Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hobby Horse

I’m positive now that I take life too seriously. This thought has occurred to me on many of my longer vacations. The problem is, I forget the lessons I believe I have learned on vacation when ordinary life is revealed again. Normal life shouldn’t be so oppressing but I’m guessing it will be, absent some unique strategy I can formulate on this vacation. But after all, it’s not like life is a party for my benefit, as it is here.

With my mind full of vacation sugar plum fairies and I can afford to relax.

Long ago, I read another influential book (leaving Alan Watts alone for the evening.) I remembered bringing it up in table conversation the other night. The name of the book was Future Shock and it was about a predicted overabundance of choice.  It was basically a one hit wonder as Alvin Toffler, and I believe his wife (I currently have no Internet to research such matters,) tried to follow up the bestseller with other sequels and original books. None were successful, as far as I can remember, but Future Shock itself was the darling of the psychology majors like me for a time. It faded as Toffler became less respected in his subsequent failed efforts.

The prediction of an overabundance of choice has really come true in so many ways. The scientific part of the idea was that there might actually be a limit beyond which human beings can process the information needed to make correct choices. Television channels are one obvious example of too much choice. One could readily spend all of one’s time watching only entertainment with no substance in one’s life whatsoever. The endless pull of the insignificant affects not only adults but especially children who grow up with less historical experience to see the inane for what it is. When I was younger, the television choices were much smaller in number. There were three major television networks in my home town and all showed the evening news at precisely the same time. News was not very entertaining to a child but there was no Cartoon Network to switch to and avoid such harsh realities of forced knowledge of world events. There were no VCRs or DVDs, there was the evening news and you could pick one of three, or you could play with your slinky on a rainy day.

Actually, as a child I spent much less time than I do now watching television. I spent more time playing outside. I can only remember one show that I never missed each week and it was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” James Bond was a favorite of mine and when looked at from a child’s perspective, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was a weekly spy drama akin to Ian Fleming’s masterful character. I think this show probably began my love for television drama. Strangely, looking back at the show, I would have thought that it was a lot more serious than it actually is. Television has always had to attract a large audience and adults were obviously drawn in by the campy nature of the show. I completely missed this tongue in cheek humor as a child.

I’m really torn between wanting the choice that hundreds of television channels provide and the necessity that every person have some knowledge of economic and political affairs in order to be proper citizens. The overabundance of choice has at least provided dramatic shows that do not have to be all things to all people, but choice has been the enemy of a general level of competent citizenry in my experience.

As an offbeat example of the historical change that has gradually occurred, the weekly magazine TV Guide was quite a political force in my younger days. Today, it is another entertainment rag if it exists at all. You might find it hard to believe that TV Guide had a political viewpoint and discussed serious subjects but I assure you that it did. There were editorials and articles promoting television as an educational medium, for instance.  And yes, I actually did read the articles, not just the show listings, just as I actually read the articles and interviews in Playboy magazine (as well as..). This admission seems highly amusing and not credible to anyone I inform. I’m not sure I had any kind of a proper education in school, but I certainly did focus on learning what I could, and what was immediately available in my home life included the articles I read in magazines and inevitably the shows I watched on television.

TV Guide greatly inspired me to choose educational television programs over the junk. I can remember the “vast wasteland” theory as a guiding influence. I cannot remember which chairman of the FCC used that phrase (no Internet, remember) to describe American television but it was a revelatory moment to me. I really had no idea that such an opinion was possible. Television was one of the more enjoyable things in my life. Yet, there it was, described as a vast wasteland by someone who should know. I began choosing my shows more carefully, much more carefully than I do today, even.

As an example, there was a show called “Firing Line” hosted by William F. Buckley. It was on public television, or PBS, the shining light  in the darkness of the vast wasteland. While I could not at first  follow even an inkling of the discussions, I  gradually learned to understand things. I doggedly watched what was an incomprehensible show to me. I remember making a game of it. How much of the vocabulary could I understand? Perhaps I could understand 90 percent of the words but Mr. Buckley’s sentences seemed to be utter nonsense in their length and complexity. Always, I remember his sly smiles as if to congratulate himself on just how well spoken he had just been. His smile and twinkling eyes always hinted that he had just made what he believed to be an unassailable argument. I longed desperately to understand. As time went by I remember discovering that I had actually understood a number of Mr. Buckley’s sentences in a row. Soon I would get the gist of the conversations. I was still very naïve politically. I cannot imagine I understood the simplest political notions in any thorough way. I remember discussions of the Vietnam war and personally disagreeing with Mr. Buckley at times and yet agreeing with him in other instances. Perhaps I was developing a realistic notion of the war; I cannot be sure. All I know for certain is that other kids my age were not watching “Firing Line” and making a game out of how many sentences they could understand in a row. In the end I must admit that I accomplished quite a feat for a boy educated in the deep south.

