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TV or not TV -- one family's answer

The e-mail came from Mary Usovicz, a consultant and educator, who is also the wife of Salem Mayor Stan Usovicz. But the message was not about politics. It was, rather, a revelation that some might consider downright treasonous.

''I wanted to tell you my family's secret, which has also raised many eyebrows in disbelief," she wrote.

Ah, the journalist's eyes widened. Oh, well, not really, just poetic license. But he did salivate, at least in the figurative sense. Was Salem's first family a front for the syndicate? Were they laundering money for a Middle East terrorist outfit? Worse for them, were they Republicans at heart in this Democratic region?

''My family has been without television for 10 years," she continued. Ah, some might think that's worse than the other scenarios. How could a modern American family run a household without a television set, or, as is the case today, without a TV in almost every room?

It was a recent column on the failures of our education system, including a drop in reading, that prompted Mary Usovicz to send that missive. The absence of television, she wrote, ''has made a tremendous difference in Stan and my love of books, which also has trickled down to my children."

Such an admission in this day and age mandated a call to the Usovicz household. Indeed, she confirmed verbally what she had written. When their son, Stash, now 10, was less than 2 years old, their television set, a portable black-and-white, ''blew up one day," she said. All right, so she had exaggerated a bit. They've been about eight years without a TV, not 10. Well, technically, they're not without one. There is a set, but it gets no reception. The family uses it every Friday night to play a movie. That's it.

''Ohmigawd," as local teenagers are wont to scream, what, then, do they do? Well, get this. Stan, Mary, Stash, and 8-year-old Maureen Victoria read books, and the kids actually know how to play with stuff without getting bored and even go outside to play. Stash can throw a ball against a wall and play catch for three hours at a time, Mary said, and Maureen Victoria, who carries the nickname Motoria, and her friends have learned the almost forgotten art of jump rope.

''Any time I tell people we don't have a television," Mary said, ''they look at me as if, 'Oh, my God, I'm sorry you're dying of cancer.' It's like, so un-American. When I tell people, 'I think television is the ruination of our society,' they look at me as if to ask, 'Has she been treated for this? Have you sent her away?' ''

She fervently subscribes to the theory that watching television creates a form of attention deficit, that kids who watch too much of it get too easily bored when they play with toy construction materials or board games. Reading a book also takes patience. It was an easier form of recreation when the journalist was young, when first there was no television, and later, when it did show up in the apartment, its diet of test patterns and ''Hopalong Cassidy" reruns still couldn't compete with books such as ''Robin Hood" and ''Treasure Island."

So, the Usoviczes have created a sort of time machine. Instead of flipping on the tube at night, they pick up books, magazines, and newspapers. The result?

''Our son is way advanced in his reading level in school," she said. ''His teachers are amazed that he's one of the few kids who actually read the books off their summer reading list. Our daughter has some learning disabilities. One of the areas is in reading. When she was very little, she had a tremendous desire to read but was having trouble. We picked up on that before she even started school. Teachers were able to help her overcome that because of that early diagnostic, and she has come very far because of her desire to want to read."

Folks who have studied the effects of television on people's thought processes conclude that a mind dependent on television can respond differently than one exposed to a lot of reading. Mary Usovicz sees that in her own kids, both in the amount of knowledge they have compiled and their analytical thinking.

''They don't regurgitate everything they hear," she said. ''They actually think about it before giving an opinion. With reading, you have to think beyond the written word.

''I truly believe that if children see parents reading, they develop a love of reading," she said. ''I read my children a ton of stories. When we read Mark Twain and 'Tom Sawyer,' we later actually went up the Mississippi. I try to make books come alive for our children."

There is another dimension to this that Usovicz and the journalist did not discuss. He thought about it after the phone conversation. He thought about an evening decades ago, a family gathering in the apartment of an aunt and uncle, Molly and Saul Rosenberg in Malden. Molly, Harry, Leo, and Joe were siblings of his dad, Max. That night, they were singing, playing the piano, telling jokes, doing funny routines. It was a wonderful night of free entertainment, broken suddenly at about 8 p.m., by adults ''shooshing" one another.

On went the television. It was time for the Ed Sullivan show, ''Toast of the Town." The room went still but for the noise coming from the tube. The boy who would become a journalist didn't think Mr. Sullivan's acts were as entertaining as those of his own family. Indeed, family entertainment in America was about to go the way of reading.

Alan Lupo can be reached at lupo@globe.com.

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