Monday, June 7, 2021

The Consolation of M*A*S*H

I have recently returned to an old ritual to help me weather the hard days at the end of the long road that's been teaching and parenting under COVID: watching M*A*S*H reruns. Instead of catching them in the late afternoon or late at night on the local CBS affiliate as I used to, I can binge to my heart's content on Hulu.

Some of the attraction is just pure comfort, like an old sweater or a family recipe. The sound of the theme song and the cast's distinctive voices is a kind of salve to my soul. Back in my Chicago days my friend and roomie Dave and I would watch the daily nighttime rerun for that reason. It was a great way to disengage and take a break from life for awhile.

Under COVID, however, the show's deeper meaning has become clearer and clearer. It is a show about people doing absolutely necessary work in disheartening conditions beyond their control. It is about doing that job when your bosses, coworkers, and general circumstances are conspiring against you in completely unpredictable ways. It is about maintaining your humanity and good humor when everything around you is broken.

I must admit, this is the feeling I had as a teacher-parent in the last fifteen months. I know my job is important, I know if must get done, but some days can just be completely agonizing. We have had so many instances this year of having our work or child care arrangements changed at the drop of a hat. At the height of the pandemic I pretty much stopped planning anything more than a day in advance because any plan was bound to get shattered. 

The characters on the show can never relax either, because a crisis is always ready to happen or a helicopter full of wounded is about to arrive. The downtime isn't really relaxation because they can never fully let their guard down. The still in Hawkeye's tent stays humming because booze is the only surefire escape. Let's just say I know a thing or two about this dynamic. 

Even though the members of the 4077th are supposed to be united in a common cause, they are riven by divisions and resentments. Despite the horror of the circumstances Frank Burns still does his power plays and members of the unit clash and snipe with each other. The experience of surviving this situation simultaneously draws some people together and pushes others apart. When the worst crises hit, however, they mostly find a way to get the job done. I will be diplomatic and say I understand this dynamic too. 

The same can be said of the ways that leadership behaves in M*A*S*H. Colonels Blake and later Potter are kind and understanding, but when any general or other outside bigwig appears they just end up causing problems and wasting people's time. The running character of intelligence officer Colonel Flagg does not not do anything other than antagonize the doctors and push them around. There are constant reminders that the doctors of the M*A*S*H unit are grunts whose life-saving labor is barely acknowledged by the powers that be. It is akin to how educators are often seen as an obstacle rather than a resource by their administrators. 

COVID for teacher-parents like myself has a been a kind of purgatory, much like the Korean War in M*A*S*H. You know someday it's going to end, but you have no clue when. You hope to get back to "normal," but you know deep down that normal is never coming back and that your experience has permanently altered who you are. The show's last episode was the most watched thing in television history when it aired in 1983, and not just because it was a popular show. Plenty of other shows have been more popular. There was something deeper going on there. The characters on the show meant something to the audience, who needed to see them finally escape and go home.

After all, that was not a foregone conclusion. The killing off of Colonel Blake has to be one of the most shocking moments in TV history. It was done because the show's creators wanted to remind everyone that this was indeed a war they were witnessing, and wars have casualties. I have been lucky this year not to lose anyone to COVID but at the height of the pandemic riding the train into school while all my white collar professional friends were at home I was keenly aware that my health and perhaps my life were on the line. 

So at the end of my work day, which usually involves passing out on the train at some point, and my post-work day of grading and answering emails, I put on M*A*S*H reruns. The theme song and opening credits, perhaps the most melancholy in television history, hit me like like a shot of spiritual novocaine. The credits are a reminder that the doctors are only stitching up wounded soldiers so they can get sent back into the line and shot again. There's no better metaphor for the necessity and futility of my daily life since March of 2020. 

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