I was lifting heavy things at the gym the other night. I enjoy pretending that I have a routine, as if some kind of logic guides me while I ping-pong among the dumbbells and pulleys, searching for something manageable. A muted television in the corner played the local news and the anchor looked concerned. A photograph of a chipper woman in a safari outfit hovered over his left shoulder and the caption said, “Large Carnivore Program Director,” which seemed ominous but I had Black Sabbath cranked in my headphones and I was feeling pretty good so I decided not to worry about it. Somebody flipped the channel and people in another country were running for their lives.
These have been frightening days. Panic attack days. The other morning I woke up to Al Jazeera blasting in my bedroom and a reporter was saying, “Yes, he claims the protesters are fuelled by Nescafé spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.” I thought I was still sleeping. I remember being impressed by the way the anchor’s accent hit the third note of that word: Nescafé. But I couldn’t remember turning on the news and, after listening to various officials give their prepared statements, I could no longer recall if I was the type of person who believes the U.S. should use its military power to help other people overthrow their dictators.
While scheduling a meeting about a phone call, I noticed that today is March 15. This date means something to me, but it took me a few moments to remember why: I quit booze and cigarettes two years ago today. Perhaps this fact should make me feel good or strong but it doesn’t. Instead of celebrating, I picked up my tattered copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album.
In 1968, Didion described her steady break with reality, her inability to understand how to appropriately react to a world of mass murders, riots, and parents abandoning their children on highway medians. “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it,” she wrote. “I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience.” Didion reassures me like few other writers.
Somewhere on the internet, somebody said that if Qaddafi wins, “the message will be: Just kill your people. The world will stay away.” I nodded vigorously and wondered what to do with this enthusiasm. Why won’t somebody help those people? Last week I received several emails telling me that 400 Americans have more money than half of all Americans combined. This morning I scrolled through images of horrifying devastation while waiting for Photoshop to open. My screen is overloaded with facts, whining, rumor, and conspiracy. I feel guilty about adding to the pile. But here I am.
It might be time to take a break.
The world feels like it’s coming undone. Natural disasters. Radiation. War. Debt. We speed from one calamity to the next, ignoring the fact that we’re puncturing frightening holes in the ocean floor and treating corporations as people while real people are sleeping beneath the overpass tonight. I’d like to believe that my anxiety is a side effect of age, perhaps even maturity, rather than a creeping fear that things really are falling apart, that nobody knows what they’re doing. If I’m not careful, I might find myself locked in a stale little room, watching headline news nonstop, slouched next to an overflowing ashtray and a bottle of Johnny Walker. Sometimes I’m amazed that more of us aren’t doing this. Instead, I text money to the Red Cross and hope for the best, which feels like a cop-out.
Friends post links about the collapse of civilization on their Facebook walls. I live in an angry country that doesn’t stand for much anymore. I’ve started hitting the punching bag at the gym harder and more often, listening to old jazz and thanking my stars that I have the luxury to brood like this. I have never felt more trivial or more lucky in my life.