An Experiment In Not Reading The News

@saritawalsh

During the winter, at a time when I was intensely focused on the nightmarish national news, I started to fantasize about the old days when I had no idea what was happening in Washington and I hardly cared because I assumed that experienced people had the matter in hand. I felt a sense of loss and waste. Not just the loss of my time and energy, but the loss of some part of my soul, which had been hijacked by worry. And I decided to turn everything off and take a news-holiday, to see if I could regain a sense of peace.

But I immediately turned everything on again. The Republican tax bill was moving through the Senate and it was a bad time to tune out. I needed to scream at Senate staffers.

Then John McCain pledged his support for the bill, betraying us and himself, and I turned everything off again. I thought it was all over. I looked forward to tuning out for a while.

But it wasn’t all over. The effort was derailed because some of the lies in the bill were exposed. I got wind of this, it was in the air, and I turned my phone on and waited for developments. I left my computer off, though—a gesture of good faith. Then Jeff Flake pledged to support the bill anyway, betraying us and himself, and I turned my phone off again.

But then I realized: If it failed last night, it could fail tonight. So I turned my phone on and Googled “tax bill” over and over until it was time to go to bed. I had nightmares about Lindsey Graham. The bill passed in the middle of the night.

But I couldn’t take my holiday then either. There was a chance the bill could die in conference committee, and I’d signed up to text-bank for Doug Jones anyway.

It was three days before I finally pulled the plug. And I didn’t even pull the plug. I left both my phone and my computer on and I continued to check my email, which contained messages like: “GOP Tax INSANITY” and “Trump EXPOSED.” But I pledged not to check the news, and this time I honored my pledge.

The big headlines at that moment were: Mueller had subpoenaed some of Trump’s bank records. Trump had shrunk two national monuments by as much as ninety percent. His lawyers had suggested that he “couldn’t” obstruct justice. A government shutdown loomed. John Conyers had resigned.

It was a slow news day.

That night, the fifth of December, it was an eerie 55 degrees. I went to a board meeting for Berkshares, Inc., which administers our local currency. Nobody said anything about the news. When I got home, I ate beans and root vegetables. It began to rain heavily. I stretched for a while up on the third floor and listened to an interview with Edie Falco. I told my wife: I’m doing an experiment where I’m taking a break from the news. I fell asleep quickly but I woke up in the night and thought about Bob Corker.

In the morning my wife took our son to daycare and then went off to work herself. I tried to work too. What I did was write about politics.

Then I went running. It was cold again and I wore tights. I wished I could wear tights all the time, and there was no reason I couldn’t. No one in this tolerant progressive community would bat an eye. It was my own hang-ups that were preventing me from wearing tights all the time.

For lunch, I had more root vegetables and some eggs.

I kept picking up my phone. I kept opening my computer and almost navigating to the Washington Post.

I looked around at the messy house and the gray sky. My thoughts were no less grim than they were on days when I checked the news every five minutes.

But then the sun came out. Suddenly everything seemed to change. I got up and paced around the house. I felt light and springy as if I were still wearing my tights. I made an appointment to have the furnace serviced—something I’d been meaning to do for months. Then I took the vacuum cleaner apart and cleaned the hose—something I’d been meaning to do for months. Then I went into town and got a flu shot—something I’d been meaning to do for months. Then I put up flyers for a Berkshares program called Entry to Entrepreneurship. Then I watched an old episode of Veep. Then I made French toast.

I wasn’t worried about missing an important news event. Instead, I was excited about the possibility that when I checked back in, something marvelous and wonderful might have happened. Maybe Susan Collins had located her principles, or Mueller had indicted a few more people, or Trump had suffered a stroke. I even felt that by not checking constantly to see if these things had happened, I was helping to make them more likely. I felt like I was doing work.

My wife and son came home. He seemed deranged, but she was suspiciously cheerful, almost as if something marvelous and wonderful had happened.

I thought: There was a world before Trump, and there will be a world after Trump.

I thought: The one thing we know for sure is that everyone dies.

I thought: Trump is an obese old man!

