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Essays that Worked!

Madeline H. Conley '14
Brattleboro Union High School, Dummerston, Vermont

I don’t watch television.

I don’t watch television because family legend has it that when I was a baby, there was one of those infamous Vermont snowstorms that knocked the antenna off our roof. My parents, already ambivalent about television, decided not to replace it. That was seventeen years ago. We had our little VCR, and now DVD player, and throughout the time I was growing up, that was enough.

I stopped watching TV altogether when I was 13. The impetus was my best friend deciding to give up chocolate for Lent and me deciding I would try to go without television. I stopped watching videos and DVD’s. Just stopped. For two months I didn’t watch a minute of TV. At the time it didn’t mean much, but it’s a decision that’s come to matter a lot to me. Someone asked me, “How long are you going to not watch?” “Until I don’t want it anymore.”

I’ve grown up in the shadow of Mt. Wantastiquet and Black Mountain, in the corner of Southern Vermont. I live in a small town, in the same house that I’ve lived in since the day I was born. People gather in church basements and granges, on the ski trails, and in the co-op. I live in a place of community, farms, art and poetry. I love that when I go out, I see people I know and feel known. There is plenty to do besides watch television.

I don’t watch television because Garrison Keillor’s smooth voice rose and fell from the introduction of a book of poems bound in bright yellow paper, and spoke to me. He murmured, low and cool, “television is a product, not a medium,” and I heard him. I can’t think when I watch TV. I get swallowed in lethargy, and I forget what it means to really concentrate, to really see, and hear. And when I don’t watch television, my mind feels clean, my body right.

It used to be that the numbing movement of colors on the screen was my refuge when I was scared or anxious or tired, a short-lived solution, and a temporary slowing of the gears in my mind. But I realized it wasn’t a refuge - it was just a way to immobilize my mind and to avoid what was making me anxious. I sensed how dangerous it was to equate relaxation and safety with turning off my mind. I pictured some horrifying Orwellian scene where I was trained to feel nothing and think nothing. That’s an extreme, but there is a passivity in television that I’ve always thought was dangerous for me.

In my time away from television, I have learned how to love poetry, how to love listening to the radio, and be happy with just the crooning and swelling of voices. I have learned to play the guitar and sing at the end of a tough day. I have learned how to really listen. I have heard, and really heard “This American Life,” a radio program of stories, a little like those old-fashioned radio programs that my generation missed out on. (You know, the kind where they clapped coconuts together for beat of horses' hooves, and shook sheet metal for the sound of thunderstorms).

It’s easy to sit in the dark, the colors bouncing off your wind-burned cheeks in the theatre, or in the den by the wood stove. It’s easy and often comforting to feel as though you’re in the company of more beautiful, glamorous people, with seemingly more beautiful and glamorous lives. It’s easy to turn your mind off for a little while, to turn your body off.

But it’s not for me. I don’t want to be dependent on a machine. I want to be reliant on real people, on my own body, and my own mind. I want what’s real, even if it’s not easy or glamorous or action-packed. There’s a different sort of comfort in that. I don’t watch television because of the way it disconnects me from what is pure and simple and authentic.

I don’t want to be passive, ever. I want to be where I am, when I’m there. I want to be engaged, I want to listen, and I don’t want to run away from my own mind. And I’d like to live my life like that: with engagement, gratitude, authenticity, and happiness. My mom jokingly calls me a “little pilgrim,” or an ascetic, a puritan. But it’s not about self-righteousness. Because after a while, what I first promised myself became true. “Until I don’t want it anymore,” I had said. And I just don’t want it anymore. I haven’t for a while. It’s not about self-abnegation; it’s about doing what I love.