News got you down? Things in the nation and city aren’t on the track that satisfies you?
I was a newsman in one of my careers and here’s what I know: Taking a vacation from the news (and social media) soothes, relaxes, and widens a person’s perspective.
I don’t pine for the old days. They were just as complicated, bleak, and discouraging as the present day. Sure, some things have stayed the same or gotten worse—poverty in the black community, for instance, homelessness, white privilege (particularly among Boomers), the threat of nuclear conflagration.
But many things have gotten better and easier. We have the internet in our pockets, for example. I can look up any word I hear that I do not know. I can learn about things that just strike me. Just last night, I wondered about Whitney Houston, whose music I don’t know. I thought about pickled eggs that you used to find on the bar at the local tavern, asbestos and the history of its use, and metal fly rods. I spent a couple of hours learning about them all. I am better for it. I sated the innate curiosity I have about things.
So, I use and appreciate the new. I have a car that gets 33 miles to the gallon on the highway, has air conditioning, and air bags. My thoroughly modern kitchen has a dishwasher and self-cleaning oven. The freezer in my refrigerator defrosts itself.
What’s more important is that I used to have none of these things. The new days, in respect to the access of knowledge and modern appliances, are certainly better than the old days. My kids get the advantages of these advancements. For me to run around saying, “I remember when I was your age . . .” to my kids as if the old days held some magic makes me an old fogey and not a good father.
So, I don’t say that to my kids and I’m not going to tell you that now. Better, I think to compare the old and new and decide if, perhaps, there is something to learn.
When it comes to news . . . Back before a time I can remember there were books, newspapers, and a few subscriptions. For news of the day, most people had only the newspaper or pamphlets. They consumed “media” for only a few hours a day at the most. The rest of the time they did work, and they probably screwed around during that work as much as we do today. They had family and friends, and in lieu of all that, they had books.
Then came TV. Then cable. Then the Internet. Then streaming music and video. I envy the days of newspapers and magazines only in the ways in which life made a constant noise. Crickets and songbirds and farm animals in the country, traffic in the city. You could cut yourself off or dive into that noise, depending on how you felt and what you goal for the day was.
Today, if we let ourselves, rows of talking heads, experts, commentators, news readers, journalists, and meteorologists will pollute our day. I walk around with a screen in my pocket. I wouldn’t, at this point, be without one. But, if I let it—and I often do—the news and its derivatives I get with my device it can dominate my day. My head wraps around a story. I listen to and read about it from a hundred different news sources. The talking (often screaming) heads spin this for me, to me until the stories become about me. Experts in mass media and advertising know how to manipulate me, get into the deepest recesses of my fears, and tap sources of belief that make me feel as if I am under attack or that my side is winning. And shutting myself off from the world with music, podcasts, YouTube videos, and video games blocks out the quiet and contemplation that lie at the center of the human heart.
Then, there’s social media. We all know the distraction can become. Who needs to talk to someone 24 hours a day? Who cares about your colonoscopy?
This is not to say that access to many channels of information always does a person wrong. We live in a time when information is more readily available than ever before. We get to know about government malfeasance, corporate power, and criminal corruption. We get to do something about it. The congressperson’s, mayor’s, councilperson’s E-mail and office phone number are never far away. I hear something that upsets me, all I must do is pull out my device and I am instantly connected.
Unfortunately, mendacity and ill-will come along with that information. So, while I can read articles about the duck-billed platypus (monotremes are a favorite subject of mine), I can also succumb to lies meant to support a way of life and thinking harmful to myself and others. Where before, we had slick hustlers trying to beat us out of our money, we now have slick advertisements and slick tongues doing the same work. It’s become easier for them in this age of connection, just as it’s become easier for me to access the information I want.
All that information can overwhelm me. If I don’t put the screen away, turn off the television and radio, and leave the newspaper alone, if I let the “news” sources become my life, the world can seem a desolate, bottomless pit of sin and perversion and greed and pride.
That’s why I say, a vacation from the screen—phone, computer, television, etc.—can be a good thing. A few weeks ago, we left town for Wyoming. We listened to music and a few podcasts. But most of the time, we drove in silence. My kids, children of the computer and phone screen, even stopped listening to their devices and actually looked out the window. My daughter said she never knew Nebraska was so beautiful.
For ten days, I didn’t check E-mail. I didn’t look up the news of the day. I didn’t listen to music. I didn’t surf the net or look for things to buy. When we returned, I had all those things again. But my attitude was different. I found that I was less upset at the world and less pissed-off at the things that I don’t have much control over anyway. (I mean, look, Trump pardoned that cockroach of a human being Joe Arpaio. If there was ever a lawman who deserved jail, it’s him.)
I regain my faith in people. I stop thinking of how cynical everyone has become. The feeling of helplessness and despair lifts. There really is hope. I just have to turn off the devices to feel, see, and hear it.
I sat there last night reading about the chemical and physical properties of asbestos and thought, well, I don’t have to be angry. I can just be.
A few days off from the media hurricane can do that to you. If you haven’t tried it, put the phone down and stay off the computer for a couple of days. You will find out quickly just how much those things have taken from you—because you let them. You might just find that you are better off if you turn it down. You don’t have to turn it all the way off, just down.
Listen to the cicadas and the wind in the increasingly fragile leaves. It’s the end of summer. There’s a sound to it.