By David Finkel
Sunday, January 16, 1994
The first TV to come on is the one in the master bedroom, a 13-inch Hitachi. The time is 8:20 a.m. The alarm clock goes off, and Bonnie Delmar opens her eyes and immediately reaches over to the night stand for the remote. Her husband, Steve, has already left for work. The children are still asleep. The house is quiet. On comes CBS because Bonnie was watching the David Letterman show when she drifted off the night before. She watches "This Morning" for a few minutes, catching up on what has happened in the last seven hours in the world beyond her Gaithersburg home, and then she switches to NBC in time for the weather and Willard Scott. Later in the day, she will tell about a dream she once had. "I dreamt I was married to Willard Scott," she will say. "I was going to my 10th high school reunion, and I was excited that everyone was going to see that I was married to a celebrity, but then I wasn't excited because it was Willard Scott. You know?"
The second TV to come on is the 19-inch Zenith in the bedroom of Bonnie's daughter, Ashley, age 7 years and 10 months. The time is now 8:45, 40 minutes before school begins, and Ashley and her younger brother, Steven, get dressed while watching "The Bozo Show." The Zenith is the newest TV in the house, purchased a few weeks before to replace the 26-inch Sony console that had been in Ashley's room until the color picture tube went bad. "She threw a fit when the console broke," Bonnie says of Ashley's initial reaction. "She was, like, 'I won't watch TV in my room anymore,' so Steve and Steven went out and got her a new TV, and she wasn't at all happy about it. I mean, she went in her room and cried about it. She actually cried. She wanted a big screen. I actually laughed at her. I said, 'You've got to be kidding,' and that made her more furious. She was saying, 'How can you give me such a small TV?' But, anyway, that's over. She's fine now." On the screen this morning, Bozo is standing next to a child who is attempting to throw a ping-pong ball into a succession of six buckets. She does this and wins several prizes, and Ashley and Steven jump around the bedroom cheering while Bonnie, who has been watching with them, claps her hands. "Wow!" she says. "What a great day."
The third TV to come on is the 27-inch Hitachi by the kitchen table. It's now a few minutes after 9, time for "Live -- Regis & Kathie Lee." This Hitachi has an especially complex remote, but Steven has mastered it, despite being only 6. He picks it up and changes the channel to "Barney and Friends." "I love you, you love me," the Barney theme song begins, but Steven sings his own variation, learned from Ashley, who learned it at school. "I hate you, you hate me," he sings, "let's kill Barney one two three, with a great big knife, stab him in his head, pull it out and then he's dead." "Steven!" Bonnie says, laughing. "How's it really go?" "I don't know," Steven says. He picks up the remote again and switches to cartoons, while Bonnie, who wants to watch "Regis & Kathie Lee," goes over to the counter by the sink and turns on the five-inch, black-and-white, battery-powered Panasonic.
It is now 9:10 a.m. in the Delmar house. Fifty minutes have gone by since the alarm. Four TVs have been turned on. It will be another 16 hours before all the TVs are off and the house is once again quiet.
By the sink, Bonnie continues to watch "Regis & Kathie Lee."
At the table, Ashley and Steven watch Speedy Gonzales in "Here Today, Gone Tamale."
Looking at them, it's hard to imagine three happier people.
"Mom," Ashley says later, after she has gone to school and come home and resumed watching TV, "I'm going to watch TV in Heaven."
"You're going to watch TV in Heaven?" Bonnie says.
"Yeah," Ashley says.
"Well," Bonnie says, "let's hope they have it on up there."
OF ALL THE RELATIONSHIPS of modern civilization, none is more hypocritical than the relationship between an American family and its television set.
We say we don't watch TV except occasionally, and yet, according to Nielsen figures, we have it on an average of 7 1/2 hours a day. We worry that TV causes violent behavior, and yet we keep watching violent shows. We complain that TV is getting too graphic, and yet we are buying sets with sharper pictures and larger screens. We insist we have better things to do than watch TV, and yet every night, on every street, shooting through the gaps in closed blinds or around the edges of drawn curtains is the electric blue glow that is the true color of our lives.
TV is our angst. TV is our guilt. We watch it. We worry about it. We blame it. We watch it some more. We feel bad about how much we really watch it. We lie.
Except for the Delmars.
