The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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When my father left, my mother bought our first television set. She put it in what was now her bedroom. Three pieces of furniture floated in that spacious room: a Singer sewing machine, a mattress atop a box spring, and now a black-and-white television with rabbit ears. Instead of welcoming Dad home from work, my brother and I learned to sing along with the opening themes of Petticoat ]unction, Green Acres, and My Three Sons.
Now, at the age of forty, I’m finally getting to know my father. He hates television. Whenever it’s on he suffers headaches and falls asleep. His third wife, Robbie — advice columnist for True Story and relationship-etiquette spokeswoman for Kotex — attributes this reaction to a combination of the small size of their set and Dad’s unusually delicate brain waves. Using curious Brooklyn logic, Robbie suggests that a big-screen television would somehow dilute Dad’s reaction and cure his “defect.” And with his recent retirement, she points out, he will have more time to watch what he’s been missing the last thirty years. My dad says nothing and continues to waste his life reading two books a week.
I believe what my friend John Black says: You can’t trust someone who doesn’t watch television, for the same reason you can’t trust someone who doesn’t read. (Don’t think about this too long. )
When I phoned my mother at Christmas, she said God was punishing her by causing both her television and her stereo suddenly to quit at the same time. She was afraid to try the toaster. I told her that, although God can make life pretty miserable, he doesn’t speak to us through appliances. She laughed, but not as if what I’d said were funny.
I meet a lot of latte-sipping public-television watchers in the college town where I live. Fifty-five channels to choose from, and they’re glued to Jim Lehrer interviewing Warren Christopher, or an extended series on the Federal Reserve, or another Peter, Paul, and Mary concert. The good programs are only on during “pledge week” anyway, when PBS takes its own shows hostage: “If you don’t send us your contribution this minute, you’ll never see Big Bird again.” I have never sent them a dime.
Here are some statistics for the wine-and-cheese set: TV Guide prints 14 million copies a week. Poetry magazine prints seventy-five hundred each month. And Poetry just increased its subscription rate to twenty-seven dollars a year, twice what TV Guide costs.
I rarely hear the word poetry spoken on television, but here’s an idea for a pilot that would change that. The working title is Poetic Justice. Poet and sleuth W. S. Merwin solves copyright crimes with help from such visiting bards as Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine, Gary Snyder, and Tess Gallagher. They crack each case by converting clues into verse; not free verse, either, but tight, metered verse — the kind only forty people on earth understand. They consume large amounts of alcohol and, with the help of New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, gleefully burn unsolicited submissions. In the final scene, the culprit — typically some disillusioned MFA student from a state university caught with ink on his or her hands — is given the choice of life imprisonment or having to write dissertations on all of Rod McKuen’s books. They always choose prison.
On my cable system, the Christian Channel is right next to MTV. I like to flip back and forth between Pat Robertson and Snoop Doggy Dogg. It’s like going from heaven straight to hell without passing through purgatory.
I love Cops because it shows criminals actually being caught; the police are always tackling some crack peddler in an alley after a long chase. I feel as if I’m right there with the officers as they run down the mean streets of Tampa, Colorado Springs, or Kansas City. Often the suspects are shirtless, muscular, sweaty young persons of color. Sometimes you can see their boxer shorts. I hate it, though, when the cops use a battering ram to bust in a door and the kids inside — usually toddlers watching daytime television — start crying. When that happens, I change the channel real fast.
Next time you’re channel surfing, count how many times you see a woman being threatened with violence, or how many times you see a handgun. Do this for thirty minutes right before you go to bed.
Rose, my fifteen-year-old daughter, is home from school for Christmas break and has lots of time on her hands. She tells me the subject on Montel Williams yesterday was “overweight girls who blame their mothers.” Rose says one fourteen-year-old weighed 260 pounds and had been sexually active since she was eleven. I ask if there was a lot of crying on the show. She smiles and says yes, and that once, during a show about runaways, even Montel cried. I’ve noticed that when Geraldo has attractive young girls on his show, he touches them a lot.
If you watch television five hours a day from age five until you die at seventy-five, you will have spent fourteen and a half years in front of the set. When I volunteered to read to residents at the local nursing home, I noticed that the televisions were on constantly — full blast, too. When patients pass away, the last sound they hear on earth could be the voice of Kathie Lee Gifford or Sally Struthers.
I think Rose watches too much television; she got a D in geometry this semester. But I partly blame her teacher, who is known to favor boys. When Rose went to an after-school tutoring session, her geometry teacher ignored her, preferring to play cards with a group of male students. Rose stayed and did her world-history homework, and never went back for help. I called the principal to complain, and he told me geometry was his worst subject, too.
Rose spends every other week at her mother’s in Deary, Idaho. Her mom likes to remind me that they don’t watch television. But they do rent a lot of videos. During her four-day Thanksgiving break, Rose watched eleven movies at her mom’s, but no “television.” Sometimes when I call Rose there, she gives distracted one-word answers to my questions, and I hear a video in the background, maybe a gunshot or an obscenity. So I cut the conversation short. After thousands of dollars of therapy, I’ve learned to obsess only over situations I can control.
One night, Rose and I were settling in to watch Roseanne when our neighbors got into a huge fight. It was midwinter, the time of year in Idaho when a lot of dysfunction surfaces. We heard swearing, bottles and furniture breaking, and the woman’s body hitting the wall between our apartments. Then silence. Even though we had cable, the impact on the wall distorted our television picture: Roseanne had suddenly lost thirty pounds. So I called the cable company, then the police. The cops showed up first. I opened my door to find three of them crouched in the hallway, just like on Cops. I whispered what I knew, and they told me they had been here before but had never been able to catch the couple midfight. I listened as the cops went next door. When the couple answered, the woman took the lead, like a good “enabler.” Nothing was wrong, she explained; they just get a little loud now and then.
After the cops left, the man pounded on our door so hard the paint flew, and demanded to know if I had called the cops. The woman stood beside him, her face red and puffy, but smiling like a trooper. No, I said. I didn’t call. I’m just watching television.
Stephen J. Lyons