Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On the Brighter Side....

You know, over the years I have come down kind of hard on my stepmother (cat lady and food hoarder, anorexic, and a sadist), but I do have to give her credit for something she did right. Now, as a child I hated this because it caused my brother and me to be "different from all the other kids in school" in yet one more way, but as an adult, I see the benefits.

She forbade my brother and me to watch television. It started off as the occasional punishment or grounding: no tv for a week, no tv for a month, etc, whenever we did something to anger her (like, getting a "B" on my report card). But finally--maybe when I was around 8 or 9--we did something to piss her off, like arguing over what to watch one Saturday morning--and she just said, "That's it. No tv until you both can act old enough to deserve it."

Well, that sounds like something any parent at the end of her rope might say, but I am being serious when I say that, after this incident, I did not watch any television until I turned 15. I'm sure my brother was horrified, forced to have to listen to his beloved sports on AM radio only. For me, it wasn't really that horrible because I liked to read anyway, but the punishment did make it tough to find things to talk about with kids at school. Conversations on the school bus in the morning centered around what the Six Million Dollar Man did or what had happened on Dark Shadows or Columbo or whatever show was popular at the time. These kids' lives were largely television, and I was clueless. Twelve year-olds aren't exactly into sitting around talking with you about books they haven't read, and so the word "nerd" got attached to me as well. Just one more reason for kids to bully me.

So, poor me. I hated my sucky childhood. But as an adult, I'm grateful for this one thing. I grew up getting lost in the world of books, of learning about people from the well-drawn characters in whose heads you lived for days. I would finish a book and miss the company. But the consequence of getting mentally involved in the nature of others is that people are rarely stereotypes or cartoonish to me; everybody is a complex individual full of contradictions and who will sometimes do things that make no sense, because they struggle with those contradictions. I suppose if you watch a sit-com or drama across numerous seasons, you can see characters develop and unfold, but never as much as they do in a book. I can recall once answering a therapist that my major role models as a child were characters I admired in  books.

And, books don't always have happy endings. Though on television series, characters frequently lose temporarily in a drama for one evening's viewing, they're off and on to something else in the next episode. Comedies never really have bad endings, unless a character dies. But in books--ah, books are much more like real life. Conflicts, tragedies, cruelties, can go on for years. Characters "buck up" or "endure." Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and the good guy doesn't always win. And unlike the villains in tv shows, the villains in books usually have something redeeming about them. There is something about them that makes them the way they are, and though we may come to despise their behaviors, we may discover it's impossible to completely despise them. We learn to understand; we learn to forgive.

Probably the biggest reason I'm now glad I didn't watch tv as a child is this: I didn't grow up watching commercials. (Or even some tv shows, for that matter; the content is so shallow: the show itself is just a big commercial.) Because they're young, adolescents can be woefully shallow--it's how they are. (Not all are, of course.) But to a child with breasts just developing and hormones raging like crazy, adolescence is a confusing enough time as it is. And when commercials say over and over again, "Be thin. Be sexy. Be innocent. Be a virgin. Don't be a virgin. You're nothing if you don't look like this impossibly-thin-flawless model with huge boobs who is dressed in high fashion and covered in makeup"--well, kids get way too taken in by the whole idea of fashion and style and what's upper class and what's lower class and who is "in" and who is not and who is popular and who is scorned. I didn't have that underscored by watching television; I was exposed to books in which characters were valued for their intelligence, or for their kindness, or for their good acts. So, I didn't care about prom. I didn't care about Senior Dress-Up Day. I didn't care about who was pretty or who was ugly or who was dating whom. I didn't care about things like clothes: once I was away from home and in foster care, free of the polyester pants from K-Mart, I just settled for jeans and a t-shirt, safe from reproach but also simple.

And I have pretty much stayed this way as an adult. Because I didn't grow up with television, I've never been caught in the consumerism trap. And it is a trap. Advertisers themselves have admitted, for instance, that in order to sell products, one of their prime goals is to make women feel bad about themselves. Think about that. If women actually felt good about themselves just the way they are, there would be a much smaller market for half the crap sold to women nowadays, including expensive procedures like facelifts and Botox. To this day I have a simple wardrobe: khaki pants, some jeans, some black pants, and an assortment of tshirts and polo shirts and a few "dressier" blouses. I own four pairs of shoes and some flip-flops. I just never got on the consumerism train, and I think it's because I lived my childhood largely free from television.

Of course, over the years I haven't been able to avoid mass media and marketing--it's everywhere; you can't even sit down on the toilet in a public restroom anymore without having to look at a wall of ads sometimes-- but at least I wasn't raised with it. So aside from kids picking on me for wearing ugly cheap clothes and for being a nerd and for just being "weird," I have grown up a free woman. I'm not at the mercy of trends; I am who I am, I wear what's comfortable; and I feel good in my own skin. It's turned out to be not such a bad thing to be "different" and "weird."

So, Lois, I do thank you for this. I'm not sure you did it intentionally, but there's always a silver lining in every dark cloud. And perhaps that's the bigger message here: find something good, make something good out of the hand you're played.  Even four deuces will beat three Queens.

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