My son has a pet crayfish. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that I have a pet crayfish. This isn't something I was expecting to ever say. But then, my experience of parenthood can more or less be summed up by the fact that I have an actual list of "Things I Never Thought I'd Say."
Red—that is the crayfish's name, and also its color, more or less—came to live with us in May, having previously been part of my son's third-grade unit on life science. He (my son assures me that Red is male) spends most of his time lying around on his side, a disconcerting habit in an animal that lacks eyelids, making it look like he is constantly dying or already dead. When I see him doing that, I tap on the side of his aquarium, my finger making a dull, ringing thump on the plastic, and Red immediately rights himself and either brandishes his tiny pincers at me or scurries into the little flowerpot we've provided him for "privacy." These are Red's three general states of being: depressive malaise, ridiculous bravado, and hiding in darkness. Which, when I put it that way actually makes the smelly little creature kind of relatable.
When I was a kid, a few years younger than my son is now, we lived in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, maybe a mile or so in along the canyon floor from where the creek ran under the famous bridge that causes so many traffic problems now, lines of parked cars a quarter mile in each direction as the tourists jockey for a spot to take the same exact photograph as the people they're elbowing out of the way, hundreds of them every day. There weren't so many of them back then, but either way we had our own little bridge as well, though ours was just a little wooden foot bridge and not a historic concrete arch. The creek ran through our front yard, and in the shadows cast by that little foot bridge, under the rocks, there were rainbow trout and crayfish, though we called them crawdads. We would pass the time, sometimes, by tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling the bits into balls and dropping them over the side of the bridge to feed the trout and the crawdads. The first time I saw my mother's boyfriend doing that, I thought he was throwing pebbles at them. I tossed in a big rock, which made a satisfying splash before it crushed one of the crawdads. I got a spanking for that.
We lived in that cabin about a year, from one winter to the next. I learned a lot of things that year. I learned which spots in the creek the crawdads liked to lurk in, and how if I dipped a blade of long grass in front of them, they'd grab it and wouldn't let go even after I pulled them out of the water. I learned what crawdads taste like when my mother's boyfriend decided to take us to a different part of the creek and showed us how to catch a whole bucketful, how they turn bright red when you boil them, how to tear the tails off and suck the meat out. I learned that sometimes my mom's boyfriend would be interested and affectionate with us, and sometimes he would be sullen or angry, but I never quite learned what would make the difference, or how to anticipate his moods. I eventually learned that I wasn't responsible for his moods, but not that year.
I asked my son the other day if he loved Red. He thought about it for a second, then cocked his head and said "No, but I'll still be sad when he dies." It seems like this is our main interaction with Red apart from feeding him and changing his water once a week—that is, waiting for him to die. Crayfish can live several years according to what we looked up online, but what we heard from teachers and other kids' parents was that they usually only last a few weeks after the kids take them home, and, indeed, Red has already outlived the rest of his third-grade science class cohort. It seems a little strange to me, sometimes, that the boy is so attached to this creature that gives so little back, but this is what he's like. He cares. I think sometimes that he's better than I am, and that's a good feeling.
I realized the other day that most of my favorite TinyLetters are written by people much younger than me. There’s a feeling of incipience and urgency that I enjoy reading but struggle to find in my own narrative lately.
There’s a way in which middle age—and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s where I should rightly place myself these days—seems to resemble the heat death of the universe. That is to say, one hypothetical fate of the universe is to reach an eternal steady state in which entropy is maximized and nothing happens anymore, and each moment is indistinguishable from the one just before or just after. This is how life feels sometimes once you’ve moved past your youth. Being young has a built-in sense of direction, of growth, of motion. You feel you are building toward something, even if you don’t know what that something is—at least, that is how I felt. But eventually you settle into a routine, and your life becomes what it is. From day to day, week to week, year to year, nothing much happens to distinguish the current moment from any other.
This isn’t true, of course. It just feels true, probably due to a short attention span. Mind you, this has always been true, but lately, reminders of this untruth have tended to smack me in the face.
