The morning of June 5 1968, I was at home when I heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I sat glued to the TV, watching the same clips over and over, waiting as he clung to life. But I’d seen this show before. Five years before his brother had been shot, and I’d waited as he clung to life. Then I’d held a small candle of hope. Now I knew this Kennedy wouldn’t make it. Just two month before Martin Luther King had been shot, and he hadn’t made it. Was I superstitious, believing bad things come in threes? Or had I seen enough of the 1960s to know that decade of dreams couldn’t end well? Though I already knew the end, still I waited. My body could barely contain a hurricane of feelings.
And then a newscaster announced that Bobby was dead, and rare tears burst forth, blurring his face. What did I weep for? I’d met Robert Kennedy. My father had arranged for me to talk to him for ten precious minutes when he was Senator from New York. He was the most charismatic man I’d known. But what I felt now was the end of hope for America, at least in the political realm. I launched myself at the television and snapped it off. I didn’t turn one on again for fifteen years.
I was seventeen. Hormone addled, making terrible decisions by the week. But shutting off that TV came from some deep instinct for survival. A wise place in me that knew this body and soul could not abide as a wide open container for all the bad news to come – and come I knew it would. Without thinking I’d embarked on a news fast.
The affairs of the world passed me in a blur. I was barely aware when Richard Nixon became president, or as the War dragged on, or even as men landed on the moon. In ignoring what was out there I naturally became more aware of what was right before me – the frets on my guitar, what gigs were coming up, where the next meal was coming from.
When I came home in 1973 my parents were strangely lit up. I knew and cared nothing of the Watergate scandal, but they were having the best time of their marital life. My father would burst into the kitchen brandishing the day’s New York Times, quoting the headlines to my mother with the passion of a one-time actor. My mother would crow and they would denounce Nixon and his minions with a glee I never witnessed in that house before or after.
It was only decades later, after they were dead, that I figured out what was going on. My parents were emotional ignoramuses. The only way they knew to express all the rage, frustration, envy and deep sense of betrayal both felt towards the other was by proxy, through politics. For everyone in our family politics was the only permissible venue for expressions of the heart. And any expression of emotion feels better than constant repression.
My mother didn’t think much of my news fast. In 1983 she bought me a black-and-white TV and I began watching the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. I had misgivings about breaking my fast, but I’d apparently learned too well at home. There was a buzz to be had witnessing the ups and down of political affairs. With the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991 I really signed up for the show. I watched every minute of it, shouting at the TV just like my parents. After that I mainlined the news, hitting up a full New York Times worth every morning.
By 2000 the Internet had me tweaking on the hour. It was more fun than not until the Bush/Gore recount. When the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush my misgivings returned about going back on the stuff. But it was too late. I was a hopeless news junkie.
In 2004 I started the transition from composer to writer. And like all addicts, found an excuse for my habit. The process of creating music and writing is similar. You constantly run into stuck spots – dilemmas of which note should come next, what verb to use. With music I found that cigarettes were the ideal drug for bridging those stuck points. Except they kill you. So I quit.
The stuck moments in writing are more frequent and more painful than the ones in composing. Perhaps that’s because when you write music at an instrument, the ryhthym and vibrations get in your body and help dance you past the stuck points. Not so with writing. It’s just thought against thought in incorporeal perpetual war.
As I started writing I soon discovered the news hit as nicotine substitute. Hassle with a sentence, try to imagine what a character says next. Get stuck. Hit up Google News or a blog. It’s as real a buzz as you get from drugs. A jolt of brain chemicals.
By the beginning of the last election cycle I was hitting up the news every ten minutes. And the stuff of this campaign was like today’s marijuana compared to the old – way more potent. Candidate T**** was a master of TV, a man who knew how to deliver a daily dose or two that surprised, outraged, flabbergasted. Knew how to get the brain chemicals flowing. Mine were flowing. Dosing every ten minutes I was a bit crazed, but also very well informed, perhaps more so than anyone I know.
So on November 8, the night of the election, it was only a half hour after the polls closed when I got the deja vu. Nobody was lying unconscious on a hotel kitchen floor, as in 1968. But I knew in my gut, just as I’d known with Bobby, that death was imminint. Back then I’d believed Bobby was the last, best hope for America. And that it had died with him. A 17-year old’s hysteria.
But this time…In the days following the election I continued to click to the news at the stuck spots in my writing. Initial shock gave way to something worse – a toxic brew of dread, horror, and worst, a sense of utter powerlessness. The books I write are dark fictions. I take the tens of human drama and dial them up to eleven. Re-imagine bad dreams as nightmares.
To dial the current political situation up to eleven is to envision literal apocalypse. Our country led by a madman and his grinning minions, torn apart by civil war. The world deep in nuclear winter. The human species and a million others extinct from global warming….
Two days after the election I read three items online. I will spare the reader these morsels – you can find them if you wish, or dare. But they flipped a switch in my head, and I tumbled into a poisonous sea of existential terror and hopeless rage. An intolerable place. When my wife came home I vented some of the venom, though it didn’t help. She has always been immune to the news, but by the next morning she said, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life.” I tried to remind her of a few other things we’d weathered, but it was no good. It was bad enough that I was driving myself crazy. I’d infected her.
I went cold turkey on the news. Stopped visiting the Times website and my favorite political blogs. Re-arranged my home page so that Google News didn’t come up. Stopped talking to family and friends about the election. And, hardest of all, did my best not to think about it.
Within two days I felt better. My fast requires discipline. Pitfalls lie everywhere. Walking the dog a neighbor’s Wall Street Journal lies on his driveway, its headlines screaming to be read. Avert the eyes. Swipe the wrong way on my phone and the new version of IOS displays top headlines…Don’t look!
I get sandbagged at CVS. I’m in line for my meds, step towards the counter…People Magazine. The headline “President T****,” his picture filling the cover. They’ve gussied him up, made him look presidential…
The switch flips in my head again. I want to tell the pharmacist that I’m going to Rite Aid from now on, explain how back in Blue Laws New England they keep the dirty magazines behind the counter, shield the covers so kids can’t see. But this People cover is more obscene than the centerfold of Hustler in its prime, and should be hidden from adults…But I’m an adult, and I keep it to myself. It still takes an hour to calm down.
I get caught unawares by my thoughts, especially in the middle of the night. Turn away from the thoughts! Play a video game, read a dark novel.
There will always be bad moments in the writing – it’s the nature of the beast. It’s tough when you suddenly realize that a whole plot line is riddled with holes, and the rest of the story depends on it, so how the hell are you going to…But then I remember how it feels when that switch clicks in my head. It’s worse. So I pace. Check email. But I don’t look.
A week into my fast the New Yorker came in the mail. I hemmed and hawed, then looked. Deliberately. Sixteen writers’ takes on President T****, writing smartly, as they do at the New Yorker. The magazine must have gone to press before I started my fast, so there was no actual news. But I had to skim what I read. It took hours to recover, and I had apocalyptic nightmares that night. A day later I was better.
The worst thing about reading the New Yorker was that not one of the 16 writers had clue one about what to do now. Except write. Which is what I do. I’m getting a lot more done since my fast. Fiddling while Rome burns. I’m just grateful to have a fiddle.