Thursday, December 15, 2005

Television Culture

We used to be a TV-free family. Several years ago when our first child was born, my wife and I decided to forego the television altogether. No cable, no reception, no videos and no DVD’s were the rules of the house. I believe we gave our set away so we would not even be tempted to pull it out of the closet one night.. Gone was the squawking box pinning down the center of our living room, monopolizing the airwaves, and controlling the rhythm of our daily lives. But gone too was something both my wife and I had grown up with and relied upon. Television had filled the empty spaces in our days when work was not required of us and when we did not have the energy to do anything particularly creative. As we launched ourselves into life without television, our hands itched for a remote that was not there and our minds creaked like shipwrecks. But still we eagerly faced the challenge of life without television, and struggled to come up with the vexing question “What did people do before TV?”

I am happy to say we made a successful adjustment and lived for a couple of years without television. It became habit to reach for a book or a craft or even a board game instead of for the remote whenever we needed downtime. We followed the events of 9/11 and the first phases of the war in Afghanistan by radio and newspaper alone. I can recall evenings listening to books on tape with my wife and later discussing them with her and how that seemed to deepen the ties between us. Our son never knew what he was missing and became an avid reader at an early age. I remember us going on family walks in the evening and passing house after house with the front windows lit up with the blue light of a TV set and being able to hear the faint rumble from the sounds the sets made as we passed by. I remember feeling a little superior to my neighbors who were still locked inside their noisy boxes while I had broken free and discovered a new country of peace and intellectual enrichment.

Then one night we went to the department store. We bought the biggest TV we could afford, rented a couple of movies, made some popcorn, and curled up together in the blue light of the television set. Soon after reintroducing video, we got rabbit ears to pick up network television. When the war in Iraq looked like it was really going to happen, we got cable. I stayed up the whole night when our bombs began falling to see the events unfold on one of the Fox channels. Later, the DVD player became Mom’s baby sitter when she had to get a break and became a sure fire relaxation machine for me on work nights. Now, we have satellite television, are considering buying TI-VO, and give each other as many DVDs as books for Christmas.

What happened to us, you might ask? How could we give up that wonderful life of books and handy crafts and quality family time to return to our mental shackles in front of the TV? What happened was we started using the technology, not the other way around. We broke the old mode of just being mindless consumers of whatever was ‘on’ to being picky connoisseurs of the medium. There are some things that have occurred that have given me pause about this, sure enough. Both of my daughters like books. But neither one is the voracious reader that my eldest son is. But that could be for any number of reasons. And besides, we just finished watching Julius Caesar on the tube. Don’t try to tell me I could have peaked my children’s interest in Shakespeare by having them just read the plays out of a Penguin paper-back. Shakespeare was meant to be heard and seen. And I cannot think of a better way to have seen it than the circa 1953, black-and-white, Marlon Brando version.