Are Fewer TV Characters Reading?

Outside of Mad Men, conversations between and among our favorite television characters about contemporary fiction are rare. (Hey, in the early 60s, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything was contemporary fiction.) But the appearance of books (printed or electronic) in general is getting rarer still, and that disturbs me.

I get it. Who wants to watch someone on television reading a book? Total snoozer, right? But do you remember The Cosby Show? Home Improvement? Mad About You? The rash of domestic comedies that followed? Pick any one of these shows and they probably had at least one scene that opened with a character reading. When a second character came into the room, the book was put down and the conversation began.

Lately, though, when a book is on the set, it’s often used as a metaphor. As in, “I’m just going to sit here and read my book and ignore you.” Or it’s a prop, intended to show personality. The super geniuses of The Big Bang Theory don’t seem to own any books, but least one has a Kindle, displayed on set in screensaver mode. (Inevitably, the non-owner would believe screen-saving mode to be less efficient than simply turning the thing off.)

Often, in comedies, novels are portrayed as something to be avoided. Hence elaborate plot lines involving kids blowing off book reports, using Cliff Notes, or, in one of my least favorite Seinfeld episodes, George spends more time trying to obtain and watch a copy of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s than actually reading the book so he can impress his girlfriend at her book club. Novelists are often ridiculed as posers. Or, like Nathan Fillion’s Richard Castle, are rarely seen writing.

What are we showing kids? People who read books are suckers? Reading and writing books requires too much work? People who have books in their homes are either rich or snobby?

Some say that certain behaviors shown on television, like sex and violence, have influence on the more easily influenced of us. Others defend the content as merely holding up a mirror to our culture. Do you think this dearth of small-screen reading is a reflection of the evolution of our society, or a slippery slope to illiteracy?

Maybe I should simply spend more time reading.

(Photo courtesy of Fox Animation)

The Health Hazards of Freelancing

Twice during my career, I’ve jettisoned the 9-5 world for the independence and flexibility of freelancing. Twice I’ve had to face the pitfalls of being my own boss: the long hours searching for clients, the pulsating pressure of an hour to go before deadline while my husband is asking me how to make soup, and no colleagues down the hall to vent my troubles to or talk about the latest episode of Mad Men. But one pitfall I hadn’t anticipated was how easily this new stress could take down my health and, if I wasn’t careful, render me pretty much useless to my clients. If you’re new to freelancing, want to work for yourself, or even are a seasoned pro, watch out for these common health traps.

1. Don’t just sit there. Chances are, you did a lot of walking at your old job, and maybe not so much now that you’re working from home. Bodies were made to be in motion, not sitting in cramped positions for hours at a spell. Prolonged sitting, especially in an uncomfortable chair (more on that later) can lead to back and neck problems. Set an alarm if you need a reminder to take regular breaks. Or find some work tasks you can do standing up. I proofread standing up, and look upon it as a welcome break from sitting.

2. Get out of the house once a day. Even though my husband also works from home, I have to bust out once a day, otherwise I start to feel claustrophobic and “outside” of the real world. I’m much more efficient if I’ve had this break, even if it’s only a short walk around my neighborhood.

3. Keep regular hours. Setting regular work hours isn’t just about developing the discipline needed to be a successful freelancer. While you may have to work longer or later hours from time to time, especially when you’re first starting out, your mind and your body function best on a regular schedule. It will help your digestion, your metabolic functions and your sleep. Speaking of which…

4. Get enough sleep. Say you’ve underestimated the time you’d need to finish a project, you’re facing down a wicked deadline and now you’re looking for things you can put off to give yourself extra time. Cut out Conan or Dave, but don’t cheat yourself on sleep. You won’t be the sharpest pin in the voodoo doll the next day, and mainlining Starbucks will only make it worse.

5. Develop a stress-management practice. I like deep breathing. It only takes a few minutes a day, and for me, it’s a reminder to slow down and pay attention to my body. You might like meditation, yoga, or taking your dog for a long walk. Whatever relaxes you (and gets you away from the computer) is best. If you let that stuff build up, it’s like poison.

6. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy food…where you can see it. It’s so tempting to take a break from a less-than-exciting task (data entry, ick!) and sneak down to raid the pantry. No wonder so many freelancers put on a few pounds at the start. But if there’s a bowl of fruit on the table, or a dish of cut-up veggies in the fridge, you’ll be more likely to grab those than the cookies your significant other insists on keeping in the snack drawer.

7. Get ergonomic. It’s vital to your health and productivity to design a workstation that is efficient and suited to your particular proportions. After your computer and your health insurance (you do have health insurance, don’t you?), your next largest expense should be your office chair. You don’t have to spring for Herman Miller’s latest Aeron, but you need something that’s adjustable and has a good lumbar support. As my physical therapist (to whom I’ve given lots of money because I spent a lot of years in lousy chairs) says, “Your chair should fit your body like a good shoe fits your foot.” Also, put the things you use regularly within easy reach to avoid repetitive strain. And, if I ever see you cradling that phone between your ear and your shoulder, I will come down there and give you a time-out. Don’t think I won’t, either.

What about you? If you work for yourself, what strategies do you use to stay healthy?

Words You Can Say on Television

Come on, people. I thought we’d been through this already. George Carlin said the words, got thrown in jail, and that’s the template the FCC had been using ever since. You could use every pseudonym in the Urban Dictionary and even dream up a bunch of your own to refer to the load in baby’s diaper, and you could even use the scientific name, but you couldn’t say what “it” really was. You could call someone an ass, but you couldn’t show one.

But lately a couple of frowned-upon words have been sneaking in—and one isn’t even on the list.

I noticed that instance when former Governor-Wants-To-Be-Governor-Again Jerry Brown’s advisor called Meg Whitman a whore. (Always make sure phone call is disengaged before using salty language to describe the person you just spoke with.) ABC went with it, as did CNN, Fox, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (although MSNBC and NBC later on bleeped it, or called it the “w-word.”) But using the word “whore” is distasteful on certain networks – and, oh, how local news anchors strained themselves coming up with pseudonyms. My favorite? “…A word that rhymes with sore.” (I’ll take “bore” for $300, Alex.) Why is “whore” any worse than “hooker” or “prostitute?” Is it the context? Is it the kiss of death and an FCC fine if any male politician calls a female politician a whore? Even when the male politician is as much as or an even greater whore than the female one?” It’s not like Brown’s team said that Meg Whitman sells her body for cash. That would be wrong. I don’t live in California, nor care a whit which of these pols gets elected. I’m just using them as an example. Describing your opponent as a political whore is probably not the nicest choice of words, but follow the money, honey. If you’re taking it for favors, doesn’t matter what sex you are, you’re still practicing the world’s oldest profession. So why can’t we call it what it is?

As annoyed as William Shatner is about the title of his new show, you still can’t say “shit” on network television (although they produce it quite regularly.) I was surprised to find out that “shit” is used as all forms of speech on “Mad Men.” I know AMC is a cable network, but it’s “basic cable,” like TBS and Comedy Central and they watch their potty mouths. Guess you have to be Matthew Weiner to get away with it. Or the BBC. BBC America’s shows with Gordon Ramsay have him “shitting” all over the place, although it’s bleeped in his Fox-broadcasted shows.

The ruling is that networks are subject to government-regulated censorship, and cable networks subject to what advertisers will accept. So I guess nobody’s objected yet. Wonder how far they might push it? I’d love to hear that prissy Trudy Campbell drop the f bomb during dinner.

What do you think of swearing on television? Creative expression that defines character, or a coarsening of our society? Or somewhere in the middle?