Rookie Dad: A Videotaped Life

On Friday nights when I was a kid, my brothers and I would charge down the basement stairs and come back up hauling a 30-pound slide projector, an unwieldy six-foot-tall movie screen, and five boxes of slides. For little guys, this took some real strength and determination, but it was worth it. Friday was Family Slides Night at our house.

My mom would pop popcorn in oil on the stove and we’d rearrange the living room furniture for movie theatre-style viewing. After about 30 minutes of loading hundreds of slides one-by-one into the projector, we were finally ready. With a flick of the switch, the whir of the projector motor, and often a quick replacement of the light bulb (the projector burned through those bulbs like fire through paper), our lives were there in front of us — big and bright.

We had two main categories of slides to choose from: photos of my parents in Europe, where they spent their first few years of married life while my dad served in the Army; and photos of our yearly summer vacations to Ocean City, Md., where my grandparents lived.

My favorite part of the evening was the off-the-cuff narration of the slides. It was a beautiful soundtrack. My parents would start by describing each picture, calmly and seriously. “This is so-and-so castle in Germany,” my dad would say. “This is when we took a gondola ride up the Alps,” my mom would add. The places seemed so wonderful, so different. My brothers and I were entranced.

The tone changed quickly, though, when photos of the boys flashed on screen. No more being serious — this was comedy hour. We’d razz each other for our bad haircuts and stupid expressions. My brothers would howl and roll on the floor each time a photo of me, a chubby baby crawling in the beach sand, appeared. “You ate the sand crabs! You ate the sand crabs!” they’d laugh, cementing my place in family lore as the weirdo who liked to dig up and swallow raw crustaceans.

You hear about how in the old days before TV, folks used to actually sit around on the porch and talk to each other, spinning yarns, telling about their favorite memories, laughing and crying. That was the magic of Family Slides Night, too. We sat around, spun yarns and laughed. Still photographs allowed us to do that.

For most parents today, still photography is out and camcorder videos are in. Go to any kid-related event — soccer game, school concert, birthday party — and you’ll see them: a throng of camcorder-toting parents tracking and taping their child’s every move. Many kids today lead a videotaped life.

We don’t own a camcorder, but we do “borrow” one from my in-laws. By “borrow,” I mean that we’ve borrowed it for the last year-and-a-half straight. So, you can count me as a camcorder guy, too — sort of. In the past 18 months, I’ve taken a few bits of video. I’ve taped my older son playing sports: shooting hoops and hitting a baseball. We’ve taped him opening birthday presents and “graduating” from nursery school.

I’m glad that I have those moments on tape. It’s especially neat to have his little voice preserved. But truthfully, I’m even happier to have a huge number of still photographs chronicling his little life.

Even today, there’s a big difference in how we look at videotape and photographs. When I pop in the video, my son sits silently, watching his every move on TV, strangely fascinated. The soundtrack is provided for him. When we sit together and look at photographs — either flipping through loose prints or clicking through photos on the computer — my son turns into the animated narrator that my brothers and I were on Family Slides Night. He describes the situation, who he was with, what he was doing and what he said. It’s downright hilarious and while some details remain the same each time, we also always manage to add something new to the “soundtrack.”

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching home movies as much as the next dad — there’s definitely a place for the camcorder. But there’s something even more special about sitting around, flipping through old photographs, talking and laughing with each other.

Brian Kantz often forgets to turn off the camcorder, then sets it down on a table and captures 45 minutes of legs walking back and forth. His new book, “Stay-at-Home Dad. Stay. Good Boy.,” is available at www.briankantz.com.