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Kids, Lies, and Videotape

Year of the Camcorder: Is it life, or is it Memorex?

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Yeah, I got kids. Two little boys, cute as shavings from Pinocchio's nose. I took a thousand and one pictures for the family back east. They loved those pictures, those false-colored memories, they loved them and clamored for more. That's all they ever asked. After "How's the wife, how's the kids," it was "When you going to send some pictures?" OK, I said, you want pictures, I'll send pictures. But there was no way in hell or the Magic Kingdom I was going to get a camcorder.

It wasn't because I believe video melts the mind and steals the soul. I mean I do, but that wasn't the reason I wouldn't get a camcorder. I didn't want to tape my life instead of living it--plaster a viewfinder to my eye so I could celebrate my memories at some later date. "Yeah, I remember when my son was born. Yeah, I remember that cool summer day when we went to the lake. The light was perfect. Yeah, I remember Aunt Sophie's funeral. Want to see it again?" Storing memory on tape destroys the moment as it's being saved, I thought. Life is not a movie, but camcorders turn it into instant nostalgia. Life as a collectible--was it a good investment? Did I have a good time? Let's check the tape and see.

It also takes a lot more time to shoot tape than it does to take a snapshot. And I didn't want to spend a lot of time taping things so I could spend more time watching them in the years to come. I took the lazy view of video cameras. I didn't want to be bothered.

All my relatives were hocking me all the time--"Get a video camera, willya? These are precious moments, they'll never come again." At first I said I couldn't afford it, but then they offered to pay, so that excuse was out. I said I didn't have room for it, but they only laughed. "Come on, what's the problem, really?" I'd suggest that for the price of a camcorder they could come visit Chicago and see the kids live, in our home. They didn't want to do that, of course. You can't reason with family, or at least I can't. So I fell back on the argument of last resort. "Because I just don't want one, all right?"

Then last February I took my oldest son to Disney World. A place where every dancing doll screams "Tape me!" My mother went also. She wanted to rent a camcorder (you can rent them all over Orlando), but I said no: it's a waste of money and a pain in the ass, I said. Forget it.

Everywhere we went, every ride, every event, every ice cream stand, my mother said, "Oh, we really should have taped this. Wouldn't it be nice if we could see this sometime? I don't mean now, I mean years from now. When the kids are older. When you're older." I just stopped answering after a while. Not having a video camera was worse than having one. It's one of the few things I remember from the trip.

But I couldn't fight it forever, and this year holding out against the camcorder was as sad and futile as John Henry versus the steam engine. They were everywhere. TV shows begged for tapes--send us your funny disaster and we'll send you cash! Like the lottery for camcorder owners. People mounted them in their cars to give evidence against drunk drivers, caught burglars in the act, taped their neighbors having sex through half-drawn blinds to prosecute them for lewd behavior. People sang "I'm gonna die with this camera in my hand, Lord, Lord" as they shot incoming tornadoes. One poor guy taped his brother bungee jumping; the cord snapped, his brother died, and we all saw it on the evening news. Now there's a precious memory.

I saw this phenomenon coming. Back in the mid-80s, when camcorders were seen only at special events or shoved against the eyes of rich kids, I could see that someday they'd be nearly as cheap and plentiful as hand calculators or answering machines. I used to tend bar at weddings at a German restaurant on the north side. In 1985, some couples hired video camera operators; by 1986 a video operator was as firmly embedded in the wedding package as the moldy schnitzel on a serving platter; by 1987 wedding guests were bringing their own cameras. Working these events, surrounded by dancing merrymakers, I'd be trying to sneak a drink for myself when up to the bar comes Francis Ford Crappola shoving a camcorder in my face, asking "Are you having fun, yet?" When the owner of the place installed a video security system with hidden cameras outside, underneath the fake-gingerbread eaves, and inside, behind the bar mirrors, I quit.

A few weeks after returning from Disney World, my mother sent me a Minolta Handycam. I wasn't going to use it. I didn't care if I accidentally shot a scene of police brutality, or won instant fame on America's Funniest Home Videos, or caught some disaster in the making like a leaking tunnel under the Loop, I wasn't going to use the damn camcorder. But then came the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. As we watched Los Angeles burn, I called friends there who were also watching it burn. I called other friends there, Joe and Dahna, who weren't home. It turns out they were out taping that night. But they weren't shooting the riots.

Dahna had gone into labor. Her hospital was in one of the riot zones, but the baby wouldn't wait, so Joe called the hospital, got a busy signal, called again, and got no answer. "We'd better find another hospital," he figured. He found one in the suburbs. They broke the curfew and raced through dark streets occasionally lit by flames; early the next morning Dahna gave birth to a healthy girl. They didn't stay at the hospital very long. They took their new daughter back to their home, which was still standing in the smoldering city. It wasn't a good time for relatives to come out and visit, but Joe had the birth on tape. He sent out copies.

Well, I thought, it's better to keep an eye open to a viewfinder than not to look at all. How many Simi Valley jurors had camcorders? How many had watched tapes of their children and said "This didn't really happen"? I didn't know. Nobody asked them. But the whole thing proved to me that watching a tape can be better than being there. Finally I understood what my relatives wanted. So I took my new camcorder out of the box and read the instructions. Life is a collection of moments, and the kids are pretty damn cute in some of them. Cute as shavings from Pinocchio's nose. I could watch those moments again and again, and that's no lie.

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