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Television Banished to Watch for the Story


I think it’s time I addressed this question: Why don’t I have a TV?

This post was inspired by a friend who was puzzled by the fact that I don’t have a television. At different times in my life, I have lived happily many years without a “teevie” (a term I created to diminish its standing) and have never seen it as an essential piece of domestic equipment, kind of like a refrigerator. However, my general indifference has recently morphed into hostility. This is what I need to explain.

I should point out at the outset, however, that I am not unusual in this matter in Santa Fe. For some reason, this city seems to attract a large number of people who have virtually nothing to do with television. I have many friends who don’t have a set or, if they do, rarely watch it. They seem to be unusually active, very busy with athletic, creative, intellectual, and spiritual experiences that take up a whole day. It’s as though we have been drawn here by a need for extremely varied stimulation. Curious, and it might be an interesting study for a sociologist.

After steadily circling in on the city after my first visit in about 1992, I arrived here on the threshold of divorce in 2005. It was a move to reclaim my life and shape it according to rather unconventional values. Naïvely put, I wanted to help change the world for the better; and New Mexico, “The Land of Enchantment,” is full of people with similar dreams. In yet one more move to untether myself from convention, I soon eliminated television from my daily experience of life.

In fact, television had invaded through marriage. Like most men, my former husband seemed to need it as a means of escape from the conversation women associate with intimacy. Do any of you remember the long-running play, “Defending the Caveman” written by Rob Becker? It was basically a monologue trying to explain men and women to each other, and it provided amusing insights into the masculine mind. There was one point I will never forget.

Becker asserted that men and women were loaded each day with a certain number of words–thousands more in the case of women. The man would have spent all his by the end of the work day and would come home to confront, with glazed eyes, the wife’s unmet need to communicate. Television was the refuge. In recent decades, ESPN dropped from the heavens like a gift from the divine in this matter.

In my current solitary state, I no longer have to watch television in order to create the impression of sociability. However, if specific blame were to be assigned for my alienation, it would be to television news. Objectivity is an abandoned value, and ratings drive content. As a result, anything bizarre, horrifying, and nerveracking gets top billing so that the country always seems to be in a lather about something. Remember the recent hysteria over Ebola?

Then there is the “novelty news,” and perhaps it is needed to temper the waves of induced stress. Why else would something come up on CNN like a Florida alligator invading a kitchen to eat the family hamster? If news stations had a legal obligation to provide the information necessary to create a responsible citizenry, they would all be sued. You’re chuckling, right? OK, so I’m an alien. I am here to help, but I’m finding it devilishly difficult.

My estrangement from the apparatus has made me even more aware of the deterioration in programming quality. Trust me. If you followed my path, the occasional revisit would be really depressing. For one thing, consider the proliferation of ads. The only set I see now is that of my sister Kate, whom I occasionally visit 80 miles way out in the country. She was enlisted in helping me count ads one weekend, and we came up with 35 for one program. Hour after hour, one ad after another is shaping values. It is “The Mad Men,” so to speak, who have defined what it means to be an American–meaning the stuff we need to have, the way we’re supposed to look, and how we’re supposed to spend our time. And then the mad men have gone on to promote the pharmaceuticals we need to endure life here.

I can sense some readers shifting uneasily in your seats. Soon you will want to protest about all the wonderful programs you’ve seen, and I’ve seen many myself. However, according to a Nielsen report in 2014, the average American watches five hours a day, and that figure climbs to seven hours in my age generation. Since it’s passive entertainment with no obligation to analyze, critique, or defend the merit of what one has ingested, there is also no obligation to set some kind of standard of excellence.

And when I observe the debate on issues in this country, I sometimes wonder if the damage is beginning to show. Even people in positions of leadership seem to be losing the ability to think deeply or creatively. But then why work on solutions when conflict gets so much more coverage? With so many hours invested in the screen every day, are we becoming steadily less grounded in reality? What about the opportunity cost of millions of minds in passive ingestion mode for so many hours every day? Maybe our dysfunctional democracy is a product in part of too little collective hefty collective think time.

I hope you’ll stay with me a few more minutes for a trip through time that may clarify the drift.

Cave Art from Chauvet, France  30-000 to 35,000 Years Old

Cave Art from Chauvet, France
30-000 to 35,000 Years Old

First, imagine that you’re in a cave somewhere in Europe thousands of years ago. Beyond the dank walls an empty landscape stretches endlessly, but within, is a fire where a small group of group of homely individuals have gathered. They are at ease for the moment, because a small deer has provided a meal for all. As they settle contentedly, a man with the worn look of an elder begins to tell the story of this hunt. As the group listens intently, he goes back in time to the adventures of ancestors and to encounters with animals that turned into teachings. He is sharing wisdom that will help his family survive.

Now cut to log cabin and another fire in a stone fireplace around the year 1860.  A family sits around the blaze, the mother mending socks as the father sharpens knives on a whetstone. The man and woman take turns quietly sharing stories of the family’s pioneering journey to this land, of colorful characters in their lineage and the lessons their lives taught. The three children sitting on the floor eating potatoes baked in the fire listen avidly, although they have heard some of the stories many times.

Now it’s 1955, and a family of four has gathered around one of the first small black and white televisions watching “The Lucky Strike Hit Parade.” All eyes are glued to the pale screen as Dorothy Collins sings “Unchained Melody.” Next will come Huntley-Brinkley and the weather and that’s it for the night. There’s a rule: No more than two hours a day.

Now we’re at 2015. A pair of adults sit on a big couch facing a huge screen with surround sound. The husband, who is also texting business messages, has muted the screen in irritation over the fact that a man being interviewed cannot get a word in edgewise with his pontificating host. His wife plays with the Ipad in her lap. In three bedrooms upstairs, one child is watching her own television, another is playing video games, and a third is trolling around YouTube on his PC. Each stops every few minutes to check a smart phone. The remnants of a pizza dinner lie on plates on each desk. Downstairs the land line rings in the kitchen. The husband looks up, but the wife waves her hand, never taking her eyes from her Ipad: “It’s just Mom,” she says. “She’ll leave a message.”

So there we have it, the evolution or devolution, shall we say, that worries me. The average American may spend five hours a day with television, but young people are also racking up seven with their digital devices. With the amount of available entertainment growing exponentially, along with the increasingly powerful and fascinating technology, why would the trend toward ever more hours devoted to some kind of screen or other shift? Is there any reason why the growing disconnect from reality and each other should suddenly stall?

The prospect gives me the unholy creeps. Short of some monumental catastrophe, what could possibly cause civilization to reboot and ground in some enlightened way? Admittedly, I have a lot of imagination, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’re approaching some great pivotal point.

I feel very fortunate to be able to stay informed daily through one of the country’s best remaining newspapers, but my instinct is to ramp up my orientation as an observer–watchful and ready to record an impending drama. Maybe it will provide material for learning time around another fire someday. Not a screen, I insist. A fire.




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