Those readers who know me outside of this blog (which is the majority of you, I suspect) know that the past several months have been a pretty miserable time in my life. In fact, the five months (and counting) of unemployment is the least of it. My mother faced and is facing some major health issues (which were diagnosed with spectacular timing in the week before my birthday and the week of Thanksgiving) and my grandmother passed away six days before Christmas. It hasn’t been a pleasant fall or winter and there were times when I just couldn’t deal with it. And when I couldn’t deal with it, I turned on the television. I was watching a lot of it, pretty much starting with the 3 pm re-runs of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, followed by Ellen at 4, through the syndicated (and edited) Sex and the City re-runs at 6 and on to whatever primetime had to offer until Conan O’Brian bid his audience adieu sometime after 12:30 am. That is A LOT of TV. Almost ten hours worth. I didn’t always just sit there on the couch, mouth gaping wide in some sort of stupor. I did things around the house, dishes, laundry, cooking, checking email, talking on the phone; I even painted my bedroom and bathroom. But always in the back was the TV, the noise, the distraction, the unreality of it all. It was like a security blanket. And I wasn’t any less miserable when I went to bed at night than I had been the previous night. After another sleepless and mournful night and an equally mournful and aimless morning, I decided I needed a change. I watched a little less television, read a little more. And one of the things I read was a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. One of the essays was about American TV consumption and its impact on the quality and content of the fiction being generated. This passage seemed written directly to me:I was intensifying my misery by spending so many hours trying to escape it. Reality will never compare favorably with fantasy, no matter how great your reality is. And when your reality is not so great, it is going to seem pale and insipid compared to the perfection on the screen. And the subtle message of television is that whatever your reality is, it isn’t perfect enough. You aren’t good-looking enough, smart enough, witty enough or exciting enough to merit attention. Otherwise you would be on TV. Or at least have friends to do stuff with, rather than sitting on your couch watching other people do things. Or other people pretending to be someone else doing fictional things in fake settings. Either way, it mostly just reminds you of all the things you don’t have personally, professionally, emotionally, financially and/or physically. After days and weeks of this constant stream of false hopes, I had lost momentum. My blog writing dropped off, I hadn’t touched my novel-in-embryo in ages, I hadn’t even thought about it in almost as long. I had lost touch with myself. A few days after reading the previous, I was reading Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father and read this, about his experience visiting family in Kenya for the first time, but thought it applied to my situation.
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. . . . But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes. A malignant addiction is also distinguished for spreading the problems of the addiction out and in in interference patterns, creating difficulties for relationships, communities, and the addicts very sense of self and spirit. In the abstract, some of this hyperbole might strain the analogy for you, but concrete illustrations of malignantly addictive TV-watching cycles aren’t hard to come by. If it’s true that many Americans are lonely, and if it’s true that many lonely people are prodigious TV-watchers, and it’s true that lonely people find in television’s 2-D images relief from their stressful reluctance to be around real human beings, then it’s also obvious that the more time spent at home alone watching TV, the less time spent in the world of real human beings, and that the less time spent in the real human world, the harder it becomes not to feel inadequate to the tasks involved in being part of the world, thus fundamentally apart from it, alienated from it, solipsistic, lonely. It’s also true that to the extent one begins to view pseudo-relationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley as acceptable alternatives to relationships with real people, one will have commensurately less conscious incentive even to try to connect with real 3-D persons, connections that seem pretty important to basic mental health. For Joe Briefcase, as for many addicts, the Special Treat begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original, genuine hunger – less satisfied than bludgeoned – subsides to a strange objectless unease.”Sitting there in bed, reading under the small light of my bedside lamp, I realized I was terribly addicted to television, to the pseudo comforting fact that it is always there to be accessed and to the fantasy and escape it provides. I needed to stop feeding my mind with a constant stream of fantasy because, as Mr. Wallace points out:
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction.” In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: essays and arguments. (New York: Back Bay Books,1998), 38-39.
“Of course, the downside of TV’s big fantasy is that it’s just a fantasy. As a Treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant.”
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. fiction.” In A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: essays and arguments. (New York: Back Bay Books,1998), 75.
“I thought about what Sayid had said as we continued to walk. Perhaps he was right; perhaps the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles, by me, by Auma, by Yusuf’s archaic radio. To say that poverty was just an idea wasn’t to say that it wasn’t real; the people we’d just met couldn’t ignore the fact that some people had indoor toilets or ate meat every day, any more than the children of Altgeld could ignore the fast cars and lavish homes that flashed across their television sets.My relentless television watching had created a “new standard of need and want” in my life, one that compared even less well with my current reality than my previous standard had. In short, I needed to trim the television watching. I couldn’t go cold turkey, simply because I have a lot of hours to fill each day, and a little television, a little escape isn’t so bad. I kept a few primetime favorites around, like The Office, House, Supernatural, and American Chopper but I cut out all primetime on Mondays and Wednesdays (hence this extraordinarily long blog). I still watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, as that is where I get my news. And Ellen makes me laugh, so she stays. On paper, it may not look like a change, but it is and in the past week it has made a huge difference. I’m happier than I have been in a while. Hopefully I can keep the momentum going.
But perhaps they could fight off the notion of their own helplessness. Sayid was telling us about his own life now; his disappointment at having never gone to the university, like his older brothers, for lack of funds; his work in the National Youth Corps, assigned to development projects around the country, a three-year stint that was now coming to an end. He had spent his last two holidays knocking on the doors of various businesses in Nairobi, so far without any success. Still, he seemed undaunted by his circumstances, certain that persistence would eventually pay off.”
Obama, Barack, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, 2d ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), 381.