Carmen Giménez Smith
All Artworks Are Riddles
According to family mythology, I learned to speak English from watching Sesame Street, but it’s more likely I learned the English I use today from all of my watching. I watched while the news explained Watergate, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade, and watched reruns of The Odd Couple, The 10,000 Pyramid, commercials for Barbie and Certs. Johnny Carson, the static at night and its white noise, which my husband tells me is the Big Bang’s echo, is the burning wet core of my consciousness.
When my friend Beti was a kid she saved cereal box tops to get POW bracelets in the mail. Occasionally a television show would be interrupted with footage of planes back from Vietnam and one by one, POWs would come off of the planes by name. She thought that if the name on her POW bracelet matched the person coming off the plane, she would win a prize. That, for example is what television did to war.
My most vivid dreams and hallucinations evoke television commercials from New Jersey in the seventies, like the paradoxically coarse and creamy voice of the Carvel ice cream man.
So to watch is a baseline. I fall in again. There are so many hands in the hole’s walls.
I watch every conceivable program, film, and YouTube video I can click on. On my bed I lay on my side like an addict in an opium den. I move the laptop from room to room as I clean the house. I watch at the gym when I go to the gym.
It doesn’t matter what is before me because it’s the watching I want, the engagement with fantasy and other people’s dramas.
I barely sleep. I stay up through the night, mostly to watch a television series through its life: season by season, episode by episode. Each scene accrues to tell a larger story.
I slog through my watching even when a show is terrible or maudlin or boring. I stay up through the night until the first signs of light imbue the shades and lighten the room’s shadows, until the sound of the mourning doves rises up, the sound of New Mexico and melancholy.
The laptop leaves a square of its heat on the bed that reassures me the way smelling my husband’s pillow reassures me. The heat reminds me of the herculean effort I made with all my watching, but also makes me think of love.
Television drama: not catharsis but flattening the fluttering and frenetic self to a tidy archive. The show sells the evolution of self, a redoing. The television show is after all a language event, an accounting of the self.
On Gray’s Anatomy, a male nurse sexually upstages a male doctor and two doctors argue about whether a young man should get a penis transplant, i.e., the rhizomatic phallus sprouts in Shonda Rhimes Productions.
Meredith Gray: a TV frenemy.
On Friday I watch a lot of shows, although it’s also the day I go to therapy. Sometimes I think of canceling therapy to watch, but shame and pragmatism stop me. I would have to talk about it in the next session of therapy making therapy meta. Talking about therapy in therapy.
I’ve only talked about television a few times in therapy. I feel like, because of In Treatment, I’m square in that department, that watching In Treatment is a type of homework because I eagerly over-identify with the patients.
Historically Thursday has been the big television night, although I don’t watch until the next day, on Hulu. Watching television on the actual TV seems frivolous. I’m part of the evisceration of television.
The young residents on Gray’s are aghast at television surgery’s macabre camp, as we all should be. On Gray’s, over-emotionality is rewarded with catharsis, but at work, it means I’m broken.
Do all of TV’s actors’ hands get tended to, or do they imagine how the hands will appear and primp themselves? Some hands are exquisite and others ragged. Surely someone is charged with the appearance of hands, of the soles of actors’ shoes. Because they are ciphers, I try to understand actors from their fingernails.
Because I love television the rest of the world looks too expansive; I must need a bigger television. I call television anything that requires my passivity: the Internet, Netflix, porn, YouTube, CCTV footage.
It was an ambitious endeavor, effort, this watching, perpetual and harrowing. I wept and I laughed and I dissected. I became so immersed in the narrow world on the opaque screen of my MacBookPro, scratched and dusty from the sand of our desert, that the rest of living seemed noisy, intrusive, and intense. Perhaps it was that the world around me felt too assaultive, so too much that I could only retreat into the tiny screen.
I’ll play myself in the dramatic reenactment of my trauma.
When I was young I thought I watched television for magic. Back then there were about twelve channels, and they mostly showed old black-and-white films that I came to love. I also loved musicals. I watched horror films with Elvira, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Leave it to Beaver.
I was deeply devoted to the reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club and remember weeping like a widow when television replaced it with an updated version in 1977. I had to say goodbye to Annette and Tommy and Cubby.
I loved Quincy M.D. and watched Star Trek and In Search Of with my grandmother because she was in love with Leonard Nimoy. My television pedigree is fairly common seventies lower-middle-class fare.
The scenes I watch on television become ghosts in all of my interactions.
No one in my household was worried that TV might harm me. In fact, my aunt was convinced that books, my other vice, would rot my brain. I furtively read books in the bathroom of her apartment, how I’ve always required stimulation.
My grandmother had no sense of filter, so I remember watching The Shining with her, the last horrifying scene of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which gave me nightmares for months.
In retrospect, the childhood I expected was a bit far-reaching, a bit like The Brady Bunch, but if that show is one end of the continuum, my childhood is miles down the way, across the street from Sanford and Son, Good Times.
Television makes it okay for me to say the word, childhood. Childhood, childhood. The screen takes that very base reptilian brain of my subjectivity and makes it a tidy, ongoing mythology. I don’t remember my childhood, but rather the childhood I watched. Television requires we burrow into that childhood.
