30 April, 2012

Hidden Pictures of an Elusive Past

After my abduction by the state, I granted indefinite use of my computer to my mother, whose creaky desktop system was generations out-of-date. It made sense that someone should be using my PC, rather than let all those potential clock cycles go to waste. I have always been bothered by devices left to rust, so to speak, while there remains some usefulness in them, and my workhorse of a computer was no exception.

Mum isn’t the tech-savviest person on the planet, so an old friend made a DVD-ROM backup of my documents, image files, and locally saved websites. (If you didn’t already know, I had been an aspiring professional web developer.) The last thing I wanted was to be released from captivity only to discover precious data wiped by some Trojan horse that had promised my credulous mother virus protection. I was relieved by my friend’s foresight when my computer actually self-destructed a few years later. The backup disc remained safely stored, and while I never forgot about it, I did put it and its priceless contents out of my mind for awhile.

You don’t need to do time to understand how reflecting on past glories can preoccupy the man whose present is far from glorious, how the remembered self holds power over one who is locked up. I wear gray today, with white underclothes, but, like the visual representation retained by freed minds, in The Matrix, of their virtual selves, I too have a darkly clad residual self-image that favors tall boots — worlds removed from the prisoner in Chinese tennis shoes who does all he can to blend in. Just as the movie’s character Neo is unsettled by the data port implanted in the back of his head, the feeling of my earlobes without the five rings I used to gently tug for comfort remains alien. Looking at my face in the scuffed metal mirror every morning, performing my pre-coffee ablutions, I know it isn’t the true me gazing back, only an avatar, a construct designed by a system of repression. The real me is all in my head.

In escapist moments, when this system has the least control over my mind, I summon mental snapshots with all the specificity I can muster — of evenings spent cavorting goofily, of meaningful conversations, of past inspirational flashes, of sights seen in travels — and these happy entries from what Oscar Wilde termed “the diary that we all carry around with us” lift me out of purgatory for awhile. But even having a better-than-average long-term memory, I lose the fidelity of long-ago events. Like ancient ink on parchment, many details are missing or illegible.

I came to suspect that indelible images, such as those preserved digitally, would serve me well as mnemonics for certain times I’ve let fall away.

“See if you can find that disc,” I requested of my mother during a visit. I had been leafing through photographs that morning and was suddenly fixated on all those pictures sitting unviewed on the DVD-ROM my friend burned.

The blog on the personal site I maintained until 2001’s interruption, was chockablock with pictures; I used to keep my digital camera at hand, because I never wanted to miss a photo op. I knew that my site had been preserved in its entirety, on disc, but couldn’t remember offhand what candid shots awaited there, other than a couple from a trip to Chicago with friends, one of a fried-foods stand across from my apartment, and one of my cats sunning themselves on a light-streaked floor rug. Mum and I scheduled a time and date for her to talk me through the disc’s contents, over the phone.

“I don’t see that,” she said, when I asked Mum to click on the Windows Explorer desktop icon.

“Okay, so do a search for it,” I suggested.

She found the program, but what was in the window she described was nothing like what I expected. Where I’d wanted a straightforward directory tree that listed every file in a neat and sensible hierarchical structure, what was presented on Mum’s screen was a menu of imprecise “user-friendly” options I didn’t understand. I asked, “What the hell version of Windows are you running, anyway — Vista?”

Her response was silence.

We pressed bravely forward. I was reminded of why I used to be somewhat sought-after by acquaintances for tech support: I’m tenaciously unwilling to accept defeat, especially by a machine. “Try the name of my site, Monochromatic. It was also the name of the folder I had it saved to.”

After a short delay, Mum spoke. “‘No results found,’ it says.”

“Okay, then try the filename index.html. That’s the splash page.”

She sounded almost as dispirited as I was becoming. “No, Honey, it’s not giving me anything.”

For nearly another ten minutes, Mum played the role of my eyes, describing everything she saw onscreen, which I upsampled into a mental screenshot and converted into instructions I tried to make comprehensible. I wanted to find those pictures so badly! Once we found out how to access them, getting her to print and snail-mail them to me would be no trouble at all. The disc they were on was right there. I would find them in seconds, on my own at the keyboard, even using an unfamiliar operating system, but our little game of high-tech blindman’s bluff made me feel like a total Luddite.

Abruptly, then, a breakthrough. Mum said with a giggle, “Oh, wow, it’s a slideshow!”

“What? What did you click?” I asked, desperate to know what she’d done. We wouldn’t be able to repeat the results later if we didn’t keep track of every action now.

“I don’t know. There was an arrow,” my mother answered. “Oh, here you are, playing the violin!”

“So you clicked a button with an arrow? Was there — “

“Now it’s a photo of Anastasia.”

“Okay, just wait a moment. Is there anyth — “

“Here’s you in the back of a limo. I’ve never seen these.”

She could have, of course. All of them used to be accessible to anyone who desired to keep up on the doings of one Mr. Byron Christopher Case. When I moved to Saint Louis, the year before my abduction, I redoubled my efforts at Internet visibility so friends back in Kansas City could at least be involved in my life vicariously. Some of them did, but Mum scarcely acknowledged e-mail’s existence back then. These eleven-year-old pictures were all new to her, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which she proceeded to narrate the slideshow: my friend Brahm on a telephone pole; my ex-fiancĂ©e, Bianca, hiding behind a graphic novel; my former roommate making an obscene hand gesture; my friends Mike and Chris cavorting on a seesaw; me posing absurdly on a park sculpture. It was too much.

“Mum,” I said, “I’m going to let you go.”

“What? Why?”

“I can’t sit here and have you describe these pictures to me if I’m not going to be able to see them myself. It’s depressing. I don’t even remember some of the situations you’re telling me about. It’s like being taunted by the past.”

We had come too tantalizingly close to the goal, and had spent so much phone time pursuing it, yet she understood. Always willing to visibly express emotion when I cannot, my empathetic mother’s voice quavered on the· other end of the line. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I wish we didn’t have to end like this today.”

“It’s all right,” I said, in what I hoped was a reassuring tone. “Just pack the disc away again. I love you, and I’ll see you Saturday.”

I could have predicted that I would spend the rest of that day abiding one of my tension headaches. The weight pressing me down, following our photo-search debacle, wasn’t too much to bear, though. I’m not generally one to dwell in states of ennui anymore; my depressive years are ancient history. It’s true I began the day with an ill-fated phone call, which unfurled a host of frayed narratives in my mind, but it’s also true that, in spite of that insidious headache, I donned my headphones, cued up a CD (one by a band recently enough formed to lack associations with pre-prison life), and threw myself into the preparation of some poems for submission to a literary journal. There is nothing quite like being in the flow of productivity, of being wholly in the now, to help me forget the then and the photographic evidence thereof.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.