Monday, March 9, 2009


What is it about visiting historic places that just bring out the amateur filmmaker in all of us? Grinning boys on Great Hall steps giving the thumbs up in front of Dad’s crouching with their Minoltas barking orders to stand still. Couples in matching sweatshirts throwing peace signs in front of flashing tripods. It seems everywhere I go these days, somebody is taking a picture. Last week I even saw one man filming about five minutes of the Taiwanese National flag flapping in the wind about fifty meters up in the sky.
How do I know it was five minutes?
Because I took his picture.
You see, lately I’ve become fascinated with snapping photos of people who are in famous places taking pictures of what they believe to be memorable. I love watching their victims pose. Everyone does it, but just slightly different. Some are naturals, dropping it like it’s hot into some sexy smile, others are shy, just wanting the picture to be over so they can blend back into the scenery. Most people will willingly pose in groups of other like-minded people shoulder to shoulder if you just ask them to, “Scrunch together,” and almost anyone will take your picture if you just hand them a camera and smile. Yet the granddaddy of them all is the ‘Famous Landmark.’ There is rarely a person in the world who doesn’t like having their picture taken in front of the Acropolis, or St. Basil’s Cathedral, or the Eiffel Tower, just to say, “Yep, been there done that.”
It instills great individual pride and sense of accomplishment. We may not have built the place, had anything to do with the design, scrounged up funds to have it constructed, or even been the guy on the plaque which sits on the bench dedicated to just sitting and watching the famous place. But we had our picture taken there.
I understand. I’ve been that guy most my life, but not anymore. I’m striking back.
I had this thought last weekend while visiting the Chaing Kai Shek Memorial Park in downtown Taipei. You see, I’d been there before, and I don’t remember a thing, and it got me wondering why?
Three days after graduating high school in 1988, I traveled to Asia on a touring basketball team. We made stops in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the gem of the trip, the People’s Republic of China. This was a year before the Tiananmen Massacre, when every aspect of our itinerary was written on a special visa card inserted into our passports. Our hotel name, which university or club we were playing, what restaurants we’d be eating at, all recorded prior to our visit. Very official, the kind of things one would need to remember and keep in perfect order.
The gymnasiums in China were extraordinarily, more like barns with cement walls for sidelines. Our white legs and blond hair created quite a stir, and crowds gathered five to ten people deep in all spots, standing three feet onto the actual court. You would reach for a loose ball going out of bounds and come up with a spectator’s leg, or worse, a kick to the face. Really.
In one particular game the floor was a parquet surface of tiles, like the old Boston Garden, with potholes in it. You’d be dribbling and Whoop! The ball would sink into this divot and you’d be running the other way. What?
We won every game but one, all of them blowouts.
The one we lost was in Taiwan, our first game. We played a National Youth Team in this splendid sports center high up on a hill overlooking the city. They had the first 7-footer I’d ever played against, and we ran with them for a while, but jet lag took its toll and we lost by a couple of points. The defeat is insignificant now because the experience was just so incredible, trading t-shirts at mid court afterward with smiles and handshakes. It was a great memory.
There were other aspects I’ll never forget too.
How the Chinese soaked their food in water which gave us all terrible stomach cramps, or how one night the power was cut in the city of Guangzhou and didn’t come on until the morning. How I survived that week in China on a jar of Jiffy peanut butter I bought in Hong Kong, and how on our last night we visited ‘Snake Alley’ and watched a mongoose in a cage fight a cobra and win. Afterward a man exanguinated the snake and auctioned off the blood to this old man who drank it out of a bowl.
It was intense, and for an eighteen year old, I mean, how do you forget that, right?
Yet when I returned home and developed my film, my mother told me to write the names of all the players on the back of my photographs else one day I would forget them.
“Ah Mom, how could I not remember my teammate’s names? We just went through this life changing event together?
But sure enough it happened. Now almost twenty years later, of the twenty five boys and girls on that trip, I can only remember a few first names. Funny how that happens.
One place I took pictures of was our first big tourist stop in Taipei, The Chaing Kai Shek Memorial Park. I remember we had been wearing U.S.A. team apparel for a while, but here we got to wear our own clothes. We toured the grounds, snapping pictures of massive pavilions and long gardens. It was a bright day, sunglasses and wind. I remember thinking, I’ll probably never come back here. Why would I? This is a once in a lifetime trip? The memory stops there.
Well, last weekend I returned, and it was amazing how much I still couldn’t recall. It was a National Holiday, and a huge stage was arranged with singers of all kinds and crowds standing and crossing their chests and sitting down and waving flags. It was quite a sight. Yet as I closed my eyes and thought back, it was a complete blank. I couldn’t remember how many assists I had in that first game, what was the name of that girl I had a crush on, or even what I said to anyone while walking those amazing grounds. Why is that? How is it that I can remember certain things and not others?
I can remember with exact detail the excruciating moments of Xi’an’s cesarean birth, yet of the twenty-four hours of labor before, I recall only tidbits. Equally, I can recount the memory of crashing my first car just five days after my Dad turned over the keys. Yet that icy night, hanging out in Kara Ward’s living room watching movies, I couldn’t for the life of me describe. So why is it that only the life threatening, life impacting, the life altering moments are burned deep in our memory banks and not a running tally of the mundane. Ninety-nine percent of my life is spent making grilled cheese sandwiches, and looking out bookstore windows watching leaves fall, and catching my daughters as they dive off the side of the pool, and nothing and everything else. These are no great memories, are they? In time will I forget they ever existed? Will they just blend into one memory of raising my daughters or standing in a foreign kitchen or rolling a car on black ice? I don’t know.
That’s why I’ve been taking pictures of people taking pictures of the mundane and thinking it is somehow profound, that it matters, that they will remember, that it will be everlasting. Maybe that’s the trick, just live like you are in a pose and someone is pointing a camera at you. Just click! Now you see me, now you don’t. Click. Our memories are what define us. Click. There is meaning in this simple act. Click. Take a picture of me, I’ll want to remember this someday. Click.

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