reality is weirder than you think

Tag: the lie that tells the truth (page 1 of 2)

That fine line between beautiful and useful

You’d never know there was an upside to a housefire.

That upside, for me, is salvage furniture that’s wasn’t damaged, but is written off my insurance. Apparently they sell it–for cheap–which makes it an idea place to find affordable, quality furniture.

I’m now the owner of a Restoration Hardware couch, which I bought for $200. Yes, please.

One of the pieces that I looked at was a beautiful coffee table, brass with a wood burl veneer on top. It was exquisite. New, it cost $3000. Fire salvage, $250.

An absolute steal.

But would I use it? I need a coffee table. Does it fit with my couch and the other furniture that I have? Or would it be difficult to work around? Being that much more “nice” than everything else I have could be a detriment, because by comparison everything else would look shabby.

I would have had to design an entirely new life to fit in around that coffee table, one where I artfully drink coffee on Saturday mornings and have decorative objects picked up from my latest trip to Borneo clumped artfully on my fireplace mantle. (Problem: my apartment doesn’t have a fireplace.)

Yes, the coffee table was a great deal monetarily. I have my doubts on whether or not it was a great deal in terms of lifestyle and context.

It was beautiful, but not for me. Not right now at least. Sometimes you have to know when to admire and let go.

That used to be difficult for me. I would want to become that new person who lives that life in which the coffee table (or the blouse) makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve started to realize that there’s only one person that I can be (me), and if external trappings don’t help me to become more fully that person, they don’t belong in my life.

No matter how beautiful, if an object isn’t useful–both in an absolute context and relative to other objects that you already own–it’s effectively worthless. It makes me sad to think about that coffee table in this way, because the craftsmanship was so good, but it doesn’t make sense in the context of my life right now.

I could be wrong. Maybe I’ll wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow morning because I didn’t buy that gorgeous coffee table.

But I doubt it.

If you have to make a pro/con list you’re trying too hard

After months of looking and weeks of trying, I found an apartment today. One that I have the option to sign for 6 months, even though I’d be willing to go for a full year.

I sign the lease tomorrow.

How long did it take me to make that decision? About 10 minutes.

All the other places that I looked at are listed on a whiteboard in my Airbnb, pro-and-con’d within an inch of their lives.

This one has a great interior but the rent is really expensive. That one has the space that I’m looking for but the front window looks into the recycling center. This other one has a gas stove and beautiful light fixtures, but let’s be honest, it’s way more space than I need or could use.

If I narrowed the decision, and made it “that apartment versus keep looking for apartments,” the latter won every time.

None were the apartment that I wanted.

The decision to pick any of the was difficult.

Then I found “the one” (even though I don’t believe in “the one”).

Sure, this new one has an event center next door with unknown levels of partying, and a view that’s pretty terrible, and a busy street outside, but it had every other major thing I was looking for, plus a certain charm of its own. The kind of alchemy that reflects the “soul” of a space.

This decision? Easy.

Maybe it was the byproduct of having looked at so many options that I knew what was out there, what was worth jumping on, and what is realistically in my price range.

Maybe it was choice fatigue (but I doubt it).

Maybe this landlord was especially persuasive (he wasn’t).

This place was clearly the best.

The moral of this story is that pro/con lists are only useful when you have to make decisions between a bunch of sub-optimal choices.

When there’s one clear winner, you know it.

Don’t lie to yourself.

Go for it.



I picked up The Perfectly Imperfect Home today:

For instance, picture yourself in a photo spread from a magazine like Dwell. You’re sitting with a nice cup of tea on, say, an Eames chair that floats alone on an expanse of concrete floor in front of a fire burning in a square cut into the drywall. Interesting? Sure. Cozy? Not so much. Minimalism is single-dimension decorating. Cozifiers add layers.

