Sunday, June 28, 2009


This week I’ve been thinking about “choices,” in particular the either/or choices that seem to be everywhere, both politically and personally, and the human demand to somehow find a way to have both alternatives, whether it’s a governor who wants both his prestigious life and his secret lover or a nation that wants an end to recession without having to spend zillions of dollars. That’s the framework of my inability to answer the question asked by a photographer who seems to be coming to Heart Butte in an attempt to see something “real, true and authentic” and wants me to tell her how to go about that. I suspect that her fantasy is that she will find picturesque and either noble or touching scenes of Indians, which she intends to sell, to enhance her own standing.

In fact, I’m seeing in many of these cases that same hidden choice, which is to promote one’s own interests. This morning the Sunday magazine section of the paper tells us Jada Pinkett Smith wants us to know her “true self” in all its intimate depths. Impossible in the first place and she’d better think twice in the second place. Maybe Will Smith likes her the way she is, but what makes us think that we will? Could any of us withstand public knowledge of our intimate “true” selves?

Anyway, what can “true” possibly mean in terms of identity? What is the “true” nature of Native Americans when -- like every other functioning human being -- they vary in response to time and place. The media, by pretending to present reality, fixes in our minds a picture of life that cannot be true. Sometimes that’s destructive. The Heart Butte kids firmly believe that all the rest of America lives like sit com people and that there are only two choices in life: to be like Heart Butte or to be like a sit com sim-suburb.

Obviously there are at least two strategies for keeping control of impossible choices when neither one of them is obviously happy. The first is whether there really are only two choices. A subset is whether they really are mutually exclusive. Generating many alternatives and strategies is a good thing, even if one doesn’t get any more clear-headed about what to do. It’s pretty predictable that the situation will change shape as you accumulate more information, other opinions, interactions between the two choices. Compromise. Obama is becoming Mr. Compromise, which worries some people because they see they see reality as always insisting on one of two clear alternatives, or surrendering. The biggest change between Bush and Obama is not between conservative and liberal but between intransigence and negotiation. And yet Bush was famous in his pre-presidential business years (not particularly successful) for boldly insisting on everything and then quietly settling for a lot less.

Kids in their senior year think they must make a choice between college and jobs without ever working through the alternatives like community college, jobs that lead to education, internships, work/study and a host of other strategies. They seem to have a lot of trouble withstanding the anxiety that’s generated by having to explore a field of unlimited possibilities. Often the adults around them are no better at it. The strategy that has worked for the entire lives of many of these kids is to DEMAND that the adults solve problems for them, make the world do what they want, and pick up the tab as well. This is the strategy of tribes and the strategy of many of their constituents. It works just often enough to be reinforced with small results, while confusing the big picture.

Sometimes the world shifts in a way that happily resolves a difficult choice. I worried a bit over having to choose between a little village and a big city for the decades of retirement. The Internet has so thoroughly brought city and university activities like scholarly research and discourse to any point on the globe that all I’ve had to give up is shopping. Well, of course, I could do that online, too, but it’s not quite the same as wandering Powells. I can buy more books online than I could find at Powells, plus I still have access to Powells. As for the obscure fine arts movies I love, Netflix is up to it. (People entering the post office with their own red envelopes see mine and ask, "What did you watch?" When I tell them, they say, "Never heard of it.")

There’s something more in this craving to “know” and “be known.” More than just the silliness of setting up two such categories. We seem to have a yearning for intimacy without having to let ourselves be known. Consider Governor Sanford, poor man. I think all that public rambling was the real him, hoping that people could see him. All the journalists got out of it was that he wasn’t smart enough to produce a sound bite that would get him off the hook. We’re all anxious to know the “real truth” about Michael Jackson’s death and the crash of the airliner over the ocean. We seem to feel we have an entitlement and it had better be “good” in the sense of fiction having a satisfying composed ending. Impossible. We want to be the only ones who know the true exclusive story, as though it gives us some superiority and as though anything in the media could be "exclusive." What’s the inside deal on that over-the-top raid on suicidal Mormon geezers who dig up Indian artifacts? We seem to think it gives us some control. But it doesn’t.

