Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do I Miss TV While on the Kickabout?

Do I Miss TV?

Anyone who has visited my home knows that I have a 52” LCD  Samsung screen and a superb surround sound system. Many have openly envied it and some, well, they just keep coming back to watch more.  I can hardly believe how vivid the picture is.  I prefer watching sports events on my TV to attending the event. The multiple angled camera shots, for one thing, provide intimate viewing that is impossible in real life and the video recording technology allows me to replay any part of the game, skip commercial interludes, and watch the game when and how I want. Why go to the movie theater? Netflix brings Blue Ray movies into my house for a fraction of the price of a theater ticket.  If I chose to do so,  I could watch quality programming every hour of the day for the rest of my life. And I have asked myself on the kickabout journey from the beginning:  Do I miss TV?  And the answer?  No, in the first month.  No, in the second month.  And, now, at the time of this writing, near the end of third month, still not yet. 
The thing is I’ve had a love for TV technology from the beginning, and I was there at the beginning.  My first favorite TV show was Howdy Doody and I watched it as a 5 year old on a 6” screen in fuzzy black and white.  I had no idea, nor did I care, what technological developments lay ahead.  I was fascinated for the moment and watched avidly all the way through Ed Sullivan’s presentation of the Beatles and Joe Namath’s unbelievable victory over the Baltimore Colts. Then I left the United States for nearly six years and didn’t watch any TV except for an occasional visit to the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi Kenya where I would visit every 6 months or so, to watch a replay of an NFL match.  Did I miss TV?  No.  Not really.  I felt I should but I didn’t.  I suppose, in retrospect, I would have enjoyed watching the Nixon-Frost interviews, but then a movie came out almost 40 years later which nicely summarized the whole event.  There will always be a “catch-up” opportunity in our world of technologic convenience.
In 1975 I returned from Kenya to the United States to go to medical school.  I didn’t really have too much time to watch TV in the following 15 or 20 years, but then I was used to no TV so there wasn’t much to miss. The complicating factors were that my Kenyan wife wanted to learn English and my Swahili speaking children needed to learn English.  Of course, Sesame Street was already very big and my children knew all about it within 5 minutes of arrival in the US.  It didn’t matter they did not speak a word of English.  In any case, I didn’t have a bias against TV, so we got one.  It was a 13” Emerson black and white, twice the size of my original TV.  I picked it up at a flea market near the airport in Santa Barbara. It cost 12 dollars and it worked fine. The children were very pleased with this invention they had heretofore seen little of.  They were, like their father when he first saw it,  mesmerized by the magic of this miraculous box.  It continues to astonish me that it can bring the lives of others into our home whenever we want to.  My wife, who was born and raised in Kenya and who spoke very little English, taught herself English watching the Days of our Lives and General Hospital. I think she felt that Luke and Laura were her personal friends.  She learned everything she needed to know to behave like a full fledged American citizen, which she became.  It proved itself a powerful educational tool.  
As the years passed, the time available for watching TV increased and the TV quality increased too.  I remember buying a 32” color Sony TV in the mid 1980s that dazzled everyone in the family.  We absolutely could not take our eyes off this wonderful invention.  However, I always had a concern about the TV watching, because I realized that whereas I never missed it while I lived in the bush land of East Africa, or for that matter, when I was working near Mombasa and even while I was living in Nairobi, where TV was available, I had changed.   I remember when Roots was aired.  I didn’t dare miss an episode. It blended history with my love for anything related to Africa. Now I love to watch Jack Bauer.  Twenty-four hours is spell binding.  When I saw Rome, the BBC series, I learned that TV has the ability to achieve the highest standards of artistic expression.  I religiously watch news because I feel compelled to be informed.  CNBC has become a must as I’m a serious investor. I watch as much English Premier League soccer as I can and I hardly miss a game played by Barcelona.  If the match is shown in HD, I’ll watch anybody play. Then there is a monstrous amount of fluff TV interspersed among all the programming that is relevant, compelling, inspiring or valuable.  Herein lies the next level of concern about TV watching.  The inadvertent, and more often than not, deliberate passive relationship between me and the TV means it remains “on” because it’s easier to leave it on than turn it off and then on again.
In spite of my passion for it, the TV issue gnaws at me.  I didn’t need it for the years I didn’t have it.  I didn’t even miss it.   While living in Africa everyday was an adventure.  It was all new and each experience was fresh and exciting. It didn’t matter the event.  A child could knock on my door with a bottle of milk to sell.  Somehow that would turn into an adventure. Perhaps I’d ask him how he got so many sores on his legs and then he’d tell me what life is life when you herd cattle as a 7 year old.  I marveled at the papaya trees in my back yard, full with huge fruit, that dwarf the papayas we see in American stores. Little things like that kept the uniqueness fresh and the mystery alive.  My students always had something new to reveal, even if it was as mundane as explaining why they changed their names every time they returned from a holiday.  Actually, there wasn’t much of an explanation.  They just enjoyed changing their names.  Mt. Elgon, where I lived, was world of rich red volcanic earth. Daily rain clouds darkened late in the day to pour water on our tin roof, then 30-45 minutes later moved on to a new location. Natural events never failed to amaze, just as were the brightly lit stars that filled the skies above at night.  The new language I spoke also kept things fresh.  There were new words, new expressions, new challenges to communicate that happened every day.  The personal challenges of relationships in a world where I was the odd guy out certainly kept me on my toes, especially when I chose to marry a woman from the area I was working.  That, alone, led to events, complications, disappointments, unbelievable highs, especially the birth of my African children.  There is no soap opera to compete with that.  Even Jack can’t come close. 
