Sunday, March 15, 2015

My Writing May Be A Special Victim If I Keep These Habits Up

“You are what you eat,” the old saying goes.  You are also what you take in, not just in terms of food, but in terms of information as well.  Nutrition, after all, builds up the body, but information builds up the mind.  If that is the case, my mind is built up of murder mysteries and rape trauma as seen on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU).  I am scared to think what this means for my mental state.

The term “binge watching” is relatively new, but the act of binge watching has been around for the last ten years or so.  Releasing TV episodes on DVD or Netflix makes this easy, but what makes it even easier still are syndication packages sold to basic cable and broadcast TV stations.  Without even using Google, I can tell you from memory that Law and Order’s parent show currently can be seen on WE as well as TNT, and SVU can be seen on USA, sometimes run several times a day back to back, and My9 (WOR in New York) and TV 10/55 (WLNY also in New York), usually once a day.  And of course don’t forget new episodes of SVU on NBC once a week.

They make a cute couple.
Image found here.
Time it right and you can catch an episode from any season of L&O or L&O:SVU that you want.  Don’t like Chris Meloni’s Elliot Stabler’s character?  Newer episodes are usually on weeknights on USA.  If you pay attention to the current schedule, you can time it right and watch Mike Logan and Lenny Briscoe take down murderers.  The real challenge is catching the one season that had Paul Sorvino.  Depending on the channel, those episodes probably run in one afternoon.

Except to look up the spelling of Paul Sorvino’s name, I did not use Google once to look up any of the information in the previous two paragraphs, and I’m pretty sure I’m right about most of what I just wrote.  And when I say I’m sure, I mean I’m more sure of these facts than I am of who was President at the time of the dropping of the first atomic bomb (Harry S. Truman, right?).  I find that disturbing, and a little sad.

I've had the time of my life. . . watching these two.
Image found here.

A few nights ago, my girlfriend and I were talking about The Love Boat, a show that ran for nine years and was basically an anthology show with a cruise ship as its framing device, with some elements of a variety show mixed in.  After all, if Robert Goulet was on, there was a distinct possibility that he’d sing a song.  I wondered why a show like that had a viewership.  It’s not a bad idea for a show, mind you.  But nine years?

My girlfriend then said something that I found interesting.  She said, “If you ask my mom, she’d tell you that nothing else was on.  In fact, if you asked her about any TV show back then, she’d say they watched because nothing else was on.”  This opened my eyes as I realized that here, in the 21st century, there’s plenty on.  I can look at the night stand by my bed and see a stack of DVDs with movies I love and movies I haven’t seen, but have picked up from either the library or from the bargain bin at Pathmark.  These are the more low tech options as I don’t have Netflix or any other streaming services, I don’t use On Demand, and there are usually a lot of options on other channels.  The furthest afield I’d go from Law and Order would be to Criminal Minds or CSI.

So why?  What is going on with me?  And why am I worried about something that seems pretty trivial?  Well, again, we go back to the premise that you are what you take in.   It’s not so much the murder or rape or violence that bothers me.  After all, some of my favorite movies are blood feasts for the eyes, like Pulp Fiction.  It’s the fact that I’m watching the same stuff, over and over and over again.  A similar thing happened in my early 30s when I realized that my taste in popular music pretty much stops at 1994.  It bothered me, but these viewing habits are setting off alarm bells in my head.

Why am I on a loop?  Well, the first reason is obvious.  It’s comforting.  The franchise of SVU, for instance, is pretty predictable.  You know there will be at least one red herring.  You can set your watch to it as it usually comes into play a few minutes before the first commercial break.  Just as you were guaranteed at least two car chases on CHiPs, you know that Elliot Stabler would lose his shit some time around the 30 minute mark (I’m going by the assumption that commercial breaks add to the running time of the show).  I can watch about five minutes of many of the episodes and could summarize the plot.  It’s good background noise when I’m folding laundry.  I guess I could watch an episode on autopilot.

That is one of the alarm bells right there.  How much of our daily existence runs on autopilot already?  I’d be ashamed to talk to Thoreau if he were alive today, because he might say I’m sleeping my way through life.  I doubt I could argue with the guy since I’m barely writing or posting due to my need to watch something “ripped from the headlines.”  God, even that tagline is so dated.

I can also connect different episodes to different moments of the past 15 years or so.  Olivia and Stabler are wearing black bands around their badges?  Must be an episode from some time around 2001.  This is especially true if somehow a rape case they’re working somehow leads to a terror plot.  Hell, I remember an episode when a child kidnapper somehow got his hands on stolen anthrax because he escaped from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in a van from a lab that housed the stuff.  That’s as Bush era of a plot as you can get.

Even on a personal level, if I watch an episode, I can tell what time in my life it aired.  If Captain Cragen is helping a kid deal with his abusive stepmother by bonding with him over a video game, I know that was when my parents still owned their restaurant and I watched that episode on a Friday night after work.  And Richard Belzer is one of my favorite actors playing one of my favorite TV characters, Detective John Munch, who came from Homicide: Life On The Street, which takes place in Baltimore; I spent my early college years in College Park, Maryland and still miss the place to this day.  So apparently, Dick Wolf has discovered the secret, comforting recipe from McDonald’s fries and translated it into TV format.

As a writer who uses his mind as the building blocks to my work, what does this mean?  I could make a career of writing the same thing over and over again.  Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner did that.  I do enjoy writing crime fiction, but I’m not very good at building mysteries.  I take the approach of writing interesting characters dealing with crimes, the way Monk and Shawn Spencer had to solve crimes that were secondary to the shenanigans of the week.  I just feel like I’m in a rut.  I mean, it’s March and I’m just now posting a second blog post this year.  Stephen King once warned against sucking on the glass teat, and unfortunately, my lips are regularly wrapped around Stephanie March’s or Diane Neal’s, again depending on the season.

We wrap ourselves into these cocoons of comfort and warmth, and we pay the price.  Dick Wolf has built a Warren of Intellectual Snares that Cowslip from Watership Down would be at home in.  No thinking, no questioning, and even though the intellectual nourishment from shows in the Law and Order franchise are probably not the flayrah spoken of in the book, it’s easy to feel your brain grow corpulent and lackadaisical under that kind of input.  Just like McDonald’s fries.

Blast from Dick Wolf's past or SVU of the Future?
Image found here.
The one bit of good news in all this is that I recently joined a gym so my lazy ass could get some exercise and so I could get away from the perniciousness of Dick Wolf’s police stories (as a side note, I wonder what Mann and Machine would have looked like if it had ran for 20-plus years).  My mind probably needs the same stimulation.  I am reading poetry now from some old literary magazines I held on to from the 90s.  I’m also reading How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, a very good book but hard to sit down and read when there are so many distractions around.  This year, I want to live a writer’s life.  I just have to stop my diet of Wolf fries and Ice-T.