Years ago, back when I worked in public accounting, I often interacted with a tax accountant at one of my clients, a Fortune 500 company. There is no doubt this woman was a brilliant person – she held a Masters Degree in Taxation, could cite the code, remember precedent, and quickly determine the tax implications of a business situation. Let’s call her “TG,” a shortened version of “Tax Genius.” Now I’m reasonably bright, maybe even smart on some things, but I’d never classify myself as intelligent. The result is, when I interacted with TG, I’d have to work to keep up. This usually took the form of either asking a lot of questions or utilizing the old “active listening” strategy, where I’d buy some time by paraphrasing back what I’d just heard. Eventually, a light bulb would go off and I’d be able to converse in a productive way.
Anyways, one day I was in TG’s office, trying desperately to comprehend whatever she was saying, hoping not to look like an idiot, when I noticed a pile of People magazines (this was back when folks read magazines in print form) stacked next to the official looking binders on her shelf. There were a lot of issues, maybe twenty or so. TG noticed my look, smiled, and shrugged, saying, “Bubble gum for the brain.” TG then explained that everyone needs something to take their mind off things.
Let’s fast forward twenty years or so. Our oldest was home from college for the December break, sitting next to me at the kitchen table, and watching a TV show on her computer. I asked what it was and she told me Desperate Housewives. My response was immediate. “What are you watching that crap for?” She said something about it being her vacation and, with all due respect, to leave her alone. After a few minutes, I peeked over at the screen and started viewing it along with her, and, to my (at the time) shame, I was like, “hey, that’s pretty good.” Now, during this particular season of life, our family was in an extremely stressful place and every day was filled with relentless challenges. In the evening, after the chaos had settled down, my wife and I needed an escape. So, I drove out and bought the DVDs of the first season of Desperate Housewives (there were no streaming services yet) and we started watching it that night. It was a great break, something that took us away from all the crap for a little bit of each day. Now, I know that Desperate Housewives is a “nighttime soap,” not exactly what you’d call high art, and, honestly, I’m a little afraid of publicly admitting I watched it. However, the show did help us through a rough time.
Some people call shows like Desperate Housewives “garbage TV.” I choose to call it “useful TV.” I remember talking with my wife one day about the show and what TG had said all those years earlier. It made me think about someone like a single mom with three kids who needs forty minutes of sanity. Or someone who’s caring for a sick parent and his/her only outlet is watching Don Draper be Don Draper on Mad Men. Or even households where things are going pretty well, but the days are packed. Isn’t it okay for them to get a few minutes of respite? Maybe Lost, Deadwood, or, God forbid, Tiger King sets them up for a good night’s sleep. I’m sure there are some true intellectuals who unwind with a scholarly journal or a documentary on book binding in the middle ages, but, for most of us, I’m guessing it takes some bubblegum to clear out the cobwebs.
Before I go on, I need to confess something else. We watched and I loved Gilmore Girls. Probably more than my wife did. Now, before you confiscate my Man Card, let me say that we also enjoyed Justified, Longmire, and Dexter. Plus, I got my Breaking Bad fix on nights my wife wasn’t around, because she didn’t like the violence. But, since I’m manly, it didn’t bother me. As an aside, the last season of Breaking Bad was, for my money, the greatest single season of any TV show, ever.
Really, though, the point isn’t what programs we choose. It’s that we allow ourselves the break and just let something entertain us. For instance, one of my brothers watches those survival shows. Among his favorites are Life Below Zero, The Last Alaskans, and Naked and Afraid. My best bud watches The Great British Baking Show with his wife. Another good friend of mine reads about a hundred books a year. She once lamented to me that they were light reading, not particularly intellectual, but entertaining. I responded with something like “Well, you’ve got a full-time, incredibly responsible job, a husband and a family. I think it’s okay to escape into some fluff once in a while.” And you know what? It is.
I think it’s safe to say that 2020 has been unusual and I imagine it will continue to be a formidable year. So, cut yourself some slack and relax with something that will take your mind off things. I’m not talking about sitting on the couch for ten hours straight staring at old Clint Eastwood movies. Do your work, get your exercise, and keep up with your hobbies. But, at the end of it all, don’t feel bad about settling in and letting something replace whatever’s rattling around in your brain. Chew some of that mental bubblegum.
I’m going to finish with a list of my five favorite shows:
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
- Breaking Bad