Why I Could Live Without Media
by Lori Rooney

In 2001, I moved back to central Europe, after a year spent in graduate school that came after a year spent drifting after a year spent in Slovakia in 1998. Slovakia, for those who may get it confused with all those former "East bloc" countries with names that sort of sound the same, like Slovenia and Yugoslavia, was more commonly known as Czechoslovakia, one of the worst words for elementary school kids to learn to spell. Thank goodness they don’t really have to anymore, as the country split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, aka "Slovakia," postal code 333 if you ever mailed me anything while I was living there.

Long before I lived in Slovakia, I was a dorky, fat kid in Mississippi with thick glasses who liked to read a lot and rent movies from the video store down the street once we got a VCR. We also had HBO for a few years, so my sister and I would watch the same things countless times, like the Ghostbusters movies, Arthur, even Poltergeist, which I think was a big mistake on the part of my mom as I had nightmares until I was about twenty. We also listened religiously to 94 TYX, the Jackson top-40 station, and once my sister got a "boom box" with a recorder, we’d sit by the radio waiting to hit "record" in case one of our favorite songs by Rick Astley or Tiffany came on. These were our early mix tapes, and I’d give anything to have a few of them back.

We’d also play these mix tapes in a separate voice recorder while wearing headphones and record our voices singing along to the music. The recorder just picked up our voices, and you know how strange and funny it can be to hear someone singing while listening to headphones. We’d make all our friends do this when they’d spend the night at our house, our version of a singing contest. It was always a great surprise when one of our friends got sort of full of herself and thought she would actually sound good. Ah, the mocking and derision. These tapes I wish I had even more than the mix tapes. All these childhood treasures at some point were deemed too embarrassing for us to make the effort to pack into boxes when we moved after my mom remarried.

So media played a pretty big part in my life during my childhood. As a kid, it was something to have fun with; as a teenager and college student, it became something to escape into. When I was a college freshman, I really started dreaming a lot about getting out of Mississippi and doing something a bit different with my life, and so the media that appealed to me then was usually connected in some way to what I saw as far-away places. I listened a lot to Enya, Clannad, and Loreena McKennitt, as this music "took me away," so to speak. I listened to this one Clannad CD the whole time I read The Hobbit, so even now when I hear that music, the pictures that take over my mind are those of Bilbo Baggins traipsing around.

After I graduated from college, I got the chance to move to Slovakia for a year and teach. It was one of the easiest things I ever did. I always hated when people told me how brave they thought I was to leave my home and friends and family to go somewhere off by myself to live and work. I’d tell some of them that staying where I was might have taken more bravery than moving so far away. It didn’t feel that far away. I felt almost immediately at home and only felt homesick when I was at work on Thanksgiving day. I cried my guts out when I had to move back after a year, so when the chance came up again two years later to move back, I said, "okay then."

This is when I think I started to dislike media.  When I moved to Slovakia in 1998, it was for a set time, one year. In 2001, the time limit didn’t exist. For all I knew, I was going to settle down and live there for the rest of my life, and I was pretty happy with that. So in a way, it was as if my real life was truly starting then. I was having enough fun on my own and I had succeeded in escaping where I was from; why spend time dreaming through music or books anymore? Why spend my time in front of a screen when I could step out the front door of the old socialist panelok apartment building I was living in and find high drama on my doorstep in the form of old babkas in their traditional dress carrying sacks of cabbages and sausage or gypsies singing while digging through the garbage bins? I’m sure any Slovak who reads this would laugh and call me certifiably "blazniva" for calling such common scenes "high drama," but for a person who had lived pretty much a white, middle class life in the US, it was as if every day of my life were out of a book.

So I started feeling distanced from some of my friends back home who hadn’t had the same experience. This is no criticism of them at all; I was just, literally, in a very different place. I felt sad not to be able to join in their online discussions about new movie trailers, album covers, and TV comedy shows like The Daily Show. What was that? I was so cut off from these things, and felt frustrated about not being able to relate to my friends in that way. Sometimes I thought I hated media because of the distance it caused. I felt sometimes very foreign.

I wanted them all to come visit me to bridge the gap, to come take weekend trips with me to Budapest or Krakow, to stay longer and go with me to Prague or even Kiev, if we could manage a visa. A few did. Two met me in Finland for Christmas, and we got to see Stockholm and Helsinki, and many frozen lakes together. We also got to eat congealed pea and trout salad, smoked cow tongue, and raw fish for breakfast. Another friend even came to Slovakia, and we went to Croatia together, which is still my most favorite vacation of all time. It was so full of adventure every stinkin’ day with the man and his donkey that walked up the stairs every day next to the house we rented, the smell of fresh lavender on the island of Hvar, the beautiful American chef from Seattle we spent two days with, the hours sitting on rocky beaches and nights eating ice cream and watching people under Adriatic palm trees, and so on and so on.

For those years, I felt surrounded by beauty and life. That life felt almost completely disconnected from media, while my life before that felt nearly consumed by it. Of course, I’d go to the occasional movie, whatever was playing in my little town. And I discovered some new music that I still like a lot, such as Robbie Williams, Jana Kirschner, and Richard Muller. My focus very naturally morphed from escape in media to what was in front of my face every day. I preferred to lose myself in whatever was right outside my front door, though I never did go dumpster diving with the gypsies.

When I think back on that time, what springs to mind are images and smells and faces of people I love. When I think back to my college years, a lot of what comes to my mind are certain CDs, Twin Peaks, Scott Thompson in a dress on Kids in the Hall, a lot of things behind a screen or from a disc.

I’m not saying that one time of my life is better than the other. Both the dreaming and the living out have their own merit, I guess. But one thought I have is about what’ll flash before my eyes before I die. I think a lot about being old and dying, and I’m not really afraid of it, partly because I think I’ve done some living. I want to do more. The images I see coming to me on my deathbed are those of the Sundays I sat quietly drawing pictures on my balcony in Kosice smelling the cooking of my neighbors on their balconies, or how fast and lightly I ran down that street in Croatia to try to catch the ferry pulling out of harbor, or the strength I felt from my husband on a scary day in a hospital in Germany, my grandmother’s hands making coffeecake for my visits home, or a quiet spring night when I was fourteen when I laid in my backyard looking up at the sky while someone so dear to me did the same. This is my life. Media inspired me in many ways to go do some living, but I never want it to keep me from living.

For a long time I think I was living through media, allowing my adventure to exist on a screen or on a page. My friends in high school described me as a sloth; it’s easy for me to find my comfortable spot and not leave it. Now I’ve settled down into that white, middle-class American lifestyle that I grew up in, and I have a fear that my unhappy comfort will keep me from doing something with my life. And for me, media plays a part in that. Instead of going out and doing something, I’ll sit inside nice and cozy to watch my latest Netflix. I could spend way too much time listening to music on MySpace. The other day, our internet wasn’t working, and I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. I think sometimes how nice it would be to go a year without media, or at least maybe just allow myself one form of it, like books or music. Those years in Slovakia, even those boring days when I was just at home in my apartment, I did a lot more thinking. Media distracts me. I’m too undisciplined to be able to just turn it off; it takes having it shut down or moving to a foreign country for me to get rid of it.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s not time for that. Luckily, I’m married to someone who’d be up for an adventure like that, that grandest of adventures: no movies for a year. Geez, that’s my point: my life gets so diluted that taking a year off from media feels like a grand adventure. God forbid my last image before meeting my Maker is of Scott Thompson as Cathy with a C.

Copyright 15 Mar 2007 We Like Media.
You may email Lori Rooney.