Living 'outside the box' - one escapee's TV-turn-off year

I once unplugged the TV for a month. It was summer, the season of long walks, barbecues ... and reruns. But if I really wanted to prove I could break free from evening sessions of tube-induced passivity, I'd have to make it through a New England winter. In the darkest, coldest months, I would no longer be able to escape to the passionate politics of "The West Wing" or the passion-fruit pablum of "reality" dating.

This winter, I had my test.

A year ago I moved into my own place, just a few minutes' drive from my former roommate - and her television. Friends offered me a spare, but I declined. Living alone was an opportunity to choose deliberately how I wanted to live. And I had a hunch that being TV-free would help me leap into all those things I wanted to do but didn't seem to have time for. I offer my story in honor of TV-Turnoff Week. Millions of people in the United States and 10 other countries are celebrating it April 25-May 1, according to the TV-Turnoff Network, which promotes alternatives to excessive screen time.

I wondered if I would feel lonely, but decided it would be better not to try to fill a void with fictional friends. In the first month or so, I weaned myself from my favorite shows by visiting real friends and watching with them.

Eventually, I just lost track of what was on when. I could no longer join in the buzz at my office about the popular shows.

During the Olympics, it became abundantly clear that some spectacles just don't play well on the radio. The world's eyes were fixed on graceful, gravity-defying feats, and I was wearing a blindfold.

I kept telling people it was an experiment: "We'll see how it goes this winter," I'd say. I considered buying a small TV to keep in the closet and bring out on special occasions.

But for all I was missing, I could feel the balance tipping toward gain.

I found myself breezing through book-club books. I had been in the habit of thinking I was too tired to read after a long day at work, but not too tired to watch TV. Now I was well read and well rested. I started doing volunteer work virtually every week instead of every few months. I called friends who usually heard from me only at the holidays. Sometimes I even reveled in that rare commodity called quiet.

The goal wasn't to give up all visual entertainment. I can play DVDs on my laptop, so when a blizzard was on its way, I lined up in Blockbuster with everybody else. Rather than channel-surfing and landing on something I would later regret, I caught up on some great films.

I found myself resensitized, no longer absorbing images without noticing their warp speed. At a bowling party a few weeks ago, I seemed to be the only one offended when the large-screen TVs behind the pins switched from a sports match to a news break - and we suddenly found ourselves bowling into a crowd of mourners at the Vatican.

Sometime during the winter, the season I thought would be the most difficult, I discovered I had crossed the line from experiment to lifestyle.

I sealed the deal by putting up a shelving unit on the only living room wall that might have logically housed a TV. A friend came over for the first time, took the tour (a few steps in each direction), and then sat down on the couch with a slightly puzzled look. Scanning the room, she asked tentatively, "So, do you not have a TV?"

Whenever I explain my TV-free home, I assure people it's not meant to judge anyone else's TV-viewing choices (after all, I'm glad my friends don't mind me plopping in front of their screens every once in a while).

The response is often a confession: One co-worker admitted she can't help turning her TV on for background noise when her husband is out of town. Others express camaraderie, saying they hardly ever turn theirs on.

I don't know how long my new lifestyle will last. I might suddenly have the urge to reconnect with pop culture and PBS. And if I have children, I think I'd want them to learn, as I did from my parents, how to view with moderation and a critical eye.

But if I do make space for a TV someday, I'm more confident now that I'll still find space for me.

Stacy A. Teicher is a Monitor staff writer based in Boston.

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