I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.
“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.
“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.
“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.
She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.
When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.
Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”
“No,” he says.
She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.
“No,” says her sister.
I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.
When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.
Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.
“Hello, Little Bear” I say.
“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.
“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.
“And is that my leg?”
“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”
Yes. They are.
Photographs, Memory, Moments
It was too early when I went in to wake my five-year-old daughter for school this morning. It is always too early when I wake her, even more so for me than for her. There is, nevertheless, something comforting about the familiar mundanity of being tired on a weekday morning, as unpleasant as it usually feels.
When I stepped through her bedroom door she was sitting in the middle of her bed, blinking heavily against the light from the lamp I’d turned on a few minutes before as I stumbled down the hall. She was frowning, her brows bunched in consternation, perhaps even resentment for a moment before she brushed her hair from her eyes and looked up at me, and smiled. Something about this scene brought an image to my mind, a picture from her even-younger days, but it took me a second or two to realize that I was remembering a photograph.
Photographers are often drawn to obsessing about time and memory—though, in that I suppose we are not so terribly different from other artists. From other people in general, really. It makes sense, of course. Photography is something most of us understand as a form of documentation, a way of physicalizing memory, of stretching the infinitesimal into something like permanence. Does it actually do this? Well, no, but it feels like it does, and in some ways that feeling may be more important and true than the literal facts.
Still, seeing some hint of complexity in the interaction between memory and photos, we can’t help ourselves; we just have to wrestle with it. There’s a chapter in Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, in which she laments that her clearest memory of how her father looks comes not from life, but rather from a photograph. She recalls every details of the image, from the gesture of his hands to the color of his belt, but finds herself unable to move beyond the stillness of the picture to the full sensory detail of life experience. There’s no real arguing with this—once you make a photograph, or even spend any appreciable amount of time looking at one, that is what your brain will latch onto.
Nevertheless, I find myself resistant to the now-commonplace cry, “Put down your camera and live!” Perhaps this is merely another expression of the contrarian streak that so aggravated my parents when I was a child. When I poke at the edges of my capacity to remember, though, I find myself dismayed by the brain’s fallibility.
When I was young—fourth grade, perhaps? third?—one of the people I loved most in life was a young man who worked at the day care center where I went after school. I remember that love, the admiration I felt for his creativity, the joy I felt when he would invent stories on the spot. I remember looking up to him, and looking forward to every afternoon I got to spend in his presence. And I remember the deep sadness I felt, the pain and confusion we all felt the day we found out he’d killed himself. His wasn’t the first funeral I’d attended, but it was the first I cried at.
I have no photographs of that boy, and I find that now, some thirty years later, when I search my memory for an image of him, I find only a few indistinct impressions. Dark, curly hair, long in the back in the way so many boys’ hair was in the late 80’s. A bulging Adam’s apple, a cracking voice, a wispy shadow of a moustache that he never got old enough to see become proper stubble. But the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose or chin, his posture or the way he held his hands—all of that is gone now, and it will never return. What would I give to be able to remember even a facsimile, a reflection, a ghost of his smile?
After my friend died, we planted a tree to remember him, beside the fence that separated the school playground from the day care’s yard. Many years later, when I came back to my home town to shoot a photographic series about nostalgia, I stopped to visit the tree, finding that I couldn’t remember exactly which tree it was anymore. I made my best guess, and stood there trying to fix the moment in my mind. I remember now the coolness of the air, the sound of some young mothers talking while their kids ran through the play structure, the roughness of the new bark that showed through where the outer layer peeled off. But mostly I remember the photograph I took.
This morning when I carried my daughter from her bed to the living room, she wrapped her arms around my neck, and I squeezed her gently back. I gave her a little kiss on the top of her head, and her hair tickled my lips, and I thought about the photograph I’d remembered a few moments before. As I so often find myself doing, I found myself paying close attention to the sensations of the moment, the feel of the grooves in the wood floor beneath my feet, the dimness of the house in that moment before the sun was fully up, the weight of my daughter’s small body in my arms. “Remember this,” I silently told myself. “Remember exactly this.” But even as the thought finished, I felt the moment starting to slip away. It’s seven hours later as I write this. I can’t even remember which picture I thought of when I woke her up.
