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One Week of Life Outside the Box

The Chastangs turn off their four TVs and learn the value of time without movies and the Lakers.

April 30, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You think cozying up to a "Fear Factor" bucket of worms would be tough? You think being stranded on a tropical island full of neurotic, lying backstabbers would be tougher?

Those are nothing compared to this reality show: two adults and two kids living in the heart of TV land where the only rule is no television for a week. This in a society in which 98% of households have a television set and the TV is on an average of nearly eight hours a day.

Inspired by National TV-Turnoff Week last week, the Chastangs of Eagle Rock boldly went where many parents dream of, but few ever go. They pulled the plug on their household's four television sets, which range from a 6-inch portable to the 25-inch set in their living room. And for good measure, they banned videos, computer games and Internet surfing as well.

They didn't do it for money, prizes or fame. They did it to remind themselves there's a life of the mind, a life with each other, a life outside the box.

"The kids would watch television all the time if they could," says Catherine, a stay-at-home mom with a part-time scrapbooking business and the force behind the weeklong experiment. "A week with no TV is extreme for us, but I've been preparing them."

Though each family member--parents Richard and Catherine, kids Angelica, 7, and Michelle, 5, who goes by the nickname Mimi--has his or her own particular weakness when it comes to the small screen, their collective crunch time seems to be in the late afternoon (after homework is finished) and early evenings (before the nightly ritual of bath, reading and bedtime). So in those hours each weekday, the family allowed The Times to watch them not watch TV.

Day 1

Like dieting, the idea is always easier than the reality. And like a diet, the first day always seems to be the hardest.

"It's been roughest on Mimi," Catherine says. It's not television shows that she misses so much as her favorite videotapes: "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Cinderella II."

But, Catherine quickly adds, "It's been tough on me, too."

The first hours of deprivation remind Mom of a key benefit of TV. It's a reliable stopgap baby-sitter. "I couldn't even have a phone conversation today," Catherine says. "Mimi really demanded my attention all day."

The youngest Chastang attends preschool each morning until shortly after 10. After that, it's up to Catherine's patience and ingenuity to keep up with Mimi, a bright, animated youngster in pigtails. After 2:30, Mom must also handle Angelica when her second-grade class lets out. Both kids are well-mannered and have no trouble concentrating but are still kids who seem to run on the Energizer Bunny's batteries.

Catherine is pretty much on her own today. Richard, an attorney with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is on business on the East Coast and isn't expected home until close to the girls' bedtime, around 8.

It's not even 6 p.m. and the girls have already worn Barbie out--the doll has changed clothes, residences and party scenes several times over. Later, Angelica makes a bead bracelet, and Mimi practices her lowercase and uppercase letters with an alphabet puzzle. The girls then play a spontaneous game of keep the balloon from hitting the floor.

"Let's walk the dog," Mom suggests. "We have some time to kill."

Catherine takes Ginger, a frisky 1-year-old German shepherd mix from the pound. Mimi takes her scooter and Angelica walks. The brief hike takes them through the streets of their quiet hilltop neighborhood and onto a few off-road paths, where they get excited about spotting a small snake.

There's still about an hour left before bath time, around 7 p.m. It's game time. Mimi votes for "Anastasia," a game they haven't played in months. In 10 minutes, the game is over. They play again.

Like many preschoolers, Mimi loves repetition.

Want to play again? she asks.

No, Mom says.

Please?!

No. How about Chutes and Ladders?

Yeah! Angelica agrees.

It is a conversation the family will repeat in some form dozens of times during the week, with only slight variations in the suggestion of games.

Before anyone can climb up a ladder or slide down a chute, Mimi exercises her considerable veto power and pulls out a Dr. Seuss trivia game. In unloading the game, Mimi accidentally spills dozens of cards on the floor.

Another benefit of television, points out Catherine surveying the fallen cards and myriad other games spread out across the family room floor: "It's not messy."

Day 2

The dog days of a home with darkened screens are already upon the Chastangs. Angelica, who enjoys TV and videos as much as the next kid, greatly misses the CD-ROM art program that allows her to lay out and design text and photos.

Mimi misses the computer game "Madeline" and her videos.

Catherine misses the morning news programs she usually watches.

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