Of all the things I wasn't fully prepared for when I left home, one of the most subtle and underappreciated turned out to be how other people (ab)used TV in their daily lives.
For most of my childhood, we had a single Sanyo 13" color TV, all vacuum tubes and spiky knobs that could cut your hands if you grabbed them the wrong way. It took minutes on end to turn completely on, gave off enough heat to warm a small room, and despite its size was so dense and heavy that we didn't dare move it around on anything other than the Scandinavian teakwood rollaround cart my parents bought specifically for it.
There was also a certain etiquette associated with it. If you weren't watching it, you shut it off. You could watch TV on your own, but too much of it was frowned upon. And under no circumstances would you just turn it on and let it run unwatched. The TV sucked up a lot of electricity (read: money).
Eventually we got a bigger TV to replace the little one, and the little one ended up in the room my brother and I shared. But it wasn't used so much for watching TV as it was for having a monitor to run the little computer we had. And again, we never just left it running the way people unthinkingly open a window for fresh air. If it was on, it was being watched; if it wasn't being watched, we shut it off.
I wasn't remotely prepared for the way other people used TV. Time and again, to this day, I come over to someone's house, and it's on and blaring away, with nobody actually watching it. It's just spilling noise and color into the room, the way a leaky ceiling drips water. The first time I encountered someone who deliberately left it on so they could fall asleep to it, I thought they were kidding. Then they proceeded to do exactly that, and I let five minutes of snoring go by before I copped the remote, killed the set, and got the silence I needed to sleep.
I recently spent a few days at my parents' house for "early Thanksgiving" (a newly minted tradition in the family), and I was grateful that the TV was not in the common area where we ate. It's upstairs in a smaller room, so we weren't constantly bombarded with the temptation to flip it on or ogle it.
When I go somewhere and the TV's on, I either mute the set or shut it off entirely if I can get away with it, because the last thing I want to do when I'm in someone else's house is compete with a TV set. It's not that I think I'm automatically more interesting than anything that comes out of it (okay, a man can hope); it's that I don't want to be fighting with it, moment by moment, for attention, and eventually lose.
Maybe it seems quaint of me to complain about big screens when it's the little screens we all carry with us that have become the cultural bugaboo du jour. But maybe that just means the thoughtless way we still let TV into our lives is going all the more unexamined.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind