April 27, 2005

Yes, I am one of those people who thinks television is evil

I don't remember much about my wedding vows, but I do remember the one important thing my husband and I agreed on before we got married: we would not have a television in the house. I came from a family of people who watched television maybe once a week for about an hour. My husband, on the other hand, came from a household in which the television was always on. Always. A television set right in the middle of the living room, always turned on.

I knew that the constant sound of a television in a small apartment would drive me crazy. And Spouse said he wanted to kick the habit anyhow, since it was merely a habit from a life of television watching, and not an activity that he valued.

For the first six or seven years of our marriage, we had no television set. I didn't miss it. My husband missed watching sports, I think, but when the Snowstorm University basketball team did well one season, friends and family would invite us to their houses to watch games. Sometimes Spouse would meet friends at a bar to watch a baseball game. So television watching was a social event. When my daughter went to kindergarten, she had been exposed to almost no television at all. She'd seen Sesame Street at her grandmother's house, but not much else.

Once my older kids were in school, we decided to have a television in the house to expose them to it. My thinking was that television, like it or not, is part of the culture they would be living in, and I wanted to give them small occasional doses, sort of like a vaccination shot to build up their resistance. So we got a hand-me-down television set from my in-laws and kept it in the closet, pulling it out on occasion.

Somewhere along the line, someone clued us into the idea that VCRs had been invented and we decided we could use the television set as a way to watch movies on Saturday night. At that time, I was nursing the colicky baby from hell whom no one in the family ever wanted to babysit so our Saturday date nights were limited to what fun we could have at home after the four kids were asleep. Well, I bet we could have thought of something fun if the kids were ever asleep, but unfortunately the very cute baby had the habit of waking up and screaming about every twenty minutes. So we set the television up in our bedroom with a VCR so that we could watch a movie on Saturday night while I tried to nurse the colicky baby to sleep. (Films, I might add, are in a different category than television shows in my mind.)

We have never had a television set in the living room. I just don't like the idea of a television set in the center of our house. In the house we live in now, the fireplace is the gathering spot - or perhaps the round wooden table. Not the television set.

Exposed to television through her cousins and friends at school, my daughter eventually wanted to watch a fairly generic show called Full House. The kids and I would pile on the king-size bed and watch the show together. One other year, we watched a show called Power Rangers. Those are the only two I really remember. But some television watching did creep into our lives. I always watched television with the kids, but I mainly just remember the theme songs.

I saw no reason for television over the summer, though. So on the last day of school, we would have a pillowcase ceremony. With all kinds of speeches and grand gestures, I would drape a pillowcase over the television, covering it up. The pillowcase would stay in place until Labor Day Weekend. Or sometimes later, if we forgot about it.

As my kids progressed from being little kids to being teenagers, I continued strategies to severely limit the amount of television in their lives. In our new house, we would unplug the television and stick it out in the garage over the summer. Then inevitably, my mother would call to say that someone in the family was going to be on the local news. (Nothing much happens in Snowstorm City; I often know people on the news.) So I would lug the television back in the house and set it on the kitchen counter to watch one show, which would include five seconds of someone we know saying something stupid, and then lug it back out to the garage. This kind of thing is very hard on the television set. Yeah, I've dropped the television several times. For people who watch very little television, you would be amazed at how much money we have had to spend replacing television sets.

In our current life, we have little time for television. Boy in the Black is taking a bunch of college level courses and has no time on weeknights to watch television. Shaggy Hair, too, is busy with homework and such during the week. In this case such means talking to his friends on instant messenger. With-a-Why is the only person in the house who would have time to watch television, but I don't think there is anything on television appropriate for a ten-year-old. He has never watched the little kids' shows because he was born a teenager. On weekends, the house is filled with kids and activity, so really, there is no need for television. Sometimes Boy in Black will watch the Tonight Show or Saturday Night Live, because he is a night owl and likes humor. Sometimes we watch the Simpsons. But for the most part, the television stays silent.

