How Television Creates our Reality: From Little House to Glee


It has been close to a month since I posted. I have written more than once, but did not feel the post was doing justice to the topics or concerns at hand, I did not post. Sometimes, things need to percolate a bit more. Sometimes, what I believed to be important in the moment now seems less kairotic or as appropriate as it did, and as such it is best to let the thought pass. Sometimes silence is the best policy and then again sometimes, the daily viewmaster of pictures is so absurd, I have no words. As I have been in a somewhat creatively-unable-to-write hiatus, I have continued to cook, to tend things on the acre, and attempt to respond to the trolling of both a hometown/neighborhood family friend and a college floormate. Those things have taken some energy and patience, but if I am going to be out there and express my thoughts, there is a consequence. Second, and more importantly, just because I disagree (and I would like to believe my disagreements are based in fact and logic), I do realize there are converse or opposing opinions which have validity and deserve my thought or consideration also. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of sorts, and the world situation, and more so the national situation, are disconcerting to put it mildly. When I struggle to find a comfortable space, I remember things I appreciate. This blog is about some of that.

When I was growing up in the 60s, we got our first color television when I was in 5th or 6th grade. It was a Motorola Quasar. It was incredible and shortly thereafter, in addition to Channels 4 and 9, we got the third Channel of 14. We thought we were quite amazing. The television did not really go on that much before our 5:00 dinnertime, but it was on most evenings, though I think my bedtime was around 8:30 p.m. at that time. On Saturdays, we got our own bowl of popcorn and got to stay up until 10:00 p.m. to see Gunsmoke, which came on after Death Valley Days. That was quite the treat (both the individual popcorn and the extended time before lights out). Television, as I remember it, played an interesting place in our family life. My father sat in his chair watching or reading the paper. My mother the same. We laid on the floor (the three of us kids), and there was little discussion as to what was watched. I think that was the decision of our parents. We often knew more about what day it was because of the program than what might have happened at school or home that day. Certainly, Saturday and Sunday nights were controlled by the tube, or so it seemed. If we were not at church events on a Sunday evening, it was Lassie, the Wonderful World of Disney, The FBI, and Bonanza. That would take us beyond bedtime and I detested not being able to watch all of Bonanza.

This past week, I had the opportunity to listen to one of the thespians who played a main character in a show I watched regularly, and I was older. It was a show that starred one of the characters in Bonanza, Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls. Melissa Gilbert, who played the author of the amazing children’s books of Little House on the Prairie, was interviewed about what being that childhood actress taught her. She is now in her fifties and lives on a farm in New York. She began her interview showing her chickens and a rooster named Dr. Fauci. She noted that she was like eternally in summer camp playing dress up and asserts that its renewed popularity (it was on the networks before syndication in the 70s and 80s) is because in our current craziness. It might be that it reminded people when life was simpler. I would note that simpler is not synonymous with easier. With its premier during the gas crisis, a recession, and the Watergate Scandal, it, according to Gilbert, looked at the beginning of the country and some of those difficulties, including an incredible episode on racism, with an incredible question asked of Michael Landon, “Would you rather be black and live to be a hundred or white and live to fifty?” Pa Ingalls has no answer, and I am not sure we would want to answer that question today. In addition, as a decades earlier premonition perhaps, there was an episode titled “The Plague,” and also an episode about a quarantine. She again contends, and I believe correctly so, that if we are to get through this current time it will take compassion and community, faith, and love. I couldn’t agree more. She noted that the values of believing the good in people and they are redeemable, which again, she asserts were the beliefs of Michael Landon, have stuck with her (as well as many other life lessons). That we can change things through love and fairness. It is interesting to me that my grandmother had the same philosophy as well as ironic that I remember hearing that Landon had passed away from cancer as I recuperated from surgery in Tempe, AZ in her elder sister’s apartment in 1991. I wonder if he would still believe that in our current national situation? It shocks me to realize I have lived a decade longer than he did. Another amazing milestone is the show has never been totally off the air. It is a show that can still bring tears to my eyes at times because it had a pureness and honesty to it that created something I believe we all need.

