February 26th, 2006

Lottery winners, the camera, and the mirror

The other day I happened to be catch part of the Powerball winners’ interview on TV.

I missed the beginning, so I didn’t hear all them speak. But I thought those I did hear were very impressive. There were eight winners, co-workers from a meat-processing plant in heartland flyover country, Nebraska.

Three are immigrants, two from Vietnam and one from central Africa. One of the Vietnamese immigrants said simply, when asked about his motives for emigrating, “I came here to be free.”

Several of the winners had habitually worked about seventy hours a week in the plant; no doubt, that will change (some had already quit by the time of the interview). Working in a meat packing plant for seventy hours a week sounds like a punishing job, although many spoke of liking their fellow-workers. I listened to about five of the interviews, and the winners I heard sounded remarkably relaxed–so much so that they drew gales of laughter for their humor–as well as articulate, poised, and very levelheaded, especially considering their about-to-be transformed lives.

It’s one of those stories that seems to be a combination of the human dream and the American dream, and somehow it’s not just about money. It’s about hardworking people getting lucky, and trying to keep their heads on straight. I get the impression that these particular people will do just fine; I certainly hope so.

But another thing that struck me (and which has nothing to do with the lottery) is how comfortable people have become in front of a camera. One day you’re a worker on the assembly line in a meat-packing plant, the next day you’re at a full-court-press press conference in front of America and the world? No sweat–just open up your mouth and talk.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was a kid, the older generation didn’t even feel comfortable talking on the telephone, especially long distance. Terse and tense, their conversations were the equivalent of Civil War era photos in which the people posed, stiff and rigid. Long distance calls cost a lot of money back then, not just in relative terms but in absolute terms–at least twenty-five cents a minute, and often a great deal more. So a long-distance phone call was usually just a way to hear a person’s voice; and then, over and out.

When my boyfriend went to Vietnam back in the late 60s, letters were pretty much the only means of communications, and delivery was sporadic and chancy. No e-mail of course, but even no telephones. For a year–his entire dangerous tour of duty, when he was in the thick of things–I only spoke to him once, and that was when he called me unexpectedly from Australia, where he’d gone for his R&R. Our one-hour conversation may have cost him a hundred dollars or so, to the best of my recollection (not that he much cared; what difference did it make at that point?). Expensive thought it was, it seemed nothing short of miraculous to be able to have a telephone conversation with someone halfway round the world.

Do you remember the first home telephone answering machines? There was a time when they were rare. Then they became common, but it still took a while for people to get used to them. At the beginning, I tended to freeze whenever I encountered one, nervously trying to frame my message, unaccustomed to being recorded. Now the words usually flow in a relaxed little monologue, including quips and conversational asides.

In the audio/visual realm, first there were home movies (already quite well-established in my childhood, but rare, expensive, and short). Then sound came into the picture, and then home videos. At first, people would pose for home movies as though for the still camera, especially older people–they had to be reminded to move around, that this was a move-ie– and then, later, to speak.

Then there was the first time I saw and heard myself on videotape. It was on TV, of all things, on a show entitled “It’s Academic,” a sort of College Bowl-type quiz show for New York City high school students. I was the only girl on the show that day, and I wore a red suit and heels (we used to dress up back then). I was the literature expert on my high school’s team, and I fulfilled the purpose for which I was chosen: I got all the lit questions right, although we ended up losing. And then I got to go home and watch myself a week or two later–but only once, and in black-and-white. There were no video recorders back then, so it was all ephemeral, and I didn’t really identify with the person on the screen, who seemed a stranger.

About seven years passed before I saw myself on video again. This time I was in graduate school, taking a course in interviewing techniques. Bulky and elaborate videotape equipment had been set up by the professor in a special room, and we had to team up with a partner from the class and then go to the room and interview each other while we were recorded. The video session lasted about a half hour, and my friend and I got so into our conversation that after a few minutes we forgot that the camera was running and acted fairly natural.

So for the very first time I got to see myself as others see me–at least, somewhat, although in two dimensions only. I was surprised to find I seemed a bit different that what I’d always pictured in my mind’s eye–friendlier, more relaxed, not displaying whatever tension I felt inside.

Home videos came much later. At first they were a novelty, then we all got used to them. Then they became a bore, much too much of a good thing. The cute kids–subject of most of the videos–grew up, and after that no one was all that eager to document the advance of wrinkles and sag in the parents.

But the permanent legacy of it all is that virtually everyone seems comfortable in front of a camera now. Still another legacy is that we’re much more acutely aware of the aging process. That’s a function of the ubiquity of cameras (digitals make it ever easier to take more and more photos, and to distribute them to more and more people, who seem to care less and less about seeing them).

