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On Not Watching Television

Why deny myself the pleasure? There are reasons.

Heather Abel
October 10, 2018
Photo: Gottscho-Schleisner Inc. via Library of Congress
Photo: Gottscho-Schleisner Inc. via Library of Congress
Photo: Gottscho-Schleisner Inc. via Library of Congress
Photo: Gottscho-Schleisner Inc. via Library of Congress

The first TV I remember watching was in Nannie’s room in my grandparents’ house in Westchester where my sisters and I stayed for a week each summer. Nannie, my great-grandmother, was dead, so her dark room scared me. I wouldn’t sit on her tidy twin bed or look at the oil paintings on the walls, which were, I believed, the last pictures she’d seen. I sat on the floor and stared at The Munsters, which also frightened me, because I didn’t understand that it was supposed to be funny.

I was there for the commercials, the origin stories of the breakfast cereals, the barrettes braided with ribbon, the Weeble Wobbles—all the fetishized objects that seemed to come out of nowhere, blazing like comets onto my classmates’ bodies and into their conversation. That nowhere, I’d begun to realize—I was 7 or 8 in Nannie’s room—was TV, shaper of desires, determiner of normalcy, the whisper below the sentence. I was there for the whisper.

From the start then, I went about TV all wrong. You’re not supposed to work at it. Back at home in Santa Monica, I read the TV listings in the L.A. Times to memorize characters and plotlines of shows I hadn’t seen, in the futile hope of becoming conversant in our nation’s common language, our Esperanto. In Nannie’s room, I was looking for patterns. It interested me that the commercials were populated by regular people, while many shows featured suprapeople with special powers, Jeannie the genie or Herman Munster or Morticia Addams. My grandparents’ house had a similar divide. My sisters and grandmother and I were regular people. My grandfather was not.

My grandfather was the most interesting person I knew, and before The Munsters began, I would stand in the doorway of his small office hoping for his attention. Sitting at his metal desk, he would pull down his glasses to examine me. “Young Heather,” he would ask, “what are you doing with your time?” Across from his desk was a couch and, above it, a poster of Albert Einstein on his bicycle. Like him, my grandfather had wild hair and a wild intellect, and in deference to that intellect, my grandmother would lead me away from the doorway. “Let him work. Go watch TV.”

I never saw an adult watch TV until the night Reagan was elected. I didn’t know that they did so or why they would. On election night, we went to the house of a family friend where my father screamed at the TV and then drove home silently. We didn’t have a TV in our house because he didn’t like the noise, and what did he care about learning Esperanto? Like my grandfather, my father spoke French and sang in German and Latin during weekly choral practice. Both loathed buying anything besides groceries, books, or the occasional nail, so what did they care about the comets shooting past us? Both enjoyed trespassing, leading me past Do Not Enter signs to fairer fields beyond. Fuck you, they seemed to say to private property and our country’s veneration of it. Fuck you to consumerism and the TV that pushes it upon us. And so when my friend—for many years I had just one, a girl named Mihui—would ask if I wanted to watch TV during the 30 minutes per week she was allowed, I didn’t know how to answer. Should I choose to be like my grandfather or like everyone else? Special or the same?

I wanted both. One of my greatest dreams as a child was of having a conversation that would go something like this:

I like ___. Do you like ____?

No way, I love ____!

Isn’t ____ so great!

I imagined the euphoria that would arise from shared enthusiasm, and even now, so many years later, this is my favorite kind of conversation to have. In a rare instance of the experience living up to the dream, it generates the bliss I’d hoped.

But back then, I’d never had such a conversation. I had two enthusiasms: Japan and the prevention of nuclear war, and I checked out the same library books about these subjects each week, even after I’d memorized all the facts about population and decimation, tea services and Oppenheimer. I was longing for someone to ask me about the proper order of dolls in a Girl’s Day display or the women’s peace encampment at Greenham Common. The apotheosis of my two obsessions was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and particularly a girl named Sadako who had been a toddler then and died of leukemia 10 years later. I folded origami into cranes as Sadako had done, while I waited for someone to say to me:

“Do you like Japan and the prevention of nuclear war?”