I began to realize that TV filled a hole created when I left my new found home and returned to the United States. TV became a technologically based proxy for life and at that moment in time, my one time love relationship with TV, became a love-hate relationship because I realized it could never be enough for me.  Life in America provided so little by comparison with my life in Africa I needed artificial reproductions of life to sustain myself.  I began to worry that others, especially my children and their children, may “need” TV for the same purpose.  It disturbs me when I see a child who would otherwise buzz about a room with insatiable curiosity, or explore the world outside the house,  perhaps work on his or her mastery of a bicycle, dribble a soccer ball, or engage in any one of a seemingly infinite number of options,  be tranquilized at the moment the TV is switched on, then watches Mulan for the 28th time. My own grandchildren do this, much to their mother’s concern. Some parents quite literally use the TV for the purpose of baby sitting.  I think it gives the parent’s quiet time except for the fact that they have to listen to the TV.
So, do I or have I missed TV while on this kickabout journey through Africa?  I’ve already answered this question, but I’ll say it again, not for a moment.  I haven’t longed for one program, one minute in front of my 52” Samsung, even one EPL game.  I find the soccer reference more surprising than I anticipated. Given that the destination of this journey is the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa, I did not anticipate that I would also not miss watching the Champions League Football matches. Most Americans can’t relate to the importance of those games but if I told an American football fan that I missed the NFL playoffs or asked them who played in the Superbowl they would be horrified.   Yet I did not see either the Superbowl or any Champiions League matches even though I had the opportunity to see them both.
I  suppose the intensity of a long venture like the challenges a traveler faces when traveling 30,000 km overland through 20 or so countries, many different cultures and many different terrains are enough to explain why our attention is directed and focused on the daily exigencies of this monstrous journey.  However, I think that something else has happened.  It’s about living in the moment.  Certainly when life demands our attention, no matter where we are or what we are doing, we are forced to live in that moment of time.  However, free time, in general, gives other options and we face other decisions.  As a retiree, when I was at home I filled that time with things I enjoyed doing or things I wanted to do.  Last summer we put in hours every day working a soccer program we ran for young aspiring athletes who wanted to get into college.  It was an engrossing venture and it took much of my time each day.  And when I wasn’t working on that project, I was often studying businesses I invest in, making daily evaluations of the economy, so that I could manage to keep up or beat the growth of the current economy.  I did this for me and all my children, managing over 10 investment accounts.  Then there is family life, the relationships with my children, their children, and friends.  Of all my daily activities, these relationships are, by far, the most important and most rewarding.  However, even with all these things to do, and more, I still had time during the day for TV.  Of course, much of it was related to my study of the economy, specific businesses and the S&P.  Much was related to soccer.  The remaining TV was familiar fluff, especially those TV dramas that make us feel, for a moment, part of the exciting world of police officers, health workers, and lawyers. There is usually time for some comical things as well.  For the life of me, I can’t even remember the name of one of theose programs, though I haven’t forgotten the classics like Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Ozzie and Harriet.  How many of those programs have come and gone? How many have I watched which repeat the same theme and set up the same conflict seeking the same resolution, day in, day out.  I often joke with my children that I could write any of the current TV shows because I know exactly what will happen and at what pace, long before any of it happens.  The programs are formulaic to the point that they never deviate from the formula for their genre.  The best TV might, but sometimes, the best TV doesn’t have to.  Like I say, I had an addictive relationship to Jack Bauer’s problem solving but it’s because the intensity of life as he leads it within each and every 24 hours is so extreme and unbelievable that it exceeds the fanciful and puts the viewer into a state of unbelievability that is entrancing if not simply exciting.  We need that.
And that’s the point.   Would I prefer right now, today, to be in front of my TV watching Jack Bauer perform ridiculous feats of bravery that would kill the average man 100 times in each of his 24 hour ventures?  No.  Absolutely not.  Even as I write this I am sleeping in a traditional style Borana hut in Marsabit, Kenya.  We are where few people live,  two days hard driving from Nairobi Kenya and 3 days of equally tough roads from Addis Ababa.  Today we bartered with the spice ladies of Marsabit for a few ounces of a spice they convinced me was the best spice ever created for cooking meat dishes.  These were Borana ladies who spoke only Swahili and Borana.  Closing a deal with them to buy 3 ounces of this stuff at a cost a total of 30 shillings or about 40 cents of US coin required about one hour of our time.  It was an engrossing and fascinating experience to watch the sales women and her associate sellers come together to help make a sale for this paltry amount of money. Yet, life in Africa is full of moments like this that are out-of-my-familiar box, challenge me in ways I’m not usually challenged, and bring a sense of participation that I would never get buying vegetables from the local Chinese vegetable store in San Francisco.  The lady there is so indifferent to my existence that if I said hello to her after the 100th visit to her store she might find it annoying or burdensome.  I've had the same experience at the Honduran vegetable store and the Palestinian stores, too.  Only the people at Safeway say hello and you can guess what they say to each other around the water cooler about being trained, paid and monitored to be cordial to the customers.  It doesn't come naturally.  At home, time is money, and talk is wasteful.  Here in Africa, talk is the spice of existence and human interaction is, in itself, a good reason to be alive.  So, in America, if you want to live life, don’t go to your local vegetable store, instead stay home and watch a soap opera. There people are paid to live life for you and you can participate, though vicariously, in the most intimate, intense, unimaginable, often dangerous, and frequently adventurous ways possible without having to leave the safety of your favorite sofa.   