Then the sun began to set, even though it was only 3:30, and I felt deflated again. My wife and son assembled a holiday wreath and I sat on the couch thinking about how many plants we’d have to accumulate before they had a really noticeable effect on the humidity inside the house.

I kept getting fundraising emails that said things like “Doug Jones LOSES,” but the election was still a week away. I was outraged by the incompetence of these campaign materials. I donated money anyway.

My publicist told me that another high-profile man had been accused of sexual misconduct, but she didn’t say who it was. Later my wife told me it was Lorin Stein. This was sad for us because he had been good to her. To my wife, that is, not my publicist, although maybe he’d been good to my publicist as well.

I did a bad job cooking dinner, but it was no problem because I hadn’t tried to do it well. Afterward, I gave my son a bath. There were some colored foam letters in the bathtub and I was amazed to discover that he could identify them all.

I read The Crucible while my wife put him to bed. Then she came downstairs and fussed with her phone. What was she looking at and/or reading? I continued to look at and read The Crucible. She didn’t say anything and I knew this meant that nothing marvelous and wonderful had happened, which made me upset and a little bit furious, and I vowed to keep away from the news for even longer.

We went to bed. I had more nightmares about Lindsey Graham. My son shouted several times in the night. By 4:45 he was in bed with us, fussing around and making demands—the little voice saying “no,” the little arms tugging at the covers—and I wanted to cry in frustration, but I was too tired.

I went downstairs in the dark, an image of Lindsey Graham’s weird head hanging before me like a party balloon. There was a terrible darkness in my heart, but the darkness itself wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was my suspicion that these black moments were the real truth of life. The buoyancy I’d feel when I’d had my coffee was the lie.

I didn’t have any desire to check the news. That demented bastard, our president, might be up and tweeting, but let him tweet.

I took my son to daycare, came home, and sat in the early sun drinking coffee and reading The Crucible. I didn’t look at the news and I didn’t even think about the news, and my happiness at that moment was just as intense as my sadness an hour before. I suspected that this buoyancy was the real truth of life after all.

Then I remembered that the government would shut down the following day if nothing had been done to prevent it. Would my wife tell me if something had been done? I called Senator Markey, my own senator, a senator I love, to ask that he vote against any resolution that didn’t include provisions for CHIP funding and DACA protections. I also called some Republican senators and left them insulting messages about the tax bill.

Then I thought: No! Enough! Let the world do its own spinning!

I went upstairs and did some exercises and listened to a Planet Money podcast about bankruptcy.

I was jealous of my son, who wasn’t even two years old and would never know what this time had been like for us, how bad it had been, how upsetting and infuriating.

I ate root vegetables and eggs for lunch.

I walked down the hill and under the railroad tracks and out to Main Street. It was a cold bright day. There were tourists everywhere, like always. There was a new coffee shop called Botanica that also sold exotic plants. There was challah at the cheesemonger. In a certain way, if you ignored the noise in your head, if you ignored the “Resist” stickers on all the cars, if you didn’t eavesdrop, it was like everything was okay.

I could have gone to the pastry shop if I’d wanted. I didn’t. I always thought about it, and I never went there. I didn’t buy challah either because it’s easy to make, although I never made it. Instead, I went to the Co-op, but I didn’t buy anything. I thought about walking across the bridge and up the hill. I didn’t do that either.

I thought about Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Roy Moore. Then I thought about Doug Jones—the last hope of the American left. It made me miserable to think of him. The fact that he would actually win his election a week later seemed inconceivable at this point.

Think about something else, I told myself. Think about that mountain. When had it been logged? What had the primary forest looked like?

The sun was very low and we still had two weeks until the solstice. I peered at the people going by. Some of them were smiling. Some were laughing! It was like everything was okay. It might have been a winter day during the Obama years.

I checked the news. Al Franken had resigned. Trump had made his Jerusalem announcement and had slurred his words bizarrely while doing so. They’d passed a continuing resolution to fund the government for a few more weeks, although it would all shut down six weeks later. Senator Markey stood his ground, bless him.

Christopher Isherwood writes at the end of Goodbye to Berlin: “Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this really happened.”

It was cold. The sky was gray again. I Googled “Franken” to see what headlines my phone would pull in. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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