My main concern about television has nothing to do with the content of the shows that are on. I just think television is a waste of time. And time is precious. Kids grow up so fast. I want them to spend their time doing stuff that has value. Reading books. Playing the piano. Having snowball fights. Catching tadpoles or fireflies. Writing in their journals. Practicing the drums. Talking to their friends. Building snow ramps. Arguing about where to go on vacation. Making up alternative lyrics to well-known songs. Duct-taping items to the ceiling fan. Dancing to oldies music. Jamming. Whipping pennies at each other. Putting margerine on the linoleum floor to make it slippery so that they can skate in bare feet. Tacking blankets up over the windows to make the house dark for a game of Monster. Freezing strange items into ice cube trays. Knocking out the window screens to shoot paper airplanes out the window. Getting muddy playing frisbee golf in the rain. Shoving each other into the pond. Making prank phone calls. Using a big slingshot to throw rotten fruit over the house. Setting things on fire.

On August days when the house is so unbearably hot that no one can move, the kids lie on the floor and complain: "We're bored." And even that activity, I think, is more valuable than watching television. I remind them that boredom is a wonderful thing. From boredom comes creativity. And they are lucky to live such privileged lives, that they have the luxury of boredom.


the lawmom said...

You know that now I will get no tv this summer. Thanks a lot, she says sarcastically. David grew up much like you with very little tv, while it was on constantly in my house. One of my clearest memories as a kid is that my dad would watch Benny Hill at dinner time every night. I tend to turn it on not for anything to watch, but as background noise. It drives David insane. He clearly loves the idea of a tv-less household (except during college football season, mind you). I just don't know if I can give it up...

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

First, jo(e), congratulations for hitting 15,000 hits! You're a media starlet.

Wow, this post is sort of unique for you, short of descriptive phrases and poetic imagery. I'd place it in the genre of apologia.

I'd like to encourage a little rhetorical criticism of this piece. Perhaps others can find themes, tropes, alegories, and other hidden meanings.

I'll start with a familiar theme that people who have televisions and watch the news know well: the positioning of oneself in relation to something described as "evil." First, there's tradition: you grew up without one, thus, TV is posited as Other. Then, there is the metaphor of a habit needed to be kicked (enthymematically, this conjurs a "dirty habit" like smoking). Then, there's the medical pathology metaphor, conjurred by describing TV watching as a vaccination. Then, there's the dirtiest secret of them all, the queerness of the television, conjurred by the fact that you "kept it in the closet." Then, there's the distancing from the contradiction that you like to watch movies on the TV. A movie on the TV is not a film. It used to be on film, but was converted to a format that can play on TV. The fact that the difference is "in your mind" does not necessarily resolve this ontological contradiction (buyt, hey, this is apologia, so your rationalizations are just fine). Then, TV watching is described like an evil person, as something that creeps. Then, the pillowcase moment just reminds me too much of those weird pop-psychology rebirthing events. Then, there's the overt aggression and violence of the constant dropping. What's up; is your set made out of butter? Then, there is the silencing of the TV--hegemon of pop culture. Then, oddly, TV is dismissed carte blanche as a waste of time, while we are given examples of things that are not a waste of time like: duct taping things to ceiling fans, throwing metal objects at each other, and putting margarine on things (OK, so that's why the TV is so slippery!).

This is the point in the tirade that I remind everyone that I adore jo(e), and that I mark my tone in the above as cheeky and ironic. Regardless, I think it is a good exercise to analyze the posts of those who write so many things worthy of that exercise.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Dr. M, ROTFL! That's masterful.

Dr.K said...

