Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Dragons Ate the Moon

One of the main complaints I hear about the news is that it's "so depressing."

No, I did not suck on a lemon. The news did this to me!
It's true that what tends to make the headlines is mostly bad news. Because of this, one way to look at the Van Winkle Project is that it's about finally doing the right thing.

Like a man who has been pummeled by too many body blows, I've finally decided to walk away from such abuse. Bad news? I hereby renounce it!

Actually, I find this view a little too simplistic.The lunar eclipse last week reminded me all over again why I turn to the news even when it isn't uplifting or cheerful in nature.

Setting the Scene
We were in a hotel room because the best medical minds had assigned us a task: My wife and I had to take turns entertaining our 12-year-old son so he would not fall asleep at any point during the night.

Sounds like a kid's fantasy, right? Stay up all night, cool! But the truth is 1) our son likes to sleep and 2) there was a serious purpose behind our regimen. At 10 a.m. the following morning he would have an Electroencephalogram (EEG) and the test had to show his brain waves during both sleeping and waking states. With our son, who has never taken naps since he was one year old, the only way to make sure he will fall asleep during the test is to not allow him to sleep one tick of the clock the night previous.

I admit I'm no night owl. I'm more like a night ox. I'm this big lump in bed who rolls to one side and later to the other. Sometimes I land on my back and snore lightly and my wife shakes me. Okay, it's back to my side. If I see stars during the night, it's only because I'm dreaming about them. It is this fondness for sleeping that can cause me to miss the cosmos' greatest hits.

Not this time.

A Lunar Eclipse to Remember
Last week as we were trying to keep our son awake with DVDs and bleary eyed conversation, there occurred the first total lunar eclipse in three years. It was, in fact, the first total lunar eclipse to occur on the same day as the Winter Solstice since 1638.

As the eclipse became "total" the moon
began to appear to us to be brownish.
For us, our viewing of the eclipse was a simple matter of opening the door of our second floor hotel unit, walking out on the deck, and canting our heads back. The moon was directly overhead. By midnight the show was in progress and the total part of the eclipse took hold between 1 and 2 a.m.

Since I had a lot of time on my hands during the long, long, long, long night, I found myself meditating upon how people have always been drawn to observe these phenomena.

Prescription for upset dragon:
Take one moon and see me
in the morning
Mysteries of Luna
Early in human history the show in the sky was a source of alarm.

  • It was thought that dragons or monsters were devouring the moon.

  • Or the eclipse was believed to be the manifestation of some god.

Soon, however, humanity came to terms with the lunar eclipse. Agrarians already tracked the moon as the basis for a calendar upon which planting and harvest depended. This led to their understanding when an eclipse was coming and that things would return to normal until the next predicted sighting.

Still they looked.

Shadow Compulsion
It's true that certain poets, lovers and "lunatics" have always been drawn to the full moon, especially when it's low to the horizon, "like a big pizza pie in the sky." Throughout the ages, the moon in full bloom, so to speak, was invested with magic powers capable of kindling romance and the imagination.

Yet it was always the moon with the earth's shadow cast over it that attracted widest notice. You didn't have to be in love, writing verse, or out of your mind for the lunar eclipse to prove compelling. It was something everyone noticed.

This is where I think of the news. Ordinary life that moves along in a happy or, at least, neutral and inoffensive fashion, is like the normal moon in it its phases, waxing and waning. The regular stuff of life is always there, looming large, becoming small, but always reassuring in its basic rhythm of eat, work, play, and love.

What the news comes along and offers to us is life that is the equivalent of the moon being eclipsed. The news tells us whenever a shadow has fallen over some portion of humanity.

Enter the Count
The opening of Count Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is famous and perhaps quoted far too much, especially by those who have never read the book:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I've read Anna Karenina twice and I've always thought that Tolstoy is only partially correct. I don't really think any category on earth is "all alike," including happy families. Give anyone a minute and they can think of several versions of a "happy family."

What I think Tolstoy really means is that from a storyteller's point of view happy families are alike in not being very interesting. What can the novelist say about them except that they're happy and then offer the details about what makes them happy?

Unhappy families, on the other hand, offer real story potential. There's enough going on to push the writer's pen over page after page, and this is exactly what happens in Anna Karenina. How did these people become so unhappy? Is there any way they can extricate themselves from sorrow and find in its place the happiness they alwasy hoped for? Or will their condition worsen until they end tragically? Will they be eclipsed partially or totally? And will we get to see their eclipse come to the end and the light return to their lives?

Test Results Are In
As far as I can tell, the make-up and conditioning of our species is such that unhappiness, or call it the "tragic," causes us to want to know more. As some awful, unhappy event casts its dark shadow over the globe and the clumps of humanity clinging to it, we are drawn to the latest headlines and flickerings on our screens.
EEG tracing
 Does this make us morbid creatures? I don't think so, not if we're only occasional viewers of such. In my experience I don't think we can easily deny our attraction to the shadow, even while we protest that we don't like bad news because it's "so depressing."

When the dragons eat the moon, we'll show up. We'll watch. And when the moon is given back we'll look on with relief. Just like we did the next day when the doctor came into the exam room and said to us, "Everything looks great." Then we went back to our hotel room and you can already guess the rest. The eclipse was history. It was time for our family to get some sleep. - V.W

Coming Friday: An end of the year interview with Van Winkle. Will he continue this project? Does he actually enjoy being a big dummy? Find out when V.W. reveals ALL including (for the first time) a photo of himself...          

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