Our television broke last week. Right in the middle of a Robert Redford home-run swing in The Natural, the picture tube gave up the ghost. The groans from my three sons—David, Paul, and Joe—were only the herald of days of wailing and gnashing of teeth as our household tried to cope with a post-television era.
Indeed, our post-TV days were bleak. The boys wandered around a suddenly large and empty house with bewildered, blank stares. It reminded me of the look on the faces of human bodies occupied by alien beings in science fiction movies.
Out of this bewildered stage emerged an unspoken war of nerves. We (Judy and I) decided not to fix the television set or buy a new one “just to see how it goes.” To my sons, of course, this decision seemed totally irrational. They knew how things would go without a TV: Death was the inevitable result, but only after many days of empty, meaningless suffering.
To their credit, however, they devised an insidious strategy. It had not escaped their attention that my typical pattern was to rush home from work, devour the hour-long McNeil-Lehrer news report for supper, capped by an ESPN basketball game for dessert. Let’s just see who cracks first, was their obvious, unchristian intention.
The main theater for this war turned out to be our bedroom, where Judy and I took to reading books. (Judy, who dislikes TV, has always spent much of her evening time this way.) The boys would wander in and out, not sure whether to stay, try to talk, or move on in search of who knows what.
After several days, they discovered “who knows what”: games with their brothers. You must understand that playing a game with one’s brother is a desperate move for most children. Watching television can appear to be a social, brotherly enterprise, but it really is not. It’s a solo affair, even if the room is full of people.
But playing games is another matter. Someone wins and someone loses. Negotiations over rules judgments are called for. Taking turns, devising strategy—these call for major investments of basic etiquette and understanding.
Surprisingly, it went quite well. The middle shelf in our kitchen closet, stacked with Monopoly, Sorry, Yahtze, and Pit, got more attention than it had in years.
Inevitably, however, the games’ entertainment value wore thin. And a great deal of creativity emerged. Previously, their creativity was limited to choosing a TV channel. Now they improvised. One simple example: a massive Lego castle and maze for Cinnamon and Sugar, our gerbils.
Yesterday, however, I discovered that fallen nature is never far below the surface. The newfound surge of fellowship and creativity had not quite expunged from my sons’ psyches the desire for “Murder She Wrote,” Star Wars, and cartoons. In fact, they used their creativity to indulge the old yen: Twelve-year-old David realized that the Apple computer screen is really nothing more than a picture tube, and that it could easily be connected to the broken television. I came home not to the spirited sounds of dice rolls and competitive camaraderie, but to the conclusion of The Natural—Robert Redford won both the game and the girl, and my sons passively soaked it up.
I hope some of the lessons of our post-television era stick, however. We all watch too much television. Our children are the biggest victims. Some studies have revealed that teachers believe at least 25 percent of their students aren’t getting enough sleep because they watch late-evening television. They are too tired to do schoolwork, and their creative energies drain off into the passive curvatures of the living-room couch.
For me, withdrawal from McNeil-Lehrer and basketball was a snap. But I have to admire David’s creativity in making the connections (mental and electronic) that turned our computer monitor into a TV screen; and that Apple CRT has pretty good resolution. The question is, of course, how good is my resolution?
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