Televisions I Have Not Owned

Museu Valencià d'Etnologia, image credit: Joanbanjo

Museu Valencià d’Etnologia, image credit: Joanbanjo

1. For a year in my early twenties, I lived in Mérida, a city of a little less than a million people on the Yucatán Peninsula. I lived with a guy named Pablo in a small apartment attached to a charity clinic where neither of us worked. I didn’t work at all that year, claiming to be researching and writing a novel. Mostly I wandered around the Yucatán feeling lonely.

Our apartment was relatively austere. There was a refrigerator, a sink, a cold water shower, and a microwave. Every morning, I got up at five, made coffee by heating filtered water in the microwave and then pouring it through what was basically a sock full of ground coffee, and climbed up onto the roof of the clinic to watch the sun rise over the low buildings.

One day, without warning, Pablo bought a television. At first, I didn’t like the idea of having a television in the apartment, but I didn’t say anything, partly because my Spanish was too impoverished to say whatever I might have said in a way that was sufficiently diplomatic. But, as I say, I was lonely. I was in love with a girl in grad school in Massachusetts; that along with the isolation brought on by my limited Spanish was enough to trigger robust bouts of ennui. So soon I found myself spending hours in front of Pablo’s television watching The Simpsons in Spanish, watching the local news, and, as the night wore on, watching infomercials. We didn’t have cable, of course, and one-by-one the local channels went to test patterns, the most memorable of which was a looping graphic of an eagle catching a serpent and then morphing into a great, flapping Mexican flag.

2. I do not now, nor have I ever owned a television. Nevertheless, thanks to the magic of the internet, I can keep up on all my favorite shows. Some nights, after the kids have gone to bed, after we have exhausted the new episodes of shows we watch, we troll Hulu and YouTube searching for something, anything.

3. In the house where I lived in Florida, there was a huge television in the basement, along with a pool table. It was a big suburban house owned by a guy named Eric. I lived upstairs in a bedroom lined with bookshelves that Eric and I had made from a door we found somewhere and sawed into pieces. I was 22, and it was a point of pride for me that I didn’t know how to work the giant basement television. And I went on not knowing how until, sometime during my second winter living there, I decided that it was time I started to follow baseball again. Watching baseball was one of the few things that made me feel like there was something good and right about being a young man in America. Lots of people hung around Eric’s house, many of them young, white men with no complicated feelings about being young, white men in America. None of them were really my friends. They were into football, and action movies, and fraternities. I was into books, and obscure experimental theatre, and it made me feel better to add baseball to that list.

4. A real conversation my wife had with a student at the public middle/high school where we worked in Massachusetts:

WIFE: We don’t have a TV.

STUDENT: [after a moment of stunned silence] Then how do you waste time?

5. As part of my formative liberal-guilt initiation, I spent a summer in college working in Khichripur, a slum in East Delhi. Like most squatter neighborhoods, Khichripur was not connected to Delhi’s electrical grid, but, like most electrical grids in the developing world, Delhi’s consisted of a near-endless mess of wires and lines that jump from pole-to-pole, sagging across streets and culverts and acres-wide slums. These lines must have been uninsulated or poorly insulated, because the residents of Khichripur fashioned hooks from scrap metal, and men stood atop their tin-roofed jugghis and, like cowboys in dhotis and wife-beaters swinging their wire lassos above them, harnessed themselves to the grid. Needless to say, this was a dangerous business, but at the end of it, most of the jugghis in Khichripur had some electricity, however intermittent.

What did they do with that electricity? It powered three things inside most of the jugghis I saw: some kind of refrigerator, a set of colorful lights around a small shrine in the corner, and, of course, a television.

6. Because we are good parents, dedicated to making our children as ill-adjusted and unpopular as we were, we do not let our children watch television, except when we change our minds and let them. Our two-year-old has maybe three hours of cumulative screentime per week, well shy of the national average for her age bracket as reported by the first google hit when I searched something about kids and TV consumption. (It was a University of Michigan report, dated 2010, claiming 32 hours per week for children ages 2-5 in the US. Wait. Stop: 32 hours per week. Seriously, y’all, when our daughter watches three YouTube episodes of Mister Rogers in a day we feel like crappy parents).

7. When we first moved to Washington state, my wife and I (pre-kids) lived in a farmhouse on the Palouse. The closest neighbor was a couple miles away, and for hundreds of acres around the house, fields of wheat rolled toward every horizon. The US Postal Service did not come to our house, so we got a PO Box in the nearest town. (In fact, we were never entirely sure what zip code the house was in or what the physical address was. If you searched for what we thought was the address on Google Maps, it directed you to a field).