Cozy decorating was perfected by the English in the postwar era. The ideal of faded chintzes, comfortable armchairs, lots of soft pillows, and flowers and books everywhere exudes the glorious imperfection that is the essence of English country-house style. Yet, like perfectly mussed hair, it is quite calculated. Its devil-may-care attitude of tossed pillows and seemingly haphazard pattern combinations is a bit of a lie, but one that in the telling becomes true. In other words, cozifications create a home that looks loved and lived-in, which in turn creates a home that is loved and lived-in.

First, there’s the contrast between the traditional and the modern. “English Country House” might be the quintessence of traditional architecture and decor. Modernism is not cozy. It’s not designed to be cozy. It will never be cozy. Modernism wants you uncomfortable.

Second, the cozy approach uses the same “lie that tells the truth” that fiction does, and civilization. By cheating a bit at first, and providing a gloss of truth, cozy decor creates a space that invites the actual thing to take place. Maybe we could term it “preemptive truth telling,” that goes ahead of actual, practical, detail-oriented truth and in fact provides an opportunity to the truth-in-fact to spring into being.

I’d rather be…

I don’t smoke, but I’d rather be doing this than what I’m doing today.

Love this drawing by Ginger Haze.

Normally I hate Lord of the Rings alternative universe reimaginings, but this one seems both faithful to the book and imaginative (rather than full of gratuitous fanservice).

Anyway, today is the day I get paid to pretend to be an extrovert for 24-hours straight.

I’m going to pretend that I’m Galadriel instead.

I hate that I love WORTH IT

It’s Buzzfeed.

I hate that I love something produced by Buzzfeed.

But if we’re talking about interesting content, delightful comedic timing, and camerawork that is becoming quite beautiful…

…this is worth it.

(Shut up.)

Andrew is the perfect carmudgeonly foil to Steven’s enthusiasm, and Adam’s rare interjections provide both structure to the video (they tend to signal the end of a segment) and some additional heft. The contrast between Andrew’s knowledge (or his facade of knowledge) and Steven’s newbie energy can sometimes make it hard to tell what the actual outcome of a tasting is — especially with an over-the-top truffle-related or gold-plated food — so Adam’s verdict helps ground all the funny comments in reality.

In this episode, we can see production values getting better. There’s foreshadowing (cows and their ambient mooing) for the next video, a joke with a early-timestamp setup and mid-timestamp payoff, and some truly gorgeous cinematography. Good work, Adam.

Some of the expensive foods make me cringe, because they so clearly focus on price and ostentation instead of quality food. For example, in the NYC pizza episode, the mid-priced pizza was handmade by Mario Batali, who spoke about the history and metaphysics of why truly good food is so delicious. Meanwhile, the high-priced pizza looked like a flea market of flashy ingredients, designed as a honeypot to trick investment bankers out of their money.

Truly, this show demonstrates that quality is not always tied to price.

Quality is tied to love, to care, to skin in the game.

On putting things in boxes

Lately I’ve been feeling like all I do is put things into boxes, both physical objects or conceptual entities.

My day job involves administration and people — lots of administration, lots of people — and yet it still feels like most of what I do is classifying information, sorting things, and putting stuff in boxes. Or if I’m lucky, lists.

Data goes in little spreadsheet boxes.

Event RSVPs go into their lists (numbered, of course).

Responses from an investigative interview get sorted and categorized.

Planning ideas get dissected nine ways from Sunday and assigned dates and executors, flayed out like butterflies held down with pins.

And even when I get home, I’m looking to move soon, which means packing up my physical belongings and putting them in literal boxes.

It’s exhausting.

I’m the type of person who likes to make connections. I like music that crosses genres, and things that are hard to describe. I’m very comfortable with things NOT fitting in boxes, with the ambiguity of unclassified data.

(There’s a reason I like Beethoven so much more than Mozart.)

It’s good to classify things. Classification is necessary to guide communication and clarify thoughts and ideas. But sometimes ideas need to breath and run free.

When my own instinct is to run free, it’s exhausting for me to toil at chasing those things down and put them in boxes. I’d rather be out there with them.

But a society can’t function when everything is running free. Sometimes we need boxes — like, say, a wall — to create order and delineate concepts.

