There’s an old gag in my family that started off as what they interpreted as an annoying habit. Thanks to 4-H and National Holstein Conventions, I was able to visit a few states and the landmarks in them. When I saw one of those places on the television, I would point out that I’ve been there.
Texas Ranger Stadium: I’ve been there. Kentucky Derby Racetrack: I’ve been there. It was less that I meant to brag about my worldliness than the fact that deep down I was still surprised the things on TV were real and could be seen in person. My family, however, would make me pay for what they counted as immodesty.
The screen would show a spaceship landing on Mars. Hey Ryan, have you been there?
There would be a scene inside a maximum security prison: Have you been there, too?
Or alternatively, a picture of a milking parlor in Progressive Dairyman. I’ve been there, my father would say.
It seemed to me that everything on the screen was distant, happening in a faraway land where real people didn’t live.
World concerns like war, poverty and terrorism felt more like concepts than harms that actually existed – only the people inside the box in front of me had to worry about them. I suspect that is also part of America’s fascination with Hollywood actors: that they live in this surreal other world.
I’ve come to know the disconnect between television and reality to be a big country symptom, mostly by living on island nations. One of my first times sitting in an Irish living room, an advertisement for soap came on the screen.
My housemate pointed to the clean-cut boy washing his hands and said, “Oh, that’s my boyfriend’s cousin.”
“You know an actor?” I said, shocked.
She laughed and changed the channel.
Studying abroad in the same university in Ireland as me was Martin Sheen, former television president of the U.S. It was impressive how the Irish left him alone, as if he was just another man. I once sat across from him on the train and following suit, waited in vain for him to approach me instead.
I decided he and I weren’t that different – except that at the end of the semester he was given an honorary degree and I was mailed a student loan bill.
Only once did I cross the divide into that other land and appear on the television screen. My friend was completing some freelance camerawork for a production company and encouraged me to send a headshot to them.
The movie was called Jack Taylor – The Guards, an adaption of a novel by a Galway crime writer. The next day, I received a phone call.
“Excuse me, Mr. Dennis, but do you still look like you do in the picture you sent us?”
I was immediately proud, knowing I was going to be in a movie because of how I looked. I told him that I did.
“Great! Tomorrow you can play a homeless guy.”
Five seconds of my 15 minutes of fame has been spent standing in line at a soup kitchen as Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones) stared at me in disgust.
Unfortunately, experiencing events displayed on the television has not always been pleasant. Imbedded in every phone call to my grandmother from abroad was the warning to watch out for ISIS – so consistently so that it nearly became another family gag.
I assured her I would be fine, that no one had any problems with Ireland, and that the world was a big place. Sometimes, perhaps fearing that I had become too liberal, she would mention that they were trying to recruit young men like me. It’s nice to be wanted, I’d joke with her, sending her into a tizzy.
This April, my girlfriend and I were scheduled to fly into Brussels airport 10 days before two bombs detonated that killed 13 people (in addition to the 18 people who died from an explosion in the metro an hour later). The television showed bodies wrapped in tarps, family members crying and the rubble where check-in desks once stood.
I had seen similar images before from different parts of the world: Paris, New York, Syria. It was different this time, however. Although 10 days is not the same as being scheduled to be there one day before, it was close enough to provide the jarring reality that violence broadcasted on media does not happen in a make-believe place, but afflicts real and unsuspecting people.
I flew out of Brussels once they reopened the airport, channeled through the makeshift tents used to conduct extra screening, but could not see the damaged section we were blocked from. Still, the pervasive silence and moroseness suggested everyone knew it was there.
It’s hard to believe how small the world is once you start poking around in it. The television screen is a more fickle filter than one thinks. The places and events shown on it are not always that far beyond the living room.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller is surprised to find out how accessible, scary and tangible life is once he chooses to participate in it. In searching for his father, everything suddenly feels more real to him.
He travels to distant places he’s only ever heard about and experiences things he never thought he would. More importantly, there’s a scene where he skateboards down a very steep and windy road in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland.
And I’ve been there. PD
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.