Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Recorded Life

I don’t like talking to machines. When an answering machine comes on, I usually hang up. If I’m forced to leave a message, I end up stuttering something unintelligible before shouting, "Talk-to-you-later-bye!" and slamming down the receiver. Thus, one of my least favourite wedding traditions is the roaming videographer who stops at each table and solicits clever greetings for the bride and groom. It’s like signing one of those group cards where you spend ten minutes scratching your head before writing, "Have a great birthday! xoxo." Only worse.

The act of recording something always has the potential to alter or even interfere with the experience itself. The worst case I’ve witnessed was a wedding where the photographer ran out of film during the signing of the register. He instructed the happy couple to "Wait there!" and sprinted out of the church, returning ten minutes later to find the recorded music looping through its third repeat while the guests fidgeted uneasily in their seats.

Even without the involvement of stunningly inept professionals, the need to photograph, video-record, or diarize can subtly alter the way we encounter the experiences so memorialized. At best, it might relieve the pressure: when you’ve spent $800 on yellow freesias and champagne roses, it can be comforting to realize, on the way back to the hotel, that literally hundreds of photographs have captured the beauty that has left nothing more than the faintest of indentations on your short-term memory. At worst, the effort of chronicling an event might prevent one from really living it.

That assumes, of course, that one starts out with an ability to live in the moment – a capacity to set aside one’s detachment, to turn off the interior monologue that constantly transforms experiences into words. Some people – my ex-husband for instance – ardently pursue those "peak" experiences that suspend all conscious thought. I’m not sure that’s an option for me – the urge to analyze, to verbalize, doesn’t seem to have an off-button.

Holding a camera – or picking out words – can actually enhance my awareness, force me to notice the exact aroma of the savoury crepes at a Quebec City creperie, or the unlikely blue of the Mykonos ocean. My default setting is introspection – I slip all too easily into my thoughts, even in the midst of experiences I want to remember. For me, the act of recording an experience often serves to pull me into the moment, anchors me to the physicality of the world, with all its transitory impressions.

My urge to record is strongest when I’m most aware of how quickly an experience is flying by. A vacation, a wedding, a child’s infancy – these things are fleeting, and I stumble through them in a haze of jet-lag, sleep-deprivation, and stress. They are better in retrospect than they are at the time: they are deposits into an account that I will draw from continually in years to come.

Memories are funny things, though – the well-beaten paths of recollection lose some of their freshness over time. I was hunting through a photo box not long ago, searching through all the rejects, the pics that hadn’t been deemed album-worthy. These photos were blurry, cut off – in them my eyes are closed, my smile is crooked, my skin is blotchy and weird. There is little to admire in this hodge-podge of cast-off photos, but flipping through them brought back a visceral recollection of the years they documented. It was not so much that I had forgotten the events they recorded – rather, the photos revived my sense of the physicality of those events. I remembered the grit of sand in my teeth after a windy day at the beach, the dizzy exhaustion of my honeymoon in Greece.

It’s the imperfections that make the remembered experience real; perhaps that’s why blogging works better for me than photography. Instead of lining my family up in front of the Eiffel Tower and waiting until everyone is smiling to snap a pic (hopefully before the Pie sticks up two fingers in a mocking "V" behind her brother’s head, because that’s not nearly as funny as children or my sister think it is), the conventions of blogging allow me to remember the mess alongside the picturesque, the goopy pus along with the startling blue-green of my son’s beautiful eyes.


Angela said...

I guess that is what I like about blogging it will allow me the opportunity to record the events, feelings and minutiae of everyday life that would otherwise be forgotten years from now. It's nice to know that I will have a record of what has occurred in the past.

I detest answering machines, I was leaving a rather detailed message today and was unceremoniously cut off, so insulting and embarrassing. I called right back and left a message and apologized, but later was left feeling, why should I feel guilty, when the first message was important and the detail was required....arrgh!

Jenifer G. said...

Well said. I am not a big fan of answering machines either and my messages end in a very hasty (and yes loud) talk-to-you-later-bye! too.

When calling a company recently and the recordings were getting deeper and deeper I just started pushing star and pound until I reached a human. Seems to work.

Blogging allows me look back on a bad day and remember they are not all like that. It reminds me to pay attention and stay present when all I want to do is lock myself in the bathroom. Sometimes when someone compliments the girls I stare in amazement - they are wonderful, beautiful and full of life. Blogging reminds me to be grateful for that.

Andrea said...

Have you read stumbling on happiness yet?

ONe of the experiments he talks about found that people who write about an experience remember it less accurately than those who don't. The theory being that the act of putting something into words alters the way it is remembered. (the experiment I remember put a colour swatch in front of the volunteers; half of them were asked to describe the colour, and half of them weren't. The ones who were asked to describe it were almost universally unsuccessful in picking the colour swatch out of a group later on, when compared to those who hadn't.)

So I like blogging for the way it allows me to remember events, concretely and in detail.

But on the other hand ... how much of it is a real memory, vs. invention?

Suz said...

