me and sending a cold front through here during the only days I’ll be around. Well played, God. Well played.
I won’t bore you with the finer details, but I’m here for a marketing conference. I don’t know if I’ve ever explained that this is what I do for a living. I am in an industry that is designed to mislead you for money. I’m part of the problem, just like you. I get paid quite well for it though, so I put on a smile while I pervert your view of the world, then I go home, bury said smile, and criticize you for falling for it all. I get up the next day and do it all over again. And again. And again. And…
Reality is something that’s been weighing on me lately. Do any of us know what reality is? If you live in America, you may have noticed that the vast majority of our lives and our experiences are completely manufactured. Vacations aren’t just about seeing something new, they’re about consumerism. Even if we don’t realize it, we go to the most exotic locations we can afford so we can rub it into everyone else’s face. We take pictures and smile broadly. Look at us! We’re happy! Terribly so! DID YOU SEE HOW FUCKING HAPPY I AM? I POSTED IT ON FACEBOOK!
It used to be that the most poignant photographs were the ones taken when the subject was unaware that they were, in fact, the subject. With a flashbulb flashing, in that one tiny second it took to capture whatever image, we found and froze an emotion: joy, sorrow, anger, defeat. Humanity.
Now we pose ourselves to make it look like we’ve been caught being quintessentially human. Oh! You stumbled upon my lover and me engaging in a playfully romantic romp in a pile of leaves at the park! Haha! I was unaware you’d stumbled upon my husband and our infant son who’s dressed like he’s on his way to a hipster job interview. You found us playing in the fountain, just as any family with a young child does gleefully. Color me surprised, I had no idea you’d captured me as I contemplated my future as a high school senior there in that gazebo. With a whimsical smile playing across my lips, I had been completely unaware that you were capturing one of the most defining moments in my life. I’m glad I spent two hours on my hair and makeup that day.
Who are we taking these pictures for? Us? No, not us. Not immediately at least. I think we’re capturing these falsified images for everyone else. Perhaps we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t believe in our own happiness unless other people believe it too. We’ve come to believe that we don’t exist unless we’re seen. When did that distortion of reality come to be?
Up until I was six years old I thought that it was a law that your family had to take you to Disney World within two months of your birth. I haven’t the faintest fucking idea how I managed to come up with this. I don’t know what I thought would happen if you didn’t go. Maybe you’d turn to dust and all your toys would go to a child who could clearly follow simple instructions? Who knows.
Before I moved to Indianapolis, I lived in Atlanta and I distinctly remember a little girl by the name of Katie who lived at the other end of the neighborhood from me. Half the houses in the addition were under construction, these giant, looming frames with plywood floors and concrete basements. We’d wander through them alone, just the pair of us and our thoughts because apparently our parents were mastering the art of neglect. We were the same age, Katie and me, and we were both resolute in our understanding that if you didn’t go to Disney World when you were born, that was it. Game over. We’d part ways and go back to our enormous mass-manufactured homes and fall asleep to memories of tinier versions of ourselves in line for the teacup rides. Our families had followed the rules; we had gone to Disney World as expected. The world was all ours now.
We moved to Indianapolis when I was 6, and I completely forgot about Katie. I made a few friends up front, girls who reminded me of Katie, children who lived in the same manufactured neighborhood with giant, looming houses that had once been harsh frames and unpolished flooring. At some point I made friends with a girl in my class. She did not live in my neighborhood, she lived in an apartment with her mother, two brothers, and occasionally her mother’s boyfriend (if they weren’t fighting.) I think her name was Misty. She had a mullet and wore her mother’s bra to school a couple times. All in all, she fascinated me.
I went to Misty’s apartment for a sleepover once. We had to sleep in the living room because all the kids shared a bed. I remember her mother leaving us there by ourselves for a few hours while she ran errands. I remember feeling giddy because I’d never not been with an adult before – at least not inside a house where an adult could usually be found. The under-construction houses of my former world with Katie were different. They didn’t even have doors. There was a door on that apartment though, and it had been shut by an adult. I mistook Misty’s mother’s absence as a gesture of trust that we would be responsible while she was gone, and we sure were responsible! Misty made us dinner on the stove – soup. It was like playing real-life house and it felt exhilarating. We watched a movie that night too. I forget what we watched, but I do remember it was on laser-disc If nothing else sent up a red flag, surely the laser-disc should have.
I was too high on this freedom and this alternate reality, that I didn’t notice how wrong the situation was. It wasn’t until later that night when Misty’s mother and her boyfriend came home and loudly had sex in the room next to ours before getting physical in a more violent fashion that suddenly this world seemed less charming. The next morning was a regular day for Misty, but I was haunted. She made me breakfast (cereal this time) and we ate quietly while waiting for my mom to pick me back up. I felt cold and tingly. My heart ached. I was having what was probably my first panic attack, but I attributed it to being sick.
“What do you remember about Disney World?” I asked her, desperately wanting to go to my happy place. She looked over at me, her face filled with confusion.
“I ain’t never been.”
Those words stuck with me not just because ain’t isn’t an actual word, but because Misty had cheated the system. Maybe this was what happened when you didn’t follow the rules. You got to stay home alone and use the stove. It blew my mind.
My mother picked me up and cryptically asked me how the night had been. Looking back, I realize that she probably had a feeling it would be an experience staying with Misty, although I doubt she knew how much of an experience it would be. My parents were far from helicopter parents which is why I have an arsenal of life-changing experiences to refer to. I’m very thankful for that.
I told her everything had been fine and left it at that. I didn’t want to remember the evening, even if it had been euphoric for a time.
Shortly before we pulled into our neighborhood with the precisely manicured yards and the children running through the streets chasing golden retrievers while their parents waved at other neighbors, I told my mom that Misty had never been to Disney World.
Connie seemed nonplussed. “So?” she asked. “Neither have you.”
I still remember the feeling. It was cold and painful. It hurt my stomach. I felt like I’d fallen really hard and had the wind knocked out of me.
“But you have to go,” I spluttered. “It’s the law!”
My mother explained that, basically, I was bat shit crazy. There was no such law. “Why would you take a baby to Disney World?” she mused. “What would you even do with it? Duct tape it to a seat at Space Mountain* and pray for the best?”
That was the first time I started to consider how artificial our lives are. Some of it is because our society plants these ideas into our head about how life should be. Some of it is something we’ve fantasized and struggled in vain to make a reality, if only marginally. All of it is our creation in a way, though. Who are we trying to fool?
Maybe we’re trying to deceive ourselves after all. Maybe that’s the point of life — to mislead yourself until you combust and are forced to face the stark reality.
If that’s true, how much of our current lives are manufactured? And how do you go about figuring out what’s real and what’s not?
And who the fuck would take a baby to Disney World?
*Many years later, my family and I went to Disneyworld. I really enjoyed it there, except for one harrowing experience on Space Mountain. I’m deathly afraid of roller coasters, and I get motion sickness pretty easily. My mother told me it was a kid’s rocket ride. I believed her. This was the beginning of a lifetime’s worth of trust issues involving my mother.