Reeling in the Year

A few weeks ago, Facebook users began posting the Year in Review posts automatically generated by the social media company’s mysterious algorithms. While these strange collages came with a customization option, most people seemed content to post theirs as-is. As I waited for my turn, I wondered whether I could do the same. 2014 was a rough year for me and my family.

Although I have always been circumspect about what I put on the internet, I knew that some of my most-commented-on content for the past twelve months concerned their most trying moments: my mother’s sudden decline and death; my teenager daughter’s struggles to stave off anxiety and depression; her mother’s continuing difficulties dealing with the loss of her own father the previous October; illnesses, including my daughter’s bout with the H1N1 flu and an infection that made it almost impossible for me to swallow solid food for over a week; and the sometimes extreme sleep deprivation caused by these stressful circumstances.

I didn’t want to be one of those people who seem to be constantly flooding social media with news of their trials and tribulations. Yet there were numerous occasions when sharing my state of mind felt like the best coping strategy. In some cases, such as my mother’s hospitalization, I was comfortable being direct, having learned from my experience of previous traumas that the support I knew I’d get from my social media acquaintances would make me feel less alone. But even when I believed it necessary to express my burdens obliquely, it seemed important to communicate them with the outside world.


It helped, I think, that I still write my Facebook posts in the third person. For those who don’t remember or who didn’t create an account until later, the site used to encourage this strangely detached mode of self-expression by prefacing every post with “is”. Even back then, a great many people were comfortable using the first person. Because I’m something of a grammar fetishist, though, I couldn’t bear the incongruity. Over time, I came to take a pleasure, no doubt perverse, in the challenges posed by this approach, which often leads to a befuddling tangle of pronouns. Somehow, it’s a lot easier for me to describe my moods when I don’t have to use “I”.

Thanks to the assistance of Archivedbook, which does a great job of retrieving a social media past that can otherwise seem short-lived, I was able to reexamine all the material I posted last year. Towards the end of the day on October 26th, which is both my daughter’s birthday and the date on which her parents got married, she began taking selfies with me. It had been an unexpectedly difficult day. She had become suddenly upset on the way to dinner, leading to a good deal of awkwardness — we had a guest with us — and a stressful family conversation afterwards. Since she has been very camera shy of late, I knew that her insistence that I post her favorite image was a gesture of reconciliation.


May 5th, exactly one week after my mother’s death, was both the day before my birthday and the day after the scariest conflict my daughter, her mother and I had ever gone through. I remember in stomach-turning detail how awful I felt. And yet the only indication I gave of how I was feeling was a widely shared photo of a cat sitting in a window next to the poster declaring it to be missing, accompanied by the confession that I — or he, following protocol — “desperately needed a smile today. This provided it.”

Then, in the evening, I simply noted what I was eating: “is dining a second time on the ‘vaguely Sicilian’ pasta dish he made as comfort food earlier this week. It’s angel-hair noodles tossed with freshly grated pecorino romano and a sauce made as follows: 1) halve cherry tomatoes and sauté slowly in olive oil with garlic and anchovies — vegetarians could substitute a mushroom paste for the latter — until nice and soft; 2) add a little red wine and a bunch of raisins, which should be gently simmered until they plump up; 3) sprinkle paprika liberally on top and mix in; 4) chop a handful of cashews very fine and add to the sauce, cooking just long enough until their color blends with the rest of the sauce.”


Since I typically post a recipe like this every month or so, and typically when I’m in good spirits, it may seem like I was using this one to conceal my inner life. And I suppose I was, in a way. When I read this status update now, though, it feels more like an attempt to will myself back to some sense of normalcy, demonstrating that I would not let the horror of the previous twenty-four hours prevent me from enjoying the simple joys that can sustain me through the most difficult times.

My mother died in my arms on March 13th. I had called 911 already, and the paramedics arrived in time to bring her back to life. Later, at the hospital, I debated whether to share what was going on. Remembering how helpful people’s kind words had been to me back in February 2010, when a bad fall had nearly ended her life the first time, I finally decided that this was one situation that demanded openness. So I took a picture of her, lying in bed, with my father at her side and posted it along with the simple statement “has had enough of rooms like this one.”


I certainly didn’t regret making this confession. Indeed, I can’t imagine having made it through that day, much less the rest of the year, without the sense of support it made possible. At the same time, it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to revisit and definitely not something I was eager to re-share. Nor was I looking forward to being reminded of other times when I relied on my social media connections for emotional assistance. That’s what made the prospect of seeing some automated précis of my year so troubling. The relentless positivity that Facebook insists upon makes it impossible to distinguish between what one’s friends truly like and what they only mean to acknowledge.

The odds were that I would be forced to confront at least one of the low points of my year repackaged as a highlight. That’s what had happened with other Facebook users, including one who went public complaining that the review of his year had stirred up incredibly painful memories of his young daughter’s death. I braced myself for the challenge of facing this impersonal take on my personal life, plotting how I would customize its contents before letting anybody else see it. As it turned out, my worries were somewhat misplaced. Although my late-arriving review did feature two few photos that made me tear up, they were both ones I’d posted for Throwback Thursdays. One showed my mother and father sitting with my daughter at the San Diego Wild Animal Park back when she was still a bright-eyed grade-schooler and they were both able to get around easily on foot. It’s a happy picture, made sad only because of the darker times I now realize were about to commence.


