Mislabeling Photos (or What the iMac and I Have in Common)

Full disclosure:  I am a new iMac owner.  The iPad was my gateway Apple device, purchased a few months back.  I can find a dozen ways to justify this new ooh shiny on my desk (old computer on life support, less stuff on the desk and floor, simpler interface, great options for my video editing son, reliability, etc), although I’ll admit learning a new system is taking some time.  But I’m having a blast., and I’m not ashamed to say I’m a bit obsessed.

This week a friend helped me transfer (okay, he did the whole thing) my documents, music, and photos from my nearly dead PC to my new computer.  Since I had an evening without the kids, I decided to play around a bit.  It’s been hard to get a turn at this new machine, what with one child on garage band (software for creating music) and the other on photo booth (good for funny pictures and video, as far as I can figure).  I spent several hours “teaching” the computer the faces present in my photos.  For those of you who haven’t discovered Picasa, iPhoto, or the like, this program presents the faces in your photos for you to name.  Ideally, after naming some folks a few times, it “learns” to recognize them and tags them correctly.  I was fascinated with its learning process, noting what seemed to throw it off and whose faces it learned quickly.  The red-headed boy from a First LEGO League team some years back?  No problem.  After two photos of him, the computer got him every time.  Ditto with his dark-haired mother, my ex-husband,  and a friend’s daughter.  It learned my face a bit more slowly, although my hair ranges from well below my shoulders to above my ears, depending on the year, and glasses are present about half the time.  My sons gave the software fits.

Now, I have some trouble identifying my sons correctly during certain ages of their lives, like in their first year of life.  The computer, however, was far more confused.  I’m sure I identified each child at least a hundred times each for the computer, yet it kept requesting a name for each son.  Most of these requests came from pictures taken four or five years back, at which point they both had the rounder faces of the prepubescent child.  It never named them both the same name in a photo (wouldn’t that be a software faux pas), but if both were present, only one would be named, and about half the time, incorrectly.  It was a long evening.

Decay curve essential: Notice the graph never get to zero.

It was made longer by my ever-growing feeling of sadness as I passed through the seemingly endless parade of pictures of the two most precious beings in my life, smiling away as if they had not a care in the world.  Most of the shots were pre-separation.  Most were after my marriage had become a minefield.  Few contained me.  Fewer contained my ex-husband.  They all took me down a path I rarely travel these days:  a path of sorrow and regret. Regret that we could not maintain a relatively happy, intact family for these lovely children.  Sorrow at the pain they’ve been through over too many years.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wasn’t the one who wanted divorce.  Despite some rather terrible emotional living conditions, I spend the last years of my marriage fighting for my family to remain, well, a family.  Even when it was clear that wasn’t what my then-husband wanted.  Even when it defied reason and logic.  But once the paper was signed, I was flooded with relief.  That was 14 months ago, and while most of the time I don’t look back, there are times I fall back onto that path of sorrow and regret. And looking at pictures from that painful time, despite the smiles on the boys’ faces, almost always brings it back.

So I let the tears fall for a bit.  Deep sobs wracked my chest for a few minutes, how many I don’t know.  I cried out a bit more grief, but my peace returned quickly.  That’s the trend.  I feel the pain well up, and I hold it back, either avoiding the stimulus bringing the pain to the surface or simply by brute emotional force.  Since avoidance doesn’t work forever, and since the grief is fighting hard to be acknowledged, eventually my defenses drop, and I allow myself to feel deeply.  Simply allowing that process to occur restores my balance and empties out a bit more of the residual pain.  I’m not sure if the pain is in a bucket that eventually empties or rather is more like the half-life of a radioactive compound, decreasing in an exponential function (teaching Precalc to my older probably makes for less palatable metaphors, but if the math fits…).  I image it more like the latter, dropping in potency by halves each year, let’s say.  I like the idea of a grief decay curve.  It appeals to my scientific mind and emotional experience.  While the bucket may never empty, the level of grief (and frequency it kicks up) keeps decreasing.

The photos are often my undoing.  I see those smiling faces and feel an incongruous pain.  I’m not certain how to remember those events.  Christmas photos from the last third of the 2000s remind me of arguments and emptiness even when looking at shots of smiling kids trying out new toys and grinning over Hanukkah candles.  The holiday itself this year was fine, but the photos from the past make me weepy.

I know I’m mislabeling.  Those smiles were the real deal.  At least the ones from the kids were.  And we had some decent times in those last years, despite my tendency to largely remember the bad.  After my tears, I returned to the photos (now properly labeled) and took another look.  The sadness threatened to break through again, but with far less strength.  The kids WERE happy in those pictures.  Unburdened by the drama unfolding (which was, at times, very present to them, I’m sorry to say), the times these shots were taken were happy times for them.

So I’m working on my labeling.  Much as iPhoto “learns” a face over my labeling it properly time after time, I can realize that the happiness of those events was real.  The divorce that would come to pass in the years following wouldn’t have the power to change that past.  I have another load of photos to move, this batch, from 2008 and 2009, far trickier times to navigate (and far fewer photos to label, since my strategy those years was to just not take pictures).  I’m sure the iMac, brilliant though it is, will continue to confuse my boys in picture after picture, but I’m counting on the process gradually becoming smoother.  And I’m counting on my labeling to improve as well.  Hey, if a computer can learn, so can I.

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