My 20th high school reunion was a few weeks ago, and I had a surprisingly good time. For most of my life I’ve had a lot of social anxiety and the prospect of having to make small talk always makes me squirm, but the combination of having hosted an interview podcast for nearly two years, and the realization that I was legitimately interested in hearing people’s stories made the night quite enjoyable. Now, I had expected to hear a lot about what my classmates had been up to for the past two decades—and that did, indeed, happen—but what I wasn’t prepared for was hearing so many recollections about myself. Especially ones I had forgotten.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my blog, how people can have such different memories of an event, and how the meaning of those memories shape our lives. It’s jarring, to say the least, to realize that the story you tell about yourself is incomplete. I tend to see my adolescent self as fundamentally self-absorbed, usually well-meaning but sometimes petty or cruel—which is to say: a teenager—and generally unremarkable. That so many people not only remembered me, but remembered specific kindnesses I’d shown them or specific times I’d helped them or done right by them, it shook me. Not just because the edges around the holes in my memory have the same texture as the edges of my existence, but because it forces me to reevaluate the things I want to believe about myself now.
One of the most freeing realizations I’ve had in my life was how comfortable mediocrity is. This epiphany came after failing the first exam I took in college, which was shocking but also felt a bit like flying—to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder or longer than the day I got my score back on that test. Excellence has its comforts, too, but it comes with responsibility. Mediocrity places no demands. And if unimportance takes the shine off of my achievements, it also takes the sting out of the harm I’ve caused. You have to matter to someone in order to hurt them.
After the party I drove a friend back to his hotel room, and on the way he told me stories about how good a friend I’d been to him, back in the day. I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I was nothing special, then or now. I wanted to insist, and by insisting, to take away something from his story, something which he treasures. What would I take from anyone to keep myself comfortable, to avoid the responsibility of living up to being something? I kept my insistence to myself, and sat and listened to his stories, and gave him a hug before we parted.
This isn’t ending where it began, which I suppose is appropriate. I’m learning. At least, I’m trying.
Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.
Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.
Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.
My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?
Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.
Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”
I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”
“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.
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.
On clear days when I was a child, I'd look up from the playground at my school, or out the window of my mom's car, toward the top of Snively's Ridge along the south edge of the valley. There in the distance, I'd see something, though I wasn't sure what—in fact, it was so small against the line of hills that sometimes in between glimpses I thought I'd only imagined it. But, no, the next time I looked, there it was: a little white dot up on top of the hill. I imagined some sort of tower, a lonely castle fortress where some distant king looked out across his domain.
I came to find out when I was a little older that it was a fire lookout, which didn't really dampen the romantic nature of my imaginings, just changed their focus a bit. I thought of some vigilant park ranger up there by himself, watching, watching, watching, to keep everyone safe.
For years and years I looked up at that little tower and wondered what it looked like up close, but I never got closer than four or five miles away. The trail up the ridge was too steep, too long, and I was too much an indoor child. This past February on a trip back to visit Juliette's parents I finally decided to make the climb, and in the early chill of a Thursday morning, found myself trudging up a narrow, rocky trail in Garland Park. It took me the better part of two hours to hike the three miles or so from the parking lot by the river, and in the end I discovered that the tower itself is set back on another hill behind the ridge, called Pinyon Peak. There's no public access, and so the closest I could get was still a few hundred yards off.
So, I took this picture, then turned to look out across the land around me. There was a little breeze, cool against my skin damp with sweat from the climb, and no sound but a bit of birdsong, some leaves rustling in the wind, and the sound of my own breathing. The sky was clear, just a few wispy clouds making ribbons in the sky to the southeast. I could see east past the Village, southwest to the Highlands, and to the northwest all the way to Monterey and Seaside.
I stood there a while and looked and breathed. Eventually I started back down, as I had promised to meet up with everyone that afternoon and still had a bunch of places to find and photograph. I didn't reach the goal I had in mind for that morning, but what I got was enough. I'll get there some day.