Goals for 2017
A year ago, when I was setting my goals for 2016, I had no idea what the year was going to bring. Looking back over the year with all its losses and turmoil, it's easy to lose sight of the smaller things. But, as is my tradition, I want to check in with how I did with last year's goals, and then set some new ones for the coming year.
Goal: Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
Result: I finished the year having read 30 books, of which 23 were written by women and 13 were written by people of color. This included 23 novels (15 SFF), 6 books of poetry, and 1 self-help book.
Goal: Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
Result: I did not submit any proposals for solo exhibitions in 2016. Nevertheless, I did have my second feature on Lenscratch, I had images included in an online group exhibition, and I participated in the portfolio reviews at the Medium Festival of Photography, where my work was well-received and garnered some interest from several museum and gallery curators.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I spent 2 days shooting for “It Forgets You,” completing the project and turning it into a handmade book.
Goal: Run 400 miles.
Result: I ran 137.5 miles.
Goal: Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
Result: I only wrote 6 real essays for the blog, but I also wrote 5 book reviews that I think qualify. Additionally, one of my essays was republished on PetaPixel.
Goal: Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
Result: I did this, self-publishing an edition of 100 via Edition One Books. I also got them included in the Fraction Media Shop, and sold several.
Goal: Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
Result: I recorded 32 interviews with artists, writers, and curators last year, and so far 29 of them have been released on the podcast I started. This is probably the accomplishment of mine of which I'm most proud.
Goal: Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
Result: I actually designed 2 new handmade books, making a final version of one and a prototype of the second. Both got excellent reviews at this year's Medium Festival of Photography.
So, in the end, I met six of my nine goals, and came close on a seventh. I'm satisfied with what I was able to achieve last year.
As for next year, here are my goals:
- Read at least 26 books, of which at least 13 must be written by women and 13 must be written by people of color.
- Run 400 miles and at least 1 race of 5K or longer.
- Set a new personal record for a 1-mile run. (Current record: 7:53)
- Lose at least 13 pounds and keep my weight at or below 190 pounds through December 31.
- Start an email newsletter and use it to send out at least 12 essays.
- Start a Patreon for my podcast.
- Get at least 4 essays, poems, or stories published in paying markets.
- Record at least 8 conversations for my podcast with people I don't know well.
This seems like a good start.
I can’t remember exactly how long ago the first funeral I attended was. I was nine years old, maybe ten, and one of the counselors from my daycare center had committed suicide. He was everything I had wanted to be back then: smart and funny, with an immensely inventive creative mind. I remember the way his Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice cracked when he spoke—he was only sixteen—and the way his hair curled where it was long in the back. His father’s voice broke, too, when he gave the eulogy. I remember being sad and terribly confused.
The most recent funeral I attended was this past March. He was a friend, and the husband of my office’s admin. He was one of the first people to compliment my photography. He had a sudden heart attack, and passed away after spending a few weeks in a coma. It was chilly and gray on the morning we gathered at the Miramar National Cemetary, but though it rained before and almost immediately afterwards, during the actual service it was dry. Even though I was expecting it, the crack of the rifle salute made me jump.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life, which is just to say that, whether friends or family, I’ve lost a lot of people. And I’ve grieved.
That I’m thinking about grief today makes sense, because for the last several hours I’ve been watching what seems like the whole world grieving over Prince’s death. It would have surprised a younger me that I am grieving as well.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died. It was April of 1994, and I was on a week-long school camping trip. We were on our way from one campsite in Anza-Borrego to another in Joshua Tree and the bus had stopped at a supermarket in Twentynine Palms so that we could all go to the bathroom and pick up some more supplies. All of the newspapers in the vending machines outside had Cobain’s face on the front page. I remember being unfazed, because that was before—just before—music really started to matter to me. I looked over and saw a girl named Britta bent over with her arms wrapped around her stomach, sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being surprised and confused. “Why are you so upset?” I thought. “It’s not like you knew him.”
