All of the TV my mom watches can be divided into three main parts: fat people, little people, and hoarders. Such programming offers a stable variety of plot points somehow in the wheelhouse of my mom, a retired academic and polyglot who once wrote a dissertation on second-language acquisition. Each show’s plot can be boiled down to another list of three: 1. Will this person ever stop eating? 2. Life is hard when you’re very short. And 3. You should probably get rid of that. My father, a former special ed principal, complains but not enough to turn the channel.
Now that they are both semi-retired, my parents’ circles of interest have completely looped back toward the tastes of my eight-year old son who reads the Guinness Book of World Records cover to cover with an enviable joy, his blonde head popping up from its brightly colored pages only to report on who and what are the fattest, fastest, tallest, and oldest. He speaks of these people and places like they’re long lost cousins. “Did you know Robert P. Wadlow’s shoe was US size 36?” Or “Did you know the elevators in the Burj Khalifa elevators go ten meters per second?”
It makes sense at his age to examine the extremes, just as I did when I was eight. I guess what troubles me now is that I felt, at some point, I’d get over the sense of whether or not I belonged in the world or under which tent I would be housed in a circus. For a week this past summer, I had to help my father recover from a minor surgery, and I’m beginning to think that this feeling of curiosity and insecurity might only get worse as time goes on. Luckily television was there to distract us all.
After an hour of screen time with these shows, a certain catharsis releases in me to assuage and bolster not a true sense of self, but the mask covering it. Even though cameras sometimes literally invade these people’s bodies, they rarely touch on anything profound or even intimate. Instead they offer a pseudo-catharsis on screen that, in watching, I sometimes mirror as I sit on the couch. It’s a slippery promise to me, the viewer, that with the right number of cameras in my face and a flashy title in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, I will have the surety of knowing “this is my place; this is my story” even if neither is mine. Especially if neither is mine. It’s so much easier to control someone else’s story instead of my own.
2. The Descrambler
All of this nonsense doesn’t bother my father-in-law, a devout and pretty indiscriminate TV watcher. When my wife first took me home to meet him, he had just purchased one of the first flat screen televisions. A huge rectangle of silver and black, his set sat opposite the couch like a garage door portal to another world, big enough to drive a small sports car through. After spending a week at his house, my eyes roamed the wall when I got home, maladjusted to the small twenty-three-inch screen of my cathode ray set.
Atop the cable box, he had a small black rectangle that flashed red numbers—the aptly-named descrambler—a device created for cheap-skates to solve the puzzled jumble of the cable company’s pricey signal, giving them all the channels illegally for free. I was twenty-five years old that first time I sat in his living room, but my inner eight-year old took over when I realized what the descrambler was. I stared in awe as I flipped, checking and rechecking every channel. At first, squiggly lines shot across the screen. Then magically they lined up as the image focused on pay-per-view movie channels, on pornography, on strange live sporting events in Asia Minor. Channel after channel unlocked and clear. The world was again a magical place.
My own parents never bothered with cable. For years, we had five channels: PBS, the three networks, and later Fox. Unplugged and twisting an antenna in the air, as a child I listened perhaps too closely to the static. I could hear its harsh voice, auguring: “Not today, Patrick.” If we wanted to watch MTV or Nickelodeon, we had to go to neighbor’s houses. Often we did. Once there, we never left the couch held in transfixed reverence at the bevy of programming cable offered. My parents insisted that even with a dearth of channels, we watched too much TV. Logically, it followed that getting more channels would only give way to more hours on the couch, tuned in. So my sisters and I grew up coveting the thing denied. As soon as we moved out into our own places, we all got cable. There was a whole world out there in every station, important voices to be heard, saying YES! with every click on the remote. To deny it was folly.
3. Also in Arcadia, Chuck Norris
My father-in-law purchased as gifts the two largest televisions I have ever owned: a 36-inch set, heavy as a boulder, and our first flat-screen, a forty-inch set with high-definition. He bought both after staying at our house for a few days and refusing to live in a house with a screen smaller than his waist-size. In his own house, he had since moved on to a pair of sixty-inch sets, one for each of his two tv-watching rooms.
TV or Film, my father-in-law prefers violence. The more shooting and stabbing the better. The only channel we currently have to sate this bloodlust is called Grit. It features washed up action stars of the seventies and eighties: Charles Bronson, Jean Claude Van Damme, and every once in a while John Wayne. These stars of yesteryear are but acolytes to the true messiah of the station though: Chuck Norris. Every other show features Norris, from his earliest kung fu films to his most recent iteration ranging in Texas. When you watch a lot of Chuck Norris, the first thought you have is why the extras haven’t figured out they’re going to get kicked. Every person who pulls a gun on Norris should immediately shoot him directly in the kneecap. They usually have the time and the opportunity, but Norris’ screen presence inspires a torpor in them, and they are quickly disarmed, left to fight him mano-a-kicking-mano. You’d also think Norris would get tired of wrapping up every fight with a roundhouse kick, but you’d be very wrong. My tolerance for Grit is low, but if I know my father-in-law’s about to visit, on occasion I watch it on my own just to recalibrate with his mind-frame.
