Me, I Disconnect From You, Part 2

The film God.Bless.America played last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. I didn’t see it there – too many people. I hate crowds. But I did get a chance to see it recently, and despite a few flaws, it’s probably in my current Top 5 movies of all time. Because who hasn’t dreamed of picking off stupid people with an automatic weapon?

Okay, maybe some of you don’t have that fantasy. Maybe some of you aren’t misanthropic curmudgeons. But I know quite a few people who, given the right circumstances (such as a series of life disasters and a terminal illness) might just say to themselves, “Why the hell not?”

This is not actually a post about who I’d take out if I were in the same situation as Frank, the lead character in Bobcat Goldthwait’s movie. (The husband and I discussed it, though – he’d go after specific celebrities, whereas I’d just stand on the street corner and take down people who text while driving or ride their bikes on the sidewalk), but rather a discussion about the changes in society that lead Frank to snap.

Throughout the film, Frank is overwhelmed by stupid people in the media. From reality show stars to talk radio jerks, to the mockery, then “stardom” of a William Hung-like character (remember him? The “She Bangs” guy on American Idol?), complete with hoax suicide, it all builds up in a chattering, nattering cacophony of screaming, whining and fart-like sound effects. He’s astounded at how mean people are to each other – on television and on the radio, and how the average person in his office laughs at it all, accepting the lowest level of “entertainment” and thinking Frank a weirdo for speaking out against it.

What made me sad about the film is Frank’s apparent inability to turn it off. He sits slouched and glazed in front of the television, flipping channels from one crappy reality show to another. On his way to work, he switches channels on the radio to try and find something that isn’t making fun of the singer on the previous night’s “American Superstarz”. He is unable to just walk away from it, which in turn leads to his decision to go on a killing spree.

I’ve written before about being overwhelmed by social media. About feeling the need to keep up, of the fear of missing out. It turns out that many people feel that way about all media.

For years, I was a news junkie. I read every paper, watched the news twice a day, checked news websites throughout the day. I subscribed to all kinds of magazines, even though reading them (if I even had time) generally left me unfulfilled and cranky.

So when I recently decided to disconnect for a while to work on my book, Greg and I made the decision to disconnect from most other media as well.

First we unsubscribed from the daily morning paper. This had been our ritual for years – we’d read the news over breakfast. For now we’ve kept both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail on Saturdays, but those too might be scrapped soon, as we’ve discovered that we’re not really enjoying the things very much anymore.

Then, the magazines got cancelled. The women’s magazines that we were getting for a buck an issue through our cable subscription were the first to go, and there was an immediate lightness of being as I was no longer inundated with ads for products I’ll never use, or clothes I’ll never buy.

Speaking of cable – yep, it went too. As an alternative, we upped our Internet speed and paid for a VPN connection (essentially a foreign IP address so we can watch shows not available in Canada) so we could still watch TV via live streaming. It turns out, the majority of television stations now offer their shows as streaming videos; no longer do we need to be slaves to the standard TV schedule. We found that we enjoyed television more; with fewer (or no) ads and the ability to watch something at our convenience, life was much more pleasant.

Even better, there was no way for us to sit and surf mindlessly; no crappy reality shows popping up on the screen, no shitty sit-coms, and no commercials. Between removing newspapers, cable TV and magazines from my daily life, the number of ads I see each day has dropped by at least 80%.

Since these changes were implemented, I’ve been reading more. I have more time to exercise. Television watching is a conscious decision to view shows that we find important and engaging, not a passive activity fraught with indecision, complacency and an ever-growing rage at the stupidity of people in the world. Not once in the past few months have I uttered the words, “Holy crap, people watch this drek?” Not once have I thought to myself, “Yes, if I buy Ultra Oxide Potion with Neutraceuticles and Green Tea, my skin will be beautiful and people will love me!” Not once have I been forced to listen to a jingle for Canada’s Wonderland, or been forced to gaze upon the latest fast food travesty or some crappy cereal marketed to kids.

While disconnecting from social media was definitely tougher – in part because I actually need it for work-related reasons – dumping all the other stuff was seriously fun. The things we’ve replaced it with (great books, television shows about Shakespeare, or historic kitchens or fantastic dramas) are much more fulfilling. While the rest of the world might still be lusting after Kardashians, I’ve got a smart-girl crush on Lucy Worsley.

If Frank had just turned off the television, or turned off the radio on his way to work and listened to a book on tape instead, there would be no plot to God.Bless.America. And no need for that killing spree. But Frank didn’t understand that he had the power to not let it into his life.

Yes, sometimes I miss not being able to flop down in front of the TV and be brain dead for a little while. But on the other hand, I like what my life has become a whole lot more.