We rented the house furnished, which was good because we barely owned anything except books. Among the accoutrements was a small television on a rolling cart. Naturally, we refused to pay for cable, so we got one station, and it came in poorly. It was one of the local VHF network stations. This was 2007, so everybody else had already figured out some other way to watch television. Also, we only had dial-up internet.

The owners, like good Americans, had the TV in a prominent position in the living room, situated in front of the his and hers easy chairs which otherwise would have faced the picture windows. We rolled the television into the laundry room and left it there much of the time.

I was in grad school then, and my wife had found a job teaching at an underfunded private school that paid her a pittance for a potentially unlimited workload. We hardly knew anybody, and our schedules didn’t line up. She taught during school hours, and I had night classes at least a couple nights a week in Spokane, a 45-minute drive when the roads were clear. On those nights, I would often return home to find my wife in front of the television, peering through the snow-fuzzed reception at whatever The Station (as we called it) deigned to offer us. That was how tenuous the connection was between us and the rest of the world. That was how it felt. We had to squint to see it. We had to roll it in from the laundry room, fiddle with the rabbit ears. If the weather changed, we might lose it entirely. Outside, the weird voices of coyotes and the yowling of the barn cats were the only sounds.


  • Melissa says:

    Gorgeous post, Jonathan.

  • Amaris Amaris says:

    Two thoughts:
    1. Doesn’t Bart Simpson sound like a girl in Spanish?

    2. Someone once came to my house and asked, “Since you don’t have a TV, how did you figure out which way to point your furniture?”

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      1. Yes! And, weirdly, I once had a Mexican friend tell me that The Simpsons was “the most Mexican show on television.” To this day I am not sure what he meant.

      2. I love that. I want to put that in a short story.

  • Jenny La Sala says:

    We own a TV, but no cable. People are often astounded that we don’t have cable. We do watch TV, but less than we have in the past and do so with either Hulu or an antenna. Anna (7) watches no TV at all, outside the occasional family movie night. And she never asks for it, which is great.

    Nice post – and wonderfully written.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks for reading, Jenny. I feel weird feeling guilty about showing Dahl Mister Rogers. (He’s so wholesome!) Daniell thinks that she has a crush on him.

  • Monet says:

    Ahhhh. I love this. I also have a complicated relationship with televisions. Mine have always been borrowed and then given away. When I didn’t have a tv, for years at a time, I always felt disconnected from the idle chitchat that people would have: who won American Idol, the new movie preview and all sports. I appreciate that I wasn’t alone in being alone.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I do feel like there’s something to say for being conversant in whatever everybody else is talking about. But when I tried to say something in one of my comp classes the other day about “Downton Abbey,” everybody looked at me like I’d just quoted Goethe in German. So apparently even my brave forays into pop culture don’t go far enough to meet them halfway.

  • Sam Edmonds says:

    Phenomenal post, Jonathan, especially the concluding paragraph. I seriously doubt I’ll ever stare at a rectangular screen out of loneliness again without faintly hearing the yowls and laughter of barn cats and coyotes. (I know it’s hyenas that laugh, not coyotes, but you know.) Re: the Simpsons chat, Chilean Bart sounds like a girl, too; Chilean Homer sounds like an exhausted creep. I somehow doubt it’s the most Chilean show on television.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Sam. We have some serious coyote-theme happenings at our house these days, including a super-cool kids’ story from Amaris. So, yes, the coyotes, they keep howling. Glad to have brought you into the circle.

      And, I think I’d like to hear a more exhausted Homer. Would bring a kind of Ray Carver element to the whole thing.

  • Awesome post, Jonathan. I go through periods of gorging myself on TV or not watching any at all. Mostly we use the TV to watch movies and TV shows on Netflix. Right now, we’re in a period of having cable, but we’ll probably get rid of that soon too.

    When my husband and I traveled around South East Asia for a year, it was when the soccer World Cup was in Japan and Korea. We watched those games real time in small little local bars with only enough electricity to power one appliance at a time. So if you wanted the game, you had to make do with lukewarm beer. We are soccer fans, but the reason we rarely missed a game was because of the camaraderie between the people watching the game. Most of the friendships we struck up with locals started in one of those bars during one of those games.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      We go on and off with Netflix, too. We already have plans to re-up when the new Arrested Development episodes come out there.

      That World Cup experience sounds awesome. Daniell and I watched in Mexico in 2006, and we were bummed that people weren’t more engaged after Mexico was eliminated. The World Cup is one of the times I really wish I had TV. But I found the Univision’s website streams the games, or at least they did in 2010. (Plus, you get the major boom of Spanish commentary).

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Jonathan! BEAUTIFUL.

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