Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Premiere of Our TV Drama

This new series brought to you by an obscure network on a channel you only happen upon in the middle of long sleepless nights has been reviewed by test audiences as presenting a realistic view of family life--with moments of comedy--but relying too heavily on the whiny kvetching of its protagonist, "Mom" (who is no Seinfeld).  The season premiere has a postmodern approach:  it's a TV episode about...TV, or lack thereof.  Despite the likability of "Dad," the pilot ultimately fails to capture its viewers, with the outcome of the episode's central dilemma elusive and an unsettling sense that no real lesson has been learned.   Critics wonder if this show will continue to revolve around appliance mishaps and misbehaving children, in a kind of Super Nanny meets Repo Man

The series is set in the suburban bungalow of a family which Still Does Not Own a Flat Screen TV.  In the pilot's opening scene, Dad is depicted changing (again) the batteries of the TV remote, which by now he should recognize is almost assuredly broken.  He waits to call the cable company during regular business hours and is promised a new remote by mail.

Coincidentally, the daughters' elementary school is celebrating TV "Turnoff Week" with a variety of activities, beginning with a family picnic on Monday evening.  Dad and girls attend; Mom stays home to watch TV.  Just kidding!  Though it does cross her mind, she admits to the viewing audience:  she always has the last fifteen or twenty minutes of some DVRed show to watch--the part she views with eyes closed, snoozing on the couch.  The parts best watched when no one else is around to register his impatience.

To be real, while Mom expects her family to take advantage of organized "Turnoff Week" activities she is not intending to actually exile the TV.  Husband is portrayed as a guy who likes to have the TV on when he folds laundry, when he's walking through the living room, when he's "turning his mind off," and when he's got a spare couple of minutes and the newspaper is read and the gardening is done.  There's hardly a sport not worthy of his attention.  Meanwhile, Mom grew up in a family in which TV Time was a rare, controlled commodity (a deprivation to which she attributes her weakness for The Bachelor series). 

It appears the kids are too busy for evening TV except on weekends.  In the mornings, however, because their school starts at 9 AM and they wake up somewhere between 6 and 7 o'clock, they are permitted to meander sleepily from their beds onto the living room couch to watch a show or two. They've been hoodwinked into thinking the DVRed list of PBS shows is the range of programming options, so viewers watch them choose between Electric Company, Word Girl, and Maya and Miguel.  Mom maintains that for the most part (her penchant for reality TV notwithstanding), TV and computer time are not issues worth tackling in the household.

Imagine Mom's surprise, then, when after picnic and baths and books and the girls are tucked away asleep on Monday evening, Husband grabs a book and heads into the bedroom to read.  Mom freezes on the couch, malfunctioning remote pointed at the TV. 


"It's 'No TV Week', Hon," he says over his shoulder. 

"Really?  We're doing that?" 

"I  am," he declares. 

Mom turns begrudgingly to her iPad and Words With Friends.

The next morning, as Dad slumbers and Mom prepares to leave for work, the girls shuffle off to the couch and their shows as usual.

Husband calls Mom at work a few hours later.

"In case you get home and wonder where the TV is, I put it in the garage."


"I had trouble getting the girls to follow through with their chores this morning, and I had to lay down the law."

Hmm, thinks Mom, applauding her partner's follow-through while noting internally that unplugging or hiding the unreliable remote were other strategies he could have employed, and then imagining the dramatic moments around Husband unplugging and lugging the not-a-flat-screen tube out the French doors as daughters stand by. 

"All righty then," mutters Mom, beginning to feel like collateral damage and recognizing that removal of the entire TV means she can't even set the DVR to record some series premieres this week.  Who planned TV Turnoff Week to coincide with Fall season premieres, anyway?  Humbug

Tuesday night is Mom's Book Club, and as she departs for her meeting, she half-jokingly suggests to Dad, "I won't be too disappointed if I come home and find the TV back where it was!"

She returns home to find the same empty space where the TV used to be and Husband curled up in bed, ear to the radio sports station.  I can't very well listen to The Daily Show, though, can I? she grumbles, pouting as she cracks the novel at her bedside. 

On Wednesday the new remote arrives in the mail, which Mom observes is just as impotent under the present circumstances as its predecessor.  That night she plops on the couch and wryly notes to Husband, "Look!  Still no TV!" to which he replies, "Uh huh.  I kind of like it." 

She raises her eyebrows and scrolls through Facebook, commenting on friends' updates about the Glee and Modern Family season premieres:  "Still.  No.  TV."  "What happened to it?" responds a friend and victim of Facebook's new feed.

