Operation Blackout powers minds

Posted: Wednesday, November 08, 2000

Soldotna Middle School is sponsoring a reading program throughout the school year called Operation Blackout. It encourages students and their families to eschew the distractions of electronic media in favor of reading. Students get extra credit in different classes each quarter for leaving their stereos and TVs off for at least 30 minutes each week while reading.

Count me in. I'm not a parent, and I was never a middle school student. (Where I grew up, those publicly financed theaters of relentless, peer-sponsored torment were called "junior high schools," a term that suggested not that we pre-teens were in a middle stage, a transitory period, but which merely served as an unnecessary reminder of our inferior status to high school kids.) A couple of years ago, however, I embarked on an Operation Blackout of my own. I got good and drunk and found that I couldn't remember a thing in the morning.

Right around that time I also gave up television. I had taken up writing and long-distance running, and eventually I discovered that these activities demanded more time than I was giving them. Determined to succeed in my new pursuits, I abandoned television, among other things (hazy nights and red-eyed sunrises with Captain Jack and the whiskey gang), almost completely. I still watch "The Simpsons," and I watch it with religious devotion. The manager of a local motel tolerates my presence before the lobby television for 30 minutes every Sunday night.

It can be an amazing and rewarding experience to shun the most popular distractions of our age, television and that clanging, crooning, commercial noise that passes for music. (I intend to keep at least 98 degrees of separation between myself and the polished, no-talent outfit bearing that name.)

It's like stepping out of the allegorical cave -- television addicts are, as author Ed Abbey wisely suggested, merely modern versions of Plato's ignorant youths, sitting in the dark, mistaking the distorted shadows and images they see for reality.

Note to television enthusiasts: We are not literally in a cave, and if you tear me, the bearer of truth, limb from limb, you're going to be in big trouble.

Operation Blackout is a chance to step back from the distractions of TV and the stereo. It is, obviously, a power outage families impose on themselves.

Remember power outages? They are among the last consistent sources of long, meaningful times spent exclusively with family members. In my house, we'd light candles and tell stories. Everybody else on the block did the same thing. I imagine this procedure to be true of neighborhoods everywhere, because mine was a perfect microcosm of upper-lower-middle class society. (Except for the fact that it was better than any neighborhood in any other town. It really was. Money Magazine said as much when it picked my town, Nashua, N.H., as the best place to live in America. Twice. It's the only town to hold that distinction.)

Operation Blackout encourages participants to read for 30 minutes a week. And who knows? With no television to watch and no Backstreet Boys to subject oneself to for hours upon mundane hours at a time, people might even read more. In English class in the 10th grade, I had to read "Ethan Frome," which I thought was hardly light reading material. The teacher explained that people in 19th century New England had little else to do but sit around reading all winter, interrupting their literary marathons only to use the bathroom and give incomprehensible directions to flatlanders from New York. I read the whole book, and I ended up liking it.

So give it a shot. Follow the admonition of well-meaning college students who, rather than subject themselves to the rigors of reading Neil Postman's books merely slap "Kill Your TV!" stickers on their Volvos. Throw your TV from a third-story window! Toss your stereo in front of a bus! And then head calmly to the library.

Just a minute, here! Who am I to tell you what to do? Well, I can't be a complete moron, since you've read this far without going back to, say, your television. I might further add that several years have passed since I moved away from Nashua, N.H., which has not been chosen as the best place to live, or as anything else, since.

Mike Anderson is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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