After I’d spent the summer with my grandparents in Arizona and had returned to my mother’s house in Ohio, my grandmother wrote in a letter to my father and stepmother:
August 29, 1979
Holly is a beautiful young lady, but a little headstrong because she has been on her own so much while Judy worked. Judy has quit her job for now so she will get more supervision. Holly is very bright, but they don’t give her much intellectual stimulation so she doesn’t stretch her mind.
Ouch. Grama nailed it.
When I was a junior in high school and lived with my father, stepmother and two halfsisters, what I most enjoyed was the lack of something: a television. There were no home computers in 1980, but everybody I knew had at least one television. Prior to that year, when living with my mother, much of my childhood had been spent with a black and white “portable” television that sat across from me at the table. The small TV was memorable because its plastic case was upholstered in denim, like a pair of tight fitting jeans, complete with western stitching and the brand name on a leather rectangle. I’ve never seen another television like that, then or since. Even when searching online.
My mother worked in bars and left for work shortly after the school bus dropped me off at our house, which was one in a single row built on the edge of a farm field. Across the street was another farm field and in the flat land of western Ohio, the views from the front and back of the house stretched for miles, unimpeded by little other than corn and soybeans in the summer and snow in the winter. My stepfather sold farm machinery and traveled during the week. After I waved good-bye to my mother from the large picture window of a living room that contained no furniture, I settled myself in front of the kitchen TV with my dinner. Until the evening news came on, I watched a string of syndicated reruns including Hogan’s Heroes, Adam-12, and The Odd Couple. When the evening news aired, I got up from my seat, cleaned the kitchen, took a bath and by seven o’clock resettled in front of my friendly, denim-clad box for the game shows that preceded the evening’s prime time programming. Depending on the night and what was on the TV, I watched until eleven o’clock. If I didn’t like what was on any of the three stations, I read in bed until I fell asleep. By the time I’d finished the eighth grade, I’d read everything Stephen King had published. Alone in a house surrounded by the wide open dark, King’s novels were not good soporifics and I often read the bible afterwards.
Generally, my mother did not return until well after midnight, but on occasion, when the bar she worked at was slow, she’d get home early. Only once was I caught immersed in a program well past my official bedtime. Her rage, instantly there like her best friend, complete with flying spittle, bulging neck veins and her long fingers that reached for my hair as I ran from her (I kept hidden a box containing the fistfuls of hair she would toss to the ground after she’d ripped them, from time to time in a fit of anger, free from my scalp), was memorable enough that I never let it happen again. Thereafter, I kept the kitchen lights off and one ear attuned to the sound of the garage door opening. If I heard its mechanical rumble, I snapped off the TV and dashed to my bed before she entered the house, only to lie awake wondering if she’d touch the TV to see if it was warmer than it should be.
It was not from activity that I was such a skinny kid. Genetics mixed with a good bit of chronic anxiety did the trick.
Screen Free Family
When I went to stay with them in 1980, it was the first time I had seen my father, stepmother and half-sister, Becky, since 1970. I had never met my youngest sister, Kate, who was born in 1972. With these other parents of mine, everyone was home most nights and we generally had dinners together. My sisters and I complained about our dad’s miso soup, a mealtime frequent flyer that was always thick with cabbage, but adored my stepmom’s bread. She made several loaves at a time and we would devour the first loaf before it was cool enough to slice without tearing; thick squares were chopped from cold sticks of butter and arranged on the hot pieces of bread like the dots on dice, where they softened into salty-sweet globs.
Most weekends, we spent at least one evening together and after dinner played cards or board games. Sometimes, we played rounds of backgammon, lining up to take turns when someone lost. The rest of us would watch the game or, if not, sit in the small living room and talk or read books. All the while, music I’d never heard before played on the stereo—bands like Canned Heat or Little Feat.
Hot air popcorn poppers were popular then, but my dad still made his popcorn on the stove in a pan. Repeatedly, as the popcorn popped at peak mass and threatened to overflow like lava, Dad poured a river of popcorn into a large mixing bowl where we mixed it with melted butter and salt. Dense and greasy, it made hot air popcorn seem like an unsatisfying ghost of the real thing. Even the next morning, when the popcorn was cold and the cooking oil and butter had emulsified with the salt, we would chew on handfuls before breakfast.
It was that year that I heard National Public Radio for the first time. I learned to listen to the news, in part because I was older, but also because on NPR, the news was interestingly told. I have never stopped listening to NPR (and for the record, I’ve long been a dollar-a-day member of my local station, pausing my contribution only briefly during my divorce).
In recent years, I’ve come to understand how much of the quotidian of my father and stepmother’s home life I have adopted in raising my own children. From little things like storing my kitchen dry goods in large glass jars to birthing all my children at home, many of my choices for my household have been strongly influenced by my time with my family in Northern Michigan.
And so it was easy to give up television when I began having children. Our viewing was soon limited to whatever we could get on video. That seemed somewhat radical back then, as did the bumper stickers that stated, “Kill Your Television!” Still, the house was not media-free, nor as someone who studied film in college, did I want it fully to be. However, without access to regular television, what is viewed can be controlled. Which isn’t to say, in hindsight, I don’t regret some of the things I let the boys watch. I particularly cringe when I remember owning “Pokémon” videos.