And my fourteen-year-old self would be equally surprised—no, more so—that I spent a good chunk of this morning quietly sniffling at my desk and hoping that my cubemates didn’t notice. I didn’t know Prince. I’d never even been in the same room as him. And though I have enjoyed his music for a long time, it wasn’t the foundational music of my life; I didn’t even really listen to it all that often. Nevertheless, I am grieving his loss.
The way I feel right now is not the same as the way I felt when I watched my mother and her sisters open the urn and empty their father’s ashes into San Francisco Bay. It’s not the same as the way I felt when I found out that a friend had jumped off the Bixby Bridge. But these emotions are no less real for being different.
I’ve seen a lot of “Man, fuck 2016” on the Internet today, as for the past several months. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, and now Prince. And more besides. At each passing I’ve seen an outpouring of love, of sadness, of memories—though perhaps none so much as with Bowie and Prince. What I understand now in ways that I didn’t when I was a high-school freshman is that whether or not you know an artist personally, they may still be a part of your life. If that connection is different from what you have with a close friend or loved one, it is nonetheless still meaningful and profound, and the loss of that presence is truly a loss.
I have seen so many people today talk about how Prince’s music, his style, his life, made them feel accepted, helped them find a sense of self. Back in January people said the same of David Bowie. I can’t honestly say the same thing, but, even so, there was this sense of security, of continuity, to knowing that they were out there, doing their own thing and doing it so perfectly, so singularly. If I didn’t think of them every day, the days that I did think of them did make me think about accepting myself and accepting my work, about letting myself be OK with the idea that I’m different from other people. And now that they are gone, the world does seem a little less bright.
We are all in some way or another looking for connection. And that feeling, that recognition and acceptance can come in a lot of different ways from a lot of different places. I find it in a certain look in my wife’s eyes, in the laughter of my children, in the memory of my grandfather’s slow, deep drawl. I find it, too, in the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice cracks in “Dear Theodosia,” and in the tenderness of Judith Fox’s photographs in I Still Do, and in Jude’s brokenness in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. And today I’m finding it in the unshakeable confidence of Prince’s guitar, a confidence I have never felt but which he makes me think some day I could.
If you’re feeling a little lost today, if you’re feeling sad: it’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way. I feel it too. We can feel it together.
Why I Haven't Been Writing (Fuck It All)
I’m finding lately that I’m having trouble writing for this blog. Everything I want to say, that I feel a need to comment on, it goes into my journal and stays unseen. Broken language, sentences half-completed and perhaps only a quarter thought-out, not real ideas themselves but only pointers to help remind me later what I was thinking. But do I ever look back? Not really.
Or it goes on Twitter and flies by, and disappears into the ether, a massive particle sliding through a mile of lead but, at most, only weakly interacting. You see writers who wring their hands about the ephemerality of a tweet, not realizing that this is its most fundamental source of power. To say the thing and have it not matter at all, to know that even in the moment of its creation it is already gone. It is an unburdening even as it is an erasure.
Or did I say it already? To you, perhaps? Did I spill a thousand words into your inbox when you asked me a simple question? Did you even ask? But you heard from me all the same, at length and in detail.
Writing for a blog: it’s not as immediate as a tweet, as private as a journal, as directed as a message. And having said the thing once, having already written it down, to decide to take the same idea and copy it and post it again elsewhere is to decide that this thing must be said, that it must be shared, that it is of value. It is a conscious choice, in a way that it wasn’t the first time I wrote it. It becomes, I am too aware, a performance. An ode to my own insight or wit—or at least my loquacity.
And yet. “Hey, what happened to your blog?” is a question I am asked from time to time. “I kind of miss when you posted more.” It has happened; not often, but more often than I’m ever comfortable admitting.