There’s a balance. I suspect that balance leans more toward “things in boxes” than “things running free,” but that is part of the price we pay for a civilized society where everyone uses the same language and the same social conventions.

We have to save running free for our own time.

So getting paid to put things in boxes is probably just good practice on how to be a good citizen. We sacrifice a little of our personal freedom to use the same types of boxes our fellow citizens use, so that we can have common ground.

That’s the ideal, at least.

4 artists, 1 tree

[Trigger warning: Disney]

Back in the days when Disney wasn’t (as) evil, they produced this video about artists working production of Sleeping Beauty. It covers just as much about the nature of art as it does about the nature of teamwork on such a big project.

There are so many things to say about this piece.

Often there’s this perception that as an artist you must always have your own voice and always strike out on your own trail. Obviously this is a propaganda piece from Disney (it’s as much of an job advertisement than anything — yo, young guys who might be interested in art, it’s okay you can keep your identity and we want you to be the best artist you can possibly be but also Disney is a really great place to work join the army), but it’s important to think about artists working on such a huge project as a hand-animated movie. Every artists, from the character designers to the background artists, has to subsume his own personal style and quirks to the greater whole. The animation style has to be reproducible by all of the artists, not just one guy, so nobody gets a monopoly on design.

At the same time, there’s the sense of camaraderie, of people pulling together to work on something that’s bigger than each of them. I’m reminded of artisans working on cathedrals, or the reasons people give when they join the army. Walt Disney’s narration takes a similar view: “This entire operation puts one in mind of a symphony orchestra, where men who are good enough to be soloists in their own right are thinking only of the effect they are producing on the whole.”

While the movie is a visually stunning and cohesive end product, there’s the vast differences between each man’s individual styles. Some of the end products are very 50s looking, but that’s okay. You have the architectural/structure guy, the 3D/form guy, the personality guy, and the detail guy. You can see their strengths in the individual art they produce, and can see how those strengths would be of benefit when they all combined as a group.

Marc Davis

Character Animator (refining the ideal character in motion)
Tree as explosion of force – reorganized into its most decorative aspect


Eyvind Earle

Production Designer
Tree as a microcosm of the richness and variety of nature
“Portrait of a trunk”


Josh Meador

Supervising Effects Animator (magic fairy dust)
Tree as a living thing, full of personality


Walt Peregoy

Background Artist
Tree as engineering, structure

Personally, I find it fitting that they’re working on Sleeping Beauty, which I find to be the most beautiful of all animated Disney movies. The backgrounds (especially the animated backgrounds!) are one of my very favorite things, and the “dueling fairy dust” scene is one that I can distinctly remember watching as a child. Since there are no coincidences, of the four artworks produced in the making of this film, I favored the study of the tree trunk painted by the background scenery artist.

On a technical note, I appreciate how the script was written to both give the reader a sense of conversation, but also to explicate and narrate each artist’s focus and process. The end result does sound hokey (because it’s neither natural conversation nor a polished voiceover) but despite that it kept me engaged. Kind of a peek behind the curtain of how everyone worked together as a team, with complementary thought patterns in addition to art styles.

This is the best kind of “behind the scenes” production. It gives insight into the process of making the movie, highlights some of the people who do the work, and allows Disney to explain some of their philosophy of art. Plus, it’s interesting to watch.

The Power of Glamour: A Book Review

I have a rocky relationship with the concept of glamour.

On the one hand, “glamour” has the allure of glimmering lights, sexy satin dresses and sumptuous indulgence. As a young girl growing up in the ballet, I loved the contrast between the gritty concrete of backstage and the shining lights and velvet chairs in the front of the house.

On the other, I did a lot of reading on magic and rhetoric back in my school days which introduced me to the concept of glamour in magic–the idea that one could effectively bewitch someone into seeing something that wasn’t there. Applied sophistry, if you will.

Then, of course, there’s Glamour magazine, one of the trashier but still classy mainstream fashion magazines. I rarely read Glamour, even back when I was really into fashion magazines. It was one step up from Cosmo…but that’s not saying much.