"I just don't buy it that too much TV is bad for you," says Steve, 37, the chief financial officer of a company that makes automated telephone answering systems, who gets home from work around 7, eats dinner while watching Dan Rather and Connie Chung, settles down in the den by the 19-inch Sony, watches a few hours of sports, goes back to the bedroom, turns on the Hitachi and falls asleep with it on because Bonnie can't fall asleep if it's off. "Nobody wants to admit they watch television -- it's got the connotation: 'the boob tube' -- but all these people, what are they doing? I'm not sure if they have any more intellect. It's not like they're all going to the Smithsonian or anything."
"Let's see," says Bonnie, 35, a housewife and former restaurant hostess with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, totaling up how much TV she watches a day. "It just depends on if I'm home or not. Almost always, the TV is on from 4 o'clock to the end of 'David Letterman.' It depends, though. If I'm home, I'm watching. Probably nine hours a day is average. There are some days I might actually watch 16, 17 hours, but there are some days I'm out and about, and I don't get to watch as much."
At the Delmars', there are six TVs, counting the old Sony console that is now in the guest room, and plans are to refinish the basement and add two more. At the Delmars', not only is TV always on, it is virtually a member of the family, part of nearly every significant moment in their lives.
Bonnie remembers her honeymoon. "The cable went out," she says. "It wasn't out for long, six hours maybe, but I was pretty mad."
She remembers Steven's birth. "Steven was born during the halftime of a Redskins game," she says. "It was a Monday night, "Monday Night Football," a big game. I was actually pushing, and Steve and the doctor were watching the game right down to the last second."
She remembers Ashley's birth. "I cut out the TV guide the day she was born," she says. "I thought that would be interesting." She gets Ashley's baby book. "Look -- 'Webster' was on, in first run. 'Mr. Belvedere.' 'Diff'rent Strokes.' 'Falcon Crest.' 'Fall Guy.' 'Miami Vice.' 'Dallas.' 'Dynasty.' 'Knight Rider.' God, can you believe it? Wow."
She remembers when Ashley and Steven were conceived. "I don't watch TV during sex, if you want to know," she says, laughing. "I'm capable of turning it off for five minutes."
But not much longer than that. Certainly not for an entire day, Bonnie says. In fact, she says, she can't remember the last time a day passed without her watching something. "It would be very hard for me to make it through a day," she says. "It's almost an automatic reflex at this point."
The same goes for the kids, who, until recently, were allowed to watch as much TV as they wanted. Then came the night when Steve awakened well after midnight -- Bonnie says it was toward 4 a.m. -- and found Ashley sitting up in bed watching the Cartoon Network. Now the rule for the kids is no TV after 11 p.m. on school nights, but other than that, anything goes. "The kids watch everything from 'Barney' to 'Beavis and Butt-head,' " Bonnie says. There is no embarrassment in the way she says this, not even the slightest hint of discomfort. There is nothing other than brightness and happiness, for that is what she feels about TV.
"I love it. I love it. I can't help it. I love it," she says. "Why should I be ashamed of saying that?"
3 P.M. THE 27-INCH HITACHI IS ON. Time for "Maury Povich."
So far this day, Bonnie has watched parts of "Regis & Kathie Lee," "Jerry Springer," "Broadcast House Live," "Geraldo," "American Journal," "Loving," "All My Children," "One Life to Live" and "John & Leeza," and now she is watching Povich talk from his New York studio to a woman named Happy Leuken who weighs more than 600 pounds and is in a Boston hospital weight-loss program. "God, it's so sad," Bonnie says, looking at Happy, who is spread over her hospital bed like raw dough, chatting away. Now she and the rest of the viewing audience see what Happy can't, that Happy's hero, exercise guru Richard Simmons, is standing outside the door to Happy's room, poised to dash in and surprise her with a bouquet of flowers. "Watch," Bonnie says. "He loves to cry. He'll come in. He'll cry. She'll cry. The audience will cry. I might cry too." In he runs. Happy looks surprised. The studio audience applauds. He embraces her. The studio audience cheers. He kisses her big neck. The cheers get louder. She kisses him on the lips. "There he goes," Bonnie says. "He's working up to it. He's starting to blink."
She keeps watching. "Did you know he was on 'General Hospital?' " she says. "It was years and years ago. He was running an exercise class. There was one character, a heavyset character, who was in the class, and I thought they were going to transform her into something beautiful, but I guess she wouldn't lose any weight because they dropped the story line."
