Numbed down

TV family

I am just sitting here, amid the ashes and debris that is American politics, and I’ve decided to do a little math. Not because I am good at math or because I enjoy it, but because the numbers never lie. Just ask Donald Trump. He owns a few casinos. And he seems to like numbers. Tremendous numbers.

Stay with me for just a minute here, and let me sort through this timeline that is looping through my brain.

Thinking back nearly nine years ago, in late 2007, members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike for a number of reasons that we don’t really need to get into right now. And it is around that time that major networks scrambled to produce more “unscripted drama” so that they could do without writers for some time and hang onto a few viewers. (I am simplifying.)

And we bought into it. Because, after all, TV is still TV.

It was like saying, “Who needs someone who can cook a balanced meal around here when we have all these gummy bears and Doritos?”

I’m working largely off a rose-colored memory here, but I think I grew up on a steady diet of quality, politically relevant, scripted sitcoms. And if they weren’t demonstrably politically relevant, they exhibited comedic brilliance…and good writing. (Fill in your own ideas of what I am talking about here. Everyone has their preferences.)

Sure, there was some total crap, but by and large, my generation doesn’t have an entire genre to be ashamed of in terms of TV viewing.

Only six years ago, in 2010, the most popular shows on American TV were Big Brother, America’s Got Talent, The Bachelorette, and So You Think You Can Dance. Oh, and Jersey Shore. And because these were deemed “reality” or “unscripted,” we came to ignore the line that once divided “fiction” and “reality.” Or “not important” and “important.” And we accepted such programming for The Way Things Are.

Yes, I find reality TV sort of a turn-off—cheap and not very creative. I appreciate a good dialogue that is reflective of the social condition and demonstrates some ingenuity and a respect for the written word, and such dialogue and scripting requires writers. If there are no writers at the helm, we instead end up with a bunch of nearly divorced women throwing wine bottles at each other in the back room of an Italian restaurant, or big men driving under cloak of darkness to repo someone’s boat,or a dance instructor turning blood red over a kick-ball-change gone wrong, or a 20-year-old donated tissue specialist crying in the courtyard of a clubhouse mansion because The Bachelor is making out with a 22-year-old Jumbotron operator in the hot tub, or an overweight mother of a 2-year-old beauty contestant crying in the hallway outside the ballroom of a Holiday Inn Express because she left the top half of the mermaid costume back in Arkansas.

So what’s your point, Amy? My point is, holy moly, what have we done?

Glad you asked. I’ll tell you what we’ve done. In the years surrounding the 2007-08 writers strike, reality TV really took off. And we shrugged our shoulders and said, “Eh, whatever. I’ll watch another dance show. Another Real Housewives. Another home renovation show. Another group of strangers living together in a house/in the woods/in a convent/I don’t really care where they live.” As a result, we became conditioned to watching people yell and blame and lie and cry and lose their principles and their minds until they either stormed out of the woods, out of the gym, off the beach, out of the mansion, or away from the conference table.

As we became conditioned to “unscripted drama,” we somehow came to expect the same pace and content from our talk shows, our news programs, and whoa, Nellie! Even our presidential debates and town halls.

Consider what might have happened if the writers had not gone on a 14-week strike in 2007-08. Maybe the networks would not have resorted to throwing together a bunch of crap disguised as “programming,” and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to feed the Reality TV Monster so much of our time and attention.

Yet here we are, facing down a monster that we ourselves have created. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, but that’s a fair assumption. (How astute of you, alert reader!) The monster that we ourselves have created is a bewildering set of circumstances that has the potential to change the course of this country’s … OK, this is getting a little didactic for a space that I prefer to keep light and lively.

All I really wanted to accomplish here is to find someone to blame for what is going on around here.

And I choose to blame the Writers Guild. Because mercy, this is definitely not my fault. [Exit, stage left, bottle in hand, unfiltered Camel between my teeth, baby crying in the background.]



“I’ve had it with Trump”; and Nancy Reagan: a funeral review

Woman watching TV (vintage)
(Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Anne Lamott tells this story of a friend who reads a magazine feature about Adolf Hitler and his troubled childhood, tosses the magazine aside, and declares, “I’ve had it with Hitler.”

