It would surprise anyone that met him in the street, because he doesn’t look the part, but my father-in-law is a television evangelist. The man’s enthusiasm for video entertainment is so great – he considers it so necessary to his own beatitude – that he can’t imagine others don’t feel the same need for it in their heart of hearts. Now, the fact is that my wife and I have been a great disappointment to him in this regard. We neither subscribe to cable nor use a dish. What’s worse, when the nation’s broadcasters switched their signals from analog to digital a couple years ago, we never bothered to get a converter box. We tossed out the rabbit-ears and let our home and ourselves – and our children – lapse blithely into a state of unregenerate Cimmerian darkness.
In my father-in-law’s eyes, this was intolerable. Our salvation was at stake. Twice he invaded our home (where we still kept a television) to install digital converters and antennae. Twice we graciously returned them, ostensibly because the reception was spotty or because we didn’t want the massive electric antlers on such prominent display. This past weekend, however, the wily apostle out-foxed us. While my wife was at the grocery store and I was sick in bed, he sneaked over and, to our children’s great delight, installed a high-end digital antenna that fits discretely behind the screen and guarantees us thirty or so different broadcast channels. At least half of them are in Chinese or Spanish, with another quarter in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi or Bengali. But it still makes a domestic revolution.
I wasn’t always such a doubter. Like my wife, I was raised in the faith. In my childhood home the television was switched on practically all the time. It slept when we slept and woke when we woke and was by far the most voluble and conversationally reliable member of the family. I don’t regret it. What would any late-‘70s/early-‘80s childhood be without afternoon reruns of Andy Griffith, My Three Sons, I Love Lucy, Gomer Pyle, The Brady Bunch, and Gilligan’s Island? What kind of miserable degenerate would I be today if it weren’t for Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Three’s Company, Donohue, Geraldo, Silver Spoons, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Solid Gold, Alf, or (glory of glories) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?
A few years ago I might have summoned enough righteous bluster to refuse the gifts my father-in-law is hell-bent on bestowing, but the fact is that my Luddism these days is more a matter of habit than principle. Let us have a little of the old leaven, I say. As for the children, we’ve restricted screen-time up till now and can still do so. We’ll stick, for the most part, to PBS and reruns. Some of the old shows are still on. Just the other night our kids decided they’d never seen anything as wonderful as a 1970s episode of Lawrence Welk: the ladies in their confectionary makeup and Day-Glo dresses, the men with permed hair and painted-on smiles. So let the children praise their grandfather as a savior bringing fire from heaven. Like Julian the Apostate on his imperial deathbed, I concede with a shrug: ‘Galilean, thou hast conquered.’