Killing Television

Stephen O’Grady’s post, “Kill Your Television,” struck a serious chord in me. My family had a cabin (“the lake” in Minnesota parlance) that was fairly primitive. It wasn’t really a cabin, but a trailer and a shed and a bunkhouse and an outhouse. The shower was a black 55 gallon drum, which would heat in the sun. Running water? Sure, it ran when you pumped it. No electricity, either.

Back at home, my parents would kick my brother and I out of the house here and there. “It’s a beautiful day, go outside,” they’d say. My friend Matt and I would get on our bicycles and ride for miles and miles around the Saint Paul area. Our stated goal one summer was to ride over 1000 miles. We were 13.

There was never boredom, at the cabin or outside. We found things to do, or places to go on our bikes, in the canoe, or on foot. When there weren’t things to do I entertained myself by reading. I’d read in the car, I’d read sitting in the shade, I’d read wherever I went. It was the ultimate in hassle-free entertainment. You need thumbs and something to read. And light. When it was dark you did other things. Like sleep. Or sit around the fire ring and try to pop popcorn without burning it.

My entertainment was my imagination, playing out the stories I read in my mind. I didn’t have a portable DVD player. We didn’t have a minivan with a DVD player in it. Sure, before I was twelve I had watched “Tron” about fifty times, but my childhood wasn’t a barrage of visual media. The television wasn’t my babysitter. Books, nature, and my imagination were.

I never got used to spending hours aimlessly watching television. I know how I can occupy my time when I don’t have a television around me. So when Stephen O’Grady writes about not connecting his satellite receiver, I get it. When he says that he reads a lot, from trashy novels to MIT’s OpenCourseWare, I know why. That lifestyle feels very familiar to me. People think of it as slowing down. I like to think of it as calming down. Reducing your sensory input. Letting your imagination work more. Paying full attention to one thing at a time. And sometimes, God forbid, being alone with your own thoughts, thinking about yourself and the world directly around you rather than the news from a far-off place about things you cannot control.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that if people worried a little bit more about what they were doing, and a little less about what others were doing, the world would be a better place. Television is an enabler in that regard, causing people to spend enormous amounts of time worrying about horrible events in far off places. And they are often things we cannot control. Maybe if we lived there we could do something about it, could go help, but we don’t, and so we can’t. But we keep seeing stories, breaking news, about all these negative things, murders in Florida, drunken driving in California. All the bad things in life, countless examples of how humanity sucks, beating us down.

It isn’t surprising that the first step to unplugging is always shutting the TV off. It is also not surprising how folks feel like better people for having done so.

Even if it was just long enough to take a walk.