Family TV night.

Because it’s never too early for a child to learn how to mock the failings of others, and because if I have to endure one more Disney Channel sitcom my brain will burst into flames, and because Kate had already done her reading, her chores, and whatever else she had to do yesterday, and was ready to settle down for a perfectly defensible 45 minutes or so of television time, because of all this…

I let her watch “Wife Swap” last night. I watched it with her, in fact.

The families were a hip, urbane San Francisco quartet of museum-goers and mildly loony (by SF standards) personal habits (feng shui, sage-burning), and an utterly crackpot Iowa farm clan, who practiced “unschooling,” lived like pigs (bacteria is good!) and ate everything raw, right down to the chickens. I try, whenever we watch so-called reality TV, to keep a running director’s commentary going, explaining about editing and how once you allow cameras to record your life, you’re pretty much at the mercy of them, but after a while it trailed off. The Iowans, with their black toilet and raw chicken salad, were clearly insane.

So then you get the next parental situation: The family’s mental illness is, how you might say, sub-clinical. I don’t think there’s anything in the DSM-IV about brushing your teeth with a combination of butter and clay. (“Yeah, it tastes like dirt,” the teenage daughter says.) I know from long experience — in an Iowa-like state that also begins with an I — that this family’s peculiar beliefs and practices, while unusual, are hardly unheard of. If Kate ends up in the world with any sense of adventure, sooner or later she’s going to run across folks like this and needs to learn coping skills, which include the phrases, “No thanks, I’m not hungry” and “How close in the nearest main road, and how do I get there?”

I was pleased to see she picked up the most preposterous statements right away, as when the Iowa dad, in scoffing at San Francisco mom’s neat-freak squeamishness about germs, asked, “Would God put anything on the earth that would hurt us?” Kate, recently recovered from viral influenza, immediately expressed the idea that why yes, God did that very thing, you moron.

Harder to explain was the clear emotional instability in the house, as when the Iowa family went out to eat in a restaurant, consumed fried everything and paid a predictable gastrointestinal price the next day, and dad behaved as though his children had been fed cyanide milkshakes. And the son who couldn’t confront a contrary opinion without tears, followed by a march into the kitchen to gulp down a raw egg.

OK, the part where the Iowa mom goes out to eat in San Francisco, and the husband insists she shave her legs and underarms, and she says, “In that case, I’m gonna need some scissors?” — that was cruel.

So I think we came through the experience OK. I’ll leave the meta issues of what a brush with national TV exposure does to a person for middle school. But since most of you folks are adults, you might enjoy this, from Radar magazine: Prisoners of YouTube, a thoughtful and sensitive look at what this sort of accidental celebrity brings to a person’s life. HT: Eric Zorn.

So, bloggage:

Did you know that, according to an “unscientific survey,” “the average Grace Lee was a Korean American college graduate who had taken 3.5 years of piano lessons”? Neither did I. The next time “The Grace Lee Project” comes around on the Sundance Channel, we’ll watch that instead. (Demographic note: The name Grace is making a comeback, trend-speaking, but it wasn’t always so. I long ago realized that the only women younger than 40 named Nancy anymore tend to be Asian. My name is too ’50s for words, but Asian Americans, fond of traditional American names, still like it. For about six months I was getting puzzling e-mail from some Knight Ridder internal listserv, and finally realized the computer had mistaken me for one Nancy Na in San Jose, presumably Vietnamese-American.)

Fat Tuesday is extra-fat in Detroit. In Hamtramck, they call it Paczki Day, paczki being Polish for “jelly doughnut.” Think I’ll go get one. At least they’re cooked.

Posted at 11:20 am in Television |

19 responses to “Family TV night.”

  1. Jen said on February 20, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    Your comment re names from the 50s made me smile. In my family, we have:

    Judith Ann, b. 1946
    Barbara Jean, b. 1951
    Nancy Jo, b. 1955

    All antiquated now, but, since they’re attached to some of my favorite people, I still like them–especially Barbara.

    I have a friend who teaches at Wellesley. Some years back, he said he could call on “Heather”, and half of his class would respond. Wonder what the current “Heather equivalent” is.

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  2. ellent said on February 20, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    That would be Caitlyn, Katelyn, Kaytlyn, Caytlin, etc.

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  3. alex said on February 20, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Amazing what happens in a century or two. In doing genealogical research, I see a lot of names that were very common that today are unheard of: Sophronia, Permelia and Azenath to name but a few.

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  4. LA mary said on February 20, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    The women one generation older than I in my family are Mildred, Mae, Florence, Nellie, Edith, Bess, Rene (that’s Ree-nee, not Rene’), Vera and Margaret. The generation before that: Hilda, Adele, Olga, Josephine, Anna, and another Mae.
    I’ve hired Filipino nurses with all these names except Rene.

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  5. Jennifer said on February 20, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    My oldest daughter (10) loves to watch the occasional “Wife Swap”. Yes, it’s raunchy reality TV, but we actually have a lot of good chats during it. Like you said, I also do a lot of running commentary. We discuss moderation, how each side can always learn something from the other, etc, plus she sees some of the other *unique* ways people approach their lives.

    The young man with the temper was a tad distressing. Why do I see him sporting a hoodie and aviator glasses in the future?

