Garbage In, Garbage Out

I’m feeling a little preachy today, so if you are not in the mood, you might not want to read any further.  I’ll forgive you with a promise of something more light-hearted and less didactic in the near future.  However, if you dare, read on.  Momma G’s on a tirade.

When my kids were little, a local store advertised a sale on comic books.  Thinking of “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Superman” and “Archie,” I carted the kids across town with the promise that they could each pick out a comic book or two to read on a hot summer afternoon.  When we arrived at the store, I was disappointed to find that the selection was limited to violent story lines with aggressive main characters who pursued women with huge breasts and tight clothing.  I explained to my children that we would not be buying any comic books and herded them back to the car.  They were angry and disappointed that I had broken my promise, and I knew a valid explanation was in order.  Knowing it was lunch time, I asked if they were hungry.  They stated that they were, so I asked what they would do if for lunch I served rotten hot dogs and slimy garbage.  Horrified, they said that they could not eat garbage, because it would make them throw up.  I agreed, and used analogy to help them understand that if we fed their minds garbage, then garbage would come out in their thoughts and actions.

Earlier this week the internet was afire with a video of teenagers tormenting Karen Klein, a sixty-eight year old bus monitor. Our hearts broke as we watched her wipe tears from her cheeks while four middle school students pummeled her with verbal assaults and threats of physical violence.  And while subsequent reports quoted the offenders’ and their parents’ apologies, we will not easily forget that our American youth can be so despicably unkind. 

But what do we expect?  Our culture has taken our right to free speech and pushed it beyond the boundaries of common decency with an “anything goes” mentality.  Our Facebook pages are peppered with tirades.  Adults and teenagers publicly punctuate their verbal outbursts with swears, cuss words and crude references to body parts whenever they please- no matter who is nearby.  And our television is permeated shows that transform ill behaving adults and children into pop culture idols.  Miniature divas scream, stamp their feet and command their parents to give them whatever they desire, and then are rewarded with crowns, money and fame.  Dance teachers scream at students and their parents, while the students and parents scream right back at them.  “Housewives” overturn tables and hurl insults at each other, and chefs spit profanities and insults at cowering chef wannabes.  This is reality TV at its best… or its worst.

As adults we watch these programs, tsk-tsk at the ill-behaved, and laugh at their antics.  But what we fail to realize is that we are raising an entire generation who will process this behavior as acceptable.  Children do not have the maturity to differentiate between “reality TV” and reality, nor do they automatically know how to censor themselves.  Any parent knows that children are drawn to swear words like moths are to flames.   Babies might jabber unintelligible chatter ninety-nine percent of the time, but you can bet that the one clear word that your cherub can pronounce will be the curse that escaped when you stubbed your toe on the leg to his changing table.  Just think of what your seven-year old can learn by watching an hour of cable TV!

If ill behavior was limited to television, we might have a chance, but we are assaulted at every turn.  I was grocery shopping last week when a man walked toward me in the dry cereal aisle.  As I searched for the Cheerios, he spouted a steady stream of f-bombs for everyone to hear.  I looked around to find who he was yelling at, but I was the only one in the aisle.  I felt a flash of panic, wondering why he could be hollering at me, until he reached my shopping cart and I saw the blue tooth poking from his ear.  I have heard mothers swear in the Pediatrics waiting room, totally oblivious to the fact that their wide-eyed children are watching their every move.  People react to the inconvenience of a delayed flight by dressing down the airline representative at the ticket counter.  On the highway, people behind us flash their lights and tailgate, as if to say “Get moving!  My agenda is much more important than yours.”   People have even posted swears and insulting comments on my WordPress blog, although I cannot imagine why, since reading it is purely voluntary.

So what do we do?  Are we hopelessly doomed?  Will the Gen Xers give way to the Gen X-rated?  I am skeptical, but I do believe we can reverse the poison that has seeped into our culture.  It takes work- work to find the words to express our frustration while still maintaining our integrity.  Work to change the TV channel to a program that enlightens, encourages, entertains and educates our children with acceptable standards of behavior.  Work to show our children that they are precious gems that don’t deserve to be fed garbage.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a re-run of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on television.  Maybe if I watch it again, I’ll be a little more like Atticus Finch.

Why Momma G Loves the TV

“I’ve been craving old shows of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet.”  This was in an email from my daughter Abby.  She is in Nashville now, navigating life in a new city with a new husband, looking for a new job.

The mention of Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet brought me back to a simpler time of watching television with my kids- the days when we all crowded on the couch in front of the lone 19 inch portable that sat behind closed cupboard doors in our living room.

When we were theoretical parents, we were not going to let our children watch TV.  We felt their time would be better spent reading books and engaging in intelligent conversation.  But then life happened.  I was a stay-at-home mother with a one-year-old.  Stuck in a rural home without a car, I felt isolated and alone.  We could not afford cable, so our TV only got one channel.  I had a strong disdain for daytime television dramas, but at eleven o’clock each morning I turned on “The Price Is Right” and watched it with my daughter.   Abby stood transfixed in front of the screen.  When the contestants jumped up and down, she bobbed up and down, clapped her chubby hands and yelled “Come on down!”  We were hooked.

Shortly after that, we moved to a new apartment, which was “cable ready,” and although we still could not afford the cable services, by plugging into the outlet we could get the major networks and PBS.  Public television opened a whole new world of entertainment for the kids- and for me.  We became friends with the gang from Sesame Street.  We listened to stories on Reading Rainbow.  We visited the Neighborhood with Mr. Rogers and we learned to cook with Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet and Jacques Pepin.

For my kids, watching television was a participatory sport.  When Gabe was three, he was given a cardigan sweater that opened and closed with a zipper.  He took a hanger from his closet and every time Mr. Rogers changed sweaters, Gabriel did the same, zipping and unzipping, taking off the sweater and carefully hanging it on the doorknob to the hall closet.

One winter PBS aired “Sleeping Beauty on Ice,” and Abby decided she should become a professional ice skater.  She didn’t have skates, but she announced that the large frozen puddle outside our apartment would work perfectly as a rink.  She convinced her little brother to be her skating partner, and the two of them spent the afternoon sliding their boots across its surface in a complicated dance choreographed by my five-year-old daughter.  They fell so often that the next morning Abby’s knees were black and blue, and Gabe’s right ankle collapsed every time he tried to run.

As the children grew their television horizons expanded, but only under careful scrutiny by their father and me.  I thought we were doing fairly well at keeping to innocent and educational programs, until one day I watched as Elizabeth and a boy from the neighborhood played outside with a Perfection game.  They would carefully place the pieces into the frame, set the timer, wait several seconds, and run away. When the clock ran out of time and spewed the game pieces onto the sidewalk, my six-year-old and her friend would throw themselves to the ground, rolling over and over.  Puzzled at their antics, I finally asked what they were doing.

My little girl looked up from the grass, pulled a leaf from her unraveling braid, looked at me with that “Mom-don’t-you-know-anything?” expression and said, “We’re playing MacGyver.  It’s a bomb.”  So much for violence-free TV.

When the children were in elementary school we spent the better part of a year with no TV at all.  Gabe and Abby were squabbling over what show to watch and their father, who was not raised with a TV in the house and rarely chose to watch it, got fed up.  He silently walked to the shelf where the “boob tube” rested, picked it up and yanked the plug out of the wall.  It sat in a storage shed until the end of the summer when a hurricane threatened the east coast and I convinced him that for our safety we needed to reconnect it.

As the children grew, I found that watching television with them was more important than arbitrarily deciding what shows were acceptable and what were not.  Cuddling together on the couch in front of their favorite program gave us the opportunity to talk about the values and decisions of the characters.  I suffered through hours of teenage angst while watching Dawson’s Creek with Abby, but it opened the door to talk about many of the topics she had been reluctant to discuss- teenage sex, drinking, drugs.  By talking about the characters’ choices, we could share opinions and values.  Once she knew I would not condemn Dawson and Joey, she could trust that I would not condemn her or her friends.

