Friday, September 30, 2011

Passing Notes

I realized at a very young age that words have power. I clearly remember the night that I was following along with my Rapunzel book-on-record and realized that I didn't need the record to read the book aloud to me anymore. The letters on the page had transformed into words, and I recognized those words. And the words made me see, hear, taste, and smell things. When Rapunzel's mother, great with child, craved the carrots, greens, and radishes from the witch's garden, I could see and smell them on my own dinner plate and I craved them, too. When Rapunzel let down her long, golden hair, I could see the sunlight hitting the strands and see them tighten under the tension as a handsome prince used them as a rope ladder. When said handsome prince was pushed from the tower and was blinded by thorns, my own eyes wanted to water and sting. The power of words to conjure images in a person's mind amazed me, and I was only 4 years old.

Which is why, I think, I began to love "dirty" words not too many years later.

I grew up in a house where I heard these words all the time, but knew that they were off limits. My mother was fluent in cursing; my father was not as fluent but went around damning things regularly. Especially from November through March during the years Eddie Sutton was UK's coach.

Before we had even moved from Knox County I had gotten in trouble for quoting my mom and complaining in front of my paternal grandmother about Dad "pissing" all over the toilet seat.

"That's not nice."

"But you say it."

My mother smiled sweetly and apologetically at Granny, then shot me a venomous look. "I shouldn't."

I didn't practice my 4-letter vocabulary in the house much after that, though there was a time after starting kindergarten when I liked to go around the house taking familiar words and switching out the beginning consonants with other consonants in alphabetical order.

"Duck! Buck, cuck, duck, f-"

"That's enough of that. There's a very bad word you're very close to saying."

I filed that interesting bit of information away for later use.

As I've heard is typical of kids that age, my little gang of neighborhood friends and I started exploring the power of profanity on the sly in 4th grade. The "f" word and taking the Lord's name in vain were still taboo, but when out of earshot of any adults, we tried out lesser vulgarities and found them pleasing. I am my mother's daughter, though, and I cuss in a country accent that makes everything two syllables. "Shee-it" loses a little of the real word's bite and cracked everybody up, which wasn't quite the effect I was going for.

In middle school, finding shocking and new terms for those most private parts of male and female anatomy were all the rage. Each term's various strengths and weaknesses were discussed at length. When we found a term we liked, we test-drove it by calling each other that name as the ultimate put-down. I swear, we were more charming and well-behaved than we sound.

I played the role of perfectionist, Good Girl, and straight-A student well. But those closest to me knew that I harbored a secret: I really had quite the filthy mouth, and the dirtier the joke, the more off-color the put-down, the more lewd the comment, the better. And the only adult who found out about it was my 7th-grade math teacher, who also, unfortunately, was the mother of one of my good friends.

In 7th-grade, I had a tremendous crush on a tall, dark, and slightly nerdy 8th-grade boy. He was in several classes with my friend Rosi, and I got her to talk to him on my behalf. One awkward phone conversation and several passed notes later, and I had secured a promise of a slow dance at the after-school party the following Friday. I became convinced he was "the one."

The day of the dance, word came that he was no longer interested. 8th-grade boys as a general rule are not interested in 7th-grade girls, especially those in such an aggressive group of pestering friends. One of these friends went up to him at the dance and stomped on his foot in my honor, and his shock and pain should have been enough. But I held a grudge.

In anticipation of a 7th- and 8th-grade Honor Society meeting later the next week, I passed my friend Denise a note during math class that expressed, in great detail and using words that conveyed lots of vivid imagery, what I would like to do during this meeting to the Honor Society president, aka the guy who had most recently broken my heart.

I left no stone of vulgarity unturned. I used the queen mother of all curse words in both its noun and verb forms. I called my former crush every name in the proverbial book. I hurled invectives that would have made George Carlin blush. And I ended my written tirade with a wish to emasculate my enemy using all my favorite terms for the male member.

And then I went and picked the worst person in the history of the world to pass a dirty note to. My friend Denise had the exact opposite of a poker face. I saw her shoulders shudder and shake, and I knew she was going to laugh. I coughed to get her attention to try to get her to simmer down, but when she turned to me I saw tears in her eyes and knew she was going to erupt any minute.

"Girls, what's so funny?"


"It doesn't look like nothing. Can I see that note?"

I heard a rushing in my ears and my stomach dropped into my shoes. Our math teacher was not only our math teacher, but also my friend Annie's mom and the National Honor Society sponsor. She had no tolerance for foolishness, and I was already wary of a woman I knew I was going to have to deal with for  years to come. And she had just busted me, and in a matter of seconds was going to learn what kind of girl I really was.

Denise walking to her desk was one of the longest 10 seconds of my life. We did not look at each other. I watched my math teacher's face for signs of horror, shock, and disgust. Unlike Denise, however, she had an excellent poker face.

"See me after class, girls." And she tucked the note inside her desk drawer and carried on with her lesson.

I sat wondering what was going to happen to me next. Expulsion seemed reasonable, and reform school after that if my parents let me live. Hell for certain if they didn't. I could kiss my friendship with both Annie and Denise goodbye after that, I reckoned, and possibly everyone in my entire class if word got out. And as for the guy I had so vividly written bodily harm to...well, I guessed a restraining order wouldn't be much worse than being denied publicly at a middle-school dance.

 The bell to begin my doom rang. My teacher did not move from her desk or stand when we approached. She looked at us steadily and evenly and for a long time did not speak.

"You're lucky you're both friends with Annie." And with that, she got out the note and ripped it up.She led the Honor Society meeting as usual, though we avoided eye contact with each other for some time after. I would learn later that she never shared our secret, not even with Annie, though Denise and I filled our friend in on it in the interest of full disclosure. The closest we ever came to discussing it again was at my high-school graduation when the teacher came up to me to shake my hand and say, with a wry smile,

"I guess you did okay once you got past 7th grade."

I toned it back a bit after that. But I still pepper my language with words I know I shouldn't love. But I do. I love the simplicity and directness of profane words. I watch what audience I use them in, sure. Sometimes, though, they just feel right. When a land-barge driving soccer mom with a cell phone glued to her ear cuts me off in traffic, when I slam my fingers in a dresser drawer, when my plate of scrambled eggs falls off the counter and scatters buttery yolks all over my feet. A socially-inappropriate interjection lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker. Though little ears are sometimes listening and learning.

"Do as I say and not as I, wait, don't do as I say...well, do as I say but don't say as I say...oh, for the love, just eat your eggs."

So every night, I pray the Swearer's Prayer.

"Please, Lord, let me never drop an errant F Bomb in front of a student, or when I drop the collection basket in Mass, or during my annual mammogram when the tech gets a little aggressive. And watch over my child while she learns the English language, and let her sponge brain not absorb every 4-letter word she hears slip out of my mouth, or the mouths of others. And finally, Lord, preserve the PG-13 rating, and keep it holy. Amen."

Over and out, motherlovers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Piano Girl

I ran home as fast as my legs could carry me. I had to be first, I just had to. My burgeoning musical career counted on it. I did the math in my head, over and over, not believing this could actually happen.

65 dollars...65 dollars...that's all I need...65 dollars...

My chorus teacher had just pulled two of us aside and presented us with an opportunity.

"Now that we have a new piano for the high school, I am moving the high-school piano over to the middle school," he said. "And that means I need to find a new home for the old piano in the middle school. Whichever one of you can put $65 in my hands first gets a piano. And I will even deliver it."

I looked at the other student, who was my some-time adversary. The two of us had been teaching ourselves how to play piano on small keyboards, which was the best our financially struggling families could do. We had worked together to accompany the choir before, but mostly we were in competition with each other for the unofficial title of "most musical" in our grade. I didn't know how quickly he could hit his parents up for money, but I had just started taking piano lessons from an actual human teacher instead of a hand-me-down instruction book. Two-and-a-half octaves on my Yamaha were not cutting it. In a rare moment of aggressiveness, I decided I was getting that piano. Even if I had to throw someone under the wheels to do it.

I got home so quickly that afternoon that my dad hadn't left for work yet. Mom was home early. I exhaled for the first time since the bell had rung. Being able to make my case to both of them would save me precious time.

Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally got to tell Santa what he really wanted for Christmas, I took a deep breath and rattled off my argument in one long, unbroken stream of pleading.