The other Throwback Thursday photo was from my friend Chris’s graduation in the early 1990s, posing in UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater together with me and his then-boyfriend Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player who would later be exalted as one of the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93. Because neither of these photos actually dated from 2014, I would have been willing to share them. But the Facebook algorithm’s inability to detect how they had originally been used — both of them were posted with the hash tag #tbt — meant that presenting them as the automated year-in-review had intended might be deceptive. I didn’t want my year to be summarized with photos I’d shared from previous years.

That’s why my first move in trying to customize my year-in-review was to try to replace them with something more representative. As I quickly learned, however, this wasn’t easy. In the end, I gave up. I had the distinct impression, despite the superficial nods to user control, that Facebook was once more asserting the my-way-or-the-highway approach that its critics have been complaining about for years. So I decided, somewhat vengefully, to share Google Photo’s automated review of my year there instead. Yet when I watched it, I found it almost as misleading as my Facebook one had been.


Although the Google algorithm had used location data to single out my trips away from Tucson, it was not able, because of a dearth of complementary social media data, to discern which experiences were most meaningful. Nor did it do a good job of selecting the best images from a particular “shoot.” Confounded by these failures of computer programs to communicate my year in a human way, I resolved to craft my own year-in-review from scratch. I spent hours and hours using Archivedbook to reconstruct both the experiences that I had posted about and the ones that I had opted to keep to myself. This task involved sifting through the many links I had shared, typically framed by a couple of my own sentences, as well as my comments on the culture I had managed to partake of despite my challenging schedule.

Frequently, looking at a series of posts in succession revealed connections that had not been apparent to me at the time. The same week I was posting links about the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, for example, I was also commencing my annual bout of asthma trouble, when the heat kicks on and people in my neighborhood start using their fireplaces. While I would never presume to compare my own situation, in which I benefit from the privileges of being white, male, middle-class and living in a relatively healthy climate, from that of the black men and women singled out by police forces around the United States, I realized in retrospect that the focus on breathing had probably heightened my awareness of the claustrophobia induced by my near-nightly coughing fits and the “hangover” they leave me with the following day.

Sometimes, reviewing my year led me to fill in blanks that I would rather have left empty. In the early morning of April 2nd, I posted nine photos and a short write-up of my experience at the show by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks that I’d been looking forward to for months: “had such a great time tonight that he decided to wait by the stage door in the hope of saying hello. And his wish was granted. He got to offer his opinion on why even baseball teams with mediocre attendance are doing really well right now financially — the Jicks had caught most of the Giants-Dianondbacks game — sing the praises of Tucson, which Mr. Malkmus agreed with wholeheartedly, and, in the end, shake the man’s hand. It was such a mellow encounter that it reminded him of chatting with Gary Young back of the Warfield twenty years ago.”


It was a harrowing experience to read this account — which the automated Facebook year-in-review had chosen to highlight — with the knowledge of what had transpired immediately afterwards. Normally, the drive from downtown Phoenix to my home on the northwest side of Tucson takes just under two hours if there aren’t any delays on the interstate. But that night, something made me violently ill just a few minutes after I’d walked away from the venue and continued to beset me for many hours. I kept having to exit the freeway because I was dizzy or sick to my stomach. Even when I’d made it back to the Tucson metropolitan area, I had to spend an hour parked on the shoulder because I felt too awful to drive safely. By the time I arrived home it was nearly 10am.

Right before Thanksgiving, I went by myself to see Mocking Jay, Part I. I love both The Hunger Games books and movies, but the circumstances under which I saw this particular picture, in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, made it resonate with special power: “waited for the right time to see the third installment of The Hunger Games. It’s horribly bleak in a way that feels horribly apt. Some might argue that the series’ depiction of a totalitarian, brazenly inegalitarian society and the superficially egalitarian, yet ultimately also totalitarian forces that seek to overthrow that society speaks more to a perverse nostalgia for mid-twentieth-century meta-narratives than an attempt to make sense of our own supposedly ‘post-everything’ reality. But that historical distinction would miss the crucial point: we have not and never will be able to make that clean a break with the past.”


As I continued to sort through the residue of the life I’d depicted on Facebook, that last sentence started to seem like a prescient commentary on my own predicament. Although I often forgot to post something specifically for Throwback Thursday, I wrote about revisiting material on a weekly basis, attuned to the subtle ways in which my response to it might have changed over time. When I wrote about the Grateful Dead’s 3CD/DVD Sunshine Daydream release from 2013 on November 10th, I made reference to the disappointments that often accompany this impulse to go back in time: “is no Deadhead, even if he retains an outsized and perhaps unjustifiable affection for the height of the Haight-Ashbury music scene. But if he had wanted to return again and again to that musico-spiritual yam stand in an era of broadly diminishing returns, deluding himself about McGovern’s chances, the 8/27/72 benefit show for Ken Kesey’s struggling creamery documented on the three CDs — and accompanying film — of Sunshine Daydream would surely have been the sweetest-tasting tuber. Seriously, if you ever wondered why the band sustained its massive following, this is all the evidence you really need for an answer.”

