Requiem for the Boob Tube

I grew up on a steady diet of sitcoms, westerns, and police dramas, with a dash of science fiction for good measure. After-school indulgences included half-hour reruns like Gilligan’s Island, The Munsters, The Rifleman, and The Brady BunchStar Trek came on each weekday at 5.

Mom would usually have dinner ready by the time Dad got home from work — just after 5:30 — so I often missed the last 20 minutes of the episode. It was indeed a rare treat to negotiate a deal with her and watch for the full hour, which meant sharing a tiny table tray in the living room with my brother while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner in the kitchen.

By junior high I was hooked on grown-up sitcoms like M*A*S*H and cop shows like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. Sunday nights meant sitting on the couch with my parents to watch Kojak or Columbo. My crush on Hawkeye Pierce was just as strong as my admiration for the police lieutenant in the rumpled tan raincoat. To see Columbo suddenly drop his absent-minded-professor routine and ensnare the killer during the final moments of each episode was to understand the word shrewd.

The one constant in all of this TV consumption was the bliss of a shared viewing experience.

Whether sitting next to my siblings and wondering if Captain Kirk would make it back to the Enterprise unscathed, or clutching my dad’s arm during a high-speed, two-car police chase, I felt an intimate human connection. As fellow consumers, we witnessed each other’s spontaneous reactions to the stories being depicted on the TV screen. Sometimes our responses were the same. We might gasp in unison during a cliffhanger ending, or share a raucous laugh after a hilarious one-liner. We might even catch each other crying during an especially poignant program.

All in the Family was the show that really brought us all together. The entire family, including my grandparents and my aunt, would gather around the TV set to giggle over Archie’s malapropisms and cheer on Edith’s sweetness.

These days I do appreciate the convenience of online streaming and apps, and I can relate to the consumer urgency captured in a phrase like “on demand.” After stumbling upon a review of Kim’s Convenience a few months ago, I consumed half a season of the Canadian sitcom in a single weekend, thanks to Netflix. When Anthony Bourdain died, my grieving process included cradling my iPhone and binge-watching several seasons of Parts Unknown.

And yet I mourn the decline of the communal viewing experience. I miss the thought of family and friends huddled around a television to watch a beloved program — even one in grainy black-and-white. I miss the need to plan ahead for a show that comes on once a week at a certain time. There was a bit of magic in knowing that as I fluffed the pillow on the family couch to get ready for my favorite program, countless others across the country might be doing the same thing.

Flat-screen TVs, fancy smartphones, and streaming services are all nice. But when left to our own devices, what might we also be missing?

Originally published in Medium.

The Art of Letting Go

A decade ago, I wrote my first commentary for WBFO. It was about a shopping trip with my then four-year-old daughter. Today, that bubbly little girl is an adventurous teen. Her fashion sense has, if anything, become even more audacious over time. Her mother, too, is ten years older, hopefully a little wiser, and the girl, much more eager to explore the world on her own terms.

We’re no longer negotiating jagged sidewalks during a spontaneous bike ride to Delaware Park, and our differences of opinion have little to do with vegetables or toys. Now we negotiate curfews and sleepovers, the latest party or the next teen dance. Most of the time, our exchanges are civil. But when the stakes are especially high for both of us, the power struggle can be intense. It’s then I want to reach for photo albums filled with frozen images of earlier, easier times. Compared to discussing the dangers of substance abuse or the virtues of platonic friendship, changing a soiled diaper was nothing.

A friend reassures me. “Stop pining for the toddler she once was. Stand back and appreciate the young adult she’s becoming.”

And he’s absolutely right. The amount of energy, time and, let’s face it, ego that I’ve invested in raising my daughter should in no way limit her ability to keep walking forward on that long, uneven road to adulthood. This includes the freedom to make, and learn from, her own mistakes.

Yet every time she ventures out to another party, my insides get a little tight. Each time she breathlessly recounts how cute someone was at a dance, my mind flashes back to my own memories of adolescent romance. Whenever I drive somewhere to pick her up, I can’t help but think that in just a few short years, it won’t always be me behind the wheel anymore.

Today’s youth love to broadcast their most personal thoughts using the most public venues. In posting raw and silly comments for their BFFs on the Internet, they’re also sharing delicate secrets with an audience that’s much wider than they could ever visualize. And here I am, recording a very personal commentary that allows me to reach a large group of listeners, many of whom I will never meet.

To all the parents of teens out there, I’m with you. We know all too well the painful push-and-pull between yes and no. We rely on the sometimes vain hope that when the going gets really tough, we can simply say, “Because I said so”— and have that be the end of it.

I know that my daughter and I will survive these years. Despite the posturing, the pouting and the occasional shouting, the love remains. If anything, it’s grown stronger.

But for now, we each have a job to do. Hers, to challenge many of the boundaries I’ve set, if only to know how far she must still travel to reach the other side of childhood. And mine, to provide the invisible string that allows her to venture farther out on her own, while maintaining a consistent and safe connection.

