Televised Memories

My first memories are drenched in yellow and orange. This is a side effect of being born in 1977, a time when images possessed a slightly nauseating aura.

What was going on with film processing during the late 1970s and 1980s? The photographs and films of the forties, fifties, and sixties were defined by stark contrast and luscious Technicolor and then, somewhere in the seventies, images began to look overheated. Was it Pan-O-Vision or Color by Deluxe? Who do I blame for a childhood that is sealed behind a tacky yellow-orange resin? More importantly, where can I go to complain that many of my first memories were cobbled together by fragments of television shows, that much of my early knowledge of the world comes from situation comedies filmed in Burbank, California? Many of my childhood memories are scored with a laugh track which, along with nuclear warheads and automatic weapons, is one of the most frightening inventions of the 20th century. Did you know that a sound engineer plays a ‘laugh organ’ with a keyboard that selects the sex and age of the laugh while using a foot pedal to control its length and level of hilarity?

Here is my first memory: I sit in a high chair in front of a small Zenith television. I am alone and the opening credits for a sitcom play something like Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley, and a shenanigan involving a character kissing a mannequin plays out on the tiny, oversaturated screen and it scares the hell out of the two-year-old me. I burst into tears. I scream my head off.

My parents will tell you that I was too young to remember this. And they might be right, for I no longer have much faith in which of my memories are manufactured and which are real; however, their brows furrow when I describe the shag sepia carpet, the cracked yellow vinyl of the high chair, and other details that I should not remember. I think they’re embarrassed to admit that they parked me in front of a TV. So I’m screaming while Potsy or Squiggy or some oily sidekick mugs at a dismembered mannequin, and my father rushes into the room, pats my head, and calls me “big guy” before switching the channel and the memory fades. Although I do remember that my mom couldn’t take me into a department store without me screaming bloody murder, so much of our shopping at Sears took place with her hand over my eye

Here is my second memory: I am lying across my parents’ bed watching afternoon television while the reassuring weather of my mother steaming and folding shirts fills the house. This is where my friend Mr. Rogers spoke to me, this is when he sidled up to the television every afternoon and told me that I was special, that I was the sole reason for his endless routine of sweater changing and puppet handling. I truly believed that Mr. Rogers existed for me alone and, in retrospect, he worked very hard to cultivate this falsehood. He knew what he was doing.

One day my cousin came over and told me that he wanted to watch Mr. Rogers. My world fell apart. I screamed “Liar!” and I attacked. I tackled him to the floor, shrieking that Mr Rogers was my friend, not his. My parents had to pull me off cousin Nicky, whom I was punching and clawing like only a four-year-old gone feral can do. This is how I discovered that everybody watched TV.

This piece originally appeared in The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir (W.W. Norton, 2011) and was read at The New Movement Theater in New Orleans.

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