Sunday, April 30, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part VI: The End of the Rant

TV Turn-Off Week ends today. I have had a very good time doing something I don't get many opportunities to do: denigrating a holy icon of American culture.

In the interest of full disclosure and total candor, I want to tell you that our living room contains a 27" television set. It is not hooked up to cable or an antenna, and so it does not deliver what I call "television" into my home. We do watch movies regularly, and I occasionally get dvd's of material that was originally produced for television. I watch them on my own schedule, without commercials. Some of the shows that I have liked enough to watch entire seasons' worth of: "Friends," "Six Feet Under," "The Office" (British version), " and "Arrested Development." ("Arrested Development"--NPR says I should like it, and I have tried to like it, but I often fall asleep watching it--I think I'm done with it.) The only broadcast show that I watch more or less religiously is the Academy Awards. I watch a videotaped version of it, usually the day after the broadcast. I fast-forward through the commercials.

Coming up this week: book reviews and who knows what else...

Saturday, April 29, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part VI: TV Makes us Fat

If you are sitting on a comfortable chair, staring off into space, you aren't burning very many calories. But you are burning more calories than you would be if you were watching television. When we watch tv, we become very still and our metabolism slows down. That's what the studies show, and other studies have shown a direct correlation between obesity and the number of hours spent watching television.

In addition to slowing our metabolism as we watch, of course, tv time takes away from available time to play sports or take a walk or go to the gym.

And let's not forget that while we watch we will be bombarded with messages urging us to EAT MORE JUNK FOOD!!!

Here's Dave Barry: "Maybe you are wondering, 'Am I overweight?' Well, here's an easy test to determine whether you have a weight problem. Go to the nearest window. Look out. If you see America, then you are overweight" (paraphase--I'm sure it was funnier when he wrote it.)

So Americans watch more and more television, and get more and more overweight. Of course television is not the entire cause of the obesity epidemic, but I really believe that the more tv people watch, the less inclined they are to take charge of their own lives.

Tomorrow: Full Disclosure and Disclaimers, and we say farewell to TV Turn-Off Week.

Friday, April 28, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part V: Television is BAD FOR KIDS!

One time about twelve years ago, a neighbor I didn't know very well asked me to babysit her six-month old baby. When I arrived at the house, she gave me the usual run-down: the bottle is here, the diapers are there, and she said, the baby is in the bedroom. Just leave the television on and she'll be fine. Then the mom left.

I went into the bedroom to find the baby propped up in an infant seat, facing the tv, about four feet away from it. The program that happened to be on as I entered the room was some kind of lurid drama, with people yelling and threatening each other. I can't report any details about it because of course I turned it off immediately. I picked up the baby and cuddled with her while she had her bottle and went to sleep. When the mom came home, she expressed some irritation that the television wasn't on. I didn't babysit that child again, but I'll never forget that experience.

That's not an illustration of my point, just an introduction to the rant.

Television is bad for kids. The time they spend watching tv would literally be better spent making mud pies. Watching cloud formations. Playing fetch with the dog. Fishing. Building forts. Talking to a friend. Daydreaming. Drawing. ANYTHING!!

Commercials are bad for kids. They have no defense when they are young, and by the time they get a clue, their minds are already formed with a background of advertising propaganda.

TV news is bad for kids. It is violent and frightening.

Television teaches children that they have a right to be entertained. That is a direct cause of boredom. My daughter has never known boredom, and it's partly because we never had television. She had books and art supplies. She could create a whole world with sticks and leaves. As a high school student she laughed when she told me that when new friends found out she didn't have tv, they would say, "What do you do?"--presumably they couldn't imagine how they would fill all the empty hours that would result if they didn't watch television.

I was pleased when I heard Alice say something about Levi jeans, pronouncing the brand like "levee." At age 17, she had never seen a jean commercial on television. Result: she didn't "know" that she needed to spend extra money for a brand name. She decided for herself what clothes she liked to wear, what jeans were comfortable.

American parents don't agree with me. Most kids have television in their bedrooms. Toddlers have their own specially designed remote controls, and their own specially produced shows and movies. American children spend more time in front of the tube than they spend in school. I'm crazy, out of touch with reality. But I'm very glad I raised my daughter without television, and what is more, she is glad, too.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part IV: TV News--Purveyor of Information or Corporate Shill?

