30 January 2009

Time in a Book

In the past few months my life has flashed before my eyes. Perhaps flashed isn’t quite the right word, let’s say scrolled. With the extra time I’ve had while not running, I’ve been running a different kind of marathon, and it’s given me an interesting perspective of time and what we do with it.

A year and a half back, my beloved other half commented that if catastrophe were to strike our home, our biggest loss would be memories. Between us, we’ve lost three of our four parents, and all we’ve got are the photographs. We really should put a few away in the safe deposit box, she wisely suggested.

A wise – and innocent – suggestion, to be sure. But never say something like that to an engineer. We think about these things too much, and we get ourselves in trouble. In my case, it went something like this:

Thought One: Why not put a few photos in the safe deposit box?

Thought Two: Which ones? How many?

Thought Three: And if we pick our favorites and put them away, we can’t enjoy them.

Thought Four: So make copies, of course.

Thought Five: Uh, did you notice we live in the digital age? Scan them, you ninny.

Thought Six: Aha! Scan them and put the CDs or DVDs in the safe deposit box!

Thought Seven: See Thought Two, but now space isn’t much of a limit in the box.

Thought Eight: How will I ever pick out the ones to save?

You can see where this is going…

I issue to you a challenge. Pull out an old photo album – at least 10 years old. Page through it, and I’ll tell you to notice something you may not have noticed. You love the worst pictures. Admit it. That shot of Aunt Marge that’s tilted and has the thumb covering the corner of the lens. The overexposed image of Gramps holding your sister as a baby. They all trigger memories. Even the order in which they lay in the album plays games with the wiring of your brain. It’s how you’re wired. The albums are themselves part of your memories.

So which pictures are more worthy than others to survive the Insurance Event of the future? Or, if we’re fortunate to never experience said Event, what to choose just enjoy them online and easily accessible? Pick the best, and you’ll regret not having at least some of the rest. The fine art of drawing the line fails miserably here.

And so I made the policy decision that if I was going to do this, I simply wouldn’t edit history. If it was out there, it will be in there. Damn the torpedoes, scan ‘em all.

I knew this would be a monumental task. Between my wife and I, we’ve got close to sixty photo albums in the house, leading up to the time we finally went digital. With two to three hundred photos per album, that’s, well, a lot. And that’s before project creep set in. Those pesky slides from that odd period in my life when I thought slide film would offer artistic opportunities. Too bad that period spanned our honeymoon and therefore can’t be ignored. Those treasured old albums at mom’s house, precariously stored under a aged drain pipe (not to mention her smoking habit), thereby deemed ‘at risk’ and in need of rescue by scanning. Then a close relative passed away, we held the task of cleaning out the house, and found a few thousand pictures that we know we’ll never see once they pass to her estranged son. Do ‘em all. I want to leave a digital family legacy to my kids and grandkids, so they’re not looking at images faded by more and more generations.

It’s a marathon of a different sort, and if I didn’t have the runner’s marathon mentality, there’s no way I would ever finish. I spent a year working the project in fits and starts. Call that training. Then along came my forced vacation from running, and I decided it was time to finish this different kind of marathon. Call it the race. And it’s been intense. I’m pushing 22,000 photos already, with well over half that total done in the last two months. Each one removed from the album, scanned, trimmed, organized, titled, and returned.

It’s clearly a marathon, and I’m at mile 22 thousand, with the finish line projected ironically close to 26.2 thousand. And in this case, I’m feeling better with every passing mile. Like a marathon, despite its painful length, I’d do it again, just for the experience. Like a marathon, it teaches you a lot about yourself.

When you view every single shot individually on the big monitor, you see details you never saw in a small print. And when you cover the span of your life, and your parents’ lives – at that level of detail – in the span of a year’s work, you see the big picture of your life in ways that you never saw before. In most cases, it’s confirmation of things you knew about yourself, but you never really saw how pervasive, how obvious they were in pictures. Your passions. Your styles. What lit you up and shaped you. And in some cases, patterns you’d like to forget (or, more bluntly, what a dork you looked like in high school in 1980, at least when you weren’t running, or even when you were running but had sweat socks on your arms to keep warm). Oh, and by the way, they really do grow up fast. It’s amazing how recent and clear are the memories of my baby daughters when looking at every picture up close. And one’s now a teenager. Which makes you think how quickly, as Pink Floyd once noted, ten years has got behind you, and how you’d better pay attention to the next ten and use it wisely, if you’re lucky enough to get it.

On a side note, having take on the marathon version of saving a few memories, there is this aching fear in the back of my mind that had I just done the abbreviated version my wife had in mind and been done with it, those memories would be safely stored away already. As is, while I have the files backed up on multiple drives, they’re still all sitting here, meaning if Mr. Catastrophe visits us tomorrow I’ll lose not only the memories, but a hell of a lot of work. Pray for me on this one.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be largely done with this marathon. Then, in a couple of weeks more, I’ll be running regular miles again, setting off for the next ‘normal’ marathon. Both kinds of them have changed me for the better.

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