Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Life Without Television

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While updating my silly Facebook profile I wrote "never turn the blasted thing on" when confronted with the "favorite TV shows" question. It just doesn't occur to me to watch television, which is an odd thing to be noticing since it has been this way for many years. I figure I watched enough hours of Bonanza, I Love Lucy, The Flintstones, Batman, Captain Kangaroo, My Three Sons, Bewitched, The Addams Family, Star Trek, Mission:Impossible, etc to last a lifetime before I turned 18.

In my 20's I didn't even own a TV. I once non-plussed a salesman who knocked on my door trying to sell me a cable subscription, circa 1981. He looked dubious when I told him I didn't have a TV so I invited him in to inspect my apartment. He left muttering "amazing....no TV." It is a matter of some pride that I have never paid a dime to any cable service for the "privilege" of watching television. That's almost as onerous to me as paying for parking, which is an unfortunate hazard of my profession (at least some of the time).

I suppose I'm no busier than the average American, but I just don't know when I'd find time to plop myself down in front of the tube and actually watch something. I listen to the radio quite a bit, an activity I can combine with other activities such as music copying or household chores. I prefer to get my news from NPR and a few websites and have never been a fan of the network nightly news broadcasts. The only time I use the TV is for DVDs; I do love films and Netflix supplies me with a steady dose of great stuff. But I seldom see more than one or two movies per week.

What's the downside of not being a typical TV viewer? When I was going to commercial acting auditions a few years ago the scripts would sometimes call for an impersonation of a TV character or type. Once I was asked to do a scene in the style of Tim Allen of "Home Improvement". I didn't have a clue what they wanted since I never saw the show. (I didn't get the gig, obviously).

Many years ago I went to a therapist who advised me to watch more television. She felt that I was isolating myself from "the culture" by avoiding television. She thought I'd be happier if I was more, as she put it, "mainstream". In retrospect, this was more a kind of political stance, and one that I strongly oppose. She was by far the least helpful counselor I've ever encountered.

Since I don't work in an office I don't feel a need to keep up with whatever shows people are watching so I can have something to say around the water cooler. My ignorance of reality TV, Dancing with the Stars, 24, The Office, and whatever else is on doesn't hurt me on iota, as far as I can tell. My cultural life is quite full: I'm an avid "consumer" of books, movies, music, visual art, blogs and so on. I don't feel the least bit isolated or alienated from American culture.

A big positive for me is that, for the most part, I don't get assaulted by TV advertising. On the rare occasions when I happen to be in front of a TV somewhere, there's invariably some inane, insulting commercial on that helps me to remember why I got out of the TV habit. Television advertising is horrifying. I can't stand ads on the radio either, which is one reason I listen almost exclusively to public radio.

I know I risk sounding like some weirdo intellectual egghead with my nose stuck up in the air. But I truly don't know what I would eliminate from my present life to make room for watching television. The fact that I don't enjoy TV makes it that much easier not to fret about feeling "left out". I know from experience that I'm not missing much, and even the best shows are no competition for a good book or film. I've seen the stuff that people have raved about in the past 5 years or so (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). They were fun to watch once in awhile but I certainly wouldn't plan my week around any of them. Give me a good novel or CD and I'm a happy guy.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks Where Thanks Is Due

I've just been reading up on the somewhat thorny history of Thanksgiving Day. Despite what our kindergarten teachers led us to believe, the holiday we celebrate here in North America (yes, the Canadians celebrate their version of TD as well) has very little to do with pilgrims and native Americans. Or turkey, for that matter.

It turns out that there is, unfortunately, a strong religious odor attached to the 18th C. version of TD. It wasn't until Lincoln's time that there was national recognition of a "thanksgiving day" and it wasn't until 1941 that the day became a national holiday by law.

Rather than review the data here, I'll leave it to you to do a little research if you're at all interested. Wikipedia's entry is a pretty good starting point.

So, as in years past, I want to give thanks to the people and circumstances that have given me joy, inspiration and a better understanding of the world this past year. I will spare you the personal litany of friends and family members, all of whom make my small life worth living.

Thank you to:

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christoper Hitchens and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I became aware of their work this year (in the order listed, if you're keeping score) and they have helped me to become articulate about the non-theistic point of view I have had for many years. They've made it clear that I am not alone in finding the concepts of god and religion to be utterly without redeeming value.

Michael Moore, creator of the film SICKO, who has raised the awareness of millions of Americans (including me) about the true nature of our national health care disaster. Again, Moore has helped me articulate what I've felt for a long time (esp as a self-employed person) and has focussed my attention on very specific ways to get involved (such as supporting H.R. 676 and candidates who openly favor a national single payer system).

Al Gore, goofy and pedantic as he can be, for his work on global warming and, in particular, the film An Inconvenient Truth. This has been a good year for raising consciousness (I use the phrase in its most secular meaning). Gore's work is another example of how someone deeply involved in an issue can galvanize millions of others to take an issue seriously. Its about time.

