Painful Memories, or Learning When to Stop Watching The Simpsons

Simpsons Angry Marge TV

When I was 8 years old, I had a whole system for sneaking around to watch The Simpsons. It was a very deceptive system, riddled with lies and shame, but it proved fairly reliable. Since the statute of moral limitations with my parents has expired, I can share it now, with no guilt.

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Plan A: Travis.
Travis was a weird kid, and in retrospect I probably didn’t like him. As the years go by and my memories shrink in scope but increase in clarity, I’ve come to the conclusion that he was probably stealing from me. But he was still a friend because at the end of the day, he lived on the same block. His parents were divorced. This was the cornerstone of the Travis plan.

“What are you doing?” my mother would ask. Then I’d hesitate and look at the floor. Eye contact would destroy the plan.

“Bikes.”

“With who?”

“Travis.”

Then I would meet up with Travis, ride around to establish the veracity of the cover story, and we’d go around to his house. His dad was wiped out on parenting and always had that “I’ve been taking pulls off a pint of whiskey that I keep in my closet” look on his face. He let us watch The Simpsons. This plan had a 100% success rate, but I’d always feel like a bum when it was done, because Travis’ house never got any natural light and I had to continue avoiding eye contact with my mother when I got back.

If she had interrogated me for even one second – if she had asked “were you really riding bikes?” – I’m absolutely positive I would have gone to jail. An old-timey jail. Chain gangs and one-eyed wardens. It was a real concern. It still is.

Plan B: The Portable Television.

This requires some back story. See, toward the tail end of the 20th century, some working class people thought they weren’t working class, and they built these “add-ons” to their houses. And my parents built a new master bedroom. We kept getting ripped off by contractors and it took two years to finish. There was a bulldozer in our backyard for an entire winter.

There were no lights in that bedroom, and it was full of insulation and bags of concrete, but there was a portable television in there. I’d throw down a sleeping bag and put The Simpsons on. I’d sit right in front of the thing, because the highest volume the TV could go without bleeding down the hallway was 4. Credits had to be muted, too. I had surgical precision with the volume on that TV, and to the best of my knowledge, I never failed.

This plan didn’t fill me with slow-burning dread or needless terror at the way my neighbors lived, so it was effective. I’m pretty sure my parents never even knew there was a TV in there. But it had two disadvantages. First, I had to take very shallow breaths to catch all the dialogue, and I couldn’t laugh. Second, there was something very upsetting about being 8 years old, watching a contractor’s television, with bags of concrete for company. It felt like a window into life after an unsuccessful career in petty crime, and it robbed me of some innocence. Probably 20 or 30% of my innocence.

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I still remember watching Grandpa vs. Sexual Inadequacy on that television in the dark, ashamed of how often the word “sex” was used. I was so sad that I almost confessed to everything. I suddenly had a premonition of being 40 in that dark, unfinished room, with a bag of concrete as my pillow. I eventually terminated the plan for this reason, despite its success rate.

Plan C: Grandpa’s House.

The prep work involved in Plan C made it simply too cumbersome for prolonged viability. I had to convince my dad that I cared about my grandparents enough to visit them unaccompanied. Then I had to dangle my knees for a while, coughing through my grandpa’s haze of Camel straights, to make it seem like there was no ulterior motive. Do a couple chores. Go for a bike ride. Dig a ditch.
But after all the legwork, it was easily the most rewarding of the three plans. Because my grandpa had a tiny little guest house around back. There was a bed, a tiny refrigerator, and a swamp cooler. It was heaven on earth. I’d say I was tired, go out there, grab a Coke, and put on FOX. Every time I accomplished Plan C, I was aware that it was the best thing I could possibly be doing with my life.

Then, sometime in the middle of season 8, I got found out and it was all over. My mother, appearing long before the arranged pick up time, opened the door to the guest house. “We talked about this, didn’t we?” I was made aware of the fact that I was no longer trustworthy, and I was made aware of this with a paint stick, and the other two plans were tabled. I never watched The Simpsons again until college.

Now the show is on FXX, its old episodes syndicated properly for the first time in many years. And there’s been a marathon – a perfect excuse for people like me to dredge up dormant childhood memories, to watch something packed with relaxing primary colors and jokes that almost feel public domain now. Great, reliable comfort food. Cheaper than therapy.

I watched the marathon, and indulged in a nostalgia bender that took me completely out of reality for two days. It felt like day drinking in the Caribbean on somebody else’s nickel, and I should probably never do it again. Because I made a mistake. I did a bad thing. I kept watching as Sunday rolled into Monday. That meant watching season 9 and 10 in their entirety for the first time in my life.

Now, I’m normally against spanking, but my mother got me to quit watching The Simpsons in 1997. And I’ll be damned if that’s not the next best thing to divine providence.

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