Original memories

Were it not for the Wayback Machine, a lot of my post-1995 writing would now be gone. Since the advent of online-only publications, getting published has been a lousy way to stay published. When pubs change hands, or die, the works of their writers tend to evaporate.

I’m not a great self-archivist, despite having better-than-average skills for the job. Many but not all of my professional archives are preserved — for now! — on my website. Occasionally, when I reach for a long-forgotten and newly-relevant item, only to find it 404, I’ll dig around and try to resurrect it. The forensic effort can be a big challenge; an even bigger one is avoiding self-blame.

The same thing happens with personal archives. When our family lived in New Delhi in the early 1960s, my dad captured thousands of images. Those color slides, curated in carousels and projected onto our living room wall in the years following, solidified the memories of what my five-year-old self had directly experienced. When we moved my parents to the facility where they spent their last years, one big box of those slides went missing. I try, not always successfully, to avoid blaming myself for that loss.

When our kids were little we didn’t own a videocassette recorder, which was how you captured home movies in that era. Instead we’d rent a VCR from Blockbuster every 6 months or so and spend the weekend filming. It turned out to be a great strategy. We’d set it on a table or on the floor, turn it on, and just let it run. The kids would forget it was there, and we recorded hours of precious daily life in episodic installments.

Five years ago our son-in-law volunteered the services of a friend of his to digitize those tapes, and brought us the MP4s on a thumb drive. I put copies in various “safe” places. Then we moved a couple of times, and when I reached for the digitized videos, they were gone. As were the original cassettes. This time around, there was no avoiding the self-blame. I beat myself up about it, and was so mortified that I hesitated to ask our daughter and son-in-law if they have safe copies. (Spoiler alert: they do.) Instead I’d periodically dig around in various hard drives, clouds, and boxes, looking for files or thumb drives that had to be there somewhere.

During this period of self-flagellation, I thought constantly about something I heard Roger Angell say about Carlton Fisk. Roger Angell was one of the greatest baseball writers, and Carlton Fisk one of the greatest players. One day I happened to walk into a bookstore in Harvard Square when Angell was giving a talk. In the Q and A, somebody asked: “What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard a player say?”

The player was Carlton Fisk, and the surprise was his answer to the question: “How many time have you seen the video clip of your most famous moment?”

That moment is one of the most-watched sports clips ever: Fisk’s walk-off home run in game 6 of the 1975 World Series. He belts the ball deep to left field, it veers toward foul territory, he dances and waves it fair.

So, how often did Fisk watch that clip? Never.

Why not? He didn’t want to overwrite the original memory.

Of course we are always revising our memories. Photographic evidence arguably prevents us from doing so. Is that good or bad? I honestly don’t know. Maybe both.

For a while, when I thought those home videos were gone for good, I tried to convince myself that it was OK. The original memories live in my mind, I hold them in my heart, nothing can take them away, no recording can improve them.

Although that sort of worked, I was massively relieved when I finally fessed up to my negligence and learned that there are safe copies. For now, I haven’t requested them and don’t need to see them. It’s enough to know that they exist.

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9 thoughts on “Original memories

  1. I’m not sure I can say why, at least without going into full (and insufferable) Literary Critic mode, but this is one of my all-time favorite Jon Udell blog posts. Thank you.

  2. I can relate to this so much. It happens to me so much. Photographs and videos of trips of early childhood, of parents and grandparents, of places and things. When we find one of them it is a cause of celebration.

    I often wonder about lost knowledge. In 6+ decades of existence I have seen so many (incompatible) changes in storage technologies. If me, as an individual can lose so much of information, I wonder how much humanity lost. Even if the information is there somewhere, how can one find it?

    Thanks for this post Jon. Would love to see you write more.

    1. I have nearly 100-year-old photos of ancestors in boxes. If I don’t lose those boxes, and if our house doesn’t burn down, they are more likely to remain available to descendants than many of the family photos captured during the early era of digital photography.

      This does haunt me, and is certainly why try to rationalize it being OK to lose recorded memories, although of course it isn’t.

  3. I second that emotion of Gardners.

    As much as I enjoy the Carlton Fisk story and remember watching that moment I don’t think it works (for me). That would mean we only need memory and can discard our memorabilia, ticket stubs, framed diplomas.

    No I think the videos digitized, the web pages dropped from 404 to 200, the photos of a boy with a camera are not replacements for original memory (as if brains are recording devices) but provide the neural signals to relive them. To feel them again. Maybe to find new meaning.

    Today I came across something from
    my Dad, an old shovel handle that we fashioned into protection after he and our family dog were attacked by an aggressive loose dog. If I did not stop to ponder that, would I have thought of my Dad today? No. These cues are important, the get me to stop what I’m doing and step out to connect to memory,

    A friend who spent time in Central America described being with family there where a wall was a giant quilt of different family members. They would sit and retell old stories, having the kids touch the old photos. They said the we die 3 times- once when the body stops, second when we are put in the ground, but the third and final death is when no one tells our story.

    The combination of original memory and artifacts work together (to me) for retelling my family stories.

    Then again I’ve never hit a walk off or any kind of home run.

    That’s you in the photo?

  4. > The combination of original memory and artifacts work together (to me) for retelling
    > my family stories.

    For me too, of course. As I just said to Dorai, I’m haunted by the ephemerality of digital artifacts. Photos of ancestors in boxes may well be more available to descendants than digital images.

    A big challenge for me is to find a happy balance between the impulse to preserve all digital artifacts in the face of rapid tech evolution, and the need to accept some amount of attrition.

    A topic for another day: The effects of scarcity vs abundance. Physical copies are necessarily scarce, digital copies potentially abundant. We can’t individually guarantee preservation, but collectively we probably can. And the collective strategy has a useful filtering effect. Film was scarce, bits are abundant, so we take zillions more photos now. They don’t all need to be preserved. Deciding which to keep, and preserve long-term, is hard individually, easier collectively. I can envision a replication scheme that invests incrementally more resources in the reliable preservation of artifacts based on their frequency of use by families and larger groups.

    > That’s you in the photo?

    That’s me. And to your point, I’d not have remembered having my Brownie camera had I not revisited that image.

    Hmm. /Is/ it a Brownie camera? Seems larger than I remember. And, is it somehow reflecting the scene? Gee, if I had the original color slide I could probably figure that out…

    1. > I’m haunted by the ephemerality of digital artifacts. Photos of ancestors in boxes may well be more available to descendants than digital images.

      physical remnants are not less vulnerable I think..

      the biggest problem with digital is curation. My wife makes a physical photo album most years with the family pictures. I put some pictures on my weblog though once the boys were teenaged I stopped putting their images up. Everything is backed up to a 2TB NAS. One day if I ever get to retire I hope to look at the pictures again..

      I wrote about all this once, inspired by a similar post from one of my imaginary internet friends –

      That post gets updated every time I come across another thought about pictures and memory..

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