Saturday, February 27, 2016

Memento mori

     Death caressed my cheek, lightly, and in the oddest way.
     It was not precisely a caress, his cool fingers trailing across my skin, chilling me, and then gone.
     Not that. More like a sudden sting. Thursday night iPhoto ate my photos. All of them. Going back to 2009. Thousands of them. Gone.
     I don't know what happened. One moment I was working on my computer, getting my post for Friday ready, and I slid over to iPhoto to look at the pictures, and there were none.
     Just a grid of gray squares, empty as the eye sockets of skulls, jeering skulls, leering at me.
     Where are your precious memories now?!?
     I leapt online. There are forums for this—none sponsored by Apple itself, oddly. But a variety of ad hoc advice blogs run by would-be experts. It's as if Honda didn't print an Odyssey owner's manual, just left problems for drivers to form ragtag groups and puzzle over like Platonic dialogues, wordy and digressive.
     Nothing they suggested, once I figured out what they were suggesting that is, actually worked. I held down the "Option" and "Command" buttons while summoning up iPhoto, checked the "Reconstitute Thumbnails" button, and waiting in hope.
     But nothing. Shut down the computer and re-started it.
     I wasn't upset so much as focused, determined. I figured the photos were somewhere. I would most miss the ones from the 2009 trip with the boys out West. But those would still be on the chip from the camera, which I saved.
    I explored.  I found a file with all of 2009 in it—1200 photos—and imported those back. The trip, ironically, the one thing I had backed up. But at least something, a scrap of the original bounty. Maybe a reason to hope.
    Then I saw something called "BROWSE BACKUP." And it brought me to what seemed like photos, on the teraflop G-Drive external hard drive I bought over the summer when my iMac's guts were dying. I hit "RESTORE" and got a little spinning candy cane and the hopeful message, "REBUILDING LIBRARY." It seemed to grow very slowly — a good sign. Something was happening. I went to bed.
     I snapped up at 3:30 a.m., rushed to check. The photos were all back. No, not all. It stopped in June, in the middle of Kent's prom. For some reason, the past seven months weren't there. Maybe I hadn't backed it up since then —I have a tendency to unplug the drive. There aren't enough ports for a drive and a printer and to charge the phone.  But I thought I had.
     I went to work musing on this, the loss of the past six months. What, exactly, was gone? I was almost afraid to think about it, to reaching into the void and feel the phantom prick of something important. What picture would I miss?
     It was then that I felt The Grim Reaper, the chill touch, the low chuckle as I walked through all those strangers in the Loop. The pictures for the past six months were gone, as all the pictures would be gone, as I too would be gone, the way your most cherished objects end up sold for a dollar at a garage sale, your favorite shirt a tuft of color on a bale of rags being shipped by the container to Africa. We assemble these careful worlds, our mementos under glass domes, our photos tagged and properly backed up, in albums trimmed with lace, then Fate draws in a big breath and blows and it all scatters away. Your memories molder in a landfill, or are gazed at by distant descendants who didn't know you and don't care.
    Embrace your losses, Seneca says. View them as practice. A few drops in advance of the storm that is going to wash you away. A reminder: someday you will lose everything.  Find a lesson. Keep that external hard drive plugged in.
      Patek Philippe is right. We never really own things, we just take care of them for the next generation, and while there's a chance they'd value your $100,000 wristwatch, most of us don't have one of those, and the threadbare assemblage we spend a lifetime gathering makes for a few melancholy days in front of a dumpster for our progeny. We only possess one thing that is truly ours: time, the minutes and days and hours of our lives.  And that we have in both scarcity and abundance. An endless, or so it seems while it is unspooling, string of moments that are really just one moment, now, blundering alongside us like an eager puppy into the next moment, some good, some bad, too many spoiled and wasted and tinctured with anxiety over something like the loss of some bundles of well-organized electrons.
     Back at my desk, I couldn't help it. I thought about the photos since June. There really was only one that came to mind as a Loss. Kent, on the day we dropped him off at Northwestern, running through the Weber Arch. My wife and I positioned ourselves further along the path, and I caught him as he flew past, young and happy and in motion, literally running toward his future. I'd miss that photo if I never saw it again.
    Although.... Did I not like it so much that I posted it as a cover on Facebook? Yes, I did. We sneer at these technologies, and blush at our use of them, but they do have their value. A click delivered it safe in a grey strongbox at the bottom of my Facebook page. So not everything lost. A little, sometimes the best, remains — maybe the best is what lingers. Or perhaps I'm just returning to the illusion. Lucky me was lucky again. The best photo is here, the rest will be found or, if not, forgotten, which is their eventual fate anyway. The Pale Rider brushes past me but keeps going, galloping toward a rendezvous with someone less fortunate. Leaving me with a souvenir, the briefest touch on the cheek, a cold kiss of fingertips that caught my attention, left me gazing at where he vanished, wondering whether I really saw him at all. That's a gift better than photos, to realize, there is stuff, and there is time. Don't waste the important one worrying over the unimportant one.  Thanks for the warning, Mr. Death, I'll try to take it more to heart between now and when we meet again.

    Postscript: After work Friday I took a longer look at that "Browse Backup" function, and recovered all the photos until Thanksgiving. We'll accept December and January's photos as the slightest of scars, nothing to even feel bad about. The headline, "memento mori," is Latin for "remember to die" meaning, "remember that you will die," and sometimes refers to actual objects, tangible reminders, like the small skull carved from a cow bone pictured above. 



  1. More importantly perhaps...what is Latin for "remember to live"? The Buddhist notion of impermanence is one of their three marks of existence. "Anicca" is the absence of permanence and continuity. The doctrine asserts that because things are impermanent, attachment to them is futile and leads to suffering. Easier said than done for most of us.

  2. Time to look into cloud storage? Not infallible, but additional insurance.

    1. It would be remiss of me, in my leap to the pragmatic, to not echo Caren's sentiment.

  3. Very thoughtful blog today Neil.

  4. "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" Francoin Villion.

    All of last year's E-mails disappeared a few days ago and it did seem - ridiculously - a little like a death. Managed to restore them at the cost of upgrading my obsolete Outlook program, which Microsoft, the reigning deity in my cyber world, no longer supports. Felt better, although I don't much like the 'improved' Outlook program. Like most blessings, mixed.

    Tom Evans

    1. There are several sung versions of the "snows of yesteryear" on U-Tube. Very affecting even for those of us who don't know French.

      Also, coincidentally Yahoo has a story on "The Jackie Gleason Show," in which it mentions the disappearance of many of the earlier episodes of the show because Dumont was too cheap to save them.


  5. I enjoyed your beautifully written post. I was reminded of death last week when we had my aunt's old cat euthanized. Even though we knew it had to be done because he was suffering and she could no longer care for him, it was extremely difficult and very sad. It reminded me that we can't go back.


  6. When the woman next door died at 84, after decades as a neighbor, her relatives looted the place of valuables and left the rest to rot. My wife and I spent three weeks in that unheated ruin, pawing through forty years of hoarding. Much of it went to the landfill, but we salvaged a few treasures from all over the planet (her husband had been a merchant seaman), The remainder went to recyclers and charities.

    Fast-forward two years, and I have recently become all too aware that the exact same thing will happen to our house in another fifteen years (or less). When our stuff goes into the dumpster or gets dispersed to the winds, someone will look through the mess, sigh, and surely say "They were weird."

    Despite these sudden and sad realizations, I continue to fill the house with what someone once called "objects of much affection." Turns out it's far easier to end a 32-year tobacco habit than to quit being a packrat. Some habits begin in childhood, and last a lifetime.


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