Bonnie not only knows this about Richard Simmons, she knows everything about everybody. To her, TV is more than entertainment, it's a family of actors who share histories and links.
Earlier in the day, when she was showing off some school lunch boxes she has collected over the years, she got to the "Get Smart" lunch box and found herself thinking about Dick Gautier, who played Hymie the Robot, and Julie Newmar, who she thinks played opposite Gautier in one or two episodes and definitely played Catwoman in "Batman," as did Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether, who was also in "The Time Tunnel" and whose daughter was a model on "The Price Is Right." "Kyle. Kyle Meriwether," she said. "She used to substitute when one of the other girls, like Janice, couldn't make it." A little later, when the soap opera "Loving" came on, Bonnie said of an actress: "That woman is married to Michael Knight, who plays Tad in 'All My Children,' and she was married to David Hasselhoff, who played a character named Michael Knight in that show 'Knight Rider.' Isn't that weird?" Now, looking at Maury Povich, she says, "Can you believe Maury Povich is married to Connie Chung?"
So of course she knows about Richard Simmons, who is now sitting on Happy's bed, congratulating her on the 50 or so pounds she has lost, absently rubbing his thumb up and down her exposed lower leg. Over the years, there's been all kinds of research done on the effects of television on viewers, including, fairly recently, a study on the effects of the TV set itself, which showed that the bigger the screen is, the more involved a viewer feels. It also noted that people are buying bigger TVs all the time, something that Steve, who has looked at a 35-inch Mitsubishi, is considering for the basement. For now, though, the 27-inch Hitachi is the biggest screen in the house, which, as Simmons keeps rubbing Happy's leg, rubbing it, rubbing it, rubbing it, seems plenty big enough. "That kind of grosses me out," Bonnie says, and she leaves the house to pick up the kids from school.
The school is just down the street. In fact lots of things in Bonnie's life are just down the street: the toy store where she buys Ninja Turtle dolls for Steven and "Beverly Hills, 90210" dolls for Ashley; the pizza place that is always advertising two pizzas with up to five toppings each for $7.99; the grocery store where she buys Cap'n Crunch, and Flintstone Push Ups in Yabba Dabba Doo Orange, and all the other things the kids want after seeing them on TV. The school is closest of all, so close that when Bonnie has the windows open and the TV volume down she can hear the kids squealing and laughing on the playground.
She is back in a few minutes. The TV is still on, and as the car doors open and close, Happy Leuken is still chatting away, talking now about how the hospital allows conjugal visits. Now Happy's husband is talking about their own conjugal visit, about how exciting it was that, for the first time in years, his wife was able to lift her legs onto the bed by herself, and how much he's liking her body, really really liking it -- and that's what Ashley and Steven come home to.
They run into the house, stop by the TV, listen. Some parents might worry about this, but not Bonnie. She simply goes into the kitchen and begins getting out snacks. If the kids have a question, she figures, they'll ask it, and if they don't they'll probably get bored and change the channel. Sure enough, Steven picks up the remote and changes to cartoons. He and Ashley sit at the kitchen table. Bonnie pours them sodas. She gets them Rice Krispies treats. She defrosts some Ball Park Fun Franks -- "Michael Jordan endorses these," she says -- and serves them with potato chips, which Ashley dips in ketchup. The kids keep watching. Eating. Watching. Then they run back to Ashley's room to watch cartoons on her TV, and Bonnie changes the channel to Sally Jessy Raphael, where the topic is "moms who share their daughters' boyfriends."
"Don't you love watching this?" she asks during a commercial. "Can you tell me you're not enjoying this? I love seeing how people live." Even the worst shows, she says, have value if for no other reason than she gets to see what other lives are like. "Lesbians. Homosexuals. Transvestites," she says, listing people she has met through TV. "Spiritualists. Occultists. Teenage runaways. Teenage drug addicts. Teenage alcoholics. Child stars who are in trouble. Politicians. Bald men. People with physical problems. Cancer survivors. Siamese twins." Now she will learn about moms and daughters who share the same boyfriends, and tomorrow, according to a commercial, she will meet "a man who had his private parts enlarged -- on the next Maury."
She agrees it's a strange group of people. Nonetheless, she keeps watching as one of the moms on the show says she and her daughter run a phone-sex line and pretend to have orgasms while actually eating donuts and painting their nails.
