I used to watch a lot of tv, as a bored, frequently lonely/alone kid. I have seen most of the episodes of M*A*S*H*, for instance, without meaning to, because channel 43 showed an hour of M*A*S*H* reruns twice a day, at times when I wasn’t structurally required to be doing something else (school, sleep, eating with family), and also times when no one else was watching TV (early or late local news, primetime shows). I want to stress that the amount of time that qualified as “not structurally required to be doing something else” was basically ALL the time. like if I was awake 16 hours a day, and I usually was, I was at school for eight hours, transitioning to/from school for another hour, and then pretty much watching TV a lot of the rest of the time.
this included: Watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. Watching regional pro wrestling on ESPN after school. Watching the same taped episode of SportsCenter over and over. Watching infomercials. Watching pan-and-scanned, cleaned-up versions of not-that-great movies on TBS. Watching USA Up All Night hoping despite myself that this would be the time they showed boobs (the 1990s were a distant and backwards land, as far as how hard it was to see boobs)
there was a reason for this: I had nothing else to do, not that anyone was stopping me from discovering other things to do. Sometimes I would dick around in less passive ways, or read, or play Nintendo. But yeah I didn’t do a whole lot. I like TV because it would take me out of a self that very often wasn’t super happy. So I could prop myself up on TV and just let stories and images and worlds pour in, which was good, because suburban Cleveland was not the richest place in terms of stimulation. But the propping up wasn’t just a rest — it was a compulsion, an addiction, operating under the cover of an innocuous defaulting-to (other addictions operate this way too).
quick aside/image: I used to watch infomercials so much. I would have told you it was ironic somehow, back in the day. Now I see it for what it was. In novels, specifically Wise Blood, I’ve read about soapbox preachers and traveling salesmen, standing in small cities, perched on the bumper of a car, hollering about Jesus or a potato peeler, with a few bored yokels. (Think of Enoch Emery). Those people didn’t watch because the Jesus patter or the potato peeler were hynotizing; they watched because they had nothing else to look at. Anyway that’s how I sometimes see the TV-drowned chapters of my young life: my chubby face reflecting the blue TV light like the walls of a swimming pool, watching the hucksters because they were there.
as i grew up and away from both suburbs and those preliminary versions of myself, I stopped watching so much TV. this was in part because I didn’t have a TV all to myself with cable, in a house where I didn’t have to pay rent. but it was also in part because I didn’t need TV in the same ways anymore, and because, the stuff on TV wasn’t as good as the sensory inputs available in meatspace (other people, specifically girls, college) and improvements on the TV value proposition (movies not shown on TBS, books). at no point do we ever stop propping our cracked or wobbly selves up against stories, other voices, in other to give them a rest, to prevent them from collapsing under the stress of being alone in your own skull.
anyway i grew up/out/away and before too much road was behind me, i looked back at the amount of TV that I watched with a little shiver of regret, like whoops, that was a pretty large chunk of my finite lifespan I farted away there. for a while, if you talked to me after a few beers, i would tell you that TV sucks, people who watch too much TV suck (the same way that ex-smokers are the biggest grinches about smoking), TV, yadda yadda. I wasn’t quite one of those weenies who brags about not having a TV, but I was a fellow traveler for sure. I definitely saw people who flicked through channels idly, watching whatever because it was easier than doing anything else, as zombified. And to be honest, I still make little bitchy judgments about people who watch indiscriminate amounts of TV. (Content zombification is a real thing; TV doens’t have a monopoly on it — say hello, narrowminded readers of literary fiction).
But with age I learned the mature pleasures of TV. you can relax after a day of slowly losing to fate by watching a TV program. you can share the joy of narrative or comedy by watching a TV program with friends and loved ones. you can fill a rainy day with a few binged episodes of a quality hourlong drama. TV is a medium it is OK to prop your battered self up against for a while, just not always. TV is fine, TV is not the enemy of anything, TV is just stories coming from a glowing box. You have to be mindful about what you let into your eyes and ears with TV, but this is also true of all other things.
The internet used to not be like TV, which is to say, I formely did not use the Internet the way that my adolescent self used TV — as a hiding place for someone who didn’t even understand what they were hiding from, or that they were hiding at all. I have been in the very slow motion process of understanding that I idly flick through the internet, keeping my e-mail and chat and twitter open in tabs pretty much whenever I’m working, in the hope that someone will ping me, some dopamine firecracker will light itself. I am on the internet to get relevant messages that are important to my ongoing human existence. The internet is more of a public place, owing to its interactivity, than TV ever could hope to be. But I also am leaning on the internet to prop up my self-understanding. But also I don’t want to go all the way in the other direction, like I did with TV, and become a roving ranter about how the Internet sucks (some aspects of networked human existence *do* suck, though).
The moral instruction here is bonecrunchingly insipid: moderation in all things, etc. I never said I was a prophet of mental hygiene. This is just how I feel about the Internet right now. I wonder if I haven’t gotten into the same dependency — using an always-on, always-there cultural thing to fill silences instead of living life.
side note: M*A*S*H* is pretty good