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Essay

Childhood Unplugged

Why I missed the 1980s, and other traumas that don't really matter.

January 22, 2006|Jessica Gelt | Jessica Gelt is a researcher at the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

My mother kept our tiny television set in the hallway closet. My father couldn't stand the sight of it. Other modern amenities conspicuously missing from my childhood home were: a VCR, a dryer, a microwave, an answering machine, a computer, an air conditioner (we lived in Tucson) and a shower, in the traditional sense.

I lacked what other children took for granted; this became clear when I turned 7 and would walk down the street to my friend Stephanie's house, which, in my mind, operated like a 21st century theme room in Epcot Center. There I gorged myself on Coca-Cola and Twinkies, listened to Madonna and Bananarama on a giant boom box, played Goonies on her new Apple computer and watched "Family Ties" and reruns of "My Favorite Martian."

On school nights my mother picked me up at 8 o'clock sharp and walked me back to the modest, candle-lit medieval enclave we called home. There I settled into my wooden rocking chair and listened to my father read "Huckleberry Finn" and other classics. At bedtime, I filled a gallon jug with hot water from the bathroom faucet and used it to wash my face. My parents saved the excess water for the plants.

In the morning, my father woke the family by playing classical music or jazz on the living room stereo. Our shower consisted of a small plastic head with a lever. It drizzled water when you held down the lever, but when you soaped up or shampooed you'd stand shivering in the tub until your hands were free. As a rebellious teenager, I tried to secure the lever with rubber bands to approximate my friends' luxurious Water Pik massage-ready showerheads.

After a breakfast of cornmeal mush or oatmeal, which the whole family ate together, my parents headed for work, my mother on her bike and my father on foot. He dropped me off at the bus stop on his way to the office, handing me a crumpled brown paper lunch sack, recycled from yesterday's lunch, complete with a bagel sandwich and a natural juice drink.

My parents went to college in the '60s, but weren't part of the counterculture associated with that era. They met in Natick, Mass., when my 10-year-old father was my 12-year-old mother's paperboy. Their parents were sturdy blue-collar workers who moved to the suburbs to secure a more comfortable life for their children. When my mother graduated from college she moved to Kaibeto, a community within the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where she taught school. A year later she married my father. They lived in Philadelphia for six months while he finished graduate school, and then they both moved to the reservation. That's where my brother and I were born.

I can't easily explain why my parents feel so strongly about conservation, or why they continue to shun certain technologies, but my father tells a story that, I believe, marks the beginning of his transformation from a naive kid to a moderately iconoclastic adult. He had just started business school at Northeastern University when he began taking nighttime walks to Boston Harbor. Between walks and classes he read "Notes from the Underground" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book changed his life and opened his mind to an untapped realm of intellectual and spiritual possibilities. He switched his major to English.

His love of the written word was matched by my mother's, and they passed it on to my brother and me. "No matter how alone you may feel, you can open a book and discover that others before you have gone through the same things," my father told us as children. "That's the great joy of literature."

I took these words to heart, and when my fifth grade teacher offered personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut to kids who wrote book reviews for class, I read "The Catcher in the Rye," "Animal Farm," "The Metamorphosis," "A Night to Remember," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Hiroshima." I ate a lot of illicit pepperoni pizza that spring.

Until then I had been an unusual kid--I wore thrift-store clothes, sometimes came to school with a fake cast on my arm in order to get attention and occasionally sprayed my hair bright orange in homage to Cyndi Lauper--but toting Kafka in my back pocket at age 10 made me a bona fide nerd. I switched to a different school several weeks into sixth grade and soon cast my lot with the trench coat-clad, purple-haired, pierced crowd.

I began to rail against my parents' lifestyle. At 15, instead of starting a college fund, I bought a car with the money I had earned baby-sitting. My father named the sallow green 1974 Mustang II the "Reed Mobile," after the college I wanted to attend at the time. He said I had chosen the Reed Mobile over Reed College. While other teens rebelled by breaking curfew and doing drugs, my brother and I went wild with Hungry Man Salisbury steak dinners and violent B horror films such as "I, Madman."

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