02 February 2009

TV lovers: You might want to watch another episode of The Office instead of reading this

I am willing to keep posting little happy findings on Twitter: the things I notice people saying and doing, random acts of kindness for those I do and don't know. And I see the spirit of this is embodied in the term Whuffie, a form of social currency invented by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow in on of his novels. That's what I like most about Twitter: that trade of social currency. I'll give you something good; can't wait to see what you're offering up today.

Yet I know it's terribly important to make sure I keep protecting my time to do my other work. I need the time to think at greater length and with much broader scope, to create new work, to make up my own version of the ideal universe so I have something to strive for.

Some of what brought me to this conclusion was yesterday's television fest. We all came home from the ski area yesterday and flopped downstairs to watch the Super Bowl, which was interesting, fun, and disturbing all at once. Some things I marveled at: The fact that a guy will wear a helmet on a football field but not on a motorcycle, and that the same guy could come back from what sounded like a hellish accident to play great football less than two although you ask me, he did look a little slow to shove off that ball, for such a young guy (he's about to turn 27 in March); those sideline ditches, including the one caught by one surprised but poised gentleman, weren't pretty).

What my daughter noticed was that I was no longer upset about not skiing much earlier, and that I was serving snacks I admitted weren't all that good for us: oven-baked rolled-up cheese, chicken, and bacon quesadillas, and onion rings that we served with ketchup. Fast food.

We kept noticing during the ads that much of television's humor is meanspirited. It's geared at making people seem smaller and less and making the apparent subject look superior. It doesn't always work. There's one where a woman deliberately drenches a potential rival for a romantic interest returns, post-insult, to sucking on a drink and looking smug. Ew.

The football game we tuned in to watch along with the ads was great, full of twists and surprises of all sorts. But then it got disturbing, when one of the Steelers' players, James Harrison, who had made a great touchdown play earlier in the game, punched a Cardinal, when the other man was down and after the play had ended. Since when is this part of the all-American game of football? What happened to sportsmanship? Harrison could have felt pretty good if he'd chosen to after what he had done earlier, and instead he had to unleash a suckerpunch? Ew again. That took some of the gleam off the Steelers' well earned trophy for me. But you didn't come here for yet another Super Bowl analysis, did you?

Here's the thing: I watched some more of the ads (can anyone really take Go Daddy seriously? Yet, they do, in droves), and then a few minutes of "The Office," which I always feel sucks all the air right out of the room when it's on. I turned it off because of the meanness of Steve Carell's character, and all of the meannesses that are possible because he's in charge, which is why I always turn it off. I've lived that story; I don't need to put myself through that all over again, thank you very much. I really liked Carell in Little Miss Sunshine, but I have a hard time with the actors who are willing to do that show on command every week. It seems a peculiarly debased kind of fame, in my book only a little less masochistic than Diablo Cody's stints at sex-for-pay. What these actors give the world seems far more complicit in a humanity-crushing ethos. Wow. I guess I really don't like that show! Before you get all up in arms: I know that is what the Off switch is for. I just won't watch it any more. [rant off]

And because there was nothing on I turned to Twitter to see what was "trending" -- what topics were being discussed most, and besides the Super Bowl was "The Office." I shouldn't have been surprised but was a little that people were indeed tweeting lines and gags from the show, in addition to the expected reactions to the storyline and the determinations a) whether this episode had achieved a level implied by the hype for a double-length episode following the Super Bowl, and b) how the special guests (Jack Black, Jessica Alba, and Cloris Leachman) were incorporated into the storyline (which was in a fake feature film playing on a laptop, not in interactions with regular cast of "The Office"). I saw how Twitter lets people watch a form of TV, which I thought was kind of cool. It was like that Bob Dylan video I like where the words and music stream by, but don't always match. How great for those of us who don't have televisions -- or don't want to watch them. Who says reading is dead?

But I'd be afraid, very afraid, if all I had was TV to tell me what to strive for, and Twitter to tell me what was going on. There are a lot of people going to megachurches and other churches these days, but there are a lot of people who aren't going to anything. What I see from here is that TV takes up so much of that space religion and community-building used to occupy. I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to get religious, either. I'm not. But I have a community on whom I rely and who can rely on me. In TV world, it seems to be all about getting: getting the best lines, getting the best house and the girl and the car, not necessarily in that order. Getting the best pass so you can make the best play. But what is left for the world, the community our kids are growing up in?

Feeling the way I do, about the way TV has encouraged this soulless devotion to the material world, I am heartened by the way people are reaching out across Twitter and finding each other in droves on social networking sites. I am encouraged that there are ways to be entertained that don't always involve subjecting ourselves to having our brains branded with their ideal images and preferred personality types. I am encouraged that we are finding ways to prove we are interconnected. And I know it's not that nothing bad can come of it, as we are reminded by all those commercials about banks that pledge to protect us from identity theft. It's that so much more good can come of it. We can find out more about how we are connected and how we are alike (those memes, those lists of "25 things about me" and so on, are all about that) so easily in a way we never could before.

I'm glad to see my tribe engaging in this new dance. My trip to meet people on the message board and dance in the front row at Gomez' show was a similar article and artifact of faith. I helped with the creation of that happening by being there; there's no doubt in my mind. And I intend to continue following my own dares, making things happen, engaging with new communities of like-minded people. It's all we have, right? Our energy, our goodwill, our willingness to see and be seen, to do and be done to in turn.

That's why we don't have a television set in our living room, and most of our video time is in front of films and shows that we choose and not just what's on. From my perspective, so much TV programming encourages a kind of hoarding and competitiveness that is so unproductive in my world. I'll stick to "watching TV" through Twitter posts, which always puts in perspective how much I really care about it, until "So You Think You Can Dance" comes back. I'll keep checking out DVDs if I really want to see films and shows. But I only have so much leisure time, and I must be careful but generous with what little online time I have. For me it is vital to preserve the time I need for my community, for writing, thinking, and creating my own body of work.

What do you need your time for most?

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