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I Watched Hours of Old Videos From My Teens and Survived

The only thing worse than the mortifying ordeal of being known, is the mortifying ordeal of knowing (and facing) a former version of yourself.

Caitlin Schneider / Tony Wilson

I’m hesitant to admit this, but I’m a big list person. It’s one of those behaviors that’s key for managing my anxiety, which has a tendency to stand at the sidelines of my brain’s battlefield and ceaselessly laugh at me.

To avoid this torment, I make lists. And one of my many lists— tucked somewhere among Stuff We Need From the Store and Things to Watch and Potential Roller Derby Names—is a list of low-priority tasks I can spend time on when my anxiety could use a sense of purpose. The list contains items like “buy shoulder rest” (for a violin I haven’t played in years) and “password maintenance” (lmao). And another item that had been lingering for actual years was “digitize tapes.”

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When I was 16, my parents bought me a Hi8 Sony camcorder as a gift and over the course of the next several years, I fell into a deep, almost obsessive love with it. I recorded hours and hours and hours of footage onto tiny tapes, which I’d then rewatch by replaying them on the camcorder while it was hooked up to a TV. Some percentage of people reading this are probably like “why are you explaining this, we get how video camera playback works,” while another percentage are probably like “what the fuck is a camcorder again?” Alas. 

I dropped the habit rather abruptly in college, at exactly the time when life became more interesting than the act of documenting it. And several years after that, when I tried to play the tapes back again, the camcorder revealed itself to be on the fritz. When I went to get it fixed, a kind but impatient man told me it was not worth it to repair. Without another means of playing the tapes, they continued to sit collecting dust. I spent years wondering if they’d even play again once I had the right tools, which is probably why the task remained on my to-do list for so long. Even though I barely remembered the actual content of them at that point, the thought of losing those essentially already-lost memories to negligence was too much for me to face. 

But then the pandemic happened, and the dangerous storm of isolation and extra time led many of us (yes, hello) to obsess about the past and check things off our list. Digitizing my old tapes offered the chance to kill both of those birds with one big, analog stone. I found a man in a nearby neighborhood who would upload my forgotten memories to the cloud for $15 per tape. 

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When I dropped the tapes off, the aforementioned man squinted into the afternoon sun and said, “What do you want me to do with them?” 

“What do you mean?” I said. 

“The tapes, do you want them back when I’m done, or should I recycle them?” 

I stared at the plastic back of footage I knew I might not ever see again. 

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Toss ‘em. Even if they don’t work.” 

Roughly 24 hours later, several hours-long files appeared in my inbox. 

I should say that I was largely in search of one clip in particular—just a few minutes of my grandma telling me a story. I filmed it at an outdoor family party in celebration of a forgotten event and during a nondescript year, with music blazing and the light rapidly fading. The story was one I’d heard a million times and it centered around my great-great aunt supposedly killing the mayor of Detroit with an Irish curse after my great-great uncle died on the job as a firefighter and the city refused to give his widow (my great-great aunt) a pension. Even though I knew the story well, I asked her to tell it to me again. I taped it knowing she’d be dead one day, and now she is.

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When I got the files back I scrubbed through them quickly, looking for the film in question. My heart was racing as I flew past forgotten footage of a Christmas morning, of my friends goofing around in a graveyard, and of my brother’s college band. Three files in, at the very end, I found the party and my grandma staring back at me. “Can you see or hear anything?” I can hear my cousin ask me in the recording. “Yeah surprisingly well!” I say. You could not. I quickly clipped the story and sent it to my dad, then I X’d out of the file, as if it might disappear if I spent too much time looking at it. 

Over the course of the next few days, I made my way through the rest of the footage, immersing myself in my own past as if I was binge-watching a buzzy show with a fast-approaching series finale. A lot of the content was deeply boring, a lot of it was deeply sweet, and a lot of it was far too cringey for me to actually watch. More than anything, I was struck by how much I could feel myself—someone who’s long been worried about the passage of time and the loss that comes with it—trying to fight those inevitabilities with a camera. For a few years, I was really just taping everything.

I let the camera run at school events, while driving with friends, and while my mom was cooking dinner. There’s plenty of artistic renderings (a black and white filter on trees in the snowy woods with Belle and Sebastian playing in the background made me howl), skits, school projects, and some humiliating attempts at documentary filmmaking, but so much of it is just letting the camera go while life was happening. 

I briefly considered cutting together elaborate edits tailored to the people in my old videos which I could send them out of the blue, but watching them back made me realize that there was a good chance that my old friends, many of whom I don’t know anymore, might not want to see them. Perhaps the only thing worse than the mortifying ordeal of being known, is the mortifying ordeal of knowing and facing yourself, even (or especially) a former version of yourself. I decided that the act would be more for me than for them anyway, and that privately poring over moments from years ago is probably a better way to cope than, say, reaching out to every person in my old tapes and saying “Hello, I feel feelings, do you?” 

As the pandemic wears on, the obsessions from the beginning of lockdown, when this was still new and novel and terrifying, have morphed now that it’s old, and routine, and terrifying. Now, when I feel a pathological longing for the “past,” I’m no longer yearning for the world as it was when I was 16. My desire is more for the world that existed about two years ago, when things were bad in a different way, and I could at least still see my family and friends without potentially threatening their lives. Honestly, I thought I was handling my COVID grief well lately, but then I rewatched this video from May 2019 of Lil Nas X surprising elementary students and found myself hysterically laugh-crying at what now feels like an improbable fantasy scene. More and more, I’m happy to let the distant past stay where it is. I have it, I’ve watched it, and now I don’t need it as much anymore. The path from immersion to closure was remarkably swift. Once I had gone through my old tapes, I saved them and then stopped thinking about them almost entirely.

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For a brief moment during this time of dwelling, I felt a small pang for more hours to watch. Part of me wished I’d kept filming and had racked up footage from college and beyond. As painful as it was to see my old self and style (Puka! Shell! Necklaces! And! Permed! Hair!), and relationships that had faded, and family members who are long gone, the experience was also cozy and difficult and sad. It was like being a teenager. 

The yearning didn’t last long. In truth, I’m glad I got out from behind the camera when I did, and I’m glad I didn’t have an iPhone then. I’m no Luddite, but the thought of having a continuous document of my young adulthood accessible at any moment sort of makes me want to hurl. I considered the many billions of adolescent lives that have come and gone on this planet without a moment of documentation. I thought about my grandma’s mysterious teenage self, and the stories she told. Then I fact-checked her Irish curse story and found that it was even less true than I suspected. I accepted what I already knew in my bones: I preferred the myth and memory to the truth and the tape—a fact that applies to both my grandma and her Irish curse story, and to my life’s own folklore. Now that my to-do list item is finally done, I’m content to let my former self live back where she belongs. I’ll probably visit her now and again, but mostly I’ll let her be. She’s got her stories, and I have mine.