“No way, I love Japan and the prevention of nuclear war!”

“Oh my God, we have so much in common!”

I knew I was hoping for too much. From the youngest age, girls are made to understand that their desires are greedy. I’ve seen this with my daughters, how we control girls’ appetites from the start. I knew a girl shouldn’t want to be both special and the same; the special ones were the ones who were most the same, who took sameness to platonic perfection. Instead of special, I was simply outside.

Alone on the blacktop, I sometimes entertained myself with my grandfather’s origin story, which began, as many do, with someone coming to America because of terror at home. In this instance it was my great-grandmother fleeing pogroms in Russia. She arrived in Ellis Island, moved to Brooklyn, married a man who sold dry goods on Canal Street, and raised my grandfather who moved as far from her milieu as possible. At 13, he matriculated at Columbia University. Soon after, he bought a ham sandwich from an automat and that was the end of his Judaism, although he’d always be, in the eyes of the world, a Jew. At 17, he began law school. In his 20s, he worked at a Brooklyn department store, studied for a doctorate in philosophy, and Americanized his surname from Ablowitz to Abel, casting my family as Adam’s good-yet-murdered son. For much of his life, he sold bedding during the day and taught philosophy at night at the New School for Social Research, a university founded by and for exiles, where he eventually became a dean.

He was a wonder of self-control, a dance of willpower. Because of this, he was a charismatic, fantastic grandfather. His regimen became our games. We counted while he guzzled eight glasses of water each morning. We helped lay out his daily buckwheat and raisins. After he worked his requisite number of hours, we took the same walk with him every day, pausing at the same landmarks, repeating the same mantras. He saved every rubber band and plastic bag he’d ever used, and we played with the stockpile. Everything about that house was in obeisance to his obsessiveness, and his obsessiveness was synonymous with his intellect.

He knew the names of each constellation, every river, told us about Odysseus’ journeys at bedtime, and we thought he’d made these stories up. In retrospect, I realize that he could be our entertainer, our magician, our Homer only because my grandmother was cooking, cleaning, providing outings and emotional comfort. But back then, I thought he was simply powerful, and I allied myself with him. I wanted to be the rebel at the automat, not the one who married the rebel at the automat. Why would you choose to be small when you could be so big?

An essay is, in part, a plea for shared enthusiasms (I think this, do you think it, too? No way! We have so much in common!) which is why I’m nervous to write about a childhood spent not watching TV, and I feel I should address the anxiety that it brings up in people. I assure you that I wasn’t doing anything better. I was usually bored. I listened to records, then tapes, then CDs. I called in to radio shows. I melted crayons against the light bulb over my desk and watched the colors drip onto my homework. I don’t believe this is in any way morally superior to TV. There are many ways to wait for time to pass, and most of them are not very enjoyable.

After high school, I left my deficient home and at last could learn the answers to all my questions: Does Frasier live in a hotel in Vermont? Who is Mary Tyler Moore? What about Neil Patrick Harris? Is there a difference between MASH and Cheers? Why are you talking about Mr. Belvedere? Why Law and Order? Why Friends? I would stand in the doorway of the lounge in my dorm and watch the people watching TV. I loved how relaxed everyone became, sprawling their limbs willy-nilly. I loved the delight on their faces, the mindless way they reached for food, and how they all laughed at the same time.

But I couldn’t bring myself to join them. Sure, it would have been more fun to watch with everyone than to sit alone in my room pretending to work, spending time in my familiar not-fun ways, but I wasn’t troubled by a lack of fun, at least not right away. A lack of fun felt downright homey. I came from a patrilineal line of pleasure deniers. I’d never seen my grandfather lounge. Even now, at 75, my father runs eight miles each morning, writes in his office for eight straight hours, reads all evening. And I felt it—that urge to control my time and relationships in the service of getting shit done—like a mechanism inside me, a swallowed clock. How could I relax with others? I was ticking like the crocodile in Peter Pan.