"You know, TV really does open up your eyes about how many people in the world there are, and how different they are," Bonnie says. "I mean without TV, who would exist? Just these middle-class people I see every day. I wouldn't know anything else was going on."
She watches to the end.
Then, with the kids, she watches "Full House."
Then they watch "Saved by the Bell."
Then she watches the local news.
Then Steve comes home and the entire family eats dinner and watches Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
Then, sometimes with Steve, sometimes with the kids, sometimes by herself, Bonnie watches "Jeopardy," "Mad About You," "Wings," "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show With David Letterman." Toward the end of "Letterman" she falls asleep, awakens long enough to turn off the TV and falls back asleep until 8:20 a.m., when she reaches woozily for the remote and starts all over again.
NOT THAT TV is the only thing Bonnie does. "I don't just sit and watch TV," she says. "I'll clean while I watch. I'll read the paper. I'll work on crafts. I like making doll-house furniture with Ashley. I'll fold laundry." She also reads books, volunteers at the school several times a week and works on the yard.
But almost all of this involves TV, at least peripherally. The crafts are done in front of the Hitachi, and whenever she cleans the house she takes the portable Panasonic along to the rooms that don't have a TV. The book she is reading at the moment is by Howard Stern, and the book she's reading with Ashley, which came from a school book club, is about Stephanie, one of the characters on "Full House."
From time to time, her friends poke fun at her about all of this, but she doesn't mind. Sometimes Steve does too -- "the walking TV Guide," he calls her -- but she doesn't mind that either. They've been married nearly 10 years now, and even though she once turned down a free weekend in Jamaica with Steve in part because the hotel room didn't have a TV, he says of her, "If everybody was like Bonnie, the world would be a helluva lot better place."
"I'd definitely like to have a perfect family," she is saying one evening.
"She'd like to have the Beaver Cleaver family," says Steve.
"I would. You know I've had people tell me that Steven looks like Beaver," she says, adding that she always tells them, "Thank you."
"You do?" says Steve.
"Yeah," says Bonnie. "It's a compliment."
"Bonnie's life tends to be dictated by what she sees on television," Steve says, rolling his eyes.
"You think a lot of stuff on television is ridiculous," Bonnie says to him.
"Yeah, I do. For instance, talk shows. Why would anyone want to watch these shows all the time?"
"You learn a lot," Bonnie says.
"Like enlarged sex organs?"
"Yeah," Bonnie says.
"It's like the National Enquirer," Steve says. "Pretty soon there'll be a show on two-headed cabbages."
"But you know what?" Bonnie says. "I always have something to talk about at parties."
"That's true," Steve says.
"For instance," Bonnie says, "do you know how many women the average man sleeps with in his lifetime?"
"What's your source for this?"
"The man who put skin from his butt on his head?"
"Seven. The answer is seven," Bonnie says. "Don't you find that interesting?"
SO THERE IS conversation in the Delmar house too, as well as family time, when everyone watches a show together. "We all watch 'Home Improvement,' " Bonnie says. "We all watch 'Seinfeld.' " They also watch "Married . . . With Children," a show that has been called sexist, misogynous, soft pornography and worse. But it also has about 20 million regular viewers, including the Delmars, who try to watch it every week.
This week, however, Bonnie announces she wants to watch a special on CBS, "a show that was on when I was little, and I want to watch it very much."
"What is it?" Steve asks.
" 'The Waltons Reunion,' " Bonnie says.
"Oh, God. I thought they died," Steve says.
"I loved that show," Bonnie says.
"But Mom . . ." Ashley says.
"Mom . . ." Steven says.
"If you want to sit quietly, you can sit here and watch," Bonnie says. "But be quiet. Mommy wants to watch this."
And so Ashley and Steven go off to watch "Married . . . With Children" by themselves.
"Channel Two Five," Bonnie calls to them as they run down the hallway, so they'll know what to press on the remote.
They go to Ashley's room, a room in which they spend a couple of hours every day, just them and whatever they want to watch. Steven has his own bedroom a few steps away, but because he doesn't yet have a TV he is in Ashley's room more than his own, usually falling asleep and spending the night in her queen-sized bed. The bed has a heart-shaped pillow on it with a picture of Zack, from "Saved by the Bell," along with the inscription "Sweet Dreams." "Ashley loves Zack," Steven says about that. "He's her love muffin." There is also a dresser drawer filled with videotapes of children's movies -- "We probably have a hundred," Steven says -- as well as a Super Nintendo game, a VCR, a videotape rewinder, a cable outlet and, of course, the new 19-inch Zenith, on which Al Bundy, one of the "Married . . . With Children" characters, is saying to his wife, Peg, as their neighbor Marcy listens, "I'm telling you, Peg, I'm so hot, if Marcy wasn't here I'd take you on the floor right now."
