Solace in a World Uncolored by Pain

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By Jeff Obermiller
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 10, 2008

"Leave It to Beaver," that sugarcoated nonpareil of '50s naivete, is saving my life.

Okay, to be fair, the radiation and chemotherapy treatments are, too. But while these medical procedures leave me flat on my back like a KO'd welterweight, "Leave It to Beaver" leaves me standing like a gymnast who's executed a perfect dismount. Well, you get the picture.

"Beaver" was my favorite of the marshmallowy sitcoms when I was growing up because the stories were told from the Beaver's point of view and because he and I were, from my point of view, kindred spirits. Both of us were good-natured, happy-go-lucky, 8-year-old boys of average abilities, talents and intelligence, facing many of the same problems. Every half-hour episode featured some tiny, half-baked to lightly toasted domestic crisis or confusion, and if Beaver happened to find himself in hot water because of a misplaced report card or a failure to eat his Brussels sprouts, rest assured that by the end of the show -- after a lecture from wise father Ward, some milk and cookies served by stay-at-home mother June and a reassuring pat on the back from big brother Wally -- the crisis was resolved and Beaver went to bed a little wiser. I breathed each episode like air.

Still, when "Leave It to Beaver" ended in 1963, I don't recall mourning the loss of the show that defined white-bread suburbia so sweetly. I simply moved on to a life I imagined was very much like the one Beaver would have moved on to -- high school, college, a job, marriage and a family -- a positive and satisfying if somewhat unremarkable middle-class life.

About half a century later, however, cancer drove me back to the well-clipped lawns and sunlit, sugared streets of Mayfair and to the likable, wholesome-as-Wheaties Cleaver family.

I visualize my cancer, as Raymond Chandler once put it, like a "tarantula on a piece of angel food cake." Since this life-threatening arachnid dropped into my life, I move in a kind of algebra of "lostness," unable to factor my way out. I feel my way from doctor's office to doctor's office, from treatment to treatment, feeling awkward and dissociated, part of me hovering over and watching from above as the radiologists and oncologists, surgeons and nurses flicker and change before my eyes. And riddling the fabric of this Hieronymus Bosch-like canvas is Brecht's "alienation effect": All of my caregivers and I are "at once involved but at arm's length."

In the end, however, these illusions come off as pointless and inconsequential. I am flesh enclosing tension. I am a man with cancer. Out-of-body experiences and 15th-century Dutch painters don't change a thing.

One evening, home from a particularly trying day of treatments, my insides tightly wrapped and my chest weighted down with tension and exhaustion, I glanced over at my DVDs and noticed the toothy and utterly boyish grin of Beaver Cleaver on the cover of the "Leave It to Beaver" collection. This four-disc set of the sitcom's first season had been a gift from my oldest daughter, Katie, who'd remembered me telling her when she was a little girl that I watched "Leave It to Beaver" when I was a little boy. I'd thanked her and added the set to my collection, unopened and, for the time being, forgotten. I don't know what impulse led me to revisit the pillowy mildness of Beaver's "golly-gee" suburban kid-dom that night, but I popped in one of the DVDs.

I'm not inclined to take a chain saw to the situation comedies I watched growing up, but I harbor no nostalgic devotion to them, either. It's seared into my mental hard drive that 1950s sitcoms were bland, deep-dish fluff. Every sitcom family at that time was uniformly white and well off, complacent, clean-cut, clean-mouthed and untouched by the sour breath of reality, existing in an idealized white-picket-fence universe where people were naturally nice and problems never too painful. These were perfect nuclear families in a world without threat of nuclear war, racial unrest, sex, drugs, psychological strife or juvenile delinquency.

"Leave It to Beaver" hewed to the notion of this perfect "Fifties Family": Cardigan-wearing father Ward never worked late and never raised his voice; gardenia-fresh mother June cooked and cleaned in high heels and pearls; and popular, athletic big brother Wally always understood Beaver's "All-American boy" goofiness. Absolutely nothing there to offend your aunt or frighten the horses, and absolutely nothing there resembling what family life really was like in the '50s, either.

Nevertheless, that evening Disc 1 of the "Leave It to Beaver" collection was to me like a candygram in an intensive-care unit. I found succor in every artless word, every unaffected, deadpan delivery of lines, every mannered and stiff gesture and in each episode's homogenized sappiness. Now "Beaver" is my Must See TV, my comedic comfort food. It's as if I can't go forward without going back, without leaving the linear movement of time and taking my place, temporarily, inside a different rhythm: slow, circular, recursive. Now rarely does an evening pass without my watching a couple of episodes. I've recently added the second-season set to my DVD collection.

Eventually, though, I ask myself, why? Why "Leave It to Beaver"? What is it about this Whitman's Sampler of a television family from my childhood? Why, on those evenings I come home from treatments feeling bleary-eyed and shaken, can watching a few episodes of the serenely sanitized sitcom leave me feeling cleareyed and unflappable?

"Leave It to Beaver" rejuvenates me. I need its gentle tone and mild-manneredness, its absence of deep drama and complicated characters, and its simple, predictable, formulaic story lines, in which nothing seems to have lasting consequence. And I need Beaver's innocence, his youthful ability to trust and believe completely, his state of confused wonderment ("Gee whiz, Dad, has it always been hard on kids being kids?"), and his wholly natural, small-boy approach to life. When my cancer refuses to slow down for sentiment, "Beaver" helps me feel embraced by life, not tossed around by it.

But mainly I watch because regardless of what trouble Beaver finds himself in, his imagination always serves up a more gruesome consequence for his predicament than he ever actually suffers. From chickenpox to outwitting a bully to dealing with girls (cooties), there's nothing he can't handle with a little luck and some wholesome, homespun advice. And in the end, Beaver always sticks that landing.

It's easy to lose one's perspective in the suffocating web of cancer. I don't know if watching "Leave It to Beaver" is pathetic or liberating. But for now, I've put my faith in the idea that these stories from my childhood -- realistic or not -- possess the kind of redemptive power referred to by William Maxwell. "Stories," he wrote, "can save us." Such is the reality; such is the hope.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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