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The "Nuclear" Family in the Visual Age

The fact that I have always imagined "family" in such nuclear terms is quite profound when I consider my experience with the visual media. Television has played a key role in my growing up and continues to be a source of images that I constantly compare my own experiences to. I watched much less television than my peers did, however, I am inclined to think that my perceptions and ideas have been greatly influenced by the images there everyday. The years of my life dabble in my mind, one year fusing into the next. Although I have memories of people along the way, I relate experiences directly to them in order to remember when they occurred. Each memory I recall here remains vividly a part of me . . . a reminder of who I am.

My first memories are from the first few weeks in kindergarten. One day, when I arrived at the classroom, I could see a television set up at the front of the room. Nothing could have excited me more, especially because I didn't watch much television at my house, nor did we own a VCR. When the movie started, we all knew that it was a Disney flick, so the excitement mounted. Mrs. Winkler had decided to show us fire-safety videos with Donald Duck and his three nephews. I don't remember feeling bad until I realized that my family could die if we had a fire in our house. We didn't have any escape routes, ladders, or drafted plans. My parents had never even talked about fire, so suddenly I was in a panic that I had never experienced before. My classmates must have felt the same way because we talked about fire after the movie. Most of us didn't understand how it could be started, and the movie didn't really explain it very well. I have a little recollection of talking to my parents about the video when I got home. My mom told me that we didn't need escape plans or ladders.

I next remember all of the festivities that were surrounding the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. My uncle, Mike, was a graduate student at UCLA at the time. I recall my mother's excitement at the prospect of going to the Games and seeing an event. My dad was to stay with us while my mom went there for the weekend. I do remember watching some of the less popular events on television, hoping to spot my mom in the crowd. I was so excited when she returned because she gave me my first "real" watch, with hands. I learned how to tell time that summer with my new "Sam the Olympic Eagle" timepiece. It was one of those things that I associated with the entire Olympic Games.

The most tragic national event of my childhood was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in January of 1985. We had just finished our morning prayers and pledge when we were notified over the intercom system of the explosion. I was in one of the few classrooms that was not watching the takeoff live on television. It was so high-profile because of the female pilot, Christa McCaulif, on board. Her involvement in the public elementary school system in New Hampshire was unprecedented by any other astronaut. In the moments following the explosion, I wondered what it must be like to lose your mother like that. I think every kid who remembers that day went home from school and hugged their moms a little tighter. The television coverage of it was extensive, and the news reports of floating body parts and fuselage was very upsetting to me. I tried to envision the wreck and it made me sick to think about.

In the same way, I vividly remember George Bush's announcement on television of the Persian Gulf conflict. I was my best friend's birthday, and she was upset that her day was marked with such sad feelings. It was my first encounter with the idea of my brothers being shipped off to combat. I prayed every night that the conflict would be swift and decisive so that my family would not directly feel the effect of having family sent to fight. My brothers, Chris and Matt, were about twelve and nine years old respectively, at the time. I had visions of the conflict lasting for ten years and seeing my brothers off to Iraq. It was a scary time for me because of all of the unknowns. I thought about the kids who had to say good-bye to their families and head to some distant place, all by themselves. Some of them were going to die, and they knew it. It was sobering to think of their situation and what their families must have been feeling. I just knew that I didn't want to lose family members in such a way. The sense of loss was a prospect too great to deal with because of the relationships I have with my brothers.

In August of 1995, I packed up two trunks and few boxes an moved my life 3,000 miles from my home. I was not intimidated or shy, just a little insecure and nervous about what was in store for the next four years of my life. It was a truly monumental experience for me. I had visions of my parents taking me to my dorm, helping me unpack, and waving to me as they drove away. Unlike my dreams, I was forced to say good-bye to my father and two brothers at the airport in Reno. Only my mother could make the trip with me and she was with me for four days, while most parents only stayed for two. I was so excited to be meeting people that I paid little attention to her. On the evening before her flight was scheduled to leave Syracuse, we had a tearful, anger-ridden, conversation about the roles we would be assuming with this life change. I was mad because I felt that she was infringing upon the excitement of my new experiences. She was hurt by the fact that I wanted to be so far away from her for so long. I really believe that my perception of the college experience was most closely formed by the images I saw on Beverly Hills 90210 and Friends. The shows depicted people in their early twenties, enjoying the carefree, worry-free life. They were surrounded with their best friends and had time to worry about frivolous things like their clothes, hair, and boyfriends. I became very aware of the depiction of college, and post-college, life. No other single influence in my life was more effective in creating my ideas of college-life than those programs. I watched more television in when I was in high school, so I had pre-conceived notions of how college was going to be.

After I said good-bye to my mom that morning, I fell victim to a problem that plagues freshman girls in college. I had watched enough television to know what was defined as beautiful in American culture. I became obsessed with clothes and material things, but was also silently battling anorexia nervosa. I spent my first year in college comparing myself to characters on television. I wanted to be more thin than any of the women I saw on the sitcoms we watched in the lounge of the dorm every week. I ate about 200 calories a day for over 4 months. I exercised incessantly, and felt an eerie high when someone commented on how thin I was. This carried over into comparing myself with other girls on campus, as well as magazine and newspaper advertisements. I remember thinking to myself one morning in November of 1995 that I would weight 20 pounds more than I did for just have one ounce of self-respect . . . and it was a breakthrough. It has become my easy for me to see how silly it is to compare myself to other people. I now have the ability to watch television shows and understand that it is just that: a television show . . . .not real life! The media's definition of beauty is defined solely on physicality's, and it affects insecure, young people. It still haunts me everyday because it devastated my parents and friends, as well as my body. You never truly heal from it, you just learn how to cope.

My earlier memories were probably more influenced by what I saw others doing, than by media images. However, I am definitely a product of the visual age because I have experienced feelings and emotions that come from comparing your own experiences to the ideal lifestyles portrayed on television. My concept of family has not been radically altered my the visual media, however. I still believe that the "nuclear" family is an attainable thing . . . I live in one.

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