During the past week, as many others probably have, I have been sadly drawn to the drama that ended with today’s latest announcement that Naya Rivera probably lost her life saving that of her son’s getting him back onto the boat. That I would imagine something happened where getting back to the boat was exhausting and she perhaps sacrificed her life for her four-year-old son. It appears that the boat was not anchored and it drifted in the afternoon winds and currents. That is heartbreaking. As I have read the various aspects of yet another Glee cast member lose their life way too soon, it is hard to not feel a sense of loss beyond the person. It is also eerily coincidental, but perhaps intentionally appropriate that Cory Monteith passed on the same day. Those While I did not watch the series when it was on, I did find it after the fact, and I will confess I binged it. Why? Because I found so many elements in the storylines that reminded me of a undersized, awkward, wishing-to find-his-place, abused, but hoping-to-be-happy boy, one who grew up in NW Iowa. I was musical, and actually a very talented as a trumpet/cornet player, had a strong vocal ability, but never really turned any heads. I was petrified of girls both because I thought they were all beautiful and I did not want to have my mother annihilate me because I was interested in a girl and not studying. The series and some of the episodes so stunned me that I found myself crying with tears streaming down my face as I watched episode after episode on my iPad lying in bed. What is so incredible about this (and the same with Little House) was that I found an outlet for the pent up feelings that were so much a part of the psychological makeup of the wounded child, one that still existed within me. With Pa and Ma Ingalls I found examples of what strict, but loving parents might do. With Glee, I found high school, coming-of-age students, students who struggled to find their place, whether it was in their group the New Direction or within McKinley High, where music and theatre nerds were still outliers. I had always felt like somewhat the nerd with my short hair, glasses, and overgrown ears. I had lots of acquaintances, but really few friends. I was allowed along it seems as a favor or even a novelty.

I think what often makes a show matter far beyond its weekly presence is the ability of the show to mirror what most normal people (which is also an amazing series) experience in daily life. It allows a relational possibility that can be safe for that person as they struggle in their own personal way. One of the video clips I watched over these past days was of Naya Rivera revealing how she came to realize the significance of the relationship Santana (her character) had with Brittney and that many students struggling with their identity and coming out found solace in that story line. I think all of this is even more important as the world we currently traverse each day seems to have no stasis points. As we find ourselves in the middle of a resurgence that has our Federal Government merely pointing fingers from department to department; as we find ourselves trying to prepare for an academic year with a constantly moving target of what is considered possible; as students, parents, faculty, staff, and administration scramble to come up with contingencies when they have no precedent, where do we turn for some sense of normalcy? I have found myself retreating into things that I find safe. What things might you ask? Things that make me think and ponder and things that I can imagine possibilities about. While I know there is so much struggle at the moment, I know that today my heart aches for a family of a four year old, who lost his mother. It might seem ridiculous to some as I certainly never met this incredibly talented young lady, but in the larger picture, she was a human and a mother. It is much the same when I consider that close to 139,000 people have lost their lives and many more have long-term consequences because of Covid, I mourn that this has affected how many 100s of thousands more who also mourn their lost loved one. The callousness with which so many people respond with the anti-mask rhetoric or their argument for freedom and individual rights is profoundly f-ed up. It just is.

I believe that both Little House and Glee compelled their audience to look beyond the obvious and imagine the possibilities of what can happen when we think first about the other, not necessarily at the expense of ourselves, but rather as a community of individuals working for something larger, something more important, something that our children and grandchildren will be fortunate to inherit. I cannot imagine our children looking forward to much at this point. The other night I delivered another meal to a family. They are dear to me, and they have two children, who are both adorable. I received a message later that evening that the five year old did not eat their meal, and was quite distraught. What I was told was this. When asked why they did not eat and if they did not like the food, they began to cry. They noted that they liked the food, but because they could not hug me when I delivered the food, they were sad. Further, they lamented how terrible this virus was affecting their life and if they were sad they could not eat. That is both a tender and gut-wrenching story. A five year old is thoughtful enough to understand how this virus has already altered their life in a manner that what they found important (to be social, to show care, and to create relationships) has been intrinsically changed. In their thoughtful and honest way, they, much like the Psalmist are crying out, “How long??” It is a fair and appropriate question. And much like the Old Testament Israelites, depending on something larger than themselves was the way forward. As noted by Melissa Gilbert, compassion and community and faith in each other is foundational if we are to move toward a world beyond Covid. Much as what seems to be the case in the tragic loss of Naya Rivera, the words of John 15:13 cry out from the waters of Lake Piru, “No Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NIV). I cannot imagine the thoughts that must have gone through her mind as she struggled to live. It causes me so much heartache. In whatever piety you have, it seems it is time to pray for our world, for each other, and for wisdom in a time where unparalleled wisdom is needed. I wish you all peace in this time of struggle and I offer this particular piece from the late talented Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez. It is not unnoticed by me that many of the lyrics are frighteningly premonitious.

Thank you as always for reading and I apologize for the time since my last blog.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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