(thanks)

Over the last two years, my holiday season has become a ritual full of a special kind of dread. From the time I crank the oven to put in the Thanksgiving turkey, to the time I pack away the last slice of my birthday cake in January, I dread gathering with my folks.

Comparatively, I’m lucky. My family never engages in the kind of active warfare that so many other households entertain. I never have to moderate heated political battles, never have to smile in humiliation over grandpa’s colorful descriptions of the state of society, never listen to recriminations over travel expenses, never navigate factions, unwanted cousins, extraneous in-laws or the other assorted joys of bringing together folks for a fine meal. In fact, the most stressful part of the holidays for me is waiting to see if someone decides to take a shower ten minutes before the meal's out of the oven. (Someone always does).

The dilemma comes when it’s time to bow my head and say thanks.

I’ve been in charge of my school’s theatre since summer of 2010. It’s a job I kind of lucked into, a complement to the usual responsibilities at the school I work for, and I absolutely adore it. The Cocoanut Grove is a historic venue that served as the home to a few Oscar telecasts, entertained scores of notable actors and dignitaries, and served a mean shrimp cocktail in its heyday. Now it’s a decked out theatre space for a school complex, complete with enough wires and AV doodads to make the average gamer’s home theatre system look like Edison’s first phonograph. And I get to tinker in it.

Not that I had much more than the slightest idea of how it all worked together when I first set foot in the control booth. It was thanks to the patience of a few good people, a lot of trial, and tons of Google searches that I was able to get a handle on everything going on.

And that’s where my trouble starts, because I never would have been able to understand the technical guts of the space without the unwitting help of my parents.

I am five years old in 1988, visiting a cousin, watching him play The Legend of Zelda. I'm already hooked into arcade games, but Zelda captivates me in a way that is completely new. Possibly because I can play this whole game in the comfort of a living room, without having to bear acne-riddled teenagers towering over me. I yell out observations (“drop a grape!”) as my cousin breezes through a dungeon (‘it’s a BOMB, dummy’). At home, I become insufferable . A month later, my parents are spending too much money buying a barebones NES. They purchase Zelda for me before they leave the store.

It takes my parents almost an hour to connect the Nintendo to our television. They end up calling my uncle to make it all work, following his instructions and approximations step by agonizing step. I sit to play my first game on the first console I will ever own and they look on, content in the fact that I’ve stopped my incessant nagging. I realize then that I’ll need to learn how to do this myself if I want to game reliably. And that’s how it starts.

I figure out that the thick, square power adaptor needs to be plugged in for the thing to work. I routinely poke and prod at the assortment of plugs and wires built into the 1970s television set that is the centerpiece of our living room. I examine every inch of its faux-wood veneer, play with every dial, do everything short of taking a screwdriver to the casing and eviscerating it across the throw rugs. I grow enamored with the big, modular 80s stereo system my parents purchase some months later, astonished that so many components work together to produce such wonderfully LOUD sounds. When they buy a VCR, I learn how to route the TV signal to it to record broadcasts – my mother is thankful that she can watch novelas at her leisure. I become the family's go-to-guy for all things electronic. When my parents buy a Super Nintendo, and later a Sega Genesis, I find out that I can daisy chain the RF connectors together in a centipede of signals that baffles the rest of my family. By the time I get my own television, I’ve learned the difference between RCA and Coax cables. When they purchase a shelf stereo for me in my teens, I learn about surround sound setups and find that I can route the audio cables from my SegaCD to the stereo. I’m tempted to buy a TV tuner card for my Apple desktop, but that doesn’t pan out. Instead, I wind up learning about aspect ratios. All the while, I’m learning about ways to handle AV equipment through the lens of my growing collection of consoles.

And that’s where my dilemma comes in. I’d like to thank my parents for indulging a child’s obsession. I’d like to let them know that the hours I spent playing with the back of the television paid off. That the reason I can understand how to control a sound board and a lighting console (whose cost could purchase that ancient NES fifty times over) is because I sat with tangles of cables, plugging and unplugging them into various configurations, watching what worked and what didn’t. That the reason I can sit and suss out the functions of tools that are used in professional theatres, concert halls and theme parks the world over is because I was asked to figure out VCRs and Stereos. That the reason I can sit in a dark room, puzzling over how to get a certain effect sequenced, listening and making slight changes to equalizer frequencies, nudging picture settings, connecting and disconnecting the miles of copper cabling that run behind two monolithic AV towers to figure out what works where and how, is because I sat in a smaller room with my own equipment years before. And that I absolutely love how the small things I do in that isolated booth contribute to the assemblies and meetings and events of others, in much the same way I was overjoyed at listening to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past blare out of my tiny stereo.