I’m working my way slowly through the MI-5 series as a backup while I wait for Netflix to find more scarce movies on my list. The big preoccupation on MI-5 is the tension between knowing and not-knowing. They are charged with British domestic intelligence and authorized to kill if necessary to preserve secrecy and safety. The scriptwriters always frame it in choices, often resolved either by chance or by generating a new alternative that changes everything. They don’t address health insurance or global warming, but they’ve picked up a lot of other major issues like the moving of nuclear materials across populated areas and the underfunding of the military complex -- or it it underfunding? Still, the subplot is always intimate relationships, whether they can be maintained in the face of secrecy or whether they would be destroyed by disclosure. Should one form domestic partnerships within the workplace? Or does that provide too many conflicting and distracting choices to be intelligently managed?

I’ve said I’d like a better sound track for my life. But I could use a good scriptwriter sometimes. Even as I sit here and invent my own scripts, wrestling with story choices, and wondering what to say to a photographer who thinks she can just ask someone how to find the “real, true and authentic.” How does she find it where she is? What makes her think it’s any different here? What makes her think I know, or that it’s knowable. Isn’t she just flying to Argentina, in reality not knowing whether she’s going to either a lover or an ocean disaster?


prairie mary said...

Are you referencing me in this post?? I'm not a photographer. I am a publicist for very well known Grammy winning rap artists. I could veryneasily do the whole music business fabulous bubble thing for vacation likengo to the Hamptons or go to St. Barth's but I choose to visit America, as I have been, alone and extensively, since 1997. When people ask me what to do
in NYC if they want "real true and authentic" - I don't assume it's for some exploitative reasons or to reinforce stereotypes and "gee they must just be out to make a quick buck and increase their standing" - oh wow, could it be that they are just genuinely curious?? It's merely the difference between
going to 42nd St or 34th St or any place that is obviously "set up" for tourists, instead of doing more local leaning things like village side streets, walking over the bklyn bridge, riding the M20 bus instead of the big red tour buses, a cool neighborhood in one of the 4 other boros. It's really that simple and there is no hidden agenda. And how do I find these
things out - by asking people who are from the area I am going to. How else did I learn all about a small former mining town, called Dora, just northwest of Bham, AL? I passed thru once on am Amtrak trip and what I saw out my window intrigued me so I went online and found some locals. And NO it's not a bunch of cotton picking barefoot toothless snake handling poor
white trash - if that's YOUR idea of the "real, authentic, true" south. It was quite another story altogether and I have remained friends with these folks for many many years. Thru Bobbye's son going thru paralysis, and thru Nat's wife dying of cancer. Same goes for the friends I've made in Houston, Berkeley, Nashville, Chicago, Douglas AZ, and everywhere in between.

So let me ask you -how do YOU find what's "real true and authentic" when you're so busy judging other people and showing us all how "smart" you are? It must be exhausting. Anyway, thanks a bunch for all your help. It's been
very insightful.

(Name withheld)

Actually she's about the fifth one this spring. They're usually French.

Prairie Mary

Diggitt said...

I too wonder about authenticity. Despite living in a New York suburb for 23 years, I still have to shake my head at the city folk who believe that there is something called authenticity that can be captured, especially by a camera. Who know how to be authentic?

Remember Andy Warhol's Kiss? I recall realizing that maybe the movies taught people how to kiss. I wonder whether people kissed certain ways before the movies showed them how people really kiss. Same with casual snapshots. Compare snapshots today with those you can find from a century ago. People are much more self-conscious when a camera appears Everyone bends in toward the center of the frame, and then you get a bunch of pix of bent people all with toothy smiles. Not a nickel's worth of authenticity there!

One of my neighbors imagines himself to be a photographer of authenticity, and it certainly helps that he has family money. His images out of Africa look just like everyone else's images out of Africa.

In 1970, when I first came to NYC, my downstairs neighbor was a child of NYC who had literally never traveled west of the Hudson. She became fascinated by stories of my Ohio home town, and when I had known her about a year, she went home with me for a weekend. She subsequently told a mutual friend, "I went to Ohio expecting to meet simple, kindly, homely local folk. Instead I met Diggitt's parents."

On the other hand I do believe that authenticity is all around us, and within most of us, and the secret is to relax and let it appear. But oh boy, the very last way to find any authenticity in me, for instance, would be to tell me that you are looking for an "authentic" Ohioan or Leo or photographer or divinity student or editor or Hudson Valley resident or elected official. I am all of those things and I am pretty sure I am authentic, but as soon as someone starts looking for the authentic whatever in me, it can no longer be found.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I think EVERYTHING is authentic. Even Trickster, even Old Man Napi is authentic. Maybe at his most authentic when he is foolin' people. His lies are authentic lies :-)

Me? I just like a good story. Even if I have to wait 50 years to hear a good ending. Or at least good enough ;-)