I don’t, however, think my early quest for more educational fare in television and magazines is the reason I take life too seriously, or at least not directly. I have always felt that I lived in the shadows of intellectual giants, and that I never really had what it took to be successful coming from a relatively impoverished educational background as I have. The problematic idea that pushes me in the direction of taking life so seriously is the seeming lack of understanding the average common man has of his obligations as a citizen. It’s not that my understanding is so superior. It’s that there are unmistakable signs that this common man is hopelessly lost…scarily lost.

The exceptions that prove the point are the “news junkies” of the world. The 24 hour news cycle is absolutely a brave new frontier in the vast wasteland. Even shows that appear to be educational and self aware (I’m thinking of Rachel Madow here) are in the end, somewhat vacuous in the long term. The misconceptions or utter fabrications of the other side of the spectrum represented by Fox News are avoided. The bread and butter of the show is the exposure of Fox News to a great degree, but that achievement is grade school in level. What kind of audience does PBS’s Frontline have, the sole high exception I can immediately think of to the vast wasteland? I wager their audience is probably extremely small in comparison. The amazing thing about Frontline is the perspective it gives.  You could watch the barrage of daily news continuously and never get this overall deep perspective on a story. There is simply too much choice. The networks have too much time to fill and the insignificant blends with the significant in a tangle that probably confuses the most able of our citizens. Watching Frontline (and to a small extent, Rachel Madow who actually is intellectually astute and has been known to stay on topic for periods of time that are similarly antithetic to the chase of ratings) is often a revelatory experience the size of an earthquake.

Frontline uses good investigative reporting coupled with the perspective of time to reveal self-evident truths that were anything but self-evident before the viewer began watching. And while Frontline style documentaries were present in the early days of commercial television, they are no more. Even with cable networks with names like The Learning Channel, The History Channel, and The Discovery Channel there is much learning, history, and discovery. These once promising new sources of television nonfiction now prefer the equivalent of alligator wrestling or cake throwing contests to pull in the ratings. Frontline proves that well funded educational fare can break the barriers and improve the citizen voters, but instead of reading the ballot, understanding the issues and exploring these important choices, most of our voters are searching for the country’s best hamburger and fries, or watching the cake contest at the local fair.

My recent rediscovery of the joy of nonfiction books (some are hopelessly awful while others seem sheer genius, choices…choices…) has cemented the idea that there is just too much, way too much, in the way of expansive choice in entertainment and that short attentions spans have, obvious to anyone, come along with this. Entertainment in the form of scripted or unscripted “reality” shows is just too plentiful for it not to be the popular choice of the average man, while the evening news, I assure you, has become pure entertainment compared to the days when I had to watch it as a child. There are more seductive choices now than my slinky toy and competition demands the fluffy stuff and the overstating of the oversimplified.

I don’t want to stretch the point too much. Obviously, the Internet is a new frontier of choice that is positive in it’s provision of depth. Life is not television and many people I know are not even vaguely influenced by entertainment or television. What I am saying is that the reason I have taken life too seriously is that I feel the level of public discussion is dangerously distant from William F. Buckley, his politics aside. It is not my responsibility, but I have tended to take it on. (I wonder what ratings William Buckley’s show got, remembering that there were 4 networks, including his venue of PBS.)

And I see, here it is, staring at me in black and white. Why should I be so serious on my vacation? What kind of fool am I to be worrying about things I think are more important than prepaid downtime? (Actually, it is a novel experience to blog on vacation.) I have pushed the rock up the mountain and had it roll back down too many times before to ignore the fact that I should be enjoying old age and to hell with the consequences for those who will never know the world I grew up with. I will never know my own parents’ world either.

Perhaps everything is relative like this, which is a thought that always provides comfort. But even if it is not, I will remember the enjoyable day I had in Madeira, before I started writing this nonsensically motivated thing. Please, remind me to write about the pictures I took. Or please, Michael, my main reader, remind yourself to discuss each picture at length.  That should prove to be relaxing and yet expressive. The result could be thought of as a botanical notebook of life.  After all, could I now be more positive that I have taken life too seriously? I think the real answer to all my post-vacation-return-to-ordinary-life problems is to make an effort to be more serious about the educationally mundane, while simultaneously being less serious about the seemingly important great problems of our time. I think they call that a hobby.