All of this, thanks to one little NES.

I’d like to let my parents know all of this. I'd like to believe that this will be the year I can let this out. But when my turn comes, I know that I won’t.

Instead, I just bow my head and give a muted thanks.

Comments

I hate to play the Grinch, but at least they let you have a NES, ya know. I begged all I wanted, but never got the Genesis I yearned for.
I think it's awesome that that "child's obsession" gave way to a career, to a passion, and I'm sure that your parents would think the same. You should tell them. Perhaps not in the "I'm thankful I got a NES when I was a kid" style, but something closer to "I'm the person I am today because of you, and I'm thankful for that", or something to that effect. Do it, and don't wait til next Thanksgiving!!

I think the most important part of your ability to tinker is the lack of fear of technical experimentation. Maybe a good portion of that comes from within, but not only is the gift of the original console and its associated wires important, but the parenting they did (active or no) where they didn't stop you from playing with those wires and connectors is also important.

Spaz,

Print this out on fancy paper, frame it, wrap it up and give it to your parents for Christmas. Chances are that your mom will break down in tears, your dad will get a bit choked up and the next time you visit it will be in a prominent place on the wall. You may not see it, but your parents will point to it whenever someone new visits and tell them about how their son gave them the best gift ever.

RJ

Thanks for sharing, spaz. I second RedJen's suggestion.

That was very heartfelt, thanks for sharing.

RedJen wrote:

Spaz,

Print this out on fancy paper, frame it, wrap it up and give it to your parents for Christmas. Chances are that your mom will break down in tears, your dad will get a bit choked up and the next time you visit it will be in a prominent place on the wall. You may not see it, but your parents will point to it whenever someone new visits and tell them about how their son gave them the best gift ever.

RJ

Do this. It definitely seems like something more personal than explaining to the whole family over dinner.

A familiar story to me and probably many of us GWJers. Except I haven't applied his stuff to work, but it's still great to have mastered little science, both in games and in wires.

As a kid my favorite help-Dad days were when I got to dig into the huge collection of cables, adapters, splitters, etc. To this day, I've got almost every imaginable way to connect one device to another, at any household distance.

Infinity wrote:

the parenting they did (active or no) where they didn't stop you from playing with those wires and connectors is also important.

That lack of fear is everything. The way I read this excellent piece, Spaz's parents weren't afraid of what they didn't necessarily understand, but furthermore, they saw no reason to make things any different for him. This is indeed a great gift - heuristics for learning come out of it, and those are the most valuable rules of thumb that can be imagined.

I really enjoyed reading this. I think your parents would appreciate the gift RedJen suggested.

You know, my old Atari 2600, and Atari 130xe accomplished the same thing for me. It got me into experimenting with how to wire things up, and now I'm an automation developer where those skills of figuring out how things work all hooked together really helps me out.

My mother bought me (and my two brothers but they hardly used it) a Commodore 64. I became obsessed with that thing. I eventually started taking the bus to the local community college in high school to play with their computers. I toyed with programming, but it never stuck. But I am sure that without her early intervention I would not now be a graphic designer. Thanks to my comfortability with computers I jumped at the chance to use one of the early Macs, and that got me into newspaper staff in high school, and then work as a graphic designer's assistant in college. Thanks Mom!

RedJen wrote:

Print this out on fancy paper, frame it, wrap it up and give it to your parents for Christmas.

+1

I sympathize. The hooking-up-stuff I did with my VCR, Atari, and Commodore 64 led me to a career in radio production...which I promptly left for programming computers, that thing I did once the Commodore 64 was hooked up. (And I got bored with the game I was playing and started tweaking the source code.) Either way, I owe it to my parents letting me goof with the TV and play video games.

And yeah, what RedJen said.

lostlobster wrote:

My mother bought me (and my two brothers but they hardly used it) a Commodore 64.

