Preserving the Past Part 3: Post-Graduation Travels in the USA

The intent of this little series has always been to reflect on my obsession with preserving the past, which I’ve always gone about in the same basic way: externalizing the memory in a physical form of some kind. Usually it’s something creative and crafty, but sometimes it’s just a simple keepsake from the period I want to preserve. These objects become more than just themselves. They become the embodiment of the time period they’re from.

In the first post, I wrote about the scrapbooks I made at the age of 11. In the second, I wrote about the photos I took at the age of 16. What interested me in retrospect is that both of these instances of obsessive record-keeping came just before periods of big transition in my life.

The first: it was 2004 and I was leaving Primary School.

The second: it was 2009 and I was leaving Secondary School.

In both cases I was fearful of imminent change and sentimental about the life I was leaving behind. When I finished college in 2011 and university in 2014, however, I didn’t feel this same urge to commemorate my time. I had no social life at either of these places, and so nothing that could be documented. The camera I’d taken so many pictures with during my last year of school remained unused after I left. College and university were not experiences I wanted to remember. Looking back at my 2004 scrapbook and my 2009 photos, it’s clear that my focus was on a sense of belonging. During my friendless years at college and university, I didn’t belong, and so when I transitioned out of them, I felt no sense of fear or nostalgia.

After leaving Secondary School in 2009, my social life went into a deep decline. But I found a sense of belonging again when I started traveling to the United States, and almost instantly the desire to record things returned- starting with photos. In some ways it felt like I’d picked up right where I left off in 2009. I was eager to get photos of myself with my new friends while the opportunity was there, and just like I had at school, I became very shy and indecisive about asking for photos. I was a lot more cautious this time around. I took less risks so as not to upset my new friends or make them uncomfortable. My two closest friends from the United States- who I’ve sometimes referred to on this blog as Aaron and Anne-Marie- are a couple, and very early on in my friendship with them I assumed that all couples wanted their picture taken. I was convinced that my camera would prove useful. The first picture I ever took of them was on July 4th, 2014 at Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire, WI. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up and ultimately did so extremely apologetically, as though they would be doing me an enormous favor- despite my innate conviction that by taking a picture of them together, I’d be doing a favor for them. At first they seemed a little surprised, perhaps due to my overly-timid behavior, perhaps because they weren’t used to impromptu photoshoots, or both. Throughout the whole thing they couldn’t stop giggling, but if anything that only made the final result better. The photos turned out more beautiful than I ever could have hoped. One shot of them smiling at the camera, one shot of them laughing, and one shot from behind as they gazed at the lake. In many ways this shoot changed how I went about both photography and the whole business of preserving the past.

Whereas before I had just taken casual snaps with my own future enjoyment in mind, I now shifted into wanting to take the best possible photograph I could. I thought about photography artistically for the first time. I thought about standards, quality, and technique. The reason for this is that I no longer wanted the photos just for my own private albums. I wanted them for Aaron and Anne-Marie, to give them a massive album to look back on in years to come. I imagined it as a lifelong artistic project, in which I would add the same photo time and again over the years: the two of them together. And so to give them something they would value, I felt motivated to improve my skill. I wasn’t abandoning what I’d started in 2004 with my scrapbooks, but expanding it to include my friends in the hope of turning my record-keeping from a private benefit to a shared one.

