Television Worth Watching
by Michael Ray Laemmle
I'm the type of guy whose father used to
beat the living shit out of the family dog.
It sounds rough, but don't be too terribly shocked or indignant, it
wasn't all that bad. For crying out
loud it's not like he beat us kids—just Rex, or Sparky, or Oscar, or
Barney—we never had one dog for very long.
But it's not as if my father beat them to death. He just gave them, as he put it, "a
good ass-kicking." What that dog
needs is a good ass-kicking, he used to tell us. Who knows? Maybe all an
animal understands sometimes is a good ass-kicking. My father didn't hate animals, he wasn't sadistic or
brutal. He just got sick and tired of
being the only one willing to clean up their dog messes in the back yard. He used to say, "Sure we can get a
dog, but I'm not going to be the one stuck cleaning up dog shit all the
time. I'm not signing onto
that." So us kids would make up
a schedule carefully written on notebook paper. We showed it to him.
See, we said, Daryl cleans up dog mess on Mondays, Wednesdays belong
to Robert, Sally on Fridays and myself on Sunday, the Lord's Day. After church I was to come home and clean
up dog mess. What's the big deal? Take a little garden shovel, slide it
under the stool—hopefully it's good and dry—lift it into a paper or plastic
bag, dispose of in the nearest receptacle.
Take your church clothes off first, Mom would say, because of the
dirt. It could get all over your
Sunday best. It was a different time
back then. Instead of training the
dog to just crap in some corner of the yard nobody used we let it do its
business all over the place. Then
we'd scamper around cleaning it up, at least theoretically, running all over
the place searching out piles of turd like it was Easter Egg Season. Pet training techniques were different
then, knowledge was scarce, the Internet had not been invented. We could have kept our dog in a kennel,
let him out when he needed to go potty, then lead him to a corner at the edge
of our property, patting him on the head when we approved of where he made
his mess. But we didn't know any
better. We used to rub their noses in
their own pool of urine when they peed in the house, beat them about the
haunches with a rolled up newspaper—but outside it was fair game, drop your
dookie at leisure, willy-nilly in the grass.
We treated goddamn animals better than we treated people. That's what my Dad used to tell us. "You treat goddamn animals better
than you treat a person." Then
he'd beat the shit out of our pets for awhile. In retrospect I'm glad he did it, though at the time I wept
with terror, impotency, fright and confusion. If he hadn't delivered a pretty sound beating to our pets I
never would have been able to write this story. Suffice to say we kids never stuck to our dog mess schedule. Somebody got lazy first, usually by the
second week, then everybody followed suit.
Dog shit piles up real quick, we learned. Eventually Dad steps in some, then all Hell breaks loose.
But it was always the same cycle,
again and again. We'd ask for a dog,
Dad would say yes if we cleaned up its crap.
We made up our schedule and presented it while Dad was watching
television. Dad wouldn't mute it,
he'd just take our schedule in hand, glance his eyes over it, hand it back,
then go back to watching some crime drama, a bad science fiction film, a news
program. We'll go to the pound this
weekend, he'd say, or find an ad in the paper from somebody giving away
pups. There was no further
discussion. Maybe that's why our
schedule system never worked. We
never came up with an enforcement mechanism.
Dad didn't really try to impose one, not while cable was on, and cable
was always on. We were too poor to
have weekly allowances— perks were few and far between— so there was little
incentive to keep scooping up turds.
Dad couldn't say, "I'm taking your allowances away!" There was only, "I'm not going to
clean up its shit." Dad, if he
was going to make ultimatums prior to us getting a dog, probably should have
enforced them, or known by the seventh or eighth time we couldn't be trusted
to hold up our end of the bargain.
But he always gave in. Why is
still a mystery—did it have to do with the programming he watched? Did it cloud his judgment? Did the television push him into some kind
of meditative state that made him more amiable, or make the realities of pet
ownership seem obscure and distant?
This was the old days and basic cable was much less varied. No History Channel, no Discovery, no
Animal Planet. HBO was terrible. All
it aired were reruns of the Police
Academy series. Sometimes they
would play the original Rambo movie: First
Blood. Rambo was a Vietnam
Veteran. He had come back from the
Jungle and didn't have a place to call home.
He wandered from town to town, a drifter. He had to kill a few small town cops before he got the respect
he deserved. This was how an entire
generation was introduced to the complexities of the Vietnam War, its social
ramifications for the folks back home.
