When Sanity Comes Down to Choice
Sometimes old stories and a single memory can help you keep your head when everyone else seems to be losing theirs.
Love is but a song we sing. Fear’s the way we die. Those are the opening lyrics of a song I used to sing in college. It’s the fear part that’s always concerned me. A primary emotion, I’m told. The opposite of love. When you’re angry, you’re really afraid, according to some but not all psychologists.
But I had to find that out in the School of Life. The one you enter after you leave behind the classics. I’m in the middle of that second education now. The one that counts. Lessons are everywhere.
In a second-floor restaurant overlooking Elliott Bay, I sit too close to a red-faced mass of manhood breathlessly lecturing his wife. He points to an inky tabloid held inches above his plate. Something brown that comes with a side of French fries slips in and out of view. His puffy index finger pokes a column I cannot see and do not care about.
His wife stares at him, saying nothing. Her face is the picture of benign resignation. She has heard it all before. I feel for this woman. But that is not empathy. It’s sympathy. To empathize, I’d have to feel what she’s feeling as if it were happening to me. And I’m not that brave.
Edith and Archie
Not more than 10 feet away. Their names might as well be Bunker. But they look nothing like the actors made famous by All in the Family. This is Pike Place Market. I have just taken the first few bites of what may be the most delicious cut of fresh, grilled salmon I have ever eaten. And an aging fat man seems hellbent on ruining my meal.
This is not an especially attractive day to be in the Pacific Northwest. The view from my water-sprayed window is anything but appealing. Elliott Bay without its makeup reminds me of icy dishwater. No tempting red lip-gloss applied by the setting sun. No filtered daylight spreading green-hued eyeshadow over a coquettish sea. Just a rust-hued freighter cleaving the cold gray-capped waves. Not a single white-sailed vessel in sight.
Anais Nin says we do not see things as they are — we see them as we are. If she is right, this Bay and that fat man are mere projections of my own inner movie. A study in contrasts that includes the orangey-red flesh of a never-frozen fish that failed to make it back to the waterfall. And a yellow lemon crescent with a sprig of green parsley.
I don’t have this figured out
Which probably means I have not yet attained enlightenment. Even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you about it.
But I have been tutored by The Great Gatsby. Don’t make judgments, it says. So I’ve learned to hold things in abeyance. If Paul McCartney can be a walrus, I can be a fat man and a slice of dead Coho.
Nevertheless, the scene presents me with an unexpected advantage of living longer than the previous generation. Do not grow up to be like this, I say to myself. Perhaps my projections are really warnings.
Wouldn’t it be nice?
But I have time-traveled away from that place and that time. Now I am in the waning days of 2020, and a chilly northwest wind has rendered yesterday's yard work meaningless.
Thanksgiving-by-Zoom has entered history. Today, the skin-and-bones weather-lady wears a red turtleneck sweater-dress. She weaves back and forth across a big blue map splattered with numbers. Thin tanned fingers point to a swirl of arrows pushing from left to right across my screen. No wedding ring. Reed-thin legs covered in opaque black hosiery compliment her wine-red dress. Baby, it’s cold outside.
Despite the visual appeal of this woman, my mind turns to Stendhal’s, The Red and the Black: “I shall rely only upon those elements of my character which I have tested.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if the rest of the morning news brought a similarly sanguine message from my well of consciousness. The one I made myself, which includes those reliable words Ezra Pound once defined as the news that stays news.
But, alas, it’s the fat man from Seattle who takes the weather-lady’s place all too soon, displacing Stendhal, Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Don’t get me started
It seems the current occupant of the White House is telling someone on Fox News that he won the November election. I do not watch Fox unless I have to in order to get an idea of the counter-narratives they promote.
But when a lame-duck president delivers his first interview since losing the election, even the mainstream media is forced to throw up a screen. This one is from Fox with the president’s unverified and unproven remarks splashed across it. I would not mind so much if the man’s statements were the only things that appear onscreen. After four years, I know what to expect from him.
Unfortunately, another large-print message appears at the screen’s bottom: “FOX NEWS ALERT,” it says in yellow letters across a horizontal strip of red.
Then, in large sans-serif capitals that convey shouting, there is this line. PRESIDENT TRUMP: WENT FROM WINNING BY A LOT TO LOSING BY A LITTLE AFTER VOTE DUMPS ON ELECTION NIGHT.”
I’ve seen enough in life to have a pretty good idea of how many people might notice the colon in that sentence. A mark of punctuation, which is supposed to convey that what follows is what the president is alleging.
But step back from the screen. Say you’re standing in your islanded kitchen on the other side of the counter waiting for the coffee-drip to end. You look up at the flat screen. There’s only one take-away. Not a shred of evidence anywhere in sight. Not even the word allegedly.
When I worked in broadcasting, we had to follow The Fairness Doctrine. You couldn’t just put uncontested lies out there. But that was then, this is now. The Fairness Doctrine is extinct.
The Titan was a centaur
The electronic system that superimposes words on a TV screen is called a chyron, which gets its name from the company that manufactures the device. Broadcasters have been using it ever since my first year as a newscaster when I was just a few years out of college. Maybe that’s why I also associate chyron with its homonym from Greek mythology. The part-man, part-horse Centaur known as Chiron.
After Heracles accidentally wounded him with a poison arrow, Chiron was unable to heal himself. He’d been a master healer throughout his life, the wisest of the Centaurs and tutor to several famous Greek heroes — including Achilles, Jason, Asclepius, and Heracles. But he willingly gave up his immortality and agreed to die. For that reason, Chiron is remembered as a symbol of compassion and selfless service.
When I see that infuriating message displayed by chyron on my television set, I think about Chiron, the Titan Centaur who was the opposite of what’s on Fox.
Irony noted. Please pass the love.
I hated taking the Western Civilization courses in college. Actually, I loved them. What I hated was all the work they required—and for only two credits each. But they have stood me in good stead over the years.
And it’s good old Chiron who fends off the fat man lodged in a sea of Seattle memories, offering a choice. Do I throw a hammer through the flat screen, enraged by what I see? Do I seek out the woman who has been my rock these many years and release a torrent of undeserved hysteria at her quietly resigned face? Do I behave like a complete and utter ass?
Or do I take a deep breath? Step away from the vehicle. And give thanks that, for the time being at least, I am spared from the projections of my youth. The warnings summoned from within. When all I had to think about was the present moment. And a juicy cut of fresh grilled salmon, garlanded with a sprig of green and a slice of yellow. On a beautiful, slate-gray day at the edge of the continent.
© 2020 Andrew Jazprose Hill. All Rights Reserved
Thanks for reading.
A fan here, irony note section is especially lovely prose :)