"Mr. Durham said he needs to get rid of the middle-school piano because he got a new one for the high school and the old high-school one is going to the middle school and whoever gives him $65 first gets it and he will even borrow a truck and deliver it if someone can help him get it into the house and the bottom octave doesn't sound really good but I can work around it and it's really the only chance I'll get to have a piano and I really need a full-sized piano to keep practicing the songs Ms. Judd wants me to practice and if you do this for me I swear it can be my Christmas present and birthday present and everything for the whole entire year so can I?"

My parents looked at me the way a scientist studies a new bacterium under a microscope: part awe, part confusion, part concern for the future.

"Don't you have almost that much money in your savings account from the $50 prize you won in the 5th grade?"

Oh, God. I had forgotten about that. I had won an essay contest sponsored by the PTA in honor of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. My ability to wax poetic in regards to Lady Liberty was about to pay off in a way I hadn't even thought about when my dad forced me to use my winnings to start an interest-earning savings account instead of starting a sticker collection like I had wanted to do.

Dad fished out the bank statements he had been saving to teach me all about interest and the importance of saving money. I hadn't particularly cared, mostly because the statements involved math, which I tried to avoid as much as possible. Suddenly I cared a great deal. Nearly four years of sitting in an account and occasionally being augmented by quarters dug out from under couch cushions had gotten the account to just shy of sixty bucks.

"I think we can put ten dollars in on a piano," Dad said. And with that he left for work and left me to hitch a ride with Mom to the bank and then to the band room in the hope that it wasn't too late.

As luck would have it, my teacher was still there. As luck would not have it, so was my frenemy. The select choir was still practicing. This was a sore point; I had auditioned for and not gotten one of  three alto spots while my adversary had easily gotten on the bass squad. While I had not won that battle, I was about to win the war.

My teacher saw me running into the band room and smiled mischieviously.

"Yes? Do you have something for me?"

I held out a white banking envelope with crisp bills inside.

"I have the $65. Is the piano still available?"

He looked at the other student, questioning. The bass shrugged.

"She was first with the money while I've been here practicing. It's hers."

I felt the subtle dig, but I didn't care. I had a piano. I hoped that someday my fellow musician would find it in his heart to forgive me. But if he didn't...well, I could cry about it over my new instrument.

Several days after purchase, my dad and my chorus teacher unloaded an old, worn spinet into our house. The only place it could go was in the kitchen, but it fit perfectly on the wall behind our dining table. Like it was meant to be. Dad left for work and I had the house to myself. My fingers touched the keys and I began to play. And for years, I didn't stop.

In one of life's twists, I later started dating the guy I stole the piano from. I think he forgave me long before we became husband and wife, though one can never be sure. He eventually had a piano of his own, an aesthetically beautiful instrument much nicer than the one he lost. When you're talented and your family recognizes your talent, things have a way of happening. He started taking lessons from my piano teacher, and his ability soon eclipsed mine. Once it did, I didn't much feel like playing anymore. He was truly gifted as a pianist, and I had other things to compete with and other people to compete against. I didn't touch a piano in any serious way after my junior year in high school. And eventually Mom got rid of the old piano I so eagerly raced home to get. Priorities changed.

Recently, we welcomed our first shared piano into our home. Like my old piano, it was a deal too good to pass up. Someone needed a piano gone quickly and asked a price I knew we wouldn't see again. My daughter's skill was starting to surpass the available keys on my old Yamaha keyboard. (My mother had kept that all these years; she said she knew my child would need it someday.)

When the piano movers showed up, I had a few quiet moments with the instrument all to myself. I touched the keys and began to play an old, favorite melody. Some things you just don't forget.

I thought of the incredible joy I used to get from playing. And then the pride I felt when I watched my then-boyfriend play in college. And how now I feel both whenever our daughter makes either her guitar or her keyboard her first stop after homework is complete.

And to think that the seeds were sown one afternoon long ago when I rushed into the band room with my life savings and tried to break my future husband's heart.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Smell of Perm Solution in the Morning

Sometimes it was awesome having a mom who happened to be a hair stylist. But as anyone who has seen all of my school pictures can tell you, it was mostly awful.

I got my first perm in 4th grade. I was not the only curly-haired child in my class, but I was the only one who smelled like ammonia for a week to have it. Technically, it was supposed to be a "body wave", but my hair has always been dramatic and over-reactive, much like me. Just wrapping it up in in foam curlers gave me Orphan Annie coils, so Mom shouldn't have been surprised.