I’ve had it with Trump. Not because he is like Hitler or had a troubled childhood. I don’t know that either of those is true. Or untrue. Frankly, I don’t even care. I’ve had it with Trump because he draws me to the TV screen and to my tablet, Day And Night. He consumes my prime-time, TV-viewing hours. He has moved in and occupied way too much room in that part of my brain where celebrities reside, and it’s about time I reclaim my brain space and fill it with smarter, more worthwhile residents. Like Jason Bateman.

So, Amy, why don’t you simply turn off the town hall meetings? The nightly news? The Twitter feed?

Sure, that’s easy for you to say. I’m like the little blonde girl in Poltergeist, drawn like a magnet to the flickering screen and nonsense words. The only difference is the kitchen chairs aren’t rearranging themselves, and JoBeth Williams is nowhere to be found to save me from this crazy train.

Simply put, I can’t stop listening to, watching, and following Trump. He’s like a bad drug. Not unlike this narcotic cough medicine I was prescribed last month and am now rationing in half-doses so that I can continue to enjoy these really, really restful nights for just a little while longer, despite the occasional interruption of nightmares that typically star Trump, playing “Bride Bingo” at my kitchen table or vomiting glitter glue.

I know he is bad for my psyche and—this is purely conjecture—bad for the country, but I can’t just ignore him. He won’t let me. His ubiquitous presence in my life is gradually taking over my brain. I feel like Mildred Montag under the spell of those blasted TV walls in Fahrenheit 451.

Yet there have been brief reprieves from town halls, debates, and interviews. At times, I seek them out to counter the obsession and insanity. As my friend Rebecca recently pointed out, “TV is so GOOD right now!” There really is so much to blot out Trump’s image that is burned onto the screen or to quiet his “terrifics” and “I am the most (whatever) you will ever meet” rants. I regularly remind myself that CNN is not the only station and that I can find great delight in sitcoms and singing competitions. However, the best program I have viewed in recent months—and the one true antidote to my Trump fixation—is Nancy Reagan’s funeral. (Thanks, Nancy!)

Three Fridays ago, I cut short an English 102 class because, I told students, “I have a funeral to watch.” All the 19-year-olds heard was “We’re getting out early.” I drove home, heated leftovers, and sat cross-legged on the coffee table in front of the TV for more than three hours. If there were such a thing as Funeral Reviews, as there are book reviews, movie reviews, and so forth, I would have much to say about Nancy Reagan’s funeral. And it would be largely glowing and beautiful and true. In fact, let’s give it a try, shall we?

I would be bold enough to write that a good state funeral has the capacity to remind us of what patriotism looks like and how honor and integrity still have a place in this world, and I don’t care what you have to say about Reaganomics or Nancy’s advisory role because none of it matters right now. I would observe that even presidential families aren’t perfect, but in the end, long after they have left office, we readily accept their imperfections, as if to say, “Oh, what the hell. None of us are perfect either.” I would write that Patti Davis resumed her place in the literary world with a eulogy that was more confession and poetry than it was a tribute, beautifully written and beautifully read. I would point out that Hillary is always in charge, even at a Reagan funeral, shuffling the former First Ladies around and (literally) putting Caroline Kennedy in her place. I would write that while I’ve always thought that Ron Reagan and I would have made good friends, he sort of scared me with his talk of his mother’s ghost prowling about the Reagan Presidential Library. I would observe that Nancy Reagan was just the sort of person to arrange for both Mr. T and Tom Selleck to attend her funeral, which was clearly an ’80s Who’s Who. I would question the choice in having Diane Sawyer speak, as Tom Brokaw clearly upstaged her as Journalist Friend to the First Lady. I would acknowledge that we should all have a buddy as genuine as James Baker. I would write that Michelle’s expression, at times, suggested, “Mercy, I sure hope my service is as cool as this one.”

So what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Absolutely, completely, blissfully, refreshingly nothing.

Reading lists, Harper Lee, and a little 1970s censorship

harper lee

With all this talk of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, it has occurred to me that in all my years of attending public schools in Georgia and Alabama, throughout my years as an undergrad pursuing an English degree, and throughout grad school, no teacher ever assigned this book for me to read. I have never once sat in a classroom where this book was discussed. That is probably why I have read it some 27 times. Because I didn’t have to.

And those really are the best books, aren’t they? The ones we choose to read?

