Testing My Survival Skills

Day One . Pondering the reality-show craze, your diarist wonders if the appeal of a desert-island setting or digs without indoor plumbing isn’t a sitcom version of Outward Bound, where those whose every material desire is satisfied by the click of a mouse can test their mettle with a leaner and meaner life. Most commentators have felt obliged to actually watch the programs, but I feel no such compunction in pronouncing them phony, inauthentically authentic, a test not so much of life-survival skills as of camera-survival skills–a Darwinian battleground all its own.

Day Two . Husband and I shouting over deafening noise: For the second time in three years workmen with electric drills are repairing leaks on the exterior of our 1930’s apartment.

Survivor trumps Millionaire in the ratings, a coup for youth-hungry but geezer-friendly CBS. 1900 House , public television’s highbrow entry into the reality sweepstakes, seems closer to the let’s-pretend, costume-and-ale fantasies of Colonial Williamsburg. Newsweek reports “Mom Joyce, 44,” insists on wearing a corset and “learns how to make her own ‘sanitary rag belt.’ ” As if entering into the spirit of a 19th-century household were about clothes and sanitation without the whole context of Victorian thinking, particularly the sacred (and sometimes sanctimonious) notions of home and family.

Day Three . Today, because of a problem with underground pipe, our building’s without water from nine to five. No showers, no flushing of toilets, our own little pre-plumbing hell 11 floors up in Manhattan. As toilets fill and we fight over our dwindling pails of water, tension mounts.

The tag line for Survivor is “It’s everyone for themselves”–an indicator of illiteracy to follow? Every three days, somebody is voted out, and apparently the middle-aged have been the first to go. At least once a day, usually while watching Law & Order , my husband and I imagine ways of offing the other.

Day Four . I sneak a peak at 1900 House and actually enjoy it, except that with all that peeling plaster and those crumbling walls, it’s too close for comfort. So far, the chosen family has yet to be installed and the show is more about historical restoration (home improvement, or deprivement, for accuracy) and the considerable dangers of domestic life at the turn of the century–a welcome antidote to nostalgia bred by 19th-century novels and biographies (written by men who invariably had servants).

Realizing importance of cooperation and team spirit, I quiz husband and friends (phone still operative) on their views of reality shows. None has seen Survivor , but everyone has an opinion: “It’s just morbid curiosity,” opines an editor, “like rubbernecking at a wreck.” ” Robinson Crusoe with camp counselor and a camera.” “Grammar school without guns.” ” The Admirable Crichton without drama.” ” Swept Away without sex.” ” Ten Little Indians without an all-star cast.”

Day Five . Hot Friday, husband and I set out for the East End of Long Island, brand new rental car piled high with back-to-basic necessities like Fairway mushroom and sundried-tomato pesto and Likitsakos fruit yogurt. There, over the course of the summer, groups and individuals will be discussed, compared, dumped on, deep-sixed. If my husband and I can stay together, and keep a few friends, we win a million dollars. Fun-filled fantasies dancing in our heads, we make a wrong turn and wind up on a frantically busy boulevard in Hicksville, a suburb that falls below the radar of the slacker-and-doldrums locales favored by such Long Island auteurs as Hal Hartley and Eric Mendelsohn.

We’re slowing down, getting our bearings, when there’s a loud crash. It’s us! We’ve been hit in the left rear by a truck and spun around 180 degrees. Where’s the camera?

Cops come. Paramedics. Ambulance. We’re in shock. Take husband’s blood pressure, ask mental-competence questions. We can’t remember our Long Island number because of new area code (the mnemonically unfriendly 631) but otherwise pass. The truck has nary a scratch, but we require towing. This is the wrecker-and-used-car-lot capital of the world. End up at closest, Scappy Auto Body Inc. Need new rental. Guy from Enterprise comes, takes us along complicated route to fetch it. Now with new car we have to find our way back to Scappy to get luggage, but can’t find the lot. Drive into shopping center to ask for directions. No one knows. Then ask where Old Country Road is. “You’re on it,” they say.

I have a grudge against Old Country Road, scene of our disaster, so over husband’s violent objection, I take back roads and, following my nose, find Scappy. Husband can’t believe it. Says I’m a genius, an explorer to rival Columbus and Balboa. He has directional dyslexia, so anyone who knows right from left without stopping to think which hand to write with, or which is his good ear, seems brilliant to him. It’s true I have an excellent sense of direction, which might win me a day or two’s reprieve in Survivor ‘s tribal competition of the mostly young and fit.

Day Six . Whiplash, sore necks, buzzing heads, much sympathy from friends. Have to bow out of party in Easthampton, thus eliminating ourselves on the first weekend. (If the friends at the dinner held a tribal council, would a majority vote to keep us in the group?)

Now we’re stuck with each other. We decide to look at a tape of Survivor . The problem is, it’s not inauthentic enough. No one vamping for camera or saying anything memorable.

“Me and her wouldn’t get along,” the elder of the tribe says of a young confederate, and the next thing you know, he’s voted out of the group, not for his bad grammar but for his “volatile personality.”

Day Seven . We’re still together, held, for better or worse, by our mutual invalidism and dependency, forced to admit that one form of survival is just as ridiculous as another.

As the young dispose of the old on Survivor , so goes America: Will CBS dump its faithful boomers for the more demographically desirable kids? Which generation in 1900 House –the parents or their four teenagers–will survive togetherness without television? Stay tuned and see.

Testing My Survival Skills