When my father-in-law arrives, he usually gives me a run-down of the best movies he’s seen lately. One Christmas break, we went to visit him in Wisconsin, and Steven Seagal’s magnum opus, Exit Wounds, had evidently stolen his heart. Every time, I’d come in a room or see him lit up in the pastel glow of the tree, he’d pull me aside and just say the title, “Exit Wounds” in that sharp lakefront accent, so it sounded more like he was saying “Axeit Wounds,” which, for a movie with a body count like this one, is an acceptable alternate title. Another year, it was a Gerard Butler film called Machine Gun Preacher. Both films are insanely straight-forwardly titled, uber-violent, and entirely unsurprising, the latter with a strange, white-savoir-in-Africa religiosity thrown in for truly ill-effect. But my father-in-law describes the films as both “moving” and “the best he’s ever seen.”
Usually as soon as we sit down after dinner, he will immediately find the films and make me watch them on either his giant set (if at home) or the TV he bought for us (if visiting). Because he worked in a brass tube manufacturing plant surrounded by loud machinery for thirty years, his hearing is bad, so usually he watches these shows with the volume on 80. If he’s home, he has a pair of surround-sound headphones so he doesn’t miss the clink of bullet casings. Often he pulls off headphones and lets me listen. “Can you hear the bones crack?” he asks me. I can.
I know enough about film to ruin most movie-going experiences, complaining about lazy writing or extraneous edits or poor mise-en-scène. But my father-in-law holds to a different set of criteria. Are the guns huge? Are the bullets flesh-shredding? Are the explosions bowel-loosening? Often I wonder how much action he can withstand. Does he want to find that special film that leaves him blinded by flash grenades in a puddle of his own diarrhea and hemorrhaging out of his ears? Maybe. But mostly, it’s just violence with a moral tacked on that would make Hammurabi throw up into his hat. My wife and I smile about this bloodlust, but mostly agree that it’s nice to feel excited by these big shoot-em-up films with little to no cultural value. It’s violence for the sake of violence, a morbid throwback to our common religious ancestry as Roman Catholics—huge emphasis on the Roman. And somehow it’s also escapist—a privileged escape sure—but sometimes, you got to get out any way you still can. My father-in-law, nearly 80, lost half a lung to a rare form of cancer probably from breathing in caustic chemicals at the brass factory. Currently he bowls twice a week, buys new cars on a whim, plays pool, watches Steven Seagal, and takes no pills. It’s another version of the eight-year-old’s dream.
Often, like my own children, he is overwhelmed by being so underwhelmed by reality. Whenever we make him an ambitious dinner or take him to a new city or even just venture out to get fresh donuts, usually he responds with a tacit denial that anything meaningful has occurred: “Couldn’t we just have made a frozen pizza or stayed home or been served quicker at Dunkin?”
After these trying moments, I often think of his history. As a younger man in the Air Force in the late 1950s, he helped load the atom into a-bombs. For safety’s sake, they kept the uranium separate from the bomb packed with conventional explosions. But visiting generals who wanted to be close to calamitous power made them arm the bomb, and then load it onto planes to fly. Perhaps everything is underwhelming after such an act.
One afternoon, we were watching television together, and over the course of an hour I witnessed him dispose of no less than fifteen chipmunks. He killed each one-at-a-time in a rattrap he baited with peanut butter. Over and over again between commercials, I watched him toss the limp corpses of Chips and Dales into a garbage can without comment. He sat down after each one no more marked than if he’d been mowing the lawn. In short, unless you blow something up or riddle strangers with bullets, he’s a hard man to excite.
4. The Passion of the Sprite
During my junior year, my very Catholic, all-guys high school played a basketball game against the local rival, the very Jewish public school down the road. Several of our students threw bagels onto the hardwood court prior to the game in some kind of ridiculous anti-Semitic gesture of intimidation. Most of the students in our school met at the local bakery before and after school to eat the same bagels, so it didn’t quite have the desired impact of a swastika or some racial epithet, but the intent was there. To me, it just seemed like a waste of good bread—hard to come by in Ohio. We spent the remainder of the year in shame, apologizing and trying to make it right to the local community, who had been nothing but kind to us. Then Schindler’s List came out. Our principal jumped on the chance to view the film with a local Hillel and then to have a dialogue with a local holocaust survivor.
What I remember most about the film was that you were supposed to cry or rather that crying was permitted. But at 15, I really didn’t have the emotional landscape to make the connection to do that. It wasn’t that I didn’t have emotions. I had too many of them. But being in an all-male environment meant any such weakness had to be suppressed. After all, the whisper of being a “fag” had always been our greatest insecurity, the one-word chant our rivals shouted at us, a word we hated—not out of any protective love for homosexual rights but out of fear that they were among us, which, of course, they were. If society had required a different fluid expectation upon seeing the film—blood, sweat, urine, or the biblically-inspired seed—I could have managed. Not that the film is arousing in any way—in fact, it’s probably the most unsexy film ever—but, at fifteen, I really didn’t need any substantial outside stimulus to pull off the act. Dimming the lights was enough. Crying, though, was a different story. Tears were a fluid that appeared just as surprisingly but unlike the others were very hard to conjure.
