on television and its soporific effect on emotion
2001-01-04

I’ve been meaning to write this rather heavy entry for a while, something today made it somewhat more immediate. Perhaps this is an experience exclusive to my circle of friends and family, or perhaps this is more universal; I’d be interested in hearing others reactions.

It deeply bothers me that some of the most emotionally charged moments in my life are invariably deadened to a dull prick by the presence of television. For some reason, people seem to want to leave the TV on, drawing focus and awareness away from truly important things, emotions, conflict.

I’m tired of it. I want to feel things.

Today, I had a reunion with family members, most of whom I haven’t seen for some three years, and with whom there have been some… revelations in the intervening time. Issues that, were this a scene in a movie, might have yielded some heavy conversations, or at least awkward silences.

Instead, I walk in the door, and Gone With the Wind is playing on the television, pulling the bulk of the focus of someone who has very little attention left to spare. Important conversations and reminiscing subverted by “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.”

This is replaced in turn with the Barbie Swan Lake DVD (horrible!), entirely preventing any sort of adult interaction, though it seemed to keep the kids pacified and numb. No wonder I spent the majority of the time in the courtyard smoking.

A week ago, on a trip to San Francisco, I had a huge fight with someone that I really should be having an even larger fight with. We walked away from one another on the streets of a strange city, but I returned shortly to the hotel room to make up. All the while, the fucking TV is on, showing some crappy movie that I don’t remember. The sort of conversation that, in a sane world where people deal with their feelings, would have been conducted fully and properly with silence or music was again muted with the dull buzz of the television.

There are many examples from my life of this phenomenon, but the one that bothered me most, both then and now, was the death of my mother.

I was called home by my father, basically telling me “this is it,” she had been sick with various stripes of cancer for years. I rushed over the 15 or 20 minute trip, to find her laying sick on the bed I grew up with, which had been moved into what used to be my computer room and designated as her sick bed. She was laying there, perhaps comatose but perhaps with some awareness…

and the Chicago Bulls on the TV.

Of all things.

I mean, I don’t remember her being that much of a Bulls fan, specifically, though they were doing terribly well that year. A Cubs game might have made more sense, but they weren’t in season. I’m trying to take this moment seriously, perhaps to talk to her in case she could still hear me. We’re just marking time until her breathing slows to a stop, and even then pretending that she’s still breathing a little bit, still aware, until my sister can arrive, the only other family member within a reasonable distance.

And Jordan shoots, scores.

I might’ve cried then, if there were silence. I might not have. I did, a little bit, later, at the funeral, but both my crying and not crying are material for another entry.

But that fucking TV. I wanted to ask my father to turn it off, perhaps put on some soft music, but I guess it was important to him, and perhaps to my mother, to continue the addictive murmur, the quickstream of images that has defined western consciousness for fifty years or so. The continuity, the normalness of it, just of watching whatever is on, let it catch the corner of your eye when you should be looking someone IN the eye, must have given him some peace.

I wonder if my mother had any awareness of it. I expect she didn’t much, or wouldn’t have cared, but I’d imagine if I was in that situation, if I was aware and unable to communicate, I’d be screaming inside “I’M DYING, YOU FUCKWADS!!! TURN OFF THE FUCKING TV AND PAY ATTENTION TO ME!! I’M SCARED!!!”

But I guess the TV makes you less scared. Less sad. Less in love. Less hateful. Less of everything that might mean something.

Please, anyone who reads this, if you are around someone who is dying, breaking up with you, begging forgiveness for their sins, anything important, anything that could be a scene in a movie… turn off the TV.

If I die (though I don’t expect to), and if anyone reading this is around me when I do so – turn off the TV.

If you’re only going to do something once, pay attention.

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Ello