The desire to crystallize memory is one of the reasons why I blog, but even as I write, I'm very much aware that writing involves all sorts of decisions that shape the memory. I believe that almost any recording is, in fact a translation, which happens as we take life as lived and convert it into another format, whether that be a photo, videotape, or a piece of prose.

slouching mom said...

They are better in retrospect than they are at the time: they are deposits into an account that I will draw from continually in years to come.

I love this, and I think it's true, but it makes me wistful at the same time. I envision an old woman left with nothing but photographs that each day she examines with reverence.

It's in the balance, isn't it, between living in the moment and having a store of memories to help you relive the moment? Neither would be sufficient without the other as a complement.

Melanie said...

My MIL will yell at one of her grandkids, "Get out of the way!", if she's missing a photo op behind them. She will make me kiss my child three times to try to get a shot of the spontaneous love we were sharing 90 seconds ago. It drives me nuts.

Don't get me wrong, I take A LOT of pictures, but I try not to ruin the moment by capturing it. It is a fine line.

I appreciate your thoughts on this - you are right on!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well, that's assuming you write about the goopy puss!

Regarding Andrea's comment, I wonder if color isn't a bad example. I mean, words can only remind you of a color, not describe it; and the more words you use the more associations you pile on to your memory.

Lovely writing as always B&P.

Kyla said...

I hate hearing myself on answering is unnerving.

I have a need to capture the moment, whether is be with a photograph or a blog post. I try not te allow the capturing to interrupt the moment, but still provide me with a way to relive the moment once it has passed.

bubandpie said...

Andrea - That might well explain why I remember high school as such a miserable time (whereas my mother insists that I was actually quite a happy person for most of it). If we write things down, we'll remember our construction of the event, rather than the event itself - but if we don't, we may not remember it at's an evil dilemma, isn't it?

Mad Hatter said...

Yesterday's post and today's as commnetary on blogging. I think I love you. If I lived in your city, I would stalk you.

Me, I need to write things down b/c my memory is soooo bad. I think I've consumed too many saturated fats in my life. The arteries are hardening.

NotSoSage said...

Well said.

'nuff said.

nomotherearth said...

I like blogging, but hate being on a trip and constantly taking pictures.

I think blogging is a lot like writing a book review - you understand when you're reading the review that it's not the same experience as actually reading the book first hand - you seeing the book through someone's (or your own) eyes.

When taking pictures during a trip, though, I feel removed from the events. I also feel like I'm desperately trying to record moments to prove "yes we had fun!" and "yes, we love each other", when there is no need to prove that at all.

Amy said...

Whenever I have to leave a message on a machine the word 'and' and 'um' are repeated alot! I had the same experience going through some old photos a few days ago. I can especially recall the memories with old photos of my kids. I can remember their smell and the silly faces they made by looking at an old photograph. And once I start writing about it I gain more and more detailed memories!

Beck said...

When I went to see the Queen, I was so busy trying to take her picture that I have no memories of my extra special Subject and Monarch moment. It was a revelatory experience for me, and so ever since then I try to actually remember events rather than take their photos - there are enough pictures out there, but only one me to notice how the sunlight is falling through the windows of my grandparent's church.

Lawyer Mama said...

B&P, how do you DO that?? Sometimes I swear you sneak into my brain while I sleep, capture exactly what I feel or have been trying to say & then out it comes, in beautiful form.

That's exactly how I am. In one of your previous posts I think I commented about always being the one hiding behind the camera. I've always thought of it as a crutch, something that sets me apart from life, but I know that it's really my way of mentally recording the moment. I still think I need to try to live in the moment a bit more, but sometimes I really need that camera, that journal, that blog.

Lady M said...

I've really enjoyed taking more pictures these last two years. I also find that I remember things more vividly after trying to capture them. Blogging is something that I use to tell the stories of our lives, and sometimes try to synthesize sense out of them. That means that not every post is mechanically accurate for time/dates/exact words, but that's ok - it's the emotion that I'm trying to get down.

Sandra said...

I hate being photographed, or video taped or recorded in anyway. I regret that a bit now when I try and search back for photos of days gone by.

But writing and bloging ... it is a way of a recorded life that I can embrace.

Fabulous post!

anna said...

"The act of recording something always has the potential to alter or even interfere with the experience itself."

I think the act of recording something always alters the experience - in ways that are often both profound and unnoticed. And when there are two people sharing the same experience, and one is recording and the other is being recorded, both people's experiences and memories of the experience are impacted by the recording device - whether that be a camera, video, or words....

Excellent topic.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Lovely, wonderful post.
I think, in the end, that writing is at least as honest or accurate as taking a photograph or recording. At least if you write well, you call on more of the senses and also upon what was most relevant to you at the time - which seems to me to be truer to your experiences of what actually was. A picture or video decides that for you, and thus re-orients it. And then, there is the option of not recording at all, and simply relying on memory. I choose to do that sometimes. Given the imperfections inherent in recording an experience, whether through memory, writing or some other kind of recording, I'm not sure we can ever look backwards and say we're looking at the truth.
I wrote more about this topic here: