Things I Can’t Watch on Television

At a recent dinner party, we inevitably got around to the sex-roles conundrum of the hour: Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio’s in-your-face-off television debate. Was the criticism of Lazio’s aggressive move on Hillary sexist? (No one would have criticized him, Rick maintained, if he’d brandished the no-soft-money proposal at a man.) Or was it legit? (He wouldn’t have “invaded the space” of a fellow male.) And could Hillary have brushed off Tim Russert’s direct question about the Clinton-Lewinsky escapade with a diplomatic version of “None of your business?”

Or was that something no politician could do, except possibly Rudy Giuliani? And could Mayor Giuliani get away with it because he is male, or because he is Rudy the Brute, sui generis? Such were the questions on which we voiced strong opinions, until somehow it came out (wives telling on husbands, I think) that not all of us had actually seen the debate. In fact, five out of the eight of us hadn’t.

There were mumbled excuses of one kind or another. I’d made a stab at finding it on television, but failing, had gone on to something else. But the truth was, I was relieved, perfectly happy to have the event filtered through the morning papers. My dirty little secret- which I discovered was not mine alone- is Acute Viewing Discomfort Disorder, or AVDD. I grow tense, avert my eyes when it comes to televised spectacles of humans (and animals) doing a wide range of things that induce in me fight-or-flight symptoms and shortness of breath. The list includes convention speeches, debates, athletic events and nature films in which big birds pick on little birds, and large mammals track and devour smaller ones-the latter being, I suppose, a lower-vertebrate version of campaign jousting, but with greater spontaneity.

The mixture of the phony and the real is most cringe-making in “live” debates and convention speeches that pretend to be personal and off-the-cuff while being scripted to within an inch of their lives. It’s especially unsettling when it’s someone you like, say Caroline Kennedy, or a candidate’s wife. Then you can’t watch for fear they’ll either be nervous and fall on their faces, or lose your respect with a patently calculated pitch. I pretended to watch both conventions, but in fact chained myself to a chair only once, for Gore’s acceptance speech-and was so elated that it avoided the disaster we’d expected that my doubts were banished, and I became part of the “bounce.”

With athletes and animals, the anguish is of a different, perhaps purer, order. Herewith, a few of the things that attract and repel, make me hum “ommm…” and try to align my chakras and remember my lessons in deep breathing: Female gymnastics (cute-if-overly-made-up pygmies prancing on balance beams and possibly falling on their tushes); steeplechasing (the horse knocking over the top bar of a jump, or simply digging in his heels and saying, “No way, Jose”); tennis matches between two likable, evenly matched players giving it their all (neither of them should lose); the replacing of a pitcher in a baseball game (he’s done his best, for heaven’s sake, and to humiliate him in front of all those people!). For me, these scenes are excruciating not only for the suffering of the actual competitor, but for the anguish of the poor parents and siblings and significant others biting their nails in the grandstands.

My husband and I almost gave up tennis one summer after the misery caused by a tournament at our hackers’ club, in which we both got further than we should have. For four successive weekends, we not only had to go up against better players, we had to watch each other go up against better players. Our entire August was ruined as we limped through the week preceding each match, ill with diarrhea and sleeplessness, unable to work or think of anything else, basket cases by the final weekend. As a spectator, I had to sit among people (wives of the vanquished; previous opponents) snickering, “He gets everything back.” As a player, I knew just when my husband would be hunched down and holding his breath, waiting for me to blow the shot I always blow. No wonder Pete Sampras’ parents go for a long walk during his matches, refusing even to watch on television.

On the other hand, perhaps if they’d attended his matches and given hand signals like Martina Hingis’ mother does, they’d have been less nervous, and so would we. If coaching is ever permitted in professional tennis, it will alter the dynamic-changing matches from a heroic, high-wire contest of two individuals into something resembling a team sport, with a corresponding loss of excitement. The players would become more like political candidates who pretend to stand alone, but have an army of handlers looking over their shoulders.

I know anxiety is and should be part of the pleasure, the edge-of-the-seat suspense in which sports have it all over the purportedly live debates. But the knowledge that the least slip or fall or taunt is happening in front of thousands or millions of people (as were John McEnroe’s antics) increases the tension quotient, and one’s agony for the combatants. My husband and I are soulmates in squeamishness. Call us oversensitive imaginers of disaster, or simply mush-minded sentimentalists, but we get emotionally involved in the most ridiculous contests, the most bathetic examples of nature red in tooth and claw. Just a photograph of a giant panda-so ill-equipped by diet and sexual diffidence to hold his own and procreate-brings us close to tears.

Now I know this is not something to be proud of, that it probably bespeaks an immaturity, an unwillingness to grow up and accept the game as it is played. These staged contests with their winners and losers are small-scale versions of the great battle of life, metaphorical deaths that remind us, as Adam Phillips puts it in Darwin’s Worms , “how sheerly provisional life is.” Darwin and Freud, those two great unsentimentalists, are linked in Phillips’ meditation by their facing up to the reality that war is the normal state of affairs rather than the exception.

In my cowardice, I know I’ll miss things: I probably would have passed up the Gettysburg Address live on television, but I’d have been happy to see excerpts later on the Newshour , with talking heads telling me whether Lincoln blew it or not.

I’m steeling myself for the Gore-Bush debates. Maybe I’ll watch baseball instead-at least until I see the relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen.

Things I Can’t Watch on Television