Thursday, October 28, 2004

Reality TV

I have had an aversion to Reality TV since its inception, to the point where I’ve wondered why I seem to be so different from the rest of the nation, who say they hate it but watch in the relative anonymity of their homes. I have a physical reaction to these shows; I have to change the channel.
I’ve finally figured out why. I lived it – 24 years ago.
I must first give you some background. I attended a church-owned institution of higher learning. It was a College when I attended, now it is a University. There are a number of these scattered across the United States, perhaps now even around the world. One of the experiences available to their students is a summer "missions" program that takes several forms. The one that interested me, frankly, from the tender age of 12, was a musical group made up of 16-- 8 singers, 8 instrumentalists, culled from these schools to travel, evangelize, and otherwise publicize the schools themselves. Looking back, the circumstances of this junket read like a script treatment for the next season on Fox.
Take 16 strangers, aged 18-21, with all of their regional diversity and immaturity, and commit them to 10,000 miles of travel and concert appearances in 10 weeks, confined primarily to 2 passenger vans, with a cargo van and trailer. Give them one week of intense rehearsal and training in a dormitory setting, followed by an appearance before 12,000 people to start them off. On their "tour", they will spend their nights, either alone or in small groups, in the homes of church members along the way. Watch as the constant confinement, boredom, and summer heat provide an atmosphere for relational fireworks! Watch romance spark, sizzle, and fizzle. See alliances form, and conflict threaten to destroy the group! Witness open rebellion against the status quo and racial prejudice! See them endure physical trials as they perform outdoor concerts in 100-degree heat! Tuesdays at nine on FOX!
Oh, the memories. Discovering Vernor’s Ginger Ale. "Cubby", from Xenia, Ohio, tornado survivor, who sought out and drank TAB. Three kinds of Buffalo wings put out for us for dinner in the church basement in Buffalo, NY. It’s funny, but I can’t remember names, but I see faces, and remember smells. Going to Disney World, alone.
We were allotted $2.50 for lunch. This $2.50 was to be documented via receipt from the culinary provider, and any differences would be paid for from one’s own resources. As my bud , Wally, now a right reverend in his own right, will attest, movie stubs from the feature "Airplane" were not accepted. The physical interpretation of this reality was, well, McDonald’s. A Big Mac, Fries, and a Coke only set you back about 25-60 cents. I cannot tell you how this made me proud to be serving the Denomination of my Father’s employer and Doctrinal guide for my spiritual consciousness. I thought I had made the church big-time. Turns out that means they’ve mastered the art of cheap. We were often left to improvise, with poor equipment, planning, and no resources to help. It is a major reason that I am not in ministry, and why I am not a member of this organization. They sent us out to represent them, and treated us like crap. It would not have taken much to have made this 5000% better, in terms of both human treatment and the product we strove to provide. That is a different tirade, sorry.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but the population of the 2 vans became pretty well set. The cargo van, which seated only 2, was reserved for either those who needed to talk out a conflict, sweethearts who wanted some privacy (while traveling, of course), or those who simply could only stand to endure one other person for the next coupla hours. There was often conflict over who got to take the cargo van.
It also, now, strikes me that this was before cheap Walkmans, the PC, Internet and email. We had to agree on stuff like what music to play, today everyone would just plug in their own iPods.
Then there was the people we met. The horn players all ended up at one house one night. The man of the house kept suggesting that they might want to step outside for a moment, he’d understand. Turns out, he thought they might want a smoke, and when pressed, expressed his sincere appreciation that these horn players would give up their summer to play for "those Christian singers." To his Ohio mind, horn players couldn’t be. Another life changed. I had the pleasure of spending a Saturday night alone with a lovely, older couple in Homestead, FL. As we left the main road, headed for their solitary trailer amidst an avocado grove, I had the fleeting feeling one gets as a horror movie begins to unfold. It passed, and we settled into the living room, the Mrs. fixing dinner, and my gracious host turned on the TV. He turned to me, and said, "Y’all got that back in California?" – jabbing his finger toward the set. "What’s that?" I asked, seeing two talking heads. "Niggers and Women doin’ the news." I answered, "Yes, yes we do." Unfortunately, I was very tired that night, and politely excused myself from the table after listening to Dr. Dobson’s radio show that evening. I was more homesick than that first summer camp when I called my mom every day, begging to come home.
It was, however, a complete joy to play nearly every day. Niagra Falls. The hills of West Virginia. Nashville. West Texas. Memorizing "The Long Run" album, by the Eagles. The Jeff Lorber Fusion tape. Listening to an evening of old radio shows, from an old theater radio, in a hundred-year old brownstone in Buffalo. Bittersweet.
So that’s it, the reason I can’t abide reality shows. That and the fact that I find no joy in the manipulation and humiliation of others. What has become of us?