One of my favorite moments in the week is snuggling up with my 9 yr. old son on Tuesday nights and watching Nova, and there is nothing whatsoever evil about Nova. The other moment in the week that I love is curling up with my wife on Thursday night and watching The OC. The OC is purest California sexy blech, and I absolutely treasure those moments when I watch the OC. I love it, and my reasons aren’t very defensible ones: Marissa is so damn gorgeous that I just can’t take my eyes off of her image on the screen, and my wife thinks Seth is just the cutest, funniest thing, and Ryan is one bad, sensitive dude, and Summer is…well, Summer is Summer. ‘Nuff said. Not very good reasons, but too bad. There is something healthy about a bit of blech now and then.
I hear that snarky tone radiating off of every word in Jo(e)’s diatribe too, and I basically do agree with you, Jo(e), but I agree not because I disapprove of how bad TV can be per se, but because I resent how pervasive TV is. Every culture generates its nonsense—Julius Caesar was addicted to Egyptian porn, and 19th Century America had its sentimental death poetry (lampooned by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn because it was absolutely everywhere) which would gag nearly anybody these days, and look what some cultures turn their religions into. The problem isn’t that cultural dreck is out there; the problem is that its source is now fundamentally industrial, which means that cultural muck as TV product is churned out in stupefying volumes, and the worldwide public seems to just suck it all down. And, by the way, if you think TV over the airwaves is bad, try surfing 350 cable channels some Saturday night and get a load of what you find there. So yeah, turn the TV off most of the time, but it does get easy to strike a righteous tone. I just find myself hating TV itself less and less, and more and more I get exasperated with industry that seems to be beneath the ruination of everything I care about: It’s all oil and autos, TV, industrial money and industrial government, industrial sports running on money and steroids, McDonalds and Wendys beef and what Jonathon Franzen calls the “insomniac hallucinations” we surround our cities with. I think that’s the basis of your real problem with TV. You should check out the OC, because I know you’d think Seth is cute and funny.

Dr. H said...

LOL @ setting things on fire. :)

What are the other opportunities to get exposed to pop culture other than TV? Like, I'm thinking, Simpson's... don't you need some exposure to pop culture to get most of the jokes? Hmm... right, pop culture exposure is also in movies, the newspaper, magazines, in the hallways at school... I answered my own question.

Sometimes I think being sucked in to the internet (like I can be) is similar to being sucked in to the TV. I'm not sure, though.

How is watching a movie on DVD / VCR different? Because it has a time limit? Because it's not driven by commercials? (again, answering my own question...)

Anyhow, cool post. We have a TV that is the centerpiece of our house, but we don't watch it much -- except for movies. I used to be very addicted to TV, but the time is now more at the computer.

PPB said...

I grew up in a house where TV was a special treat. We watched one show a week, and took a family vote as to what that would be (I know my parents watched other things after we went to bed, but it didn't bother me any more than the fact that they got to go to bed when they wanted to did.) We also had pop as a dessert on Friday nights.

I now drink sodapop all day long. TV I can take or leave, though. I don't turn it on for noise. I turn it on to watch a show, and then turn it off. All my friends find this bizarre. I've had the same TV since 1988. If you don't move them in and out of the garage, they last a little longer!!! I've been trying to think, though, about the place of the computer in my life. It's really hard to turn off...

Cool post.

Songbird said...

The two kids still at home don't have much time for TV anymore, because they are both into reading and practicing their instruments. I can't believe how lucky I am! I get to listen to the piano and clarinet instead of what used to be the background music of my life: Spongebob Squarepants. I loathe Spongebob Squarepants.

Psycho Kitty said...

Amen, sister!
We ditched television about 8 years ago as a cost-saving measure when we needed to move to a more expensive flat. We have a VCR/DVD player, but the kids can only watch on the weekends, and only one movie/day. And I still feel like that's too much.

Lucy Tartan said...

fantastic post. The part about the way your furniture's arranged, that's got me by the frontal lobe. We have a piano and a huge tasmanian blackwood table kind of poked into corners in small rooms - how much better would it be to hide the telly & put these sociable things in the big open space?

jo(e) said...

Dr. M: I loved your analysis. See, the topic of television just does not inspire poetic imagery. Further proof that television is evil.

PPB: I think we grew up in the same household! We had soda once a week, only on Fridays. We never called it pop, though. OH, and keeping my kids from computer games? That is a whole other battle.

K: I am never snarky. What are you talking about?

Yankee T said...

