Pox, F51

The Boston Globe just published my essay about tennis in their Connections column.
If the timing of this seems crazily off, it’s because the contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter in August. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

Ironically (am I using this correctly? I had the same Canadian grade school education as Alanis Morrissette), I haven’t been able to play for the past week or more. Because I have… shingles.

Wha-? Julie diagnosed me and showed me information about the disease online. It’s the same virus that causes chicken pox and it strikes the nerves, and so it hurts like [choose your level of profanity:] a) the Dickens, b) all get out, or c) %#&$*@&. It will go away in a matter of weeks and I am taking meds to control the symptoms but in the meantime, keep your kids away from me, especially if they are not yet vaccinated.

I’m not in any of the high risk groups for shingles: over 60, immunosuppressed, or having had recent surgery. The final contributing factor is stress. I wouldn’t say I have much to be stressed about in my life — things are pretty stable — except for, you know, the threat of imminent nuclear war in the Pacific and actual race riots on the East Coast. That sort of thing.

Yes, I am kind of blaming my health problems on politics.

A lot of the effect of these stressors has to do with the fact that I am a bit news-obsessive. In normal times, I would say I was good at keeping up with the news: I could understand most random conversations people had at the dog park and occasionally had read to the end of some article so I could contribute something original to a discussion.

Presidential election years are not normal times and I tend to overload on news and analysis. In 2012, I was in the happy position of interning at Here and Now, the NPR show produced by our local station, WBUR. I was hanging out with news junkies and my obsessions were valued and had purpose.

In 2016, the whole news obsessiveness rose to a new level, and it’s been sustained until now. There is so much potentially significant minutiae raised every day that even though I am reading more and more, there are days when I go to the dog park and people are talking about a news event that I haven’t even heard of yet. And my contribution to the conversation doesn’t get more original than “I hate that guy.”

I think fondly to times when I couldn’t name the White House communications director.

I know I should cut back on my news consumption but I also feel a responsibility to bear witness, and to be an informed source for my students and children.

So, fingers crossed, my solution to this is that I am going to try to fill my time and my head by reading more books. Not magazines, or newspapers or posts or tweets, but good old, printed books. I read lots of graphic novels/comics for escapism but they don’t last long. It’s been hard for me to really lose myself in books these days so I thought I’d try reading books that I know are good: Classics.

I just read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the first time. From the intellectual ether (or Wikipedia), I knew it was about Montaga guy who burns books for a living. What I didn’t anticipate was the lecture from his boss, Beatty, who lays out how their society got to be the way it is, starting on page 51.

“Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different…. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests, Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending…. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.”

Holy Cow! In 1953, Bradbury anticipated me looking up plot summaries on Wikipedia (albeit generously allowing 10-12 lines). He also somehow knew I would be walking around wearing earbuds listening to podcasts (this is what Montag’s wife does), and that news would be cut to Twitter-length headlines for news aggregators.

On page 55:

“Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive… There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”
The part about “minority pressure” has to do with politically correct self-censorship — afraid to offend anyone, people stop saying anything meaningful. And, yep, there’s my comic book distractions.

I think one thing Bradbury didn’t anticipate was the fracturing of audiences. On the global scale, the enlargening mass market certainly has made global entertainment (i.e. blockbuster movies and pop music) more predictable and less challenging. But at a national level, instead of a larger mass market continuing to dumb things down, we’ve diverged into niches that can get granularly detailed about different issues (her emails!) or even divergent facts (her child molestation ring!). Clearly, the loss of a mass market and a shared national narrative has implications that Bradbury didn’t foresee.

Although to be fair, did we ever truly have a shared national narrative? Have you ever Googled “black national anthem” or “black Happy Birthday”?

In any case, I now have a better understanding of Rachel Bloom’s Ray Bradbury… obsession (NSFWBVF! [Not safe for work but very funny]).

So, to recap, the news is literally making me sick so I read a book that just reminds me that what’s happening today could lead us into dystopia. Not making me feel that much better, but at least it’s a larger perspective and I’m not spending time remembering names of random unqualified staffers who will be unemployed next month. So maybe it’s a start.

One thing’s for sure: I’d be much better off just playing tennis.

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