Growing Up on Screen

My friends, a young thirtyish-something couple, recently hosted a birthday party for their only child to celebrate her first year. Like many parties for the very young, this one was comprised almost solely of adults. A dozen or so men and women descended on the couple’s home, laden with gifts for the birthday girl – an assortment of adorable dresses with matching panties, games that would assist in the development of her manual dexterity and cognitive skills, silly stuffed animals that served no purpose at all – and, of course, the kinds of gifts that grown-ups enjoy, like beer and wine and oodles of bags of salty and sweet snack foods. The party was off to a good start as the day was mild and sunny, the kitchen island overflowing with an assortment of foods and the grill on the deck was sizzling, awaiting yet another burger or piece of chicken.
We, the party guests, mingled about, taking turns chasing the newly walking one-year-old and playing with her newly acquired toys. “Man, I wish we’d had this when I was a kid,” one man lamented as he held up a battery-powered cell phone, made small with chunky numbers for little hands. “Yeah. Look at this stuff made by Disney,” another chimed in. For those of us without children, it is always a treat to explore the world of toys and gadgets made especially for the baby or toddler. It is mind-blowing how many things are needed today just to have a happy kid: The indestructible crib; the ultra-safe and cushy stroller; the baby jogger, complete with rain visor and cup holder; the diaper Genie to whisk away the offending soiled Pamper. A person without a child can easily get swept away in this current of necessities and, if the kid is lucky (and most first-borns are) and the parents indulgent enough, there will be a magical assortment of trinkets and toys to keep the baby, and her birthday guests, entertained for hours. For someone like me, a fourth born (and yes, this means exhausted parents and hand-me-down everythings) who was lucky to have a battered set of Lincoln Logs and batteries with enough juice to light up the nose of the man in her Operation! game, it is a little overwhelming to see the plethora of objects needed by today’s parent in order to raise a child. I think about all that stuff, about cleaning it and storing it and washing it and folding it…and making sure the child is safe and not able to choke on a small piece that may fall off of a toy. My mind goes into a tailspin, and I realize it is far better for me to be a guest at a friend’s child’s party than to have to throw my own.
So amidst the wrapping paper and covered-dish delicacies, the birthday girl was finally ready to enjoy her first cake, made especially for her with loads of gooey chocolate icing and a perfect, solitary candle burning in the center. But before she could attempt to blow out the flame and poke her sticky little fingers into the sugary mound before her, her father had to set up the digital equipment. It seems that now, along with all the paraphernalia needed to have a child, a parent must also possess all the essential technological tools in order to record and document the life of his child. Luckily, for this baby, her dad is a techno-wiz, and no sooner does a new camcorder or telephoto lens come on the marker than it finds its way into their home and into the growing stock of adult-toys owned by the couple. To prepare for the first birthday cake, my friend set up a tripod and camera that looked as if it could have been used by NBC, and he supplemented this data by moving about the table with his Nikon digital camera, snapping away at a million frames per second, calling out to us, “Smile….” Or “Hey, could you move your head to the right? You’re blocking my view of the kid. Thanks.” It was nothing short of a cinematic production and our little one-year-old was the star. We were there merely to adorn her stage, lust after her toy box and salivate over the cake.
Finally, everyone was ready. The candle was lit and we all began to sing, the little girl squealing in delight and all the attention and the flickering candle. All of a sudden, as most kids will do when confronted with fire or danger, she stuck her hand in it. The ear-splitting smile that had covered her face turned into a gigantic circle, and the squeals of excitement turned into wails of shock and pain. “Oh my…Poor baby” her mother cooed as she rescued the tiny hand and checked it for damage. “What were we thinking? Mommy’s sorry.” She then took the child’s slightly singed digit and thrust it into the cake, slowly extracting a healthy chunk of chocolaty icing. She navigated the sugary finger towards the child’s mouth and soon, once the sweetness permeated her fear, the crying stopped, the smile returned and the very clever birthday girl reached out both hands for the cake. The circle of guest ooohed and ahhhhhed and clapped happily once the tragedy was diverted and the baby’s mouth was a ringed in fudge.
