I was born with only one channel. It’s an affliction I’ve had to struggle with my entire life. No studying Latin conjugations while listening to the Top Ten on the radio. No chatting while a television babbles away in the background like an idiot brother whom everyone indulges but no one pays much attention to. Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain. If I am to function, I require quiet. That’s because I can only tune into one thing at a time. Present me with multiple audio streams and watch a train wreck happen in my head.
My first real job was as an assistant editor for an academic press. I shared an office with my boss, a chain-smoking Mennonite who tuned into National Public Radio ALL DAY. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of NPR, just not when I’ve been charged with wrangling a writer’s dubious prose into some semblance of meaning or untangling a grammatical snake ball. For that, I need my entire brain, including the large chunk besieged by that interview with Glenn Gould or under attack from the whimsical musings of Garrison Keillor. And because X was my boss and this was over thirty years ago, I couldn’t say Word One either about the non-stop cigarettes or the non-stop radio. I spent two years tearing my hair out in a haze of blue smoke and unceasing burble.
I can no more not watch television than I can ignore radio. I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. For me it is always foreground, never background. Because I can’t ignore it. Because it’s there. Part of my issue is undoubtedly nurture. When we were kids, Mom thought that television would “rot our brains,.” Accordingly, she tightly rationed our consumption. Every week she presented my brother Peter and me with the TV Guide. We were allowed one hour of television a day. We selected those shows we wanted to watch and listed them on a form she provided. As a result of this surprisingly Tiger Mom-ish action on her part, I am utterly incapable of channel surfing or of coming into a show part way through. I would no more sit down and channel surf than I wander off into a snowy night shoeless with no destination in mind. As for watching part of a show, that means you’ve missed the other part — a glass half-empty in my estimation. If there’s something I want to watch, I have to see it from the very beginning, including the intro, and nobody better talk over it, because, goddam it, this is my hour of television and I only have one and I don’t want to miss one second!
It’s not only blaring TVs and radio that give me the fantods; TV and radio turned down so low that all you can make out is a distant drone and rumble have the same effect. I become immediately fixated on trying to tease out meaning from the mumble. I don’t want to, but I can’t help myself. Some kind person has turned the volume down so the noise won’t bother cranky old me, only now it bothers me more because, instead of hearing it, I’m not hearing it.
My husband and I used to frequent a particular ice cream stand. I would order Butter Pecan, because that’s the best flavor of ice cream there is; my husband would order Turtle Caramel Fudge. One day they were out of Turtle Caramel Fudge. “You’re out of Turtle Caramel Fudge!” my husband exclaimed to the teenage girl whose summer job this was; he likes teasing young girls. “I’m distraught! I’m beside myself! At a loss! No Turtle Caramel Fudge? Whatever can I do?” The girl appraised him cooly. “You might see a psychiatrist,” she suggested.
And so could I, I suppose, for all my noise foibles, but, really, why bother? The most commonly used word around our house these days is “What?” — my husband thinks I’m going deaf and I know he is. I’m lobbying for us to have a hearing test mainly so that I can prove to him that he is deafer than me, in which case, clearly, I win. He’s resisting because he knows I’m right. Soon enough, if I am lucky — or unlucky — to live as long as my blessed father, I will be ensconced in a chair from which there is no escape — at least not under my own steam — with MSNBC cranked so loud that the vibrations rock the foundations of the nursing home and, far from it bothering me, I will not even notice.
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