For my grandfather, the point of all this self-denial was simple. The point was to earn entrance into and participate in the intelligentsia, and the path toward that was books, always books. The rooms of my grandfather’s house were floor to ceiling with them, but the most important ones, given pride of place on a small rolling shelf in front of the fireplace, were written by my grandfather, by my father and his sister, by my mother. It seemed the course of things. You grow up, spend time alone at a desk. You have few friends. You avoid communal fun. You control your time, your food, your exercise, your plastic-bag usage. Finally, your book is added. You glance at it as you sit on the couch eating chopped liver and cracking walnuts, sweeping the shells with the side of your hand as you say to your granddaughter, “Young Heather, what do you want to do with your time?”

After college, I began to hate answering his question. I felt the ticking as strongly as ever (far too loudly to enjoy TV), but I’d begun to lose the point of all this self-denial. I didn’t want to join the intelligentsia; I no longer believed in a singular intelligentsia. The artists and writers and musicians and activists I most admired had grown up watching TV, used TV, toyed with TV, sang songs to and wrote novels about TV. My grandfather’s life now seemed sad to me, irrelevant. He was old. There was so much he didn’t understand. For one thing, he was wrong about time. He’d always made me worry about its scarcity and feel guilty for wasting it. But from the vantage of my early 20s, I saw oodles of time, a surplus, a vastness. I longed to step out of its current and picnic on its shore. This was a dream only an assimilated granddaughter could have. I wanted to fall asleep in the sun and wake without knowing what day it was. I wanted to hang out, chill out, zone out. I wanted an abeyance of purpose. I wanted what TV provides.

When I was 25, my grandfather and I had a fight. I’d flown from San Francisco to New York to celebrate his and my grandmother’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was August and the few of us—our small family—ate smoked salmon and toasted their marriage in their muggy, verdant backyard. My grandfather, tanned and happy, turned to me and asked when I would move to the East Coast and start graduate school. “Why should I do either?” I answered provocatively. He grew upset. No real thinking happens outside of New York, he explained. And I had to go to graduate school. How else would I even be a person? I tried to explain about my dream, the ticking clock, picnics on the shore. He countered that I’d be wasting my life. We argued for a while, which was silly of me, because my grandfather loved to argue. He argued with museum guards until they allowed us to stay past closing time. He argued with utility companies. He argued with dictionaries until they added the words he suggested. He argued with The New York Times, demanding corrections.

That night, because so many of us were visiting, my grandmother made up the office couch as my bed. I’d never been allowed in there without him, and I touched the talismanic objects from my childhood, the small metal perpetual calendar we were brought in to flip each day, the dish of colorful admissions tabs from visits to the Met. And then, since I was angry at him, I snooped. I opened his file cabinet and found a multitude of notecards, one for every book he’d ever read, with summaries and dates, and my bile rose. I thought: all this accumulation of knowledge. What’s it all for? Wasn’t this a waste of a life?

At 3 in the morning, I was awakened by my grandfather in the doorway. He was frantic and confused. Was I warm enough? Was I OK?

I was fine, I told him. He could go back to bed.

No, no, he insisted that something was wrong.

He left, although he still seemed worried. I couldn’t fall back asleep for hours, and when I finally woke, needing to catch a train, he was at the hospital. He’d had a heart attack. I never saw or spoke to him again, which means I never told him how much I loved him. So, he was right about time. There wasn’t enough of it, not at all. His memorial was held in a classroom at the New School. We talked about how much he liked to argue and about how he always won his arguments.

Two years exactly after his death, on another muggy August day, I arrived in New York to begin graduate studies at the New School. Are you sad to hear that I didn’t eat the ham sandwich at the automat? That I didn’t rebel against the rebel?

But wait. I found—or I believed I did—a way to win the argument with my grandfather even as I lost it. At the New School, I studied fiction writing, which is really nothing more than a dream, the way television is a dream. I figured that writing a novel was different than writing a philosophy text. To write fiction, you need to—you get to—step outside of the current of time. You fall asleep and wake in the sun, not knowing what day it is or who you are.