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  6. nancy said on February 20, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Someone on the Television Without Pity forums said, “Keep that boy away from bell towers.” I’ll say.

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  7. velevet goldmine said on February 20, 2007 at 8:04 pm

    My kids are fascinated by Nanny 911. Children always like to see other children behaving badly and to do the tsk, tsk routine. It seems to reassure my kids to see that their latest transgressions are, comparatively speaking, child’s play.

    My husband and I get drawn in for similar reasons. We can take comfort in the relieved thought that at least we never let the kids have Coke for breakfast while sitting on top of the television and/or hitting each other with blunt objects. (The kids, I mean).

    But tonight we all move on to emotional violence — live Idol!

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  8. alex said on February 20, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Sarepta — that’s another 19th century name.

    I’ll confess to having dropped in on Wife Swap. It’s pretty much always the same — punk rock libertines versus Pentecostal hothouse flowers or some similar variation. But I must confess I deliberately skipped the freaks in Iowa. When I saw the promo I was so grossed out I wasn’t even curious. What an “off night” to introduce a child to this cesspool. My, my.

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  9. brian stouder said on February 20, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    I was always struck by the name Varina – Jeff Davis’s wife’s name (there’s probably a good pun in there somewhere regarding Varina in Virginia and nothin’ could be finer than to be in….carolina in the morning, etc etc)

    The reality shows that have always pulled me in are Amazing Race and Biggest Loser. Everyone who has ever traveled far from home on a road they’ve never been on before, and missed a turn or gotten lost can identify with the challenge that show presents. And Biggest Loser works their contestants harder than any other show – and pays out the smallest grand prize! (I think they pay $100,000 – for a month of all-encompassing work).

    And then I read today that Biggest Loser fired Caroline Rhea – who was never a thinnie Minnie herself (there’s another one Alex – Minerva!) – and turned right around and hired a thinnie Minnie!

    Oh well

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  10. velevet goldmine said on February 20, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    Brian, another reason I think Amazing Race is so great is the social laboratory element. Pairs come into with significant preexisting relationships. How their strengths and weaknesses play out as individuals and as partners is fascinating for me. Pair that with high production quality and genuinely interesting destinations and (often) tasks –very cool.

    Of course, I just watched Ryan Seacrest have an equally fascinating gay-panic meltdown. But that’s another kind of…something.

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  11. cdm said on February 21, 2007 at 1:13 am

    Because no one mentioned it yet, may I point you to Baby Name Voyager (aka God’s gift to fiction writers).
    Absolutely the best time sink on the web! It will show you all manner of things about historic name popularity. It’s especially fun to look at names that have changed genders.

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  12. alex said on February 21, 2007 at 8:45 am

    Isn’t there a place called Fuckway Varina down south somewhere, Brian?

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  13. brian stouder said on February 21, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Don’t know, Alex, but I’ve been to Climax, Michigan.

    (they have a marvelous summer festival there…!)

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  14. Bob said on February 21, 2007 at 11:09 am

    In Pennsylvania, Blue Ball and Bird-In-Hand are both close to Intercourse.

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  15. Jonina said on February 21, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    A response to a 2005 posting–I also remember the “Schultz Moravian Stout” fake commercial. It popped into my head a couple of weeks ago during a recording session in which I participated (see It was on an episode of the TV show “Dr. Kildare”, probably in the early 1960s. The guest star of the week had talked him into being an extra in the commercial, which started with a blonde in braids and dirndl walking in through swinging doors carrying beer steins and handing them around. Something or someone would go wrong in each take, until they finally got a perfect one–and Dr. Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) hiccuped.

    Anyway, here’s the fake commercial:

    (three bar intro)
    (barmaid) What’s all the shouting about?
    (male drinkers) Schultz Moravian Stout!
    (male drinkers, individually and in groups)
    From the East to the West
    It’s the very best!
    From the North to the South
    It waters your mouth!
    (everyone) What’s all the shouting about?
    Schultz Moravian Stout!

    I also remember “Nicky Chevrolet” (to which we would always append “With a backwards K!” and two other Chicago area commercials:

    Hudson 3 two-seven hundred! (sung, for General Boushell rug cleaning)


    For Chevy cars and Chevy trucks and Chevy service too
    Come to Fifty-seven-twenty-seven South Ashland Avenue
    To Ferrell-Hicks, to Ferrell-Hicks
    (or, as we wits sang in high school, “To Ferrell-Hicks the derelicts”)

    and a Milwaukee commercial, heard on WTMJ (“The Milwaukee Journal station) radio:

    (This song was accompanied by the “Big Ben/Hark to the Chimes” sequence of change rings)

    At the corner of Jefferson and Wells
    You can hear cathedral bells:
    Milwaukee Fed’ral Savings and Loan!

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  16. velvet goldmine said on February 21, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Bob: “Close,” but no cigar!

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  17. LA mary said on February 21, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    The guest star on that episode was Suzanne Pleshette.

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  18. Tori said on February 21, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Fuquay-Varina is a suburb of Raleigh, NC, I believe. To my chagrin, it’s not pronounced “Fuckaway Varina.” My southern ex laughed his fool head off when I made that mistake.

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  19. Deborah said on February 25, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Gratifying that someone else remembers the fake commercial about Schultz Moravian Stout. It’s one of those brain worms that just won’t go away. So obscure, yet so memorable.

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