Our kids cannot watch TV during the week, ever. The way I see it is if the homework is done, they can read for entertainment. Or practice an instrument. Or practice spoken French for an upcoming competition. Or play a game with us, like Boggle, because it can acccommodate both the L.D. kid and the non-L.D. kid. On the weekend, they get 1 hour per day each. Seems like a lot to me, but what do I know? My sisters and I sat in front of the TV as much as we could.
I don't think it's evil, I just don't think it's productive, and I will NOT have it in my living room!
I definitely don't think it's furniture!

reverendmother said...

Dr. K's comments reminded me of the "aha/duh" I had when I realized that really, the goal of a television program is to deliver the viewer to the advertiser.

I agree that movies are different in the level of engagement and also the required attention span. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

We just moved our TV/entertainment center down to the basement. We have to make a point of going down there to watch--it's not the family hangout place. (Plus my husband gets to watch his movies LOUD without disturbing little she-who-is.)

TV in the bedroom. No, no, never.

Dr.K said...

Jo(e), I've just come to love that word "snarky," you know, and I use it every chance I get. I see my colleagues looking at me, and I know they're thinking "snarky?", but what's great is when they use it back, ("Yes, I do believe she was acting a bit snarky")--would the correct useage be "snarkily"?--and it's really great when they use it wrong, as one person (a nun)who I overheard at the other side of the table during lunch saying, "I liked how it [a student's paper] gave me a bit of a snarky feeling." I almost choked on my soup! I can't imagine what she was really trying to say. When it comes to TV, Jo(e), you got a definite snarky attitude going there, Sweets. It was all snarky. That was a veritable exemplar of snarky, and I like how your comments gave me a bit of a snarky feeling too. Snarky--think about it. Snarky.

jo(e) said...

Dr. K, you call me "Sweets" ever again, and I will just have to slap you.

(Now, see ...that was snarky.)

Jesse said...

I am a product of some sort of TV generation. It was all I did for many years as a youngin' only because my parents didn;t see the worth in me lighting everything in sight on fire.

However, college broke my TV habit. work, work, work.

I watch Tv now though, mostly because work makes me want to enter a vegiative state, where I am bombarded with cliche, predictability and bad puns, so as to avoid having to think for a while.

It's like a self induced pseudo-coma.. what could possibly be better?

Dr.K said...

Sorry, Jo(e), you're right--no more patronizing little names. I should know better. You can call me whatever you want, though.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Dr. M, you're my hero. TV as Other. Wonderful!

PZ Myers said...

We didn't banish our TV, but we did sequester it. No TV in the living room or bedroom, but we do have one in the basement. Watching it isn't casual, but something you plan -- and we find that more often than not, we prefer something on dvd than broadcast, just to get away from the intolerable commercials.

The other thing we did is set up the stationary bicycle in front of it. It rebukes us if we sprawl on the couch and watch passively -- I have to put in at least a half hour peddling up a sweat before I can be guilt-free.

Lisa V said...

Okay we have never had a tv in the living room. It's always been upstairs or downstairs in a family room or den. You have to go to watch it. Still we watch too much tv. However, never will there be any tv in any bedroom. Same reason there is no computer in the bedroom. I think it's distracting from private time and space to think, oh and yeah sleep.

Moreena said...

When we first moved to this house we had to furnish the whole thing, having had so few belongings as nomad grad. students. We bought a TV, but the box was really unwieldy and I was hugely pregnant. So we asked our neighbor to help Joerg move it into the house. He and Joerg set it down and our neighbor announced, "There! Now you have a TV!"
"Yes," I replied. "I guess that's about all we need for this kid, right?"

Obviously, I was joking. But he's looked at me a bit askance ever since.

jo(e) said...

See, if I don't put the television in the living room, I have to put it in a bedroom because we don't have any other rooms. The downstairs of our house is basically one big room, living room and kitchen combined, and we have bedrooms upstairs. I have a small office off the living area, but it can't go there. So that's how it ends up stuck in a closet or the garage.