It's 11:59 on December 31, 1999, and I'm standing on the bridge between the MGM Grand and the Tropicana waiting for the biggest New Year's Eve countdown of my life. The streets of Las Vegas below are teeming with 300,000 people, pulsing with the same anticipation. A new millennium. In our lifetime. What an extraordinary gift!
So what do I do?
"10... 9... 8... " I whip out my camera. Not my real camera, but a crappy disposable I'd bought at a gas station in Barstow, when I realized I'd left mine at home.
"7... 6... 5... " Do I want the flash? The Jumbotron on the side of the MGM is pretty bright, so if I want the picture, maybe I don't need the flash after all.
"4... 3... 2... " No, I won't use the flash. Instead, I'll just point the camera at the sign and wait.
"1... 0... Happy New Year!"
Snap! Got it.
I spin around and realize that I've just missed the entire countdown. I've missed feeding off the energy of this insane crowd, and contributing my energy to it, during a once-in-a-thousand-years moment. And for what? A photograph of a sign that says, "Happy New Year!" A sign that will say "Happy New Year" for the next 10 minutes.
My boyfriend and I work our way down to the street and join one of the best parties I've ever been to. Everyone's having fun. Everyone is happy. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that I just blew something incredible. I let it go, and we party until long after the sun comes up, but I vow to never again let capturing the moment stop me from living in it.
I was reminded of this commitment last Friday, when a large group of friends and I went to the Earth, Wind and Fire concert, or as my friend, Barbara, kept calling it, "Earth, Wind and Fireworks," since that was also part of the show.
We were in the very back row of the Hollywood Bowl. We figured, as long as we were in the cheap sets, we should be in the seats where we could dance on the benches and sing out loud and embrace the joy of just being there. What I didn't realize was what an amazing view the back of the house would give us of how everyone else enjoyed the show.
Sure, there were periodic sparkles of light from just about every seat, as people pulled out their phones and snapped a pic here and here, but there were also constant glows, from those capturing the entire event. One such glow came from two rows in front of us, as a man filmed the whole concert, start to finish, on his iPad.
Did I mention we were in the last row? I'm not sure what his camera was capturing, but from what I could see on his screen (which I could see the entire time, since it was held above his head much of the night), it was a smudge of light, two football fields away, with some ants singing and dancing to music of the same sound quality as that scratchy cassette that used to bleed through the speakers of my old Mustang.
At one point, he wrapped his arm -- the one that was holding the iPad -- around his girlfriend's shoulders, thus holding the screen about eight inches from her face and blocking her view completely for at least one full song. When the fireworks started, that's when the few became the many, and we could see literally thousands of glowing screens, from every corner of the Bowl, creating low-quality digital recordings of an activity that is really only a spectacle when viewed live.
I'm not passing judgment. I can't. Even after my monumental Las Vegas Millennium New Year's Vow, I've still done the same -- blown the amazing moment in a concert because I was recording it instead. This is why my recollection of the inspired South Park mash-up that Rush opens "Tom Sawyer" with is of me holding my iPhone above my head, only to later discover that the picture was beyond shaky and the sound quality so awful it wasn't worth reliving, or even keeping. Ditto for The Killers encore, when the Psychedelic Furs came back out on stage and they performed "Pretty in Pink" together. My absolute favorite band from my youth joined my absolute favorite current band to perform my favorite song ever and all I can remember is watching my iPhone to make sure I was getting it all. Ugh!
Seriously, is there anyone who went to Woodstock who can't remember what it felt like being there because they were too busy filming it? Sure, there are other reasons they can't remember it, but those reasons enhanced the experience, they didn't remove them from it.
Why put a screen between you and your life? It's isolating enough when you're alone in front of a computer, but now we're doing it even when out among the swarm. What are we doing with all of these must-film-every-second videos, anyway? Has anyone actually ever watched one? Does anyone think the back-row cinematographer at the Earth, Wind and Fire concert is going to sit in front of his computer and gape at it again, ever?
The technology exists that allows us to film every waking moment -- an amazing concert, your daughter's first soccer game, that spectacular holiday air show, but as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, "Just because we can do something, it doesn't mean we should." Wouldn't your kid rather look over to the sidelines and see you cheering uncontrollably over her big goal than flashing a feeble thumbs up while trying to keep the image steady?
We all need to stop focusing so much on capturing the moment and just enjoy it instead. Be present. Live in it. Snap a picture to take you back to it in your mind, when you stumble across it years from now on your implanted photo viewing retinal chip, and let that memory be of how fully you experienced that event at the time, with all your senses.
And if you absolutely have to have a recording of it, go buy a concert video. The picture and sound quality will be way better, and you can still tell yourself, "Man, I was there."
To read more, you can visit Valerie Alexander's website, Speak Happiness, and follow Speak Happiness on Facebook and Twitter. For more detailed instruction in achieving lasting, permanent happiness, you can get "Happiness as a Second Language" on Amazon, and for added amusement, please check out the Happiest Book Trailer Ever.
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