Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Seeking Normalcy on Oblivious Lane

My surprise “vacation” has given me the time to do many interesting and exciting things. Like reading my local newspaper. It’s a small tabloid weekly about 30 pages long, including ads. While my parents have faithfully subscribed to this paper since yours truly was in Pampers, I haven’t taken a sideways glance at it since I moved out into the “real world” over a decade ago. My community and I had been out of touch since then.

This is irony with a capital “I”, because for the longest time, I looked down my nose at people who weren’t “news-conscious”. I got into arguments with friends and co-workers who didn’t keep up on headline events. How zoned out could a person be, I declared, and still have his or her eyes open? You have to consciously try to be Hip to the Jive. Even when I was working, I read the Chicago Tribune’s editorial section every day. CNN and The Week, a magazine that boils national and international issues down into digest form, fill in the rest of the blanks for me. You don’t have to be a PhD to be tuned in to the world, but you do have to make an effort. Yes, have to, because the failure to do so strands you on the same intellectual desert island populated by Paris Hilton, Mr. Britney Spears and everyone who has appeared on MTV’s “The Real World” since 1997.

“But Jooohhhnnnn, everybody’s busy!!” Okay, I heard you and that is true (for everyone except, uh, me). Life in our jet set world, right? And somehow, we still find time for so many superfluous things---video games, internet chat rooms, porno, “reality” TV. But when it comes to learning about world issues, we don’t have a minute to spare.

How I loved wearing my cloak of self-righteousness, available in three canting colors from the Tim Robbins Collection at Kmart! Yet, I had to learn that there are levels of news-consciousness. I might’ve been up on happenings in Washington and Baghdad. But what about my own neck of the woods? This is the ironic part. When it came to local issues, I was sitting right next to Paris in that pink convertible, cruising down Oblivious Lane.

My whole argument for being an Informed Person always was that you had to focus on the Big Issues, because the Big Issues drive our world and determine the course it follows. Problem is, this noble-sounding argument is a bitter pill to swallow. The Big Issues are usually messy and often ugly. Daily life is already a raging fire of negativity---lousy boss, hectic schedule, mortgage, bills, etc. Worrying about what happens in Washington, Seoul or Baghdad will only add fuel to that fire. Why, countered my blissfully ignorant friends, be a glutton for punishment?

The news isn’t any better at the local level. Big city troubles, like gangs, drugs and common violence, have infected even the so-called “good” areas, the tidy suburbs and Mayberry-like provinces. More negativity, more logs on the fire. How can anyone stand so much bleakness without cracking up? If anything, Hilton-style haziness would seem to be a calming tonic for our super-stressed, self-immolating society. Why not just circle the wagons and muddle through? Flip on “American Idol,” log onto and buy more stuff you don’t need. If you don’t know, you won’t care.

Modern demands and conveniences have driven us into the far corners of our heads. The communities in which we live have, for many of us, become little more than staging areas in between traveling to the job and traveling home from the job, where we eat, surf the Web, watch Jessica Simpson and sleep so we can get up and do it again. We know no more about these “hometowns” of ours than we do about those exotic locales that keep cropping up on “Nightline”. And honestly, why would you want to? I was beginning to think that Paris Hilton was a sort of visionary, not exiled to an island of mental deficiency, but rather, lounging on a sliver of sanity at the center of an insane sea.

Sometimes, thoughts are like paintings. You have to step back and take a hard look to see what they truly are. Only then did it come to me. Yes, you had to choose to be informed, had to actively seek out information. You had to seek out negativity, in order to come to terms with it. But you also had to seek out normalcy, to remind yourself that it’s still there.

I realized this when I picked up a recent issue of my local paper. The front page story detailed how a guy nearly beat his wife to death. One whole page was devoted to crime reports, infractions too varied to list here. Another page carried obituaries. All tragic events and all tragically part of life. But it wasn’t anything written that stuck in my mind. Two photos, printed deep within that edition, did. One photo was taken in the gymnasium of the local grammar school. A bunch of 5-year olds sat mugging for the camera at their kindergarten “graduation”. You could tell the types by their expressions---the clown, the serious one, the quiet one. Those personalities that somehow regenerate themselves with every generation. In the background, you could see a few parents, inflated with pride. On another page, another picture, taken outside a local banquet hall. A group of high school seniors were lined up and grinning, dressed in their prom finery. They looked happy and hopeful, as well they should at that time of their lives. Nothing special about the photo; it was just like a dozen before it, just like a dozen to come. The same thing every June.

Only then did I learn what it meant to be truly news-conscious. This is a sad and twisted time we’re living in, that’s easy to see. It’s these sad and twisted events that grab the lion’s share of headlines and the lion’s share of our attention. But at the same time, right under our noses, normalcy is happening. Positive, reassuring things that happen every year, in the towns we live in. In spite of a war, a failing economy, in spite of the continuing social erosion we’ve been talking about since, well, forever. Somehow, without fanfare, in the face of whatever horror we’re confronted with, these things happen as well. And somehow, we easily forget that.

You aren’t, I learned, informed for grappling with the Big Issues. You’re informed for acknowledging those things, large or small, that deserve acknowledgment. In remote outposts or right up the street. To do so, you must deliberately choose to seek them out. And often, that’s as easy as opening your local paper.


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