I imagine the days when there were no cameras, and the only way to chart the process of age in oneself was through memory. Did recollection accentuate the gap–”oh, I used to be so beautiful, and now look at me”? Or did it smooth things over–”I still don’t look half bad, even though I’m older; I really haven’t changed that much”?

Either way, however, there was no need–and no way–to confront the actual evidence of what one’s younger self had looked like, as we now can do so easily through the mechanism of photos. Painted portraits were only for the few back then, and the more wealthy, and of course they lied. Photos lie also, but ordinarily much less (for example, the snapshots we’ve saved from our youth are the more flattering ones, and so the gap between past and present becomes even wider).

Our current obsession with looks and youth is partly a human constant; most societies value such things, although standards of what is beautiful may differ. But in modern life, it’s been exacerbated by all the ways we can remind ourselves of what used to be. Narcissus, after all, had only a pool of water in which to see his reflection, but still it drove him mad and led to his death. Crossing the river Styx, his shade bent down to try to glimpse its reflection in the waters. I wonder what it saw there.

12 Responses to “Lottery winners, the camera, and the mirror”

  1. douglas Says:

    Steve, there’s a difference between caring about how one looks and vanity, but I guess from where you stand, it’s all to one side of the spectrum…that’s called a perspective problem.

    Video blogging? No thanks. How do you ‘preview’ video blogging?

  2. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I have previously made the argument that the Renaissance got its liftoff in Northern Italy in the late 13th C, because of the great improvement in Venetian mirrors. Not only could the wealthy and educated see themselves more clearly — and often, but thousand of people in the glass trade got to see themelves at least infrequently.

    We literally saw ourselves in a new way.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    What you of the CHOAM directorate seem unable to understand is that you seldom find real loyalties in commerce. When did you last hear of a clerk giving his life for the company? Perhaps your deficiency rests in the false assumption that you can order men to think and cooperate. This has been a failure of everything from religions to general staffs throughout history. General staffs have a long record of destroying their own nations. As to religions, I recommend a rereading of Thomas Aquinas. As to you of CHOAM, what nonsense you believe! Men must want to do things out of their own innermost drives. People, not commercial organizations or chains of command, are what make great civilizations work. Every civilization depends upon the quality of the individuals it produces. If you over-organize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness — they cannot work and their civilization collapses.
    -A letter to CHOAM, Attributed to The Preacher

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Steve-”I generally ignore my appearance because I know in 100 years I’m going to look just terrible.”
    That’s cute, but incredibly selfish.

    One man’s unselfishness is another man’s vanity. – Steve

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Just as an aside…In college we tried to improve our interviewing skills by teaming up with a classmate and going through a set of interview questions, then we would review the tape in class. When my firend and I came to the question about special skills we decided to have the interviewee say yes and then stop the videotape and have him step out of the picture then turn on the tape and announce that he could make himself invisible. We got pretty good laughs and even made a boring day interesting for some.

  6. douglas Says:

    Oh, and Neo, that was one beautifully crafted post.

  7. douglas Says:

    Steve-”I generally ignore my appearance because I know in 100 years I’m going to look just terrible.”
    That’s cute, but incredibly selfish. When you go out in public, people have to look at you, and what do you communicate to them? ‘I don’t give a rats ass about you, I’M saving my energy for things more important to ME.’ Appeatance matters in the social discourse- well except here. It’s akin to saying ‘I don’t care to use proper grammar when I speak in public, because it doesn’t really say anything about me and it’s too much trouble.

  8. jng Says:

    Am I just an image?

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    Those civil war photoees have a right to be stiff, since presumably they need to stand still for a minute for the exposure to set.

    I’d be stiff too if I had to stand in front of a camera and do the freeze.

  10. camojack Says:

    Having worked on a dozen movies and a number of commercials, cameras are just one more thing to which I’ve grown accustomed.

    Me, and millions of others…

  11. Ron Says:

    Yes, but on the other hand, recording makes things last longer culturally. At one point a song or other artistic creation that was 20, 30, 40 years was viewed as ancient, because it only existed in one’s memory. We watch — and quote! — Casablanca on a regular basis, even though it’s now 60 years old! This is so true with so many things…

  12. Steve Says:

    I think it’s very true that people are less self-conscious in front of a microphone or camera but I don’t really know why.

    Having taped myself periodically over the past 40 years I would say that the difference between your voice as it is recorded vs as it sounds to you when speaking is dramatic.

    Videotape is also enlightening, but to me less dramatic, although I have been watching my bald spot grow everytime I go to a liquor store for the past 20 years ….

    Obsession with looks strikes both genders but it is stronger for a woman because in society a woman’s looks are a social/romantic/relationship entre. It may be sexist but there it is.

    I generally ignore my appearance because I know in 100 years I’m going to look just terrible.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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