So: fuck it. Fuck all the self-criticism and the Impostor Syndrome and the laziness and the exhaustion. Fuck always wondering if I’m talking too much, always thinking that I’m not important enough or smart enough or deserving enough of an opinion and a place to put it. Fuck thinking that this stupid blog doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, but it matters to me. And fuck worrying that I’m going to say the wrong thing, because I’m the wrong person, because I’m going to fuck it up. I will fuck it up. I know I will. But I know I can count on you to tell me when I do, and I know that’s better than worrying.
I’m going to try, again.
Goals for 2016
Last January I set myself a series of goals for the year. So, how did I end up doing on those? Let’s take a look.
Goal: Read 25 books in any genre.
Result: I finished the year having read 39 books, so, not too shabby.
Goal: Run 600 miles.
Result: I ran only 295 miles in 2015. This was partially due to taking six weeks off after hurting my knee, and partially due to working late too often, and therefore being too tired to wake up early to exercise.
Goal: Write 24 non-review, non-photo blog posts of at least 1000 words.
Result: I wrote three essays in 2015 that met these criteria. If I relax the restrictions a bit and include a couple of particularly long, essay-like reviews, I can get the number up to five.
Goal: Post 52 photos to this blog.
Result: 28. I was doing pretty well until June and then nothing.
Goal: Get accepted into at least 2 juried exhibitions or competitions.
Result: I got into 2 juried group shows this year. I also had my first solo show, so, not bad.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I just got this in under the wire, having spent Wednesday taking a bunch of terrible photos.
Goal: Finish writing the text for the “It Forgets You” book.
Result: I did not do this. Not even close.
Goal: Shoot at least 500 frames for my Mira Mesa project.
Result: I’m not actually sure how many frames I shot for this project. Currently there are 50 images in my Lightroom catalog which were shot in 2015 and have been tagged “Mira Mesa.” But I also have three months of untagged photos, not to mention that I didn’t keep track of any images I may have deleted. My “keep” rate is somewhere around one in five, so let’s be generous and say I shot around 250 frames.
Goal: Complete a rough draft of a photo book for my “All Good Things” series.
Result: I did not even start a rough draft of a book for “All Good Things.” The closest I got was a new edit and sequence for my portfolio reviews in October.
Goal: Shoot at least 12 self-portraits for the new series I’m working on.
Result: I shot one of these and then put this on the back burner while I re-evaluate the direction I want to take with the series.
So, out of ten goals, I accomplished three. And you know what? I’m calling that a pretty successful year. On to 2016!
As before, these are not resolutions. These are goals. Resolutions are commitments. Goals are something to reach for. Here we go:
- Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
- Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
- Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
- Run 400 miles.
- Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
- Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
- Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
- Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
There’s more, but this seems like a good start. Hold me to it, people.
Friday morning I went to a funeral for a nine-year-old.
Walking into the church, I shook the dad’s hand and gave the mom a hug. “You took our last family photos,” she said with a sad smile.
“That was a good day,” I said, but there were more people behind me and each of them needed to be seen. I moved along into the pews and sat down.
I had taken their pictures, last summer. And it had been a good day. It was toward the end of July, a sunny day that didn’t have the oppressive heat that August and September can have. There was a nice breeze coming in off the bay, and the paths at the resort where they were staying were shady and quiet. Both parents remarked several times how good a mood he was in that day, how well he was doing. It was hard for me to tell, but I believed them. And right at the end, as I was packing up to leave, the mom gasped and said, “Oh look, he’s smiling!”
I just barely caught the moment. Today the photo was on the back of the program.
They wanted the day to be a celebration, so I tried not to cry too much. But it’s hard to see a nine-year-old die. He had been declining for the whole time we’d known them, victim of a rare genetic disease. By the time I took their pictures last year he couldn’t sit up, hold things, eat, or even make eye contact. Maybe we knew this day was coming. That doesn’t make it any easier.