When the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii, that became my memory of Hawaii—the tarantula and the bad luck tiki—as opposed to the other truer memory of actually visiting Hawaii, which is plotless, save for instances that feel like shudders.
I was eighteen, and on the plane ride there a virtuosic literary device in a Stephen King novel reinforced my desire to be a writer. I was terrible to my friend who went with me, and I sat sadly with the knowledge that I would be saddled with an intractably terrible personality. The day before we left I sat on the beach and planned how I would stay in Hawaii instead of flying back to San Jose. I planned a life for myself, and this was the birth of my other intractable flaw, wanderlust.
Of course I came home. Who would I be, still in Hawaii? The ocean was a surface I could fall into, one that terrified me, so I didn’t go there.
My accent is Television.
When I was a girl, I dutifully watched The Ten Commandments every year at Christmas, despite the worst nightmare of my life when I woke up to Charlton Heston at my bedside about to plunge a dagger into my heart because I stole a Princess Leia doll.
I watch layers of television all the way back to Honeymooners, through Laugh-In. I have a pedigree. I watch when the Iranian hostages are released. I watch Princess Diana’s wedding and then her death. For years I watched Miss America and Miss Universe.
I watch the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson’s defense against the allegations of sexual abuse, OJ Simpson’s escape in his white Bronco. I love television for the same reason that I love fairy tales. They tell me so much about what our anxieties are about, what institutions want our anxieties to be. Beginnings, middles, and ends.
My body’s a fragile machine I throw into the junk drawer. I tell my therapist that I’m lonely. She says, You’ve been lonely since you started coming here. She means four years ago.
Television tells me that the whole world is giving me messages about the goings-on in my life. I’ve become a most proficient interrogator thanks to the television. I’ve learned to read people’s faces because everyone is performing a mélange of poses from television. I’m bad cop.
I watch for schadenfreude. For example, I only think about the problems of The Real World after I’ve watched and relished its debasement. People tart up their banality to star in the show, and I mock them, and it gives me pleasure, and I watch the commercials for terrible movies, so we’re square there too.
My therapist is pragmatic, a really charming superego. I relish my transference because it is, at least, a human connection.
I’m an artist, I tell myself. I don’t need to go around caring about other people’s feelings.
But I do, I do.
Late one night, I watch a bunch of The Real World because I hate their youth and their bodies and their incredible stamina when it comes to drinking and rage and sex.
Real World: Lagos
Real World: Ciudad Juarez
Real World: Bangkok
Real World: Syria
Real World: Bogotá
I’ve stopped being able to see the reality in reality television. That’s why they become famous.
The Real World made the statement “I’m done”—meant to announce an inability to process or confront—ubiquitous. Now reality stars always say it. They ask for no more cameras and they take out the square mike bulge out from the back of their pants. But now we use it to announce all our termini.
I’ve stopped being able to see the reality in reality. I’m done; turn off the camera. I’m done, this discourse is so over. I’ll walk off-set.
Hung is supposed to be a show about cock, and we never see the cock.
Good artists know what to do with influence.
Surely I am not a monster for my wants.
Sometimes I spend a goodly amount of time wondering, while watching, what sorts of damages led me to so much watching, perhaps because I wasn’t breastfed. I create complex causalities to excuse my watching. My watching is fraught with guilt and self-loathing. That’s thanks to my grandmother.
I like watching better when I hate myself for it.
The world constructed by television is filled with white people in really nice apartments and homes. All people of color are partnered as the friend of the white people. Everyone is intensely funny or plagued with frequent turmoil. The accents are terrible and the women are shadows of real bodies. I want to go to there, says one of my television avatars, Liz Lemon.
Writing in the midst of this addiction: The push and pull of form.
Did they just put a Latina maid in a box as a gift on Suburgatory? Yes, yes they did.
Mischa Barton is a poof of affect. She has entertainment pedigree and beauty. In Hollywood, the table only needs two legs. I love her though. I love her fragile inability to emote.
Kimora Lee needed a fifty-five-foot truck to move a wing of her house. I feel satisfied about having that piece of information to offer in the market of bullshit.
Television, my prosthesis.
Happy Endings is to Friends as Fringe is to Lost. Suburgatory is to Glee is to Malcolm in the Middle.
Kimora Lee’s furniture once belonged to Versace. I feel smug knowing in my heart that Kimora coveted Versace’s rococo French-gilt piquancy.
I’m so glad television prevents me from seeing the world as it really is. The assholes on TV are all people I know. I watch therefore I have a seat at the table of inoffensive conversation.
For television, I’d watch a television show called I Live on Surfaces. The show would be like a Marina Abramovic show because TV could do whatever with my abandoned body.
Television shows soften the edges of reality. Television shows dull the color palette and offer me professors’ offices with enviable architectural details, wood-paneled floors. They’re bigger than my boss’s offices, these academic offices, the hallowed chambers of the Ivy League, why everyone thinks professors are over-privileged. My next career? Reenactment director.
Californication: a misogyny shit-show.
Such sadness at this late hour. My loneliness is the biggest soul in the room. I watch, I watch. I will grow old watching. I juggle self-pity with watching. Bodies strewn everywhere.
Carmen Giménez Smith
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections—Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. Formerly a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she now teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.