First Heroes: Cowboys, Parents, Television
My heroes have always been cowboys.
And they still are, it seems.
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.
-Recorded by Willie Nelson, 1980, but first released by Waylon Jennings in 1976, and written by Sharon Vaughn.
That song plays in my mind when I think of heroes. My dad took me to my first concert, Willie Nelson, in 1982 when I was twelve. At thirteen, I witnessed my second concert, Laurie Anderson, with my mom. O’ Superman, Oh Mom and Dad … They divorced in 1976, and just knowing their musical tastes I understand why. But there’s true complexity in all relationships and, while I get that my parents could not stay married, deep down I wanted a ‘normal’ family. So where else would I find normal? On TV! On television, families seemed perfect and I wanted to be there.
On The Brady Bunch I could be a fourth (brunette) sister, and on The Facts of Life I would easily have been a boarding house girl with Mrs. Garrett, and have Tootie and Natalie as my best friends. I looked a little like Molly Ringwald, who starred in the first season, and growing up in LA, I once was accused of being her by a homeless man.
I loved television and would memorize all the intro songs to my favorite shows and sing them with friends on the swing sets after kindergarten. Swinging high on the swings and singing those tunes felt a tiny bit closer to connecting. Except for the time I accidently kicked a teacher in the head who was walking by: she came too close to the entertainment. Fame did not appeal to me, it was more that I related to how family appeared, and how easily conflict was resolved in the 22 minute sit-coms or the 48 minute comedy dramas.
I fantasized about being on Eight is Enough: they could have had nine, or squeeze me into Different Strokes: (‘What you talkin’ about, Erin!’)
I would’ve been a neighbor on The Jeffersons and, although I loved Good Times, I am not sure I could have been on that show as a white girl–but I still wanted to be.
Understanding the dynamics of race, class, and social position wasn’t in my knowledge base yet–I could tell time by TV, but age-wise we’re talking six to thirteen or so, and mostly I was really lonely. In some ways I am closer to Willie’s Cowboys than I might think:
“I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter,
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long.
Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery,
From being alone too long.”
I admit that I loved the Dukes of Hazard, but even as a young girl was bothered that Daisy Mae had to wear such short shorts; I found it embarrassing. I didn’t understand critical terms like the Male Gaze or objectification, but something sat funny. I just wanted to be part of their family and perhaps drive a fast car. They were maybe the closest I got to TV Cowboys though, since Bonanza seemed too old of a show, although it was in re-runs. I can’t forget Little House on the Prairie. I loved that show and could easily have been an adopted child like Albert. Living on the land, no electricity, going to a one-room schoolhouse, playing in the dirt, I could imagine it. Especially while eating Kraft macaroni and cheese during the cozy winters of Los Angeles in 1980.
My personal Emmy would probably have to go to The Love Boat.
It was Saturday night television at its best, a hodgepodge of characters coming together to help the passengers find love on the sea. (BTW, I have no desire to be on a cruise ship in real life, ever.) My ultimate fantasy? Captain Stubbing would discover me and ask me to come on the show as Vicki’s best friend. I’d drink Shirley Temples with Isaac, play shuffleboard with Julie, complain about queasiness with the Doc, goof off with Gopher and then sit at the Captain’s table with Vicki and her Dad at dinner.
I used to think it was sad that I watched so much TV, but I now believe that it helped shape me. Eventually I could see the chimera and understand the evolution of pop culture in my brain. Loneliness is not a plague as much as a state of creativity if one is willing to wallow for a bit, process and transcend. Once I thought that TV had calf-roped me. Now I think it was really just opening doors, giving me a horse to ride into the sunset.
Erin Shafkind lives in Seattle, WA where she teaches, makes art, enjoys writing and loves taking pomegranates apart one seed at a time. Her favorite colors are red, green, and blue, although she’s partial to blue considering her house, car, and kitty all share the same hue. She still watches TV, but not as much, she also loves to walk at Seward Park, read books and magazines that are printed on paper, and wonders often about the clouds and other weather related phenomenoms. She left Los Angeles in 1988 for Northern California and later came to Seattle in 1997. She will probably stick around, practicing a little of everything and laughing whenever possible.
All images reproduced from a 2010 performance titled “My Life in Pictures”, 12 Minutes Max, On the Boards, Seattle, WA.