March 05, 2015
Posted By: Shaunescy
I have terrible balance.
John and Samantha were born when I was 34 years old. By then, I’d become a creature of habit. Twelve years as a college student—earning first a BAE, then two Mas, finally a PhD—acclimated me to the academic calendar, which begins in August and runs through May. It’s a calendar on which a few frenetic periods (the opening of the Fall semester, for example) are surrounded by a mass of predictability. I taught my first English 101 class in the Fall of 1993, not counting some team-teaching sorts of courses I taught before then, and I haven’t taken any significant time off since.
Almost twenty-two years of college-level teaching. Sometimes as few as one or two classes at a time…sometimes as many as thirteen classes at once, spread across multiple online schools (a health-destroying disaster of apocalyptic proportions, one never to be repeated).
As we get ready to celebrate the twins’ tenth birthday in a few weeks, I begin to see just how deeply my professional sense of time has marked me. And to see the ways I’ve reacted, most visible only in retrospect.
I’m reminded of an argument I had about email…and of some awesome memories I have of Fantasy Island.
Every Saturday night, my family would gather in the living room. I remember popcorn and RC Cola sipped from a twelve-ounce bottle (a tall, thin bottle, one solidly capped and waiting for a church key in that pre-twist off world). The television may have been a 24”, which seems right for the time…but the years have skewed my perception, given that the monitor sitting on my desk right now is that same size. That television screen, regardless of its actual size, was surrounded by a wooden cabinet, and the whole thing probably weighed a couple hundred pounds—heavy enough to leave a deep impression in the burnt-orange shag that carpeted the living room.
I can lift my computer monitor, easily, with one hand. I just tried. The burnt-orange shag carpet isn’t in that living room any more; I stopped by the house several years ago, and the renters were nice enough to let me wander through the rooms of my youth. They even feigned interest when I talked about what each room used to be—my bedroom, now a quasi-dining room, my sister’s bedroom, now the home office of someone who does medical billing online.
We gathered in that room every Saturday from 1977 to 1984, though, to watch first Love Boat and then Fantasy Island. Both were on ABC, the first at 8:00 pm and the second at 9:00. Wikipedia argues that this was the Sunday lineup, not Saturday, but I remember it how I remember it. Even if I’m Love Boat was wonderfully forgettable, and in retrospect, I see that it must have had far, far more sexual subtext than I noticed (although Lauren Tewes, who played Julie the Cruise Director, may have been one of my first crushes), but Fantasy Island had everything I could have wanted at that age: a little-person cohost, Ricardo Montalban in a white suit, and an ever-changing slate of adventures that probably served as childishly simple morality dramas…which I missed completely, I’d guess. Guests arrived at Fantasy Island to live out some dream. One old man wanted to find the Fountain of Youth. One young woman wanted the thrill of being Mata Hari.
I’m pretty sure Mr. Roarke (Ricardo M.’s character) once bested the devil in a contest for ownership of Fantasy Island itself. They played chess upon a huge, larger-than-life sort of board, each seated on his own side…with Tattoo (the little-person who assisted Mr. Roarke in seemingly nebulous ways) moving the pieces about. There was arm wrestling, too, with a poisonous tarantula waiting on the table to latch onto the loser’s hand. It seems like there was a third challenge in there, too, but I could be wrong. Or I could be conflating two different episodes. Or I could be wrong in any number of ways that I’m not going to check into. Mr. Roarke was just as cool as the other side of a pillow—I thought then and think now—and I’m not going to risk thawing him in some way by researching the truth.
And in the end, Fantasy Island—along with all those half-remembered details I just vomited out—wasn’t what mattered, wasn’t what made the memory stick. I remember those Saturday nights…ok, “Saturday” nights…because they were about the only time my family watched television together. We watched the news every night, local and national, but that was purposeful. It was important to know what was happening in the world, whether “the world” meant Georgetown Lake or That two-hour block of evening TV on ABC was different. I suppose we laughed together, and we probably sat together. It was important that we were together. That was family time.
More than three decades later, my own family has a version of this, although the DVR has radically altered the dynamic. We watch cooking competitions together. We watch dramatic reenactments of terrible (or freakishly comical) events from the ER. We watch Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, and Bar Rescue.
We watch a lot of TV, I guess, if a couple hours a day counts as “a lot.”
We watch all of this television together, though, and we’re truly present when we watch. No one surfs the Web on an iPad. No one reads a book (ok, that one’s directed pretty much at me). And we’re not quiet or passive.
We talk. We talk a lot. We talk about what we’re watching. We talk about the day, about plans for the weekend, about how cool it is to snowboard at Maverick.
It’s family time. The television is just a prop, a piece of stage dressing that pulls us into the same space. I doubt that in thirty years John and Samantha will remember a specific episode of Chopped. They might—or, more likely, they’ll have the same half-baked memories I have of Mr. Roarke, the devil, and arm wrestling on Fantasy Island.
They’ll remember the consistent time we spent together. Well, that and the almost painful level of disgust I have for the parents on 19 Kids and Counting.
As I think about television and time and being with my family, though, I also hear echoes of an argument I made back in 1994 or 1995.
I was a graduate student. I was teaching writing classes for first-year college students. I’d recently bought my first computer (first computer of my adult life, anyway—not counting the Commodore 64 I played games on for years as a teen). I had an AOL account…and my first email address. It was the email address I was arguing about.
“I don’t give my phone number to my students,” I declaimed loudly (probably while sitting on a bar stool at Bill’s Tavern or Benny C’s, where a Long Island Iced Tea came in a small wine carafe). “Since I don’t give them my phone number,” I asked, “why would I give them my email address?”
It seemed like a good comparison, my phone number and my email address. It was a good comparison…at the time. But time changed, and by the end of the 1990s, I was putting my email address on my syllabus for each class I taught, and I was checking my email regularly, usually from six o’clock in the morning until midnight. Students sometimes emailed me with questions. Students sometimes sent me drafts of their work in order to solicit feedback. Students—more often than not—emailed their excuses for missing class, usually asking some version of “Are we going to do anything important in class tomorrow?”
That last one always bothered me, but all of those messages were bothersome—not because students were asking me questions, because their questions mattered to me, but because I got into the habit of always answering, always being available.
Being on call virtually all hours of the day and night was foolish, and I don’t do it anymore. My students matter to me; my classes matter to me; my colleagues matter to me.
My family matters more.
I don’t check my work email from home anymore. I go to work early in the morning, and I’m available until my class begins. I’m available for a little while after my class ends. Once I leave campus, I’m not available again until the next morning.
My family time is more enjoyable because of this choice. The world did not end because I stopped logging into my email from 4:00 pm through to 8:00 am. It’s freed me up to play more Xbox One games with my son, to shoot more basketball with my daughter, to sit and simply spend time with my wife.
Maybe to watch Fantasy Island.
Or The Love Boat.
With Love, Dad
Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western. He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films. He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship. Visit http://www.shaneborrowman.com , home of Shane's blog, Kairotic Palaver.