Thursday, August 16, 2012

Taking Off in Silence

It's been a trying week, what with trying to come up with the syllabi for the new academic year and helping my mother out with her sprained ankle. Today I found myself staring longingly at this picture that's making the rounds on the Internet:

Supposedly, it's a view of the Mars skyline, showing Earth, Jupiter, and Venus. Of course, it's some kind of hoax, and if you care for the full explanation, Phil Plait provides it at Discover Magazine.

My interest in the picture is different. I wondered if Malibu Barbie liked the view, for one thing. In my poem, "Malibu Barbie Moves to Mars," I envisioned a tired Malibu Barbie escaping to the red planet where she can, at least, have some peace. It was kind of a reverse ekphrastic experience, staring at this photo and thinking about a poem I had already written.

The sense of peace I got from staring at Earth, so far away, was welcome. I had just spent an uncomfortable two hours at a simple routine visit to my mother's cardiologist, in which I had to listen to the same twenty-second piece of Muzak over and over. The ubiquitous large-screen was just finishing some abominable David Copperfield DVD when we got there, and when it finished it went to the menu screen and just stayed there. No one bothered to restart it or play something else, or just turn the damned thing off. Of course, there are no buttons to push on the waiting room side--some secret remote from within the inner office was asleep on the job.

I was quietly losing my mind. I had brought a book, but the waiting room is small and so even in the farthest corner from the screen, you can still hear it loudly. Every time the music started over, I lost my concentration. I tried switching to a magazine, but that didn't work. Finally, I went up to the window, rang the bell, and asked the woman in the inner sanctorum to please do something about the DVD. The other patients waiting and I had a good round of jokes about Gitmo during the few blessed minutes of silence after David Copperfield disappeared, and then the Keeper of the Remote started the Cirque du Soleil DVD I had already seen last year.

The whole thing was surreal. Not so much David Copperfield's gargantuan head or the contorting Canadians, but this mad insistence on the need to be staring at a screen at all times. I do understand that some people welcome it; at my mother's GP, he's constantly offering the local Spanish soap operas. Given that something like ninety-five percent of his patients would be watching these at home anyway, I can sort of understand how it helps to pass the time. Other places show the news, or play music. I can even understand that magic and circus acts fall under the "general interest" category. What I can't understand is how this has become so necessary that no one seems to be able to envision the possibility of existing for a few breaths without it.

I wouldn't dream of showing up to a doctor's office without a book. Unlike a television, only I can hear my book. I'm not subjecting anyone else to my efforts at entertainment. Not a big reader? A newspaper or magazine can offer some light, quiet entertainment for a little while. Illiterate? Wrong language? Look at the pictures. Out the window. Lie back and think of England, but don't force me to participate in your loud, obnoxious psychic void.

I don't care if the Mars skyline is fake. Whoever came up with it had the imagination to do so, and I thank her or him for it, for the few minutes of quiet fancy flight it offered me. There are many arguments for reading instead of watching television, and normally I couldn't care less. Whatever you believe the merits of each is, there is one extremely valuable way in which reading trumps watching: it's quiet. I can't reproduce the entirety of Ogden Nash's "Take Off with Books" here because it's apparently somehow still under copyright, but let me remind you of a few lines of advice to be found there: "Take off with books, not with the rocket's roar; take off in silence and in fancy soar . . . . Books reached the moon before real rockets did."


  1. I share your distaste of the constantly gabbling and distracting screen. Alas, a tv monitor was just installed in the main room of our Academic Resource Center. How not to keep students focused on their studies...

  2. Of all places. And they're expensive, too. Surely there are better uses for such money.


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