My children have never had video games, either hand-held or larger consoles like an X-box or a Wii. However, I knew my boys played them when they went to their friends’ homes. I was emphatic that I did not want them to play games that glorified violence, such as “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto.” Whether or not they did – and if so, how much – I don’t know. But none of my children ever asked me to buy them gaming systems of any variety. I’m sure they didn’t bother because they knew I’d say no, but also they just weren’t interested enough. I suspect part of the reason they weren’t is that they had no exposure, at least at home, to television commercials promoting any number of consumer items marketed for kids.
Instead, I played games with my kids. At first, there were the pre-reader games that, for the adults, made watching paint dry seem like an exciting alternative. You know: Chutes and Ladders, Don’t Be the Dragon and, the worst of them in my opinion, Candyland. But by five or six years of age each of the boys graduated to the card game Uno, which we all enjoy to this day. After Uno, it wasn’t long before we branched out to popular board games: Trouble, Sorry, and Monopoly, which I had played as girl, as well as newer ones like Cadoo and Apples to Apples. When Max came along, I relearned Euchre, a game I had learned in high school, and we taught the boys. For at least three years, it has been the reigning favorite game in the house.
We moved to Northeast Ohio when Claude was six, Hugo three and I was pregnant with Jules. Since then, I have maintained a daily subscription to the Plain Dealer. We start our mornings by calling out who gets to read the funnies. Most weekdays during the school year, Hugo gets up at 5:30 to do his homework and will start the coffee, feed and let out the dogs, and bring in the paper. Deservedly, he reads the funnies first. Jules and I tend to come down around the same time and I prefer to let him read the funnies before I do because otherwise he’ll stand behind me as I sit at the table and make comments in my ear about the strips he’s reading over my shoulder.
Meanwhile, the rest of the paper is spread across the kitchen table and inevitably other sections get read. Hugo likes to check the sports section to see how the Indians did if they had a game the day before. Claude reads the op-ed page and any attention grabbing headlines. On Thursdays, Jules foregoes the funnies in favor of the weekly birding column. I don’t remember when they all started reading sections of the paper beyond the funnies, it happened organically. And it happened because the paper was there and a television was not.
The longest subscription I have had in my life was Newsweek Magazine. Until a few years ago, one of the first sections of the magazine was a page of quotes and editorial cartoons from the previous week. Like the newspaper funnies, my boys turned immediately to the editorial cartoons when Newsweek arrived in the mail. As they became older, they’d start reading the quotable quotes of the week and then ask me, “Who’s Dick Cheney?” or “Who’s Donald Rumsfeld?” or whomever it was that had been quoted. I’d like to think their nascent understanding of politics began with the conversations about those quotes and the quoted.
The method by which the boys began reading the New Yorker (once Max and his subscription were in our lives) should be clear. I wonder how many children over the decades have been lured to the pages of that lofty publication by the one-panel cartoons liberally sprinkled throughout each issue?
Because the big boys seem to love learning about inventions and experiments, I picked up a subscription to Science News a couple of years ago. It’s not cheap and I thought about dropping it this year and said so in passing while processing a stack of magazines in the kitchen, really talking aloud to myself more than to anyone around me. I gathered from the ensuing uproar that the three big boys read each and every issue, cover to cover, and I promptly renewed our subscription.
I get This Old House, The Sun Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction (the latter I believe I will have in perpetuity without renewing ever again because I’ve submitted so many pieces of my writing to their contests with an added fee for subscription, none of which have won). Claude and Hugo get Esquire. Jules gets Audubon, Living Bird, The Nature Conservancy, Automobile and Cook’s Illustrated. And we all consider ourselves recipients of The Atlantic and The Smithsonian Magazine.
A Bit Much?
I have a friend who for years has supported herself with an amalgam of odd jobs, including house cleaning. Many years ago, she had a client who was a psychologist with a hoarder problem. The woman subscribed to The New York Times and had copies stacked all over her house that she had not finished reading. Not one or two weeks’ worth, but years and years of The New York Times. When my friend tried to help her client get rid of a few stacks of the older newspapers, her client had a fit—she was determined that she would read them all. One day. Well, I do know how she feels.
Similar but different, my own father could not part with any of his issues of The Rolling Stone Magazine. He had read them when they’d arrived, but he had them archived in stacks three feet deep in corners of the house. If ever anyone wanted to read a particular issue in crumbling newsprint, he had it. Somewhere.
I have a stack of my own favorite magazines from over the years. They fill one magazine holder in the living room. If I want to add one, I require myself to eliminate another (and usually do). And, yes, it’s hard to put two months’ worth of The New Yorker that I haven’t had a chance to even look at into the recycling, but we regularly do. Max has taught me to stop reading the table of contents beforehand because there is always something worth reading and before you know it, I’ll be like the newspaper hoarding psychologist. “Besides,” says Max, “another one will be here in a week or less!”
