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Health and Fitness Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 29, 2009

Following a writer’s advice to turn off that endlessly quacking box

By Philippa Stasiuk

When I was 10, my sister was 5 and I often read to her in the evenings, by order of my mother. Sophie loved the Berenstain Bears books, which I found to be cloying then and even more so now, having reread them in various waiting rooms over the years. The Berenstain Bears visited both the dentist and the doctor, and dentists and doctors often have those respective books in their waiting rooms. 

In one, Papa Bear, the ursine precursor to Homer Simpson, volunteers to quit watching TV for a month along with Brother Bear and Sister Bear, or something like that. Initially the bears agonize over how to entertain themselves without TV but eventually they reconnect with the hobbies and pastimes they’d enjoyed prior to their over-fondness for the boob tube. 

When the month is up, Papa Bear predictably plans a full day of couch surfing, to his wife’s chagrin. But all ends well when he spies trout jumping in the local brook and abandons the tube in favor of fishing.

I quit watching TV for a number of reasons, none of which were because I wanted more time to fish, although I do enjoy it on the rare occasion when I find myself with a rod in hand that someone else has baited.

Stephen King, the famous horror writer and Red Sox fan is responsible for making me quit TV. Although I’ve never read his novels, two years ago a friend gave me his book, On Writing, which is a part memoir, part how-to guide on the writing process. King’s first piece of advice for aspiring writers is that, if they’re awake, they should be reading. The second is to stop watching TV.

“I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here? How many Frasier and ER reruns does it take to make one American life complete? How many Richard Simmons infomercials? How many whiteboy/fatboy Beltway insiders on CNN? Oh man, don’t get me started,” wrote King.

King’s admonition coincided with my own musings on what life would be like without television. I used to work in New York, which, as anyone knows who has done so, is a city that rewards those who can endure the grind. Successful and failed lives are equal testaments to a lifetime of repeating the same day of long work hours sandwiched between two sub-nutritious slices of soul-sucking commute — an endless daily variation of the same day. For me, the click of the TV on-button during dinner had simply become part of the daily routine and as such, another chunk of time sliced away.

But it wasn’t just the TV’s power over my time that irked me. I also couldn’t shake the suspicion that TV producers were having a good chuckle at TV watchers and the level to which our entertainment tastes had sunk. The tube plucked upon strings I’d rather not think about every evening, which can be summed up as the dumbing down of America.

Maya Angelou said that the greatest compensation for youth’s illness was the ignorance of the seriousness of the affliction. Primetime TV is aimed at the young and it certainly glorifies ignorance. Reality TV in particular simultaneously mocks and glamorizes our collective failings in values and education. Monosyllabic, grunting hunks with butt fat injected into their pectorals plot to win women for money while ending each grammar gumbo called a sentence with “you know?”

And sophisticated plots be damned. Each show is aimed at tapping into primal instincts, and each competitor a two-dimensional sycophant. There is also something fundamentally degrading about watching people succumb to the petty plot twists cooked up by the studio to simultaneously maximize humiliation and the most viewers.

Of course, we could debate whether TV is reflecting society or the other way round but the point is TV rewards jackasses. They’ve even got a show specifically called Jackass, meant to showcase those who have turned said adjective into an art form. 

But I digress. My growing distaste for it aside, quitting TV was not easy. In fact, I only quit when we moved and I just didn’t call the cable company. And yes — like quitting any addiction, there is an itchy sense of loss, along with joyful and shameful relapses into the comfort and familiarity of watching the same Seinfeld rerun for the 10th time.

I’m also still working on the key component of my TV-free fantasy, which was replacing it with meaningful activity. I do read in the evenings now, although probably nowhere near the amount recommended by Stephen King. Magazine and newspaper articles have filled some of the TV gap, and I often go for walks or, weather permitting, do some evening gardening.

I also confess to sometimes watching movies via Netflix, superior to TV because it requires an active participation in what one wants to see, and because there are no commercials. I know what you’re thinking though. Pathetic. I’m really just watching the tube again. But I did read somewhere that 40 percent of people still watch commercials when they’ve recorded their TV show and could fast forward through them. Things could be better but at least I’m not one of them.

I’m also sometimes so bushed from chasing two toddlers around all day that I can barely drag myself to bed, let alone take a crack at deciphering the narrative voice of Virginia Woolf. And this is one of the hardest lessons I learned from quitting TV: Not watching might give back time but it doesn’t give back energy.

But my movie viewing aside, it does feel fantastic to take a small stand against the worst of what TV has to offer, to swim upstream when so many minnows are swimming down. And that reminds me. As soon as this cold snap breaks, perhaps I’ll go fishing — as long as someone else comes along to bait the hook.

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