With all that in my head, I had no idea what to expect from a book called The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Oh, I was certainly intrigued by a book that promised to talk about visual persuasion that was not written by a stuffy academic, but there are quite a few fashion-type books that promise a lot but deliver very little. Most fashion people are people- or thing-oriented, not idea-oriented, so their books tend to focus on the what, not the why or the how.

That is not the case for this book. Author Virginia Postrel is an idea person, and she delves into deconstructing the concept of glamour and what it entails, rather than simply defining it in stylistic terms and distracting us with a lot of pretty pictures. (That is not to say that there aren’t a bunch of pretty pictures, because there are. I’m very glad I bought a hard copy of this book, because some of the photos are well worth staring at in print.) She explores the idea of glamour in various ways, and traces it through history to show the ways in which it has influenced humanity (even before the word itself was invented).

Glamour is not charisma (a personal characteristic) or romance (which implies hardship) or spectacle (which inspires awe). Glamour isn’t something one can be born with, or can purchase. Instead, glamour is much, much more.

Glamour is not a product or style but a form of communication and persuasion. It depends on maintaining exactly the right relationship between object and audience, imagination and desire.

Glamour is an effective rhetorical tool, which can be bent to the desires of the person wielding it. The effective use of glamour harnesses our desires to see what we want to see, which is often a heightened, non-real version of the world, or a “reality distortion field.” By focusing attention on what isn’t strictly Real, glamour is “always suspect” as Postrel points out, because it draws our attention away from honesty and transparency.

As I read past the definition and history of glamour into the section in which Postrel writes about its implications in the modern world, I started getting really antsy. There were a lot of connections forming around the edges of my mind, building up like clouds before a thunderstorm, of glamour and where the world has found itself. Of why, perhaps, the world has seemingly gone mad. Of why someone like Donald Trump, who surrounds himself by the trappings of glamour but who is not bound by them (case in point: his hair–not glamourous in the least), was elected President of the United States.

What we tend to think of as glamour is solidified in the trappings of the 1930s; Hollywood glamour, art-deco, and movies like Metropolis. Postrel draws a tight parallel between glamour and the Modernism of the early 20th century–the allure of central planning, globalism, and the shiny, sexy, atheist utopia.

All glamour is escapist, but not all escapism is glamour. The escape that glamour offers is of a particular type. Glamour is a way of “see what is not there,” not simply forgetting what is there. Although glamour does provide immediate pleasure, it doesn’t numb or distract desire. To the contrary, it intensifies longings by giving them an object. Glamour thus implies and fosters hope, from individual aspiration to collective utopian dreams.

To me, then, either glamour is in bed with the forces within history that are trying to draw our world into one centralized, pre-planned horror show, or those forces have done a stellar job of harnessing the power of glamour to propagandize for their own purposes. The fact that Postrel herself uses Barack Obama as an example of glamour, indicates that the latter is true. To further support that theory, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine, does her best to glamorize favored candidates like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. But is that to say that the Left is inherently glamourous? Or does it depend on glamour to stay alive?

On a more practical note, this book is useful both to understand the glamour in the world around us, and as a guidebook for bending glamour for our own purposes. I’ve enjoyed watching Mike Cernovich step up his style game this summer after he read and recommended this book. Idea people tend to dismiss artifice as unnecessary, even though the visual elements of persuasion are just as important as the ideas and worlds encapsulated in those visual elements.

The right pair of sunglasses, for example, are key:

Glamourous sunglasses, after all, highlight as well as veil. They call attention to the face, most of which remains visible, and even the darkest lenses allow a hint of eye to show every now and then, when the light is just right. (Mirror shades, by contrast, are less glamourous than intimidating.)

Good visual style, then, is as much about the ideas behind the style as it is about the next “must have” sunglasses or newest, hottest designer. Glamour can be cultivated in one’s look, posture, hair, clothes, style of speaking, and also in the words one uses–the picture one paints of the future.

Glamour is an extremely powerful tool that it seems we can’t live without, even though it focuses our desires away from what is real. We need hope and desire in our lives–what else would drive us forward?–and most of us are intelligent enough to understand where the fantasy ends and where reality begins.