To which Peg says, "Get out, Marcy."
To which Ashley and Steven, hearing every word of this exchange, say nothing. They just keep listening as Al and Peg get in an argument about sex, and Peg says to Al that TV is the "only thing you've turned on in 20 years," and Al says to Peg, "Well, if you came with a remote and a mute button, I might turn you on too."
Wordlessly, Ashley and Steven watch the show until it ends and then run back out to Bonnie. "How was it?" she asks, and that's all she asks -- not so much because she doesn't care what her children watch, but because she and Steve don't see any reason to worry about it.
"You know why?" Bonnie says the next day, when the kids are in school and she is making them a surprise for when they get home, a concoction of cereal, pretzel sticks, butter and brown sugar. "Because I really trust my kids. If there's anything bad, they'll tell me about it."
She puts the pan in the oven. On the Hitachi, Maury Povich is about to show a videotape of a convenience store clerk being shot during a robbery. "It's so graphic, you might not want to watch," he warns.
If TV's so bad, Bonnie says, why are her kids doing so well? If it's so bad, why is Steven so happy, and why is Ashley excelling in school? Just the other day, at a parent-teacher conference, Ashley's teacher called her a terrific student and concluded by saying to Bonnie, "You will be seeing great things from Ashley" -- and to Bonnie's way of thinking TV is one of the reasons why. As she said after the conference, "I have friends who think it's terrible that I let my kids eat candy, that I let my kids watch TV, that I don't have a lot of rules, but I'll tell you what: Set my kids and their kids in the same room and see who's better behaved. They're really, really sweet kids. And a lot of these parents who try to do everything right -- no TV, lots of reading, lots of rules, trying to do everything perfectly -- let's face it. Their kids can be real pains in the neck."
The smell of melting butter and brown sugar fills the kitchen. On the Hitachi, the convenience store clerk is on the ground, bleeding, yelling for help.
"I think they're doing good," she says of her kids. "I don't think TV has corrupted them at all. Who knows, you know? We won't know for 15, 20 years. But right now, they seem okay."
3:20. Time to go pick them up.
Once, last year, when Ashley was in first grade and Steven was still at home, Bonnie decided to let Ashley walk to school, just as she had done when she was a child growing up. That's when she lived in Wheaton, in a split-level, in a time when she and everyone else felt absolutely, unquestionably safe. Year after year she would walk to school, walk home at lunch time to eat a peanut butter sandwich and watch "The Donna Reed Show," walk back to school, walk back home. The first day Ashley did this, though, the very first day, she came home with a note alerting parents that a man in a van had been seen loitering near certain bus stops, taking photographs of little children. So that was the end of that. For some reason the world has changed, Bonnie says, although she doesn't think the reason is TV.
The kids run in and plop down at the kitchen table. At this time of day, the decision about what to watch on the Hitachi is theirs, and they switch to Daffy Duck as they dig into the cereal-and-pretzel mix.
Another day, they decide to stick with "Maury Povich." "That lady is so skinny you can see her bones," Ashley says as the camera focuses on a woman who is almost skeletal.
"That lady has an eating disorder," Bonnie says.
"What's an eating disorder?" Ashley asks.
And so, because of TV, Ashley and Steven learn about eating disorders.
Later, they watch "Beverly Hills, 90210," in which the plot revolves around a boy who forces himself on a girl.
And so Ashley and Steven learn about date rape.
Eleven o'clock comes. Time to turn off the Zenith, according to the new rule of the house. The night before, Ashley cried when Bonnie did this -- "It's not fair," she yelled -- but this night, in the darkened room, Bonnie sits on the edge of the bed and traces her fingers over her children's faces in light, lazy circles, and soon their eyes are shut.
And so Ashley and Steven learn to go to sleep without TV.
THIRTY YEARS AGO: Bonnie is small. The TV is black and white. There is one TV in the entire house, no cable, no remote, no VCR, just a TV in the corner of the living room with an antenna on top and Red Skelton on the screen, and Bonnie is laughing so hard she is rolling around on the carpet. She is allowed to stay up as late as she wants, and watch as much TV as she wants, and there has never been a happier child.