Early on in the summer of 2014, Anne-Marie gave me a new HD camera to replace the one I’d been using since Christmas 2008. As well as delivering higher-quality photos, it had rechargeable batteries. This was obviously a big help. I not only tried to improve my skill with the camera, but my skill at making my subjects feel comfortable. Throughout the years following my graduation from university in the spring of 2014, I undertook several creative projects to document my time with Aaron and Anne-Marie in the United States. The first was a brand-new scrapbook, echoing the one I’d made at the end of Primary School. I bought a folder of A4 plastic sleeves and filled each one with a sheet of paper onto which I stuck various keepsakes. Among these were plane tickets, the cards I bought to top up my Tracfone minutes, a peanut from Texas Roadhouse, several bottle caps I liked (Spreckers Root Beer, Jarritos, Angry Orchard Hard Cider, and Sioux City Sarsaparilla), a paper menu from Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, the minigolf scorecard from our time at Pirate’s Cove in the Dells, our printed confirmation email for the Mt. Olympus Hotel, various ticket stubs (a Green Bay Bullfrogs game, Jurassic World at the Gemini Drive-In theater, a Biden speech at the Zorn Arena, a Milwaukee Bucks game), and some pictures Anne-Marie had drawn for me. My favorite item in the scrapbook is the Summer Bucket List that Anne-Marie created for us in 2015. She used her natural creative talents to come up with a beautiful list that we stuck on the wall of our apartment, right by the door. Every time we did something on the list, we would giddily tick it off. These things ranged from tubing on the Chippewa River to visiting Door County. We ended up doing most of them, and the list remains the perfect example of what I referred to in the opening paragraph of this post as objects being embodiments of a particular phase of life. The list is more than just a list. It encapsulates the summer of 2015. It’s an icon, and each icon I preserve allows me to engage emotionally with what it represents.

The scrapbook is something I added to over the years rather than at a specific moment- in fact there’s still room left. However, 2015 seemed to be the year where I had the most ideas. My big project for that summer was to keep a record of every restaurant we went to and produce a book showcasing them. I titled it Long Day’s Journey into Food. This was something I’d fully planned in advance. From day one, whenever we pulled up at a new restaurant, I would take a picture of the front of the building. I made a record of every meal the three of us ordered, as well as the date and location of each visit. Aaron and Anne-Marie seemed to dig the project and helped me out whenever I needed anything. I could tell that my excitement and enthusiasm had spread to them. Anne-Marie suggested I take close-ups of some of the more aesthetically-pleasing meals to be used as full-page spreads, which served as a nice way to break up the restaurant profiles. When my three months in the United States were up, I got to work on the book immediately. I used the website Shutterfly to make it, going for a size of 11×14 inches and ultimately finishing at 60 pages long. On each page I made a profile of the restaurant that included its most compelling feature, its biggest drawback, and a funny piece of trivia from our visit. I listed who was present during each visit and what they ordered. The profiles included slow-food chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings, local cafes such as The Nucleus, fast-food chains such as Culver’s, bars such as The Old Number Seven, and even famous restaurants such as Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. For each one I also wrote a short essay, with a tone not too dissimilar to this blog.

I got off to a good start, and within the first few months of being back in the United Kingdom I had finished about half of it. My goal was to send it to Aaron and Anne-Marie by October 2015. Unlike the scrapbook, which I worked on privately and showed off whenever I entertained guests, the restaurant book was designed specifically as a gift for my two best friends. I wanted it to sit on their coffee table for them to peruse whenever they felt nostalgic. However, the period in which I was writing it coincided with the height of my depression (which itself was largely due to being separated from my friends). My sleeping pattern was all over the place and I was very lethargic. My laziness and my depression each reinforced the other. I was slothful because I was depressed and I was depressed because I was slothful. I kept missing the deadlines I set for myself to send the book to them and as time went by, I worked on it less and less. Then, in the spring of 2016, after recommitting to finishing the project, I logged onto Shutterfly and discovered to my horror that each of the essays were missing significant portions of text. My theory for what happened was that Shutterfly must have reduced the amount of characters allowed for their text boxes, and so the new limit had cut off what was now surplus text from my essays. Each essay was missing the last paragraph or two, depending on how long it was. What I should have done, given how big the project was, was copy each essay from the website and store it in a Word document for safekeeping. But I just didn’t anticipate losing text on the website.