Ten years later, the same lugubrious feeling was in the air with Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Commercials splashed across the TV with weepy testimonials of housewives and husbands dutifully witnessing the bloodying of the latest heartthrob Jesus played by dreamy-eyed Jim Caviezel. Like Schindler’s List, it felt less like a film you wanted to see and more like one you were obligated to see for some kind of plenary indulgence. The subtextual tagline of the film was nothing short of: “Could you get through it?”
At some point, my father-in-law decided he had been challenged. One night, he announced that he wanted to see the film.
“I hear it’s a good one,” he said.
I had to agree based on some early reviews I had read.
“I don’t know,” my wife said. “It looks rough.”
“8:15 showing,” he said. “Let’s go.”
It was Lent so we had just wolfed down a big meal at a fish fry at their local parish, an ornate affair with huge mounds of deep fried cod, coleslaw, and hushpuppies. They had a dessert table a block long to knock you off any Lenten pledge to give up sweets. They may have even sold beer to wash down all the sins. It’s the kind of meal that you suffer through knowing you’ll eat too much and then swear off eating for days, a last supper of a different sort altogether. So we ate. Then we got in the car and rode to the theater to let it digest.
The theater’s glittering lights and arcade games all seemed garish and out of place for this filmic pilgrimage. I had read in the paper that some protestant churches had set up booths right outside the theaters to take in the freshly converted, but Catholics, like Jews, are fairly uninterested in conversions, and maybe a little more than suspicious of ones that take place outside a counter selling Raisinettes. But there weren’t any booths or ministers prowling by the concessions.
I was still full from dinner, but even if I was starving, it didn’t seem right to eat at the film. When we saw Schindler’s List, we went to the theater in the early afternoon and didn’t get concessions either out of respect or because it still felt a little like school where we could only eat during our lunch period or else we’d get a demerit. Our chaperone, Father Arnold, a bristle-brush-mustachioed priest, talked to us gruffly about respect, how it would send the wrong message to stuff our faces with popcorn while Nazis piled high the bodies. This wasn’t just a film, he said, some hackneyed Hollywood production. It was an act of remembrance. If we needed water, that was fine, but don’t slurp, best behavior—that whole kind of deal. He was probably just happy the AMC didn’t sell bagels.
Back in Wisconsin, all the salt from the fish fry was catching up to me. I had a powerful thirst and knowing that a good cry could very well happen and dry out my throat further, I grabbed a drink from the fountain and hung out by the bathroom waiting for my wife, still licking my lips. When my wife returned, we had a little discussion about the inherent morality of beverages and decided a soft drink wouldn’t send the wrong message—not to God, but to any scandalmonger roaming the Cineplex. Of course, Jesus only had hyssop—a bitter wine on a wet sponge—during the passion, but that was not an option at the concession stand. Instead I got a small Sprite, feeling a little guilty about this carbonated indulgence. It had lemons in it at least—I rationalized to myself—high-fructose-corn-syruped lemons, but I could concentrate on the bitterness of the acid maybe. I carried my cup low against my leg as we walked toward the theater in case anyone gave me the stink eye, and just as I was about to self-flagellate, my father-in-law walked up, carrying in one hand a huge bucket of popcorn—the one they up-sell you for a buck more—and in the other hand, a giant cylinder of soda. A blood-red, extra-long straw stuck out of the lid like a lance.
“Where you been?” he said. He wrinkled his upper lip into a half snarl. “We’re going to miss the beginning.”
“Well, it’s not like we don’t know what’s going to happen,” I said to my wife as we followed him in.
He sat down in the middle of the row and put the bucket on his knee and the drink in the holder. Finally he adjusted his legs a few times and took a huge handful of popcorn as the lights flashed in front and shoved it in his mouth. Then we all settled in to watch the Lord get his due on the silver screen.
Eventually, after about ten minutes or so, I sat back in my cushioned chair nearly at the foot of the cross, and I reached over not to grab his hand in a gesture of spiritual solidarity but to filch a handful of corn from my father-in-law’s bucket.
“Does this have butter?” I asked.
My father-in-law scrunched his face up in confusion, as if to say, What kind of a monster do you think I am? Of course, it has butter.
As the room grew darker, I chewed onward and took a long swig. I grabbed a napkin, not to cry—I never managed a single tear—just to wipe the butter off my chin. Quickly my life dissolved around me as I focused on the screen, never less sure of where I was going or where I had been, and hoping to be reborn into some eternal present that the screen promises, yet never fully delivers when the lights come up again.