Thirty years later: Ninety-eight percent of American households have TV, according to Nielsen Media Research; 66 percent have at least two TVs; 77 percent have at least one VCR; 62 percent get cable; and TV is under scrutiny by everyone from politicians who are proposing ratings for TV shows and video games, to academicians and sociologists who produce study after study about its dulling effects on developing brains, to a group of 20 worried women who come together one evening at an elementary school in Silver Spring, not far at all from the neighborhood where Bonnie grew up.
Bonnie isn't among them. Bonnie, in fact, would never go to such a meeting, and neither would Steve, who says of such things, "These people who get so rabid, they should be taking it easy." The women, though, feel exactly the opposite. Members of a loosely organized group called the Mothers Information Exchange, they have come to hear about the effects of TV from Amy Blank, who is with the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV, an organization that monitors children's programming on area TV stations. All of the women have children. All see TV as something to be concerned about. Several of the women go so far as to say they feel truly afraid of what TV might be doing to their children, and what they hear over the next 90 minutes doesn't make them feel any less anxious.
"As we'll learn this evening, we have an incredible relationship with that box over there," says Blank, an edge of direness in her voice, motioning toward a TV that is hooked up to a VCR. "We can't remember when we didn't have it in our lives. That's really profound. We don't have people in our lives this long, some of us. We've had this thing in our lives all our lives. It's incredible."
She asks the women how many TV sets they own.
"We have five."
"We have four."
She asks how many hours a day the TVs are on.
"Oh God, this is embarrassing."
"Are you including Barney videos?"
"Do you have to include your husband?"
She turns on the TV and shows a videotape, in which the announcer says that "in a typical television season, the average adolescent views 14,000 instances of sexual contact or sexual innuendo in TV ads and programs."
She turns on an opaque projector and shows a chart that says: "Most children will see 8,000 murders and 10,000 acts of violence before they finish elementary school."
"They won't do any other thing, other than eat or sleep, that many times," she says. "That's what we're teaching them. It's okay to kill 8,000 people. It's okay to hurt or maim 10,000 people. It's okay. TV does it, so it's okay."
She shows another chart of what parents should do, a list that includes limiting the amount of time children watch TV.
"I think we're seeing tremendous effects on our kids and on our society," she says. "I mean, we're a broken society. We really are. We're struggling. There's so much incredible pain out there. And many of us just don't know where to hide, and don't know what to do.
"I want to show you one last thing," she says, and on the TV comes a clip from "The Simpsons," a show she detests so much that, earlier in the evening, when one of the mothers said she thought "The Simpsons" could be funny at times, she said, "Bart should be shot."
This clip, though, she likes. It is of Marge Simpson, the mother, writing a letter to a TV station.
"Dear Purveyors of Senseless Violence," she begins.
"I know this may sound silly at first, but I believe that the cartoons you show to our children are influencing their behavior in a negative way. Please try to tone down the psychotic violence in your otherwise fine programming.
"Yours truly, Marge Simpson."
"Dear Valued Viewer," the station manager writes back. "In regards to your specific comments about the show, our research indicates that one person cannot make a difference, no matter how big a screwball she is."
"I'll show them what one screwball can do!" Marge says to that.
Blank snaps off the TV.
"Well," she says, "I don't think any of us are screwballs," and with those words and the vision of 8,000 murders in their minds, the women head off into the darkness of prime time.
Meanwhile, back in Gaithersburg, where the Delmars are watching TV, life is as untroubled as usual.
Thursday, 8 p.m. Time for "The Simpsons." But it's also time for "Mad About You," which Bonnie, Steve and Steven want to watch, so Ashley goes back to her room by herself.
She turns on her TV. She sits at her desk, takes out some paper and pastels and starts to draw. Five minutes go by. Ten minutes.
On the screen, a character named Krusty the Klown is reciting a limerick: "There once was a man from Enis . . ."
Now Bart is sticking the leg of a chair in the garbage disposal, turning it on and riding it like a bronco.
Now he is talking about how something "sucks."
But Ashley doesn't notice. She is completely involved in getting what she sees at the moment in her mind down on paper. She draws some white clouds in a blue sky. Now she draws a flower with blue petals and a pink center, and now she writes under the flower, "This is Steven."
She puts down her pastels, looks at what she has done, holds it up, explains the title:
"I think he looks like a flower."
