How Television Saved My Sanity (and Other Absurd Observations)

About a year ago, Fey and I decided we would save money by getting rid of all those television channels we never watched. Basic cable, just for weather reports and emergencies, would do us just fine. After all, we could watch anything we wanted streaming on Netflix. We didn’t need all those other channels.

After two months of basic cable (and a television set that pretty much never saw the light of an On switch), we just got rid of cable altogether. It was obvious to both of us that basic cable (the bane of all channel surfers everywhere) simply wasn’t worth the cost. And, with a quick call to our local provider, we were off the television grid.

I won’t lie—I felt really good about it. No, not good. Superior. Awesomely superior, a newly-minted member of the intellectual elite, those ultra-cool folks who rise above the banal pleasures of Survivor Swap and Dancing with the Meercats and The Bachelor Whisperer, or whatever passes for entertainment among the Unwashed Masses. For about ten months, I enjoyed my own blank expression when friends, family, and coworkers gushed on about the lastest episode of Real Housewives of Celebrity Rehab, or whatever.

To be completely candid, I was a complete prig. A total snob.

Well, knock that one down and kick it under the couch, because I am back in the cult.

Monkey on My Back

My blissfully oblivious year came to a screeching end in December, 2011, when Fey’s mom moved in with us. Now, I love Fey’s mom—she’s pretty damned awesome. We work together, save money by carpooling, she likes to cook and she helps with the dishes.

But she will not live without cable. She’d rather live without oxygen.

So, with some reluctance, we allowed cable back into our home.

Remember that awesome superiority? Yeah, my hands actually started twitching in anticipation the day we first hooked up again. Oh, yes, those glorious high-number channels. It took me about a minute to get addicted again.

But It’s Educational!

In my defense, my taste in television has changed since the days of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Back in the Day, if it had a laugh track, I would watch it. (Yes, I even watched Hello, Larry! and Blansky’s Beauties.)

Now I’m more addicted to the educational programs. If it features outer space, quantum physics, or plate tectonics, I’m probably glued to the television. As a scientist, I make a great fiction writer—the math intimidates me, and the deeper we go into high-level concepts like physics, the more my brain begins to implode. My love of science, coupled with my basic ineptitude at anything but a cursory understanding of it, has been the source of much frustration in my life.

Just the other day, I caught a marathon of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman on Science Channel. I was gobsmacked. First, it had Morgan Freeman, who is one of the Six Coolest Guys in the Cosmos. Second, while it didn’t pull back from the tough ideas, it presented them in a way that didn’t make my head ache.

It struck me as miraculous that a mere television show could take such complex theories and make them come alive for me. I was back in the days of Cosmos, wide-eyed and transported by the poetry and loveliness of science in its most inspirational form.

The next day, armed with an MP3 player full of Philip Glass, I did my daily laps around the call center where I work. As the music winded itself into knots that unraveled themselves in exquisite complexity, I pondered the concept of quantum physics and how all things worked together.

And as Mr. Glass’s sparse harmonies played in my ears, I thought of subatomic particles—matter that is not matter, effect preceding cause. The floor beneath me, the rhythm of my feet, the people with headsets ignoring my progress—all of these things were more energy than substance. This was not a new concept to me. But until that day, as the notes of the music swirled around in my head, I never came close to getting it.

They say the universe is not made of matter, but of energy. They say reality is made of music, harmonics and energies and rhythms and patterns so complex and subtle that we mistake them for…stuff.

Philip Glass creates the universe in his compositions. You can’t look at the individual notes anymore than you can see an individual quark or electron. On their own the notes have no meaning, they are random and disturbing and even unpleasant at times. It is only in the harmonies, the connections between notes, that you find the music. With only a small number of tones, you open the door to infinite possibility—symphonies and slam dances and slow bluesy numbers.

So it is with the universe as well, a handful of elementary particles in infinite combinations create everything from dental plaque to nebulae. Broken down to its basic components, all creation is basically the same.

Notes become music. Particles become universes. It’s all in how you put them together. And the only true substance is in the harmony of the component parts.

Quantum physics, neatly illustrated by a cable TV show and a minimalist composer. Not too shabby for the price of monthly expanded cable.

This is television in its finest form. For all the hundreds of shows that erode the brain and corrode the soul, there are some shows that simply inspire you. In its noblest form, television has the power to educate and uplift. It can fire the imagination and fuel the spirit. How many doctors, scientists, and astronauts of today can look back to Cosmos and even Star Trek as an early inspiration for their careers?

So, I guess I’ll keep the high-number channels for a while. While I don’t necessarily need to know who’s sleeping with whom on Jersey Shore Leave, I may just wind up learning something in spite of myself.

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2 responses

  1. Music and mathematics and matter, spirit and science – all intertwined, all the same. Thank you for writing this, says another TV addict who’s happily gobsmacked, upon occasion, by the sublimity it can sometimes serve us.

  2. Thanks, Kath–sometimes I get caught up in The Real World too much, and forget the Ultimate Groovy of Science and Stuff. Documentaries were invented to remind us that, wow, non-fiction can be awesome, too!

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