Occasionally, reading the newspaper, you will run across a "news item" with a headline like "New Weight-Loss Pill Works Wonders!" and the crap detector goes off, and if you have experience with newspapers, you will look at the top of the page--sure enough, there's the small print: "Paid Advertisement." I don't know if it's a law or if it's just journalistic ethics, but it's pretty consistent. Well, guess what, television news is apparently lacking either a law or an ethic that would require the producers to notify the public when they are watching a "news item" that is actually produced by a corporation, for the benefit of that corporation. I'm assuming that it is because no money changes hands--it's a barter, the corporation gets free air time and the tv station gets free, professionally produced video that passes for news.

A study just came out from the Center for Media & Democracy called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," that details the ways that tv stations throughout the country, in both large and small markets, spoonfeed prepackaged information to their audiences, using various ruses to make it seem as if the station produced the segment even though they didn't even check the facts presented.

Here's the link: read it and weep.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part III: The News

My daughter reported this exchange in her 12th grade American Government class: Teacher: "You guys should read the news more." Student (amid laughter and agreement from others): "You can't read 'The News'"(!) (unstated intent: "The News" is a tv show, as in "The Six-O'Clock News" or "Fox News" or "CBS Evening News.")

Way too many Americans get all of their news from television. The main problem I see is the underlying message of all television news programs: that it is possible to learn everything you need to know about what's happening in the world in 15 minutes a day. A corollary is that paid professionals can be trusted to sift through the day's events and bring to your attention those items that are necessary for you to know.

Of course, the paid professionals are sifting through the day's news with quite another objective. Their objective is to get you to watch their show. They watch each other's content and viewer numbers and adjust their programming accordingly. The result: "If it bleeds, it leads." Plus, copious amounts of time devoted to weather and sports. All the actual news stories are reduced to sound bites. The result of all this: a person who forms his worldview from watching tv news tends to be a fearful, pessimistic individual. And not well-informed, either. I feel certain that the Americans--there are millions of them--who still believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, mainly get their information from television.

Again, the passive nature of the television experience also works against it. You have the evening news, I have a newspaper. You have to sit and wait to see what they want to tell you, pause for commercials, listen to what they choose to present in the order they choose to deliver it to you. If the phone rings, you miss part of the story.

With my newspaper, I can scan the headlines, and decide for myself what I want to find out about, based on my interests and what I consider important. I can turn directly to the celebrity news, or the business section, or local news. I can read the entire story about a high school basketball game, and skip the Olympics altogether. I can read faster if I just want the general idea, or slower to get the details of a complicated story. If my daughter wants to have a conversation, I can put the paper aside until later. I can clip a story to share or file for future reference. I can read different viewpoints from columnists, op-ed writers, editors and letter-writers. In the same time it takes you to sit through one news program, I can get 100 times as much information, tailored to my specific interests.

Tune in tomorrow, when we tie together parts II and III and explain "How Television News and Commercials Overlap."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part II: Commercials

"I like commercials," a co-worker once told me. "Without commercials, I wouldn't know what to buy!"


The number one reason I don't have television in my house is: commercials.

We live submerged in a sea of commercial speech--advertising, marketing, images designed to catch our eyes, tunes designed to stay in our heads all day. So why is television advertising especially bad?

First of all, no other form of advertising commands our attention so totally. We are watching a show, being entertained. Maybe we are laughing, relaxed, or maybe engrossed in a mystery or on the edge of our seat with suspense. We are tuned in. And here comes a commercial. Maybe we get up during the commercial break to get a drink of water or let the dog in, but not always. And the advertising message that is presented to eyes and ears at that vulnerable time is very likely to get through.

Now, I know you think you are an adult human being with free will. You laugh at the commercials, and at the idea that they could influence your behavior. Besides, at the worst, it's only costing you money if you buy the products they sell. Right?


First of all, as a Robert Heinlein character says, "Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal." We don't know why we do things. We do them and then we make up explanations that make sense to us in the context of our beliefs.

Second, when we follow the directions we receive from the commercials, we end up much worse off. I can't prove the extent to which television has contributed to the problems our society is facing, but I believe that there is a connection between the billions of collective hours spent passively absorbing strong, coercive messages and the collective tendency of Americans to flock together in actions that are harmful to us as individuals and as a society. Overeating, SUV's, McMansions, war, the widening gap between rich and poor, the widespread pursuit of happiness through consumerism--these are just a few examples.

