It’s a truth universally acknowledged: A late-night phone call is never good news.
So when my son called in the middle of the night — not from college, but from the police station — it was a low moment.
He had gotten into some trouble. He was suspended from school for the rest of the year and came home. In between a few part-time jobs and group therapy sessions, he and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes we talked to one another. The rest of the time, he watched television. A lot of the time I watched with him, just to keep him company.
One evening we were watching a basketball game together. The light from the TV was batting at his face in a sweet, flirtatious way.
I said, “We’ve been watching a lot of TV lately.”
He said “I mean, Ma — TV is my best friend.”
I didn’t say anything but I felt terrible, as if I had failed him in some deep way. This was my kid, the person I had known and cared for his whole life, a young person whom I had hoped would find happiness and fulfillment, telling me that television was his best friend.
I knew, or thought I knew, that what he was saying wasn’t really what he meant. He meant he was lonely, and anxious, and without the usual structures and pursuits of a person his age, and what filled all those hollow dark spots right now was the safe glow of the television.
I started thinking about the history of my life with television. When my two boys were little I would tell them, “Guys, if you watch too much TV your brain will start oozing out of your ears. See?” I would tell them. “Yuck, here’s a washcloth, wipe your wasted brains off your earlobe.”
I was a young mother then, and willing to fight the battle for their bright new minds. I really did believe watching too much TV sapped their strength, frittered away their energy, and sucked up their creative brain function. I imagined that I actually could see their sharp little intellects slowly blunted by the steady emanation of television rays.
When video games came along, it seemed even worse. Or was it better? At least they’re playing together, I told myself, or with other kids. At least there were conversations, tactics, rules, strategies.
Ten years or so after the boys, I had a baby girl. She spent the very first night we brought her home from the hospital in her father’s arms, her tiny face bathed in the soft purple glow of the television while he played Tetris. Her first lullaby was the Tetris background music.
After that, I pretty much gave up. All my elasticity of spirit and fiery devotion to the anti-television crusade ended. I watched my little girl climb into the laps of her brothers and suck her thumb while they played NBA Basketball and shouted and swore at the animated players on the screen. These were their teenage years. This was her childhood.
Meanwhile, my father was sick. He had a hard time putting on his shoes, much less actually walking anywhere. He spent his time in a soft gray easy chair with a foot rest, holding onto the old fashioned, simple remote control like it was his life support. We watched non-stop Law and Order, an occasional episode of Seinfeld, and sometimes a half-hour of Roseanne.
It got us through many companionable hours together — the same way it had done for my son and me — when it was hard to find things to say. “Oh I’ve seen this one.” “Have you seen this one?” “Remember this one?” “Oh, my God … We saw this one yesterday!”
The television was that third party in the room, the mediator, the one who makes communication between the other two possible. I suppose we should all be able to look one another in the eye and speak the truth, but in my family, anyway, it’s difficult. Better to filter it through the kindness and the gentle brushing wing of our beloved therapist, peacefully perched on the wall of the room.
I was grateful to the TV with my father, and again later with my teenage daughter. During our awkward mother/daughter years, when the sound of my voice made her cringe and the touch of my hand made her wince, television was the soft neon balm that soothed the chafed spots between us.
We watched hour after hour of Say Yes to the Dress; we loved Queer Eye, and often got teary-eyed at the transformations in What Not to Wear. I listened while she endlessly analyzed and explained the personalities and relationships of the various real housewives to me, and we laughed together when I couldn’t keep them straight.
Television is a chameleon. It can match a time of life, a mood, a moment. In these complicated political times, it can inform you and settle you down, whichever side you happen to be on.
If you’re in a dark hole, there are always sitcoms: to me, the most comforting and instructive of all. How many late night hours have I spent watching Everybody Loves Raymond? Half-hour after half-hour, I watch Ray regularly irritate Debra. But she never seems actually to dislike him. She never seems about to kick him out the door. She never picks up a frying pan and hurls it across the kitchen. You never see her crying, alone and bitter, in a dark car parked in the driveway. Her irritation with him is real, but always so benign.
The other night, I went out to dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend. I don’t know him well, and I think he was a little bit nervous. She started describing a fight they had had the night before.
I could tell it was making him uncomfortable. He said, in his soft-spoken way, “It wasn’t a fight — we weren’t having an actual fight.” She said, in her less soft-spoken way, “Oh it was! It was a fight — you wanted to watch Game of Thrones, and I didn’t, and I had to go in the bedroom, which doesn’t have a door, I had to listen, and I didn’t want to! It was a fight, all right.”
Poor guy! I felt terrible for him. I said, “Oh guys, that’s just a sitcom fight.”
“A sitcom fight?” they said.
I said, “Yeah! You know, like for instance on Everybody Loves Raymond. You know how Debra is always so mad at Ray, but she’s never really mad at him”? My daughter asked, “Since when have you been watching Everybody Loves Raymond?” I said, “Oh I watch it a lot. It’s very inspiring, you know, how they all bicker but still manage to get along.” It cheered them up so much, that their fight had been a sitcom fight — nothing more serious than that.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of time on my own. My TV shows of choice are the chatterboxes on political TV. I don’t know what it is about them. As annoying as they are, the sounds of their voices are a comfort to me. I think of them as my friends.
Just like my young son years ago, right now I’m a little lonely, a little anxious, and for sure lacking structure and regular pursuits. Just like he did back then, I turn to my bright-eyed ally who has never failed me in any of the phases of my life: my much-maligned but always loyal best forever friend.