When I say, “I don’t watch television,” nearly everyone within earshot is inclined to say, “I don’t, either — at least, not that much, really.” My friends shake their heads knowingly, chiming in that TV is the death knell of American civilization, that nothing good is ever shown — except on PBS, of course.
The truth is, I’m not above TV; on the contrary, it’s above me, jerking on the marionette strings for a forced laugh, a tense moment, a watery eye. Just watching the ads for any of the evening drama programs starts my pulse racing: I get too wrapped up, too involved. Sometimes, when my wife’s at work, I sneak a peek at a music video, and I feel the same way I do when masturbating: anxious, excited, inadequate, ashamed.
It was the freewheeling seventies, and our family had chosen to live without a television. People began talking about our new “lifestyle.” Funny — I thought of it as a life, rich in friends and careers, brimming with garden-grown food and home-baked bread and the sounds of singing around the piano. The ultimate accusation came from our pastor’s wife, who said, “How dare you try to protect your children from reality?”
Rochester Hills, Michigan
I often meet people who say that television is evil, that children should not be allowed to watch it, that it is a waste of time. I never feel quite at ease around these individuals. They talk about “real” relationships with living, breathing human beings as opposed to TV characters. I can’t help but wonder, Are their relationships so different from mine? Most of my encounters with people are either superficial or emotionally exhausting. Only a small number are truly enjoyable or intimate.
I could never explain to anti-television types the sense of camaraderie I find with the characters of Seinfeld or Dream On, whom I consider my beloved friends. They expose all their weaknesses and allow me to partake of their experiences without demand or expectation. Most importantly, their lives provide a sense of conclusiveness and completeness always lacking in my own. Even though I can’t call these characters up for a chat, can’t share my stories with them or ask them for advice, their example helps me survive the grind of daily life.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
My daughter’s third-grade teacher asked her class not to watch television for five days. Anyone who completed the assignment would receive a gift certificate for a free pizza. With some encouragement from her dad and me, Elise decided to accept the challenge.
On Monday night, Elise and I went to the library and checked out a stack of books, then bought ice-cream cones. We came home and read together until her bedtime. What a wonderful assignment, I thought.
On Tuesday night, Elise was in tears. “Please, please,” she begged. “I have to watch Full House. It’s my favorite show. I’ll die if I don’t watch it!” This frightened me. Was I raising a television addict? I reminded her of her decision, and the TV remained off. After she went to sleep, I guiltily snapped on the set at the foot of my bed.
On Wednesday night, she tried to bargain: just one half-hour of TV and she’d do extra homework. “No, let’s see this commitment through,” I replied. We broke out the board games, but argued throughout the evening over who was cheating. Our nerves were frayed by all this togetherness.
On Thursday, Elise did not even ask about television. She played with her Barbies, and Dad and I joined her for a game of Parcheesi. Then I held her in my arms and read her to sleep. She drifted off, smiling and peaceful. I climbed into bed, annoyed by the sound of my husband watching television.
On Friday morning, I wrote a note confirming that Elise had completed the assignment. When she arrived home that night with her pizza coupon, we congratulated her. She felt proud and strong. I felt relieved that we weren’t lost to TV addiction.
After dinner, we flipped on the TV and watched until bedtime.
It was the first one on the block, probably the first for many miles around. Daddy and his brother ran a small appliance shop down the street from our house and bought one of the earliest televisions.
The set had a remote speaker hooked up by wires, and a long row of knobs, some as big as my hand. The screen was small and round, like a fishbowl. (In the family photograph from 1948 it looks like an instrument from a laboratory in a science-fiction movie, and I appear afraid of it.)
I would help Daddy adjust the image. He would go behind the set with his tools, and I would stand in front and watch the lines roll up and down or sideways across the screen.
“How’s it doing?” he would ask.
“They’re still moving up and down,” I’d answer.
“Is that better?”
“How about that?”