"Huh. Well," she said, releasing each plastic roller from the soup of neutralizer resting on my scalp.

"What? What is it? Is it bad?"

"No, not bad, it just...took better than I expected."

She rinsed me out in the kitchen sink at my grandmother's trailer, where she had chosen to give me my first perm on a lazy Sunday in Knox County. Mom was a hair dresser by trade and by hobby, and both my sister and I fell victim to her cosmetological whims when she got bored. I excitedly looked in the big mirror over Mamaw's couch expecting the fluffy, feathered layers the lovely lady on the perm box had. What I saw instead was more like Roseanne Rosannadanna.

I swallowed hard.

"I look ridiculous."

"No you don't, you look great. Like Amy Irving."

Being 10, this was not a huge consolation. I wanted to transform the bowl haircut I had been sporting since I was in kindergarten to something more like what was my classmates were starting to wear, something layered from bangs to ears, long in the back, and curly all over. Later, we would call this a mullet and make fun of it, but if you were alive in 1984, you coveted one. Mom did not feel that she could cut my hair to make it do this magical feathery thing, but she thought a perm would do it.

It did not.

Throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s, I was permed, highlighted, and layered a multitude of times in the family kitchen to varying levels of attractiveness and success. Mom definitely reached her peak of expertise with my hair in 1987, when I was in the eighth grade.

My eighth-grade class picture is my favorite picture of me ever because I am what I can best describe as a beautiful disaster of late-80s style. My hair is both very long and very permed; I outgrew my layers and let my hair grow wild down my back with a perm that finally could be called an intense body wave. My mother let me start cutting my own bangs, and she showed me how to layer them so that, with a curling iron and an abundance of Final Net, I could create a deceptively messy Kentucky Claw that looked like I had just rolled out of bed and into a briar patch. No one would have guessed it took me 15 minutes per morning just to get those bangs to look so carefree and casual. I had the rest of my hair pulled back into a banana clip, with loose tendrils curling whimsically around my face. The ponytail part of the banana clip is so long it hangs a little over my shoulder and around the popped collar of my Coca-Cola shirt. Mom also sold Mary Kay around this time and turned me loose with all the creams and powders in her pink saleswoman's suitcase, and Teen magazine had just told me that wearing one color of eye shadow all the way to the brow bone created a dramatic look, so I smeared satiny brown eye shadow from lashes to brows. It was dramatic, it was trashy, it overdone, and it was fabulous. My mother was so very proud.

Other cuts and perms created school pictures I am less proud of. The last time I let my mother lay hands on my hair was the fall of 1990 when I was trying to grow my bangs out so I could look like the most beautiful woman in the world (in my opinion): Kirstie Alley. Mom thought it would help me through that awkward stage where my they just wanted to fall into my eyes if she permed just my bangs (a body wave again, of course). The logic was that they would curl back away from my face and blend in with the rest of my hopelessly damaged and over-processed hair.

"Oh, look," my dad said, taking a stroll through the kitchen while Mom tried to figure out what to do with the wreckage her little "just perm the bangs" experiment left behind. "It's Bill the Cat."

A couple of months later, as soon as an inch of straight hair had grown out from the crimped mess covering my forehead, I cut my bangs so short I looked like a 9-year-old boy and used the excuse that I had just landed the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver.

"I did it for the role," I told my friends. My hairdresser knew the truth.

From that day on, even if I came to her begging for a haircut or something more intense, my mother vowed to keep at least 500 feet away from my hair at all times. And I became something of a hair artist myself, cutting my own bangs and several of my dorm mates' in college using the techniques Mom taught me for lift and volume. My husband did, however, learn of my limitations the night in Lexington when I tried to give him a haircut with electric clippers right before a big job interview. The initial result was a reverse mohawk, which he chose to correct by just shaving his head down to the scalp all over and hoping that his potential employers did not brand him a skinhead. (He got the job.)

I am my mother's daughter, after all.

