Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Requiem for a satellite dish.


My parents aren't exactly what you'd call early adopters when it comes to technology. These are people who didn't buy a cordless phone until I was practically in high school, who only recently discovered the "popcorn" setting on their microwave and who, when faced with the untimely demise of their wind-up alarm clock this summer, required extensive tutorials in how to operate the very basic plug-in replacement they got at Pamida. (Seriously, it has three buttons. And don't even get me started on the four pages of notes and diagrams I had to draw up so they could run their VCR when I'm not around.) Mostly, it's because they just aren't interested in gadgets and gizmos; they grew up without all that crap, and now they really don't care about learning how to run it. "That's why we have
you," they always say, and I laugh and show them how to adjust the volume on their answering machine for the thousandth time.

What's weird is, well, for people who have a hard time running the remote control sometimes, they have some fairly funky gadgets laying around the house.

- a slide and photo negative scanner from Hammacher-Schlammacher
- a VCR-to-DVD converter/recorder
- a digital weather station thingie that would make George Kessler proud
- a fax machine/mini-photocopier
- a digital camera (okay, not a big deal, but many of their friends still don't use them)

Of course, with the exception of the camera and the little photocopier, they can't really operate any of that stuff. But they have it. Which is kind of weird, isn't it? On the other hand, when I think about it, most of that stuff was either given to them as Christmas presents by me & my brothers, or it was stuff they got talked into buying so they could complete some sort of project, get something crossed off their endless to-do list. All those home movies my mother's been taping on her TV-news-sized videocamera since the early 1990s? THEY MUST BE PRESERVED! On DVD! And all those slides in the basement, what about those? Get me this Hammacher-Schlammacher thing for Christmas!

Except then what happens is, they can't run any of it (and generally won't even try to operate this stuff, out of fear that they'll "break" it), so one of us kids winds up doing it all anyway. I guess they really
are gifts that keep on giving.

I think one of the most out-of-left-field things my parents have ever bought, though, was the satellite dish. I'm not talking about the dainty little DirecTV dish that they begrudgingly signed up for after the Great Digital Conversion Boondoggle of '09 - I mean a
satellite dish. The big, honkin' black thing that perched in our backyard from the mid-1980s well into the following decade (even though I think it ceased functioning sometime before the fall of the Berlin Wall).

Raising a ruckus.

The story goes, a local traveling salesman from Marengo (he traveled...locally, I guess) with a checkered reputation (well, he didn't have the checkered reputation at the
time, but got it after this particular round of traveling salesmanship) went door-to-door, convincing people that satellite TV was the Way of the Future. Somehow, my parents decided to go for it, which I've never fully understood because (A.) they don't go for gimmicks and (B.) they're cheap. When given the choice between spending money or not spending it, it's usually pretty easy to guess which way the wind's blowing with those two. (These are people who'd bring along a cooler full of egg salad sandwiches when we went on one of our semi-annual trips to Duluth, and park in a grocery store parking lot to eat lunch instead of going to McDonalds.) Why did they decide to splurge on the dish? Maybe they were just tired of only having four TV channels (on a good day - usually only two of them came in), or maybe they thought it would be good for us kids. Who knows?

Satellites then weren't like they are now - you didn't just turn on your TV and flip to a channel with your remote. Oh, no. Things were more complicated than that. For one thing, the satellite actually
turned as you switched from channel to channel - we'd watch it out in the yard, slowly oscillating like a giant tabletop fan. (You can imagine how much fun it was to try to keep that monster shoveled after snowstorms - if it got too weighed-down with snow, it didn't turn.) And there was no handy onscreen guide like we have now, either; channels weren't just numbered sequentially, they had letters and directions and other codes built into them and sounded a little like something from the game Battleship, or bingo - B26! NW234!. If you wanted to find a certain channel or god forbid, a particular show, you had to either guess, or buy a monthly guide like On-Sat (which was like a more expensive version of TV Guide). There was a heavy metal box about the size of a clunky VCR that sat on a high shelf by our fireplace that you had to punch codes into - it looked like a cross between a CB radio and something out of a cockpit, with buttons and dials and lots of notes my father wrote on it with a Sharpie that said things like "DON'T TOUCH THIS BUTTON!" and "NO!"

I was pretty young at the time, but in a sign of things to come, me & Dewey both mastered the art of channel-surfing much faster than our parents did. (Nick was probably old enough to remember the dish, but probably can't remember it as well as the rest of us.) There was really only one channel we wanted to watch, anyway: Nickelodeon. Oh, sweet glorious 1980s Nickelodeon. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Oddly, despite having so many new options, the only other two channels I have any distinct memory of watching are the country music channel (oh, Hank) and the CBC out of Canada, and all I really remember of that is watching Canadian Sesame Street and learning to count in French from Basil the polar bear and Louis the otter. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cing, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix! I've still got it!

And you know, honestly, I think we watched the local channels we'd always had more than anything on the dish.

The satellite didn't last too long - maybe a couple of years, at most. If I remember it right, they kept changing the satellite channel frequencies around and channels were getting dropped from their line-up...paying for
On-Sat never went over well with my parents, either. When the motor in the mechanism that made the dish turn burnt out, that was the end of that. We were a four-channel family again, and you know, I don't think we felt like we were missing too much (after the sting of our new Nickelodeon-less lifestyle wore off, obviously).

Maybe that explains why my parents don't get too wrapped-up in all the technological ephemera people my age are so dependent on - they had a taste, and realized hey, maybe sometimes less is more. Maybe the fewer things with buttons you have, the better.


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