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The Columnest: To Be Rather Than To Seem

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my […]

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 - 1877) Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative Image: 17.1 x 20.8 cm (6 3/4 x 8 3/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

William Henry Fox Talbot, photographer (English, 1800 – 1877). Leaves of Orchidea, April 1839, Photogenic drawing negative. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The barista has a tattoo: esse quam videri around a careful monochrome rendering of a longleaf pinecone. Esse quam videri—to be rather than to seem—is the motto of North Carolina, the state to which I’ve just moved after thirteen years in Minnesota; the longleaf pine is the state tree. The pinecone reminds me of my mother’s botanical illustrations, the hours she spent getting down the details of nuts, seeds, cross-sections viewed in her microscope. Art was far less important than accuracy; years after she quit doing the illustrations (a spate of spider lilies wore her out), she was still wondering what her botanical style might be, if she had one. Did she think of plants as playful and twining, their flower-heads nodding, Beatrix Potter style? On the evidence, she did not. Her plants are not people: they are complex biological mechanisms that transfer mineral flow from root and leaf to flower, then seed, then succeeding stem, root, leaf, flower. Once she had drawn the pinecone—reduced it to a schematic essence of black lines—she would carefully press a stick-on letter next to it so that it could be identified in the key: a: cone (female).

State mottos are a higgledy-piggledy mess, I learn from the interwebz, by which I mean Wikipedia. Most are in Latin, but some are in other languages, like Minnesota’s L’étoile du Nord, French for “Star of the North,” which seems less like a motto than a label. The punsters in Michigan went with Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice, a twisted version of Christopher Wren’s London memorial, meaning “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Because I studied Latin in high school I learned many of these mottos years ago and can greet Maine’s Dirigo (“I lead”) as an old friend, but others are new to me, like Montana’s up-front Oro y plata (“Gold and silver”), and then others are just new, like Kentucky’s Deo gratiam habeamus (“Let us be grateful to God”), adopted in 2002. When I go looking to see what caused Kentuckians to feel the need for gratitude in 2002, all I can find is their even more recent desire for a zingier line: in 2012, Kentucky saw a push for “Kentucky Kicks Ass” as a new state slogan.

So why North Carolina adopted Esse quam videri in 1893 remains a mystery.

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Prada fall campaign. Photos by Steven Meisel (c) Prada

Speaking of seeming, I’ve loved fashion as long as I can remember; “Style with Elsa Klensch,” anyone? The shimmering chrysalises of transformation spoke to me from the first. These days, my interest continues undimmed, but I have less and less tolerance for models. Consider the current Prada campaign. The clothes are lovely: a just-unbuttoned knit with an open portrait neck worn under a close-fitting jumper of leather or heavy wool, a flared tweed skirt, a belted coat with bell sleeves, all in soaked shades of scarlet, peacock, or wet asphalt. To me these garments suggest a woman in her prime, a romantic, who is in the midst of the moment of her life—call it a sensual awakening if you want—and yet is, in spite of everything, an innocent. For the first time in her life, she knows she doesn’t know her limits. She’s an optimist and a fool and she’s fascinating, and I want to see what she does next.

But for these passionate clothes the models have nothing but the same old faces, or rather the same young faces, absurdly projecting an experience and longing thin as the paper it’s printed on. What do they know about how that skin bared by one undone button feels on the first day of fall? Nothing, apparently: frozen in sexy face, they wait for the shoot to be over.

Models are an easy target, though. Maybe I should be picking on the photographers who prompt and frame their looks (here, Steven Meisel). Or maybe this whole theme strikes you as ridiculous. Benjamin Franklin would think so. He wrote this in his “The Way to Wealth” (1758): “And after all, of what use is this pride of appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote health, or ease pain; it makes no increase of merit in the person, it creates envy, it hastens misfortune.”

esse

Esse quam videri: the source for the motto is the Roman orator Cicero, commenting on how most people would rather be thought virtuous than be so. Poor Cicero, things didn’t turn out well for him; in 43 BC, Marc Antony ordered his murder, and after he was killed, his severed hands and head were displayed in the Roman forum.

I’m a dance critic and a lifelong dancer. After thirty years in ballet class, ballet is my yoga, more or less; without it, I’m cranky and my body doesn’t work right. But since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had trouble finding a ballet home. All the classes I’ve tried have been expensive, far away, stuffed in a tiny room, or executed to canned music.

Restless and bereft of ballet, I head out for a kickboxing class. It’s my first, so I have no idea what to expect; will we be sparring or busting through blocks of wood? No: it turns out that we bounce around to music as we kick and jab at things. It’s a dance class, more or less. “Go for the chin! the chin!” the instructor screams, and all over the crowded room people pummel their imaginary assailants, who seem to have great reflexes, as they are constantly on the move. I find myself pulling my punches in as well as throwing them out; it feels nice on my shoulder to almost release and then reel back my momentum, but it is nothing like a real punch. The woman in front of me whales on air.

Esse quam videri tattoo” turns out to be Google’s fifth choice for the phrase. The barista is not alone. Image search takes you to head-spinningly contradictory photos of buff types displaying their new tattoo that asserts essence over appearance. One man flexes his philosophically inked pecs; he looks as if he’s eaten nothing but protein powder for the past week.

Still, I like the barista’s tat. She does real things with her biceps, like make coffee, and she lives in North Carolina, so why not? Appearance is not false simply because it is appearance. I still remember the shirt I wore to the revelation: a cornflower-blue button-down.

A friend of mine once told me she knew what I was going through. Turned out she was wrong.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the forthcoming DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.