Throughout the pandemic, I had many conversations with friends and family about our coping skills during lockdown. Some ate more. Some drank more. Some hiked more. Some sat on the couch more, and some read more. For myself, I turned to something that I’m really good at – watching TV. It’s a skill I’ve been honing since I was a child.
Growing up, we had one TV in the basement at a time when most of us lived with only three major networks. Besides a dose of Sesame Street, Saturday morning cartoons, and a bowl of Froot Loops, my first memory of more dramatic TV was watching A Secret Storm with my mother while she folded laundry.
I found it surprising how easily I could slip into the storyline – how consumed I was with the characters and the feeling of being wholly entertained. I think it was a gateway into after-school specials, Hallmark movies, and General Hospital.
During my tween years, my parents bought a second TV – a little portable black and white beauty. Though they didn’t have a permanent TV in their bedroom, they sometimes set up the portable to watch something special like election returns. Otherwise, it sat idle in a corner of the den until I could nab it unnoticed and sneak a viewing in my bedroom of One Day at a Time, Welcome Back Kotter, and The Jeffersons. These were formative years, and I spent a great deal of them in front of the television – eking by academically.
By high school, the mini-series had arrived – Rich Man, Poor Man, and of course, Roots. I couldn’t get enough. And just when I thought I had reached the pinnacle of enrapt entertainment, Family entered the airwaves. It seemed like a new genre to me – less Beaver and more believable, dipping their primetime toes into a pool of issues like infidelity, cancer, divorce, and “homosexuality.” Whoa, I was hooked and parallel playing with Lou Grant.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was better at watching TV than I was at reading. It was a struggle and when faced with an assignment, I counted the pages before I started, measured their density, and slugged my way through, slowly – repeating each word in my head.
I became acutely aware that some of my classmates were enjoying these books and plowing through them in one night. They found as much pleasure in books as I did in flipping the channels. I was both incredulous and grateful when TV remotes hit the market – in the blink of an eye, familial arguments over “saving” one’s TV roost had been resolved. Nonetheless, absorbing all the evidence and lectures from my parents about the evils of television, I took my pleasure to the closet and remained a below-average student. I knew Elizabeth Bennet, Blanche DuBois, and Madam Defarge by day, and Vinnie Barbarino by night.
During college, I bought my own portable, black-and-white beauty at Montgomery Wards. I was a Cagney and Lacey junkie and rounded out my evening with Johnny Carson. It was during those years I realized that my television viewing was an escape from academic pressures and my angst about entering adulthood. I was keenly aware that I now found quietude in its noise.
My academics remained average to below average my entire life. I steadfastly graduated in the bottom quarter from every school I attended. Standardized tests were a disaster; I barely had enough time to read and digest the questions.
To this day, I think I enrolled in law school to prove to myself that I could do it – some sort of academic seal of approval. And yes, reading case law word for word was profoundly boring. I didn’t miss a class as I realized that I was an auditory learner. If I could hear it, and it passed through my hands onto paper, then my retention of the information improved drastically. Friends asked for my notes, but by my third year, the Dean hauled me into his office to let me know I was “at risk” for failing the bar exam. I recall that they didn’t offer any help, just a good old-fashioned, anxiety-provoking conversation. In the end, it was my decent memorization skills and my eight essays that gave me a passing bar exam score. It was at this point that I truly understood the difference between writing and reading.
I also started wondering if all the television time may have positively impacted my writing; somehow, listening to the dialog actualized my voice on paper – simplified it. I chose not to practice law, because the magnitude of information processing and reading scared me to death.
As I entered the workforce, I understood I was much better at real life. After shrugging off others’ judgments, as one does when approaching mid-life, and with a career in hand, I dug deeper into the myriad of television choices, so deep that I went Six Feet Under.
I could also name a million other shows that I have enjoyed over the years, but currently, I mostly find myself re-watching some of the greatest hits – like Thirty Something when I’m almost sixty-something. I am clearly double dipping. Yes, I have turned on Friday Night Lights, and having grown up in New Jersey, I’m definitely more Sopranos than Nashville. But given my viewing history and the stress of the lockdown, it’s not surprising I amped up the volume during the pandemic.
And as I watch the Gen Zers in their young adult stages, the number of media devices that are actively opened at the same time and the multi-tasking that’s occurring is astounding to me. The speed at which the scrolling happens is vertigo-inducing. The milli-second it takes them to glean information from their device is practically immeasurable.
Perhaps some of them are not readers in the traditional sense, instead, I would call them nano ninjas. Are their electronic habits akin to my parent’s lament about my clocked TV hours? I am suspending judgment. In fact, it may be a necessity for their future success.