Over Easy: Ignore that man in the photograph, please

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Friday, March 08, 2019

Do me a favor: Avert your eyes from the photo accompanying this column.

No peeking!

I never wanted to see my sorry mug staring back at me from these pages. In real life, such as it is, I scorn selfies, avoid cameras, duck into the back row when there is no reasonable means of escape.

But there was no escaping this. One of the lesser effects of the recent redesign of the Valley News is the use of photo “sigs” accompanying local columns. I know this is a minor matter for readers, who previously could expect to see my photo only if the Lebanon Police arrested me for some major crime, such as felonious failure to signal a lane change on Route 12A or aggravated jaywalking on Main Street.

But for me it was a crisis, provoking a period of mortification and self-reflection. When I got the word that columnists would need photos to accompany their writings (mine used to run with a nifty Shawn Braley drawing of a fountain pen and inkwell that somewhat misrepresented my tools of the trade (I have left Voltaire behind), my heart sank.

Yuck. Ick. Aargh.

I didn’t think I could do it.

An image kept coming to mind, of the sort you used to see in old-time movies: a roaring, racing printing press, churning out newspapers by the dozens, hundreds, thousands. In the movies a banner headline was prominent: “Man Bites Dog!” Or, the next day, “Dog Hires Lawyer!” In my mind I saw thousands of copies of my picture spewing out, and the sight made me queasy.

But why?

This is a question for the ages, or for the West Lebanon Institute on Aging, Self-Image and Selfies. I have had my photo in this newspaper and a couple others before — many years ago. I have seen my photo buried deep in the bins at the landfill, which sort of puts things into perspective.

I never considered myself an Adonis — “all right” would sum up my feelings about my appearance, for me an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. I wouldn’t want to be so ugly as to make women cover their eyes or dogs yelp, but I didn’t need to be Paul Newman or George Clooney.

At 66, I am coming to grips with a particular trend. A few men escape it — the Cary Grants, perhaps — but for most the future looks like Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men, with his doughy, lumpy face and dopey hats. Yelp!

The Almighty or evolution must have a sense of humor, because in men of a certain age the ear lobes keep growing and the nose broadens, a look associated with ogres. Hair pokes out of their ears, apropos of trolls. It’s enough to knock you off the pedestal of youth, if not force you to take up residence under a bridge.

Since I was never vain, something else was in play. It’s not that I’m a print recluse, since I’ve shared details of my life for years in my writings. But that was entirely under my control, and edited.

A photograph, on the other hand, does not go through draft after draft, except in certain magazines where models come down from Photoshop heaven — flawless. For the rest of us, photos state things as plainly as a T-shirt my wife gave me: “It Is What it Is.”

And what it is, at 66, makes me wistful. The skin is becoming a weathered signboard. The salt and pepper hair is all salt now. Extra pounds have settled in. I also seem to have some chicken DNA, judging by what’s happening with my neck.

Photo phobia isn’t entirely age-related. When I took a five-year sabbatical from the Valley News to work for a community hospital, one of my duties was to shoot employee badge photos. Three-quarters of them looked back at the camera with varied amounts of anxiety and dread. “Smile!” I’d say, and they’d try. (A couple said “no.”)

I understand the trepidation. Too toothy a grin and you look like a goofball. Beam even more and you’re a lunatic. Too little and you look like you’re up to something. No grin at all and you have anger problems.

I had other, more professional reservations. When I was a young journalist, reporters wrote first-person essays only when something remarkable happened to them, like surviving a plane crash or falling from a skyscraper into a net. Even then head shots were not prominent. It seems off to me, somehow, to see columnists grinning from the page like old pals.

But mostly, this thought came to me: I’m 66, and I don’t have to do what I don’t want to.

After a lifetime of dutiful acts, that’s a powerful notion that deserves attention.

I delayed filing my column by a week or two, imagining that it would be the talk of the newsroom, if not the town. It was not. My editor asked me if I was late, or if he misremembered the schedule. So much for the biggest labor action since the Great Railroad Strike of 1887.

I dragged my feet some more. It might be time to retire the column, I thought. I actually anguished over it.

Then one day — I don’t know if the sun was shining or the temperature finally rose above freezing — I had a change of heart. “Well, you could just get over yourself,’’ said a small, whimsical voice from somewhere. I wrote to the top editor that a loophole in my Ford Modeling Agency contract would allow me to share an image for editorial uses.

And so my photo is in the paper today. Your reading this far constitutes an implied agreement not to look at it.

I’m still not crazy about the photo, and I’m not asking readers to reassure me that it looks fine.

I think it looks all right, allowing for a readjustment of standards accounting for the passage of time. The situation is not ideal, but adjusting for the passage of time seems to be a major life lesson in this age of mine.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.