My family even had a dog named Rambo, a real mutt with
He used to chew through the screen door, gnawed holes in all our patio
furniture, chewed on the cable wires—that might be why Dad kicked his ass a
lot. Gave him a full strength kick
right in the gut once—I watched it in horror. He almost died from internal organ complications. The veterinarian said Rambo had suffered
kidney trauma. Must have been from
all the screen door he ate, Mom said, or our garden hose, sharp bits of which
we found in his stool. The vet looked
at us all suspiciously. She may have
thought otherwise. Maybe she knew
somebody had kicked the shit out of old Rambo, a full-on punt kick, tried and
Violence begets violence. Long after I had witnessed my father's
punt kick I myself took Rambo into the back shed and boxed him around a
little bit. He kept trying to escape
but I held his shivering body tightly in my arms. I'd pet him, make him feel secure, scratch his head and calm
him down—he was a big dog, could be pretty mean too, but he was scared just
the same, you bet. He'd stop shaking
and whimpering, relax, start to pant and salivate, trusting me again. Then I'd box him around a little more. This went on through several cycles. I was so very angry with him. See, I thought he'd eaten one of my G.I.
Joe action figures, Snake Eyes—he was a collector's item, a skilled ninja
trained in the lethal use of a variety of weapons—he had a Kung-Fu grip. He battled Cobra Commander's forces and
was a sworn enemy of tyranny. I knew
Snake Eyes couldn't have gotten up and walked away on his own two feet. That's why I thought Rambo must have eaten
him, the way he ate everything else.
Weeks later I found Snake Eyes underneath the family couch. Mom was vacuuming, moving around the
furniture, and I saw him laying there embedded in the plush carpet. He was situated just so as to be out of
reach of my child's arms. A wave of
guilty nausea rippled through me. I
wanted to apologize to Rambo, but how does one say sorry to an animal? What sense does it make? About as much as taking one's vengeance
out on one, to be sure. Eventually
Dad took Rambo to a dog farm, up in the mountains. Could we visit him sometimes?
No we can't. Ten years passed
before I suspected Dad had put Rambo to sleep. And by that I mean murdered him—peacefully of course,
clinically. The veterinarian's
professional hand was involved in some way, or so I suspect. I never asked Dad if he'd murdered Rambo,
even when I became a father myself.
"Mom," I once asked,
though, during a phone call to my mother, "did Dad actually take Rambo
to a dog farm?"
"I don't know," Mom
said, "I just don't know."
"Sounds pretty unlikely to
"Well he never told me
anything different, I think there was a dog farm up in the Jemez. Dad did
know some people who operated one."
"Really? I was sure Dad had Rambo
"I honestly don't know what
happened to Rambo, honey."
"Mom," I said, tears all
of a sudden bursting from my eyes in a torrent, unexpected, unannounced—"Mom—,"
I sobbed, sniffling, snot pouring from my nostrils, "I used to box Rambo
around real good, Mom—I thought he ate Snake Eyes."
later my kids and I packed into the living room, turned the lights down low. Never had a night of television been so
worth watching. Where's Mom? In the kitchen making popcorn. Smell its rich buttery topping? Hear the percussive sound of a thousand
airy combustions lightly tapping against the kettle? Taste the saliva squirting into your mouth
as your mind anticipates flavor, softness, crunch, deliciousness? Life is good, we share its goodness. Who wants soda? We all did. Who wants
the generic soda I saved twenty-two cents a can on? Nobody. I'll drink the
cheap stuff, give my kids the name-brand cola in the pantry. They sure do love that name-brand
cola. Where's your mother with that
popcorn? Yes it's name-brand popcorn—I
bought it from a Boy Scout who wouldn't dare trade in generics. It's time for our program. What's on TV tonight? Family programming, it's the family
hour. Don't you see the credits? Can't you read who wrote the episode? Who did sound, wardrobe, lighting and
makeup? This is the show, we are its
guests, we are invited to partake of its sacrament, ritual, Eucharist. Every time we laugh or cry we're saying
Amen. The family that prays together
stays together. Where do prayers go
as they float up into the night? Do
they have volume and become trapped in our rooms like a gas, or slip through
our ceilings like a ghost, like those quantum particles that pass through
Earth every day? Does the wind tear
them apart, scatter them over fields, over neighborhoods? Do shattered bits of them land like
snowflakes on the shoulders of men, women and children we do not know? Do they smile for reasons they're not
aware of? Do the prayer-particles
seep through their clothes, their pores, travel through their circulatory
system, become lodged in their heart or brains, compacted into the fatty
buildup which cakes the lining of their arteries? Could they cause a stroke, or induce euphoric feelings of
brotherhood? Yes, yes—watching
television is some kind of religious ritual—not an original thought by any means,
but poignant all the same. We are a
family of man, a network of individuals, connected to one another through
shared meanings, meaning is the domain of religion. Want to know your father?
