Tuned Out

You think I don't want to? It's those TV networks, Marge: they won't let me. One quality show after another, each one fresher and more brilliant than the last. If they only stumbled once, just gave us 30 minutes to ourselves, but they won't! They won't let me live! -- Homer Simpson

'I love my new career as a physician's assistant because I get to help people and work with doctors!" It was the third commercial of its kind.

I looked around the waiting room. Tired faces stared at the small screen attached to the ceiling in a corner of the room. I tried to block the noise by increasing the volume on my iPod, but Thievery Corporation was no match for Montel Williams's booming voice. I knew I should have gotten those noise-cancellation headphones.

When my mother emerged after two and a half hours, I guided the nurse (who guided my mother) to my car, where the nurse eased Mom down and fastened her seatbelt. I envied Mom's sedated daze and attempted through a series of pointed questions to discover the name of the drug she was given. I may have had a book and music to keep me occupied, but anesthesia would have gone a long way to quiet the air around me in that waiting room.

I didn't mind the waiting. Having nothing to do for a few hours was a mini-vacation from my day-to-day. I was happy to give Mom a ride, repaying her for the numerous times she had done the same for me. But ten more minutes of the commercials blaring from the television in the corner and I might have gone postal.

I don't watch TV. At least not in the way most people watch it. There was a time when I was all but attached to the telly -- if I went out any night, I lamented the shows I knew I was missing. When I lived alone, the Kids in the Hall, the lawyers from The Practice, and the doctors on ER kept me company.

But despite my love for the noise box, I started to go out more and more and missed my shows less and less. It got to the point where I would sit in my living room, surrounded with books and journals and, finding serenity in the silence, note my reluctance to press the power button on the remote control. TV suddenly seemed draining. And not thinking about what was on when was liberating.

When I was working 50 hours a week and going to school full-time, I began to notice the social impact my slow breakup with television had on my life. I found it hard to relate to coworkers and fellow students.

"Did you see BLANK last night?"

"Yes, of course. Can you believe what SO AND SO said? What do you think is going to happen next week?"

The level of enthusiasm I have witnessed was impressive.

Given this uncensored devotion, it surprises me how guilty they behave, these people who ramble on about their favorite shows, when they discover I'm not a fellow couch potato. Here is a typical exchange:

"So did you watch The Apprentice last night?"

"No, I don't really watch TV," I say, hoping to end the discussion there.

"Yeah, well I don't really watch it either; there are only a few shows that I really like, and I tape them on TiVo, so it's not like I'm stuck watching commercials or anything." This is usually followed by a list of approval-seeking reasons for why it would be worth my time to watch these shows. These reasons include a synopsis of each show with longwinded character descriptions.

The TV-watcher's tone of voice is sheepish yet indignant. This is the tone one takes when feeling judged or accused; when one's insecurity demands a bristling reaction. When the truth of it is, I couldn't give two shits how many hours of TV you watch. I thought my comment would convey that I'd rather not talk about a show I don't watch and that since there are many such shows, if you would like to engage me in discourse, it would be wise to change the subject.

Sometimes a person is so defensive I join in with a burst of honesty. "I just mean I don't watch regular TV programming," I'll say. "But I watch DVDs on TV. I watch episodes of Seinfeld on DVD. It's just the same as watching regular TV." The person seems to relax, absolved of guilt by my admission. I refrain from explaining that I watch only DVDs to avoid getting sucked into the moronic shows they put on the air -- I acknowledge my weakness to emotional triggers and susceptibility to time-wasters.

Now, to avoid the drama of offending someone (though I'll never understand why so many feel so guilty for indulging in what is the most common American pastime), I merely respond, "No, I missed [insert asinine show here] last night." This way, I get the quick update rather than a dissertation on the show from its pilot episode.

Last night, however, after babysitting my two nephews (with the help of my sister Jenny), I was itching to be asked the perennial question, "What did you watch last night?" Because after Faye and Sean returned home, after dinner and catching up, I watched the finale of American Idol, a show I haven't seen in over two years. During these two hours I insisted the volume remain on during the commercials so I could get a double-scoop of pop culture.

I saw the commercial with Paris Hilton dancing around in a bikini and shoving a giant burger in her face. I had read articles about this on CNN.com but I hadn't seen it. Now, as an informed viewer, my voice counts when I say I don't see why those puritanical parents are bitching -- it wasn't half as graphic as they made it out to be.

Regarding American Idol, I don't know what the big deal is over Carrie and Bo, but I totally cried when her voice broke as she was singing her new single, something about heaven and the Lord, I think. The finale included snippets from each prior show in the season -- CliffsNotes for television. For one week, I am HotSynced with my family, my neighbors, and the kids at the coffee shop. So go on, ask me.

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