Sunday, September 28, 2014

One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet, sometimes that’s not the whole story. Whenever I see a photo of a family our size (four kids) smiling back from a picturesque locale, I imagine the happy story it’s telling is more than likely a work of fiction. But that’s okay; I like fiction.
A picture I took of our four kids smiling from the shores of Green Lakes State Park recently is no exception.
You wouldn’t know from looking that it was our fourth attempt on this walk to get a group photo – the three before ending in tears, temper tantrums or fake toot noises. Truth be told, that single photo may have been the only moment during our entire visit that all four of the kids were smiling at the same time. And the real story behind it would likely take more than a 1000 words to tell. We'll soon see.
We went to Green Lakes State Park on a recent fall Saturday because I needed to get out of the frigging house, and not while going to work, the store, dance class, or another damn soccer game. I needed to go someplace just for the pure purpose of leisure – R&R as they call it in the Army (or so I’ve been told).
Those who know our family well know that the past few months have been tough, with my wife out of town often attending to family health matters. She’s spent many nights sleeping – and not sleeping – at hospitals with her family, and I’ve spent many days at home with our four lovely children. I have the far easier part of the equation, and I know it.
Still, when she’s out of town I often have to call in the cavalry just to get our kids to the various events and practices that dominate our lives, all while meeting my various work responsibilities. It can be draining.
Once in a while, we all need to take a break from the deadlines and duties of our children’s overscheduled lives, and just do something fun -- even when that means taking all four kids on an outing. Think of “fun” as a relative term here.
I’m an old pro now at taking all four kids places by myself, and even successfully took them all to the State Fair alone a few weeks ago. I haven’t written about that trip, though, because we pretty much spent the entire six hours going from one dirty bathroom to the next. Apparently, filling their bellies with chocolate milk 20 minutes after arriving wasn’t the smartest move. It did, however, give me an idea for a portable potty seat/stroller that I think would sell to parents of Kindergartners.
Anyway, as this more recent fall Saturday afternoon arrived, and soccer ended mercifully for another 24 hours, I decided we should go on an unstructured, impromptu trip to the local state park. Just me and the four kids. I figured we’d hang out together, play on the swings, and take a walk around the 1.8 mile lake loop trail. No real plan, no pressure.
When I say Green Lakes is close to our house, it may be understatement. The entrance lies literally less than a mile from our door, and the park border itself is even closer – it’s where the local deer population goes to rest in their recliners after eating my entire tomato crop.
As for our family, we often visit the park in the spring and fall, though rarely in the summer because they charge to get in between Memorial Day and Labor Day. We have four kids and no spare money, so we go when it’s free.
We arrived this unusually warm fall day to find the parking lot packed with cars that had delivered others families looking for similar free respite from their busy lives within the natural settings of the park.
With three of my four children under the age of ten, our first stop was the playground – a plastic and metal jungle that is likely the least natural thing around. I sat on a nearby picnic bench. The one child over ten proceeded to sit near my eardrum so she could nag me incessantly about how she only wanted to come here for the hiking part of the visit.
“How much longer are you going to let them play?” she asked somewhere around ten times in a span of three minutes.
After I ignored her nine of the times, she joined them on the fancy monkey bars, and they played even longer than I had told her the first time she asked.
Once they were good and exhausted, I pried them each off the playing equipment and prepared them for the nature walk portion of our visit – a preparation that included a bathroom break, of course.
Finally on our way, the walk took an early negative turn. This happened when the oldest child shared with her siblings exactly how deep the lakes are – created by glacial waterfall plunge pools – and how just a few feet into the water, the bottom falls away to over a hundred feet deep. My six-year-old, who is the resident phobia queen, proceeded to shriek and cry, refusing to walk on the side of the path closest to the water’s edge.
“It’s just an irrational fear,” the older daughter chided, as she tried unsuccessfully to firmly console her younger sister.
Actually it wasn’t. It kind of freaks me out when I think about it, too. It’s like we’re standing on a cliff, but it’s filled with water. I was going to reassure her by saying you can drown just as easily in a few feet of water, but thought better of it.
Our almost two-mile walk along the lake continued, with shrieks and screams to spare. Occasionally, the siting of a fish in the water or a bird in a tree became the focus. And that was good.
The rest of the time, the eldest was convincing her sister that there was nothing to fear by walking as close to the water’s edge as possible, each attempt only causing more trouble.  Finally, I had to stop her from trying to help the situation, because she was only making it worse.
Toot noises.
Even though tension was high, with one child practically in tears for fear of falling into the incomprehensibly deep lake and another not talking to us because I'd instructed her to “stop interacting” with her younger sister, I thought it might be nice to get a least one happy photo. Yep. Good luck.
Our first photo stop along the shore of the lake was at a nice, little spot where a shallow section made approaching the water possible for all the kids. I got a good shot of them all facing the other way, but the moment ended with the boy making fart noises and everyone alternatively laughing and screaming at him.
Broken fern, bad lighting.
The second attempt failed because the youngest daughter had found a fern branch she loved, and she wanted it to be in the picture with us. This ended when the older sister ripped the plant from her hands, breaking its stalk in half. Again, tears. 