On Thursday night:

Yep.  No TV.
Daughters kiss Mom goodnight and ask her to wake them if they're still asleep before she leaves for work so they have the maximum amount of time to draw and read before school, activities they've been enjoying in lieu of PBSKids.  Mom feels a little proud and little like she might vomit.

Dad, on his way to bed, suggests that the TV just might return to its regular slot in the network lineup on Friday.

Why now?  Mom mumbles, with the novel in hand that has gripped her attention and the unanswered question of whether or not this week's season premieres are available online...

The pilot ends with a preview of next week's episode, in which the family's ten-year-old laptop dies, and Mom considers sharing her iPad.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


They were already fighting by the time they found me waiting outside school at the end of the day.  Third Grader had insulted Kindergartner outside her classroom.  Kindergartner had falsely accused Third Grader.  Kindergartner was crying and Third Grader was outraged.  19th grader, or Lifelong High School Student (as I seem to be), commenced the eye rolling and deep sighs. 

They stepped on each others' feet getting in the car, where they took more than their fair share of personal space and argued over grapes on the way to soccer practice.  Little Sis deliberately irritated Big Sis.  Big Sis overreacted.  Mom gripped the steering wheel.

Sibling Nonsense.  It's the parenting challenge du jour. 

And yet, every night for the past few months, after quite possibly another long day of quibbling and quarreling, they crawl into the same bed together to sleep, Big Sis's empty bunk above them.

They giggle, scheme, roll around, read aloud, shriek, tickle, confide, sing, confess, kick, snuggle, and snore in there, in tandem. They talk in their silly voices, doing "The Frank and Toaster Show" or "Hairy Joe," their own homegrown shticks, cracking each other up. Most often, Little Sis succumbs to sleep first, and Big Sis reads on beneath the star lights.

One day they'll abandon this practice, with or without fanfare, but I will never forget it and I hope they won't, either.  Despite the demons outside their doors, despite their mean and nagging parents, despite their own differences and disagreements, they have each other.

Sweet dreams, sisters

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blackout Notes

Southern California experienced an unprecedented and unexpected 12-hour blackout on Thursday and it seems everyone's talking about what they learned.  For example, we learned blackouts can be fun if they're not associated with hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or terrorist attacks.  Our fun was tempered by the knowledge that Grandma was in the ICU in a hospital running on a generator, and the awareness that there were likely many elderly people alone in the dark and late summer heat.  There are more than enough reasons right now to appreciate first responders as well as the medical personnel who stayed at work long past their shifts were over to help our loved ones.

The blackout was over soon enough for most danger to be averted, but lasted long enough for folks to come out of their homes and bond with neighbors over resources, barbecues, bright shiny stars, and the eerie sense of calm and quiet in the absence of electrical hum.

It helps to be a camping family, we learned.  We have a propane stove and several LED lanterns, as well as flashlights in various stages of battery readiness.  Funny how the brain works; husband and I were so preoccupied with battery, lantern, and flashlight inventory that it was a good thirty minutes before I remembered hey, we have candles all over this house.  Duh.

I figured we'd better grill the chicken in the freezer, which was still frozen solid with no microwave or hot water to assist with defrosting.  In retrospect we were probably better off eating leftovers from the fridge.

I noticed folks outside in their cars, reading, listening to the radio...and here's where I will admit it would have taken me a long time to figure out I could charge my phone in the car.

Kids are only slightly less enlightened than adults in a blackout, thinking of plugged-in activities and then recalling that they're out of the question.  My favorite moment was when Little Sis excitedly announced, "I know!  It's super dark; let's play with Lite Brite!"

We ended our evening in the girls' room, huddled under the bunk bed reading Harry Potter by lantern light.  Power returned around three o'clock in the morning, but much to the dismay of Big Sis, schools remained closed.  The high schoolers I work with?  Not so sad about that.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Beans 'n' Rice Night

We are going to lighten things up around here with some dinner dialogue. Specifically (and all "paleo" diets aside), we've been eating a lot of beans lately.  Because beans are good!  How about them white beans--Great Northern beans?  Cannellini?  My goodness, those are yummy.  Saute them in oil with some greens and garlic and pour over pasta.  Or mash them into hummus.  Make soup!
My kids love beans, too, which has encouraged me to keep the cupboard stocked with pintos, chick peas, black and white beans (I'm not a fan of the kidney bean, a result of too much exposure to yucky three-bean salad in my youth).  One of our daughters' favorite dinners is Rice 'n' Beans Night.  I wish I could recall which friend's friend inaugurated this tradition so I could give credit where it's due, but we adopted the idea ourselves, with rave reviews from the Peanut Gallery every time. 
Beans 'n' Rice Night is the perfect solution for evenings when the fridge stores are running low; for when you need to feed 'em, fast (as fast as rice cooks); for when you're tempted by take-out but want to save some cash; for when a hearty or warm meal is in order; for when you're in charge of a crowd.  Here's what you do:  cook some rice.  Warm up some beans.  I like to mix pintos with black beans and add a tablespoon of salsa and some cumin to give the beans a little more dimension.  The rest of the excitement is in the condiments.  Depending on what's available, and the extent of your planning ahead, you can top your bowl o' rice 'n' beans with shredded cheese, salsa, diced green chilis, scallions, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, avocado, shredded lettuce, olives, crunched tortilla chips (or serve with warm tortillas). 