“OK, it’s stopped moving, but it still looks kind of squiggly.”
He would fiddle and tinker some more, coming around to look for himself from time to time, until the small, strange picture was perfect. Then we’d sit side by side, watching, and he would say, “Isn’t that something wonderful?”
Fort Bragg, California
I was brokenhearted. I had fallen in love with my best friend, who was in love with another woman. Depressed, lethargic, and unable to concentrate, I went home early from work, lay down, and asked God to take me. My greatest wish was to die.
Eventually I slept, but was awakened abruptly by a voice that instructed me to go to the television and turn on the local religious station. Shaking myself awake, I tried to dismiss it. But again the voice came, with the same advice.
I turned on the TV. The station was broadcasting a program about fighting depression. I followed its instructions and have no doubt that it saved my life.
My mother once dreamed that I had married Peter Jennings; I could tell that she was pleased by the thought. She likes to fill me in on television gossip: Tim Allen’s drug problem, Vanna White’s baby, Oprah’s handsome boyfriend.
My parents got their first TV back in the fifties. They felt very sophisticated inviting friends over to watch boxing. Both were from poor, rural families, and now here they were in their smart ranch house, eating meat that came from the butcher, driving a car with chrome bumpers, and watching television.
I am just old enough to remember the first moon landing. We went down the street to watch it on the color set at the Montgomerys’ house. “Watch this,” my father said. “You’ll remember it the rest of your life.”
My mother often reminded me how lucky I was to have TV: “People were so dumb back in my day,” she said. “They weren’t exposed to all the things kids are today.” I imagined her and her seven brothers and sisters in their dark house, bored and sullen, fighting over a one-armed doll, or maybe a soiled checkerboard. Our family’s evenings, by contrast, were neatly scheduled by our television viewing. Everyone respected my Friday-night passion for The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Monday nights my father hid away in the basement to watch Gunsmoke. We ate TV dinners on TV trays and called Saturday night a “good TV night.”
Now I’m an adult, and I consider myself more sophisticated than my parents. For one thing, I don’t like TV. I own one and occasionally spend an evening in front of it, but afterward I feel miserable and guilty.
TV, however, has remained my mother’s constant friend. All her children have moved away, her husband has died, and her neighborhood has deteriorated, but every day she sits on her overstuffed couch, a blanket over her lap, her face twitching with the palsy of old age, and wields her remote. She does not hug people, she has no friends, and she bickers constantly with her sisters. “TV is good company,” she tells me. My mother’s favorite shows usually depict two people raising irascible but ultimately endearing children; she chooses to remember her own life as having been the same. Didn’t she once have a house full of children? Didn’t they say cute things like these children?
This is not the ending I would have wanted for her.
My husband, Tim, works all day in town at his plumbing job, then returns home and begins work around our pecan farm. During the summer, he is busy until dark cultivating, pruning, or fertilizing the trees. Once the sun sets, he comes inside, kicks off his shoes, and turns on the TV.
At first, I couldn’t get used to this habit. I have always felt TV to be a complete waste of time. Finally, I asked him why he watched it every night. He explained that it was the only time in the day when he could truly relax. No matter that it was mindless drivel, he could sit back and rest.
Upon hearing this, I stopped complaining. After he’d worked a twelve- or thirteen-hour day, how could I deny him this simple pleasure?
Karen R. George
Las Cruces, New Mexico
My family was the last on our block to get a television. I was sixteen when my father finally broke down and bought a small black-and-white set. Before this, I’d been in the habit of going to the movies every weekend for a double feature — both Saturday and Sunday if I could — to escape my misery and loneliness. While television never had the magic and glamour of the movies, I quickly became addicted to the small screen, as well.
When I began living on my own, in a small New York apartment, with no one around to tell me what to watch or when to turn it off, the television became my best friend. I felt less lonely in the company of the flickering screen. I often felt ashamed for enjoying what some people thought was stupid and banal.