Does that reconcile for me the problems with glamour? Is glamour rescued from its associations with sophistry and deception? Short answer, no. Glamour is alluring, but will always be suspect, because truth is hard enough to find on this earth without extra layers of perception getting in the way.

If used right, it could be the ultimate “lie that tells the truth.”

Go read The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion

Do you matter? (It’s a good question)

And that question is: did the person who posted these signs really think about what she was doing? I’m going to assume it was a she.

I keep imagining the story behind these signs. It’s probably some well-meaning SJW type, or an overly earnest do-gooder. She just wants to make people feel better, like they matter, because truly in her heart of hearts she just loves every everybody in the whole wide world. And that guy had these signs left over from the last protest and let’s put them out on the fence for the whole world to see and remember that they are loved.

When earnestness overtakes logistics: a cautionary tale.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how you read it or how it was intended, but what really matters is which message you take away, like the pithy saying version of a rorschach test, or that old lady/young lady illusion drawing (personally I usually see the young lady).

It’s a good reminder, at least, that 1. despite our best intentions, what we intend to communicate doesn’t always come across, and 2. people can look at exactly the same thing and come to two (or possibly more) completely contradictory conclusions about it.

People usually see exactly what they want to see. No more, no less.

That makes it difficult to assess real, true judgements of things, because I see what I want to see just as much as everybody else, despite the fact that I endeavor to see things as they really are.

On the other hand, we can use it to our advantage, like creating and exploiting a good reputation.

Just bear in mind that there will always be someone who comes along and reads side-to-side instead of up and down.

The photographer on our side

Hey! It’s not a total hitpiece! Various digs aside, there’s a decent article this week in the Failing New York Times about Peter Duke, a photographer who is sympathetic to the alt-right and alt-lite.

Duke believes in the primacy of visual culture, and most right-wing figures, he says, don’t take enough care to make themselves look good. Newt Gingrich, he tells me, is “disheveled”; Steve Bannon is a “schlub”; Trump’s hair is “problematic.” At the same time, he thinks left-leaning media outlets — which is to say, just about anything other than Breitbart News and The Drudge Report — go out of their way to present the right in a negative way.

To prove his point, Duke edited a photo of the author in the same way that news outlets do to right-wing people. The NYT conveniently left it out of the final article, but Duke helpfully posted it to twitter. 

Personally I kinda like the edited version better. Apparently I like people to look “ghoulish and depleted,” but I think it has more depth, and therefore more interest. Frankly, the author looks more interesting in Duke’s edited photo, and more like a standard-issue beta male in the “normal” one.

It is true, though, that most right-wing political figures don’t present themselves in a visually compelling way. Milo and Ann Coulter aside, most talking heads seems to think that their ideas will stand on their own merit, with no assistance needed from the ethos of the speaker.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.

“There’s this kind of, I think, phony idea that things are objective — when you push the button, that’s the objective reality, and I just don’t think that’s true,” Duke told me, not long ago, on our early evening walk along the bluffs. Duke sees photography as a kind of weapon in the culture wars, and in a way, it may be the perfect medium for a movement like the alt-right, which wants to refashion reality on its own terms. Pictures are, after all, factually malleable vessels that do not present reality as it is but suggest an alternative one as the photographer sees it.

This is the second time in the article that the author insists that the alt-right is creating alternative versions of things (which is true) because the alt-right’s version of reality isn’t true. This is completely false. The alt-right is more aligned with objective reality than the NYC liberal bubble, but to those (like the author) inside that bubble, it doesn’t feel that way.

A photograph can be a “lie that tells the truth,” or it can be 100% deception. Without sympathetic photographers, who know how to wield angles, light, composition and photoshop to our best advantage, the right wing, in any of its forms, is at a severe disadvantage. I’m glad we have Duke on our side. There is much to learn from him.

I must disagree with Duke slightly, though. I think Trump’s hair is genius.

But that is another post for another day.

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