Don’t Touch That Dial
My earliest memory is me at age three on a Saturday morning, alone in the living room, spinning around or whatever shenanigans a solo three-year-old can get into that would lead to breaking a lamp during the commercial break for Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
My second earliest memory is a short time later, watching our VHS recording of the CBS broadcast of The Muppet Movie, again alone in the living room, getting into whatever mischief that would lead to my lodging a pencil eraser in my left nostril during the Steve Martin scene. I waited until the end of the film before telling my mother because she specifically told me not to bother her with anything. And I figured I could still breathe out of the other nostril. I may have snuck into the kitchen to get pepper. Y’know, for sneezing. Because cartoons told me that was a thing.
I remember watching Teresa Brewer perform “Music, Music, Music” on The Muppet Show while my mother put the last of my father’s belongings — his rattiest of underpants, his favourite kitchenware — in a box for him to pick up the next time he came to town. We were watching Charles in Charge when the moving truck took our furniture from the house we lived in to the small apartment where I would share a bedroom with my mother.
A lot of my memories feature television as a supporting character. My memories are cluttered with theme songs and commercial jingles, catchphrases and clip shows. I could tell you all about how televised content influenced me, inspired me, and impacted my development as a human being. Well, duh. How could it not? Television was no mere household appliance — it was a member of our dysfunctional clan. It was almost always on. Get up in the morning and watch TV. Get home, have dinner while watching TV. Do homework while watching TV. Pull baby teeth while watching TV. Got the flu? Stay home and watch Phil Donahue.
I was always sent to another room to watch TV, usually because my family was watching something on our other TV. Television was not a treat. It wasn’t a privilege to be snatched away. To deprive me of TV would’ve meant that my caretakers would have to deprive themselves — and actually watch me instead. Television was a staple in our media consumption diet, in a time before media consumption was a household concept. Our daily viewing surpassed the weekly average. If we weren’t a Nielsen family, we should’ve been.
Television was my babysitter. Television was my teacher. Television was my best friend and constant companion. Television was my lifeline. Television taught me how to read, how to write, how to talk. It taught me how to live and love. It taught me about all the possible embarrassing scenarios one might encounter at dinner parties and big city offices. It taught me that if only I looked a certain way and used specific products, I could lead a glamorous, dramatic life. Television taught me how to be a detached observer of human behaviour.
You may imagine a small child sitting cross-legged on the floor, mouth agape, eyes wide staring up at a glowing set in a darkened room. This was not me. Ever the multitasker, I was colouring, building things, breaking lamps, turning my Little People hospital upside down and letting the Little People dolls carry on as if that was a completely normal orientation for a medical facility. Oftentimes, I would sit on my mother’s bed with my back to the tv and enact stories with my stuffed animals. There was an ongoing love triangle between Kermit, Miss Piggy, and a large koala, with an was occasional disruption by slutty Rainbow Brite.
Television was freedom. In the era before parental controls, I was granted full command of the dial — such responsibility to bestow on someone still in their single digits. As cable was still in its childhood as well, my choices were often limited to what could be picked up by VHF and rabbit ears. Ted Turner and the Public Broadcasting Service provided enough compelling content to limit my exposure to static noise around the rest of the dial. My mornings would start in darkness, watching pre-1950s Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes and Time-Life commercials for nostalgic album compilations — amassing my knowledge of Classic Hollywood actors and five-second snippets of the biggest Swing and Doo Wop hits. If The Price Is Right was on, it was time for lunch. If the soap operas were on, it was time for me to light somewhere and hush so the grown-ups could watch their stories. Sharing a room with my mother meant my lullabies were the themes to The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. Other kids had Saturday morning cartoons while I had Monday Night Movie, Sunday afternoon wilderness shows, Must See TV Thursday, TGIF, Afterschool Special, daytime game shows, very special episodes and the Weather Channel.
It didn’t have to be good, it just had to be on.
My mother never told me what I could watch. I never asked permission. We would occasionally discuss things I’d seen and she would gently tell me which things were not really appropriate for little girls. Our chats about The Patty Duke Show would meander as my mother reminisced about going to a neighbour’s to watch television as not everyone could afford their own TV sets yet. TV programs were black and white because the world was black and white, she’d tell me. The broadcast day was significantly shorter, there were three stations and half of them were fuzzy, and she lost both her husbands because she didn’t have Donna Reed’s domestic flair or Annette Funicello’s bosoms.
At my grandmother’s apartment, I would hunker down near her 13” black and white set to watch The Monkees and Gidget as she whiled away the hours shelling peas and drinking PBR and talking about the impending end times. She, along with the visiting biddies in her Bible study group, loved to scold me for sitting too close to the television because it would ruin my eyes. They also scolded me for holding books too close to my face when I was reading. It never occurred to any of these people that my eyes were already ruined and the effect was not their theoretical cause.
For my ninth birthday, I was given a 4” portable TV/radio so that I could watch television anywhere, as long as I had eight C batteries and headphones. During school breaks, I would sit in my mother’s office and watch I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. During tornado watches (or if I was feeling a bit lonely), I would bring my little TV and my potholder loom into our living/dining room and do my crafts while watching Degrassi or Night Court or Amen while my mother sat a few feet away and watched some hourlong dramas on the big TV.
With my prolonged exposure to screens, how odd it was to go to someone else’s house and find that the television was not on. Children, if any were present, were sent outdoors. Women gathered and gabbed in the kitchen or maybe the fancy sitting room. In social circles where Bible studies were more prevalent than viewing parties, television was considered to be man’s domain. Only when menfolk were present did the TV come alive, usually to blare some sports program or a western or maybe a rerun of The A-Team. I was not permitted outdoors with the dirt and the bugs, so I had to endure bitchy kitchen gossip or, more frequently, John Wayne whooping it up with Dallas Cowboys or something. Thankfully, I had a book. Okay, it was a Charles in Charge novelization I’d borrowed from my sister.
Time passed, life went on, networks stopped concluding their broadcast day with the national anthem and started filling the dead air with Time-Life infomercials. We all got slightly bigger television sets and expanded cable packages. Fifty-seven channels and nothing’s on but we’ll settle for the background noise because it’s better than facing reality.
If I wanted to justify my family’s dependence on television, I would reckon it was used as a deterrent, not only to discourage familial interaction but to dissuade outsiders from preying on an all-female household. Given our backwards state, is it really so far-fetched that someone could believe the blue glow of the television bouncing off our drawn curtains indicated a masculine presence? Maybe not if they could see we were watching Falcon Crest.
Televisions are everywhere now — sports bars, Chinese restaurants, coffee shops, shopping mall food courts, and highway rest areas. We’re all staring at screens for a significant portion of our day. We’ve got programs on demand and a 24-hour news cycle to prevent us from spending too much time with our own neuroses (while probably creating more). For all the choices at my fingertips, I still turn to public television and Turner-owned networks.
What will we do if we’re suddenly and indefinitely cut off from electricity and can no longer watch TV? Will we revert to the antiquated practice of gathering round the family piano to sing the old standards? Do we know any of the old standards? Do we even have any standards left? Will Time-Life sell us the sheet music?
This story appears in Katharine’s new short story collection Slantindicular: Stories Among Other Things. Get your own digital copy for $3.99 from popular ebook sellers. http://bit.ly/slantindicular-book