I suppose in the end, I’ll get through it just like my own parents did: one worry and one joy at a time.

Recorded in June 2010 as a Listener Commentary for WBFO, an NPR affiliate

All Those Years Ago

I woke up that morning and turned on the radio for the daily update on the Taliban’s retreat, only to learn of the death of the “quiet” Beatle at the age of 58. Caught off-guard, I began to cry. I was propelled back in time to December 8, 1980, when I was just 17 years old, alone in my bedroom, and grieving for my fallen idol, John Lennon. Of course, the circumstances were much different then. Lennon had been gunned down by a deranged fan; Harrison, having battled cancer for the past few years, died with his wife and grown son at his bedside. And despite the ravaging effects of his illness, he had at least had the gift of time to say goodbye to those he loved.

Like most young people, I projected my deepest hopes and ambitions onto celebrities of pop culture while I was growing up. The charismatic and controversial Lennon was particularly alluring. Like my father, he was a Caucasian who had rebelled against Western convention by marrying an enigmatic Japanese woman. But more than this cross-cultural connection, there was the music: the imaginative songs that communicated ebullience, anger, defiance, doubt, love, and hope. As a high school senior, I would routinely do my homework while listening to my Beatles LPs – at full volume, and to the utter dismay of my parents. More than 20 years later, it is impossible for me to choose a single favorite Beatles tune. I loved all of them.

With George Harrison’s passing, I have begun my own Fab Four revival. It amazes me that after all these years, I can still remember the lyrics. I warble along with the lads while driving to work, making dinner, or washing the dishes. But even as I revel in the playfulness of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” or surrender to the earnestness of “Something,” I step outside my admiration and wonder.

Why do the deaths of celebrities tug at our emotions? We still worship the mystery surrounding Marilyn’s probable suicide; we make pilgrimages to Graceland to remember a rock ‘n’ roll king; we flood the internet with sentimental gushing after the accidental deaths of JFK Jr. and Princess Diana. What about the heroic non-celebrities we live with every day? Our spouses, friends, parents, neighbors, coworkers – and yes, even our children – can easily be taken for granted. A friend’s favorite saying – “No one gets out of this world alive” – used to provide a good cynical chuckle every time I heard it. But the recent horror of September 11th has forced a fresh perspective on cruel, untidy, and untimely deaths – and the reality that we can lose those we move most at any given moment.

Grief touches everyone differently. I believe that at its core is the denial not merely of the death of a particular friend or family member, but of our own mortality.

The morning I learned of George Harrison’s death, I wept. Not like I did when I was a heartbroken 17-year-old – but just long enough to wake my 6-year-old daughter. When Hanna walked groggily into the bathroom and asked me why I was crying, I explained that I was a little sad. I had just heard about the death of someone I had never met, but who had meant a lot to me a long time ago. As I ended my confessional, the radio station began playing “Here Comes the Sun.” I lifted Hanna up and began twirling her around. Soon our spirited dancing was punctuated by her giggles, my hugs and kisses. It seemed a fitting tribute to the Englishman who, along with his boyhood pals, helped remind the world that “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Recorded on December 11, 2001, as a Listener Commentary for WBFO-FM

Kitchen Stories

I can recall the long-ago image of a leftover casserole
meticulously wrapped and stashed in the fridge
only to be ravaged during some nocturnal scavenger hunt.

Our family kitchen became a place to linger,
in the present moment, all hours of the day.

Now when I open the refrigerator door
the light from inside illuminates my memory:

wooden chairs pushed close together
stitched oval placemats and soft tablecloths
the clanging of glasses and silverware
the bountiful dishes passed around
the medley of tastes and temperaments
as we squabble and laugh
and then, hours later, the plates are piled high

Such a glorious meal of abundant love.

Cue the Theme Song

Forget June Cleaver. For my generation of impressionable dreamers, the inspirational TV mom was Clair Huxtable. She was gorgeous, stylish, smart and clearly in control of her household, even as she managed a successful career in the law. Like her name implied, she exuded clarity and confidence. The kids could goof off, but by the end of that half hour, Clair was unequivocally in charge. No one got away with anything – not even her husband, and certainly not her future son-in-law.

On the subject of ‘80s pop-culture icons, I fear my maternal temperament is more Roseanne Conner than Clair Huxtable. The antithesis of the well-put-together matriarch, Roseanne was perpetually tired and just a little indignant that she had to work so hard to stay one step ahead of her teenage daughters. Roseanne had a gritty side that made her hard to watch on TV, but a little easier to understand in real life.

Today’s headline news makes me recall another fictional family figure: Andy Taylor, one of TV’s earliest single parents. How did the Sheriff of Mayberry make it seem so easy? Surely the matronly presence of Aunt Bee was key. It also probably helped that the real child on the show wasn’t a red-haired boy without a mama, but a perpetually befuddled deputy named Fife.

Ah, if only parenting were as simple as a walk down a dirt road on the way to a beloved fishing hole. For a moment, I can dream.