The Middle Distance 7.31.10: “Soap Opera Digest”

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Photo by Sean Cayton

When I moved, recently, and found myself without a television, I thought I had finally escaped. No longer would I arrange my days with a mid-day gap to catch my favorite soap opera. But internet technology and video streaming have kept me captive to a lifelong habit — 50 years now — of wasting away an hour every weekday with the Abbotts of Genoa City or the Hughes family of Oakdale, USA.

As The World Turns entered my life when I was six and a first-grader at TC Cherry Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Cherry School was just across the playground and a jump over a shallow ditch from our house where I took lunch each day with my mother. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk awaited on the end table next to the sofa, and I was greeted with the clean smell of starch wafting above the steam iron. My mother pressed my father’s shirts and I ate my lunch as we shared this special, private time, witnesses to courtship and seduction, adultery, pregnancy, marriage, and divorce among the denizens of Oakdale, a town where everyone was a doctor or nurse or a doctor’s wife, son, or daughter. Memorial Hospital was the center of public life and a hub of constantly swirling romantic intrigue.

The women in my teenage household sat around the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes and talking a good portion of every day, just like Nancy Hughes and her friends and daughter-in-law Lisa on As The World Turns. And I ultimately did marry a man who would become a doctor, only to find that, indeed, hospitals really were a hub of constantly swirling romantic intrigue.

Soap operas remained a constant through my 20s and 30s, though I switched allegiance to The Young and the Restless and its slightly racier dramas. When my children were young, their nap-time became my soap opera escape hour. My mother and I, living in separate cities, compared notes long distance on which characters we liked and disliked, where we thought the plot would twist next, and which women had the best hair and clothes. I passed on my affection for soap operas to my kids who became eager if closeted consumers of the most ridiculous story lines. Even now, they love to talk about Reva Shane on Guiding Light who drove off a bridge, had amnesia, joined a group of Mennonites, and was cloned in the late ‘90s.

The soaps at that moment in time were getting desperate for audiences as women had entered the work force en masse and given up their daytime leisure. Plots reached far beyond plausibility to rope in every possible viewer.

I taped my soaps on a VCR during my 40s when I returned to the work world. Nothing was better than a post-dinner glass of wine and a late night viewing of my soaps, fast -forwarding through the interminable commercials.

And in my mid-50s, over the last three years, I found myself once again having lunch each day with my mother, now in her 80s, as we watched The Young and the Restless together in her Texas house. Just as we had a half-century before, we nibbled on sandwiches as a parade of attractive, glamorous men and women glided across the screen, seducing, abandoning, rescuing, and mating with one another, leaving disaster in their tracks and us wondering what would happen next, beyond Friday’s cliffhanger.

I love the soaps. They exist on an alternate plain where men don’t grow potbellies, and nobody washes dishes or bathes the kids. Everybody looks great, all the time. Soap opera children grow up in rapid, uneven spurts, skipping over the tedious parts of childhood like school and orthodontics.

Now I watch the soaps before I go to sleep, in bed, on a laptop computer. I’ve switched back to As The World Turns as its final episode, in its 54th year on television, will air in September. This will be a final goodbye, unlike soap opera farewells which rarely stick. Even death, in soap opera land, is usually reversible. My lifelong acquaintance with the Hughes family will end and, eventually, all the remaining soaps on TV will fade from the screen.

It’s bound to happen. Nothing lasts forever. That’s the way the world turns.

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