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.

TAGS: , , , , , , , ,

TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

24 responses to “When You’re Doing What 
You’re Doing”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    Wow! What a thought… to perfect our memories of the past. This summer, I made a trip home to see my family, and I filmed much of it. I was thinking of putting all the best parts on a DVD and giving copies as Christmas gifts, but I’m afraid it might just be one more in a long line of awkward, almost-good, homemade gifts from the littlest sibling. I might do it anyway.

    • Oh you should, Mary. It’s the sort of gift that can’t possibly miss because of its sentimental value. I mean, my family loved the home movies no matter what I did to them even when I wasn’t pleased.

      Speaking of perfecting memories of the past — I once had a segment in here (but it made it too long for online reading) about how my daughter will ask us to film a second or third take of her doing things like hunting for Easter eggs — and it always makes me so mad. “This is real life! You don’t get a second take!” But of course finessing it all later is another matter 😉

  2. James D. Irwin says:

    ”And by introductory short film, of course, I mean Star Wars tribute.”

    Haha! fantastic. I had to do a presentation on the collapse of the Weimar Republic at college once, which I also opted to open with a Star Wars tribute.

    I also played the Imperial March over a grainy, flickering close up of Hitler, as well as soundbytes from the Fonz, Mr T (”I pity the fool who tries to take over the world” seemed appropriate) and the Happy Days theme in an ironic context.

    I made a film earlier in the year and I took it far too seriously— I shot it a few days before the deadline, but I wanted it to be perfect. I barely moved editing it, and you better believe I made an awesome DVD menu.

    And then some fucker on Youtube leaves some sarcastic comment about how poor quality it is!

    • The short film you posted a link for on here once? That was great! Another reason not to read the comment threads anywhere else besides TNB.

      Oh, your Star Wars tribute film sounds veery interestink …

      • James D. Irwin says:

        Thanks! The Youtube comment wasn’t exactly eloquent, and I wasn’t really bothered given the grade I got for it, and the response it got at the exhibition it was part of.

        Also girls were impressed…

        The history film project looked good, but typos in the actual film meant that a lot of the facts were a bit off.

        I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed this post by the way. It was lovely, and I feel bad for not saying that to start with…

        • Cynthia Hawkins says:

          Thanks! You should have felt bad! Really, really bad! Joking, joking 😉

          Facts, shmacts. As long as it looked good, eh?

  3. Aaron Dietz says:

    I can relate. This is why I don’t allow myself to do anything. Except work work. And write. And occasionally clean. Once I do something else, it’s an obsession to complete it perfectly.

    Great post! I don’t know why, but “bathtub’s anus” made me laugh maybe more than a healthy person should.

    • Thanks Aaron! Come to think of it, you’re right. This level of obsession is true for any “extra” work I do as well. Maybe I’ll write a post sometime about the eight years I’ve spent trying to sew a quilt, the perfect quilt, by hand, out of my daughter’s baby clothes (never sewn before, I might add).

  4. Yes, please, more mentions of Charles Wright. Love this song, reminds me of being a kid, but so much more truly funky stuff to be had. Thanks, Cynthia:


    • Ooh, what a great link! And the perfect way to start the day. *And* it has me thinking about my other obsession, record collecting. Looks like it’s time to do some shopping on Musicstack …

  5. I second Aaron’s comment that “bathtub’s anus” totally cracked me up. (Also, kinda skeeved me out, but that just means you’ve done your job well.) Your family must be touched by your attention to detail b/c no one spends that kind of time on a film about people they don’t love deeply.

    • You’d think no one would … but … I just might. I do adore them though. They are fantastically worth the bloodshot eyes, etc. etc.

      You should be skeeved out! I think everyone should be skeeved out by bathtub drains. I might make this my new mission.

  6. Matt says:

    This line completely jumped out at me: “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.”

    What a fascinating thought – like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applied to personal history.

    We never had one of those Super-8 cameras, just a video camera, which was almost exclusively used for my stepfather’s business; to the best of my knowledge there is less than an hour of footage of our childhoods ever recorded. Though I have to say, 80’s-era video was a deeply inferior medium to film, even Super 8; pretty much uglified everything shot with it, so maybe I’m better off.

    • I suddenly remembered … my daughter has a Zen board — whatever she paints on it disappears within five minutes. She can’t stand it.

      I think you are better off. I know I’m better off dad stopped filming anything around the mid-eighties (he refused to “upgrade”). It’s bad enough there are pictures.

  7. Lorna says:

    I often think about organizing my old pictures to dvd but I’m certain my ocd would kick in and it would be a never ending project.

    Bravo to you Cynthia for getting though it.

    • Thanks Lorna! I used to do that (with the photos) for my little girls’ birthdays, but even on that small scale it turned into a Cecil B Demille production. I can’t imagine tackling *all* the photos. In fact, just the thought makes my hyperventilate.

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Wow. I was already intimidated by the process of editing clips like this. Now I think I’m allergic.

    In my dad’s attic there are dozens of reels of old super 8 movies, plus the stack of 80s-era VHS movies, which I’ve long intended on having transferred to DVD. Your piece here has given me pause to reconsider. Maybe I can encourage my sister to take on the project. 🙂

    Fun stuff, and lots of practical guidance. Thanks for sharing this cautionary tale.

  9. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Ha! I love it. You are the official TNB movie nerd.

    you may see your past only if you are willing to let go of it completely
    This is profoundly awesome. How badly do I want to do this? In sixteen words you explain the reason I am writing a book.

    This is great. I love your film compulsion. It’s all so Cynthia Hawkins.

    • Heh! Yes. Sad but true. And why this movie nerdness gets inflicted on TNB — I was working on a collection of these movie-related stories before getting signed on here. So I’d mired myself in movies. I mean, more than usual 😉 Thanks, Lisa!

      Btw, whenever I see a post by the ever-awesome Lisa Rae, I save it for a kid-free evening full of silence and a glass of wine. In other words, looking forward to reading your new one over the weekend! Stay tuned …

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    “My friend showed me an animation of what happens when you flush the toilet and your toothbrush is nearby.”




    It’s cool that you have the movies!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *