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Oregon Family Magazine

The TV Set in the Attic

03/02/2014 ● By Sandy Kauten
Well, I finally bought a big flat-screen TV.  A 84-incher! (The box it came in modestly announces a 40-inch screen, but I always measure TV sets by their girth.)  Watching our old TV’s dinky 27-inch screen had been a hardship. But it was a sacrifice I made for my children.

How’s that?

Because whenever I’d talk about buying a new TV, our 11-year-old, Wendy, would say, “I want the old TV in my room.” And my wife Betsy would say, “I want the old TV in OUR room. I’m sick of waiting until Wendy’s in bed to see an R-rated movie.” 

Thus I glimpsed the future. Mom and Dad loll in bed basking in the glow of on-screen sex and other adult behavior, while each of our three children skulks in the privacy of her own boudoir watching God-only-knows-what until all hours of the night.

The TV set needs to be in the family room where Mom and Dad can monitor it and provide instructive footnotes.

When radio first conquered America, it became what the pundits called “the electronic hearth.” Up until then Americans had spent their evenings gathered around the fireplace playing charades or singing hymns. But in the 1930s, radio rearranged the family circle. Then television reinforced that arrangement.

The electronic hearth, which was no family enhancer to begin with, falls apart when you get an additional TV set.

When I was a kid, we had only one TV set and all shows were watched in a public way, with plenty of interaction, interference, compromise and commentary that instilled the family outlook.

For example: At age 10 I loved baseball. I played it, I collected baseball cards and I read biographies of its greats. One summer afternoon I took the next step: I tuned the TV to a baseball game. My big brother wandered through the rec room and said scornfully, “You’re not starting THAT are you?”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my brother was an arch-geek and he was probably on his way to his room to practice his chess moves or to read about the Roman Empire for fun. But he was my big brother and his opinion meant a lot to me, so I changed the channel. If I had been enjoying that ballgame in the privacy of my own room, I might now be painting myself in team colors to make a spectacle of myself in a huge stadium, my happiness depending upon which set of millionaires wins a ballgame down below.

My father would watch only news shows and political panel discussions, and since I seldom strayed far from the TV set, I would learn a few things despite my natural inclinations. When I was watching something of my own choosing, Dad would pass by and comment. My favorites were Westerns (“If those are the good-guys, why are they always fighting?”), old movies (“Why do people idolize a hoodlum like Frank Sinatra?”) and pro-wrestling (“Turn that garbage off!”).

In the old days, parents would teach their kids about their world in a more direct manner. A father would hunker down in the barnyard and say, “Son, these are cougar tracks!” or heft a handful of dirt and opine, “If it doesn’t rain in a couple days we’ll lose the melon crop.” Meanwhile Mom would be in the house passing along her expertise to Sis while they boil the laundry or baste a possum.

Television engulfs the typical 21st-century family about as thoroughly as practical matters engulfed the early settlers. And to leave parental guidance out of the TV equation is to give up on family living.

So what did I do with the old TV? I lugged it up to the attic. Although it is smallish for watching, its 72-inch non-flat girth makes it biggish for carrying. It would never leave the attic. At least that’s what I thought.

One night when I came home from work, my 14-year-old daughter Sally intercepted me at the front door. “Mom’s mad at you!” she said, “I was helping her find some clothes in the attic and the old TV fell. It rolled down the stairs like a huge boulder with Mom running down ahead of it like Indiana Jones. She got away, but I never heard her curse so much. She says you had it ‘perched’ up there like a death trap.”

My first impulse was to accuse my wife of recklessly horsing around in the attic, but the ensuing fight would leave me too weak to haul the TV set back up the narrow staircase. So I made my apology quickly and we got on with our lives. The old TV is forgotten because everyone assumes it’s broken.

And our family room remains a cultural wasteland, but at least we’re in it together.

Rick can be reached at [email protected].