When I was seven, a wizard came to our house after school one Wednesday. He messed with a few wires, and then handed me a remote control the size of our station wagon’s car jack. The gizmo had just enough line to reach our green La-Z-Boy. Once the Zenith warmed up, he dialed in two digits, and The Flintstones appeared on the screen. That was the beginning. No more waiting for Saturday cartoons. We had cable.
I can still tell you every channel on that cable box. Cinemax was two. Nickelodeon was three. Home Team Sports was four. CBS was six. On and on, I can go, all the way up to thirty-six, where the road ended. Back then, thirty-six channels felt like infinity. The best stuff was scattered from HBO at fourteen to MTV at thirty-three. During the school week, the TV sat on an antique blanket chest, mostly ignored. On some nights, I caught Dad eating Nilla wafers, tuning in for a little Hill Street Blues or Mash, but mostly, the rule of the house was that the TV stayed off on weekdays, no matter what. I remember school mornings when guys would show up for recess yapping about Monday Night Football or that time Joe Theismann’s fibula popped out of his leg. It was all news to me. Even when my homework was done, I sat at my desk, staring off at the wall, dreaming of summer.
That’s when reruns were my life. Whatever came on, I needed more of: The Carol Burnett Show, My Three Sons, The Munsters. My sister Susan and I sat for hours, watching the magic come out of that tube. Sometimes, probably out of exhaustion, the set would just cut off unexpectedly, but a quick rap of the fist on the wood-grained plastic resuscitated it. Different Strokes, Chips, The Brady Bunch. TV seemed like a sweeter deal. A life on motorcycles by day and roller-skates at night? Cool. Helping Willis and Arnold escape kidnappers and pill-pushers? I wanted to do that kind of stuff. I dreamt of a room like Greg Brady’s, tucked up in the attic with a lava lamp and a dartboard. TV was my dreamland. One day, I would marry Alyssa Milano and play drums on Kids Incorporated.
None of that happened. Today, Dawn and I might watch thirty minutes on Friday night after the kids get their books and their songs and their water and their prayers and have one more pee-break and a piggyback ride and another hug. That’s the moment when the house is still. I sit down, put my feet up, and then spend fifteen minutes, flipping through menu bars, Roku apps, channels I don’t get or can’t figure out, and an endless Netflix queue, hoping to find a show that ultimately doesn’t exist.
The boys don’t know any sitcoms or game shows. In some way, it feels like denial. They aren’t seeing Wally on Leave It To Beaver get his first shave. They don’t know about Super Market Sweep or Tootie from The Facts of Life, but even without these references, they love the act of choosing. We scroll through titles and preview each show’s image. That one, Dad! Yeah, that one with the giant octopus. What a luxury, I tell them, recalling the days before you could preview each show’s image. Still, sometimes, a battle royale begins over which episode of Scooby-Doo they will watch next. They always want more, so we ration. We decided long ago to embrace the notion of no screen-time during the week (that includes TV and tech). It’s hard sometimes. Really hard. It would be nice to turn on the TV or the iPad for a quieter house or a free moment. We aren’t entertaining our kids, but we don’t want screens to entertain them either, at least, not all the time.
When I got home yesterday, Levon had taken three unopened Keurig boxes into the backyard where he used a LEGO piece to single-handedly cut open each K-Cup. He then got my new electric toothbrush, bought from my dentist just two days earlier, and whipped up a little potion. “I was making dirt,” he said. Sometimes, letting the boys create their own entertainment backfires. They explore, but their adventures get them into mischief. There was a tick in an armpit this week, and a fall from a treehouse last week. There was another fall into a fountain at Maymont on Monday, and a leg stuck in a branch that had Dawn one digit away from calling 9-1-1. On Saturday, Atticus ran into poison ivy. And on Sunday, Levon swallowed bug spray that he found in the woods – on purpose.
Off they go, getting into everything, exploring, and destroying. Our chorus repeats. Don’t do that. Be nice. Be kind. Think about others. Look me in the eyes. Listen. Be polite. Be careful. When I was twelve, I went to the emergency room three times in one summer. I get it now. I was bored. Even with all of that television, I ended up playing on the roof of our house. I built fires in the backyard. I loved my BB guns, and cut my fingers open with a Swiss Army Knife three times. I jumped fences and messed with beehives, looking for something else. I had good days and bad days, and my boys do, too. On some of their best, when their manners are in place, one of them heads out into the world, only to get a bad report about calling someone a butt sandwich or being possessive over a friend. They don’t need a screen to spark their imagination. They have plenty all by themselves.
That’s why we encourage them to play in the creek. We want them to look for worms and beetles in the yard. We’re glad they have a secret hideout where they yell at deer and squirrels. We watch them turn into pirates and knights and Jedis and bad guys with cap guns. It is loud in our house and messy. The laundry piles up. During all of it, we are trying to prep them for friendships and a world where the lessons we teach matter. I want TV and other media to be just something in the background that adds a few laughs and lessons.
When I was a kid, I wanted life to be like a TV show. I wanted that living-room train from Silver Spoons and the clubhouse from the Honey-Comb commercial. Even now, there are moments when what I see on the screen looks better. But then I look up, and I see what’s in front of me.