The light wasn’t right either, so we moved on.
The third attempt also involved ferns, but new ones.

Too big for selfie,
or fern gully.
This time we stopped on a bridge, and I tried to take a selfie of us all. The phone/camera was too close to get everyone in the shot. Luckily, a nice older couple was passing by and offered to take the photo. After I handed the phone/camera over to them, my eldest noticed the new ferns in her sisters hands and grabbed them gently from her, and went to place them on the bridge railing. As the older couple watched us, a wind gust blew the ferns off the bridge and into the creek below. You guessed it: tears.
The fern-loving younger one then tried to climb down into the creek to retrieve her beloved plants. The older couple stood there looking at us with my phone/camera poised and ready.
“Sorry,” I said to them, and meant it. “You’re free to go.”
They smiled awkwardly, nodded knowingly, and then they left.
For the fourth attempt at a family photo a bit farther along the path I decided to just take a shot of the kids, like the first two attempts, and not subject any strangers to our drama. The lighting was okay, the backdrop awesome, and for one brief moment they all smiled.
Click. (Or whatever sound the phone/camera makes).

Well, almost.

I would have done another take, but the boy started shaking his butt, while yelling, “I’m shaking my butt!” for all the park inhabitants to hear.
So, that one photo would have to be good enough. And, I swear, it’s a true representation of our awesome trip to Green Lakes State Park.

There you have it. I guess this picture is worth closer to 1,550 words.
On a related note, there’s been a lot written elsewhere about this phenomena of happy photos that don’t tell the real story. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it. If you think about it, that’s kind of how the mind works, too.
The actual moments of our lives are often wrought with angst, frustration and tension, but the memories can become good ones with time.
Remember that challenging trip the family took to the amusement park, with the insufferable heat, the long lines and the expensive food. It can end up being the best time ever. 

That happy photo is just the first step in the cleansing process. 

So, now it’s up to you, my mind; cleanse away.

Harry and the Hendersons inspired this last one.

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ihopeiwinatoaster said...

Wonderful story, Cort. Thanks for taking me along. I say me because it seems like you were telling it just to me. I'm glad for that. Great work.

Jack said...

Hi Cort,

This was fun and not just because I have my own chocolate milk stories or tales of child wrangling.

It was the whole thing, like Bill said I felt like I got to join you and that made it fun.

Cort Ruddy said...

Thanks, Bill and Jack.

When two of my favorite writers like it I know I did something right.

Now if I can just figure out what I did.

Larry said...

As I have 2 children, the thought of taking 4 out on my own sounds daunting. Btw, to get two of them smiling at the same time is a challenge.