The solitary art of channel surfing


Oooohhh, boy, we're flying now.

Baseball! Anthony Hopkins? Who knows? Back to baseball! Track! Baseball! Track! Wait! Is that Barbara Walters? Too late! Baseball! Anthony Hopkins? Nope. News! Baseball! Rain? Track! Baseball! Sunny? Track! Baseball! Life? Track!

You understand what is going on here: We are channel surfing.

Actually, "he" is channel surfing and I am enduring.

It's probably that way in your home, too: Men channel surf, women endure.

Once in a while, I get to hold the channel flipper in my very hand.

When he's not home.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement recently wrote of channel surfing being the art form of the '90s, and I can see it.

It's fast-food sound bites and meta-images.

It's sound and fury signifying . . . well, mostly advertising, usually sneaker deals and beer/bimbo/hanging-with-the-guys pitches.

It's television as we know it, which may be no better than television as we used to know it, before the flipper and 9,743 channels.

And it's annoying as all get-out.

Channel surfing is as much about the Y chromosome as beer, bimbos, hanging with the guys, Arnold movies, air guitar, inability to clean the cat box, and mastering all things that depend on electricity or gasoline.

The other night, for example, the other person in the house (which would be me) had the nerve to ask the channel surfer (which would be him) if we couldn't go back to the Olympics, a record being set, it being history, that kind of stuff.

Well, you would have thought I'd asked him to give up beer, air guitar and the very air he breathes.

Channel surfing is a solitary performance art, even if television viewing isn't, and here I'd had the nerve to disrupt the creative process.

I have taken a very accurate, though highly unscientific, poll. (The best polls are like that: You don't want science mucking up the process of real life.) And it's official: Channel surfing is a guy thing.

More than that, it's about control.

Men want to control the television.

More to the point, they want to control the universe.

But in the meantime, given that the universe isn't as accommodating, they'll settle for the former.

Men are overly attached to those flipper things. It's like their life-support system.

I have no illusions about television. Rarely outside the football season do I ask it to stimulate me.

It isn't about power or energy or even sex.

It isn't about order and power and control.

It's about mental meltdown and horizontal vegetation.

It's about knowing that, in a world where chaos rules, there are -- by golly -- a few things on which one can depend.

Like 26 different "M*A*S*H" reruns on 14 different channels a day.

I do not need channel surfing to know order. And if the Village Voice Literary Supplement is correct, and this is what art has come to in the waning years of the 20th century, then perhaps we ought to quadruple the NEA endowment because, heaven knows, we could do better.

Channel surfing would not exist but for the twin realities of too much choice and too little quality. It reminds me of being at too-large parties: People are always in perpetual motion, forever in search of the "real" party, which must be going on somewhere else.

Channel surfing is a basic paradox: You're watching television, but you're hardly seeing a thing. Nothing sinks in but the power to change the image. You might as well be in the car, driving down the interstate, watching the billboards flash by.

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