Before she retired from her job to be a full-time nanny to Ainsley when I went back to work, I used to go watch her work her magic. Whatever errors she had committed to me she did not do to the little old ladies at the nursing home where she worked the last decade of her career. With a bucket full of hard, plastic rollers, a rat-tailed comb, a sharp pair of scissors, and a stationary hair dryer, she could work magic. Sometimes her clients had hair so thin they barely had hair at all, and in those cases, she coaxed elegant curls out with just her fingers and some bobby pins. No matter how sick and haggard a patient looked coming into Mom's salon, she always looked like a lady on the way out.

And when she gave the occasional perm, she always got it right.

I may not have always liked the results, but I loved the process. When I was in Mom's chair, I felt like an adult. I had her full, undivided attention, and I knew she was going to do something that would, hopefully, make me feel beautiful.

Some mothers and daughter bond over baking, or shopping, or clothes. My mom and I bonded over perm solution and hard-hat hair dryers. My hair was never the same, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up a Tree

"You've never climbed a tree before? How are you 14 years old and never climbed a tree before?"

"There's a lot of things I've never done."

The new brother and sister duo in my neighborhood, who had just moved into the "old lady's house" at the very top of our street (that "old lady", as it turned out, was their grandmother), could not believe it as I stood under the big maple tree in their front yard, watching them ascend into the thick, leafy branches. I had never climbed a tree. I had used my friend Denise's plum tree as leverage to shimmy over her back fence, but Mike and Annie, the newest members of our gang, assured me that did not count.

Climbing a tree was just one of many childhood joys I had never experienced. I was a cautious child with an even more cautious mother who saw mortal peril at every turn. I had never built a snowman, for too much time in cold air could cause my fragile lungs to become pneumonia-ridden. I had never played outside in the rain, for damp air could cause a chill. I had not camped outside, set off a bottle rocket, gone fishing, ridden on a recreational vehicle. Among a neighborhood of tomboys and thrill-seekers, I was certainly an anomaly.

"It's easy," Mike said. "Stand on the lawn chair, put your foot on the big crook, and pull up by the big branches."

My hands shook, for what's easy for a fearless boy can be terrifying for a timid girl with no upper body strength. My friends' eyes peered down on me from dangerously high branches; being branded as a chicken, as it turns out, is scarier than the thought of broken limbs.

I stood on the chair Mike and Annie had dragged around to help everyone step into the massive crook in the ancient sugar maple. That tree had seemed huge to me when we first moved onto Liberty Street when I was three, and now it overtook the top half of our road. I felt reassured by its sheer mass as I looked up into its high, sprawling branches, most of which were as thick as my skinny little legs. Surely it could hold my weight.

Don't look down, don't look down, don't look down...

I pulled and stepped, each tentative step pushing me higher and higher from the safety of the shaded lawn. Finally I found myself as high up as my friends, who told me they had tested all those branches and deemed them safe.

"There," Mike said, as I settled my rear onto a branch close to his, hiding my trembling hands, "you made that look easy."

I looked out. Or tried to. I thought the whole reason for climbing a big, old tree would be the view. But all I could see were branches and leaves.

"Now what do we do?"

"Absolutely nothing."

Annie had taken a book with her up into the branches. As big a bookworm as I, she sat quietly, with her back against the trunk, reading. Mike, all boy and older than Annie but not nearly as mature, threw small sticks at us and blamed it on Annie to try to start a war. Rosi dangled her legs for a while and then inched out to try to find higher sturdy branches. I just sat, wondering what, besides the danger of the climb, made this so special.

Then the wind blew.

It felt both powerful and intimate. The wind was all around me and rattled the leaves in a gentle roar. The branch beneath me swayed but rather than scaring me, it felt reassuring and comforting. Almost like being rocked to sleep. For the rest of that fall, that tree was the only place I wanted to be.

Most days after school found me climbing the tree, seeking cool shade and tranquil breezes either with friends or solo if they had other mischief to get into in the yard. We told our best dirty jokes to each other one afternoon, cackling at each other through the limbs. When Mike and Annie went away for the weekend, their parents gave me $5 and unlimited tree-climbing in exchange for checking on their house every day and feeding and watering their cat. By then most of the leaves were gone and I needed a coat, but I didn't care. I suddenly realized why every kid wants, nay needs, a tree house in the yard.

