Every three or four years, for reasons of devotion and sentimentality, we drag our whole family, screaming and kicking, to a photo studio.
They always hate it a little more than they did the last time.The invariable result is an imperfect montage of faces enduring varying degrees of pain and suffering. Often the photographer adds to our travail by becoming impatient with us and taking cursory poses that are certain to be worse than our wildest dreams.
Some have portrayed a sea of heads that seem too close up and too close together with sad or angry expressions on all the faces. Some have been so bad that we dared not order any photos made from the proofs.
So with all of these tortured experiences firmly in mind, we headed for the studio - this time dressed to the hilt and color-coordinated - all seven of us. Our two oldest even courteously delayed their scheduled return to college for one more day so we could do this together.
After we had properly primped in front of a mirror and looked at all the giant photographs of wholesome-looking, happy families on the wall, we were ushered into the studio by an irreverent, red-haired young photographer.
His first official act was to approach our youngest, Spencer, 10, and say in all apparent seriousness: "Do you know how to open the trunk of the car? Good. Will you go sit in it until we're finished?"
It was a good ice-breaker. We all collapsed in laughter.
Even then we failed to realize that the one-liners would continue uninterrupted. In fact, this man was a stand-up comedian - a graduate of the "Don Rickles School of the Insult."
He had rapid-fire insults for each of us - about height, age, glasses, loss of hair or potential loss of hair, clothes, the way we held our hands (like the fig leaf position), etc.
He also used numerous names that failed to correspond to any of our real names - except mine - which he used on everybody but me.
He called Kelly, our 21-year-old daughter, Gina or Regina. My wife said that was nice and it reminded her of a New England college - but it reminded him of "Regina Steamer Carpet Cleaner." Then he stopped and asked Kelly what her real name was. When she told him, he said, "I like Gina better."
When he was introduced to the boys he ignored their real names and called them Larry, Darrell, Darrell and Darrell.
To Charlie he said, "That's a nice tie - did you tie it yourself?"
Charlie said, "Yes."
He said, "I thought so."
After each insult he would laugh obnoxiously. When he snapped a picture he would say, "Now everyone say I hate this!"
Which everyone could say with feeling.
The technique, which was clearly intended to loosen up his subjects, worked with Kelly, who laughed uproariously the whole time. In fact, it worked with everyone except Darrin and David, who became more and more wooden and disgusted with every one-liner.
By the time it was over they seemed convinced that the photographer was a disgusting, insensitive jerk.
In the meantime, we changed positions several times - from all sorts of awkward combinations on stools to standing in various blendings of togetherness. Even though I've always held the self-righteous view that I could organize the family myself in a better pose than many photographers, I judiciously resisted.
A few days later Marti and I dragged ourselves back to look at the proofs. They were a little disappointing, but not as bad as in previous years. We discarded several because they were unnatural-looking. After an agonizing hour we finally selected one.
It is now safely on the wall at home. Most faces are smiling - but a few are glaring at the photographer in symbolic rejection of his insults. In the end they got the best of Don Rickles.
Or so they think.