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Trashy TV and True Love

I never meant to be an obnoxious child, but I was usually too smart and too bored to stay out of trouble.

I used to get spankings with a hanger, until one time when I was six or seven years old and grabbed my mother’s wrist on her downward swing — wrenching that hanger out of her hand, snapping it in two, and throwing it on the ground. Not only did any attempts at physical discipline from my mother die that day, so did her authoritarian positioning in general.

From then on, whenever Mom would try to reprimand or rebuke me in any way, I would either ignore her wholesale, or make jokes until she finally started laughing.

Pop was a disciplinarian, but not a teacher. He didn’t need to hit us: yelling like Sam Kinison without any punchlines, constantly cursing at Mom, and meting out consequences like candy on Halloween to all three of us was more than enough to make him feel more like an omnipresent threat than the kind of father I saw on TV. Conversations about why we might have erred or what we could to do avoid that ill behavior in the future were nonexistent. For those kinds of conversations, I watched Family Ties, Growing Pains, or The Cosby Show.

It’s hard to know yourself especially well when you’re young, and our parents did little to guide us. We weren’t raised with religion, and never had talks about right or wrong at the dinner table. Probably because nine out of ten dinners were spent with me, Megan, and Mom at the table, while Pop ate in front of the TV, usually watching a game, just a few feet away from us. There was scant talking at the table because we didn’t want to poke the bear.

But my grandfather, Papí, was animated by mirth, and always lit up at the sight of me and Megan. He told us stories about work, or stories in general, before joining Honey on the plastic-covered couch for more stories. After Papí was home, Honey finally migrate from the kitchen TV to the living room TV, so we could all watch together. Megan and I shared the floor, a few feet from the lava lamp.

Our grandparents were excellent teachers, but so was that idiot box in their living room.

Stories were my comfort and my inspiration. The tender embrace of narrative was a sanctuary where my heart could be happy and my soul could find guidance, a second home where I could feel things I would not otherwise feel, and elevate my vocabulary around life in general. Stories were a compass leading me through the labyrinth of life. A lighthouse illuminating a path to my own potential.

But I considered exactly none of that while watching The Love Boat and CHiPs at Honey’s house.

My media diet at home had zero overlap with what I watched on the weekends. Mom got us hooked on cable before we could really afford it, and the same was true for Pop and VHS. Those stories are coming, but while we’re still here at my grandparents’ house, you just need to know that Hone and Papi only had a few channels to choose from and not a video in the house to be found. CBS, NBC, ABC, KTLA, and Fox. We ate in the kitchen, where Honey had a tiny TV on the counter, usually on, sometimes playing something in Spanish, occasionally on UHF. Whenever I was sick from school and staying in South Central for the day, soap operas either bored or entertained me (depending on the episode and show) while I slurped down with my Lipton soup from a box.

Mom and Pop were much more discerning about what they watched, or would allow me to see. One night on the way home from Honey and Papí’s we fell into a gentle argument about the quality of CHiPs. My parents agreed that CHiPs was definitely not a good show, and I loudly protested.

Seriously, what the hell were they talking about?

Pop argued that my opinion of CHiPs would change as I got older. He was both right and wrong about my feelings around trash television. Yes, of course, I can see CHiPs for the garbage TV that it was, but I can also recognize its brilliance: Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello patrolling the California highways, navigating their home lives while dealing with stolen vehicles and drugs (so many drugs), amid a multitude of smaller violations, plus all those action-packed motorcycle chases they managed to squeeze into the majority of episodes. It was a satisfying show for a kid who loved stories but had not yet developed a tool set to critique them.

CHiPs was but one piece of candy in the bag. I’ve seen most, if not every, episode of Charlie’s Angels, Hart to Hart, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeanie. Honey loved all of those shows (though she mostly loved CHiPs for Eric Estrada), plus all of the old stuff on KTLA, from Popeye cartoons to weekend classics like Casablanca, Singing in the Rain, and It Happened One Night.

All those stories made me believe in love, but they would have only been stories if not for Honey and Papí holding hands behind us while we watched the Golden Girls. They were the proof I needed to become the man I didn’t yet know that I wanted to be, the one capable of loving my wife Cindy the way she deserves to be loved.

The love I never witnessed at home between my parents was on full display each weekend on this broken street in a crumbling neighborhood.

We stopped going to Honey and Papí’s each weekend a few seasons into the Golden Girls. Megan and I were finally old enough to stay home alone, and I was still young and dumb enough to believe I was getting an upgrade. My film vocabulary exploded in that newly-independent environment, but I only now recognize what a loss it was to give up that time with my grandparents. I think about them often when I sit down to watch TV with my own family.

From the slapstick to the sublime, stories experienced while sitting on my grandparents’ plastic covered couch, or on the carpet right in front of it with Megan, helped to shape my storytelling palette.

A tradition of shared viewing became a cornerstone of mine and Cindy’s relationship, a way to communicate and connect beyond words. Our children joined us, and the story circle widened.

Now, as I share stories with the world for a living, I am keenly aware of the generational impact of narrative — how stories, like DNA, pass from one generation to the next, always evolving while connecting us to our past and each other.

Stories have been my greatest teachers, far surpassing what I absorbed within the confines of a classroom.

I learned more from stories than I ever did in a classroom. Next week I’ll tell you about my first experience at school, and the first nemesis of my life: a Bible thumping teacher named Miss Magee.