We had been there all day, piling rocks one atop the other, and the dam was really starting to take shape. Who knows whose idea it was—things have a way of coming together when no one is paying attention. Here and there a tadpole darted between the shadowy places between stones and algae, tickling our feet as their tails and little legs brushed past us. We laughed, splashed, hollered, and kept building.
At last the dam was done, the river deepening behind it, tinkling and rippling over and through it. We took off our shirts and lay in the little pool, letting the water wash past us. It was cold, even in the heat of the summer, and we sat until our lips turned blue.
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.
I have a vague memory of coming to Garland Park with my aunt and my brother, and a man who might have been my aunt's boyfriend, but who could just as well have been a friend. He was tall and lean, dark of hair and skin, with long arms and legs, and a Spanish-sounding name like Luis or Carlos or something. The trail from the parking lot to the waterfall is a bit over a mile with a small incline—no problem for me now, of course, and I've done it dozens of times by this point, but for a bookish and whiny five-or-six-year-old, it was a bit much. At one point either I or my brother—I can't remember which—got tired and demanded to be carried.
The hill isn't too bad even for a desk jockey like my modern-day self, but as I remember it, Carlos-or-Luis-or-whatever perspired like I'd never seen a person do before. (I'm sure that having an extra thirty or forty pounds on his back contributed to his exertion.) He wiped his brow with one palm and flung a handful of sweat along the side of the trail. I can't remember his name or his face, but I still remember the gooey glisten of the droplets as they landed on the dirt.
I can't remember now if it was before or after the end of high school. Juliette and I went to the swimming hole at the end of my street with two friends. At first I just sat on the edge of the chalk shelf and let my feet dangle in the water, while the others went straight in. The water was always chilly there, and the trees and the hillside never let any sunlight down to warm us. The other boy—also named Mike—started talking about shrinkage. He was one of those rare few back then, back before "geek chic" was a thing, who could enthusiastically love obscure movies and made his own stop-motion videos and always had a pop culture reference at his lips, and yet he was still cool, authentically cool. Much cooler than I was.
"Shrinkage factor 15!" he exclaimed.
"You have a scale?" I asked. "Like, a measurement? What does 15 mean?"
"Dude, I just made it up right now because it was funny."
"Oh." Right. Duh.
Juliette's friend, a girl who lived around the corner from me, glided through the water scooping up clumps of algae in her hands and flicking it at us playfully. "Gross!" one of us shouted.
"It's just pond yuck," she said matter-of-factly. "It's fun to squish it."
I don't remember when I actually got in, but at some point I must have decided that hanging off to the side looked worse than taking my shirt off in front of two beautiful girls and a guy from the swim team. I imagine that other kids were just as insecure back then as I was, but I didn't know it then. Though, I guess they didn't know it about me, either.
Cold water, shrinkage, pond yuck, insecurity. That's what I remember. It was thirteen years before I came back to the swimming hole, but by then the river had moved and the rock was naked under the sky. Somewhere else along the river, kids are still flirting and playing and feeling weird, but not right there anymore.
I don't know if I ever feel more Japanese—and simultaneously less Japanese—than I do when I'm at my grandmother's house. More because almost everything I learned about being Japanese I learned from her, in her house. Less because it reminds me how little of my heritage I have in my own daily life.
I took this picture when we were visiting her for Christmas Eve. She didn't have this picture on her wall when I was a kid; I don't remember exactly when she got it. When we were young, my brother and cousins and I would take over her bedroom TV for our video game systems—at first an Atari, then a Nintendo, and so on—and the four of us would hole up in there until just before dinner while the adults did adult things out in the living room. Sometimes we'd watch movies: I remember once my dad's younger cousin came in while we were watching a VHS copy of The Neverending Story, only staying for the opening credits because he liked the song.
It seems smaller now, that room, and a lot quieter. But it makes me glad that my kids have gotten to see it and make some of their own memories there.