By Emily Erickson
With winter nights wrapping their arms around our daylight hours, and midnight darkness inching its way toward 4 p.m., I’ve had to turn indoors for my recreation.
Like many other northerners, my wintertime rhythms change, better capitalizing on hours of daylight and adopting new evening habits to bridge the gap between sunset and sleep. I transition from late afternoon trail runs to cardio machines at the YMCA, capping off hours of stair-stepping to nowhere with long stretching sessions and glorious minutes sweating out my aches, pains and remnants of the day’s anxiety in the sauna.
When I’m spending time at a gym (especially one like the Y), it’s spending time surrounded by people taking care of themselves, pushing their limits, or working toward a goal. It’s seeing families enjoy each other’s company, generations sharing an investment in physical activity and community being fostered in every exercise machine assist, weightlifting spot and word or smile of encouragement.
Gym time is also, however, exposure to something I actively try to avoid: Broadcasted American TV shows. Being locked into a cardio machine is also being locked into a bank of TV screens, with no version of contortion adequate for averting my eyes. It’s being at the mercy of what is culturally defined as “entertainment,” with stretches of overly-dramatized nonsense smooshed between commercials aimed at convincing us of a dire necessity for things we don’t actually need.
“Jeez, Emily, tell us how you really feel.” I know, I sound dramatic.
But last week, the screen directly in front of my face was playing To Catch a Smuggler on the National Geographic Channel. The show followed a woman recently detained for attempting to smuggle small amounts of cocaine into the United States. The camera panned around a fluorescent-lit room with yellowing, chipped paint before zooming in on her somewhat blurred-out face.
The woman was stooped, sobbing and pressing the phone against her tear-soaked cheek. The closed-caption flashed across the screen, translating her despair-addled dialogue. She was begging for her family’s forgiveness, desperately attempting to secure care for her children and prepare for her impending imprisonment. In big, red, pop-art letters, the screen explained the drug for which she was busted and the standard length of a prison sentence for that crime (a minimum of six years).
And this, a gamified portrayal of the worst moments in a person’s life, is supposed to be what? Fun? A demonstration of justice? Was I supposed to feel better about the scale of the mistakes I make or revel in my own self-righteousness — taking pleasure in being a fly on the wall when someone’s whole life unravels?
What we choose to entertain ourselves with shapes our view of the world and the people around us. Watching shows that encourage us to find joy in people’s suffering, highlighting the worst parts of our society, can only lead to seeking out those same feelings in our own lives — fearing our neighbors, gossiping about perceived transgressions and assuming the worst in the people around us.
Which is why, when I do watch TV, I stream The Great British Baking Show. Nothing encourages me to celebrate little victories like watching someone cry happy tears over their grandmother’s shortbread recipe winning them Star Baker. Drama comes in the form of literal spilled milk, and the only thing that’s gamified is the anticipation of bakers trying to move their creations onto a cake stand before a timer runs out. Participants, although competing against each other, share in each other’s victories, reveling in the creativity, inspiration and skill of their opponents. When someone fails, the pain of it is felt by everyone on the show (and by proxy, the viewers as well).
All this to say, time is precious and how we spend it matters. And whenever possible, I’ll be opting for entertainment that celebrates empathy, camaraderie and the power of a perfectly baked biscuit to bring people together.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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