In the past few days, as talking heads have waved around copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, praising it as required reading in schools for generations and paying tribute to the late Harper Lee as influencing millions of students, I have felt a little left out. I’ve tried to determine why no teacher ever assigned me to read it. And the only reason I can come up with is this: they didn’t want to deal with it.

Let’s just go ahead and admit that requiring students in freshly integrated schools across the 1970s Deep South to read TKAM would have seemed somewhat pushy and dangerous. This is nothing more than a theory on my part, but looking back, it makes sense that language arts teachers in my middle school would have winced at assigning such a book that would ultimately require group discussion from a class made up of confused black kids who didn’t understand why they were being bused to a middle-class white school. What a weird world that was. The whole arrangement was messy and awkward and must have thrown those language arts teachers for a loop.

This is just a guess here, but in 1970s Georgia, teachers and school boards might have been a little on edge about requiring a newly mixed group of students read a book that would confuse us about our role in this very new way of doing things. So in order to provide what we were likely missing in a language arts course that consisted primarily of John Steinbeck and Shirley Jackson short stories, school librarians quietly stocked shelves with multiple copies of novels like TKAM and let kids just sort of find our way. At least, that was my experience. And we did find our way.

Fortunately and unfortunately, I ran with a curious, goofy crowd—the kind of kids who always carried “not required” books with them in case classwork ran short and the meeting time ran long because Lord knows, the cool kids weren’t going to be passing us notes. If Judy Blume would have had a fan club at my school, we would have been its most loyal members, dog-earing the juicy parts of Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. To balance out our pre-teen angst and curiosity, we also carried around copies of books like TKAM, A Separate Peace, and Death Be Not Proud. Liberal and brooding and weird and fascinated by mid-20th century literature, yes, but still unashamedly intrigued by high school sexuality and the menstrual cycle. We were what I like to think of as “well-rounded readers.” You may have other terms in mind.

Oddly enough, nobody ever required me to read Judy Blume, either. They didn’t have to. Blume herself once said, “Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won’t have as much censorship because we won’t have as much fear.” I was one of those fortunate kids who did just that – I read whatever I wanted. If my parents had any fear of what I was reading, I never knew it. It was the’70s, for crying out loud. Parents didn’t care about their kids’ brains and emotions or how they spent their time as much as they seem to now. I remain grateful.

I also had a quirky grandmother who spent the majority of her years on this earth somewhat penned in by CBS soap operas, newspapers, and an odd assortment of non-fiction. She had neither a driver’s license nor a close circle of friends, so she spent a lot of time alone with her thoughts and, for many years, with me, her audience of one, who was deposited at her house for hours at a time.

Her grandparenting skills were somewhat unconventional. We didn’t cook or craft. We didn’t play games, we didn’t garden. We sat a lot. And we talked. And laughed. Sometimes we did all of these things while sitting in lawn chairs in her front yard, watching the occasional car go by.

While my grandfather worked in his shop, I served as roommate. My grandmother would give me her checkbook and make me read aloud check amounts as she entered them into an adding machine. She read aloud passages from Helter Skelter and told me more about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson than any 9-year-old should ever know. She would summarize the TV evening news and detail the adventures of Patty Hearst and review the details of violent crimes as if these tidbits could not possibly desensitize me later in life. As the sun went down, she would close the heavy drapes in the living room, bring in the dog, light a cigarette, and drink a PBR, while I read in the corner. At some point, we would eat dinner. If she was restless in this life, I never picked up on it. But I was just a kid.

I credit her for showing me the world, really, and that is an odd thing to claim about a person who never got to see much of the world herself. I read All the President’s Men at her house, without first knowing what Watergate was. She insisted I read Catcher in the Rye when I was far too young to be reading Catcher in the Rye.

She didn’t have a filter before “not having a filter” was even a thing. Not many people saw her I Don’t Give a Crap demeanor because few people even knew her. I suppose anonymity breeds an I Don’t Give a Crap approach to life. Maybe we could all benefit from occasional bouts of anonymity to balance the narcissism.

Anyway, this all leads me back to Harper Lee. Aside from the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee and my grandmother may have been very much alike. They shared the same last name and even had the same unattractive, utilitarian haircut. Reclusive and blunt, they each taught a young girl how to understand this crazy world a little more deeply through books that I probably had no business reading. And to appreciate the opportunity to sit in the shadows from time to time and just watch the cars go by.