Modern medical technology and the thoughtful, knowledgeable and caring health care workers who have made it possible for those I love to lead longer, healthier lives. But for the grace of modern medical care go I. A special tip of the hat to the makers of buproprion.

The authors Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Daniel Levitan, Frank McCourt, Nina Shengold, Mary Oliver, Orhan Pamuk, Annie Proulx, James Hollis and Cormac McCarthy (plus others too numerous to mention). Their work has given me many hours of reading and contemplating pleasure.

The music of Dave Holland, Kenny Werner, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Victor Wooten, Edgar Meyer, Miles Davis, Ben Allison, Radiohead, Steely Dan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stravinsky, J.S. Bach, Yo Yo Ma, The Beatles, Megon McDonough, Peter Polzak and, again, other composers and performers too numerous to note. Their art has inspired me to feel, play and, on occasion, compose.

All of the folks who have helped and supported my PlayJazzNow business in its first full year of operation. Jeff Lane, Jim Massoth and Helena Bouchez are the most likely candidates for the business purple heart, if there was such a thing.

Best wishes to all who are reading this for a happy and safe holiday season, however you celebrate it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Good Quotes for An Atheist

All the articles of our Christian belief are, when considered rationally, just as impossible, and mendacious and preposterous. Faith however, is completely abreast of the situation. It grips reason by the throat and strangles the beast.

- Martin Luther

What a refreshing moment of clarity! So one does have to kill rationality in oneself to be a christian! Its right there in black and white; straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

-Thomas Jefferson

Yup, those Founding Fathers were SO fundamentalist. No wonder we live in a "christian nation". Actually, I'm surprised Jefferson's name hasn't been suppressed by the Current Occupant and those of his unholy ilk.

I don't think there's anything quite as pithy as either of these quotations in Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens, delightful as they all are. I'm glad I stumbled upon these in my quest for truth today. (I mean that quite literally, as you will see in a soon to be written post)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Christopher Hitchens in Chicago


Tonight I attended an enlightening event at the Spertus Museum of Judaica in downtown Chicago. Brilliant author, scholar and provocateur Christopher Hitchens presented a brief lecture entitled Do Jews Have an Atheist Gene?

First, I must say that Mr. Hitchens is another one of those people who makes me proud to be of Jewish heritage. The man has an amazingly agile intellect; he is intimidatingly well-read and articulate. One must pay attention in his presence and one is well rewarded for doing so. The penalty for not hanging on to every word is being left behind in the dust, wondering what just happened.

I have been reading some of Hitchens' articles from Vanity Fair and Slate online lately, having been something of a fan of his when I had a subscription to The Nation in the 1980's. He famously broke with the Left a few years ago because of his support for the war in Iraq and has publicly sparred with several former comrades, most notably Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn. I've also been watching Hitch on video either giving talks, debating or being interviewed. There's a bunch of good stuff at his website as well as some excellent clips on YouTube.

So it was exciting to be in the same room with this man. I'm not given to the cult of personality, but Hitchens cuts a powerful figure in person. He is witty, charming and very funny. I'll have to break down and buy a copy of his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He's the only member of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett being the other three) whose book on atheism I have not read.

Hitchens began by making the point that many Jews have not so much repudiated their faith but outgrown it. This resonates with me quite well; I have often thought that one of the problems with Judaism is that it seems so archaic. There's no room in the contemporary world for so many of the quaint yet exacting strictures demanded of practicing Jews. Keeping the Sabbath and the kosher laws spring immediately to mind here. Even before I identified myself among the non-believers I couldn't fathom most of the mumbo-jumbo that passes for devotion in Judaism. Needless to say, we certainly don't have the market cornered on absurd practices and nonsensical rituals.

So just what is it that makes Jews so prevalent among atheists? There is a tradition of skepticism that runs through Judaism; it is the only one of the major world religions that truly encourages intellectual curiosity and revels in dialog and debate. The fact that Spinoza, Freud and Einstein were all Jewish is no accident, according to Hitchens. The Diaspora encouraged Jews to become cosmopolitan, to value education, to become enlightened citizens wherever they landed. It seems that secularism might also be the result of contact with other cultures, languages, races and religions.

It is not surprising, for example, that the majority of well-known American Buddhist and Eastern philosophy teachers began their lives as Jews. I'm thinking here of Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeld, Steven Levine, Pema Chodron and, of course, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass).

Now I wish that I had taken notes during Hitchens' talk and the subsequent Q&A session. I can't recall the other specific points he made on this particular subject. What sticks with me, above all, is Hitchens' fearless intellectual honesty. He is not afraid to commit to an unpopular opinion and he is able to back up his views with solid facts and convincing arguments. While I don't always agree with his conclusions I have tremendous respect for this courageous forthrightness. I aspire to that level of fierce independence and integrity.