Now that I’m married, I have much less need to escape into the tube, and am more selective in my viewing. There is so much more I want to do with my life. Still, TV is a respite from family problems, unpleasant chores, the exhausting trials of daily living. When I need some time alone and there’s a good movie on, or a sitcom I like, or a one-hour murder mystery, I’ll turn on the television and watch. And I always will.
Woodland Hills, California
As an American traveling abroad, I sometimes find it hard to avoid being stereotyped — especially when I am in a so-called Third World country. To people there, I am from the “land of milk and honey,” where everyone has a house, a car, a job, vacations, and money to buy lots of things to keep them happy.
My friend and I recently visited a family who lived in a dilapidated one-room plywood house. The mother and children worked making embroidered bags and belts to sell to tourists. They had a hard time getting by, even compared to other people in the village, yet they owned a small TV. Sitting down with the family in front of the set, we watched beautifully manicured boys and girls play volleyball on a beach somewhere in California. They had expensive toys, nice clothes, and shiny cars; they looked so pretty, so happy, so perfect.
As I watched, I thought about the waterfall where we’d spent the day with a few of the children, eating oranges, baptizing each other with the juice, and diving into the pool to cleanse ourselves. They’d done flips off the rocks, fighting for our attention. It had been a moment of true paradise.
I was ashamed of the illusory American paradise on TV, uncomfortable with the children’s envy of what they saw, and with my envy of what I thought they had right here.
Every night at five o’clock, when my father came home, I and my eight brothers and sisters would run and hide. My father was a vicious alcoholic who used my mother as a slave and us children as punching bags. It was a rare evening that someone was not beaten.
Somehow my mother created small pockets of relief amid this misery. For example, after we’d eaten dinner and the beatings had ended, she would gather us in front of the television. (By that time, my father would usually have exhausted himself and fallen asleep.) My mother would sit down with a glass of iced tea, an old ashtray, and a pack of Camel cigarettes, and we children would nestle around her.
My mother chose the television programs: The Ed Sullivan Show, The Outer Limits, Bonanza, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Carol Burnett Show. We children would laugh quietly so as not to wake my father, and my mother would smile and slowly peel the loose tobacco from her tongue.
I am forty now. Every two years I visit my mother, and we sit together and watch television. She still drinks iced tea and smokes Camels. I drink coffee and eat cake. Now we enjoy each other’s company unfettered, and laugh out loud.
Each night, shortly after dinner, my father would rise from his chair and lead the family downstairs to the den, and the twenty-two-inch Magnavox console, the cathode hearth around which all family discussions, no matter how important, took place. My father rarely turned his attention from the set.
Over a bathroom-tissue commercial, my mother worried aloud about my brother’s arrest and my kid sister’s pregnancy. Over the blandishments of The Danny Thomas Show, she pleaded with my father to let my grandmother take the spare bedroom, while my grandmother sat right there, well within earshot. I will never forget my brother and sister, each silhouetted against a blazing Marlboro sunset, each trying to make things right with my father before leaving home. My brother remained away for nearly a decade. My sister died in a halfway house three days before her twenty-third birthday.
Last Christmas, we had a family reunion, and for the first time my brother and his family were able to attend. That week, my father spent very little time in front of the television. He seemed bewildered, as if, in surveying his progeny, he suddenly knew his age and felt an urgent need to understand his legacy. Time and again, he took each of us aside and pressed us to talk about who we were and where we were going.
When it was time to leave, we presented him with a gift: an old photograph we’d found of him and our mother before they were married. They were sitting in our grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment on opposite sides of a huge Zenith radio. Studying the photo, my mother told us how, in the days before television, her family would sometimes sit around the radio and “watch the light.” My father proposed to her in that room. I wonder whether he was watching the light at that moment. And I wonder whether she knew what accepting would mean.