She runs out to the kitchen table and climbs onto the lap of Bonnie, who is, of course, busy watching TV, but not so busy that she can't give her daughter a hug, and in this way another evening passes by. Around 9, Ashley lies on the floor in front of the TV and does her spelling homework. At 10, she is back on Bonnie's lap. "I love you," she says to Bonnie as 10:30 comes and goes. "Kiss me."
SOMETIMES, Bonnie says, she thinks her life could be a TV show, although she isn't quite sure what kind of show it would be.
She knows it wouldn't be a drama, she says, not yet anyway, because not enough dramatic things have happened, at least not directly to her. There have been friends with cancer, friends with bad marriages, friends who have suffered all kinds of traumas, but the only drama in her own life came a few years ago, when she found herself engaged in an escalating internal dialogue about mortality. For reasons she is still unsure of, she would make a dentist's appointment and wonder if she would live long enough to go, or she would buy milk and wonder if she would make it through the expiration date. Finally, in tears one day, she told her mother about this, and gradually the thoughts went away, bringing an end to a time that was certainly interesting, Bonnie says, and even momentarily disturbing, but hardly the stuff of TV.
So it wouldn't be a drama, she says, and neither would it be a talk show. There is, of course, plenty of talking in the Delmar house, but it's the talk of any family rather than of TV. The phone rings. It's Steve. "Hi," Bonnie says. "What time will you be home?" At the table, Steven takes a big bite out of a sandwich. "Chew carefully," Bonnie says. "Peanut butter can make you choke." There are, on occasion, longer, deeper, more philosophical discussions, but those too are internal dialogues that usually come into her mind late at night, when everyone is asleep except Bonnie, who's trying one more time to go to sleep without being lulled there by TV. "I think that's the reason I have to have the TV on," she says. "If it's not on, I think. I think, I think, I think." About: "Everything. I know this sounds weird, but I think about ways the economy could be solved. Really. I think about NAFTA. I think about how my life could be better. I think about TV. It's an intense thing. I won't think about one solution, I'll think about 20. I get into all these ideas, and then I think I'll write a letter to Bill Clinton, or to Dear Abby, or someone else. And then . . . then I'll think no one wants to hear what I'm thinking, so I'll just turn the TV on, and eventually I'll drift off.
"That's the thing about TV," she says. "You don't have to think."
So: not a drama, not a talk show.
Obviously, then, it would have to be a situation comedy, which Bonnie says is fine with her because, after all, "isn't everybody's life a sitcom kind of life?"
True enough, a lot of what goes on at the Delmars' seems exactly that. Days almost always begin brightly and end with hugs, and in between there's no telling what exactly will happen.
Like the time Bonnie went out to mow the lawn, got on the rider mower, started picturing Eddie Albert "bouncing on that tractor" and began singing the theme song to "Green Acres." Not once did she sing it, not twice, but over and over, for more than an hour, until she realized the kid across the street was looking at her like she was from another planet. Which is why whenever she has mowed the lawn since, she has hummed.
Or how about the time she was actually on TV? It was right after Ashley was born, and she had to make a fast trip to the grocery store. She grabbed a sweat shirt out of the dryer, hurried through the store with her baby and was in line to pay, thinking how big and unattractive she must look, when she noticed the checkout guy kind of smiling at her. How nice, she thought, suddenly feeling better about herself. "And then I came home and realized I had a pair of underwear and a sock stuck to my back," she says. "Static cling. I had walked through the whole store that way. Well, okay, I can handle that. But the next week one of the local TV stations had some cameras in the store, and they asked if they could talk to me and film me walking with my baby, and I said sure, and I'll bet all the Giant people were watching that night, and the checkout guy said, 'Hey! That's the lady who had the underwear stuck to her back!' "
So: a situation comedy.
" 'Life With the Delmars,' " Bonnie says it could be called, and it would have four characters:
"He'd be hard-working," she says. "He'd be a character who's in and out, one of those characters where you don't see too much of him, but funny. And fun."
"Kindergarten student. Enthusiastic. Mischievous. Rambunctious."
"Definitely precocious. She'd act like a teenager, a teenager wannabe. Stubborn. Funny."
And the mom.
"Let's see," she says. "Who am I?"
She thinks. Thinks some more. Can't come up with a description, so she thinks instead about who might watch such a show.
"I'd watch it," she says.