Why We Don’t Have a Digital Video Camera

Posted on July 20, 2010


Our old camcorder and a real car, for size comparison. The dandelions in the background were the biggest I'd ever seen.

All of the events I am about to describe are true. I say this because they don’t sound true. They sound exaggerated for effect, embellished for the sake of humor. They sound that way even to me, I think because there’s a part of my brain that wants to believe in my own ability to learn from my mistakes. Nobody, I tell myself, could be that stupid that many times while attempting to accomplish the same simple task. “Oh yes someone could,” another part answers defiantly.

The simple task I’m referring to is the act of videotaping an event. I’m not sure it’s even called that anymore. Tape is pretty much gone, replaced by digital. But we don’t own a digital video camera, because I gave up long ago trying to record anything. I voluntarily resigned as part of an agreement among all interested parties: I would stop trying to record things and they would never again mention my earlier attempts. I have kept my end of the bargain.

It began in the early 1990s. We owned a camcorder at the time. Now I believe the term camcorder is still in use and may bring to mind a tiny, sleek, handheld electronic marvel. That’s not what this was. Our camcorder weighed a hundred and eighty-two pounds. It held a VHS videotape, which had to be loaded into a compartment that opened to the side like one of those RVs with a slide-out living room. If you wanted to tape something, you had to press RECORD three or four seconds ahead of time, because the signal had to travel from the button to the other end, where the tape was. I believe our camera was the same model used for the McCarthy hearings in 1954.

Okay. You get it. Our camcorder was old. And big. If we were taking it on an airplane today, it would probably not be allowed as a carry-on item. We might even get arrested. We still have the camera, despite my best efforts over the decades to sell, donate, and throw it away. (I was going to launch into a short discussion on hoarding right here, however I am prohibited from doing so by another one of those agreements. The inclusion of the photo above is all I am legally permitted to do.)

But I’ve stalled long enough.

The year is 1999. We buy a new video camera, a Hitachi Hi-8. It’s a good enough camera that I’m thinking about trying my hand at some professional video. The tape itself is just a little larger than an audiocassette; the entire unit is smaller than a football.

The following June, our son graduates from kindergarten. We’d done some casual taping during the previous months: Christmas morning, a big snowstorm, a trip to the beach. But the graduation is the first real event we’d be recording for future viewing, the initial installment in our family library of memories. The ceremony takes place in the main room of the school. The students are assembled at the front, with all of the parents on chairs facing them. My wife and I are seated in the middle of the crowd. It’s a packed house and we’ve gotten there early so we could get a good spot. About two minutes in, I realize that I’ve left the video camera in the other room. It’s awkward having to get up and disturb half the audience, but I know it’s either a minute of embarrassment or years of regret, so I leave to get the camera. When I return to my seat, I turn the camera on and begin recording. As significant events take place, I turn the camera on and off to capture each precious moment.  Then, about ten minutes before the end of the graduation, a thought enters my mind, the kind of thought that you turn away from at first, refusing to even consider the possibility. But when I turn back, it’s still there, bigger and more ominous. I can still recall the feeling, a dark hollowness in my stomach combined with a loud thumping in my chest, followed immediately by a silent wish for a quick and painless death. I had forgotten to put a tape into the camera.

There’s no need to go into any detail about what followed the kindergarten incident. I probably did most of the talking anyway, babbling away about what an idiot I was, but also trying to look at it realistically: How many vacations have gone unrecorded because someone forgot to put film in their camera? A lot. And really, how many people have video of their own kindergarten graduation? Almost nobody. In the scheme of things, this was no big deal.

Months later. We’re at home, an old farmhouse surrounded by an acre of land. I look out the window and there’s a flock of doves on the lawn. Twelve doves, walking around together in the grass. I run for the camera, making darn sure there’s a tape inside, rewound and ready to go. I press RECORD and point the camera toward the birds. They appear to be circling the house, so I run from room to room, following them, describing the scene, doing the play-by-play. When I get around to the kitchen, I sneak outside, hoping to get a closer shot. The doves take off. But okay, I still have the footage of the parade around the house. I rewind the tape, plug the camera into the television, call everyone in, and announce what I have captured. They sit, eager to see. I press PLAY. The screen remains black. Then I hear my voice, hushed for added drama: “Today is September second. It’s eleven-thirty in the morning… and doves, a dozen of them… are marching around our house… I’ve never seen these birds here before… and now there are twelve of them… like some kind of migration…” The audio continues to play, but without any video. I hold out my hands, bewildered. Then I look at the camera. The lens cap had been on the whole time. I mentally add this to the list of things I need to remember when using the video camera. Everyone gets up and leaves quietly.

December, two years later. Our son’s third grade Christmas concert at school. My wife and I are seated in the back of the room, against the wall. There are a lot of people in front of us. For some reason that I cannot fathom, she has the video camera and she insists on taping the whole thing. Then, just as our son’s class comes onto the stage and gets ready to sing, the guy sitting in front of my wife stands up to take pictures. He remains standing. (It’s Vanessa’s father. I’m not at all surprised.) My wife’s view is completely blocked. I’m to her right and she hands the camera to me. I take the camera and aim it at the stage. I get a good ten minutes of footage. I also tape the class that comes on next, and the concert ends. Now what happened there? I know you missed it, because I missed it the first time, too. Let’s rewind the tape, so to speak, and play it again in slow motion. My wife has the camera. She’s taping away, when suddenly the man in front of her stands. She lowers the camera and hands it off to me, but as she does, she presses STOP. See that? But here’s the key point: she presses STOP and doesn’t tell me. The camera’s power is still on. I hear a whirring sound. I just take the hand-off and resume taping. But I don’t press RECORD, because really, why would I even think to do that? My wife has been recording the whole time. So we get home and watch the video and the last thing we see is Vanessa’s father standing up. It’s the previous class singing something, then the back of a giant head, then fuzz. Gray, hissing fuzz.

No real harm done, I rationalize. Those school concerts are painful enough the first time. How many people actually go home and watch them again?

Eight months later. Our son’s birthday party. Same old farmhouse, and inexplicably, I have the video camera in my hand. But instead of twelve doves, I’m chasing around a dozen little boys, outside, all over the yard, back inside, up and down the stairs. Each time I see something worth preserving I say, “Hold on, guys, I want to record this.” I should mention that all of the buttons on the camera are pretty much in the same place and I have somehow fallen into the unwise habit of pressing them without looking. As my videographer mind recognizes a valuable scene, I simply shift my thumb over and press RECORD. Then, when the action subsides, I press STOP. Now there’s probably no need to tell you this part, but something has gone wrong right from the beginning. I accidentally pressed RECORD before there was anything going on that was worth recording. From that moment on, each time I think I’m starting to record, I’m actually stopping. And each time I think I’m stopping, I’m recording. See the mix-up? So when the boys do a dance or play soccer or say something funny, there is no recording taking place. But when I follow them up the stairs, I get great shots of my knee and the wall flying by. You can also hear me saying things I should not have been saying at a birthday party, usually followed by, “Okay, guys, I’m going to start recording now.” Then the gray, hissing fuzz again.

And that’s why we don’t have a digital video camera.