Even in California, there isn't much to do on winter nights. For several weeks -- or months? -- I solved this problem by watching The Office.
This is not to say I watched all nine seasons, or 192 episodes, in chronological order while the dishes moldered in the sink and my son did random YouTube searches crouched in the darkness of his closet. If there was a wedding coming up, or if I was tired of Andy, I skipped ahead. And then skipped back, wondering if I was a little bit in love with Andy. About one hundred episodes in, I began to strongly identify with Angela. What a little spitfire she was! Pam was insipid in comparison. Team Angela!
"Mom?" one of the kids said, at some point. Naturally, they wondered what was going on. Night after night, I tried to explain the water-cooler politics of a small paper company in Scranton, but as they were not yet in third grade, it was uphill sledding. Eventually they grasped that Michael was the boss or "regional manager," and that Dwight was the "assistant to the regional manager" who erroneously believed himself to be the "assistant regional manager." Twenty or thirty hours in, this began to strike them as funny, or at least familiar.
"Why did Michael just say 'That's what she said'?"
"Oh, that's a joke about . . . ordering paper."
Why was I so into The Office? On one level, it was a high-quality sitcom with loveable characters, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and a spunky heroine named Angela. On another level, it was a glimpse into a world of talented, creative people having fun. The actors were having a great time. Behind the scenes, with bloodshot eyes and failed relationships, the writers were having a great time. Even the lighting crew was loving life on the set of The Office. Plus, TV sets are catered. Their complexions were glowing from sushi and laughter!
It couldn't hurt my kids to see adults at play, I reasoned vaguely. It wasn't all grocery lists and health insurance deductibles. Take heart!
By February, when my son turned eight, we were searching the web for Schrute Farm T-shirts in children's sizes -- available at keepitup&yourkidwillneverhaveagirlfriend.com.
About to click on "Buy," I paused and took a breath. This was going too far. I needed to stop marinating our household in The Office -- it was unhealthy! And, it was over. We had all gathered on the couch to solemnly watch Episode 192.
"Yeah." Pause. "That's it."
"So, what's for dinner?"
"The hell with dinner! . . . Sorry."
* * * *
After the shabbiness of Dunder-Mifflin, I pivoted to Downton Abbey. This required me to explain the British class system around the time of the Great War -- specifically why the show's most winsome character, Tom, a chauffeur who had taken up with the Granthams' youngest daughter, scandalously married her, and now lived among the family in the shadow of her death, appeared so wistful and conflicted, given his past Marxist leanings.
My daughter was having none of this and left to play with some plastic giraffes.
But my son was happy to sit on the couch, with a mug of sweet tea, and watch it with me. One night, the heartbreaking depths of his devotion to me and/or authentic period detail were revealed: I left to take a ten-minute phone call and, when I came back, asked: "What happened?"
"You know that white lady? The one that helps Lady Mary? She went to fetch something. That's all I could understand."
Spring came, and the days grew longer. Everyone got sick of Downton Abbey -- which, too, eventually betrayed us by ending. In the Christmas special, one old servant proposed to another old servant. This failed to thrill us: a good sign.
Daffodils bloomed. The kids got out their bikes. I resumed sitting in my lawn chair. But the kids were older, and I could just as well watch them play out the window.
Didn't I used to play? I think so . . .
Probably it was time to start a blog.