The Booby Tube

Well, my LOST Bingo game was both a success and a failure.  In the first 10 minutes, we had all placed a whole bunch of chips: Jack with a beard, Jack without a beard, Kate running away from something, a new Dharma station, a Marvin Candle video, and possibly a flashback to childhood (Rob thinks the baby in the crib was Miles.)  Unfortunately, despite many more filled spaces (Ben's evil smile took longer than I had thought, but we got a closeup of Sayid's girly fingernails right away) no one actually got Bingo.  Our friend Matt joined us at the last minute, and it was a fun and festive evening, although we were probably more confused than ever by the final credits.

Did you ever see "About a Boy?"  The main character is the inheritor of a fortune that enables him to live comfortably without a job, so his life is predictably meaningless.  One of the most interesting lines he has focuses on passing time. "I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. It's amazing how the day fills up, and I often wonder, to be absolutely honest, if I'd ever have time for a job; how do people cram them in?"

Obviously, this is a bit extreme, but I have often disliked that about television.  It eats up your day one hour at a time; it's like falling into a trap, and it's very hard to get out of.  Plus, it's just so widely available now that you almost can't avoid it.  You can watch TV on your phone, on your computer, even in your car.  When I was young, if you wanted to watch TV, you had to have a TV first.  They were unwieldy and not easily portable.  I remember an episode of Full House (gotta love Full House!) where DJ and Joey were moving a TV; in all the backing and forthing, they accidentally dropped it from the upstairs balcony onto the living room floor.  I was horrified, but it couldn't have been that uncommon of an occurrence for something so bulky and heavy.

The truth is that my siblings and I weren't allowed to watch much TV, even after we got cable.  When we were kids, it was basically relegated to public television shows (Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and later, Square One.)  We also had a collection of Disney movies on VHS that we loved until we wore them out.  Even these were limited, though we were allowed to watch as much as we wanted when we were sick (we still joke about my brother's habit of watching 101 Dalmatians, then watching it rewind all the way to the beginning, then watching it again.)

In high school, the reins were relaxed a little. I developed a passion for My So-Called Life that I hold to this day; I still think that no show came closer to duplicating the problems and joys of high school.  I also used to watch ER with my mom, back when George Clooney was virtually unknown.  Still, I had other things to do -- school plays, babysitting jobs and lots and lots of homework. In college, I was mostly too busy to watch TV, though I did develop a love for independent and foreign films (the crowd I hung with at Cooper Union helped considerably.)

So when Rob and I got married, one of the things I put my foot down about was getting cable.  It'll be close to fifty bucks a month, I said, and I'd rather just watch movies when we have a chance.  I talked him into a Netflix subscription instead, which was the easiest way for us to find things we really enjoyed watching -- things that challenged our intellect and broadened our cultural horizons.  And if Rob were telling this story, he'd make sure to point out that the first movie I put in our queue was Top Gun.  Which is true.  (Hey, I was 6 when it came out.  Would you have let a 6-year-old watch that kind of smut?)

Without cable, we only got a few channels, all of which were hopelessly fuzzy.  So we eventually got rid of the TV in favor of a 24-inch iMac, which transforms from a work machine to a fun machine with one click.  So, no more TV, period.  We've gotten shows on DVD (LOST started this way, as I mentioned before, as did the West Wing) and sometimes watch episodes on the Internet, where the commercials are fewer and less obnoxious.

It amazes me, at times, that I grew up just a decade before the students I see every day.  They live and breathe television.  Once I let it slip that I don't own one, and they were too shocked even to make fun of me.  I remember one student staring, openmouthed, and saying, "I don't even know what I would DO if I didn't have a TV!"  She went on to list the shows she watched, and it was several for each day of the week.  The funny thing is that I remember shows aiming for the Friday night audience -- TGIF -- which was basically families, who after a hard day's work would gather together in front of the television to enjoy Full House, Family Matters and other saccharine-drenched sitcoms.  Now, it seems that no one aims for Friday and Saturday nights, when they assume people will have gone their separate ways -- they're looking to catch individuals during the week, and at later and later hours.  Monday at 9.  Tuesday at 10.

Last year, I spent a long time watching and analyzing Grey's Anatomy, trying to uncover the fascination it held for my students.  After countless heartbreaking episodes, I concluded that it was absolutely the worst kind of television: that which makes you feel simultaneously inferior and superior about your own life. Inferior, because its characters are impossibly beautiful, talented and successful; superior, because even these advantages can't keep them from destroying their lives from the inside out.  They say and do awful things to each other and themselves in an attempt to inject some meaning into their relativist lives.  So, what's the conclusion?  That my life sucks because it will never be like theirs, or that life in general sucks because we all suffer from the same problems regardless of our income and body mass index?  No wonder these kids are depressed all the time!

So, let's talk about rules.  Did you have any?  Do you impose any on your kids?