“What do you get from a glut of TV
A pain in the neck and an IQ of three
Why don’t you try simply reading a book
Or could you just not bear to look
You’ll get no
You’ll get no
You’ll get no
You’ll get no…”
– Oompa Loompas
I just landed from a week-long vacation in Mexico and my brain isn’t quite fit for writing (or thinking) in complete sentences. Sorry.
Sarah booked the trip for my birthday – seven whole days in a ridiculous penthouse Airbnb in the hills of Sayulita with absolutely no itinerary. Just a week of wandering and lounging and reading and playing cards and eating and drinking and, yunno, couple stuff. Strictly no work. No emails.
Absent the usual distractions, the vacation gave us both a lot of time to think and to make plans and set resolutions for 2019.
And so it was, about halfway through the trip, I found myself thinking about the news. Specifically the news cycle. The news tornado that’s heading right for us. The news clusterfuck that’s only going to get clusterier and fuckier as we roll into the new year.
We all know what’s coming. There are going to be investigations and committees and shutdowns and subpoenas and Mueller reports and calls for impeachment and outraged headlines and indictments and BREAKING NEWS alerts ever five minutes. And, if you’re anything like me – which is to say, an addict – your brain is going to want to click on every headline and every alert, hundreds or thousands of times a day.
That’s the way I’m wired. I need that next fix of outrage, can’t bear the idea of missing out. Christ, non-addicts can’t ween themselves off the dopamine rush of checking CNN.com or Facebook headlines or Twitter, so what chance do I have?
In ten years of sobriety, I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when my old addictive habits are coming back to bite me, and figuring out ways to protect myself. I know when I’m getting sucked into vortexes of harmful behavior and need to pull myself out before it’s too late. I’ve also learned that, for me at least, moderation rarely works: Just like it never worked when I told myself (dozens, maybe hundreds, of times) that I’d cut down on drinking, or only drink at parties, or only drink beer and wine – never spirits.
Sitting on our patio in Mexico, listening to the feral dogs arguing with a mariachi band, I realized that the news cycle has become one of those vortexes for me. I’m not on any social media so, on an average day, I start the day on CNN or Washingtonpost.com, telling myself that I’m just going to check the headlines and then start my morning. Twenty minutes later, I’m listening to CNN radio on Sirius on the way to my office, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Then I get a news alert from the NYTimes app, and another from the BBC. By midnight, according to the handy usage tracker on my phone, I’ve spent four or five hours a day either reading or streaming news.
And what have I gained from all this sound and fury? Nothing I couldn’t have gained from spending five minutes reading a newspaper every morning, or ten minutes listening to NPR news each night. Nothing, that is, except for all that wonderful dopamine.
But not in Mexico.
Before we left home, I’d put my Smartphone in my bedside drawer and transferred my SIM card into an ancient dumbphone for emergency use only. That meant, for those seven days in Mexico, I didn’t read a single news article. I didn’t see a newspaper, at least not one I had the language skills to understand. There was no CNN and no Rachel Maddow. I literally had no idea if the government was still shut down, or if Trump had been impeached, or if the Queen had spontaneously combusted. The only dopamine came from street food and catching up on my reading. (And from Sarah, of course.)
Now. I know the argument. We have a civic responsibility to keep up with world events. I agree. It’s important to know when a meteor is heading right for the earth. Quite bloody right!
But here’s the thing: Last evening, after we landed at SFO, I picked up a copy of the New York Times and, in less than twenty minutes, I was up to date with everything I had missed in the past seven days. Twenty minutes, versus maybe forty hours of empty clicking and spikes and troughs of fury and sadness and excitement and disappointment. (Spoiler: There was no meteor. Trump is still quietly fuming in the White House and Her Majesty remains in rude health.)
Which pretty much settled it. I’m back at my desk in San Francisco, but my smartphone is staying in the drawer. I’ve unsubscribed from all my email news alerts, and cleansed my tablets of all things BREAKING NEWS. CNN and MSNBC are gone from my Sirius car radio.
We already get the Times delivered on Sunday but I’ve just upgraded our print subscription to weekdays and Saturday too. I’ve rescued my old-skool radio from the garage and tuned it to NPR for the evening news. My plan: To ride out the 2019 newstornadoclusterfuck by only reading the news once in the morning and listening to it once at night.
Now, will any of this actually work? Will I really be able to survive 2019 without the rush of breaking news apps and furious pundits streaming into my ears 24-7? Or will my addictive brain chemistry persuade me that checking just one news site is enough, and that it’s my civic duty to listen to CNN today of all days? We. Shall. See.
Here’s what I know for sure: For me, recovery isn’t just about avoiding the things that do me physical harm, but those that affect my mental health too. Often the two are intertwined, but not always.
I’ll keep you posted on my success or failure as the year progresses, meteors notwithstanding.