July 11, 2016
It’s a glorious day on PCH in Malibu when I spy a senior couple standing roadside, facing heavy traffic, the blue Pacific to their backs, smiling into their cell phone–or is it a “self” phone?—to take the now inevitable selfie. I want to honk my horn, they’re too old for such nonsense! They’re supposed to still cherish standing at the continent’s edge, gazing at the ocean’s infinite expanse, then into each other’s eyes, before asking a kind stranger to take their picture. Such are the moments memories are made of. Selfies, I want to shout, just mark the spot where memories belong!
Not long after I saw those folks, I was nearly run over in a super market by a selfie-stick wielding entourage. Four people moved as a single unit, stopping frequently in the aisles to hoist, like a flag, their “narcissistick.” It was as if they were afraid they’d forget what they looked like before they hit the exit. Bumping into shoppers and blocking paths, they walked about with the selfie-important air of celebrities being followed by a camera crew. Only they, like a dog chasing its tail, were following themselves.
The Me Generation has become the Selfie Culture. Kim Kardashian’s selfie book, Selfish, was a bestseller. Hundreds of millions of selfies are posted to Instagram. The current presidential race is being called the Selfie Election, as the candidates grin cheek-side with voters where they once made eye contact or talked real issues. Okay, at least they made eye contact. The Pope sweetly poses for selfies, while our current president gleefully wields a selfie-stick. Meanwhile, people have died taking selfies, a grim reality that not long ago had the Russian government issue a selfie safety guide.
My particular selfie sadness has to do with the way these single-handed photo shoots separate us from others, especially while traveling. I have fond memories of asking or being asked to take pictures by strangers in a strange place. The results invariably got a decent full-length shot of me and a good measure of setting, not mostly my grinning mug. Faces loom largest in selfies and pleasant accidental social encounters need never apply.
Recently, I passed a trail sign announcing entry to the John Muir Wilderness. A young woman stood next to it holding a selfie stick up for her and three friends. Every ounce counts in a backpack and that stick would be with her the entire trek. Asking a delightful stranger, like moi, to take their picture weighed nothing and might have lightened their spirits along with their load. Instead, we didn’t even make eye contact.
Just the year before, while solo on the same trail, I reached the goal of a high mountain pass. A nearby stranger agreed to take my picture, I detected a European accent and learned about her group’s American West tour. Our meeting expanded my horizons as much as the mountain view and the resulting shot included a dramatic before-the-storm-broke sky better than any cramped selfie could.
That’s not to say that selfies don’t have their place. My all time favorite is of the monkey gazing warmly into a stolen camera lens, proving such self-regard to be a primal urge. Even I have occasionally done the selfie thing, starting in 1998 with my husband in New York’s Central Park. Selfie pioneers, we stood at a lake’s edge as he held our camera at arm’s length. Our hard smiling faces crowd the frame like scary adults bearing down on a baby’s crib, obliterating the entire world going on behind us. Scraps of blue water and green trees claw, as if for air, at the edge of the frame. Our over-amped ebullience was so silly I made an oil painting of it. The title, lest we forget where it was taken, is On The Lake.
I don’t know what happened to the actual photo, but the sight of the painting always makes me smile. One of these days I may even post it to Instagram. Until then, that will be me you hear in the wilderness, one of the last of a nearly extinct breed of stranger, asking passers by “excuse me, would you mind taking my picture?”