I keep taking this picture. I don't know how many times it's been now, and most of them I don't keep, but I still keep taking it.
Lately I've been worrying that I've begun to repeat myself photographically, like maybe I've run out of things to say. I've been frustrated because I think it's true. And yet I still can't stop myself from taking this picture.
I keep hearing that an artist--especially a photographer, and especially a photographer who takes pictures of his own family--needs to avoid sentimentality. And I think that's true, so maybe I'm not much of an artist. Maybe I never will be. Would that be OK with me? I think it should be, but I suspect it might not. Either way, I can't not take this picture.
At some point I won't be able to take this picture anymore, because he'll be old enough to bathe himself. And then because he'll be grown up and gone from the house. I take this picture over and over again because I can't help being overwhelmed by how beautiful it is, and I suppose because I'm aware of how little time I have left to take it.
I had a reviewer tell me once that photographs--artistic photographs, anyway--needed to be about more than making memories permanent, and I agree. I tell myself that I have loftier reasons for taking pictures: that a story shared can be transformative for both the listener and the speaker; that photography is my way of working through and understanding the experiences of my life, experiences that are both personal and universal; that I simply want to make something beautiful and put it into the world. And maybe all that is true. I hope it is. But I think maybe I really take pictures because my life goes by so fast, and I need to slow it down, to give myself something to hold onto.
Is that a good enough reason? It's good enough to keep me doing it. But maybe it's not enough to make me the kind of artist I'd like to be. I don't know why I care about that--I think I ought to know, but so far it's been too much to get my arms around.
But, whatever. It's a nice picture. Juliette will like it. It's enough.
Yesterday we went to Mission Beach and paid four dollars for a serving of cherry-flavored shaved ice that was truly ridiculous in size. I'm pretty sure it was bigger than Jason's head. Passers-by were actually pointing at it and laughing, it was so big. Between the fact that there was so much of it and the fact that it didn't really taste very good, none of us were terribly put out when we spilled some.
"Are you cute?"
"No! I'm handsome!"
"OK, well, in any case, I love you."
"Why do you love me?"
"Why do I love you?"
"Well, because you're my boy."
"Know why I love myself?"
"Because I'm stinky!"
"Because you're stinky?"
"OK. Well, can't argue with that."
"I'm so stinky!"
"Hey buddy, can I have a hug?"
He wrapped his arms around my neck, and his shoulder dug into my throat a little. He does that a lot--it's uncomfortable, but I like that he hugs me tightly.
I looked down at him, and for the millionth time I'm struck by what a beautiful child my son is. "You're a handsome boy, you know that?"
"Yeah," he said, "I know that."
I remember being a child and having my parents or their friends tell me that I was good-looking. I think I must have had the same casual confidence about my appearance when I was his age, but, for the life of me, I can't remember it.
When I was eleven a bully told me that I was ugly, and that's how I've seen myself ever since.
It's odd: I can't even find it in me to be angry about it anymore. I mean, what eleven-year-old has the perspective to see how devastating he can be to someone else's self-image, or how long-lasting the effects can be? I can't believe that any of them knew what they were doing.
And I have a good life. I have a wonderful family who I love and who love me. I'm successful at my job. I have a nice home filled with nice things, and I have the wherewithal to fill my spare time obsessing about things like single-malt Scotch, or visual art, or finding out which kinds of oolong teas suit my preferences the best. That I never feel sexy is a fairly minor inconvenience, all things considered.
But still, it's not something that anybody should have to go through. And when I chuckle at the conceit in my four-year-old son's voice when he says he knows he's handsome, I also can't help but think: he really is a beautiful boy, and it would break my heart if some day he couldn't believe it when someone told him so.
It's silly, I suppose, to worry about something that probably won't happen, but that's parenthood for you.