There are two kinds of weather in America. One is local weather, the kind that is discussed on the local news. The sunshine, the rain, the wind. What tomorrow will bring. What is happening “Right Now.”
The other is The National Weather. The Weather Channel is a good example of this, not because it talks about the weather everywhere, but because it is everywhere.
TV monitors are on walls everywhere and even closer at hand, literally, are those comforting little object we so like to pet and hold, our smart phones. A tiny monitor. Shielding us from the present moment even as it delivers us updates on the present moment.
Cable news, billboard advertising, the Internet’s many voices, radio, newspapers, it all forms a chorus of competing streams of information that amounts to a kind of static. This is the condition of our modern life, what David Foster Wallace called “Total Noise.”
One of the biggest challenges of adulthood is the task of filtering out total noise and deciding on which voices to listen to. One of the biggest challenge of parenthood is doing this — or knowing when not to do it — with your children. From amidst the many words and phrases floating around in the immediate aftermath of the Connecticut massacre, here are a few that stood out.
1. “Parental Guidance Suggested.”
“Kind of amazing to me that anyone would need to be told not to leave news on in front of young kids. Ever, but especially now.”
– Reagan Arthur, on twitter.
2. The Information.
In the fall of 20o1 I was running a website that featured literary essays about New York City. Anyone could submit essays. And so in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the memorializing impulse that swept the city — the impromptu shrines, the candles, the photographs — found its way to the site. It became a collection vehicle for testimonials. Some were vivid sketches of life in the aftermath from all over the city. Some were even droll. But in the early days quite a few of them were dispatches from the front lines. Some of them were very intense.
On the morning of 9/11, once I grasped what was happening, I responded as a journalist. I raced down to the towers to see what I could see. And throughout the ensuring weeks and months as I edited the pieces that came in, I continued to feel distanced from the events by the act of journalism.
This time I am far away geographically. But it doesn’t seem possible to feel that kind of distance. Which may be why I am trying to take in as little as possible. If you have children that age, there is no refuge. There is no reportorial barrier to be erected. Children make you vulnerable. The less you think of this, the better. I’d rather just avert my gaze, except for brief glimpses. Instead I am redoubling my efforts to see my kids as they are now.
3. “Duck and Cover.”
School kids used to practice a drill called duck and cover. The idea that in case of an atomic bomb they should get under their desks. Absurd. Part of the Cold War mentality. Schoolkids now practice lockdown drills where they are trained to stay low and quiet in a room should a gunman be on a spree in their school. Less absurd in purely practical terms, but very odd. And what is the name for this era? Not the Cold War. You tell me. The Gun War?
4. Total Noise and Total Silence
Sometimes there is a single event. Something happens. “Total Noise” becomes, for one brief second, Total Silence. A stunned interval. As much a feeling as a sound, like after a gigantic bolt of lightning strikes followed quickly by a sharp clap of thunder. That electrified sense of atmosphere. A few seconds go by before the clattering rain drops are heard once again.
Then “Total Noise” becomes a kind of harmonic convergence. That’s the moment we are in — or I should say “I am in.”
I write on the Sunday after the events in Connecticut. I don’t even want to name the town. I’ve tried to keep all the information at a distance. I don’t want to engage more than I have to. But not engaging at all is no more an option than not breathing the air after lighting strikes. It gets inside of you and you have to deal with it.
5. “Women and Children First.”
I thought of this phrase when I heard that it was first graders and their teachers — all women — who had been killed.
I immersed myself in minutia, as I do when I feel grief impinging, and inquired into the phrase, “women and children first.”
It’s English, and sounds valerous. But what is valor? American fantasy life in recent decades, at least among the youth, has been largely outsourced to the English. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, The Hobbit. (Also the fact that with the exception of Robbie Meyers at Elle, American fashion magazines have been run by people from Great Britain for over twenty years.)
I thought by looking into “women and children first” I would be transported to the realm of the Chivalric code. Its roots are more contemporary. A late 19th Century shipping disaster prompted the idea. That sunken ship was memorialized in a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Kippling’s poem contained a curious word. It jumped out at me.
Will the politics of gun laws in America budge in the wake of the events? Impossible to imagine that it will. Impossible to imagine that it won’t. But I have to admit the word resonates in ways that go beyond politicians. Even if it perfect for the mode of democracy we now in inhabit it applies to more difficult subjects to more than just politicians. How often do events seem to sweep me along when I am with my children. By events I mean innocuous little pop culture floatsam and Jetsam–the Psy video, or commercials on TV, or most TV shows, or the curious and perverse sense of controll afforded by the on demand culture of that let’s kids watch what the want when they want it.
I often want to hit pause on all these events so I can sort out exactly what I should allow and what should be forbidden. But you can’t hit pause.