Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TV in Taiwan


When we last left off in the armchair-gripping drama of “Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher, “ our hero was headed to the San Francisco Airport at 10:30 at night. (Thanks to the generosity of his daughter Talia beginning to pay him back for all the parental favors on the indebtedness chalkboard by giving him a ride late on a school night). He boarded the plane to Taiwan at 12:30 in the morning and was astounded at his luck. The next best thing to upgrade to First Class? A whole row of seats to himself! 14 hours laters, a delightful mix of time spent with Julia Roberts, reading sitting cross-legged and sleeping horizontally, he arrived to a misty mosity 6:30 am Taiwanese morning. Off to the hotel and some more welcome horizontal sleeping before meeting up with his hosts for lunch.

But in the meantime, a curious look at one of the articles mentioned back in “Title Tease.” The idea for a public traveling journal came long before the technology of this user-friendly blog and so a backlog of stories and observations waiting to be shared— or not. But in this case, why not? It marked the last time I was here in ten years ago in 2004 and always interesting to me to see what still rings true and what has shifted. It’s a long article by blog standards, so I’ll start with Part 1 and see if it merits Part 2. Enjoy!

“You know how it goes. You’ve spent hours preparing the Power Point presentation for your class or workshop, checked and double-checked and at the crucial moment, something goes wrong. You fumble with one switch or another, your family photos appear on the screen, people jump up and gather around like men looking under a car hood and shaking their heads, whatever rhythm had been building is broken, the lights come back up and Plan B is hastily thrown together.

This happens far too often to be mere coincidence. I have a theory that machines are trying to tell us something. They are wreaking some revenge. Or rather, our ancestral spirits are speaking through them, having a bit of fun, saying, “Back in our day, we knew how to discuss ideas or how to sing a song or how to tell a story. The power to animate a room and engage a community of learners was always right at our fingertips. Stop giving all your power over to machines! And if you won’t, we’ll make sure they will break down until you learn your lesson!”

And even when such machines—and here, I speak mainly of TV’s, computers and Power Points— work, they exact a price that is invisible to most. One jet-lagged morning in Taiwan, I thought about this and came up with this thought-provoking alliterative phrase—Convenience without consciousness is a cultural catastrophe.

If we are to capitulate to speed and comfort without it becoming a Faustian bargain, we must consciously compensate for the losses. Or put another way, we can only use the technologies that come our way if we first question their limitations, consider how they will change us and dream a way to hold them in check and compensate ourselves for the losses.

To take one simple example. The TV in the hotel room begs you to animate its blank face with a push of a button. But what if the hotel put a blank book with a pen in its place? You, the restless jet-lagged guest, might begin to fill that page—first with doodles that might blossom into drawings or writing random impressions that might grow into a poem, letter or essay. With the blank paper in front of you, you would be face to face with your own imagination. The imagination might groan at first, resist the call in the same way the body protests before going out for its morning jog. But once it gets moving, takes its first breath of fresh air, feels the pleasure of movement, it never fails to rise to the call and leave you feeling better than when you began. You’ve made an effort. You’ve made a statement. You’ve created something. It might not be ready for a Broadway run or the Sistine Chapel, but you’ve entered into the same artistic stream that Neil Simon and Michelangelo swam in. What’s on that paper is wholly yours, the world filtered through your unique point of view.

But instead of blank paper, the hotel puts in TV’s. When you turn it on, you’ve given up your uniqueness, surrendered to the collective dream of businesspeople trained to tap your innate lust for food, sex and power for their own profit. You’re plugged into the home shopping channel or indulging in the sexy soap opera or feeling powerful by watching The Terminator and just how is this helping you rise to your promise? When you scribble a phrase on the paper, “Lights reflected in the river, mountains hidden in the mist, a California afternoon body swimming across time zones to a Taiwanese 3 am,” the universal eye begins to look through your particular “I”—and both you and the world are refreshed. It won’t win the Pulitzer Prize of Poetry, but it was your effort to look outside the window and inside your mood and cultivate a habit of observation and reflection beyond mindless consumption of other’s efforts.

And so my rallying cry: ”Beware of what is put in front of you. Be aware of what is put in front of you. Take care what you put in front of others.” Especially if those others are children.”

To be continued. 

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