When the weather turned too bad to climb the tree anymore, my freshman attentions turned to more pressing matters. Our class started selling soft drinks out of the concession stand every day after school and I could escape my home life there for a few semi-supervised hours. When I wasn't selling Cokes and smiles for 50 cents a pop, there were blood-thirsty volleyball games between the choir kids and the band kids; talk about your grudge matches. I got a part as Amaryllis in The Music Man in the spring and life became about afternoon rehearsals and set decoration. I outgrew such childish things as tree climbing.

Years later, I was driving down the street and saw linemen for both the power and phone companies parked at the top of the street under "my" old tree. Men in cherry pickers with power tools were clearing massive old limbs away from the lines. To do so, they practically had to remove the entire middle of the tree, including most of the branches we used to sit on and swing on. I worried that my old retreat was in danger, that it wasn't going to survive such an impressive pruning.

I felt a sudden desire to knock on Mike and Annie's door and ask them to join me in the old maple one more time. But they were both, like me, "grown up." We could drive, we had jobs, we went on dates. Who I was friends with was no longer dictated by who lived within a short walking distance. I put away childish things. I was an adult, and my tree-climbing days, short though they were, were behind me. There was no time for such foolishness.

That didn't make me want one more afternoon up in a tree any less. I had an epiphany, there on the eve of my high-school graduation: I missed childhood. Maybe more so than most, because I had really just started to enjoy it before it was gone.

I can't drive down my mom's street anymore without looking at the old tree, which is still standing and has been pruned many times. Mike and Annie's parents, like all of our parents in the old neighborhood, still live in our childhood homes. Sometimes when I drive past, and it's a beautiful afternoon, I see an old lawn chair pressed against the trunk. When I see that, I know to look up; one of my old friends' own children, who go to their grandparents' after school, is in the tree. They don't go as high as we did, but I see them there all the same.

Childhood is fleeing, sometimes lasting just one season. There are worse ways to spend it than doing absolutely nothing in the branches of an old maple tree.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

40 Channels and a Remote

Nothing could bring a family together in the 1980s like cable television.

The day Dad read in our hometown newspaper that cable television was coming to our city street-by-street was a happy day indeed. We were lucky to live close enough to Cincinnati to be able to clearly pick up the 3 networks. But in 1983, 3 channels were starting to not be enough. Dad had risked his life to put a big antenna on the roof that, during basketball season, would get pointed south twice a week to pick up WKYT in Lexington. Rain, snow, or shine, when Dad was home and the Cats were playing, he climbed on the roof to manually point the antenna (the in-house pointer that came with the used antenna was tragically broken) as we monitored the clarity on our old console television.

"It's good!" someone would holler out the front door once the picture was snow-free enough to make out the score. And sometimes Mom would holler out that it was good when it wasn't, just to keep Dad from breaking his neck.

(And here's why kids today should be grateful for DVRs--when Dad had to work during a UK game, it was my and my sister's job to hook a microphone up to our tape recorder and set the microphone close enough to the TV to record an audio version. Seriously.)

So the prospect of cable television in all its glory made our mouths water. I had heard they had a channel devoted exclusively to kids' programming (Nickelodeon, natch) and also this one channel with nothing but music videos (I wanted my MTV.) My mom and sister were eying the movie channels, and Dad was all about an increased number of sporting events. When I saw the installers putting up line on the street next to ours, I came running home to tell the news.

"Don't get too excited yet," Dad said. "Money's tight, and I'm not paying for anything unless they have WKYT in the lineup like the newspaper said they would."

It turned out WKYT was in the lineup--oh, joy! No more roof-antenna extreme sporting! And also, when we looked through the little glossy brochure the cable guy left on our door...Star Wars was coming to HBO.

Oh. My. GOD.

At only 8-going-on-9 years old, I was as big a fan of Star Wars as any freaky dude you'd now see going to Comic Con dressed like Chewbacca. I was obsessed. I had gone to Corbin to see the movie with my family when I was 3, but the only thing I remembered clearly was how scary-cool the Stormtroopers looked on the big screen. No matter. It was a theatrical event that I knew was awesome even when I couldn't remember what was awesome about it. Dad had gotten me the action figures after we moved to Erlanger, and I had them re-enact what little I could remember of the plot on a near-daily basis. Dad had also taken me to see The Empire Strikes Back, and even though it rocked my world with its huge, shocking revelation (that it was Leia and Han who were going to pair off, and not Leia and Luke, of course) I could not contain my utter devotion to all things related to that galaxy far, far away.