It is a cycle, too, because one of the main products TV advertises is itself.

Tune in tomorrow for more ranting...

Monday, April 24, 2006

TV Turn-Off Week, Part I

April 24-30 is TV Turn-Off Week, and we are celebrating it here at Read-Think-Live.

This week, I also celebrate having my own blog, because I know from experience that anti-television sentiments don't go over well on even liberal-leaning blogs. I've been chastised every time I've expressed my television opinion in an open forum.

So here we are, I can say whatever I want, so "stay tuned" as they say. This week will be a veritable orgy of tv-bashing. It will be the virtual equivalent of what they did to the photocopy machine in Office Space.

Feel free to visit the official website. These people are even more radical than I am!

I'm actually not in a ranting mood this evening, and I'm going to let John Prine kick off the week for me, with a little song that goes something like this:

Spanish Pipe Dream
by John Prine

She was a level-headed dancer
on the road to alcohol
And I was just a soldier
on my way to Montreal
Well she pressed her chest against me
About the time the juke box broke
Yeah, she gave me a peck on the back of the neck
And these are the words she spoke

Blow up your T.V.
throw away your paper
Go to the country,
build you a home
Plant a little garden,
eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus
on your own

Well, I sat there at the table
and I acted real naive
For I knew that topless lady
had something up her sleeve
Well, she danced around the bar room
and she did the hoochy-coo
Yeah she sang her song all night long,
tellin' me what to do

Repeat chorus:

Well, I was young and hungry
and about to leave that place
When just as I was goin',
well she looked me in the face
I said "You must know the answer."
She said, "No but I'll give it a try."
And to this day we've been livin' our way
And here is the reason why

We blew up our T.V.
threw away our paper
Went to the country,
built us a home
Had a lot of children,
fed 'em on peaches
They all found Jesus
on their own


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Henry Flagler and the Overseas Railroad

I've been burning the midnight oil, finishing Last Train to Paradise, an account of Henry Flagler's greatest project, the railroad to Key West.

Essentially, Flagler was the architect of modern-day Florida. He built railroads and hotels, and towns grew up around them. Key West was the exception--it was the most developed city in Florida at the time Flagler first discovered St. Augustine and decided to embark on his development projects. But Key West could only be reached by boat, and Flagler conceived of an extension of the East Coast Railroad to connect the Southernmost City with the mainland.

It took seven years and $30 million to construct. Hundreds of workers died in the process. The effort was comparable to a contemporary engineering feat, the construction of the Panama Canal. But when it was finished, in 1912 a passenger could board a train at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, and three days later step off the train in Key West.

Hurricanes plagued the project in its construction phase, and in the end the devastating Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the railroad. The Overseas Highway was able to use many of the bridges and the foundation that was created for the railroad.

Standiford's book is fascinating reading for many reasons. The narrative follows the route south from Homestead, detailing the history of the Keys and the adventures and challenges of the railroad project. My friend, Marilyn, who gave me this book, told me, "you'll never see the drive to Key West the same way after you read this." She is certainly right. It's easy to take the road for granted since I can't remember a time when it wasn't there. But now I have a greater appreciation for the effort and ingenuity that went into creating the route.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Saturday, Saturday

I had a very nice day today, out and about.

About nine this morning I rode my bike to the bank and then to the bike shop. It needed a new back wheel. I left it at the shop and took the bus to Fort Lauderdale.

Beautiful weather, in the 80's, slightly overcast early, clearing by ten o'clock.

On the bus, first a woman got on with hospital bracelets and all her personal effects in plastic bags. Another passenger asked her if she had been in for an operation and she answered, no, she had been in the psychiatric ward. Slightly awkward pause, then the other person asked whether it was a nice hospital and they chatted for a few minutes. I helped her with her bus route planning--she needed to get off at Oakland Park Blvd. and change to the 72, I gave her a route map and showed her where the 72 goes.

Then, a homeless guy behind me went up and had an earnest conversation with the driver; when he came back he asked for a dollar from the woman who had been chatting with the mental patient. She told him no. He sat back down. I turned around and gave him a dollar. Then he was my new best friend. Shook my hand about four times, gave me some advice about my hairstyle. Wished me good health and long life, and so on. Meanwhile, a German tourist across the aisle was worried about missing the stop for Galeria Mall, so I advised her, and so did the homeless guy. He told her where to get off to walk to the mall, but the bus driver told her to stay on. He took her farther away to a place where she could connect with another bus to take her to the mall. It was a judgment call. I think, being German and in good health, she would have preferred to walk rather than wait for another bus. It's what I would have done and it's what the homeless guy would have done. Who knows.

