Category Archives: reminiscing

What It Was Like to Watch TV in the Dark Ages

This post was brought to you by this old photo I recently came across, of the family room in the house where I grew up.

When I was growing up, the Twin Brothers Rama and I were allowed to watch one hour of TV on school nights. Ours was not a household where the TV was always running in the background; you had to ask permission to turn it on and you had to have a program in mind that you were going to watch, be it the Cosby Show, Knight Ryder, Dukes of Hazzard, or Family Ties.

The way you knew if there was a program you wanted to watch was by consulting the TV Guide, which came with the Sunday paper and had programs listed in it on rudimentary charts where times and dates intersected to tell you what was going to be on.

When it was time for the program to start, you would sit down on the couch like a human being and direct your full attention at the screen for the duration. Which is to say you would watch one show straight through from start to finish, commercials and all. If you were lucky, you got some hot buttered popcorn straight from the wok and if not, you just ate nuts which you cracked open yourself. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to stand up, walk over to the TV set, and turn the knob like a monkey in the zoo.

Every couple of minutes, your dad would run over to the TV set and start fiddling with the rabbit ears and your mom would tell him to sit down.

“Just leave it alone! You’re making it worse.”

But your Dad would never leave it alone. Not right away, anyway.

“As long as someone stands here with one finger on the antenna and one foot on the floor, we’re good,” is what he would say.

When he was done fiddling, the reception would be perfect for the three seconds it took him to run back to his spot on the couch.

If you wanted to watch a movie, you would go down to the Video Store with your entire family on Saturday afternoon to rent one plus a VCR, which weighed forty pounds and took up half of the space in the trunk of your Buick Regal.

As the hour drew nearer for movie night to start, you would start angling for a good seat on the couch, on the edge by the end table. You would do anything to avoid getting stuck in the middle between the Twin Brothers Rama – mouth breathers both – even if that meant staking out the spot three hours ahead of time and acting surprised when you looked up from your book to find that it was time for movie night already.

God help you if a love scene came on once the movie started, because guess what – your parents were watching, too. You’d have to sit perfectly still and act completely disinterested while in fact you were taking copious mental notes.

Your mother would say to your father, “Why does Hollywood have to ruin every perfectly good movie with gratuitous sex? It’s disgusting!” And you would be simultaneously embarrassed and irritated because you felt that your parents should not be allowed to watch – or comment – on that sort of thing.

The next morning your Dad would pack the VCR up and take it back to the Video Store before the stroke of noon.

And you know something? Those were good times.

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The View from St. Paul’s

When the P-Dawg graduated from medical school back in the day, we took a celebratory trip to London.

On the top of my husband’s sight seeing list was Sir Christoper Wren’s famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, an architectural marvel with no external buttresses.

Coincidentally, this is also where our sightseeing lists diverged.

P-Dawg’s List Rima’s List
Saint Paul’s Shopping
Tower of London Shopping
British Museum Shopping
Tate Gallery Shopping
Millenium Bridge Shopping

 

On the afternoon we visited Saint Paul’s, we walked in circles for forty days and forty nights before locating it. Its golden dome was visible like a mirage in the distance, but no path led to its front doors.

“Let’s ask for directions,” I said hopefully, limping along next to my husband’s long strides.

“Pshht” he said, and kept on walking.

When we finally arrived, I was hungry and a little disappointed. St. Paul’s was no Disney World, that was for sure.

“I don’t see a gift shop or even a cafe,” I remarked to the P-Dawg, who said, “This cathedral has no external buttresses.”

After the tour, I was ready to reward myself with a pint of Guinness , but my husband insisted we climb the 257 winding and treacherous steps to the top of the golden dome. I obliged, but only because I didn’t want to ruin our fledgling marriage.

The view was certainly rewarding, but I worried about wasting the last shot in our cheap camera on it. That’s because I was born without the internal censor that tells you when to just shut up and smile, and also because using up that shot would pretty much guarantee me a run-in with Sir Elton John on the walk back to the hotel.

“That’s a waste of a shot, P-Dawg,” I warned my husband as he aimed our cheap little Vivitar toward the street below.

“This building has no external buttresses,” he said, and took the picture, anyway.

It’s my favorite one from the trip.

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La-La-La-Language

When my brothers and I were little, our family spoke only Lithuanian at home. We still do.

But as the hour approached for me to begin kindergarten, my parents made a concerted effort to ensure that I’d be able to communicate in the language of their adopted land. To this end, I was allowed to watch one hour of educational programming on PBS every day and had occasional play dates with Jeffrey from across the street. And based on how well my first day of school went, I’m guessing they launched this campaign about two minutes before I got on the bus.

Still, on the first day of kindergarten, I was feeling pretty good. I had a respectable arsenal of words at my disposal and a pair of scissors in my back pack that I was not afraid to use. The whole world was my oyster! Though I couldn’t have told you what that meant.

To mark the momentous occasion, I wore my favorite outfit of red polyester bell bottoms, goldenrod yellow turtleneck, and a forest green vest with a amber broach on the lapel. Coincidentally, these are the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Also, I may or may not have carried a handkerchief with hand embroidered mushrooms on it. In other words, I was just your typical five-year old girl.

When I arrived in my new classroom, I approached a cluster of kindergarteners who we chatting among themselves.

