The VCR: A Journey to the Center of Another Earth
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why is it that I can never operate my VCR properly? Do you have the same problem? Do you want to join that underground club that secretly meets and programs your VCR when friends and relatives cannot see you? If so, read on and learn to laugh at that which cannot be conquered.

A video cassette recorder is a terrible thing to waste.     The Dorfman Archives (sort of)

Does anyone out there recall an old television commercial, the setting of which was in front of a glass door marked "blood bank?" A darkly cloaked, menacing figure lurked outside, whispering through the screen about how wonderful his new VCR was because sometimes he just couldn’t be at home at night to watch his favorite shows. I surmised, (incorrectly as things turned out) that if Dracula and his vampire friends could learn to operate a VCR, then so could yours truly. I am sure that most people have long since come to terms with the VCRs that live in their homes; understanding their operation, maintenance and various idiosyncrasies. I do, however, know of one person who has been unable to peacefully co-exist with her VCRs and that person is me!

When the VCR became popular in the 1970s, it marked one of the most important events in the history of television because it gave viewers control over what they could watch on their own TVs. (That was the plan anyway.) When one considers that before the VCR there was no such thing as a video store and that now there is one on nearly every corner in every city in the United States, the impact of the VCR really hits upside the head! I did start out, (like most people on their way to hell), with the best of intentions. I went to the appliance store and asked the salesman to help me select a VCR so simple that an idiot could operate it. I soon became the only one on my block who could operate their own VCR, but my celebrity was short-lived and my victory ever so hollow. After mastering a few basic techniques, it’s been downhill ever since. As far as I am concerned, the command "execute" should refer to the engineers who designed the damn machine and not be limited to instructions for its users!

That stupid manual is always there in my face, taunting, daring me to do the right thing. The problem is that on the very first rung of the "how to" ladder, I am already significantly behind the rest of the class. Except for the final command to "plug in the VCR", I am lost in instructional space. I love the helpful diagrams, referring to ANTS IN, RF OUT, RF co-axials and AV cables. I don’t know what the hell they are talking about and I probably never will. Input and output can go (with my blessing) either away with the next wind or straight to where the sun doesn’t shine! My manual claims to explain each feature. My manual lies.

The menus are a problem too. They mislead and torment because they don’t follow the path of one from column A and one from Column B, which a lifetime of Chinese take-out food has taught me to focus on. It’s just all so-o-o complicated! First, I must decide in which language I wish to misunderstand my directions. My choices are English, Spanish or French. (I should pick one that I am not familiar with. Maybe then I’ll be able to better comprehend what they are trying to tell me!) Even after I have made my decision, I’m still not sure which door will open and what unwanted prize I might have won in the process. (I’d probably fare better, or at least just as well, with Monty Hall on "Let’s Make A Deal.")

A word of warning here. Once the VCR is plugged in, a false sense of security may ensue. Everything will seem fine until you dare to go beyond where fools rush in and angels fear to tread. If you wish to add or delete channels, proceed at your own risk. Some changes are beyond our control, like a sledgehammer smashing the machine into a million pieces in a desperate plea for a little respect. Acts of God have no place in the world of the VCR. Whenever there’s a storm in my area, I can never quite reset the clock correctly. My two VCRs tell two different times. I can’t trust either one of them as they both have a history of lying to me. I dread the change in seasons as well, for that means Daylight Savings Time and the release of the can of worms that now sits quietly in my living room next to the television.

The manual devotes much time to three major sources of difficulty; timer recording, taping and playback, and last but not least, the bane of my existence, the remote. In the case of timer recordings, that VCR plus feature seems easy and convenient, but appearances, like most hand grenades, can be deceiving. The manual states that all one has to do is to plug in the numbers assigned to each program. Well, I have recorded many a program that way and almost as many times gotten something completely different. This is never serendipitous or in any way like the discovery of penicillin. Sometimes a program might be pre-empted, but usually I get things like static, phone sex commercials (when filming late at night) and sometimes even the last ten minutes of an old Charlie Chan mystery! The only thing more confusing and more complicated than using one VCR for timer recordings is using two of them; one for recording and one for playback. Someone in this room is a glutton for punishment.

In the case of taping and playback, go ahead and insert a tape, but only if it is absolutely necessary. Press record or play, whichever disaster you are in the mood for. If you are really a show-off, you might want to try recording one program and watching another. That’s still easier than the next step; understanding that auto TV/VCR feature which controls whether the picture signal is emanating from the VCR or the television. Two important questions abound: which remote is which and, if we are in my house, where are they both?

Unwanted screen displays involve patience, understanding and appreciating the menu selections as only its mother can. The date, time, channel and speed are all fine to know, but are not more important than the program I am attempting to tape! The ugly truth is that I can’t figure out anything beyond turning the damn machine on and off! The PIP (picture inside a picture) is one of my all-time favorites because once its there I have no idea how to get rid of it. I don’t even understand why anyone would want it in the first place. If you can’t see the big picture, why choose the smaller one? It’s all Greek to me (and even to some Greeks I know).

I am including below a glossary of terms. I’m not doing this because I think it will change anything, but it might give you the illusion of having some control over your machines.

"Input" refers to the energy expended to make the damn thing not work.

"Output" is the result of the energy expended to make the damn thing not work.

"Power." This is something you will never have over any machine. The sooner you
accept this premise, the easier things will be.

"Record". To create evidence of your mistakes. It’s probably better and more productive to take notes instead.

"Remote." Something that is somewhere in your house. Test yourself. Hide it or them and then see who finds whom first.

"Rewind" means to accept errors and start taping all over again from the beginning as soon as possible.

"Stop and eject." Stop and think for a moment here. Otherwise, you might make a rash decision and opt to throw the entire machine out the window instead of just the tape! It’s not for me to make a judgement call. Only you can prevent forest fires.

"Tape Speed". Fast or slow. SP (EP) or SLP, Super play, standard play or no play. The play’s the same. It’s the game that has to change!

If all of this is still perfectly obscure, I can only urge you to join the growing numbers among us who cannot operate our VCRs. Maybe we could form a club or support group. It could even be tax deductible and the dues could go to support a new and different sort of anti-technological think tank We have nothing to be ashamed of (I don’t think). Even if we do, there’s always hope. Look on the bright side. There’s nothing good on television tonight anyway!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002