Two nights ago we had no choice but to sleep in the middle of the African wilderness in the Marsabit game reserve.  It’s an area that used to be teeming with wildlife, but now is more likely to be teeming with camels and goats as the Gabra herders have moved into the region.  Still there wasn’t an animal to be seen that night, though we could hear the loud baying of the camels.  We were traveling the 200 km from North Horr to Marsabit in the rainiy season which is about as difficult a journey as one can make over African roads.  It’s remote land and it’s hostile to vehicles.  During our 24 hours on the road, only one other vehicle passed the same road.  That turned out to be our good fortune because we got stuck in the highly sticky and extremely mushy silt that sometimes lines the road.  A traveler must be extremely careful when driving African roads in rainy weather because these silt traps can suck you in like a predator who has caught it’s prey in a death grip.  We took a chance that night that we could complete the journey that normally requires about 6 hours of time at an average of about 20 miles per hour.  The road is horrendous and almost impossible to describe because there aren’t enough adjectives.   The pitfalls are many.  There are thousands of points where we could have been trapped at any time along our journey.  There was one point where a river could, in a flash, wash us away if our timing was bad or if our judgement to cross was wrong.  Most of the journey happened during daytime so we were able to see quite adequately where we were going and fully assess what we were passing over, be it land, rock, mud or water. However, the sun set when we were about 50 km from our destination and because that part of the road was considered to be the least problematic we took the risk that we could pass without problems.  However, I made a mistake.  I mistook the shoulder of the road as firm ground and tried to use it as footing as the other wheels passed through a water filled mud hole in the road.  The car sunk immediately and even with all the options on the magnificent 4 wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser, I couldn’t get out.  We tried for two hours that night to dig our way out, without any luck.  In the end, we decided to sleep in the tent on the roof of the car.  Since we were surrounded by mud, we had to climb to the top of the car by going through a window and pulling ourselves to the top using the roof rack.  We entered the backside of the tent and, even though we were still muddy, Maria and I slept, though anxiously that night until day break.  A strong wind and dark  clouds to the south forewarned us of another storm.  The thought that we might be stranded there for an indefinite period filled our heads. 
Sunrise outside Marsabit.  The car is mired in mud and we're about to dig it out.  Five hours later we'd succeed.




Maria pulling out dirt and packing rocks. We lifted each wheel with the Hi-Lift jack and then packed the underside with rocks.  By the end of the job we hauled hundreds of rocks, some weighing 60 to 80 pounds.



After pulling out the vehicle:  Some of the Gabra locals who helped us out.  The two young men on the right got down in the mud with me, worked the Hi-Lift jack with me (pulled from the ground, they pushed from the top), and helped pack the rocks.  They liked their reward at the end but they never asked for a thing.



After pulling out the vehicle: I hadn't eaten a meal in 24 hours but I did have a cold tusker in the fridge.  It's a nice feature of the vehicle.  I enjoyed this breakfast immensely.



The Borana hut where we recuperated over the next 4 days.  It doesn't look like much but it was cool and comfortable.  




Sunset the night after getting out of the Marsabit mud.  It was a beautiful moment.