Know him through television.
Nobody gets to the father except through it.
Ah, Mom, my wife, arrived with
that freshly popped popcorn. It tasted
as delicious as it smelled. We all
sat around the tube munching the stuff, drinking soda. Ice clanked against glasses, there was
much fizzing. I put my arm around my
love, the mother of my children. We
kissed. We were a family. The program was about a pair of dogs. The family had moved under some very hasty
circumstances, from a small Midwestern town to a suburb in California. The Company had moved and Dad had to move
with them. His job was at stake, the
family's financial security at risk.
He was an aeronautical engineer, or some such middle-manager—maybe a
football coach. Regardless, he had to
wear a suit to work. It was moving
day and all was in chaos. Dad wanted
to stick around and wait for the pets, but they couldn't wait any longer. Awww, Dad, what the heck? The kids were crying—they couldn't leave
Scruffy and Ruff-Ruff, or whatever their names were. Scruffy and Ruff would never leave any of
us behind. Can't we just wait a
little while longer? No, son, we
can't. See, sometimes this particular
pair of dogs they owned would go missing for days, this being the
Midwest. There were lots of open
spaces and a couple of adventurous canines could ramble round a week before
coming back. Dad said they'd have the
neighbors keep an eye out, then when the dogs showed up they could be boxed
up and shipped out to California. In
truth we the viewer knew what happened to the dogs. They had chased after a rabbit who narrowly escaped. But before ducking down into its hole the
rabbit had led the dogs damn near two miles from the house. In the thrill of the hunt they had lost
the trail back home. Temporarily of
course, but time was of the essence.
They didn't make it back in time.
They came by later and saw the
moving men though, packing up everything in the house. The dogs barked, unknowing. The movers, having not been notified their
clients had dogs, chased them off.
Big bad movers. Shaved heads,
big muscles. Fascists of a kind. At least insensitive. But what were they supposed to do? They had a job that needed doing, and they
were there to do it—they couldn't be scared off by a couple of mutts. Two of the movers were white men, a third
was American Indian. The two white
men were the ones who yelled and screamed.
The Indian chastised the other two for being so unkind towards
animals—see, he had a kinship with beasts, soulful, or so one was given to
understand. It's funny how an
American Indian can never be a bad guy in a family movie these days, never
raise his voice in anger at an animal.
The dogs ran off, and doggone it if they weren't somehow going to make
their way to California. How they
knew to go westward the movie didn't explain. How they knew to go almost a thousand miles west was still less
clear. But they had many adventures
along the way. One of the dogs even
got a snout full of porcupine quills, how about that? They met an angry grizzly bear who later
took them on as her own cubs. She had
lost hers to trappers and only had to satisfy her maternal instinct. After many adventures together the dogs
got away from her, but it wasn't sad because it was time. There comes a natural stage of life when a
mother grizzly sends her cubs off and doesn't expect them to turn back, or
even to look over their shoulders sentimentally. Go on, she said, I was your mother once but that has no bearing
now. Very wise, those bears. Later the dogs came to be uncannily
enslaved by the same trappers who had killed the grizzly's cubs. They were cruel, but the dogs
escaped. One trapper fell into the
water, another burned his hand on hot campfire coals. It was all very slapstick. Those trappers sure got theirs. Why the hell trappers were out there in
the middle of nowhere in the New Millennium is beyond me. Maybe they just spliced some clips in from
some other animal journey film, or an episode of The Man From Snowy River, deducing, probably correctly, that
nobody would question the anachronistic footage, or wouldn't give a damn
night I sat on the toilet, saying my prayers. Don't worry, I wasn't taking a shit or anything. The lid was down. Why was I in the bathroom? Well why not? It's peaceful as hell, smells rather sterilized—if one keeps a
good house—and nobody bothers you because they assume you're taking a
shit. Or flossing, I don't know. I always assume somebody is taking a shit
if they're in the bathroom—but for all I know they're popping whiteheads or
praying like myself. I prayed to
Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Ghost.
