What’s on the tube?

old radio

Sometimes ideas arrive in your life at exactly the time you need them.

Several nights ago I was reading Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin. He describes how the commercial medium of television has profoundly shaped our culture.

Television stations make their profits by selling advertising, and advertising is bought by corporations to sell their products. And where does that leave us?

Elgin says that it creates an impossible double bind for viewers:

“People use the consumption levels and patterns portrayed in TV advertising to evaluate their levels of personal well-being, while those same consumption patterns are simultaneously devastating the environment and resource base on which our future depends.”

Strong words. But they led to me ponder my own relationship with television.

When I was growing up, we had an old Zenith radio prominent in the living room. My sister, brother, and I would gather around it in the evening while my mother cooked dinner and afterwards we’d return until bedtime. I learned to tell time by when Sergeant Preston and his dog Yukon King arrived at our house.

TV didn’t appear in my life until 5th grade. I have a clear memory of the kids (and grownups!) gathering at a neighbor’s house to catch the first snowy black and white picture. I remember wondering what all the excitement was about—it didn’t seem like such a big deal.

My child, of course, grew up in a very different world. She learned to read by watching Sesame Street and had favorite friends in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

TV gradually grew to be a constant background in my own life as well. That started to change about 15 years ago. Maybe the content of programs shifted or maybe I did. But suddenly the commercials seemed louder, or perhaps there were more of them. Elgin in his book estimates that people now may see an average of 35,000 commercials in a year. That’s a lot!

I found, too, that as more and more channels became available the content seemed to be degrading. Was it the garbage in, garbage out mentality that dictated what writers were creating?

Plots became simpler and sensationalism blossomed into an explosion of violence and sexual content. The definition of G-rated had come a long way from that first view of Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan hour!

And so, when I moved to a smaller home several years ago, I took the opportunity to take a break from television. I did miss it at first. There were blank spots in my living, especially at night when I got home tired from work, wanting to zone.

At first, I kept up with my favorites—Downton Abbey and House—via computer streaming. I compiled a list of 100+ must see videos on NetFlix. And I’d go down to the video store and rent a half-dozen of the latest at a time.

And then, another shift occurred. I discovered when I traveled, I no longer turned on the   I entered the hotel room. I was out of the habit.

I found to my disappointment that most of the ‘bestsellers’ at the video store were eye candy. Oh, they were full of sensational images and loud decibels but, as Shakespeare once said, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I seemed to cycle in and out of the NetFlix membership. But that, too, is fading and I find that I am not missing it either.

So what has replaced it? Yes, I’m back to radio. Only this time it is the new and improved Internet version. I have discovered Pandora, which is the audiophile’s dream come true. It custom designs a radio station that just plays the music you like (sans commercials, no less).

I started out with my old favorites: Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, with a bit of Enya and Clannad thrown in for good measure. But the software allows you, in addition to hitting the veto button (I don’t LIKE that song) to also say, OK, give me a bit more variety. I find lately that it is sneaking in some very fine guitarists and vocalists, often from Indie bands that I didn’t know about. And I like it!

I also have returned to reading. Some of it is also popcorn—the latest best sellers and mysteries. But in addition, I find I am reading a variety of other work. In the stack right now is  a  photo-essay on Bamboo, Pablo Neruda’s poetry, a book on good writing (of course!), a book on conscious eating, and Duane Elgin.

Although I don’t feel deprived, I recognize that the path I have chosen would not fit everyone.

But I would offer, in this season of mass, albeit desperate commercialism, that you monitor what your children are watching, absorbing, and digesting from the TV fare? And I challenge you to become more aware of what is entering your own world, as well.

I submit that the primary world can be infinitely more interesting than the shadows on Plato’s cave wall.

The day Miss McNuttle took her clothes off

Amazing Teachers

I went to high school a long time ago, but I still remember Miss McNuttle.