Enjoy it while we can
Last summer, before he moved into the dorms at the University of Michigan, Claude asked if I’d get him his own subscription to Newsweek and The Atlantic. Or maybe Harper’s (because who doesn’t love those crazy lists?), which we used to get but the renewal didn’t happen, more by accident than intention. When he got settled at school, however, Claude quickly realized that he had very little down time and no longer thought he could keep up with Newsweek or anything else coming regularly. Instead, I put together a handful of interesting issues of Newsweek and an assortment of other publications from the aforementioned lists that had arrived after Claude gone off to college.
I learned of the demise of printed Newsweek in a Facebook post. From an English professor. Who is also a novelist. My subscription ended a month after the magazine went digital and I have yet to renew. Maybe I will or instead, I might switch to Time Magazine, even though I do not share their more conservative bias.
Less than six months after Newsweek stopped being delivered by our mail carrier, The Plain Dealer announced that it was reducing home delivery from seven to three days a week. Owned by Advance Publications, the reduction of The Plain Dealer home delivery potentially means a reduction of its staff and, therefore, coverage. This has been experienced at other Advance Publications’ papers when home delivery has been reduced, most notably at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
From fashion to technology, I’m often slow to adapt. I never cottoned to the wildly popular Ugg Boot/house slippers as fashionable footwear, a trend that continues, any more than I thought Crocs were anything but ugly (except maybe on small children for whom they are easy to get on and off with no adult help). Similarly, I did not believe electronic publication would take off at all, let alone so rapidly, for a variety of reasons—the resolution is not what it is with paper and ink, you can’t hold a computer the way you can a book, magazine or newspaper, and you can’t spread them all over the house and know that the children will find them and read them as much by accident as desire. Well, tablets and electronic books are taking care of some of those concerns. And like other things that aren’t as good as what becomes the dominant product (think Beta versus VHS, vinyl albums versus CDs versus MP3s, 35mm cameras versus digital cameras), the resolution of ink on paper appears to be worth sacrificing for the convenience of instant access. At least for a growing majority.
I’m guilty. I can forever skip television, video games and all sorts of electronic errata that suck out valuable time from the precious few years I will live. But where I’ve been sucked in is the damn smart phone. Most nights of my adult life, I’ve fallen asleep with a book in my hands. Or a magazine. Or a newspaper. Now, I fight the compulsion to check my email one last time and then, time-brain sucker par excellence, Facebook. With a large family, personal reading time is hard to come by. That I give the few quiet minutes I have at the end of the day to a string of pithy postings that I will likely not recall a week, or a day, later concerns me.
Still the Same
For now, the paper still covers the kitchen table each morning. Shortly after our friend, Nancy, moved in with us last month, she subscribed to The Akron Beacon Journal and the Sunday New York Times. Each morning, we continue to read articles aloud to each other in the kitchen as we drink our coffee in our pajamas before heading out into the world. I don’t know what we will do when in August The Plain Dealer begins delivering only three days a week. I suspect, as when Newsweek changed, nothing.
I love reconnecting with old friends on Facebook. I also have found various groups on Facebook, particularly those related to Down syndrome, to provide valuable support and information. Writing essays for a blog that has an attendant Facebook page has come easily to me and I enjoy the format. I’m not interested in a life without the Internet and I have mostly embraced the advances in technology and publishing online while simultaneously trying to balance these benefits with my concerns for privacy.
Earlier this week, I learned late one evening that a friend in another state had suddenly died. Before I went to sleep, I read his Facebook wall and saw, albeit in small measure, what he was thinking about in his final weeks of life. I looked at photos of him and his family and all that they did together the past few years. And I was grateful for Facebook.
Choose Wisely, Choose Wisdom
Two boys came from the exact same background and one went on to work in a gas station and the other became a brain surgeon. You know the difference? The brain surgeon’s mother was Jewish. She pushed him to do his best. All the time.
~The Orthodox Jewish psychologist who tested Claude for his dyslexia in 2002
I have spent my life working, as my grandmother wanted, to stretch my mind. I did not go to college fulltime until I was 21. When I graduated at 26, I had enough credits for two bachelor’s degrees. Still, at times I feel like an autodidact, perennially overcompensating for what I perceive are holes in my education or intellect by reading more, learning more, asking experts. Clearly this has influenced, as much as any one person, how I have chosen to raise my kids. They well may have other things to complain about in regards to the choices I have made, but pushing them to do their best academically, to go beyond what is assigned and find the satisfaction of learning something they didn’t even know they would find interesting, is something I’ll not apologize for. I’m not quite a “Tiger Mother,” I’m too lazy for that and truly do believe in down time for kids. I’d like to think I’m more of a “Jewish Mother” as described above.
The removal of television from our home nearly twenty years ago now seems like a quaint notion, like closing a window on a capsizing boat to keep the water out. We had no idea of the technology that was coming, but getting rid of the television was absolutely the right thing to do. Regardless that four of us now have iPhones, that Claude and Hugo both have laptops of their own, we still keep the screen time pretty low. Line up my kids and ask them how they would most like to spend an evening at home with the family and I’ll give you 8 to 1 odds that they’ll pick sitting around playing cards or board games. Every time.