Essays About


The more that models nip and tuck toward perfection, the more boring their beauty becomes. Have we not seen blond hair, spotless skin, implanted breasts, and a 24-inch waist before? Like Plato's eternal Forms, perfection has only one mold from which all copies are cast. Beauty is more alluring with a blemish, because imperfections add uniqueness. A beautiful face with an off-centered smile or oddly-dimpled chin says to the eye, there is only one me. Though beauty ought not to have warts, it ought to have texture. Polished beauty has a quality of mass production, while blemishes provide a patch of particularity to which desire attaches more firmly. No wonder Zeus, the Greeks' most amorous god, preferred mortal girls to goddesses.

Every day, strangers look at our face—our brows, cheeks, lips, and lashes—but all we have ever seen of ourselves, while closing one eye, is the blurry lump of our nose. Were it not for mirrors and photographs, we could not tell if we had Cleopatra's looks or Socrates'. Oddly, we know others better than ourselves, for we observe their reality, but only copies of ourselves.

Faces are like assumptions: we see with them, we do not see them.

At a wedding last weekend, a girl was present whom my wife had not seen since high school and did not recognize at first. Apparently in high school she was rather plain and unremarkable, whereas now, at 26 or 27, she is all elegance and glamour. She is living in Boston as a shoe designer. She wore a black, backless dress with a low, V-shaped front. Her hair was no longer straight and brown but blond and wavy, and she wore it half-up. She had a tan without being too tan. She smiled and talked to her friends and drank a beer and danced often.

The next day, reviewing her old appearance in my wife's high school yearbook, I was surprised by her transformation, for in the old photo it was clearly the same face, and all that seemed to have changed was her hairstyle, her fashion, and her posture (which in the photo was slumped and unconfident). I had trouble deciding whether her high school plainness had masked a beautiful face, or her twenty-something glamour now masks a plain face. I tend to think the former, and if so, it makes me wonder how many other girls may be beautiful incognito.

Had my wife not told me this girl was not always so attractive, I might have guessed it from her demeanor. She acted like someone newly pretty. Girls who have always been pretty strut about like shining goddesses among mortals, aloof and scornful. Woe to the flirtatious male if he is not as gorgeous as she! Woe to any friend who aspires to be more than her mere attendant! The girl at the wedding was too unused to her looks to be arrogant. She evidently retains the fresh memory of her adolescent plainness and is still learning to believe in her new beauty, as if the mirror's reflection and men's attention compete in her self-esteem against the insecurities engrained over years. She hopes, rather than quite believes, in her beauty; her fledging faith craves additional proof. When men smile at her, her sincere and surprised smile seems to say, "then you do find me pretty?"

Have things taken such a turn that the animal, whose reason gives it a claim to divinity, cannot seem beautiful to itself except by the possession of lifeless trappings? -Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

A lady wears a diamond around her neck, and because of it she feels beautiful. Yet what would a diamond be without a lady? All matter is uniform and worthless until humans give it value. Consider the life history of that lifeless stone. Forged by earth's forces and inner fires over many millennia, before any human being walked earth's crust, the diamond came to rest in a bed of subterranean rock, covered with meters of dirt, in pitch darkness. Bacteria grew around it. Silent eons passed. Eventually, in these latter days, miners dug a shaft to it and chipped it free, a craftsman carved its edges until it shone, a man spent a month's salary to buy it, and now it hangs on his lover's neck.

Lady, your jewel does not make you beautiful, you make your jewel beautiful.

I write by trial and error. I move words around until I happen to like their arrangement. In the labor and details of bringing a thought into being, I lose my way and half-forget what I wanted to say. I do not find my way but keep trying sentences until, in the words before me, I recognize and remember my original thought.

The secret of writing is not so much vision or inspiration but the mundane ability to stop tinkering when we realize we've written something worth keeping. By an unmysterious formula, one accumulates good sentences by discarding bad ones. Creativity is the source of writing, but selectivity is the source of good writing. A writer is a prospector panning for gold in the stream of his own thoughts. He picks out the gems and nuggets and presents only them to the world, so that the world thinks his mind produces gold, though it mainly produces mud.

Supposedly, a monkey on a typewriter, through sheer luck, could eventually type out Hamlet. But a monkey would keep typing, ignorant of his achievement, while a writer who stumbles on truth or beauty seizes his luck and sends his manuscript to the publisher.

Playing my music albums in my car, I hum half-indifferently, too familiar with the melody to be intrigued by it. Why then, if I hear the same song played by a sidewalk musician or coming through department store speakers, do I instantly wake with admiration for it, my ears strangely gaining a new delicacy to feel the contours of every note? Similarly, why do concert-goers scream at the start of every song they recognize, when they never screamed at home? Is this our vanity saying to the world, behold me, I know this? The song we snubbed in solitude is now being honored, and we wish to assert our association, like a man who never desired his wife until his neighbor paid her interest. Our complacency as owners is replaced by our longing as outsiders.

The first time I visited Yosemite Valley, I did not expect to be very impressed, not because I thought the scenery would be shabby, but because I thought the crowds would spoil it. Plus, Yosemite has been so praised by so many people that it seemed to me too clichéd to be impressed by it, and with a certain pride I hoped I would not be.