I could see the pain in the way his mom clutched his stuffed Spider-Man to her chest, in the lay of his dad’s white-gloved hand atop the casket as they walked it down the aisle. But there was determination, too, to remember his life more than his death.
Just after the family entered the room, I noticed a man walk up one of the side aisles carrying a pair of big SLR cameras. I recognized the rig: the standard event photographer’s kit. I wondered to myself, if this were me, if this were my son’s funeral, would I want there to be pictures? Wouldn’t I want the memories I looked at to be the good ones? But then, I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and I’ve never stopped thinking about their memorials either. What would I give to have a photograph of the day we scattered my grandfather’s ashes into San Francisco Bay, or of the way the synagogue looked at my friend Aaron’s funeral when I was ten—even just to remember clearly what he looked like. I do remember the other parts, the parts that made me smile or laugh. But these ones matter too.
As the ceremony began and the priest’s voice rose and fell in chanting, my mind wandered. I remembered the weight of my great-grandfather’s casket, walking with my dad and his cousins as pallbearers. The old men who walked behind us, stooped and shuffling. The way my grandfather looked in his hospital bed on the day he died. I wanted to be present, aware, paying my respects in the here and now, but perhaps we’re all selfish creatures on some level.
The ceremony was nice. The man who led the congregation in song had a beautiful voice. And then it was over. I left, went to work, and tried to focus on the next thing. One foot after the other.
How do you move on, though? I’ve been to more funerals than I can remember now, and I know I have gotten past the grief, the feeling of life being different, distant. But I don’t really know how it happens. Nor when. Nor when it should.
There are so many things I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell them that I feel for them, that their loss makes my heart heavy, or even if I should; they don’t need to bear the burden of my feelings on top of their own. I don’t know what I can do for them.
What have I ever done? Organized a charity event, once. A few visits, here and there, a few conversations. Donated money to research for a cure for their son’s disease. Took their family pictures. Sent flowers. Showed up at their son’s funeral. A handshake. A hug. Is it enough? How could anything ever be enough?
I don’t know what the right thing to do is, for them, for me, for any of you reading this. I can hold them in my heart, and think about the fact that their son had a life. A hard one, yes, a short one, but a life nonetheless, and one that I can remember had good times, too, and love. He passed peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, which is as good an end as any of us could hope for.
And there’s this: I know that his parents would appreciate it if you took a moment to learn a bit about Tay-Sachs disease, and, if you can, help support the research efforts with a donation. You can also donate directly to the family’s memorial fund here.
Life is short, for all of us. Hug your kids, call your parents, spend time with your friends. Be mindful of the good things you have, and give thanks for them.
Jan, Ferd, Audrey, we love you.
A Story We Tell Ourselves
“I’m sorry I left you up on that ridge, Mike. I’ve always regretted losing your friendship.”
Several years ago, I opened up Facebook to find a friend request and a message from a guy I’d known since fourth grade, but whom I hadn’t seen in years. He apologized profusely and sincerely, clearly having carried guilt over abandoning me, and wanting to make amends. The only thing was, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
A short conversation jogged my memory. On a school camping trip, back when we were sophomores in high school, we had climbed—off-trail—to the top of a ridgeline above our campsite. We’d gone the long way around on the ascent, coming up the shallower slope on the back side, but now the sun was setting and we needed to get back before the evening campfire. We started down the steep face together, but I froze halfway down, overcome with vertigo. He shouted for me to hurry up and went on without me, assuming I’d make it on my own. But I didn’t; three or four other campers ended up guiding me down, inch by inch. I was shaken, and angry with my friend for leaving me, but I got over it.
Over the next few years we remained friends, but as so often happens we drifted apart. He joined the football team; I joined the drama club. We both made other friends. There was never any particular rancor between us, other relationships just became more important. Senior year, we were on the yearbook staff together, and I remember having a few laughs. We lost touch after graduation, but I always remembered him fondly.
