Clip-Ons and Half-Smiles

My mom never took pictures of me on the first day of school. I think it’s because she realized I looked no different then than any other time in my life. Okay, maybe I had a cleaner, ironed shirt on, but we all knew it would be rumpled fifteen minutes into the school year. So, why front?

It’s like when we had school picture day. Sure, I wore a tie most of the time, and a sweater to cover up the fact of no tie at other times, but generally I had on a collared shirt. That was fancy back then (at least when I wasn’t in church). I only knew it was school picture day because the clip-on would be lying on my bed when I got out of the shower.

It was like Santa had placed it there.

Sometimes I wish they had clip-on ties for adults. Don’t tell me they have them. You will ruin my dream. It’s the dream that sustains me, after all, the illusion that they don’t exist. If you tell me they do, then I’ll have to subscribe to a new illusion. Like when I found out about the Tooth Fairy.

So, I would clip on that tie, adjust it to hide the fact it was a clip-on, and I’d smile for the man, or the woman, who stood behind the camera with a chipmunk grin. Like I was supposed to copy them. I never did. For me it was a competition to see who would give in first. It’s why I have so many variations of the half-smile. It was like this insane game of chicken where no one won.

Except that I can still look at the pictures today and see that half-smile. And sigh. There are no pictures of that man, or that woman, with their chipmunk grins. So, I guess they won after all, huh? Or I can just stop looking at the pictures, and pretend I got my way, that there were no clip-on ties, no sweaters, and no sitting for pictures that would come back to bite me in the ass.

I wonder if everyone has the same problems I do. I show people pictures of me as a kid and they are all shocked that it’s really me. “Is that you?!” they ask me, incredulous to a fault. And I wonder every time, “Do I look that hideous now that you can’t see a glimpse of me in the chubby kid with the half-smile?” I think it’s perhaps something I’m doing wrong, or maybe I really have changed that much.

I took a bunch of pictures recently. A small portion were selfies, but many were because we were on vacation and if I appeared in none of the pictures others might doubt that I was even there. Hey, someone has to take all the good pictures that depict the moments that we will all look back on with fondness. Right? Besides, I have a good face for radio.

And I can be slightly self-deprecating at times.

Shhhh. Don’t let anybody know.

I do take pictures of my kids on the first day of school, and not because I’m dying to post them on Facebook and see how many likes I can get. I don’t do that. I leave that to my wife. I take the pictures because it’s just another excuse to try and capture these years before they’re gone and all I have left are memories. They grow up fast. I think about myself, nodding away from the camera, and I wish I had leaned in more. I wish I had understood how fast it goes, how much I might want portions of it back when it was gone.

Sometimes they’re amenable to the camera, and other times they shy away, just wanting to “get it over with,” or whatever the grumbling is all about. I don’t mind either times, because both remind me of myself, of life as a kid, of that time when declining a photograph was the biggest thing that happened that week. Because, life happens, and time has no vanquishers.

A picture is a way to capture the moment precisely as it was. It shows the bad as well as the good, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. It shows what was right there, in all its convoluted glory. Sometimes I remember those moments, and other times I don’t, but they happened. No one can say they didn’t. I have proof it it, in those clip-ons, in the half-smile, in the turn of the shoulder to hide away.

My mom never took pictures of me on the first day of school, because that day was really no different from all the days in between the starts and the stops, in between the spiritual and the secular, in between her and me. But she took enough pictures of me that I could string together, that I could admire from a distance and make up my own mind about what each expression meant.

And I think that was good enough.

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