Saturday, September 17, 2011

News of the Lowercase "m-e"

Twenty years later he awoke and went home.
"The Return of Rip Van Winkle" by John Quidor
Hello. My name is Albert Haley. I live in Abilene, Texas, where I am a writer and teacher of creative writing at a local university.

For the last year I've been de-emphasizing my identity, particularly on this blog where I once even went so far as to interview myself with a paper bag over my head. [See post.]

To all my kind readers, accidental, and otherwise, I remained Van Winkle. I signed my posts V.W.

Today I am not going to suddenly open up and invoke a cult of personality, but I will cease to remain in the awkward stance of an anonymous person engaged in an odd (and difficult) project of trying to avoid all news, sports, entertainment, and weather.

The person who thought it would be interesting to try to become a modern-day Rip Van Winkle has awakened. Albert Haley is now roughly like everyone else.

Except I'm starting to wonder after what I've done to myself if I really am.

Hangovers and Pummelings
Although it was a relief for my project to finally end last Sunday, Sept. 11, and thus be able to abandon the daily vigilance required to make sure I didn't overhear or glimpse news, it was the oddest thing to dive back into current events.

I found myself faced with the first newspapers I'd looked at in one year. [See: Sleeping Professor Wakes, Slowly Wades Back into the News]

I began with a weary sounding and downbeat headline story about the U.S.'s latest trillion dollar deficit and what must be done to trim federal spending.

It was clear from both the tone and content of the story that many people have been discussing this for some time. But I don't remember debt reduction being a front-burner issue when I went to "sleep" one year ago.

I thought then of how when Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle closed his eyes in the famous story there were union jacks waving in the breeze. He awoke to find a piece of red, white and blue cloth with stars on it raised in their place. "How did that happen?" he wondered.

I have a similar reaction after being debriefed  by family and friends and learning of Arab revolutions, terrible disasters, partisan vitriol, Congressional paralysis of action, and an economy that seems to be on life support. In addition, I gather that America has gone from having the equivalent of a neutral expression of patience on Uncle Sam's face to a full-blown frown that borders on "Holy Moley, what am I going to do now?"

Intellectually, as I continue "back reading" from my pile of saved newspapers and Newsweeks stored in the garage I can understand the current gray mood. A lot of tough stuff is buried in those pages in the garage.

Still, I don't feel any of this strongly myself. I think it's because my emotions haven't been run through the news ringer of having actually lived through any of it and (here's the big thing) I refuse to force feed myself 365 days of mostly bad news all at once.

Someone in the news business wrote to me the other day warning me what that might be like:

How I'm Actually Doing
While managing to avoid the sad, depressed, anxious state my correspondent described, a new "m-e" seems to be emerging.

    -He reads the morning newspaper in about half the time he used to.

   -He listens to NPR for about 4 minutes on the way to work in the
    morning, that's all, an espresso shot of news instead of a grande.

    -During the day at work he's no longer in the habit of checking the home
      page of the NY Times every hour or two.

    -He only watches the lead story, maybe a couple of more on the evening
     network TV news. Sometimes he skips the show altogether and
     concentrates on cooking dinner.

    -He's in no rush to find out every detail of all the big news events of 2011
     that he missed.

In many ways I'm still enjoying the sort of lifestyle that I forced myself into over the last year. Could it be that I'll never again be a news junkie? That I can now take news in moderation?

There are "social drinkers." They drink just enough to fit in with everyone else and be convivial company at parties and occasions. Maybe I've become a social imbiber of the news?

Maybe. But I'm still working it out. I worry that I'm taking up the mantle of the less informed and therefore, by my  own standards, I am becoming a less intelligent person who has little or no basis for critical thinking about life and the world.

And what do I say to all the journalists out there who are dedicated to working hard, most of them for mediocre wages, to bring us so much news because they believe it can not only offer truth, but it can yield valuable clues and lessons about how all of us should behave in the future? Do I tell them, "You're spoiling my party, so buzz off?"


Excuse me, but to work this out, I think I'm to have to revisit something I did at the beginning of this project. I have a sudden urge to re-read the story of Rip Van Winkle, concentrating especially on the ending.

I'll find how Rip lived the remainder of his life after awakening with the world around him changed. After that I'll check back in with you. - A.H.


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