“Hello!” I said to one of them. “I call myself, ‘Rima.’ What do you call yourself?”

She called herself, “Kim.” And she followed it up with a string of words and phrases that, when entered into my central processing system, did not match any I’d learned from Jeffrey or Kaptain Kangaroo.

I politely asked Kim to repeat herself, but when she did I still couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. It was as though she was speaking in a foreign tongue. We went back and forth a couple times, but eventually my classmate gave up and walked away, leaving me standing there beside myself and radiating shame.

PBS, Jeffrey, and the backs of cereal boxes had all failed me. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow when it came to communicating in the language of the country of my birth.

It wasn’t all bad. Our teacher, Ms Rogers, spoke slowly and articulated. Often I picked up on context clues. But still there were times when she sounded like one of Charles M. Schulz’s adults. For the first few weeks of the school year, I drifted in and out of clouds. There would be chunks of time when the world was clear and in focus and then, without warning, I’d find myself paddling though a murky and unintelligible fog.

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand any English, more that there were large gaps in my vocabulary. I had trouble interpreting sentences when they were spoken quickly, and I wouldn’t have recognized an idiom if it came up and punched me in the mouth.

I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but one day the veil simply lifted and I recognized myself as a full fledged member of the English speaking world. In fact, I couldn’t get enough. I read voraciously, wrote copiously and all of a sudden I could talk the hind legs off a donkey (though I still can’t tell you what that means.)

My story is not unique. Almost every Lithuanian-American of my generation whose parents emigrated because of World War II experienced the same language transition as I did. But what I find fascinating is the fact that we all assimilated into American culture fairly seamlessly and today we own and love English in a way that even some native speakers don’t.

Though I still speak Lithuanian with my family and children, it no longer flows as naturally as English does. In fact, there is almost nothing I love more than crafting English prose, weighing each word carefully and arranging it like a pebble in its place. And I wonder sometimes, if my history had been different, would this be the case?

English was not always with me. It’s a gift I remember receiving, so I polish and display it proudly, like a trophy in a case.

"I call myself 'Rima'. What do you call yourself?"

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Saint Peter, a Priest, and a College Student are in a Boat. . .

One summer during college, I went on a retreat with my Catholic youth group. And not just any retreat, but a canoeing retreat. It took place at Canada’s stunningly beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park and I regretted it from the moment I realized I’d have to row a canoe and occasionally even carry that canoe, plus my worldly belongings, over my own head.

It was hot, there were swarms of bees, and you couldn’t even catch a break when we stopped to rest because that was scripture reading time. The campground, when we reached it, wasn’t so much a campground as a small secluded island with no plumbing or electrical outlets to plug your curling iron in. We cooked by fire, put iodine tablets in the river water to cleanse it, and slept on the forest floor in tents.

Despite all that, Algonquin was pretty impressive. I was with my closest friends, had my eye on a handsome Quebecois, and was appreciating the beauty of creation despite myself. You can’t help but feel closer to God when you paddle by a single moose standing in shallow waters with mountains and the setting sun as backdrop. Or when you’re kicking back by the fire with a brewski and some chips.

On the last day of the retreat, after we’d packed up the campsite and put out the fires, we had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of confession. The prospect of dragging out your sins without the benefit of a confessional window to hide behind was daunting to say the least, but our chaplain – Father Sunshine – was a stand-up priest who had good rapport with young people and was always quick with a kind word or joke. Besides, after three days in the woods, we felt humble and changed. One by one, we took the plunge.

I was the last to go and when my turn came, I went to town. There was no end to my transgressions, no sin left behind. Big ones, small ones, I lifted each one individually and cast it off like refuse into the abyss. In the past I’d questioned the necessity of confession as a sacrament, believing that no mediator was needed between me and God. But there is something about laying your faults bare, about lifting them up and giving them away, that is spectacularly liberating. At least, it was very good for me.

Afterward I felt like a new person. My backpack was suddenly lighter, there was a bounce in my step. But even more importantly, I knew that in just six short hours, I’d be showering and sleeping in a real bed. What I didn’t know was that while I was going through my litany, everyone else in the group had paired up. One by one, the canoes and their occupants set off towards home base as the wind picked up and a steady rain began to pour.

Father Sunshine and I were the only two left.

He looked at me, I looked at him.

“I guess we’re buddies” he said.

Next thing you know, I’m in a boat with my confessor. It’s driving rain and I’m doing my best to keep the canoe moving forward in a straight line. Father Sunshine is patient and gives gentle advice, but in his heart of hearts I know he’s marveling at my sins. It’s a predicament to say the least, only made worse by the fact that we’re drifting farther away from the other canoes in the middle of a storm.

The only redeeming thing about the situation is that I’m about to die a saint.

After awhile, even father Sunshine starts looking worried and suggests we ask Saint Peter to keep an eye on us and give us faith. Saint Peter, of course, is the apostle who with God’s help rowed his boat safely ashore in the raging sea of Gallilee while Jesus slept.

Even in my terror, I couldn’t help but notice the poetry of the situation. Especially when, after dispensing his advice, Father Sunshine put down his oars and lit up a Marlboro Light.

“Keep rowing,” he told me, “I have faith in you.”

I don’t know how we made it out alive, but it was the best penance I ever did.

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