In 1952, when I was twelve, my family moved from the sticks of Puerto Rico to the small city of Humacao, on the eastern coast of the island. At the time, we knew little of electrical gadgets. Refrigerators and telephones were far out of range of our budget. We were just getting used to the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, with their clicking on-off chains; my father hated that he couldn’t turn them off by blowing on them, or carry them to where he needed light, as he did with kerosene lamps.
One day, on our monthly grocery-shopping trip, we saw a man in a store window setting up what the newspapers called the “magic box” — a television! It was a sight to behold: richly stained cherry wood; doors and drawers with brass hardware; and, in the center, a tiny screen.
We waited an hour for the man to finish. Finally, he fiddled with the knobs and the screen came to life. We saw a man dressed all in white riding a black horse through a desert wasteland; chasing him, in a cloud of dust, were a hundred or so half-naked men with feathers on their heads, also riding horses. A crowd gathered behind us, straining to see.
A month later, on my way home from selling gum at the town square, I saw a television through the open window of a house. I sat quietly on the cement wall around the yard and watched Perry Como’s Christmas special. From then on, every night at eight o’clock I would sit on that wall and watch TV for a half-hour before going home. The TV’s owners didn’t seem to mind; in fact, they would open the window so that I could hear the sound. But of course it didn’t make any sense to me; it was in English.
Sometimes, on soft summer nights, my children and I go for walks in the moonlight. In house after house, this is what we see: people staring, transfixed, at a glowing TV screen. If the shades are drawn, an eerie blue light emanates from behind them. There is no one but us out under the star-filled, moon-magic sky.
Kathye Fetsko Petrie
My neighbors had a fire in their house a few days ago, and now they are staying with us. They are a unique family, and have chosen to live a very simple life in a tiny old house (gone now) on land overgrown by blackberry bushes. They work a paper route and are active in politics. And they have no TV.
I am full of anxiety over how to entertain my neighbors and their child. Sometimes we turn on the TV. At first, I wondered if having the TV on would make them retreat to their room, but they don’t seem to mind it. In fact, they watch it more closely than we do. They laugh and comment on details that are lost on us a we try to read the paper or eat or change the baby while the TV is blaring. I hope we aren’t corrupting them.
L. C. F. Shaw
I was pregnant with twins. There were already five children in my home, and here were coming, at the tail end of my thirties, not just one more, but two! I felt blessed, rewarded, deserving — and huge.
The babies went full term. We set up for labor in my bedroom, with Don Giovanni playing and the windows open to the autumn countryside. When the first baby’s umbilical cord prolapsed, my quiet delivery was taken over by ambulance crews, then a helicopter transport, general anesthesia, and a Caesarean section. Abigail lived; Amelia died.
Back home, the grief eclipsed my joy. There were blameful neighbors, embarrassed relatives, and a silent husband. Still, I cared for and loved my precious survivor. My days became quite simple, but sadness filled all the empty spaces. One day, as the baby slept, I stood before the mirror with scissors, wanting to hack off all my hair, to cut something, anything. I needed blood, ashes, gore, a crazed and desperate appearance to match the pain I felt.
Then an epiphany came: what I really needed was a break, a way to put aside my awesome grief, even if just for a while. So, for the first time in my life, I became an avid watcher of TV.
Lake Ozark, Missouri
My mom told my brother and me to go to the basement and watch TV while she and our older sister waited for the ambulance. It was Friday, and All in the Family was just starting. Archie Bunker’s cousin came to visit and, much to everyone’s horror, died in his sleep. The Bunkers spent the rest of the show dealing with this unexpected death. Above us, the ambulance crew quickly climbed the stairs, then slowly descended, carrying my father out of the house on a stretcher.
Dad was in a coma all weekend. My mom and my sister visited him, but never offered to take my brother and me. When I got up Monday morning, my mother called me into her bed and told me that Dad had died late Sunday night.