She taught Latin, both Latin I and Latin II, and Senior Honors English. Miss McNuttle was the prototypical spinster, back in those days when there still were spinsters: thick rimmed glasses, gray hair back in a bun, hospital shoes. We used to joke that she was a nun reject–that she was so tough the nuns wouldn’t let her teach in their schools.

She was so tough she could drive our star quarterback to tears with just one look–that look, you know the one. She was the only one of our teachers that you didn’t talk back to, that you addressed with her complete title, Miss McNuttle. You didn’t pile out the door when the bell rang, you sat there until she dismissed you.

So it was with much trepidation that I signed up for her class my senior year. Actually I was planning on skating that last year, but my guidance counselor flagged my schedule and called me on the carpet for taking home ec, art, study hall and bonehead English. I can still see that stubby pencil with the smeared eraser as she worked furiously to produce a schedule that my parents–and she–could live with.

That meant me and Miss McNuttle finally met. I’d taken three years of Spanish–no Latin for me!–but I knew her reputation. She didn’t disappoint. That year we learned how to diagram sentences, how to do word analogies. We struggled through not one but two Shakespeare plays and wrote countless essays that were carefully graded in red and required to be resubmitted.

But the crowning glory was public speaking. She said that every young well-educated woman or gentlemen should be able to speak in front of others. We wouldn’t be passing her class until we knew how to do it. Some classmates resorted to ditching on the days we had to emote. Others chose the quickest way out, stammering red-faced through the ordeal.

One assignment was to memorize a famous public speech and give it to the class without notes. Some of my classmates’ siblings had had Miss McNuttle in previous years, and they clued us in: the best speech to give was the Gettysburg Address–272 words, less than two minutes of agony if you talked fast.

The noon before we all had to go before the implacable judge we skipped lunch and traipsed out together to the track in-field grass, sat there coaching each other, prompting when we got to word 253 and were absolutely stuck. We arrived at class that day in a unit and nailed it! Twenty-seven renditions of “Four-score and…”, one after another.

We thought we were off the hook, but Miss McNuttle had another assignment waiting for us. We now had to give a five minute speech demonstrating how to do something. What do teenagers demonstrate that would be fit to display in front of this teacher? We put our heads together and came up with a reasonable list: tying fishing flies, ironing a shirt, making a Christmas tree ornament (that was me).

We arrived at class that day in a buzz, props at the ready in paper sacks at the side of our desks. But Miss McNuttle, waiting until the last straggler breezed through the door, had a surprise waiting for us.

She announced that it was not fair to ask us to do something she would not do herself; therefore she would demonstrate how to get ready for bed. We all leaned back in our chairs, welcoming the reprieve, however short.

First she took off her glasses. Then she peered in an imaginary mirror and brushed her teeth. So far, so good. Then she pantomimed taking off her shoes, one by one, unlacing them and putting them side by imaginary side. The blouse was next, unbuttoning one imaginary button after another. The blouse must have been long-sleeved, for she tugged a bit getting the last bit of imaginary fabric over her wrist.

Unzipped and stepped out of her imaginary skirt. Stopped a heartsbreath and smiled at us. Unhooked her imaginary nylons one by one from the girdle, smoothed them and lay them on the imaginary bed next to her blouse and skirt. Tugged and tugged at the girdle and finally shimmied out of it, tossed it on the imaginary pile. Paused another minute, smiled again, and reached behind her. She unhooked that bra–that bra so real we all could see in, even though it wasn’t there.

Smile at us all one final time, took a bow, and walked out the room. We sat in stunned silence. Where had she been all our lives? When Miss McNuttle returned a few minutes later, we were still in shock.

This woman, this mild, meek spinster explained that she once trod the boards, been a Broadway star “in her youth”. She affixed her black-rimmed glasses firmly back her nose and looked at us, making eye contact with every person in the room.

“Now,” she said, “Let me see you do your demonstrations. Shouldn’t be hard. I’ve shown you how.”