I went to the library, was very efficient in finding the exact article I wanted for my Tropic magazine website (still a work in progress).

Walked down Las Olas, had lunch at The Floridian Restaurant (known by those "in the know" as "The Flo'"). Sat next to a family with three kids. The parents ordered healthy food for themselves (turkey wrap, turkey platter) but for the kids, hot dog, grilled cheese, chocolate milkshake, ack! I am horrified by this aspect of American culture.

Continued down Las Olas, caught the #11 bus, which goes along the beach. I felt like I was on vacation, looking out the window at the waves and sand and all the relaxed sunbathers.

Picked up my bike, pedaled home. Great day.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Fibonacci Poetry

It's catching on like wildfire, this new poetry form based on the Fibonacci sequence. In that sequence, each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. So: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...

Any sequence that gets me to 144 is okay in my book.

The poems use the first seven numbers to designate the number of syllables in a seven-line poem. The first line has zero syllables, so it's invisible. I still count it, though, just to prove I am a geek.

The fact that Fibonacci is featured in The DaVinci Code shouldn't be enough to disqualify these poems from consideration. The fact that the form tends to attract math buffs might lead me to doubt that literary heights will be reached with this metaphorical ladder.

I just think it's fun that it spread over the internet, so I'm doing my part. I read about 35 "fibs" tonight and never found one better than the one the New York Times used to introduce its article:

and rumor
But how about a
Rare, geeky form of poetry?

That's by the originator, Gregory Pincus. He has plenty more on his website Gottabook.

Update 4/23/06: I've been corrected by the Fibber Himself--I'm honored--the fib I quoted above was apparently penned by Motoko Rich, the author of the New York Times article. That would have been clear to me if I had thought about it for a second. Sorry, Motoko. And thanks for stopping by, Gregory!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Making Friends at Work

Portrait of alienation and affirmation via email:

----Original Message-----
From: Michelle
Sent: Thursday, April 20, 2006 12:27 PM
To: Jill; Karen
Subject: Because you are the two here who would understand why I have sent this.....

“Reduction of the ecological footprint of the consumer classes around the world is not just a matter of ecology, but also a matter of equity.”


From: Karen
Sent: Thursday, April 20, 2006 12:28 PM
To: Michelle
Subject: RE: Because you are the two here who would understand why I have sent this.....



From: Michelle
Sent: Thursday, April 20, 2006 2:18 PM
To: Jill; Karen
Subject: RE: RE: Because you are the two here who would understand why I have sent this.....

O.k. Jill's a little baffled….I’m glad you got it.


Michelle's my new buddy at work. She studied linguistics in college and she likes to read actual books, imagine that. So we've traded some books and stories of books and some words and stories of words.

Michelle is also ecology-conscious, and she reformed me from my styrofoam cup habit. Now I use a mug to eat my lunchtime Special K cereal.

She's my evidence that the future is not entirely in the hands of clueless television zombies. (She's young: in her early 20's.)

This item is short and possibly lacking in interest, but I'm leaving the computer now to go read my book Last Train to Paradise, about Henry Flagler and the Overseas Railway. Report to follow.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Some Women I Know

Tonight I attended a discussion group with eleven other women. At the beginning of the session we went around the circle, where are you from, what is your faith tradition.

Mona is from Egypt, educated in England, a master's degree in agricultural engineering. Lived in Canada for 10 years before moving to Florida eleven years ago. She is Muslim.

Laura Sue is from a Jewish family but says she's "more of a nature-loving, goddess-worshipping, love-for-all-things" type person. She is from Pennsylvania, she is a musician and a writer; her professional name is the Silver Nightingale.

Maggie is from Syria. Her parents were from Armenia; they fled to Syria as refugees when they were children. Maggie's husband is Muslim. She is Orthodox Christian.

Michele's parents are Sephardic Jews. She is a native-born American, married to a Hindu from India.

Fauzia describes herself as a "born-again Muslim." She was born in Pakistan, attended Catholic schools as a child, then went to Ohio State University. She has a medical degree and is a professional audiologist. She was raised in a Muslim culture but never knew a lot about Islam until after 9/11/01. She started investigating her childhood religion then and became a devout Muslim as a result of her studies.

