BY TOM MCALLISTER
Some questions: when were you last in a waiting room? How many TVs were in that room? Was the volume on those TVs cranked up to triple digits? Were the people on the TV talking to you like you were an adult or like you were a child, and if they were talking to you like you were a child did you get the sense they thought of you as a particularly dimwitted child? Was there any point during this ordeal when you wished for something horrible to happen to these people, or for the entire power grid to malfunction because even though that would cause you thousands of inconveniences at least it would be a net gain now that these people on the TV could never infect your life again? Have you been there, waiting for your oil change or your test results and holding on to a book but unable to read that book because the entire building is wired to distract?
You don’t need to answer these questions. They’re hypotheticals. I know the answers.
I’m certain there was a time in the past—maybe even during my lifetime, although I can’t really remember it—when there was such a thing as a quiet public space. I’m certain that it was possible to sit in a waiting room for two hours and not be exposed to the shiny cheery shouting frivolity of daytime TV. I’m certain there was a time in the history of the world when public spaces were not hostile to quiet thought.
Or maybe I’m nostalgic for something that never existed, like those people who go to kitschy “retro” diners and think they’re somehow approximating anything close to the reality of the fifties.
But I want to posit something: televisions emit deadly radiation and the intensity of the radiation varies based on the programming. Daytime TV is the most radioactive of all TV; it causes disease and it exists primarily to stifle more than a few moments of critical thought and there is something deeply sinister in all its brain-dead, smiling inanity. I want to posit something else: the reason the current generation of young people has a shorter life expectancy than their parents is that they’ve been exposed to this radiation in the womb and their bodies are riddled with quiet tumors.
Or maybe it’s all just dumb entertainment and I shouldn’t take it so seriously.
But I can’t help taking it seriously. Every time I’m imprisoned in a waiting room with a TV turned to The View (it’s always The View even when it’s not The View), I am filled with a volcanic rage so toxic it needs to be released in a controlled manner or else there will be Vesuvian devastation. A few months ago, I was in a hospital waiting room with my wife—her father was having surgery, and we were captive for six hours—and the volume was turned to the maximum level and the volunteer in charge of the room told me it couldn’t be switched off or even turned down because someone had stolen the remote, and while some other people chuckled at the television’s antics there bubbled up within me so much bitterness and resentment that I felt it burning holes into my organs. Quarter-sized holes in my heart, my kidneys, my lungs. I felt it happening.
A man was on the television explaining to the hosts of The View that we need to train children to watch out for “the homosexual,” who we can identify by his grooming habits, and who we need to be able to identify to keep our children safe. This argument went unchallenged. It was applauded. Our children would be safe. Our homosexuals would be identified. Our grooming habits would be forever altered.
I think I yelled at the TV. Somebody shushed me, anyway.
Later, I think I yelled at the TV again. Somebody shushed me again, and I left the room and walked two laps around the hospital until I felt like I could quietly reintegrate myself and endure with something like dignity.
It all had me thinking of a moment in J.M. Coetzee’s allegorical novel Waiting for the Barbarians, in which the protagonist sees political prisoners being tortured in the public square, surrounded by cheering townspeople. Disgusted, he intervenes, and he shouts at the torturers, “You are depraving these people!” He is promptly clubbed in the back of the head by a soldier and beaten. He staggers to his feet and again addresses the townspeople, the soldiers, his entire world, which has descended into madness: “Look… we are the miracle of creation!” he says.
We are miracles of creation. We can create universes. We can sculpt bonsai trees into living works of art. We can train whales to do tricks for us. We can pull dead things from the ground and turn them into fuel for machines that can travel around the globe. We can run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. We can do algebra and we can combine butter flour and sugar and turn it into cakes so good they can save relationships. We can invent gods and talk to those gods. We can touch the fucking moon. But most of the time, we choose to tranquilize ourselves. We suppress it all.
All of which leads to an announcement of sorts: starting next week, I’m taking on a project I’m calling View Points. The idea is to watch daytime TV and write about the daytime TV I watch. I’m planning on two posts per week (Tuesday and Friday mornings) over the course of summer. This is not meant as a joke. This is because I need to investigate a part of our culture that doesn’t make any sense to me and that I reflexively reject. Because these things are incredibly popular; these shows are our stars and our products and our culture and they help shape the narrative of our daily lives. There has to be something there, right? Or is it actually more hideous than I’ve surmised from occasional captive viewings?
I don’t want to overstate the importance of this project; I realize this is just a dumb thing I’m doing. At the same time it’s a dumb thing that maybe will help me to better understand something about a culture that seems to have devolved well beyond parody. Probably this actually just ends with me giving up and getting hooked on antidepressants, but at least it’ll pass the time.
Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and La Salle University in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in several publications, including Barrelhouse, Black Warrior Review, and Storyglossia. A Lecturer in the English Department at Temple University, he lives with his wife in New Jersey, a ten minute drive from Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play their home games.