Years ago when my children were children, there was one picture book I especially liked reading aloud: The Wretched Stone, by author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. In those days – the mid-1990s – my children didn't object to hearing it more frequently than their own favorites; it was one of the only bedtime stories that didn't put me to sleep.
The story's about the crew of a 19th-century clipper ship, who in the course of an ocean voyage come upon an island that doesn't appear on any maps. The sailors disembark to forage for provisions, and though they find nothing edible, do discover "a strange glowing stone."
Curious, they take it back on board.
"The glowing stone," a Library of Congress summary informs prospective readers on the copyright page, "has a terrible transforming effect."
That lovely picture book fed my pride. It made me feel like such a good mother.
We first see the smart, skilled, experienced sailors of Van Allsburg's tale as they're hard at work, diligently carrying out their myriad daily maritime duties. The next picture has them up on deck, sustaining each other's spirits through the interminable moonlit nights out in the middle of the vast darkness, telling stories under the stars.
After the new acquisition is stored down below in the ship's hold, however, storytelling up on deck is set aside in favor of the new, less demanding, source of relaxation. Like moths on a lampshade, the crew is soon spending not only their off-hours but more and more of their on-duty hours, too, sitting in front of the stone, inexplicably mesmerized.
The captain, who unlike his crew has not been magnetized by the glowing light, tries desperately to get his men back on schedule, but the longer they sit and gaze, contentedly entertained, the harder it gets for them to pull themselves away. As the vessel, unattended, drifts off-course into increasingly rough seas, the crew – oblivious now to lightning and thunder and other such disturbances – have lost not just their sense of direction but their grasp of what it means to have a destination, and of their own significance in getting there.
As wild waves and winds are wrecking the sails and crack the ship's mast, the lonely, horrified captain – at this point the only one on board to be using the power of speech – inadvertently comes upon a cause for hope: he has noticed that if he reads aloud to his crew, he can sometimes get their attention, awakening in their distracted eyes a vague and distant glimmer of...something....almost human.
When we last catch sight of the smashed and drifting vessel, we now see a huddled bunch of stooped and silent, hairy and slack-jawed apes in sailor suits, their mouths agape...as if trying their best to remember….something.
The captain – eyeglasses perched on his nose – holds a storybook aloft.
My young children wouldn't have understood – even had I tried to explain – what it was that made me smile.
For when their mother was a child herself, growing up in America, she would have no more come home from elementary school without sitting down with a snack for her lineup of favorite programs, one after the other – "The Mickey Mouse Cub," followed by "My Little Margie," "The Millionaire," ""Queen for a Day," "I Love Lucy," "I Married Joan," "Father Knows Best” and "Lassie Come Home"–than she as a teenager would have willingly missed “Candid Camera" at 10, "Twilight Zone" on Friday nights, or Walter Cronkite's flatly delivered roundup of that day's warfare in Vietnam, "That's the way it is," on the 7:00 News.
“What are you doing inside on such a beautiful day!” my mother would exclaim, shutting off the TV with a sweep of her hand. "Use your inner resources!"
Your inner resources. I didn’t know what that was, or if I had them, but guiltily assumed I would know it if I did. The words evoked in my child’s mind a picture of some kind of vaguely unbuilt house in an uncomfortable stage of construction.
Throughout my own child-raising years, an old and dear friend of mine who, like me, was now an idealistic young wife and mother in the Jewish State (as innocent searchers, she and I – from different points along our parallel but separate spiritual paths – had both made aliyah) was hired by the IDF to teach English to Israeli soldiers. She needed time and space every afternoon to grade papers and prepare the next day’s lessons, and their TV served as a punctual and reliable babysitter. It kept her two little girls happily preoccupied until dinnertime.
All was well until after a few years, my friend ran into trouble setting limits on her daughters' hours in front of the set, and controlling which programs they watched. I remember when she started talking about the arguments: could they do their homework in front of the TV? Should she let them stay up late sometimes on school nights, for something good such as a historical drama, or an old movie classic? What about on weekends? Where should she as a parent draw the line? How had it become impossible to draw the line? How about a comedy sitcom, or a documentary. ("Oh come on, Mom! It’s the educational channel!") Maybe she should think of sitting in front of the TV as family togetherness?
Hollywood’s long arm had reached out across the planet, and was holding her family in its degrading, deadening embrace.
My friend and her husband had to get up early for work; they couldn't police the living room until the wee hours of the morning, patrolling the programs that came on after the classic old movie.
I remember my friend telling me at some point of her disappointment: she and her husband had struggled to bring their family here, they'd sacrificed proximity to friends and relatives in order to give their children an authentic, natural connection to Judaism and its traditions. They had made their escape from the materialism of contemporary culture in order to live more meaningful lives.
Then Hollywood’s long arm had reached out across the planet, and was holding her family in its cheaply degrading, deadening embrace.
I'd listen sympathetically – our friendship is still important to both of us, until today – but inwardly I’d be vigorously patting myself on the back. For in the religiously observant Jewish life that I'd chosen, television wasn't even on the cultural radar screen, and in my home, my community, my society, children weren’t infected with the habit-forming passivity that comes in TV's wake. I would have no more opened our front door to that whole load of garbage, even the educational channel's, than install a radioactive time bomb on our living room coffee table.
To have avoided that whole unnecessary conflict between parent and child, the whole terrible waste of valuable time, the whole arena of temptation, which had corrupted my childhood ideals and poisoned my self-image with Hollywood's standards...which had stunted my childhood aspirations and my imagination ….To have deftly sidestepped all that...the whole battleground and disciplinary struggle – simply by not having a TV in the house....What an easily achieved and major victory.
I read in some science magazine somewhere that the brain waves of children watching television were slower than when they’re asleep.
My children had been spared, and I was proud.
Here am I now in the 21st century: a grandmother who has to daily pry herself away – like a recalcitrant child resisting parental discipline – from the glowing screen.
Here am I now in the 21st century: a grandmother who has to daily pry herself away – like a recalcitrant child resisting parental discipline – from the glowing screen on which I’m writing this.
I have no patience anymore to write things out by hand, and there’s no such thing anymore as typewriters. If a word processor without Internet capability were to become available, I wouldn't buy one. Why go to all the trouble, as I used to, of submitting articles on paper, in an envelope, at an ancient Post Office where ancient souls wait on ancient lines, when publications everywhere these days (including this one) use email?
Is this a personal habit I can sidestep?
Oh, come on. Who do you think you are?
Above all, how would I know what’s happening in the world? I can’t wait anymore for the morning newspaper. Today will be old by the rising of the sun, and the rest of the world will have moved on by.
It’s the light that entrances, to which I’ve grown addicted, and it's exponentially more corrupting than television could ever have dreamed.
Filth at your fingertips, and at your command, and time flies by unnoticed.
I’ve grown accustomed to your face.
It’s inexplicably mesmerizing.
This article first appeared in Ami Magazine