Susan is Jewish, and attends temple weekly. For the past nine years she has also attended Sunday services at a predominantly black Baptist church. She says Judaism taught her to trust in God, but she never knew what faith was until she learned it from the Baptists. She also studies the Bhagavad Gita on a regular basis.

Naheed is a Muslim, born in Pakistan. She has lived in the United States for many years, and is the owner of a successful restaurant. She likes to say that immigrants need to learn to assimilate into American culture. She doesn't need to wear hijab to feel like a Muslim.

Kathy was born in Oklahoma. Her parents were Quakers. She converted to Judaism when she married her second husband. Since he died, she has been increasingly drawn to Buddhism, although she is still active at the temple.

Setsuko was born and raised in Japan. She is Shinto, but she says Shinto is not a religion, merely a collection of customs, a way of life, a viewpoint.

Ellie is a Jewish woman in her 70's who recently "declared herself" Ba'hai.

Willie is from Cleveland, brought up "mainstream protestant" and interested in learning about all different kinds of people and cultures.

I guess Willie was in the right place tonight.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More Blessed to Give

"...remembering the word of the Lord Jesus, how he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (Acts 20:35)

I believe this, so I try to be quick to give my time, my energy, my money, my stuff. But what happens, time after time, is that the more I give away, the more I get back. And what we get from each other, freely given, is really "blessed" more than what we earn or buy for ourselves.

Concrete example from right now: I went to some effort to give away a book to a friend in Canada. The same day, someone at work gave me a book that she had enjoyed and thought I would like. And three days ago, I received, in the mail, from Cleveland, a book about Henry Flagler and the overseas railroad that my friend Marilyn wanted to share with me. So if I'm trying to give more than I get, just in that one measurable department (books) I'm behind right now. But looking at the larger picture, what a blessing it is to be part of a community of readers.

There's an old story about heaven and hell: in hell, there's a long banquet table filled with sumptuous food and hungry people are sitting all around it, but they can't bend their arms at the elbows, so as hard as they try, they can't bring the food to their mouths. So they are starving, and in agony. The scene in heaven? Just the same set-up, table, food, elbows that don't bend, but in heaven the people are feeding one another.

For a totally convoluted analysis of the "getting ahead by being behind" conundrum, I recommend John Barth's book Giles Goat Boy. It is wonderfully diabolical, almost guaranteed to tie your synapses in knots. A very good book, if you like that kind of thing.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Peace One Day

Peace One Day is a video by a young man named Jeremy Gilley. Gilley wanted to do something for world peace, so he created a job for himself so he could work full-time for peace. He conceived the idea of a world-wide Day of Peace, when there would be a cease-fire that would cover the entire planet. And then he went to work, organizing, persuading, teaching--and documenting the process on film.

He created an organization, called "Peace One Day." They worked through the United Nations. The UN already had a World Peace Day, but it was not on the same day every year. Gilley wanted to put it on the calendar in a permanent way. It took a lot of effort just to do that, but he finally got Costa Rica and the UK to co-sponsor an amendment to the original resolution. Once that resolution was passed, there was one final World Peace Day that would fall on a day other than September 21. Ironically, that day was September 11, 2001. Now, that could either be considered a very bad omen for Peace One Day's efforts or a sign that this organization is sorely needed in our violent, war-torn world.

Gilley stepped up his efforts, and today there is a world-wide network of peace workers, putting together a myriad of activities to commemorated Peace One Day every year on September 21. Unfortunately, this spirit, wonderful as it is, hasn't "trickled up" to the Presidents, the Generals, even the Ambassadors--even though the members of the UN all gave their approval, many world leaders gave verbal support, and Nobel Peace Prize winners including the Dalai Lama gave their strongest possible endorsement.

So, no cease-fire yet. But it's not a failure. It's a beginning. Here's the website; check it out.

Peace to all.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Halleluia! is the theme of the day, Easter Sunday for most Christians. Celebrating the renewal of life, in a continuation of a spring festival that goes back in history far beyond the historical Jesus.

This blog has been inactive throughout the Lenten season, and now it's back, so we're illustrating the concept of resurrection.

At my house, we're having a very quiet Easter--the man of the house had some minor surgery on Friday and he is recuperating, improving by the hour but still in need of nursing services. This is where those wedding vows ("in sickness and in health") come in.