I don't believe in any of that religious bunk, not really, but I still
get a lot of satisfaction from prayer.
It just feels right, eh Jesus?
For better or worse, Jesus and gang have been internalized in my
psyche as people requiring regular address, care, devotion, and attention. Once in a while I think, Maybe, just
maybe—Jesus, are you really out there?
Yes, a voice returns. Jesus,
is it really you? I say. I'm not
repeating myself, he says, and leaves.
Usually I never hear from him again.
Dear Jesus, I pray—knock, knock!—Are you in there, honey, I want to
brush my teeth? My wife. "Yes I'm in here dammit!—use the kid's
Seeing the film reminded about all
the dogs I loved as a child, and the emptiness each one left in my heart
after we got rid of them. I want my
prayers to reflect that emptiness.
Dear Jesus, remember to feed Barney the generic dry stuff, for some
reason he likes that better than the expensive mush from a can. Forgive him for jumping through the living
room picture window when we came home from Midnight Mass on Christmas
Eve. He just dove through. Couldn't see it or something, not in all
his excitement—he was glad we were home.
I can't remember if Dad gave him a pretty sound beating at the
time—it's likely, but I can't remember.
Maybe when we'd all gone to bed he snuck out of his room and took him
out back to the shed and gave him a real good ass-kicking. Because Dad was real angry, that was
certain. "Goddamn dog," he
said as he paced around the living room, "jumping through the goddamn
window. I ought to give that dog a
good ass-kicking." And Jesus
please feed Oscar and Cindy. They
spent a lot of time inside our home on newspaper, enclosed within a little
fort we made for them with cardboard.
It was pretty close to the kitchen.
The papers got all pissy and nasty from their feces. Us kids didn't change those papers
much. In fact I never changed them
once, and my day was Sunday.
"Smells like a goddamn kennel in here," Dad used to say,
"treat a goddamn dog better than you treat a person." And God bless little Maggie, our
Chihuahua—seemed like she was always wearing that sanitary napkin that we
rarely changed, and was always scraping her bleeding genitals along the
carpet. That dog was always in
heat. The rest of the family went to
Seattle for two weeks, and Dad called us on the phone. "Maggie ran away. She may very well have been eaten by
coyotes. They could likely smell her
menstrual blood." We were
skeptical though, because just weeks after we had gotten her Dad had said,
"I'm always the one changing that menstrual pad, picking up her shit in
the backyard—treat a goddamn animal better than you treat a human, that's
what goes on around here. One of
these days I'm going to give that dog a good ass-kicking."
That night after I said my prayers
from the toilet, I had a dream about an incident from my youth. This was back when Dad had to run the
cable for the living room television from my parents' bedroom down the hall
past us kids' rooms into the receiver on the living room set. There were three of us boys in my room,
lots of horseplay. We were always
running out of it without thinking, our foot would slip so neatly under the
cable cord, and we'd yank the hell out of it, pull it out of the living room television,
bending the connector all out of shape, the TV picture immediately turning to
loud, cacophonic snow. Dad would
often be watching a show and he'd always jump up from the couch in a paroxysm
of fury. If you kicked the cord you'd
stop dead, frozen, darting your eyes down the hall toward the living room,
straining your ear to hear if the television was on. You'd hear Dad's angry footsteps marching
across the floor—maybe you'd piss your pants—who knows, maybe you'd even go
on ahead and crap 'em. I don't know
why we never taped the cord down.
Maybe it interfered with Mom's vacuuming. Once I really kicked the cord out, man. I had been playing with
Rambo, wrestling him for his chew toy.
He snagged it away and was running out of the room. I followed giving chase—just like a
tripwire man, every time—yank! I
stopped, frozen. Dad shot up from the
couch, I could hear it. "Goddamnit,"
he shouted, "can't even watch a goddamn television show in this
house." He came around the
corner, an angry giant filling the hallway, filled with unspeakable
rage. I pointed at Rambo, who was now
peaking his head quizzically out the door of the bathroom, the chew toy
hanging limply from his mouth, his eyes concerned, his eyebrows
furrowed. Funny how much personality dogs
have, the range of emotion they are capable of displaying. He wasn't terrified—yet. But he should have been.
