The Hardest Second of Your Life
With a naivete that’s perhaps a bit unseemly for a woman my age, I still treat New Year’s Day as though it has a certain magic attached to it, and the promise of new beginnings, as clean and inviting as a Trapper Keeper on the first day of school. I go into every one with a plan to make some sort of change, an improvement in productivity, something that will benefit me creatively, physically, and/or emotionally. I do this, every year, despite knowing there’s a less than 50% chance that I’ll follow through with it. The pattern is always the same: I get very fired up about it, if need be I’ll read up about it online, if further need be I’ll buy whatever I need to accomplish it, things will go well for a week or two, maybe even as long as a month, and then I’ll stumble a bit, forget or put off a day, and then I’ll lose all momentum. And then, the following year, I’ll start the process all over again.
I have tried photo a day projects, journaling every day, and keeping a “gratitude list.” Out of more than a dozen photo a day projects I started, exactly one (1) has been successful, and I no longer remember how I managed it. I have not been able to repeat that success, much to my frustration. Even less successful have been my as of this writing two attempts at 1 Second a Day, a project in which a person takes one second long video snippets of their everyday lives, with the goal of compiling them into a mini-movie to look at later. It’s a simple concept that is more daunting that it appears, because, like photo a day projects, it forces you to decide whether to depict your life as it actually is, or as you’d like other people to perceive it to be.
1 Second a Day came to most people’s attention thanks to Chef, a charming comedy about a newly single father who reconnects with his son as they travel around the country selling insanely delicious looking Cuban sandwiches. The son presents his father with the completed video near the end of the movie as a heartwarming depiction of bonding and shared adventure. The creator of the 1 Second app, Cesar Kuriyama, gave a TED talk about his invention, and the story of its creation is the kind of faux-inspiring while still being impossible for most people palavering you’d expect. Inspired by another TED talk about the value of free time, Kuriyama quit his job before age 30 so he could spend time traveling, and came up with the 1 Second app as a way to document his experiences.
The gospel of 1 Second a Day sends a frustrating mixed message, in that there’s no shame in an ordinary life, but you should also be striving to make that life as extraordinary as possible, at least according to other people’s perspectives. Many 1 Second a Day compilations have been uploaded to YouTube, and, like Instagram, most of them are heavily curated, created by attractive, mostly young white people who want to give the impression that their lives are an endless, joyful cycle of brunch, parties, concerts, and vacations, where no one ever has to go to work, and no one ever has a bad or even boring day. A precious few take a more realistic approach, with compilations that consist of a lot of shots of family pets running around, television and computer screens, and the occasional holiday get-together. Not surprisingly, while they’re comforting to watch, they’re also dull as paint. You know, kind of like how most people’s lives, away from social media, actually are.
That’s not to say that nothing interesting or worth documenting happens in my life. But the philosophy of 1 Second a Day, that you should constantly be aspiring to make your life exciting and adventurous, is exhausting. A lot of times, after I’ve been working all day, I really do just want to come home and watch TV and fuck around on Facebook for a little while. 1 Second a Day, along with Instagram’s gradual shift from badly lit “food porn” to people using props and drapes just to take a picture of a book they’re reading, is, in a word, intimidating. We all talk a good game about how we want to be more “real” online, and yet apologize for posting a photo of ourselves without makeup at 9 in the morning.
There’s undoubtedly a considerable overlap between people who are in favor of the “highlight reel” approach (if not just outright misrepresentation), and those who post memes about how life has no meaning if you’re not constantly traveling. There’s an inherent smugness to it: my job offers six weeks paid vacation time, why doesn’t yours? Well, because most people’s jobs don’t, at least not in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, employers are not legally required to offer any paid vacation time, and when they do, it’s rarely more than 10 days over the course of an entire year. Many employers don’t allow staff to take their full allotment at once, preferring to parcel it out in increments, a long weekend here and there, and often expecting the employee requesting time off to be responsible for finding schedule coverage, a task that should normally be left to management. Even after all that, many people don’t use the additional time off to go on a by definition “vacation,” instead visiting family, or simply staying home and taking care of tasks that have been put off due to a lack of free time.
The ugly cousin of “you’re not living life if you’re not experiencing the world” is, of course, hustle culture, in which free time is for the weak and lazy, and you should be constantly “working” in one way or another, whether it’s by picking up a second job (whether you need to or not), or turning every social occasion into a “networking” event. Despite their opposing philosophies, they’re both rooted in the same self-satisfied judgment of how other people are spending their time, while often presenting a decidedly inaccurate portrayal of their own lives.
To be fair, most of this is insecure projection. I don’t think it was Cesar Kuriyama’s intention to make people feel bad about the lack of adventure in their lives, just as I don’t think it was the creators of Instagram’s intention for it to turn into a platform where C-list celebrities get paid to promote weight loss tea that makes people shit uncontrollably. I’d almost certainly lean hard into the “curating” aspect of visual social media if I had any sense of what makes a photograph or video interesting or compelling, but I don’t. Oh, I can picture in my head what I want a photograph to look like, but it rarely bears itself out in the end result. All the filters in the world can’t fix a badly framed, poorly lit, boring picture. No one needs to see another video, even just a second long snippet, of a New York City subway train thundering into a station. I don’t even know how to make the interesting parts look interesting.
But will I try it again? Of course I will. My birthday is coming up in a little more than two months, and that seems as good a time as any to start a new photo a day project. Maybe I’ll try 1 Second a Day again too, third time’s a charm. I don’t expect that I’ll suddenly get any better at taking a picture by then, nor do I believe that there will be a significant increase in the number of brunches I attend. I like to think that I’ll feel less of a strange pressure to impress people I don’t know, and who I am quite sure aren’t showing me or anyone else what their lives really look like either. I’m not counting on it. But I guess there’s no harm in trying.