Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Confessions of a TV addict

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I'll just say/ I started watching Frazier/ I'll just say/ Every single episode
-David McGimpsey,
Asbestos Heights

It started in grad school. I had moved from Brooklyn to sleepy, manicured London, Ontario to study 16 hours a day for 12 months. From the outside my life looked pretty good. My book of poems came out that fall, the same fall I wrote 17 papers in 13 weeks. There was a short and well-organized publisher tour, but to be honest, I don't remember much about it except that I paid so dearly for the time off when I returned to classes.

I got top marks on most of those papers, even though as a mature student it wasn't the grades but the understanding I was after. To the point, some math: If you assume an average of 2 sources per page and 10 pages per paper, I read approximately 340 academic articles that term. Needless to say, after all that, leisure reading didn't hold much appeal. My monthly consumption of poetry and fiction (and memoirs and literary non-fiction etc.) dropped to zero until I graduated.

When I had the chance to switch off my brain, it was occasionally to belt out some Guns 'N' Roses and drink cheaply at Chinese restaurants that doubled as divey karaoke bars, but more often it was in the cozy recesses of my couch. In the nadirs of this somewhat bipolar de-stressing regime, I often wouldn't speak, or even move, for hours. All I wanted to do was disappear into other worlds, leaving my aching brain and neglected body aside.

Enter Game of Thrones. From the cinematic snow and swords of the first, haunting scene of the series, I swallowed the first season whole. After one boozy night out, I initiated a classmate who lived out of town and was crashing on my couch, with all the excitement of a teenager giving a friend a first toke. Even after she passed out, I kept watching, and ended up working through the whole first season again, chasing the high of the first time. (A week later, she confessed she was hooked.)

It became a ritual. I'd binged on other series, but this was different. In anticipation of the coming season, I would rewatch everything up to that point, reimmersing myself in the plot lines, overlooking all its side effects and shortcomings. I kept the extent of my habit secret from my friends, who had more wholesome and stimulating pastimes like record collections, writing, or children. I watched alone after my partner, rolling his eyes, went to sleep at night. I would reward myself with television, going for a 30-minute jog to justify a 6-hour binge.

In case you're wondering, science backs up your mom's claim that television does less good for your brain than reading. If you were hooked up to an EEG while watching Golden Girls, it would show lower readings of alpha waves than if you were reading The Goldfinch. Any feelings of relaxation tend to vanish when you click off, replaced by a general passive dopeyness. Other research suggests lowered attention spans and increased irritability in heavy viewers, to the point that the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends children under two avoid screens altogether, and could explain why I started to quietly hate everyone around me all the time.

Like with other addictive substances, my withdrawal when a show ended was brutal. Empires (ahem, Netflix) have been built on this little quirk of human nature. Later, commuting from Toronto to work at a library at the same university, I fell in love with Veronica Mars, which was cruelly cancelled in its third season. To compensate for the lack of resolution, I watched YouTube video clips of the highlights of the series, often romantic declarations backed by the series' inescapable theme song. That the fan-funded movie was announced that same year was no coincidence, I knew, but rather some kind of cosmic payback for my dedication. In the meantime, however, I simply switched to cheaper thrills, and spent much of that summer inside watching HGTV and cooking contests, even when all I wanted to do was stop. Canadian Netflix wasn't enough for me anymore, so I set about scoring access to the American version.

I should mention at this point that I didn't supplement my viewing with TMZ or Lainey Gossip. I was a purist. I have, however, watched the trajectory of Martin Starr's career with the pride of a distant cousin that I'm friends with on Facebook but never talk to. So happy for that guy.

And, since we're digressing, my mom would interject here that I have always had a tendency to crash out after major exertions. She uses this great metaphor in which I'm a spring, recoiling to shoot off in some other direction with renewed vigour. (Hi, Mom!) The difference here is that, as my addiction progressed, there was no hiding the fact that I was desperately lonely, and using television to feel less alone. It's this spiral that pushes me to refer to this behaviour as an addiction without egregious hyperbole.

So, in the spirit of being less alone, I've asked several Toronto-based writers and literary characters to share their television-viewing habits and preferences. I'll be posting their responses over the next four weeks, and seeing where that leads us. Stay tuned.

1 comment

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Carey Toane

Carey Toane is a librarian, journalist and poet. Her first collection of poems, The Crystal Palace, was published in 2011 by Mansfield Press. She lives in Toronto, where she is currently working on a collection of poems inspired by and dedicated to Twin Peaks. Follow her on Twitter here.

You can contact Carey throughout the month of May at writer@openbooktoronto.com

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