"We've got to get Home Box Office!" I pleaded. "They'll have Star Wars! I have to see Star Wars! I don't remember that much about it from the first time, and the third one's coming out this summer, and YOU HAVE TO DO THIS FOR ME!"

"I have heard good things about that new HBO kids' show Fraggle Rock," my sister chimed in, helpfully.

For the first time in my life, my parents made a semi-major family financial decision, to subscribe to a certain cable movie channel, because of me. I gloated in silence. And went to tell Luke, Leia, and C3PO the good news.

Our street got cabled just in time. The day before Star Wars premiered on HBO in February, 1983, an angel in Carhartt work pants came to hook up our house. And he left behind a "remote"--it was wired to the back of the TV, but the cord to this magical box was long enough that we could, technically, sit on the couch and browse our selections. It had an A/B switcher, and through it we could flip through over 40 channels.

40. Channels. So long, playing outside and reading books. That stuff was for the poor saps on the other side of town who hadn't been paid a visit from the cable guy yet. Hell-o, junk television.

Of course, I really only had my mind on one thing: the premiere of Star Wars at 7pm. Mom was in a bowling league, and I was scheduled to be in the kids' area of the bowling alley that night while she and her team, The Gutter Dusters, ate nachos, smoked, and tried to hold steady to their second-to-last-in-the-league standings.

But here's the awesome part of being in a family of avid TV watchers--they get it. They get that sometimes, there is nothing more important than your show coming on. My dad, who usually believed kids in the 80s had it too easy and were going to go soft from being coddled, a man who made me walk home from school on unplowed sidewalks following minor snowstorms because apparently wet shoes and frozen toes build character, a man who only wanted me to stay home from school if I had a fever of around 1000...this man arranged transportation and a paid babysitter for me so I could be picked up from the bowling alley and come home to watch the big event.

"I am serious about this," he told my older sister, who was born early and has been late for everything else since. He peeled a bill out of his wallet and handed over a competitive hourly wage. "I would stay home from work myself if I thought you were going to be late. She has had her heart set on this and you will have her back here by 7. Or else."

She agreed, even though like every other night that winter she had plans to hang out with her fiance. And she was almost true to her word--I didn't get home right at 7, but I got home early enough for Darth Vader's big entrance onto the rebel starship.

It was love. I watched Star Wars roughly 100 times that winter and spring, or until my parents threatened to cancel HBO if I didn't give it a rest. Along the way I met Mokey, Red, Wembley and the rest of the gang down in Fraggle Rock. My mom became a big fan of BET (yeah, I know, don't ask) and, later, the Home Shopping Network. Dad rarely came up for air during what my mom called "sports season", which strangely lasts all year long. He watched the Cubs play at Wrigley on WGN even though he was a Reds fan because, like Everest, it was there. I watched videos on MTV back when there were such things on MTV, and when Mom wasn't looking, whatever R-rated scary movie I could find. It would be years before we got a VCR and started renting movies, so Saturday family movie night often revolved around whatever the big release was on HBO that month. The whole extended family, which soon included a brother-in-law, sat together watching such cinematic greats as First Blood, Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Poltergeist, and, for our sensitive sides, Places in the Heart. My entertainment diet at a young age consisted of blood, guts, violence, and gratuitous boob shots, but there was always stuff like Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas to keep me somewhat wholesome.

My husband is amazed at my wealth of 1980s TV knowledge. He wonders, whenever I recall an obscure show or movie or talk about how I watched Porky's in all its bawdy, uncensored glory one night when I couldn't have been more than 10, if I ever did anything as a kid besides watch vaguely inappropriate television. And I did. I finished my homework each night, I rode my bike, swam, ran, played 4-square, and fell out of trees just like any non-TV-addicted child in the neighborhood.

But when the sun went down, the "remote" went to A 21 to see what was on HBO. I could hardly remember what life was like B.C.--Before Cable.

Some families camp, or hike, or volunteer in their church. Some have family game night or sit around a roaring fire pit. We were, and are, TV watchers. No, it doesn't sound terribly noble. But whether your family is bonding over toasting marshmallows or the pilot episode of The Wonder Years, what really matters is the bonding part.

Now, where's my remote? True Blood's coming on.