Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
On Following Your Curiosity
And the new side-project mine has led me to.
This looks like a 9/11 post, but it's not. Of course, coming upon this photo days before the anniversary reminded me of all the tragedy and horror and loss, but that's not the subject of this post. It's about letting your curiosity lead you, and about my new side-project, Oldster Magazine, which grew out of my own curiosity.
Last week, as I was rummaging through boxes of photos in the hopes of finding images of the old friend who recently passed a way, I stumbled upon this shot I took in the fall of 1994. Some art dealers I'd randomly met at a party in Tribeca told me they'd procured a statue of Lenin from Russia for the owner of the Red Square apartment building on the corner of Houston Street and Avenue A. The owner positioned it facing the World Trade Center because he thought it would be interesting to have a symbol of communism waving at a symbol of capitalism. (The statue has since been moved to another building on the Lower East Side.) I was intrigued and asked if I could come take some photos on the day they installed it. Maybe I'd pitch a story about it somewhere, and even if the publication wasn't interested in my photos, at least they would help the editors understand the story I was pitching.
This was something I'd been doing regularly then, in my spare time. My tedious job as a reporter/editor at a home furnishings trade publication bored the daylights out of me, so after hours, I tried to claw my way out of trade publishing by freelancing for newspapers and consumer magazines. I took night courses at the International Center of Photography so that I would have more to offer editors, and possibly earn more money. (Remember cameras? Before smart phones? Before digital SLRs? This photo I shot with my analog Pentax K1000, and processed myself in the dark room at ICP while enrolled in a black and white class.)
Our photography teacher suggested we let our curiosity lead us to our subjects, a notion that was incredibly liberating for a writer tasked, week in and week out, with covering the same trade shows and advertisers. On my own time, I could bop around New York City with my camera hanging from a strap around my neck and a few canisters of film in my pocket, and let my instincts lead me to what seemed newsworthy merely because it piqued my interest. It was enjoyable, and it helped me to hone my instincts as a writer and editor.
I discovered that following my curiosity paid off. In this particular instance, it landed me an assignment about the statue for New York Newsday, which bought my photo, as well. (A different photo than this one. I can't show it to you because I can't find my copy of the story, and as it was the early 90s, it never lived on line.)
Too often, though, I've forgotten that lesson. I've become anxious and over-ridden my instincts, and sought jobs or assignments or projects based on what I thought I should do, what seemed prudent. That thinking has never once led me in the right direction. It's always taken me far off course, toward extreme boredom, or failure, or both. Of course, not every inkling has been a winner. And often the best places I've landed and thrived in later collapsed or disappeared by no fault of mine, which is not surprising given the dwindling media landscape.
But when I find my curiosity nagging at me, I try to remember to pay attention to it, and act. That's what I did last week, when, seemingly in some kind of fugue state, I launched a "magazine," or more accurately another newsletter, that I hope will lead to something more significant—a website, or an anthology, or both. First I dreamt that I did it. Then I did it.
It's called Oldster Magazine, and I'd love if you'd subscribe. Even better if you'd consider becoming a paying subscriber, for $30/year or $5/month (half-price if you sign up at the yearly rate!), although I'd prefer not to put any of the content behind a paywall. I'm hoping those who can afford it will help me pay writers and illustrators, and to keep everything accessible to everyone, regardless of income.
With Oldster Magazine, I aim to de-stigmatize and normalize aging by recognizing that everyone of every gender is doing it, at every stage of life—not just "geriatric millennial" or "Gen X" or "boomer" women. As with the “Fine Lines” series I launched and edited at Longreads, the writing will touch on every aspect of growing up and getting older: culture, states of mind, physical and mental health, relationships, sex, spirituality, style, money, career, fashion, beauty, food, recreation, and death.
Why focus on age and aging? Because we live in an age-obsessed culture, but also one in which each generation seems to define “adulthood” differently than the one before it. Particular attitudes and milestones are no longer necessarily associated with reaching certain birthdays. It’s as if somewhere along the way, the Baby Boomers burned the guidebook for what you’re supposed to achieve when, and the generations to follow have been making up their own rules.
This is also a personal obsession of mine—ever more so as I get older. I’ve always had a strange relationship to time and aging, and wonder constantly what each period of my life is supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s because I seem to be living off-script, without children (or grandchildren) helping me mark the passage of time. I often wonder, How old am I supposed to act? How old am I supposed to feel? Because at any given time, how I act and feel never quite match the numbers. And I never feel mature enough.
How old am I? The first number that often comes to mind is often 15, except when it’s 11, gray hair, arthritic joints, hot flashes and occasional lapses in memory notwithstanding. A questionnaire on BiologicalAge.com suggests that health-wise, I am 37, but a survey on AgeTest.com tells me I am 29. According to the information on my birth certificate, however, I was born in October of 1965, making me, at this writing, chronologically speaking, 55.
I find age and aging to be confusing and mystifying, and therefore fascinating. And as I get older, I only have more questions. Like, why do we give birthday cards that make jokes about getting older? Why are so many people ashamed of their age? Why aren’t I?
I want to know how other people are processing getting older. Because it’s happening to all of us, all the time.
A word here about the platform on which I've launched Oldster: Substack, the very same platform I railed against six months ago, and which I left for this platform, because Substack platformed anti-trans bigots and didn't moderate their most egregious content. Unfortunately, that hasn't changed, and neither has my being angry about it. I will continue to be outwardly critical of Substack for that.
But since then I've realized that if my allyship with the queer and trans community is based on boycotting, I'd have to boycott a lot of other platforms and media and newspapers and publishers besides Substack. In fact, I'd have to boycott most of them. I've finally been persuaded by Anne Trubek's arguments about this—in her wonderful Substack newsletter, Notes from a Small Press, and in emails we've exchanged. Unfortunately, the majority of media companies give air—and lots of money—to horrible people who write harmful things. (This includes publishers I've put out books with, publications I read and write for, and social media platforms I'm on.) And other horrible people buy what those horrible people write, and it earns media companies a lot of money—some of which they use to fund the work of writers who are not small-minded, hateful bigots. It's a messed up system that hurts people and contributes to the decline of media, but it's the system we've got, and I'm trying to stay alive within it.
I've also realized that a good number of queer and trans writers have remained on Substack, some maintaining that it's better to keep a presence there than to cede the entire floor to bigots.
Lastly, I've been struggling with the technological limitations and glitches of this platform, Buttondown, as both a newsletter writer, and a subscriber. Each of the other platforms I've explored has at least one limitation that makes it unappealing to me. Substack is easy to post on, easy to add a podcast to, easy to earn money with, with little or no investment. I want Oldster Magazine to have a chance at succeeding, to be able to pay writers and illustrators. I want to have a chance at succeeding, to be able to pay myself for my work, in an environment where there are very few jobs, and I'm out of the running for most of the remaining ones because of my age.
I'm also strongly considering moving this newsletter, Adventures in Journalism, back to Substack, for the same reasons. I'll understand completely if anyone prefers not to follow me there.
In the mean time, I've made a donation to Human Rights Campaign, which works "to ensure that all LGBTQ+ people, and particularly those of us who are trans, people of color and HIV+, are treated as full and equal citizens within our movement, across our country and around the world."