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.