Beyond the Frame

By Cheryl Scheir

I spent last Friday evening on the Atlantic coastline… 

(Read here that I was on a Jersey shore beach, ocean side, after hours so I didn’t need the beach badge that I failed to buy because of rolling COVID-19 quarantines for out-of-staters.) 

…taking in an impromptu wild dolphin show… 

(Read here my persistent incredulity that, yes, children of 1970’s New Jersey, there actually is wildlife at the Jersey shore.)

…and watching my carefree dog digging the sandy holes of his dreams. 

(Read here that his digging to date has consisted primarily of scratching furiously at couch cushions and that he spent his non-digging beach time barking at the waves and consuming seaweed.)

Ah, the Instagram-able life. There’s the snapshot—the moment—then the somewhat less idyllic story behind it. 

The above (edited) version of summer reminds me of snapshots from colder seasons, wherein smiling, well-dressed kids pose with their parents and siblings for the annual family Christmas photo, sharing holiday cheer and evoking mutual fondness. It’s all peace and goodwill inside the photo’s cropped edges. But in reality, I wonder how many of these images are snapped immediately before snarky verbal snaps of “I’m out of here…” and “We’re never doing this again.” 

Or, imagine a worst case Christmas photo scenario: an adorable toddler poses with an equally adorable mess of tangled Christmas lights. Mom snaps a photo of the magical moment, but then the kid makes a post-photo attempt to eat said Christmas lights. This drives freaked out photographer mom to dive for the child, dropping her smartphone, landing on it with her elbow, and cracking the screen. Meanwhile, the dog capitalizes on the diversion by taking a generous sip of the Christmas tree water. 

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not all bad in the snapshot department. I can think of plenty of my own snapshots that capture a genuine context. In them, let’s say, we subjects who look joyful actually are joyful before, during, and after the captured moment. They represent, rather than mediate, a moment. But then I wonder, is it really the moment—emotion and all—that I’m working to capture? In my striving to have experiences that are joyful, for example, is it sometimes enough to have photos that simply look joyful? The trap, I fear, is classic: it is better to look good than to feel good. 

Keeping with the photo theme, let’s zoom out and think about snapshot in a metaphorical sense. My memories of life, and I suspect yours too, are a series of mental snapshots. These are moments in our memories that lack photographic documentation, but stand out among our past and present experiences. They are the ones that will be rehearsed and repeated silently and out loud. They may come to influence or even define our futures. 

My memory snapshots represent a mixture of emotions: 

  • Losing a sneaker on a swampy summer camp hike (I was uncomfortable, embarrassed.)

  • Singing loudly outdoors with headphones on (I should have been uncomfortable and embarrassed, but cringe to remember that I wasn’t.)

  • Meeting my future pre-college best friend in the school locker room on the first day of 7th grade (I was apprehensive about meeting a whole new group of people, but relieved that her mom made the first move.)

  • My first few hours of dorm life (I’ve never seen 3-inch Oreos before or since, but thank you, Dad, for hooking me up with a carb-based coping mechanism!)

  • Another first—sleeping on the hardwood floor in the empty bedroom of my newly purchased home (Uncomfortable, again, but surprisingly at home.)

 

I suspect that snapshots of memory can be taken out of context too. They may crop out part of the story or distort the details. Take may snapshot of losing my sneaker in the swamp and squelching back to civilization in my wet sock. This was a landmark moment of mortification for 10-year-old me and, for a long time, fueled a self-image of overall spaziness. But, looking back now, I realize that it was non-fatal, short-lived, and not at all representative of my overall character. It did not actually define me as a failure…unless you count loosely tying my shoes as a moral failing. 

Fast forward to a “memory snapshot” of my recent past. File this in the category of “simple things that are anxiety-producing because I only do them once every 1 to 2 years.” Also in the same file: using public transportation and completing the FAFSA form.

I was in the car inspection line at DMV, a week overdue on my registration renewal (but with the pandemic, so what?). I had my mask on, papers ready to hand over, and no cracks in my windshield to hide, not like usual. Plus, I was confident that my horn would actually sound when I was directed to blow it. Contrast this to 4 years ago, when my horn had stopped working due to little fingers having pushed several coins down through available spaces in the steering wheel upholstery. 

Determined to ace this inspection, not just of my car’s road worthiness, but of my own strength of character, I focused my attention, zen-like, on the DMV examiner. Living in the COVID pandemic environment has wrought my brains into mush, but that would not show today! While I sat quietly, confidently in the driver’s seat, the examiner took down my VIN, entered it into a computer, then positioned himself at the tip of my hood and started giving orders. 

“Wipers.” I wiped. 

“Full speed.” I wiped faster. 

“Left signal.” I signaled. 

“Right signal.” I signaled again. 

“High beams. High beams?” 

I froze. Time slowed. I had nothing. No idea. High beams? They were no longer part of my repertoire. I had no inkling of what to do. My brain had no high beams. 

Desperate, fumbling, I hit the wipers again. This time fluid squirted out. 

The examiner said it again, louder. “High beams.” 

Again, wipers. 

The examiner, bless him, walked back to my window, reached in, and switched on the high beams for me. Another snapshot came to mind, this of the “dingbat” stereotype of a woman drying her fingernail polish by hanging her hand out the window…while driving. 

The examiner, bless him again, played it cool, said nothing, walked around the back of the car, and asked me to put it in reverse. Miraculously, I had the mental wherewithal to comply. Returning to my window, the examiner said, “You ran over my toes, but I didn’t need them anyway.” 

DMV humor—just what the moment ordered. 

I had my snapshot of the day; I suspect it the examiner did too. On the paper I handed to the DMV cashier, that snapshot simply showed that I had passed inspection. In reality, I failed in the mental acuity department, but I gave myself a pass because of this valuable insight: inspection line anxiety added to pandemic stress shorts out human beings’ mental connection to automotive high beams. The cure is tension-breaking kindness, something we all need. 

The examiner probably got some good mileage out his snapshot of me, and why not? Even I think it was funny. My life beyond the frame showed through, and I came out looking real, fallible, and human. 

Refreshing, isn’t it? 

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