New Year’s Day 2014: “To read more in my free time.”
New Year’s Day 2015: “To watch less TV, giving myself infinitely more free time.” (See last year).
Watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve two years in a row, while what my body really wanted was bed, must have been the final straw. I stopped being a resolution recluse and boldly proclaimed my change of direction: “Start picking up a book more often than the blasted TV remote, you lazy, half-witted slouch!”
So far, it’s working for me. Not perfectly well, but I’d say distinctly better. I’m doing more page turning than channel surfing. I’ve gone Wild and vicariously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and become engulfed in an Inferno of mystery and intrigue. I’ve left the Sister Wives and the Little Couple in favor of some quality time with Mike Bowditch, my favorite fictional game warden. And if I stay strong in my resolve, I fully intend to be Daring Greatly by March.
It’s still a hard-fought battle, a nightly dilemma. Will I open a book and forge new mental pathways or once more kid myself that The Learning Channel somehow deserves its name? Will great authors spark my imagination, or hoarders, bridezillas and gypsies totally snuff it into the couch cushions?
Not too long ago, there was no such choice to make, when TV and “camp” were not mutually possible, when the only big screen I had was the one keeping mosquitoes from swarming as I watched my own National Geographic episodes live from the porch. I could get a few different channels if I stared at the fire in the wood stove long enough. But aside from that—and being entertained by the pantry mice—paperbacks, cards, board games, and a retro radio tuned into “The Mountain of Pure Rock” atop Sugarloaf was as exciting as things got inside the cabin after sundown. Company from away didn’t always understand, especially after they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty had worn off.
“But what else do you do up here?” one of Helen’s middle school friends, who reportedly had Nintendo and her own TV/ VCR in her bedroom, asked.
“We play Yahtzee and Monopoly and eat s’mores and read,” she said. “We read a lot.”
“Like chapter books?” the girl said. By Sunday morning, her attention span was shot. And that was in the summer.
“I s’pose this will be kinda nice in the winter,” Tom said just after we made the Big Move to Rangeley full time. He was kicked back in his new double recliner watching our first ever upta camp TV, which also happened to be our first ever flat screen, hi-def, bigger than a breadbox TV. It was a huge buying decision, solely mine to make, while Tom had been away working out his teaching contract till the weekend. Did we really need to bring a boob tube into our “dream” log cabin? Was it time to ditch the tiny Discount Warehouse set we bought back in the ’90s, even though it still had some life left to it? “Yes!” I decided in a moment of early spring slump. I closed my second novel of the week and called DirecTV.
But I still couldn’t imagine how in the heck we could pick up satellite reception out here amid the towering trees. “Don’t worry,” friends told me. “Norm will set you up. I’ve seen him put a DirecTV dish out on an island. He even put one on an outhouse once.”
They were right. A few days, a really tall ladder and some serious roof hook-ups later, Norm clicked through the remote, and presto chango. I could see glaciers calving into the Gulf of Alaska, the real shades of The Color Purple, and every single palm frond and bug bite on Survivor. I had more than a hundred channels and, soon, a renewed addiction.
I fell deep and hard into “reality” TV—my obsession of choice, convincing myself I could turn it off any time I wanted. After all, I said, I didn’t get sucked into the sports/movie super-mega-bundle dish package. I didn’t have a bedroom TV and a kitchen TV and a loft TV. I had one TV in a small corner formerly known as “the beagle room.” And thanks to steadfastly refusing a DVR hook-up, I had to be strong. Who knew when I’d have to go to the bathroom and miss some vital twist, some witty comment or, heaven forbid, seeing who got Chopped or wasn’t The Biggest Loser? I had high standards for when and how I indulged. Amazing Race, Undercover Boss and, if no one was around, an occasional Say Yes to the Dress, were my allowable choices. And North Woods Law—a vital local broadcast—was a non-decision, my civic duty. I deliberately black balled Amish kids binge drinking, and couples wanting to “embrace” life in Alaska while not wanting to haul wood, poop outside, or butt up against bears.
And then it hit me. I was sad. Not the kind of sad that kept me from walking the dogs, showing up at the dinner table, or opening the curtains. Too much mindless TV had given me a case of what Psychology Today calls “infinite sadness,” a seeping, low grade feeling that I was turning into a total waste of skin. While it hadn’t suffocated me yet, a door was closing, slowly crushing my psyche, show by stupid show.
I began to wonder: If my mind was a bookshelf, what would it be lined with after hours and hours of reality TV? Wilting roses from the Bachelor? The Travelocity gnome sitting atop a stack of Amazing Race clues? Would it have any of the rich permanence of a grand old library, or the vacant stillness of an empty warehouse? Or worse, maybe the regions of my brain had become a row of closed cubby-holes—and the only thoughts waiting to pop out were silly, vacuous, Laugh In-like one-liners!
I took a hard look at how I defined “surviving” the long winter evenings out here. Was it letting the dim glow of an idiot box keep me going till ice out, or spending long evenings becoming truly enlightened by the books that were piling up like cord wood? I sure did miss Mike Bowditch and whatever new adventure Paul Doiron had for me to read! And I kept promising myself I’d finish The Promise of Energy Psychology, a second-hand paperback all the more inspiring because it was earmarked, highlighted and annotated by its previous owner. “This book is a New Age textbook,” I decided when I read the first half. “It’s helped someone be the best she could be!” The only thing the Learning Channel and Discovery Channel were teaching me was how much back-to-back crap I could gaze at, slack jawed and inert in my recliner, till I shuffled off to bed. I did learn to be glad I wasn’t a third sister wife, or compulsively eating dryer sheets, or cheap enough to dumpster dive out back of Parkside and Main. “At least I’m not dating my car!” I’d mutter to myself when I finally clicked the off button. “Plus, lucky me, I’m way past the threat of suddenly squeezing out a baby in the Coos Canyon rest area because whoops….I was more than just fat.”
So I backed away from the TV and got back to my books. Real books. I don’t do Kindle ’cause yup, you guessed it, I don’t own one. Tracking words across a tiny screen is what I do for a living. So when it comes to reading for pleasure, I prefer the tactile enjoyment of holding a real book, the thrill of unearthing a good Rangeley “dump” book, or the social amity of visiting my friends who own the bookstore in town.
It’s over a month into the New Year and I’m happy to say I’ve gone whole days immersed in Paul Doiron, Dan Brown and Colleen McCollough. No more gypsy wedding brawls or folks long-jumping through hoards of junk to get to their front door. I’ve limited my consumption to select comedies, North Woods Law, and a few upbeat reality shows. I’ve only slid off the book wagon once but, hey, that was a special occasion. It was free HBO, Cinemax, Starz and Showtime weekend. And now that I fork over almost as much for satellite TV as I used to for a car payment, free trumps everything. “My books will be there next weekend,” I decided, “Fifty new channels won’t!” Except for when I have to run to the bathroom and chance missing something really cool, home entertainment doesn’t get much better than that in my cabin in the woods in February.