Phil Gulley: Remote Locations

The Phil Gulley illustrated character watching football on television.
As a man without a TV, I’m disappointed in those who have one—and I’m always visiting to watch and tell them so.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

One of the most enjoyable things about being a Quaker pastor is getting to see inside the homes of other Quakers under the pretense of dropping by to nurture their spiritual growth. There are few things more fun than watching the alarm on someone’s face when they open the door and find their pastor on the porch, expecting to be invited inside. One of our Quaker testimonies is simplicity, so it’s interesting to see who’s toeing the line, simplicity-wise. The ones who aren’t often make up stories about inheriting wall-size TVs, telling me they had no choice in the matter, and were it up to them, they’d be perfectly happy with a 10-inch black-and-white TV in the basement for tracking tornadoes.

I don’t have a television, so my pastoral inspections often coincide with Sunday Colts games.

“I see you’re watching the game,” I say, settling down into a recliner and reaching for the pretzels. “Mind if I stay? Say, that’s some TV you’ve got.”

Another benefit of unannounced visits is that people don’t have time to hide the things they don’t want their pastor to see, like a bottle of beer or a racy novel. I once saw the book Fifty Shades of Grey on the coffee table of a new attender. I thought it was a book about Quaker fashion until I mentioned it to my wife, who told me what the book was actually about. Now I wonder how in the world she knew.

Thirty years ago, my wife decided we didn’t need a television, and over my strenuous objections, she threw ours out—literally threw it out. I came home from work and found it on our front lawn, in pieces. This made it difficult to keep up on current trends. I recently asked our granddaughter what her favorite cartoon was and she told me PAW Patrol, a show I had never heard of. We watched an episode on my smartphone, and I acted like it was the best cartoon I had ever seen, even though I wanted to scratch out my eyeballs and jam an ice pick in both eardrums so as to never see or hear such idiocy again. The plot of each PAW Patrol cartoon goes like this: Someone does something stupid and needs rescuing, so the dogs save them, even though the world would be better off if the stupid person died so they wouldn’t reproduce. Each show ends with a commercial hawking PAW Patrol toys, which is where the real money is. Cartoons are just a sales vehicle for the toy company—in this case, a Canadian business named Spin Master, which is richer than some nations.

I grew up in the golden age of animation, when cartoons weren’t created to push a product line, but to make kids laugh and give us something to watch on rainy Saturday mornings. Shows such as Rocky and Bullwinkle lampooned politicians, so adults enjoyed them, too. The Looney Tunes character Foghorn Leghorn was another gem, based on Senator Beauregard Claghorn, a pompous character from The Fred Allen Show, represented ably in the modern era by Senator Mitch McConnell. Then there was Elmer Fudd on his eternal hunt for Bugs Bunny, choreographed to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and still a pleasure to watch decades later. By comparison, PAW Patrol won’t have the shelf life of a banana.

The man who watches PBS NewsHour probably has more on the ball than someone who watches reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. The woman who reads The New Yorker and The Economist is likely smarter than both of them.

In the infancy of television, the writer E.B. White said, “I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.” White nailed it on the head, and eight decades later, we can safely judge television to be the former.

TV looked promising for a while, with Walter Cronkite and The Andy Griffith Show, but then came Jerry Springer, The Apprentice, and World Wrestling Entertainment. I was at a restaurant recently, one with televisions mounted on every wall, all tuned to the same channel showing two men in a cage beating one another while an arena of people cheered them on. When did this become a thing? The restaurant was full of children, so I waved down the manager, pointed out the barbarity he was serving up along with the chicken tenders, and asked if he could change the channel so the kids wouldn’t grow up to be sociopaths.

For years, I acted superior about not having a TV. People would ask me if I had seen something, and I could look down my nose at them and say, “We don’t watch television. We listen to public radio.” Then Al Gore invented the internet, and while I still don’t have a TV, I do have a smartphone, which allows me to binge-watch anything I want. My wife wouldn’t dream of throwing away my phone, so she won a battle, but I won the war.

It’s safe to say one’s choice of television programming reveals something about him or her. The man who watches PBS NewsHour probably has more on the ball than someone who watches reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. The woman who reads The New Yorker and The Economist is likely smarter than both of them. I’m not sure what it says about me that my all-time favorite magazine is Mad, but it’s probably not good.

All things considered, we were probably better off when we entertained ourselves without TV. My best friend growing up, Bill Eddy, was given a Daisy BB gun as a kid, and I can’t count the delightful hours we spent in the woods shooting one another. Then we graduated to bow and arrows and saw how close we could come to shooting at the other without actually hitting him. It was good, clean fun that left no permanent scars except a small divot in Bill’s posterior, which he bears to this day. I just thank God we grew up before all the violence today’s children are exposed to.

With our sons grown and gone, I’ve been hinting to my wife that maybe we should buy a television, just a small one to track tornadoes. We could put it in our basement, I told her, in front of my recliner. Climatologists are warning of wacky weather in the years ahead, and I feel it’s my duty as the man of the house to stay informed about meteorological conditions. As the woman of the house, she said over her dead body, which means I’ll be making even more pastoral visits this fall, for hours at a time, mostly on Sunday afternoons.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.