The family of Henry Dommann.  He and his Borana wife have 7 children.  Naturally we had much in common to talk about.  Henry owns a 20 acre plot of land outside Marsabit where his wife built the Borana guest cottage where we stayed.  We met Henry days earlier in North Horr where he was working on a project for the mission.  He arrived in Kenya shortly after I left and has never left. 


We were lucky.  The clouds moved further south, the rain didn’t come and later the moonlight was enough for us to see much of the nearby landscape. At day break we were up and working to dig out mud, lift the car, pack the undersurface of the wheels with rocks, and make new efforts to get out.  We worked for four hours straight with only water to drink and some Cadbury chocolate in a jar to eat.  We had no success.  Finally the first vehicle for us to see in 24 hours, as mentioned earlier,  passed.  It was a Kenyan government vehicle filled with people going to the village of Maikona about 20 km down the road.  They had come from Marsabit.  They stopped and came to our assistance.  It required another hour of work by a few of the young, energetic guys in the vehicle and the government vehicle itself to pull us out of that mud hole.  We gave the young men who labored in the watery mud and the driver of the vehicle a handsome reward and they were on their way.  We cleaned our gear in the muddy water of the road and completed our journey to Marsabit.  There we found a place to stay which is where I’m working to conclude this discussion about whether or not I miss TV while on the kickabout.
There have been a thousand encounters and a thousand experiences which have made this journey a passage,  not just over land, but into the maelstrom of life on our planet.  It’s in the confusion and disorientation of submersion into the chaos of the unfamiliar that bring the individual to an accounting of the self and his or her relationship to the comfortable.   The sum is a memory packed time-filled experience that offers fullness, richness, beauty, as well as encounters with fear of the unknown and the physically dangerous. Not everyone can afford to do such a thing. I am grateful and blessed by good fortune.  However, when I lived in Africa many years ago I didn’t need the intensity we have experienced the last few days in order to feel tantalized, to witness the spectacular, to experience the entrancing.  In those days, the daily interactions with sellers in the market place, my fellow workers in the work place, the mundane business of making sure my household and family were secure and happy, were all I needed.  There was no TV then and there is no TV now.  I don’t really need anything more exciting or challenging in my life than a muddy road in the remote outback of Kenya, thank you, Jack Bauer. That’s about as adventurous as I’d like to be.  Anything less exciting or demanding is more than enough and it easily fills my personal need to be in-the-moment, to feel alive and welcome on our planet.  Not that I won’t catch up on Jack’s exploits once I return to the comfort of our home on Magellan Avenue in San Francisco.
The thought that my children and their children have had so much TV in their lives and will probably “need” TV to feel or experience even part of what I have experienced on this journey is not only sad, but is concerning.  The passive participation in life as a vicarious sojourner, not unlike a voyeur, speaks of a world gone empty, that offers little beyond the artificial representation of life as is digitally recreated inside highly sophisticated collections of cells, transistors, capacitors, wires and a screen.  The problem, however, is not just the confounding piece of technology that inhabits more than one room in most homes in the United States.  The fundamental problem with life in our modern world is that it has been stripped of its sweetness by the exigencies of life as we live it, by the need to meet deadlines, to make corners exactly square, to insure a dollar amount is set aside, to fill out a myriad of forms, to understand the complexities of  taxes, healthcare, political systems, economic trends, etc, etc, etc.  What is left at the end of the day?  Some time at the dinner table with a family member or two?  Maybe, but try to get even two people scheduled to fit such a plan!  And even if you manage that, what is left except for the TV to fill the void that we all feel having had so much of what can be sweet in life stripped from life’s possibilities because it doesn’t fit into the schedule or the plan.  Thankfully, I say with a touch of cynicism and a touch or regret,  we have packaged life, presented to us with all the excitement one can possibly manage.  We only have to sit back on the soft sofa of life and absorb it all in.
So, I think I have answered my own question, more than once.  I don’t miss TV at all.  It’s not that I wish it didn’t exist nor is it that I will never watch it again. I will enjoy a moment or two in front of my TV set once this journey is over.  After all, what else is there if one wishes to savor the sweetness of life’s complexities through education, travel, adventure, romance, drama, information, tragedy and more while still within the comfort of one’s home. I, nevertheless, lament the reasons for its existence and its unbelievable embrace by virtually all who come within its compelling influence.  What I lament most is what we have lost because of a world which no longer has time, patience, or belief in the value of human to human interactions.  These provide the basic foundations for family life, friendships, colleagues,  and the day-to-day chance encounters with people we may have never met.  In order to return to that way of life we must value human interactions more than we value the cost benefit analysis of taking the time to enter into the most basic of human communications: some eye contact, a smile, maybe a hello, maybe a brief exchange that takes 30 seconds from your day.  Besides, with Tivo and DVR’s everywhere Jack can wait. 

Tom