You’ve likely been in this situation before. Some friends or family invite you over for dinner, and when the eating is finished, they invite you into the living room to sit down and relax. Then some jackass turns on the television. God help you if you’re with some people I know and the news is on; they’d rather listen to the government propaganda coming out of the boob tube than allow conversation to flow naturally between the several visitors. I’m not saying they’re bad people; it’s a habit that they acquired probably beginning with those big loud speakers in elementary school. But it does make for a dreadful way to spend an evening.
I have been in houses where the television is on all evening. I’m sure in many places it’s never turned off, ever. How can the people who live there know each other? Love and affection cannot be created through osmosis, so when people sit silently watching something together, they don’t engage in the dialogue that is necessary to friendship. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know something about the person sitting next to me. I don’t mean the simple booboisie questions like “Where do you work?” or “How many kids do you have and what colleges did they get into?” I want to know what winds someone’s clock, what gets him out of bed in the morning, what he wonders about when he’s got a whole five minutes to himself. I want to know if philosophical questions annoy, confuse, or delight him. It says a lot about a man. Most people don’t have any patience for these things. Maybe that’s why the television is on so much. We are the people with nothing to talk about. After all, the conversation about soccer practice, Harvard, and GPA’s only lasts so long.
It’s all a waste, really. Hours of our lives get spent on having our brains distilled into a mucousy pulp. Down the black hole of the technological dark ages we go. People who spend their free time half asleep on bar stools make better use of their time. Hangovers go away; televisions seemingly do not.
Do you recognize something of your own routine in what I’ve just described? Does your husband spend every waking hour that he’s not at work obsessively watching sports analysis shows, or, more irrelevant still, news and politics? I don’t intend to insult sports—in fact I myself enjoy them—but there is only so much staring at an idiot box before one becomes stupid. Fret not, for I bring glad tidings of great joy: you don’t have to spend your evenings trapped in front of the TV while letting the good stuff of life ooze out your left ear. You can turn the television off, and live. I have developed a number of ways to while away an evening so that the “waste” of time is actually constructive.
I did something recently that I hadn’t done in a long time: the aimless road trip. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does help to get far enough away from home to get lost and have to find your way back. That is a glorious feeling, one that many seem unaware of. When I lived in Lancaster County I used to take such trips in the golden glow of the evening summer sun. It was a spiritual event. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a red barn in a valley bathed in the sunset. I used to pass a number of tobacco farms in that part, and I would wonder how long it would be before the government turned these hard workers into criminals.
These road trips can be taken alone, or with a friend. Two is the maximum number, I think. Just the other night I called up a friend of mine, and we drove around the countryside for an hour or more, spewing forth on any number of subjects, most of which were highly personal. Road trips are good for that. It is ultimate privacy, and there is no one to interrupt the conversation as often happens in urban areas where everyone knows everyone. There is something about road noise that soothes the soul and greases the wheels of the brain. Many conundrums have been solved on windy, hilly roads to nowhere. No widgets were made on this safari, but I think we are both better men for having taken it.
Maybe you don’t have a car, or don’t like to drive. In that case I hope you’re not a teetotaler. (I hold that hope for you in any case.) One can then always engage in people watching. Go to a restaurant—it doesn’t even need to be a good one, it just needs to serve alcohol—and get an outside table. Sitting outside in the spring and summer makes up for any bad food one might eat. Sit. Eat. Drink. Breathe. Watch. You can learn a lot from watching the world go by. I have pissed away entire evenings like this, the table conversation drifting between energetic banter and quiet contemplation. The colorful characters come up and down the street, and the entertainment is free, with the price of your meal. Do not invite any Christian Fundamentalist or Modern Liberal friends; they will ruin the evening by being serious about something. By all means, discuss serious subjects, but don’t do so in a serious manner. It tends to hide the truth of a thing.
Finally, there is always the evening dinner party. I have a friend—let’s call him Thomas Mann—who occasionally invites me out to the Mann estate for an evening of eating, drinking, and discussing whatever’s on our minds. His downstairs neighbor comes up and usually asks me what I’ve been reading, or what I think of some development in the current events department. If a television is involved it is only to watch one to two short little things, and there are no TV aficionados there to hush us if we decide that the conversation in the room is more interesting than the pixels on the screen. No holds barred. All opinions listened to with respect (but be prepared to be respectfully, though possibly mercilessly, refuted). Sounds bytes are highly discouraged. The most wonderful thing about the chit chat at the Mann estate is that no one seems to be too eager to pack things into nifty little boxes; lingering questions are not a threat. I’m a little less dogmatic, and therefore less of a jackass, than I used to be, thanks to these delightful visits. Throw in a little sherry and you have yourself one heavenly experience.
So there you have it, three ideas to use the next time you don’t feel like spending an evening hypnotized by technology. I think you’ll find that if you try these ideas, your partners in the crime of not being “good productive citizens” will become your true friends. Note that conversation plays an important role in all these activities, and this is the glue that holds humanity together. People who share ideas find common ground and ways to peacefully, and even respectfully, coexist. People who do not have open discussions self-righteously shoot each other. Oh hell, who am I kidding? Most people would rather own a gun than a book. Well, for the small minority of you who do try this out, enjoy, and may life be yours to the fullest.