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  • Lijing Cobb

The ugly picture

9 out of 10 times when I'm in a photo, I'm not satisfied with how I look in there. Request: let's take another one! And this time I will learn from the picture and make myself look better. Does that sound familiar to you?


I wonder why I am so critical about my images in a still frame, and would spend the time redoing it over and over again until I achieve the "perfect" shot. Do I not understand that if I really break it down, how I'm carrying myself throughout this life forms a continuous collection of still images, and I do not have the chance to redo any of these as soon as they are taken?


Well, I tell myself, if you put it that way, then yes, it's kind of pointless to retake a photo to show others a "perfect" facade, but not taking the time to examine my "poses" outside of the frame. If someone took a picture of me when I'm yelling at my kids; if someone captured the moment when I throw insults at my husband during a fight; if someone dared to press that button when I laughed at someone else's misfortune... if such pictures exist, how would I look in them? And if I looked ugly (you betcha), could I ask for the chance to do it again?


I'm thinking no. We get one shot at life, and it is not enough to just "look good" (although aesthetically speaking, there's nothing wrong with looking good) for the picture. Our call is to look good for the camera of life.


The closest thing we have to this camera of life is this thing called memory. This camera can help us capture defining moments in our lives when our lives are shaped in meaningful ways. I remember such a moment in my life, and whenever I'm taken back to that moment, I see the light.


It was the light of a little candle stick. I was a small child. My parents, older sister, and I sat around it. We had lost power that night. My father always drank rice wine with dinner, and I think the wine god was in a rare, genial mood that night, because he made my father tell funny stories about his childhood, about how he learned to ride a bike.


"We had borrowed this huge bike from a neighbor uncle, and several of us were learning to ride for the very first time. After a few tries I was getting comfortable and thought I got it. So the next time I perched on that bike at the top of that big slope, I belted out to my buddy holding onto the back seat of the bike, LLLLLLEEEEEEEETTTTTTTTTTTT GGGGGGGOOOOOOOOOO!"


"Off I went, the bike picking up more and more speed as I raced down the slope, and before I knew it, BBBBBOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM, I was on the ground, and the bike was in pieces everywhere around me!"


We all guffawed uncontrollably like fools, our faces contorted in the hard laugh, our bellies ached through the contractions, tears streaming down our faces. To egg us on our laughs my father repeated the most comedic phrase in the whole universe again, "LLLLLLLEEEEEEEEETTTTTTTTTT GGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" and we were bent over double, triple, a family in an unadulterated moment of pure bliss.


I don't know if my father remembered this moment, one where he was, for a change, the hero who brought laughter and lightness to us, not tears and terror. I wonder if he had known that he had that kind of power over us. I wonder if he had been presented with the choice in his life: to make his family cry through laughter, or cry through heartbreaks, what he would have chosen. I would like to believe that if he had no other choice but the two options, he would have chosen the first, and I would have had so many moments of such laughs and so many candle lights lit up just for me, that I would have been fine with however the photos from the camera turn out, the very first time.


Alas, life does not offer us such clear cut choices, and as it unfolds we are constantly faced with small decisions of the moment, and we can make someone cry in very different ways.


In my family where I get to play the grownup, we all know who takes better pictures between daddy and mommy. I do. My husband never figured it out. But from the first time we started taking photos together many years ago, he had always solemnly admonished me to not delete "his pictures", the ones he took that I thought were ugly, yet he treasured nevertheless. Never the less. The "ugly" I saw didn't mean diddly squat to him.


Secretly, against his wishes, I had deleted many such photos of "ugly", because I thought I knew better. I thought aesthetics mattered a lot. I cared about what I presented to others in a picture a lot. I wanted others to just see the "perfect" product and not know the rejections that came along the way.


I didn't know that my husband's pictures were memories as they were, and you don't look through the frame of the camera lens for the beauty. Those pictures were for him to remember by, not for the world to see. How is it that he never explained himself with such clarity defeats me, because clearly I would have listened... But wait: would I? Perhaps he did say it in these words, and I just chose to forget, or worse yet, I chose to not hear. You see, I was annoyingly self-important for quite a long while.


These days my children have started to take our phones and take a lot of pictures. I delete almost all of them. My son would make long videos of himself going up the stairs, narrating everything along the way, getting me from a bizarre angle, shall we say, and forget that the camera is on while his little sister distracts him from downstairs, shouting unintelligibly about something. Then he would solemnly tell me to not delete it. And I would judge on his behalf whether or not the video is worth taking up the "memory" on the phone.


I think I'm going to let them decide what they want to keep as memories from now on. Because now I see that I'm given the same choice as my father did, that I could make my kids cry through laughter or cry through fear, and I turn down the latter. So here's to the ugly picture, the memory that deserves better.


My son took this picture of me yesterday. I knew when he took it that the frame was all kinds of wrong, but I also knew that he only saw me, and he loved what he saw.


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