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What I Watched Last Night: Nothing

A short while after I'd settled into her apartment, Gracie said to me, "The TV's there if you want to watch TV." It's not like I'm so daft that I actually need to be reminded what the big, hulking Magnavox is for, but it comes in handy at 3 a.m., when - with nothing else to do in such a small town at such an ungodly hour - I try to find out if 3 a.m. TV is any worse in rural Virginia than it is in Chicago.

No matter what I do, I get snow. Enough incessant white-noise snow to render an army of insomniacs narcoleptic. More snow than the Donner Party ever imagined. Hissing, fuck-you TV snow.

Then it occurs to me what the problem might be.

"Hey, exactly when was the last time you actually watched TV on this TV?" I ask Gracie several hours later. "Let's just say it's been a long time, baby," she replies very matter-of-factly, as if the thing would make a marvelous boat anchor if it didn't have a DVD player hooked up to it. I do some basic math and realize that every TV station in America switched from analog to digital at least 15 months ago. Unless you bought a converter box to prepare for the conversion - something Gracie didn't bother to bother with - you get . . . snow. Hissing, fuck-you TV snow. So for all intents and purposes, "It's been a long time" might as well be "When Grover Cleveland was president."

Beyond the earthy-crunchy types in northern California and Oregon and Washington State who have dedicated themselves to living without modern conveniences like basic TV, processed foods, and deodorant, I begin to wonder: Exactly who the hell lives like this on purpose? You might as well have no phone, no light, no motor car, not a single luxury. So like Robinson Crusoe or even Denzel Washington or Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner carrying on after Armageddon Day, this is when you start thinking, "Okay, what the fuck am I supposed to do with myself now?"

I'm not talking in terms of the overdone "our electricity went out last night" newspaper piece where some columnist discovers some shining revelation lying somewhere between momentary respite and full-bore Dorothy Gale and then writes breathlessly about it as if they were the first to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Sorry, Mary Mitchell and the rest of you - go through more than two or three weeks of real cold turkey without something as basic as free over-the-air TV (or worse - God forbid - Internet access) and you'd be considerably more qualified to write about going without something that even dirt-poor people take for granted. I'm talking about total weeks-long deprivation of something fundamentally basic in your life, like when you're a kid and you find out the tiny cabin in the Wisconsin Northwoods your parents have dragged you to for month during the summer has no TV, either.

So, like an office full of people trapped for several hours in a stuck elevator, you spend time like this discovering (or rediscovering) who you're with. Maybe that's for the better, or maybe it's for the worse. Or worse, maybe for the worst. But we discover things nonetheless.

Unlike many newspaper columnists, I did not come to find the whole experience to be some quaint discovery of the simple pleasures my electricity-deprived ancestors enjoyed when they weren't busy suffering from typhoid, catarrh, or consumption. I did not start thinking our pioneer ancestors had more-fulfilling lives doing their homework with hunks of coal on the backs of shovels to the light of whale-oil lamps. I did not want to go rolling a barrel hoop down the street for entertainment. I did not want to start climbing a tree or lay on on the lawn to daydream at the clouds.

I did, however, find myself beginning to feel compelled to visit the local post office on the days where they tacked up new Wanted posters. Yes, this was fucking murder, especially at first. But I have found the experience revealing so far.

First, I now know why I've had the idea that every literate American up until the 1950s was more conversant than we are today in matters of fine art and classic literature. Before TV started sucking up everyone's brains in earnest, there were few character-building diversions beyond reading and writing and visiting your friends and next-door neighbors. Sure, there was radio in our (great-)grandparents' day, but lying prone on the floor and staring at the ol' Philco for hours required an exercise of imagination. Many of those imaginations gave us the best TV and movies we'd ever come to know, but I'm pretty sure there were newspaper columnists 70 years ago writing about how staring all glassy-eyed at a glowing parlor appliance for three hours every night was sucking the intelligence out of our nation's youth, too.

This also has given me some insight into just how many early-American families managed to amass 30 kids. Before TV was invented, there was little else to do after the sun went down but fuck. A lot.

Second, it has occurred to me that the seven most chilling words ever strung together aren't "You have the right to remain silent." No, they are: "So. What do you wanna do now?" If you love your mate and you actually have things in common with each other, questions like this are actually a plus because ultimately, you just end up fucking. A lot. But if you don't, you've got trouble on your hands because without TV to plop down in front of so it just looks like you're doing something with your bored, lazy carcass, there are few places in the house for you to hide yourself away. A one-bedroom apartment might as well be a cell in Alcatraz. A rambling seven-room ranch with a full basement becomes the size of a doghouse unless you've managed to develop some serious, time-consuming hobby where you can get away with ignoring your entire family, like building birdhouses or turning every square foot of your basement into a shrine to the pleasures of small-gauge model railroading.

Curiously, though, I don't want to leave or change a thing here. Maybe it's because Gracie's not my wife or even someone I feel compelled to hide from when we're in the same living space for silence-deafening days on end with nothing more than our conversations to keep each other interested and amused. But mostly, I especially don't mind this because it has revitalized my interest in writing about stuff - and that's a huge part of me that I thought I'd lost for good several months ago.

On the other hand, Gracie's been in bed during the past three hours I've been writing this - maybe even wondering exactly when the hell I'm going to knock this writing shit off, crawl in next to her, and just listen to her breathe. Maybe so, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to be better off than I would be if I spent the same three hours glued to ESPN or The History Channel instead.


Visit the What I Watched Last Night archives and see what else we've been watching.


Submissions and comments welcome.


Posted on September 20, 2010

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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