March 4, 2020

The wonder of it all

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I am a child of television. There's never been a time when television was not a reality in my life, never a moment when I wasn't able to turn it on and look in at the rest of the world. Television was always a marvel because of what it could do, but its existence was something I could take for granted because I didn't know any other way of life.

Because of that, I can't really imagine what the advent of television must have been like for people who'd lived maybe 20 or 30 years of their life without it. Was it something that never stopped being amazing to them, a phenomenon that, in some way, they appreciated more than those of use who grew up with it? That's how I feel sometimes when I look up at the moon, remembering the first nine years of my life, when nobody had ever set foot on its surface.

Or is it possible that they merely took it in stride, one more step in what must have seemed to be the inexorable march of progress: radio begat television, just as the movies preceded radio, gas led to electricity, balloons became the Wright Flyer, and so on. Sure, they were impressed, but they'd seen this kind of evolution before, and they were sure they'd see it again. I doubt that the millennials are much amazed by every next iteration of the iPhone or Android, and while the technology is a marvel, it couldn't be that surprising to someone who'd grown up watching Dick Tracy and his two-way wrist radio. On television, of course.

Paul Auster, the novelist and essayist, whose work I enjoy, is a bit older than I am but, like me, television was a constant presence in his life from his first conscious memories. In Report from the Interior, a memoir of his years growing up, he writes of an early childhood memory, conveying the sense of wonder that television could create in a five-year-old's mind, even from something as simple as watching a Felix the Cat cartoon:

They appear every afternoon on a television program called Junior Frolics, hosted by a man named Fred Sayles, who is known to you simply as Uncle Fred, the silver-haired gatekeeper to this land of marvels, and because you understand nothing about the production of animated films, cannot even begin to fathom the process by which drawings are made to move, you figure there must be some sort of alternate universe in which characters like Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat can exist—not as pen scratches dancing across a television screen, but as fully embodied, three-dimensional creatures as large as adults. Logic demands that they be large, since the people who appear on television are always larger than their images on-screen, and logic also demands that they belong to an alternate universe, since the universe you live in is not populated by cartoon characters, much as you might wish it was.

One day Auster's mother tells him that she will be taking him and his friend Billy to see Uncle Fred's show in person.

All this is exciting to you, inordinately exciting, but even more exciting is the thought that finally, after months of speculation, you will be able to set eyes on Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat. At long last you will discover what they really look like. In your mind, you see the action unfolding on an enormous stage, a stage the size of a football field, as the crotchety old farmer and the wily black cat chase each other back and forth in one of their epic skirmishes. On the appointed day, however, none of it happens as you thought it would. The studio is small, Uncle Fred has makeup on his face, and after you are given a bag of mints to keep you company during the show, you take your seat in the grandstand with Billy and the other children. You look down at what should be a stage, but which in fact is nothing more than the concrete floor of the studio, and what you see there is a television set. Not even a special television set, but one no bigger or smaller than the set you have at home. The farmer and the cat are nowhere in the vicinity. After Uncle Fred welcomes the audience to the show, he introduces the first cartoon. The television comes on, and there are Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat, bouncing around in the same way they always have, still trapped inside the box, still as small as they ever were. You are thoroughly confused. What error have you made? you ask yourself. Where has your thinking gone wrong? The real is so defiantly at odds with the imagined, you can't help feeling that a nasty trick has been played on you. Stunned with disappointment, you can barely bring yourself to look at the show. Afterward, walking back to the car with Billy and your mother, you toss away the mints in disgust.

Sure, the ending is something of a downer, but even so, Auster's tale speaks to the miracle of television, even to someone who has basically grown up with it. I was in the peanut gallery of one of those shows myself, once upon a time, although I don't recall having any expectations of seeing Felix the Cat in real life. (Maybe I was just a little older, or my imagination wasn't as fantastic.) I do remember how great it was to see backstage at a television studio. It's no big deal now, but it was back then.

How easy it's been for me to accept television, from rabbit ears to rooftop antennas to cable to satellite to streaming, from black-and-white to color to HD. How amazing it's been, and how easy it is to take it all in stride, as I do, as so many people do. I wonder; are we capable of wonder anymore? Kids start in on technology at such an early age, I don't know if it's even possible for them to be amazed by anything. Maybe we're past that, and if so, it's too bad. There's something exciting about the wonder of it all, the wonder and excitement that Paul Auster felt in that studio all those years ago. At least until he threw away the mints. TV  


  1. Off-topic - and important (to me and perhaps you …):

    This coming Tuesday (March 10, 2020), my friend Max Allan Collins will see the release of his latest Nate Heller novel, Do No Harm.
    (Actually, this is one of a number of new Collins books that will be coming out in close proximity over the next month or so.)
    The Heller series is about a Chicago-based private investigator, who finds himself involved with many of the well-publicized crimes of his lifetime.
    Do No Harm is about the Dr. Sam Sheppard case - a topic that's come up here a time or three.
    I'll take this opportunity to direct you to the Tor/Forge Blog; this is the company that currently publishes the Heller novels.
    The latest entry consists of the first chapter of Do No Harm, wherein Nate Heller discusses the Sheppard case with his friend (from a previous adventure) Erle Stanley Gardner, in connection with the Court Of Last Resort.
    That's all I'm going to say here (No Spoiler Zone).
    If you wish, you may read the excerpt yourself at the above-mentioned Tor/Forge Blog; what you choose to do after that is your lookout (I've ordered my copy from Amazon, at their Prime discount).
    I merely pass along this news as a Public Service.

    1. Update/Correction of the above:
      The Tor/Forge Blog is a very busy place indeed.
      To find Chapter 1 of Do No Harm, you have to go to the sidebar, to a spot marked Excerpts.
      Once there, you have to scroll down a bit to get to the excerpt.
      But I just checked, and it is there - you just have to do a little work to get to it.

  2. I think a good analogy for this for people our age would be the internet. We lived about half our lives without it, and then all of a sudden there it was. Where the two situations differ is whether the benefits we derive from the internet will be worth the way it's changed the way we live, and how its inability to separating fact from fiction will reflect how we view all the information we now receive. Of course, I'm sure there were those with similar misgivings about TV in the 1950s.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!