This party was pretty typical for me until, moments after the cake feeding frenzy, my friend hooked the recorder to his gigantic flat-screen, HD television and we all watched the events of just moments before. Amazing! Here was their little girl, immortalized in time on the digital tape, whose image was now being transmitted onto a larger-than-life screen. We all watched again as the candle was lit and the eager little hand went to grasp the flame. From the screen we could hear our collective reaction and see the girl’s shocked face, three times its normal size. The baby was captivated by the screen; I’m not certain what a one-year old can distinguish or if she has any concrete idea of self yet but it must be strange to see another small child having a party on the television.
This made me start to wonder about how children will view themselves now, in this age of digital everything and daily documentation, everything from a first birthday to a casual walk on the beach. Everyone now is living on screen and I am always surprised at how easy younger people are with seeing themselves projected. Most people born in the last 20 years have grown up with technology and are used to being filmed. Most young people eagerly jump in front of a lens and seem to have no qualms about seeing their actions played back. I wonder what it will be like for children today to be able to witness their own life unfold via a series of films, movies and moving documents created in real time and so easily stored. It must be an incredible feeling to see yourself at age one, moving, talking and mugging for the camera. And then to see that small form grow, evolve and change…
As for someone of my generation, the documentation of a life was typically done with a Polaroid camera and, for extra special events, an 8 millimeter camera. Of course I still have my albums of images, and several years ago on of my sisters transferred many of our still photos and decaying 8 mm footage to a DVD, but these artifacts are aging fast and their integrity is questionable. The images of me as a fat and happy baby are peeling off their backings, leaving ghost traces on the cellophane jackets that enclose them. When I see myself reflected in a moving image, it is usually dark and grainy, the camera jostling up and down by some unknown hand (most likely my dad’s). And there is no sound. The camera’s eye surveys the room, scans the recesses of the space and then zooms in and out upon faces. All of this is done in silence as our camera had no audio capability in the 1970s.
It is still a strange sensation to watch some of these old moving images, far different from seeing a still image. Perhaps because I grew up seeing photos, not movies, I am more comfortable with a photograph but even these, at times, feel alien to me. Is that little girl in the faded Polaroid really me? What was I thinking at the moment the image was captured? Will these floating and fading faces still be with me when I am old…older?
We are in a different era now, one of documentation, digitization and the ever-presence of some kind of recording device, be it cell phone or camera. For those born in the last 20 years, this is normal, and seeing their faces and bodies split and played back on a screen is not strange. They are used to the fragmented self, their actions and words caught on tape, their face being shown back to them on a tiny hand-held screen or a computer or a television. Every action and idea is worthy of footage, and this footage will last, giving some incredible access to their life history, a method to tap into the past far more accurate (different?) than mere memory.
I think about my friend’s baby and how she will marvel at seeing her first birthday in full Techno-color, with sound and adequate lighting. I contrast these thoughts to my own limited supply of images from childhood, the poor-quality shots that have survived the last 40 years on celluloid and now DVD, gritty portraits of a family gathered to celebrate something special – birthday, Christmas, Easter. I like the fact that I can see these stories unfold in murkiness and silence, as odd as it feels, because these foggy scenes match better my own memory. They are in sync with my mind and my perception of the world. I can write my own soundtrack and fill in all that blank space.
However, I am learning to embrace the notion of myself on the screen, seeing myself in a moving image and hearing my voice (which still sounds foreign to my ears). Recently, on my birthday I tolerated a camcorder focused on me for a bit, trying to relax in the process of being captured on tape. But filming is one thing, playback another. I am learning but when that digital recorder is turned on, I still find myself moving out of its scope, far more comfortable to leave the acting to someone else.

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About waggingmytale

I am an English teacher, writer, animal lover, and aspiring athlete. If you stop by and read or "stumble" upon my blog, please leave a comment and say hello. It's nice to know who visits :-) Namaste!
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