Dad got a real firm grip on his
collar and hauled Rambo out of the bathroom, lifted him up into the air,
choking him, hanging him really. Dad
must have been made real strong from anger—Rambo wasn't small. He hung in Dad's hands, his hind feet
trying to gain purchase on the ground, his nails scraping across the linoleum
floor of the bathroom, silenced as they swished desperately across the
hallway's shag carpet. It was all
whimpers and shrieking cries, the forgotten chew toy laying on the floor. I followed Dad and dog, sobbing. Dad yanked him through the living room out
to the back door. My brothers and
sister popped out of their rooms to see what was going on. Dad wrenched open the door and kicked the
aluminum storm door with an unholy racket while struggling with Rambo, who
was trying to wrestle and twist out of his grip. Propping the door open against his leg he heaved Rambo out the
door using the collar as some kind of launching mechanism, pulling the dog's
large body up and away in a sort of bowling toss—you could almost feel
Rambo's spinal cord severing with a snap somewhere along the vertebrae. Rambo slid across the concrete of the back
porch. As he tried to steady himself
on all fours, Dad ran up behind him and gave him a full swinging pendulum
kick right between his hind legs, across the broad belly. Rambo screamed, yes screamed in shock and
pain, went ass over elbow up through the air and landed—slam!—hard on his
side. In panic he scrambled to his
feet and scampered off, limping, whimpering, tail between his legs in a
dismal fright. I was hysterical. I could hardly be consoled. Dad pointed to me with a dismissive finger
and told Mom to take me to my room and quiet me down. She grabbed me by the hand. The last thing I saw was Dad kneeling down
beside the TV, reaching his arms around it to take care of business. He pulled out the cable connector and
examined the metal tip, all bent to hell.
I don't know what program Dad had been viewing that night, but I tell
you, it must have been television worth watching.
In my dream of the incident Dad
the angry giant comes around the corner, grabs Rambo by the collar, me by the
hand, and drags us both squirming down the hall. But this time he drags us to the front door, kicks it as hard
as he can, and it explodes in a cloud of sawdust and splinters. We all three rush through the doorway into
a gorgeous sunny meadow of rolling hills, blue skies and beautiful thick
grass, well-trimmed and plush. Dad's
not angry, he's laughing! Imagine my relief. We're all skipping! Our
hair is bouncing up and down on our heads!
Rambo is leaping and running, his tongue wagging, his eyes all bright
and shiny—he's barking with joy! Dad
and I have Frisbees in our hands all of a sudden, an endless supply. We throw
them ahead of us as we run. Rambo dances around our legs, so very fast,
before shooting ahead to leap through the air and catch them. Then another Frisbee, then another. Pretty soon we all fall into a pile on the
grass, rolling around, giggling, catching our breath. After awhile we recuperate and a
full-size, well-muscled man comes strolling up to us. He has nun-chucks in his utility belt, a
dagger stored in a sheath on his chest, an automatic handgun in a holster at
his hip. "Look Dad!" I shout, "It's Snake Eyes, it's
really him." Dad gets up and
shakes his hand. Pleased to meet you
Snake Eyes, I've heard a lot about you.
"Golly Snake Eyes, whatcha doin' here?" Snake Eyes says he came to teach me a
valuable lesson. He kneels down and
puts his hand around my shoulders, looks me in the eye—I ascertain it as one
of those man-to-man moments. He tells
me that pets are a big responsibility, they take a lot of love and care. That if I feel like I'm responsible enough
to deserve a pet, it means I have to clean up after them, particularly the
shit, especially if it's a big dog like Rambo here, because big dogs have big
shits and it's a real pain in the ass cleaning it off the sole of your shoe
with a stick—or, God forbid, off Mom's shag carpet after you track it all
over the house. See, he says, a cat's
instincts drive it to bury its own waste, so you never have to worry about
stepping in a big steaming pile of it, but a dog will just take a shit
whenever and wherever it pleases him—if it's not properly trained. So pick up those shits and everything will
be all right, kid, and he punches me playfully across the jaw. "Thanks, Snake Eyes, now I know!" Snake Eyes stands up and rests his clenched fists on his hips
and bellows out a deep, hearty laugh that carries booming across the
valley. And knowing is half the
battle, he says, knowing is half the battle.
Ray Laemmle was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico; home of the atomic bomb.
After a decade-long sojourn in Seattle, New York, and other unsavory corners
of the globe, he will now spend the larger part of the year in Santa Fe, New
Mexico, where he works as a multimedia artist.