This was how I remembered it. But as I discovered when he messaged me, his version of the story was very different: I had been angry and hurt that he abandoned me, and I never forgave him for doing so. Our friendship ended that night, because of his actions, and the regret over the incident changed his life. From then on, he made it a point never to let anyone down, especially if they needed his help.
So, for him, that night on the ridge was a foundational experience. For me it wasn’t even remarkable enough for me to remember it without being reminded. That disparity has been on my mind a lot lately due to an interesting coincidence. Earlier this month, I received an invitation to a Facebook group for alums of the Monterey Gaming System BBS. As it happened, that was the same week that I finally started listening to Serial.
It’s a little strange to think about these days when social networking sites are so central to most people’s daily lives, but back in the pre-Internet days the closest thing was the local bulletin-board system, or BBS. Monterey Gaming System (or, as it was known to its regulars, “MGS”) was the largest of the local BBSes back in the area where I grew up. Boasting dozens of dial-up lines and an active user base in the hundreds, the MGS chat rooms were the place to be for the computer nerd of the early 90’s Monterey Peninsula.
I was introduced to MGS around 1990 or ’91 by the friend from the story above, and for about three years it was my main social outlet. Most of my good memories from the first two years of high school—which were generally terrible for me—come from the time I spent in those chat rooms or hanging out at the local bowling alley during one of the “get-togethers.” My first steps toward understanding myself as an individual came during experiences I had with that group. I even met my first girlfriend there. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I stopped going, though by the time I left for college it was mostly a thing of the past.
The thing that has been the most striking to me about reconnecting with the group after twenty years is how poor my own memory of that time is. In the past two weeks, dozens of threads have popped up in the Facebook group, people sharing stories about the old days. And it’s been shocking to me how few have sounded even a little bit familiar to me. With just a few exceptions, I can’t even remember people’s names. Somehow, despite this being a formative period in my life that I think about regularly, the people and places have mostly slipped my mind. The question that I keep coming back to is: why don’t I remember this better?
And this brings me to Serial, the wildly popular spin-off podcast of This American Life. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Serial debuted last year with a twelve-episode arc examining the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student from Baltimore. There’s a lot covered in those twelve episodes, and the series is well worth a listen if you haven’t already done so, but what intrigued me the most was the way in which the people involved in the case remember the people and events so differently. The series is largely an attempt to understand whether the man who was convicted of the murder—Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed—was guilty or innocent, but depending on which present-day interview you give the most weight, Syed is either a golden boy or a manipulative liar. And the same discrepancies pop up in people’s descriptions of nearly every facet of the case. In some ways, this isn’t so surprising given that the interviews happened some fifteen years after Lee’s murder, but the huge variations in how people remember Syed, Lee, and what happened that day is striking. What’s more, even the contemporary accounts vary wildly, and not all of it can be explained by the possibility that some people are lying.
Being the sort of introspective person I am, I have a definite picture of who I am now, and who I was at many points in my past. This sense of myself, of awareness and understanding—in many ways this is fundamental to my experience of life. I know that my identity and my ways of being have changed over the years, but even that process is something that I have thought of as comprehensible. Or at least known. More and more, though, I’m coming to the realization that that understanding is flawed.
And that stands even though my conception of my past has changed over time. Leaving high school, I saw myself at 14 as a victim, pushed around and bullied by people stronger and cooler than I was. Ten years later, I looked back with what I thought was clarity and saw the self-absorption, the arrogance and cruelty I displayed at that age, and I admitted that what I endured was at least partially my own fault. Another ten years have gone by, and neither story seems to stick on its own.
Who was I when I knew the people I’ve been reconnecting with? I can tell you about the length of my hair (long), the music I listened to (mostly metal), and the awful poetry I wrote (self-indulgent, but not atypically so for someone going through puberty). I can chuckle about how seriously I took myself, how simple my views of the world were. But is that right? Was I so silly then? Am I so much more advanced now?
