Life with teenage boys - and only four TV channels

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According to my children, our family lives in the Stone Age. I say they're exaggerating, but it's true that our technology is a bit archaic - no cellphones, no Xbox, no DVD player, no iPod. We do have television, but what really irks the kids is that with no cable or satellite - not even an antenna on the roof - reception is limited to four channels.

For years my children cared little about their state of electronic deprivation. The playground and neighborhood kids beckoned louder than commercials. But now that my sons are teenagers, most of their friends have TVs in their bedrooms. Sleepovers become a marathon of channel surfing. The boys have told me that four channels just won't cut it anymore.

"Mom, why can't we get a satellite dish?" asks son No. 1.

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"Read a book instead," I reply. "It's better for you."

"Mom, if we had satellite TV, we could get 600 channels," says son No. 2.

"There are more than 600 books in the public library," is my pat response.

Truth be told, the way they have maximized their viewing pleasure with our limited technology both impresses and amuses me.

We have two television sets in our basement. One is old and hooked up to rabbit ears located on our first-floor deck. On a calm day, four stations come in relatively fuzz-free. But we live in the windy hills of southwestern Wisconsin. For every calm day, we have three breezy ones, and these wreak havoc on the rabbit ears. On those days, a typical TV negotiation session between my sons goes like this: "I call I don't have to fix the rabbit ears," shouts Ben.

"I did it last time," says Zach, irritated.

"I called it," repeats Ben.

In our house, "calling" is not to be tampered with.

"Well, then I call I don't have to fix them for the next five times," retorts Zach.

"No fair," whines Ben.

Zach climbs the stairs and heads out to the deck. A few moments pass and the fuzzy TV gets even fuzzier. "Bad!" screams Ben at the top of his lungs.

Zach fiddles with the rabbit ears again, jostling them this way and that. "Really bad!" screams Ben.

Zach recrimps the foil that's scrunched around the antennae, a previous attempt to improve reception. "Good! Good!" yells Ben.

As Zach steps away from the rabbit ears, Ben screams, "It's bad again!"

Winter presented a particular problem as the boys were letting the heat out of the house by leaving the deck door open so they could hear each other scream "good!" or "bad!"

I told them the door had to stay shut and if they couldn't hear each other, they would just have to watch a fuzzy TV. Their ingenuity came through again. One day as I passed by the TV room, I heard Ben's voice crackle over a walkie-talkie. "How's that?" he asked.

"Perfect," said Zach into the radio. "The show is starting, over and out."

Our second TV has its own peculiarities. It has a built-in VCR that plays VHS movies, but gets no television reception. The power button can be turned on only by hand, not the remote. The volume button, on the other hand, requires the remote.

Lately the boys have lobbied hard for a new TV and DVD player. "It's time to join the modern world, Mom," said Zach.

"Why?" I asked, pointing to our slightly worse-for-the wear televisions. "We basically have an entertainment center right here." He was not amused.

Then the other day I was looking forward to watching a history special on public television. On this particular evening I was home alone. I made a batch of popcorn, clicked on the TV, and settled in. The music started, and the program logo came on. Then the screen went fuzzy. I couldn't see a thing. I raced out to the deck and jostled the rabbit ears. Then I raced back downstairs to check reception. Still snowy. I tried it again. And again. And again.

Finally, sweaty and out of breath from all that running up and down the stairs, I gave up and spent the next 30 minutes munching popcorn while listening to a captivating program I really wanted to see.

I wondered whether now was the time to break down and purchase a decent antenna or (bite my tongue) maybe even satellite TV. But rather than make a rash decision, I simply followed the example set by my children.

When they returned home, they found me sprawled comfortably in front of a snowy screen. "Want to watch a really cool program and share my popcorn?" I asked sweetly.

"Yeah!" Ben and Zach chorused.

"I call I don't have to fix the rabbit ears," I said immediately. The walkie-talkies came out, then the reception came in, and together we enjoyed an enthralling program.

Afterward, we clicked off the TV, had a lively discussion about the issues the show raised, and then, without any prodding, my sons each opened a book and began to read.

I think we'll keep our Stone Age television for at least a little longer.

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