- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

For most of us, July is the month for lying back, taking it easy with something tall and icy at hand and trying to let the world more or less go by.

Esquire’s editors, however, want to test your mettle by introducing you to some of the most challenging experiences man can undergo. (All respect due my gender, but hardly any women ever undergo the kind of harrowing, high-stress punishment that, say, Lance Armstrong will in attempting to win the Tour de France for the sixth straight year.)

You’ll agree no, doubt, that Armstrong’s achievement in overcoming perhaps the most grueling physical contest on Earth is survival at its highest. Take a look at the adventures endured by some of the people Esquire has turned up and think again.

Consider the experience recounted by Robert Kurson, an Esquire contributing editor who has adapted his new book, “Shadow Divers,” into the lead story in the issue, titled “Sub.”

Try, if you can, to stop reading after the opening: “At a depth of 205 feet, a deadly depth that only the craziest or most skilled divers would dare, he reached the top of the wreck and began to pull himself against the current, careful to keep hold of the structure underneath to avoid being blown adrift.”

That’s only the beginning of a story that gets far more bizarre and suspenseful.

Still, there’s much more to savor in this issue — ranging from excerpts from “some of the greatest life-or-death tales ever told” to snippets from the Bible’s Acts 27, to a selection from the SAS Survival Handbook by a 26-year veteran of Britain’s elite Special Air Service on the best way to kill an octopus. (Turn it inside out, if you really want to know.)

Readers also can absorb a special five-minute guide on surviving just about everything, which offers advice on overcoming 25 hairy situations. The solutions are practical, albeit laced with a fair dose of black humor — to wit, fending off an alligator attack.

“If the alligator is more than twelve feet, be grateful there are good prosthetics out there,” the story advises.

Meanwhile, the editors put a special spin on the issue’s fashion spread, titled “Ten Tough Bastards.” It features a group of extraordinary explorers and adventurers, among them Sir Ranulph Fiennes, age 60, who after having bypass surgery in 2003 ran seven marathons in seven days … on seven continents, no less.

The heroic 10 pose in everything from a stainless-steel Rolex Explorer watch (priced at $3,525) to $50 Calvin Klein jeans. Each man also recounts one or two of the scarier moments in his eventful life.

• • •

Speaking of fashion spreads, going quite simply from the sublime to the foolish, skim through the pages of Elle’s July issue, featuring the “Fall Preview of All-American Fashion.” Editor-in-chief Roberta Myers, taking in the view from the 44th floor, opines on her Editor’s Page: “This being July, it’s also our annual Hot Issue, and we take the cultural temperature on such burning matters as: Who will really be the face heating up your TV screen this fall? What’s the sizzling new sexual configuration? Who is the hottest new lifestyle guru? And most important: What do I wear?”

The answer to that last query: certainly nothing shown in the pages of the July Elle — even if you can afford it.

On the other hand, there’s the June-July Elle Girl. Although it’s aimed at teens, adults can get a glimpse of the garb that’s seen each day on the streets: tube tops, slim bare bellies, tiny ruffled skirts and low-cut jeans.

It’s about as informal a look one can obtain — and a fairly sad commentary, in its own way, about our society.

• • •

Considering the state of our society, check out Sync, a relatively new monthly that’s directed at young males more than any other group in America. It offers glitzy layouts with texts that speak in a tongue almost unknown unless you’re deeply attuned to all matters electronic.

Simply peruse its table of contents: Megapixel camera phones, surround-sound PC speakers, displays for gaming graphics galore, “Nerds hard at work, oh-so-zany tech blunders”; the Mormon-iPod connection; “NORAD tomfoolery”; computer goggles; and $2,600 headphones.

You get the picture.

• • •

Likewise, American Thunder, published nine times yearly, offers another look at where our culture is headed. The magazine boasts that it “takes you behind the wheel, into the pits and under the hood as NASCAR’s fastest racers trade paint.”

The promo text running alongside the masthead tells you even more. “American Thunder is about more than racing. It’s also about your way of life, with everything from tips for outdoor adventures and backyard barbecues to how-to articles for home projects.”

• • •

That admirable monthly The New Criterion, at polar opposites to Sync, American Thunder and Elle, pays touching homage to the recent passing of one of this era’s great editors, Melvin J. Lasky, at age 84. Taking over the editorship of Encounter from another great editor, Irving Kristol in the 1950s, Mr. Lasky brought to the magazine writers of extraordinary breadth: Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, William Faulkner, Arthur Koestler and W.H. Auden.

• • •

The spring issue of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society takes up the subject of “cosmetic surgery and American culture” — or as it’s titled in the publication, “The Democratization of Beauty,” by Christine Rosen.

The issue of cosmetic surgery has become almost omnipresent in recent years, from frequent magazine and newspaper articles to TV’s “Nip/Tuck,” “I Want a Famous Face” and “Extreme Makeover.” Miss Rosen concludes: “Concealing our desire for physical perfection behind a mask of democratic or therapeutic rhetoric will ultimately do us no good.”

• • •

We’ll end on a note that’s also a commentary, of sorts, on our society as seen from Harvard Square, where I attended my college reunion last week: Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers and other dignitaries conscientiously addressed the graduating class as “women and men.”

Earlier this year, though, there was something of a rumpus because some Harvard students — both female and male — had begun a somewhat erotic monthly with Harvard as part of its title. Ultimately named H Bomb (after the university forbade the use of Harvard), the magazine appeared stacked high on the corners of the newsstand next to the Harvard Coop for all to behold.

It wasn’t so long ago that Radcliffe issued orders saying, “Young ladies should not wear trousers when going to Harvard Square.”

How times have changed.

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