Pfah. You youngsters with your computers full of 64k, and Nintendos and such.

I started with the VIC-20. (Got is second-hand, which is why I didn't start with a Timex Sinclair or a TRS-80.) Ah, the good old days. You could buy games, but no one could afford them. Instead, you would find cool games in the back of a magazine and type them in laboriously by hand... learning a little about how they worked as you went...

Thanks, Mom and Dad!

When you described all the cables behind the TV, I suddenly started to smell that old electronics smell that came with trying to hook everything together.

But I don't recommend framing it because this story is too personal. Every Thanksgiving meal is filled with too many empty prayers, too many "Umm, well...I'm fed! I have a house! I have a job! That's good..."

If you are genuinely thankful for something, then do the occasion a favor and speak up.

Ah, TRS-80. My neighbor and I would tinker on that endlessly. Then we moved on to the Apple //e. I was always jealous he got the Colecovision while I only had the Intellivision. Funny but those two devices STILL work, whereas I've gone through three Xbox 360s...

I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in terms of thanking your parents. They did the best they could to adapt to a technical revolution that started in the 70s right when they were getting used to the way things worked. As others have said, you can give them credit for unlocking creative trouble shooting in your mind.

Much of my upbringing featured my parents NOT wanting me to be creative. Sure, hook up electronics and stuff. But they were more concerned about my liberal arts grades than my art or programming talent/skills, and consistently kept me from both. At the same time, by doing so, they forced me to adopt a good work ethic, using both as a reward for a job well done.

That I thrive in a career that requires both is in no small part due to them keeping me from them early on

So I say go public. I love the idea of the plaque too though. Saying it is one thing. Giving them a keepsake they can look at when you're not together, that's a whole different emotional dimension for them.

Delmarqo wrote:

I was always jealous he got the Colecovision while I only had the Intellivision. Funny but those two devices STILL work, whereas I've gone through three Xbox 360s...

My wife explained to me that the reason Apple added more gestures to iOS is because people worried about the home button wearing out. I've got tons of 20-30 year old controllers (I refuse to call them "gamepads") that work perfectly, so had quite a time being convinced.

I'll also upvote RedJen's suggestion, even if not framed, simple send them that story. Parent's need to hear the "thank you!" as much as their children need to hear "nice job!" so it will be appreciated.

I had similar experiences, though mine started with Pong (uhf hookup box), slot car tracks (fixing bad connections in tracks, etc), and a workshop bench (using power tools as an 8 year old girl, I still have all my fingers!)

Methinks you should let them know, however you want to do it, sooner rather than later. We all have a limited time on this earth and you don't know when any of you are going to die. Don't put off for tomorrow what you can do today, because you don't know that you have one.

The day, seize it!

I really enjoyed this piece. I can find most of my own backstory right up there.
I am a senior software engineer nowadays and I am pretty sure I wouldn't be sitting in this chair right here, right now, if my parents had not gifted me my first computer in '84 when I was about 6 years old. I am so thankful for them enabling me - but just like you, I think although they probably somehow "know" - I have never told them upfront and personal.

@Spaz: As almost everybody said before me: Give that story to your parents - they should know. And I guess I should follow my own advice as well.

Keithustus wrote:
Delmarqo wrote:

I was always jealous he got the Colecovision while I only had the Intellivision. Funny but those two devices STILL work, whereas I've gone through three Xbox 360s...

My wife explained to me that the reason Apple added more gestures to iOS is because people worried about the home button wearing out. I've got tons of 20-30 year old controllers (I refuse to call them "gamepads") that work perfectly, so had quite a time being convinced.

Man I know right? I also have a Mac SE from 2008 which still works (though I can't really do anything with) as long as I replace the little mobo battery every few years. And that thing survive college years of bumps and bruises and rolling across the floor during a few parties...

My aunts came up for the holidays at the last minute this year. They don't get to visit much, since they're from Mexico and all, so the afternoon leading up to Christmas Eve dinner's been nothing but going over old stories and childhood mishaps that my sister and myself endured.

RedJen, and everyone else that X+1'd her suggestion, thanks for the wonderful idea. I won't be around when the thing gets opened, but I'm hoping it makes an impression.

Thanks, Goodjers. May your holidays be awesome.