By watching TV with my kids, I learned what sports heroes my children admired and why.  I found out what kind of music they listened to, what clothing they liked, what politicians they believed in and what kind of adults they aspired to be.  But most importantly, it gave us the opportunity to have fun together. Together we laughed at Seinfeld.  Together we cried during “E.R.”  Together we sang with the cast of “Les Miserables” and together we waited for next week’s episode of “X-Files.”

Now that my kids are grown, I usually watch television alone.  Once in a while, we watch something together, but mostly they are too busy with work or friends to sit on the couch with their mother.  But someday, I’ll have grandchildren. We will cuddle together in front of Grammie’s TV and turn on PBS.  I can’t wait to see what Bert and Ernie have been up to.

Saturday Morning TV

When I was a child, my favorite time of the week was Saturday morning.  We kids would rise early, tiptoe down the stairs and race to throw our pillow across the arms to our dad’s worn easy chair.  For the next few hours, our lives belonged to the heroes of Saturday morning TV.

Using my pillow for a saddle, I rode along with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  From them I learned that people ate apple pie and coffee for breakfast and that the good guys did indeed wear white hats.  Roy was polite and upstanding, and although he occasionally threw punches or drew his gun, his freshly ironed shirt never came untucked and his crescent eyes never lost their smile.  Roy was accompanied by his amazing horse Trigger and his wife Dale, who rode her faithful mare, Buttermilk.  Not to be deterred by fringed skirts and perfectly coiffed hair, Dale Evans kept up with the boys without sacrificing a bit of her femininity.  I never doubted for a moment that the American cowgirl could do anything that the American cowboy could do.

Out of the western blue came Sky King and his niece Penny.  Penny flew a Cessna.  By herself.  And she was a teenager, which is, of course, what every little girl aspires to become.  I wanted to wear a cowboy hat and pony tail and fly the Songbird like Penny did.  From my back yard, any overhead plane became the Songbird and each time I swore that Sky and Penny dipped their wings to say hello.

Saturday morning television encouraged my sense of adventure and fed my thirst for excitement.  It also introduced me to foods never allowed in my mother’s kitchen.  Drakes Cakes were suspended in air while melted chocolate mysteriously dripped from the sky, covering the surface in a delectable cocoa confection.  Nabisco Wheat Honeys and Rice Honeys held intricate plastic Whee Ball games- free, of course!  The Cheerios Kid had “go power” and FlavR Straws were magic straws.  I craved cream-filled Hostess Snowballs and Chef Boy-R-Dee, instead of the home made raisin oatmeal cookies and beef stew that graced our table.  To me, nothing would be so exciting as to indulge in the sugar laden treats that were advertised on Saturday morning TV.

My mother, finally fed up with the pleas of “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease, Mom, can you buy this?” would finally turn off the television and shoo us from the living room, telling us to “go outside and get some fresh air.” 

But in the back yard, our adventures continued.  Using sticks for guns, my sisters and I shot jump rope  rattle snakes and lassoed tricycle cattle like Roy and Dale.  We stretched our arms to become the Songbird and jumped off the top stair from the back porch to take flight.  And when I was alone, I pretended that I had a bag of tricks like Felix the Cat, humming to myself,

“You’ll laugh so hard your sides will ache,

Your heart will go pitter pat

Watching Felix the wonderful cat!”

By the time my kids were old enough to discover Saturday morning TV, cowboys were replaced by Power Rangers and Felix had disappeared, leaving room for Care Bears.   Like my mother, I would shoo them outside when I tired of hearing “Pleeeeeeeease, Mom, can you buy me a Power Blow Super Soaker  Water Squirt Gun?”  and I made beef and vegetable soup from scratch instead of serving SpaghettiOs.   But when I glanced outside and watched Elizabeth use a Perfection game as a time bomb and throw herself through the air like MacGyver when the “bomb” went off, I knew the torch had been passed. 

Happy Trails to you.

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