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Total turnoff

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The X Games Global Championships have come and gone, and I for one feel a little dumber for the experience.

Even though I saw the events live, it still felt like I spent three days watching television, because in a sense that was what I was doing. Behind the Superpipe on Whistler Mountain was a 10-foot wide television screen, broadcasting the events that were taking place live in San Antonio, replays from the Whistler events, promotional spots, and dozens of commercials for McDonald’s, Chevrolet, Mountain Dew, and other sponsors. In the sometimes long gaps between riders and skiers, all eyes were glued to the big screen.

So bright. So beautiful. And the colours, oh, the colours!

I like to think of myself as a thinking person; a reader, a musician, a contemplator, a communicator. But put a television in front of me, and my brains wither like Superman’s powers in the presence of Kryptonite.

I realized as I stood there, listening to the X Games announcers try to use the word "stoked" as an noun, adjective, and verb, all in the same sentence, that I’m a television junky.

I don’t watch it every waking moment, or even as much as the average person – Canadian children spend about 23 hours a week in front of the box, and adults about 16 hours – but I do watch more than is healthy (even as I write this, Fear Factor is running down the 15 most outrageous moments on the show in the last three years; it’s a struggle not to move to the couch and return to this later).

I make a point of staying away from the TV, but with four other people in the house, the television is almost always on. And when it’s on, I’m drawn to it, like a moth to a porch light – I don’t even realize what I’m doing because watching television is such a huge part of my program.

No slight to my parents, but I spent almost my entire childhood watching television. Playing with toys in front of the television, reading in front of the television, doing homework in front of the television, eating meals in front of the television. When the TV wasn’t on, it felt like something was missing.

Even now, when I would rather be off somewhere playing guitar, reading, or exercising, I still wind up pie-eyed in front of the set.

How did I become this addicted, I wondered. There I was, surrounded by mountains, clouds rolling in and out, surrounded by sports fans, and I couldn’t take my eyes off a 10-foot wide Mountain Dew commercial. I don’t drink the stuff, and I don’t enjoy watching commercials, so why couldn’t I turn away?

The first thing to do when you have an addiction is to admit that you have a problem, and that you will always have a problem. A smoker is always a smoker, a drinker always wants a drink, a drug addict wakes up with the cold sweats, and a TV junky’s thumb itches for the remote.

The smart thing for me to do would be to never watch television again, but I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen – some television I happen to like, and I will never, ever stop watching sports. What I really need to do is to stop wasting my time on mediocre television. A half-hour sitcom here, an hour long reality show there, and suddenly it’s midnight and I’ve accomplished nothing. I want the power to walk away from marginal shows, and to block the TV out when I’m working, at a party, at a bar, at the X Games, or have anything I would rather be doing. I wonder if it’s possible.

People are always complaining that there is nothing on television worth watching, but for me that’s the one saving grace of the medium because that makes it easier to turn it off. If TV were just a little bit better, a little bit faster, and a little bit funnier, I’d be a goner.

I decided to do some research on my addiction, because I believe you have to know the beast before you can tame it.

Nobody is sure how television hypnotizes its viewers, although researchers have measured the brain waves of viewers and discovered that watching television increases alpha brain waves, the same kind of brain waves we exhibit at rest.

TV also works differently on the mind than movies, where we watch a reflection of the broadcasted image. Watching television is more like looking into the lens of a projector, as our brains become the screens. This makes it harder to turn away, and the vivid lights and colours produce a hypnotic effect as our brains and bodies fall under its spell.

Our blinking rate slows down, our eyes stop moving, and our pupils focus lazily on the screen. Our breathing becomes regular. We stop moving around, and we become less aware of our bodies. Ever have to eat, drink or use the washroom, but can’t bring yourself to get up until a show is over? Ever flip around the dials for hours even when you know nothing is on? Deep down we crave television, and the calming, hypnotic effect it has on us. Nothing in our lives is as easy.

TV doesn’t often challenge us. It’s usually free, or at least affordable, and it provides instant gratification around the clock. Have a hard day at the office? Just sit down and turn on the television, and you’ll forget all about it within a few minutes.

TV is also entertaining, and that can also be therapeutic.

In times of crisis, it helps us stay connected to the event. After September 11, I don’t think the television was off at our house for more than four hours in a row.

In times of boredom, TV fills the void. When it’s on, we don’t have to think about work, worry about paying bills, or feel guilty about the bucket of fried chicken we just ate.

While those are good reasons to watch television, they’re also good reasons to turn it off.

Here are another few good reasons for me to adjust my viewing habits:

1. It’s summer.

2. It kills conversation, except during reality shows and commercial breaks.

3. It monopolizes my free time, something that always seems in short supply.

4. It un-inspires me – some of the best ideas come to me in a moments of boredom.

5. I did the math. If I watch just two hours of television a day (a conservative estimate), that’s the equivalent of 730 hours, or 30 days, every single year. I don’t want to spend a month out of every year watching tube.

6. I believe if I watch less television, I’ll play more guitar, read more, paint more, talk more, be more active, and generally get more out of life.

7. I don’t want to watch TV because I want to watch TV, even though deep down I really don’t – and that can’t be healthy.

I realize I can’t quit my TV addiction cold turkey, but thankfully there are some good Web sites out there that can help me through this. Check out www.whitedot.org, www.turnoffyourtv.com, www.tvturnoff.org, and Adbusters at www.adbusters.org.

Now if I could just get the word "stoked" out of my head.

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