Life As We Know It: August 5, 2013

       One of life’s little pleasures that retirement has afforded is the opportunity to indulge an old hobby: photography. It’s a passion that began a long time ago in college when I was introduced to what had long been a staple of the newspaper profession: the “Speed Graphic” and its enormous 4-by-5 inch negatives. The pictures those big negatives produced were crisp and sharp, never grainy. But the camera was bulky and cumbersome and it required carrying around a lot of heavy “plates” if you wanted to take more than a couple pictures.

        We’ve come a long way.

        Today’s digital cameras are as prolific as cell phones, and they come with bells and whistles light-years removed from the Brownie Starflash of my youth. Don’t like the picture you just took? Grandpa blinked? Aunt Hazel looked to the side for some reason? Just delete the photo and take another.

        A digital camera small enough to fit in your shirt pocket can take photos in stunning detail and brilliance, provided you have your mega pixels all in a row.

        But where the digital revolution really shines is in your computer after you load the photos into an editing program. One of the most popular is Photoshop, and it’s almost unfair what someone skilled in its nuances can do to make an otherwise average picture exceptional. You can turn a gray, leaden sky dark blue. You can add clouds or take them out. You can give a pale face a beautiful tan and even take out the wrinkles. You can remove a distraction – like a stranger pushing a baby stroller – from the background.

        Of course, darkroom manipulation of photos has been around since there have been darkrooms. In the hands of a true master like Ansel Adams, in my mind the greatest landscape photographer who ever lived, it’s called artistry. Adams could bring out detail that more closely revealed what the human eye could see. But he didn’t put a mountain where there was none.

        All of which makes me wonder: what if we could Photoshop our lives?

        What if we could go to the computer and simply get rid of the bad stuff? Just imagine it. The fender-bender at the supermarket – erased with one keystroke. The worrisome diagnosis at the doctor’s office – swept away with an electronic brush. That long ago D-minus in algebra – gone just like that. That strikeout in high school with the bases loaded – expunged from the personal data bank forevermore.

        There are so many things we’d be tempted to go back and change if we could. But seldom do we get do-overs in life. You can flunk the bar exam and get another shot. You can take an ill-advised impulse purchase back to the store for a refund. Medical advances have added years to our lives, and miracle medicines hold off diseases that would have killed our grandparents.

       But for the most part, we can’t rewrite our personal history. Mistakes in judgment, illnesses, broken bones and broken hearts, economic setbacks, the loss of a loved one – none of us get through life without experiencing some or all of them, and they define who we are.

       We are flawed individuals, each of us. The blemishes, the warts, they’re all part of the package. As that noted merchant of wisdom, Jimmy Buffett, once observed, “the cosmic baker took us out of the oven a little too early.”

       We can’t Photoshop away the blunders we make, no matter how well intentioned they seemed at the time. We can’t sprinkle “pixel” dust on the pain and make it go away. We can’t digitally reverse the bad things that happen. But we can be better husbands and wives and sons and daughters because they did.