At a party in SoHo, I met the man who would become my husband. He was blowing out the tea candles on a bookshelf so they wouldn’t set the books on fire. That’s ridiculous, I thought, and then I promptly fell in love. Books were everywhere in his apartment, stored in his kitchen cabinets, but unlike my grandfather—and like most everyone else—he watched a lot of TV.

I began to try in earnest to become a TV watcher, and guess what? TV is great! But it still makes me feel odd and left out. I don’t get either overt or structural references to past shows. The jokes confuse me, the drama freaks me out. Or, if I like a show, my feelings for it become outsize. I talk about it too often and emphatically, with all the embarrassing reverence of a new convert. What I really like is to watch my kids watching TV. I’m making sure they put in the requisite hours to acclimate to the inherent weirdness of the form. To know how to sit there, the ticking clock stilled. I push them to watch what their friends watch. I love it when they laugh at the same time. But then they look at me and ask, Why aren’t you laughing, Mom?

One of the words my grandfather added to the dictionary was “to cathect.” Thanks to his persistence, Webster’s New International Dictionary included it in their 1950 edition with the definition, “to invest with libidinal energy.” You can’t choose what you cathect upon. I’ve tried to assimilate and cathect upon television. But for me it’s books, always books, even as I know that they’re not a path to anything, really. When my father tried to sell my grandfather’s enormous book collection, nobody wanted it. Not even used booksellers. Not even for free.

Six years ago, I began keeping a log of the books I read. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I enjoy it. It’s invariably nighttime when I finish a book. My husband is downstairs, watching TV. I slam the book shut, float a moment in its afterglow, then I open my file, jot down the title and a few snarky or fawning notes. I like looking at a new name beneath the others. I like the steadily growing list, the variety, the accumulation and accomplishment. I imagine my daughter asking me someday: But why? What’s it for? For the sheer pleasure it gives me, I’ll tell her. It’s made me consider the joy of my grandfather’s life, the wonder of it, that grand metamorphosis, then so unprecedented, now so impossible, from Brooklyn to Westchester, from Ablowitz to Abel, from immigrant’s son to professor.

My grandfather—unlike the sons and daughters of slaves, of Chinese laborers, of Mexicans, of Native Americans—was allowed to bound upward in class as a consequence of his hard work. Thanks to his whiteness and maleness and the particular moment in history, the myth of meritocracy, one of America’s most trenchant lies, became truth for him. Sure, anti-Semitism limited his rise and he was always anxious about money, but still he woke in a leafy suburb every morning to eat his buckwheat. His story is proof that for a select few this country did what it was supposed to do. Ellis Island welcomed his parents. Columbia University accepted him. The New School hired him. The Free Press published his book. A bank offered him a mortgage. A realtor sold him a house in a town where excellent public schools educated his children. In other words, America treated him as it should everyone. Thinking about it this way, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve interpreted his work ethic, his ticking, all wrong. Perhaps what I saw as a denial of pleasure was for him extremely pleasurable. How do I know that writing philosophy is so different than writing fiction? Maybe, while I watched The Munsters upstairs, he was full of the bliss of shared enthusiasm in his small office. After all, he was joining in a magnificent conversation with philosophers across the span of human history. You understand the world this way? I do, too! Oh my God we’re so alike!

When I think of him like this, I realize that not watching TV hasn’t been about denial of pleasure for me either. It’s my act of preservation. It’s how I’ve stayed close to my grandfather, the most interesting person I knew. I said I lost the point of the ticking within me, but I’ve been looking in the wrong place. I kept expecting my self-discipline to reward me with something, some honor or degree, gold star or blue ribbon. But not watching TV isn’t redemptive or even laudable, it’s just the way I’ve been tending the fire, like Hestia, guarding my grandfather’s story and the way this country should be, guarding his memory. The point then is simple. The point is love.


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Heather Abel‘s debut novel isThe Optimistic Decade. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Paris Review, and Slate.