The “sweetest-tasting tuber” in that post was a roundabout way of invoking one of my favorite passages in literature, from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The novel’s nameless protagonist, who is missing the Southern life he left behind upon moving to New York City, comes across a vendor selling hot yams on a frigid day. The first one he buys is so delicious that it inspires a rich nostalgic reverie. He returns for a second, only to find that it had been frost-bitten, supplanting the lingering sweetness from its predecessor with the bitter taste of present-day reality. This lesson, that the impulse to return is likely to disappoint if it is indulged too freely, is one I think of all the time, because my natural inclination is to stick with the tried-and-true. I also referenced it on July 14th, while driving my father back from Mendocino, where we had traveled to scatter some of my mother’s ashes. I’d decided to stop for lunch at Sudwerk in Davis, California, a favorite destination from my graduate-school days in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the restaurant matched my memories in appearance alone. That’s why, a little while later, when I stopped at Redrum Burger — formerly Murder Murger — nearby, I was filled with trepidation: “is attempting to procure blackberry shakes. Here’s hoping they prove to be less like Ellison’s frost-bitten yam than Sudwerk did.”

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Luckily, the shakes were as delicious as I remembered, making for a rare high point on a drive that seemed interminable. I realize now, though, that commenting on my return to these places was primarily a way of taking stock of the previous few days in the Mendocino-Fort Bragg area, which holds great personal significance for me. My family had chosen the Mendocino Headlands as the best location to commemorate my mother’s life, since she had loved walking there so very much. But that terrain was intimately familiar to me because I had traveled there many times with the woman who would become my wife and then the mother of my child. So were the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg, as well as the short stretch of Highway 1 that connects them.

My family stayed at the Harbor Light Lodge in Fort Bragg, where my father was fairly certain he had brought his parents years before he got married and where he had therefore brought us as well on a vacation when I was in elementary school. And that’s why I had encouraged my then-girlfriend to stay there during the early years of our relationship. When I looked out at the view from the balcony from the room my father and I shared, I was almost overwhelmed by the depth of my memories. I posted a photo, noting that the view was “the sort his mother taught him to appreciate.”


The further I scrutinized everything I’d posted to Facebook in 2014, the more apparent it became that any attempt to distill that already heavily filtered distillation of my experience was bound to fail. When I pondered the other documentary records of what I’d gone through, I despaired of ever capturing what mattered most. Almost every single day, my friend in the Bay Area had texted me a poem to reflect on and I had often replied by referring to what was going on in my life at the moment. On the days when I taught, I had photographed the white or blackboards in my classroom in order to remind myself later exactly what we had covered. And although my personal e-mails were more infrequent than in any year since I’d first started communicating that way, the ones I had managed to compose offered a more sober-minded take on my family’s trials.

What I found most surprising was the story communicated by my photographs. The ones I’d taken with my phone and regularly shared on Facebook did strike a balance between day-to-day routine and special occasions, interspersing selfies and landscapes, domesticity and travel. But the two memory cards I’d shot with my “real” camera — considerably fewer than in previous years — did a better job of distorting my experience than the automated work of Facebook could ever have hoped. Their sheer refusal to communicate anything of the year’s storm and stress reminded me of family gatherings from my childhood, in which the smallness of the talk seemed inversely proportional to the largeness of the issues being dealt with behind the scenes. They also called to mind something I’d noticed as a child when my parents would get out the slide projector to revisit past vacations. Although my mother had made it a point to tell me, when I first started taking pictures, that it was important to create “foreground interest,” both she and my father went out of their way not to include people in the frame unless they were explicitly shooting a portrait.


Since my high school years, I had been fighting against the impulse to follow in their footsteps in my approach to photography. Sometimes that meant zeroing in on people I didn’t know with the help of my telephoto lens. More often it simply entailed not trying to hide evidence that human beings were part of the landscape. But in 2014, clearly, I had managed to forget these principles in the service of a different aesthetic purpose. As meticulous as I can be at documenting the details of my day-to-day experience, I had unconsciously created a version of my year in which its storm and stress had been almost entirely erased by an eerily vacant beauty. What is more, I had done so without sharing these images at all.

That highly uncharacteristic act of withholding seems important in retrospect. I can’t recall what superficial reasons stopped me from posting my photos on each of the few occasions when I’d had the opportunity to take many images in succession. But I am pretty sure that some part of me needed to preserve a space for feelings that didn’t have to be put into words right away. It was as if I knew that putting 2014 behind me would require not only revisiting what I had made public throughout the year, but also releasing the energy bound up in those photos taken when I was able to shut out everything but the beauty in front of me. I’ve been interspersing some of my favorites — ones I know my mom would have loved — with the camera phone images I had already shared as a gift, both to myself and to you: Happy New Year!


All photographs courtesy of the author


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