On our off day, everything is turned off
What has become of Sunday mornings? I recall the Sundays of my childhood as oases of calm, the quiet broken only by the pealing of church bells. Both of my parents were home, we kids were allowed to sleep a little later, and the TV was dark, cold, and silent. Almost nobody worked on a Sunday back then, so there was no roar of traffic. Most stores were closed, and so there was no rush to get anywhere. Sunday was the week's "off" switch, truly a day that afforded one the time and space to rest, catch up, and recharge for the week ahead.
How times have changed. Now Sunday is, by and large, like any other day. No longer a day of rest for many people, it sports ample traffic. As for the blue laws that kept stores closed, they have largely evaporated, offered up on the altar of consumer "choice." The mall, in short, rules.
But the most dramatic change must be the explosive invasiveness of the media, especially television. In my 1960s childhood, we had four broadcast channels and the fledgling, grainy National Educational Television. Today there are hundreds of channels, most of them shouting in desperate bids to grab the viewers' attention, Sunday mornings notwithstanding.
When I adopted my first son, Alyosha, in 1993, I thought it an appropriate juncture for a change of pace in my home. Like any other 7-year-old, he was easily seduced by the flash, dash, and crash of television. I allowed him a modest dose during the week and on weekends, but one Sunday I steadied his hand as he went for the TV knob. He looked up at me with something resembling panic in his eyes. But rather than deliver a lecture, I wrestled him to the floor and he responded in kind. Somewhere between a tickle and a hug, I reached for a book, and we spent a completely satisfying hour paging through "Captains Courageous." This was followed by pancakes, which we made together; coloring, which he did in solitude; and a game of catch in the backyard. Before we knew it, noon had arrived and I turned my son loose to pursue his own interests.
It was the beginning of electronic-media-free Sunday mornings in our home.
I must admit that I was surprised at how well Alyosha stuck with the program. One Sunday, when he was 12, he stumbled out of bed and drifted over to the TV. As I looked on, he paused, said "Oh, I forgot," and then poured himself a bowl of cereal. He had clearly grown to expect Sundays to be free of TV, radio, computers, and music players. The result was that the air was clearer and space had opened up for us to think creatively about how a father and son can interact without the mediation or background racket of electronics.
All of this reminded me of a summer I spent in Iceland before I became a father. At that time, 1983, Iceland had only two TV stations. And there was no transmission on Thursdays, a national "TV holiday." When I asked my Icelandic host about the reasoning behind it, he told me that it was a public policy designed to encourage families and friends to spend time together. (This social purism no longer reigns in Iceland, but I thought it an excellent idea at the time.)
When Alyosha was 16, I adopted a second boy, Anton, from Ukraine. Having come from the austere environment of an orphanage, I saw the look in my new 5-year-old's eyes when he spotted our TV - with its exotic images - quacking away. He was captivated, and I did not want to lay down too many laws right off, so I gave him some slack. Then Sunday dawned. How would I handle this? Anton had bonded with our TV, and he didn't speak English.
As he moved toward the black box in his pajamas, his eyes sparkling with anticipation, I braced myself to deliver my first cautionary message to my new son. At that moment, Alyosha rose from the kitchen table and gently placed his hand on his little brother's as he reached for the "on" button. Firmly but lovingly, he delivered four well punctuated words that still ring in my memory: "Anton - Nyet - Sunday - televisor."
Anton threw his brother a worried look. I perched, ripe for intervention should he begin to cry, but I needn't have worried. Alyosha quickly eased the impact of his message by wrestling Anton to the floor, then reaching for a book to cuddle around.
I am still amazed by what one solitary morning of peace will bring.