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.