This incident destroyed my motivation for the book, and I essentially gave up on it. Sometimes I entertained thoughts of finishing it, but deep down I believed I would never touch it again. As the years went by, I kept getting email promotions from Shutterfly offering me discounts, and I imagined that they were personal to me, that someone in their head office was trying everything they could to persuade me to go back and finish it. Whenever I thought about the photo book, I would feel a shudder of depression. I hate the idea of leaving something unfinished. An incomplete project feels like a monument to my ineptitude. I tried not to think about it. Then, in the spring of 2021, 5 years since I’d stopped working on it and almost 6 since the project began, I decided to go back. Since I’ve been on furlough due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been abiding to a strict productivity schedule on weekdays based on racking up as many 30-minute tasks as possible. The only way I would finally finish this book, I told myself, would be if I dedicated fixed time to it every day. I knew from the last time around that if I just worked on it whenever I felt like it, then the book would never get done. I needed a daily reminder. At the same time, I couldn’t let it take priority over my main objectives. It’s just a fun little gift after all. If Aaron and Anne-Marie found out I was focusing on making a present for them rather than improving my life, they’d be livid. So I settled on working on it for 30 minutes each morning, first thing. That way I wouldn’t forget it, and I’d always begin my day with something fun.

Before…
…after

When I logged into my Shutterfly account for the first time in 5 years, I was surprised to see that nothing further had been lost. I wouldn’t have been shocked if the whole project had been wiped due to my inactivity. But everything was intact from the last time I’d used it. I assessed the damage from the initial loss of text in 2016 and steadily got to work. I rewrote the passages that had been lost and started on the final third of the book yet to be written. The biggest challenge was remembering the details of each visit, since each essay was meant to serve as a story of our time at a particular place. I also noticed that my writing style had changed in the past five to six years. Reading through what I’d written in 2015, I cringed a little at how sappy I was. It seemed like everywhere I could, I would find an excuse to be overly complimentary toward Aaron and Anne-Marie. I think this was probably a reflection of how depressed and insecure I was at the time. I was desperate to hang onto them and prone to over-the-top gestures I subconsciously hoped would paper over any memories they had of my imperfections. Another thing that made me cringe was my tendency back then towards flowery language. I went back and changed some of the phrases I thought were too pretentious, as well as the transparent praising. At the time I would have had a reasonably high opinion of my writing, so it makes me wonder what reaction I will have to my current writing 5 years from now.

With each day I worked on the book, I grew more and more excited. If I can actually finish this after considering it dead for so long, I told myself, then the feeling of satisfaction will be immense. In 2015 I was just writing it for Aaron and Anne-Marie. But when I started up again in 2021, I was also writing it for my own mental health. The prospect of dispelling what had been a source of depression for me over the past 5 years was tantalizingly sweet. It would have restored my self-confidence and self-love. It would have helped me move forward. It would have proven to Aaron and Anne-Marie that I am capable of seeing things through. The fact that the project had seemed dead in the water for so long only made the idea of finishing it more satisfying. When I finally typed the last word, I honestly couldn’t believe it. For a few seconds I hesitated before submitting the order. Within three days it arrived at Aaron and Anne-Marie’s apartment. Of course, they were very grateful- but to say they were surprised would be an understatement. Aaron video-called me to show me how it turned out, and then asked me why I had sent it to them. After all, they hadn’t asked for this. They hadn’t thought about the project since the summer of 2015. It also assumed that they shared my obsession for preserving the past. I couldn’t deny that it wasn’t a gift that was given because I thought they would want it. Rather, it was something I wanted for them to have. The day it arrived, one of our friends, Blanche, was visiting their apartment. Apparently, she noticed my book sitting on the coffee table and asked how I was able to remember so many random details from so long ago. Or better yet, why I was so obsessed with recording ostensibly trivial things like the fact I could only eat half of my pancake at Oak Street Café or that there was a smiling baby in the booth opposite us at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty. I felt giddy hearing Aaron describe her reactions to the book. But I couldn’t come up with a definitive or satisfying answer to his question. In the end I simply told him that I had to finish it, and that I had to give it to them.

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