Friday, February 06, 2009

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love TV

It was a bitterly cold winter afternoon. 4PM and already dark. I was tired, and dreading the 2 hour stretch that yawned before me, from the end of Spot's afternoon nap, to Spot's Mom coming home from work a little after six.

It is a bleak stretch of time, bleak in my mind like the glare of sodium vapor street lamps over a frozen, salt-crusted alley.

I looked down at my hand. It held the remote. I looked at the TV. It was dark. I thought about my options.

Option A: Don't Turn On the TV. I knew what was in store without it. Some time in the kitchen, sitting at the counter and moving the cereal boxes around; maybe I would do some dishes. Then some time on the couch, reading that week's favorite clutch of books five times; then maybe I'd do a few loads of laundry. Then perhaps back to the kitchen to supervise the unpacking of all the drawers and the arrangement of their contents on the dining room table; punctuated with occasional collapses onto the floor in a hysterical fit of tears.

For two years, we banned the TV, and I made no use of the baby sitter's best friend. Instead, I was the TV. I took Spot on walks when the weather was nice. We went to the park, to the art center, to the cafe. We stayed inside and read when it was cold, and we played with blocks and pegs and balls and boats. We wrestled, chowed down, and stacked a whole lot of stuff.

Sometimes, when I was just too tired or sick, I would simply lie down and sleep while Spot clambered over me. But I never turned on the TV.

Until the other day, after the two year moratorium expired, and I chose Option B: Turn On the TV. I raised the remote and hit the "on" button.

Without a word, summoned like a zombie to a shopping mall full of screaming people, Spot calmly crawled up onto the couch and sat under my arm, all agitation drained from his limbs, his eyes wide and his heart slowed. He sat in a perfect "L" position, legs straight out in front of him on the flabby sofa, hands at his sides, giant floppy fleece slippers outlined against the blue glow of the TV screen. Spot hadn't been beside me this still, this close, for this long since he was a newborn.

For no particular reason, on came The Manchurian Candidate, followed by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are some violent scenes in The Manchurian Candidate -- a movie, coincidentally, about hypnosis -- and I was too slow with the remote to prevent Spot from seeing the scene where one dude takes a pistol and blows the head off another dude.

Whoops! That was bad!

But nothing happened. No crying, no physical jolt, no worried look up to Dad for reassurance. I don't think Spot can tell the difference between a man getting his head blown with off with a revolver and Barney getting hit in the head with a soccer ball. But Spot can tell you if there's a BALL involved.

Spot engages with television on an extremely concrete basis. Of the many levels of narrative meaning that criss cross and overlap in any movie or TV show, Spot is most interested in the level of the Household Noun.

Pay no attention to the photon torpedoes, to Wharf's head, to Riker's beer gut, or any of the funky aliens. What Spot will share his appreciation for are all the BALLS that come out of nowhere. There are also lots of STARS, maybe a MOON or two, some NIGHT, and the people wearing HATS which are sometimes hard to tell from their HEADS. There are also sometimes PURPLE PEOPLE.

There are also many things that don't appear in Star Trek, but Spot points these out too, because it is not their fault that these things have been excluded from Star Trek. Among them are PUPPIES, BARNS, and BEARS. Neither were POTTY, PEE-PEE, and BULB identifiable, and there seem to be no STAIRS on the Starship Enterprise.

So that was the end of our two-year moratorium on TV. Some gratuitous violence, some cheesy yet oddly uplifting syndicated sci-fi, and about two thirds of the way through it Spot turns over and starts pointing at the parts of my face. Glasses, nose, ears.

"Spot, Picard just ordered a saucer separation. Dude, you NEVER see this ... it's very rare. Chill out for a sec."

So Spot does me a favor and sticks around for the saucer separation, which oddly enough gives me chills, and then mom comes up the stairs like she does every night. Time's up! My household hobbit swings his slippered feet off the couch. Whatever Spot thought of what we were watching, clearly he thought it had gone on too long. It was time to show mom the various projects he had left in different stages of completion.

Sinking ever deeper into the flabby sofa cushion, I took a deep breath, and changed the channel.

[You can also read this on Dad's Book of Days]


Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I accidentally allowed my then-two year old to see a scene of torture on Battlestar Galactica. I looked from the screen to his face and back to the screen, and thought, "Crap: I just turned my son into a psychopath." In the years since, however, he's never tried to torture anything; I'm told this is actually somewhat unusual for a kid his age. These days we allow him one night of TV per week. The interesting thing is how he watches TV. He's not slack jawed or hypnotized at all. Instead, he's constantly commenting on and interacting with the story. We have used the TV for babysitting while we cleaned the house or whatnot, but mostly we try to watch with him and participate in the meta-story he superimposes upon the show. I really do think he gets a lot out of it, but I'm glad we have limits.

Variations On A Theme said...

Just found you through another blog. (I'm a stay-at-home mom, though, so hope it's okay for me to peek here, too!) Looking forward to reading more.

I had a similar tv experience when my girl was about 2. It was 3:30. I had two hours to go before my husband got home. I thought I was going to go insane if I had to make one more stuffed animal talk. I did the unthinkable and turned on the TV. It was Barney of all things. She was mesmerized. I sat down at the dining room table and cried.

"I'm not the perfect mom!" I thought. And then...."Hey! I'm not the perfect mom!" (Head up, eyes bright.) What a relief!!!! I don't have to try anymore to be the impossible! Life was much better after that.