What does it mean for my friend if a lifelong regret—one that influenced all of his subsequent relationships—is based on something that didn’t happen? What does it mean for my understanding of myself if it did? Is identity nothing more than a story we tell ourselves in the present? And can we ever really know what our own story really was?
Memory is such a tricky thing. It’s so susceptible to being influenced by our present state of mind, and not just in color but in the details, which can disappear or even change as the story we want or need changes. In Serial, Koenig often butts up against the fact that the narrative she gets changes based on who’s telling it, or that people have no memory of the day at all. It’s a frequent refrain that we don’t pay attention to what happens on a normal day; it just doesn’t stick. But it’s hard to know at the time which days end up being normal and which become important, and how, and to whom. And if life is mostly a sequence of normal days, what are the implications for our conception of that life if we can’t remember those days?
As I’m writing this post, my son and older daughter are in the other room playing. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, what’s causing the laughter and shrieks. I can’t help but wonder what they will take away from this time, what they will remember in twenty years and what they will forget, and how that will differ from what I remember and forget. Time will tell, I suppose.
Goals for 2015
I’m not a big fan of resolutions for a new year. They’re too easy to abandon, and too much of a cliche. Nevertheless, I find that my life and my sense of self tend to be the most stable and satisfying when I have goals. The distinction may be fine, and despite having thought about it for a few days I’m not able to articulate the difference. But goals are something I need. Attainable, concrete, measurable goals.
Here is my list of goals for 2015:
- Read 25 books in any genre. (I read 23 in 2014.)
- Run 600 miles. (I ran 319 in 2014, having started running seriously over the summer.)
- Write 24 non-review, non-photo blog posts of at least 1000 words.
- Post 52 photos to this blog.
- Get accepted into at least 2 juried exhibitions or competitions. (I was accepted into 1 in 2014.)
- Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
- Finish writing the text for the “It Forgets You” book.
- Shoot at least 500 frames for my Mira Mesa project.
- Complete a rough draft of a photo book for my “All Good Things” series.
- Shoot at least 12 self-portraits for the new series I’m working on.
There’s a lot to do on this list, and the year will go by quickly. But I think I’m up to the task.
By This Time Tomorrow
By this time tomorrow, my life will be different. In itself, that's nothing out of the ordinary—every day brings something new, every day I am different from the day before. But tomorrow is a big one, because tomorrow is the day that my new daughter will be born.
One of my co-workers said to me last week that I must be an old pro at this by now. And it's true that I am comfortable as a parent now. I know that I can handle the sleepless nights, the diaper disasters. I even know that I can take care of my two older kids and a baby at the same time. But as much as I do know what it's like to have children, all I can really say is that I know what it's like to have my children, to have the two that I know already.
Leading up to Eva's birth, I remember feeling a certain sadness. I knew that I would love her and that I would some day reach a point where I couldn't imagine life without her. And both of those things were true. But I still felt a sense of grief at the loss of the family that we had right then. When it was just me and Juliette and Jason, it was wonderful, and when Eva came into our lives it was wonderful, too, but in a different way, and knowing that that first experience would be ending was bittersweet.
And so it is tonight. I know that it will be wonderful to have another daughter. I know that I will love her, and laugh with her, and that I will have a bond with her that is similar to the ones I have with her siblings, but one that will be unique to her and me. I'm looking forward to that. But I can't get away from this small sadness that what I have now, which I also love, will be ending.
Little girl, I don't know you yet. And you don't know me, not really. Maybe some day you will read this and wonder about my feelings for you, and if that happens then I'm sorry. But I will tell you this: as I'm writing this we are strangers, but by the time you're able to read this, I will love you so much that it makes my chest hurt, and I will have held you and kissed you and taken care of you so well that you will not wonder long. You will know that I will always love you. And I hope that some day, when you are waiting for your child to be born, that knowing how I felt now will help you know that everything will be OK, and that if you feel something like this, that you are not alone.
I can't wait to meet you.