Home movies, Christmas letters, & facebook

Listening to a recent episode of This American Life on my ipod the other weekend, I heard an episode titled ‘Home Movies.’  Ira Glass astutely pointed out that home movies tend to catch glimpses of families at their best during times of joy and celebration or recreation and relaxation.  We don’t tend to take, keep, or catalog home movies of horrible family arguments, Grandpa’s drunken binges, family funerals, or other equally painful events.  He noted that if beings from another galaxy were to study us given only our home movies, they would likely conclude that we humans are a pretty laid back, carefree lot who spend lots of time playing– either around a decorated tree indoors or in or near a body of water outdoors wearing little clothing.

Listening to this episode, my thoughts drifted to other such misleading snapshots in our lives, especially those we share through two other venues:  the annual Christmas letter and everyone’s new favorite pastime:  facebook.

I have not written a Christmas letter in the last couple of years, the couple before that they have been quite short.  Prior to that, before my life imploded in 2004, I did take part in this painful ritual.  Painful, that is, to many of the readers of these yearly missives, especially if the writer is a braggart or writes in Faulknerian run- on sentences that cease to make sense midway through the holiday greeting.  Like so many others, I wrote of our joys and our successes and mentioned nothing of our failures.  I wrote of summer vacations, to Disney and Universal Studios, a summer trip to NYC, Jason’s athletic endeavors and academic awards, and Alex’s burgeoning art talent.  I wrote of my graduate school work and Kenney’s promotions.  In these letters, I announced the purchase of our new home, the prize-winning vegetables from our garden, the birth of our children and how they were blossoming each year.  Nothing can compare to the letters my mother writes where she highlights she and Jim’s big trip for the year and includes photos of the Canadian Rockies, Alaska, Italy, England, or Germany, and then proceeds to tell of the accomplishments that year of each of her three girls and her now eleven grandchildren.

This letter became a huge challenge, however, the year my life was turned upside down and shaken out like the contents of a messy handbag.  I remember several years ago, writing a ‘real’ Christmas letter that mentioned my youngest son’s increasing anger, the holes he was placing into the walls with his balled up fist, our nasty, horrible divorce, my ex-husband’s descent into drugs after quitting a six-figure job when faced with an executive intervention.  This letter detailed all the new psychotropic drugs we now purchased and that I had to take a second job to keep up; so now I was neglecting my children just to pay for their psychiatric care.  I never sent this letter, of course, but writing it gave me a perverse pleasure and allowed me to see just how silly the sugar-coated Christmas letter really is, and how painful a really lofty one is to read for someone who is presently walking through hell.

As to facebook, that playground where voyeurs and narcissists connect, just one look at the statuses provides evidence toward this comparison.  We create profiles that capture the best of who we are.  We include only the good photos of ourselves, and if we are under 20, they are most often self-taken at arm’s length or in the mirror of a bathroom.  If we are over 40, we don’t want the camera to magnify our new laugh lines or age spots, so we include photos taken from a slightly greater distance. The college-aged FB user shares updates of parties and adventures.  The newest facebook devotees, the 25-60 crowd share snapshots and status updates about current or upcoming vacations, children’s accomplishments, the incredible cake just created for a lavish party, all the holiday gifts piled round the tree, the new car, and even perhaps, what we had for lunch or the movie we are about to see.  I must admit I am part of this group.  I don’t share minutia, but I certainly log in almost daily to see who is [which I guess makes me one of the voyeurs].

Some fb friends are giving us glimpses of the real them; especially friends who are out doing good in the world, battling cancer, or sharing the nitty-gritty in their lives with freshness and honestly that puts it all into perspective.  My hat is off to them.

But, I have sometimes wondered what it would be like if we shared statuses that reflected the darker or baser sides of our lives or personalities.  If a user was to suddenly begin sharing his envy over his neighbor’s new pool, how excessive shopping led to a recent car repossession, a spouse’s suspected affair, or details about gambling debt or porn addiction.  I doubt I would want to stay tuned in.  I might want to turn off this friend and his problems like I turn off the nightly news when it just gets too bad to watch any longer.

I like finding long lost friends from high school and seeing how great they look and how well they are doing.  I like that facebook allows me to socialize with a whole lot of people I would not normally socialize with.  I keep in mind, however, that what I am seeing is a carefully crafted version of who these people are– that only gives me a few limited facets of their multi-faceted life.  I’m okay with that.

After listening to the episode ‘Home Movies’ on This American Life, I headed out to the back yard to play with my teenaged chickens.  I was shortly joined by Jason, Alex, Jenn, and Cam.  We did not film this moment, but it was one of those times that I would have liked to have captured on film or video.  A family laughing and talking on a bright, clear, early summer Saturday morning– enjoying the warmth of the sun on our faces, the soothing sounds made by the chickens, and the soft feel of the feathers in our hands as we held them.  The beauty of this moment did not escape me.  I was warmed by its simple joy.  We made a memory that morning, and I can imagine my children remembering it– perhaps one day a very long time from now after I am gone– where in laughter and conversation one of them might exclaim, ‘remember when Mom went through her chicken phase?’

So, keep taking snapshots and video of those moments of joy.  They are important because they remind us of the greatest pleasure in life– spending time with people who we love.  And those times, those joy-filled moments, make all of the hard times that we don’t want to capture and save, bearable.  They give us hope.

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