That was in 1974; I was eleven, my brother thirteen. For years to come, I didn’t know what I was supposed to say when people asked how my father had died. When I was nineteen, I confronted my mother, and she admitted what I had already guessed: he had killed himself. She seemed relieved and said that she would now tell my brother. (My sister had known all along.) Still, my mother cautioned me not to tell anyone else.
Three months ago, I finally got up the nerve to talk to my sister about our father’s suicide. She said she knew I had been telling people the truth to get even with Mom for lying. She told me sternly that it was nobody’s business that he had committed suicide. I tried to explain that I hadn’t needed to tell most people, that many had figured it out on their own, and that people talk more openly about suicide now. But she wasn’t hearing a word I said.
My therapist says that my brother and I need to turn off the TV, march up those basement stairs, and meet my sister and my mother on equal terms. But I can’t even bring myself to tell my sister I’m seeing a therapist.
In the twenty-six years I knew my grandpa, we never really talked. The TV was our only bond. Now that he is gone, I realize how little I know about him. I know that he liked to eat pickled onions with rice, and could sketch chickens. I know he was a Nisei — a second-generation Japanese American — and had once worked on the railroads and picked grapes.
I grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, less than five minutes from my grandpa’s house. Whenever he and my grandma came over to baby-sit me and my twin sister, Judi, we would watch TV and eat sweet rolls dripping with sugary glaze. I can name every show that played during those years, from Gilligan’s Island to My Three Sons. Grandpa’s favorites were Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco. During the summer, we’d watch All My Children, which he and Grandma followed for years. (I now find it amusing that my traditional grandparents enjoyed a show about young white people who wore lots of jewelry and had affairs all the time.)
Sometimes they’d watch the Japanese channel on cable: samurai shows, singing contests, family dramas. Rather than read the English subtitles, I’d try to understand the dialogue, hoping to learn the language. I was too shy to practice my Japanese with Grandpa.
My grandma died in 1983, and in 1991 Grandpa was diagnosed with kidney cancer. While home from college for Christmas, I accompanied my parents to Grandpa’s house at five or six every afternoon. Judi and I would take turns sitting in the rocking recliner while Grandpa would lie on the sofa with his head propped up on a Japanese headrest, a hard vinyl cushion on a metal stand.
We watched the news, baseball, Wheel of Fortune, and Murder, She Wrote. Without the TV on, it would have been too quiet. An air of drowsy calmness permeated the creaky rooms: faded furniture still draped with my grandma’s weblike yarn doilies; snapshots of Judi and me in grade school; a wind-up alarm clock with glow-in-the-dark hands; an old man in baggy pajamas.
I wonder what he was thinking in his last years. Was he lonely? Did he fear dying? Was life still worth living now that he had lost his wife and gotten cancer, now that he couldn’t walk without a cane and needed his children’s help to survive?
But I never asked him those questions. We only watched TV.
The decision not to watch TV didn’t come easily. Thursday night, I believed, wouldn’t be the same with out Cheers; I needed Tom Brokaw to keep me company at dinner; I couldn’t give up sporting events. But these entertainments, I realized, brought pleasure at a price. My days were fragmented by television schedules. And, worst of all, there were the commercials.
Approximately one-third of TV programming was devoted to advertisers trying every means available to get me to buy the products they were selling. They implanted desires (a new Bronco does sound nice) and appealed to my baser inclinations with promises of status, power, and beautiful women. Most TV shows, at least implicitly, touted the same message: that people need consumer goods to be happy.
Now that I’m done with TV, it’s easier to see things as they are.
After we bought the console unit and the recliner, our evenings changed. Each night would begin with the sound of his raising the footrest. I would prepare his plate and carry it to him in the den, draping three connected paper towels over his chest and placing his twenty-ounce glass of iced tea on the end table, next to his ashtray. Then I would sit on the couch, balancing my own plate on my knees.
When we were done eating, I would clean up, and he would lower the footrest so that I could sit on the floor between his knees, and he would put his hand in my hair, and we would watch.
Cathy E. Davis