Okay. I am not an orderly, neat-freak sort of person. Though I have an inexplicable, longstanding repulsion of bathtub drains, as in if I accidentally touch one I will spend at least ten minutes convincing myself I’m not going to vomit by thinking happy thoughts about polar bear babies with my eyes scrunched shut. There’s just something about a bathtub drain being the equivalent of a bathtub’s anus, maybe, that implies it will never, ever be clean no matter what you do to it. But I am not neurotic nor fastidious nor particularly organized. I mean, you should see the rest of my bathroom. Maybe once a year, we chisel into five inches of residue to remind ourselves the bathroom countertop is white. Things stick to it. Cotton balls. Band-aid wrappers. And stay there for months like bug carcasses in a barnyard web. I should be repulsed by the toothpaste tumor amassing in the bottom of the toothbrush cup. My friend showed me an animation of what happens when you flush the toilet and your toothbrush is nearby. Think nuclear fallout in a bathroom-shaped radius. Think fecal matter instead of ashes. I should be repulsed by that. My bathroom says it all: I’m a mess, but there’s a small, bathtub-drain-sized chance I could completely flip out and be anything but. I am an O.C.D. time bomb.
And I could hear the ticking commence from the moment I opened a boot box containing my family’s Super 8 home movie reels. The last time, well over a decade ago, that my parents decided to spool these babies into a projector, the film got caught and burned against the lens. A scene with me and my little sister in a borderline chokehold hug flickered and froze and bubbled black in the middle. Then the black expanded to the sprockets. And that was that. No more movies since the watching of them produced this zen-like challenge no one could agree to: you may see your past only if you are willing to let go of it completely. We finally decided, however, that if we had them transferred to DVD, we could navigate around this challenge altogether. We could see our past and cling to it obsessively. Zen be damned. I gave the box a shake. Something about those different colors, those spools out of their little Kodak boxes, those little uneven bits of tape with the dates scrawled on them peeling away … tick tick tick.
I was the first to screen the newly transferred movies when they finally returned on DVD. The haphazard arrangement of scenes had resulted in a scrambled mosaic silently playing out in jerky, slightly-faster-than-real-time snippets. That feeling you get when your foot expects another step on the stairs but you’re already at the landing and all your bones from your heels up seem to jam together upon the impact? That was me, watching this DVD. Organize by chronology or theme or some kind of imagined plot line – girl gets chased by goat at petting zoo and plots revenge via mud pies under the swing-sets – please, but this, this was like watching the past being vomited back up. I’d have to re-edit the whole thing myself, copy individual clips to my computer, make some sense of them, and burn them onto another DVD. If you detect a slippery slope forming here, you are correct.
For starters, the individual clips weren’t quite individual clips. Most were two or three clips spliced together into one file. So I upgraded my software and began the task of untangling these random childhood moments – one sister carrying a bucket of water on a camping trip, another demonstrating the mechanics of her flapping flower hat, my dad mugging for the camera at Christmas – which required playing them back, over and over, rewinding, replaying, trimming, splicing, rewinding, replaying. I spent many a late night this way. When I’d drift off I’d be in 1978 knocking grass off my shoes and walking into the house casting shadows on the lawn. In the foyer I touched an antique secretary cabinet I’d forgotten was right there. The glass door clacked and rattled against its old rusted latch as I pressed my fingertip to it. I sat down on the floor and drew a tree on a piece of paper still waiting for me.
Lets say you go back in time to have a little visit with yourself (that would be me laughing, of course, on the right). You plant your feet in the shag, glance around, and there you are. You, littler. Much littler. A lot smaller than you remember yourself being, in fact. “Hello,” you say, extending a hand for a shake, “I’m you.” And the little you squints hard and snarls. Little shit, you think, drawing your fingers back into your palm. That’s about the time you realize that the little you and you are completely separate. Disconnected. Your brain can’t transmit orders for your little body to return the handshake, let alone blink. You have no control over you. You are not you. You have no idea how much this very notion had begun to bother me as these old films took over. I could not control the little me. But you know what I could do? I could make the little me fall on her ass in time to the trumpet blasts in Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself.” And there was nothing the little me could do about it.
I’d chosen “Express Yourself” because this was the clip in which the two-year-old me had stripped down to nothing and went streaking across the backyard. At first, I’d told my sisters to send me songs to use with the footage that reminded them of their youth. But when I cued them up with the clips, the lyrics weren’t relevant and the action was happening out of sync with the rhythm of the songs. Yes. It had come to this.
During what has come to be known as my Spielberg period, about four software upgrades in, I could be found hunched over my laptop in my bed at all times, like Schroder over his tiny piano, clicking away. There were the title cards needed to introduce the segments and transition effects in-between (pictured left). Not to be overlooked – the graphics and sound for the DVD menu and submenus (that’s right, submenus, plural). Oh, and what home movie compilation worth the effort would be complete without an introductory short film?
And by introductory short film, of course, I mean Star Wars tribute.
Hands on their knees on the sofa, my parents were my focus group at the first screening. The green wood-paneled station wagon hovered in outer space, and then, in a flash, disappeared into hyperdrive, leaving nothing but the stars behind. The introductory remarks scrolled up the screen in the requisite yellow lettering: “In a galaxy far, far … well, this galaxy, actually ….”
I made note of their reaction. They laughed in all the right places. Good sign. Then, a transition effect hung up, overriding the segment title. “I didn’t even notice,” mom said before cooing at the subsequent footage of me being accosted by the goat at the petting zoo. And horror of all horrors, Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” didn’t cut out when it was supposed to, right as my little sister smashed a cupcake on her high chair tray. Instead, it bled over into footage of my oldest sister showing me how to open presents. This is where the Jackson 5 were suppose to chime in: “I’m going to teach you.”
I buried my face in my hands. “This is all wrong! Wrong!”
I ejected the DVD before they could finish watching it, drove back to my house, climbed into bed with my laptop, and began tweaking.
Flash forward two years, my parents have every copy of every incarnation of the edited home-movie montage with Star Wars tribute film, refusing to part with any of them, and inevitably they will always put the wrong one in when someone asks to watch it. Somewhere in that stack, though, there is one version that is absolutely perfect, right down to the last squinty-eyed-in-the-sun wave at the camera and the end credits with blooper reel.
* title from Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself.” The whole line: “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing.” So true, that. And I know this is the whole line because I’ve now heard this song more than our national anthem. In case you were wondering.