At the age of 45, I’m finally coming to terms with my childhood, and I owe it all to Kevin Arnold. You remember Kevin — cute kid, always seen in a green Jets jacket, has a massive crush on knee-socks-wearing, future-math-whiz Winnie Cooper?
You see, thanks to Netflix, my kids have been binge-watching "The Wonder Years" for the last few weeks. Not that I’m complaining. Unlike the theme songs to "Phineas & Ferb" and "iCarly," which trigger in me a very special sort of homicidal rage, the scratchy sounds of Joe Cocker croaking, “What would you do… if I sang out of tune” send me into an almost hallucinatory haze of nostalgia.
In fact, when the girls plop down on the couch and click the show on, I inevitably find myself drifting in from the kitchen or my home office, or wherever I’m trying to get something productive done, and gasping, “Ooh, this is the one with Paul’s bar mitzvah!” Or, “Whoa, it’s Margaret Farquhar, the girl who likes bats!” These are great shows — thoughtful, deep and funny — and they just happen to be based on the same mild, vanilla, suburban childhood that I had. (They never say where the Arnolds live, but come on. That ubiquitous Jets jacket and a reference to my hometown of Jericho make it clear that Kevin’s a fellow Long Islander.)
Because here’s the big secret I’ve been holding onto for years: My childhood was perfectly pleasant. It was also incredibly banal — driving to the supermarket with my mom, shopping for sneakers in the mall, standing on line to see "Star Wars" and "E.T." Are you nodding off yet? It’s not quite the hilarious or tragic stuff of best-selling memoirs. (Unless maybe you’re Judd Apatow.)
Now, believe me, I am very grateful for my stable upbringing, and the amount of emotional tsuris it allowed me to bypass. But in a city (New York) and a profession (writing) where colorful personal anecdotes and gripping tales of childhood resilience are a valuable commodity, I definitely come up short. Go to any cocktail party or late-night college gripe-fest and say, “Yep, I grew up on Long Island and got along with my parents,” and eyes glaze over as people brush past you to cozy up with the guy sharing cuh-razy stories about his Cousin Cooter from the Bayou, or the girl who lived off the grid with her artsy parents in Alaska (Wrestling polar bears! Eating whale meat!).
So, childhood? Eh, it’s not really one of my go-to conversational topics. Those pictures of me in with my frizzy perm — which I believe was a requirement for graduation in 1985 — are tucked away deep in my parents' basement, the chewy vowels and dropped r’s of my Long Island accent erased by sheer willpower decades ago. (When my kids beg me, “Come on, Mom, do the accent!” I have to pull out a phrase I once heard a woman yell at her husband as her baby escaped from her stroller in the middle of a housewares sale at Fortunoff’s: “Get huh awf the floo-wah!”)
But watching "The Wonder Years," which actually celebrates a plain, pleasant, vanilla childhood, got me thinking: Maybe there is some beauty in the banal. If an entire episode can be built around Kevin getting a zit, maybe there was something brave and hilarious about surviving high school in a constant cloud of Paul Mitchell hairspray, or in aimless Saturday nights spent driving to the 7-Eleven for Big Gulps in a temperamental Chevy that only played AM radio (which meant an endless loop of Wham! and Lionel Ritchie).
In an age when seven-year-olds have iPhones, it’s actually sweet to remember how I painstakingly hand-crafted weekly letters on Snoopy stationery to my pen pal — who lived one town away. Okay, maybe it’s not the wacky stuff of David Sedaris or the heart-rending memories of Jeannette Walls, but it’s something. It’s mine. And on this side of 40, I really don’t give a damn whether it makes good party chatter or not.