Easy, peasy, crowd pleasy!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Catching Our Breaths in a Clearing

I finally felt it yesterday, that irritating and self-righteous sense that the world is full of petty dramas, complaints, and bullshit.  I knew it was coming; it's a phase one passes through on the Roller Coaster of Life and Death Matters.  No one but family and close friends understand that nothing else matters right now except Getting Through This.

Monday was my beloved mother-in-law's grave health emergency, and since then, she's moved out of the ICU and into the realm of hope for full recovery.  Rehab and her increasing understanding of her new reality as well as financial, legal, and insurance wranglings await us.  But we've left the deepest, darkest part of the woods and are catching our breaths in a clearing.

And the clearing is where we lift our heads and see the rest of the world going merrily, pettily, ignorantly on.  There's at once the grim satisfaction of having one's priorities realigned with clarity and the frustration of feeling No Else Gets It.

I remember the drive home from the hospital when I had Big Sis.  It was the Monday of Labor Day Weekend, and perhaps the Baby Blues were already setting in (and maybe that terrible case of post-surgical constipation), but for sure I had a sense of my life never being quite the same.  There was no tragedy--things could hardly have been more wonderful, really--but I recall my head turning this way and that, peering through the window of the car at the Those People who were blithely enjoying their holiday weekend as if the world hadn't suddenly turned completely upside down.  There was the Rest of the World, and then there was I.  We were strangers for that moment.

After you've spent the night wringing hands, weeping, and worrying in the ER, you might return to work the next day, at least momentarily, to take care of unfinished business or tie down loose ends.  Your red-rimmed eyes are a giveaway to colleagues who know not you're not quite yourself.  You might break down and explain yourself when asked.  But over the course of days you don't owe it to everyone, nor yourself, nor your family, not even Grandma, to retell the tale to everyone you meet.  You're somewhere else for a reason, anyway--to work, to spend time with your children, to support someone dealing with something completely else.  And even in this Age of Facebook, you don't need to broadcast every detail and every moment of everything, particularly those things that don't completely belong to you.

So life goes on.  And while you're tired, and distracted, and likely a bit impatient, it's not their fault that they are right where they are, needing what they need, complaining their complaints, sharing their cheery triumphs.  Schmucks will flip you off on the freeway, even steal the sunglasses out of your shopping cart, despite your pain.  This hurtling forward with normalcy, with the endless parade of minutiae, and even with the mild cruelties and annoyances, are part of the gorgeous beauty of living.

We're approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I can re-imagine what I envisioned as an epicenter of grief emanating outward from New York City in the days after the tragedy.  We were all affected, but  certainly in sunny San Diego, far across the country from the sounds, smells, and sights of those jets, buildings, and lost lives, the rawness was blunted for many.  To what extent and how Americans reacted to the growing comprehension of 9/11's events was differentiated in part by our own experiences, degrees of separation, as well as our individual ways of handling things in general. Our tolerance for demonstrations of levity were variable, too.  People proceeded with birthday parties, with laughter, with births, and deaths of other causes.  But the calculus of What's More Important--attending to the sobriety of mournful occasions versus attending to the needs of the living--is often lost in the reality of forgetting oneself in the moment.  We catch ourselves giggling, performing meaningless tasks, buying something frivolous in the midst of such significance.  Thank goodness for that.

Last weekend, as we approached the hotel we booked in L.A. for our Taylor Swift Concert adventure with the girls, we noticed a woman in her car partially blocking the hotel's parking lot entrance.  Husband exasperatedly pulled around her and parked.  Emerging from our car, we watched the woman get out of her own and begin pushing it from behind.  Husband sheepishly assisted her in moving it around the block to a parking space.  We didn't figure she was broken down.   In our impatience we often fail to imagine the possibilities, and practice forgiving.

The world won't stop for us and our troubles; the world won't always know or understand; in this way, the world propels us all forward.

But I'm thinking we're better served considering one another as fellow commuters, muddling through in our near-broken-down autos, driving to the hospital to visit Grandma, who's still in critical condition but getting better everyday.  We don't have to know to understand.