I didn’t go to CES this year.
There are lots of reasons why I hadn’t really even intended to support the show. Reasons like “we do too much show coverage as it is” and “CES is a declining venue” and “holy crap it’s expensive” and “germs”. You can pretty much insert a blank and fill in any variable you want, it’s probably all in there somewhere, swirling around.
But this year, I also had good reasons not to go. ‘School’ was the main one. CES very unkindly booked on top of my seminary’s January term convocation, and since ‘convo’ means “course credit”, the choice was forgone. Last year, CES did the same thing, for the record, so that’s why I took a pass then, too. I suspect it’ll happen again the next two Januaries, so again, I’ll miss those outings as well. C’est la vie.
The last year I made it to CES was in 2015, and I remember it as a zoo. With farm animals. On trapezes. And fire engines. Also on trapezes. It was, in short, overwhelming. Something north of 150 demo rooms in the Venetian Hotel, not counting any of the un-count-able booths in the many Halls over at the Conference Center. The brands that show up are uncommon at the local audio show circuit. Big names, all. And all of the brands that want to be big, that dream that way. They’re there, too. There really is nothing like CES — for audio — anywhere in North America.
But it’s not the same. Not as it was. For audio, CES is contracting. Some 15 years ago, CES was the show to show your stuff at, if you were a would-be audio company — and that fact was ever-more true the farther back you wound the tape. I never had the pleasure of the way-back. But I’ve heard the stories. Good times. Insane times.
But today, it’s a bit of a different story. In the last several years, the room-count for audio has dwindled continuously. Sure, this year there were over a hundred demo rooms in the Venetian, which still puts it on a par with the very best of the up-and-coming audio shows in North America, but not-so-long-ago, CES was playing on a different field entirely. There are, undoubtedly, many reasons for that marked attenuation, but the truth seems inevitable. CES is dying.
I could get quite maudlin at this point, mourning the passing of a giant. Premature, assuredly, as the old goat is still puttering quite efficiently about the kitchen and more-than-capable of putting on a great time for all comers. Tho’ much is taken, much abides … You don’t have to believe me; check the other postings here on Part-Time Audiophile that are even now coming from that show. But I wonder if the time to reflect, the time to stop and truly appreciate, to savor, isn’t after you put your friend into the ground. With the passing of any friend and loved-one, the desire to roll back the tape is a constant. Instead, we reach back into the closet, pull out that shoebox full of snapshots, spread them around the kitchen table while someone heats up something warm and comforting, we laugh and cry and tell stories.
My father-in-law died two days before Christmas. To say “it was quite a blow” doesn’t really capture the hollowed-out feeling terribly well. I’ve been here before, offering my broken alleluias to old friends and loved family, so I’m familiar with the routine. The sharp cut that becomes the dull ache, the bleeding that only slows but never really stops, the scarring that isn’t quite the same as healing, the oddly-shaped holes that never quite fill again, the pain that becomes the visit from an old friend. This is the Human Condition. God willing and the creek don’t rise, this is going to be a rather fundamental part of my job in the decades to come, but I’m never going to be able to “get comfortable” with loss. I suppose there’s too much Dylan Thomas in me for that.
This year, looking back and thinking of my father-in-law, and of Ken Furst and Richard Beers (and an appallingly large host of others), I am reminded of stories. My shoebox of memories. I remember the first time I met my father-in-law, an Episcopal priest, who used to work for Ted Kennedy. He was also 4″ taller than me. Nervous though I was, that first meeting was spent chatting animatedly about the philosopher Wittgenstein. I was chatting with Ken Furst just a few months ago. I must have been on his call-list, because he called once every few months to tell me intricate and deeply ironic stories. I wish I’d written them all down. To say that Richard Beers was provocative would detonate the term provocative. Richard took it as a personal mission to scandalize every young person he met, and writing those stories down would probably cause Pat Robertson’s hair to catch fire. But what all three of these men shared was a love of laughter, and sharing that laughter with each of them has made me a better person.
Thomas King wrote that “the truth about stories is that is all we are”, and it is undeniable that some of the very best stories happen when lives intersect. Which is pretty much what CES is, in a nutshell. I’ll be sad to see it go, if that’s what happens. If it does, it’ll be on us to carry those stories forward, and to remember to pause, share, and savor them. Hopefully, we can do that in a way that keeps us all out of jail, but making and sharing stories is the entire project here, because with stories what it is we are is made better. Made real, even as we play with and in the loose boundaries of “truthiness”.
As a wild and inveterate introvert, it actually pains me to write this out, but the “growing edge” of my humanity is this: I am better with you.
With that said, and all those emotions cheerfully roiling around in my bubbling emotional stewpot here in Maryland, I am choosing not to wait for the obit. I’m sure you’ll catch me at CES eventually, but in the meantime, I’m greatly looking forward to my next audio show. To seeing and sharing with all the marvelously weird, wonderfully demented, and brilliantly daring people that have, against all reason and advice, chosen to weave the creation of functional art into the fabric of their lives. I cannot help but be humbled by these people called to do this work. This is art that everyday people living lives in everyday places use to create the decidedly un-common, to summon for themselves a sacred space, one that is worthy of secret chords. This is art that invites us all to live, to love, perhaps even to pray — but most importantly of all, to share. How amazing is that?
So, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Play that funky music. Laugh, drink, fight, and make your ancestors proud.
As for me, well, I hope I’ll see you at the next show.