Phil and I recently acquired a modern television set. We held off because neither of us is in the habit of replacing things until they’ve reached the absolute end of their lives, and we had two perfectly good TVs.
Neither of us are fans of Thomas Edison, whose notions about planned obsolescence drives the world economy today. No one of my generation will deny that the quality of the goods we buy has diminished greatly in recent decades. As a young wife in the 1970s, I was used to a world in which, if you bought a toaster, you had a toaster for the rest of your life. Phil and I right now have one dated 1945 from an estate sale that still toasts perfectly well, although we don’t use it, preferring to preserve it.
I’ve had my hand-mixer since 1984, when my first son was a baby. After hundreds of cookie batches, dozens of bowls of whipped cream, and who knows how many egg whites (angel-food cake was a family birthday favorite in my pre-veg days), its beaters still whir just fine. By contrast, in the past 8 years, we’ve been through 4 blenders, 3 mini food processors, 3 full-sized ones, and 2 toasters. We’ve given up on expensive models. With this most recent round we made a decision to only buy cheap discount–store versions from places like Big Lots and Ross, to keep our kitchen gadget budget to a minimum.
All of which is to say, to buy a new TV before the old one was down to its last drip was outside our schema. Plus, we figured when we did buy one, it wasn’t going to last very long, so we waited until they were ubiquitous and relatively cheap. I also kept hoping the digital age would wear off, that flat-screen TVs were a fad along with all the other gadgetry for which our earth is being mined. Those gizmos require certain rare-earth elements, which is part of why I own as few of them as is necessary to communicate with the outside world. No cell phone, I-phone, I-pod, or I-pad. Our very planet is being victimized for the sake of the existence of these machines, machines that eat up our hard-earned dollars faster than a Friday night at the bar, so we try to keep our footprint small. The Internet is beautiful and brilliant—if at times frightening in its potential for abuse. But I worry about my fellow humans who have vanished into it via small screens, oblivious to all but virtual engagement. Where do they go? Their bodies are there, but are they in them? Excessive engagement with these instruments is beginning to be talked about in terms of addiction. But what are people addicted to?
Their own adrenalin, it turns out.
I read an article a few months back about how walking barefoot on sand, dirt, and grass makes us privy to receiving the (conversely enough) mood-enhancing negative ions the earth is constantly releasing. We don’t get that benefit through rubber-soled shoes or reeling atop spiked heels. The theory is that we go for adrenalin when what we really want is those negative ions. Want to break your Internet habit, go to the park or beach and walk barefoot everyday for fifteen minutes. (Without hat, sunglasses, or sunscreen, so you get your vitamin D dose at the same time.) Likewise, certain fungi in soil, when disturbed, emit anti-depressant-like substances which, if we are close enough to, we incidentally inhale. So, after your walk, sit your hiney on the ground and grub around in the dirt for a minute, set those babies free, and breathe deep.
Laura Sewell, in her well-received book Sight and Sensibility, talks about the relationship between close-up visual work and depressive, endocrine, and neurological disorders. She came to understand that the eyes are only completely relaxed when they are focused on the horizon. We evolved this way by watching for enemies and prey. For our ancestors, up-close work, on the other hand—skinning, butchering, preserving kill, delivering babies, digging roots, gathering plants, seeds, fruits—required everyone’s total attention if the task was to be completed quickly and before potential predators or thieves arrived.
The body’s fight or flight mechanism was constantly engaged during these processes, so that it’d be ready to jump into action if need be, which meant adrenalin flooding the endocrine system. The wisdom of the eye: our bodies go into fight or flight mode whenever our eyes are focused on what is near and small—not what is far and large. Nature conjured an effective counter to the downsides of adrenalin expenditures by spritzing humans with restorative essences from dirt disturbed in the carrying out of close work. Think of the action of pulling roots from the earth, of knees stirring dust when animals are being parsed, fire pits scraped clean, scattering feel-good molecules on us like fairy dust.
What Sewell came to understand is that today, although our enemies are mostly our individual selves, and our prey microscopic, still, we drip adrenalin into our veins when we do close work, just as our predecessors did. Only now those “near tasks” are mostly about looking at screens—on our phones, computers, and all the many devices that connect to the Internet. So much so that a phenomenon known as “adrenal exhaustion” is recognized by a growing number of medical professionals, and is thought to be a precursor to both depressive states and auto-immune disorders. Meantime, what’s happening to our ability to see beyond our noses? Will we lose our distance sight altogether? Will our addiction to devices end with us losing the wisdom of the eye?
Alas, our old TV set got older. It was go to a flat-screen or move another aged one downstairs from the guest bedroom, an option which interested neither of us, since moving the heavy beast would mean a day of mincing knee pain apiece. You know what happens when you buy a flat-screen television? If you have Internet service in your house, you get a 30-day trial of Netflix. It’s pretty damned cool. Foreign films. Indies. Classics. We never did the mail-in thing, preferring to keep our money local. Now that we’ve got this heroin in our bloodstream, however, clearly our one-and-only video store in town has lost us to the madness: we’ve already decided to pay the $10 per month to keep Netflix going.
Which brings me to the 1-season Netflix series Top of the Lake. The subject is sexual violence toward children and the effect on the body and mind post-trauma. Difficult stuff, but everyone should watch this finely-written, very sensitive work. Every woman, every man, as no family is immune to sexual violence toward children. We all have it in our lineages or live with the potential. It’s one of the uglier, more damaging of human habits. Filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel at my Table ), via Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Mossman, takes our collective wounds and turns them to balm. Not since the movie version of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina have our hearts been broken so wide open, and I don’t think such a fete as ever been accomplished in televised media.
Holly Hunter’s character GJ is the one to watch. The entire season is worth viewing for this single piece of dialogue from her: “Follow the great wisdom of the body,” which seems to me a perfect motto to live by. We need to cultivate our physical instincts, to trust them. Many of us do this as we age, but what if we taught this to our children? Taught them to walk barefoot outdoors, to sense with their bodies when danger is nigh, to run, fight, scream from predators, to dig, dig, dig until we get to the bottom of things, to let Earth restore us as we do.
Please let it not be the case that we are allowing them to become zombified by the same pied piper that has so many adults snagged by the adrenal glands. Please let it be that we are helping them understand the great wisdom of their own bodies, and how unnatural and inhuman it is that we are wasting our time and potential this way.
Which is all I’m going to say, because, relentless teacher that I am, I want you to look up Top of the Lake and see for yourself.