Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

It's official. My real life is no longer sufficiently interesting to justify this continued demand on your attention. I will now begin to fabricate.

Someone almost said, you can take the artist out of the theater, but you can't take the theater out of the artist. I find myself thinking along these lines, "On day fourteen, the protagonist begins to buckle under the strain of her daily blog-posting schedule. Her posts become confessional and disorganized. She abandons her lofty pursuits of global-scale insight, instead struggling to maintain basic soundness of mind. Can she possibly achieve her goals? Check back next week to find out."

And here I am this morning, sitting at my desk with my usual cup of coffee -- the one that lists in very small print a few score foods that are high in protein and therefore good to eat while pregnant -- bravely battling the impulse to write you a really sizzling opening act closer. Maybe a gambling debt. Or a rich uncle returning from Peru. Or a ferocious wild animal.

On one uneventful evening before I started this experiment, Nick and I found ourselves sitting back to back at our respective computers. I didn't have any new messages and so was bored.

"Hey, honey, what are you doing?"

"Nothing." He closed his computer kind of quickly. "Nothing at all. What do you want to do?"

I wanted to make some hot cocoa. As we stood in the kitchen a few minutes later, Nick told me that, in this case, "nothing at all" had meant watching a stroller with a child in it fall off a platform in front of a speeding subway train.

I won't link the video, because I don't really want to watch it. But it is viral, and if you would like for it to enter your consciousness it will be only too happy to oblige. I am now one of these people who does that regularly -- not the part where your kid almost dies, but the part where you take them with you on the subway. I wear Stella on my chest and I push Milo in a stroller, and even if the subway didn't make me nervous, the busy intersection between my house and the train station certainly would.

Here's a really good way to make me crazy: fill my already not-big-enough brain with a mesmerizing, repeating image of disaster.

I just googled "image bear attack" to get a picture to go with my catchy post title, and the first dozen images seem deeply inappropriate for mass consumption. Gaping flesh. Ripped up faces. A hole where a bone ought to be. I find myself feeling a little uncomfortable about it. This is real life tragedy arranged in thumbnail-sized rows. I'm here today to attract an audience for my little blog: which tragically damaged person shall I choose? I head back to iPhoto for pictures that I've taken of fall leaves.

It occurs to me that Google Image Search is quite different from what Shakespeare's buddies might have done with his famous stage direction, with which he kills off Antigonus in Act III of The Winter's Tale. Maybe a person dressed in a bear suit. Some thrillingly muffled cries from off stage. Some people say they might have used a real bear from the London bear-pits, but it is highly unlikely that it was actually tearing any human flesh. Then again, the Romans did exactly that, didn't they? For centuries, the gladiators engaged in -- or were forced to engage in -- death rituals, something like human sacrifice, but with a more sportsmanlike air. And they called that entertainment.

What just happened? This post started so sweetly. It was going to be funny, and entertaining, and you were all going to like me! What have I done to get myself here? A Facebook friend that I don't know very well just posted this update, which seems relevant:

I don't think we can really blame the internet for that.

But it does happen, on occasion, that you wonder whether or not your web content is interesting. A couple of hours ago I went through and changed some post titles with just that question in mind. I had some boring post titles, and I don't like boring things. I imagine you don't like boring things, either. What I'm going for here is not fiction, though. This is exactly what really happened, except...more so. I'm thinking now of the Real World, in which the high-drama clashes between roommates are completely real. They're real people having real problems. All we did was point them towards each other, in a television arena. And we promised them fame and glory in return. Kind of like gladiators.

This is the hue and cry that was once raised over reality TV, which is arguably fairly seamless with reality Internet, which is viral videos of someone's child almost dying in front of a subway train. Some people are concerned about the well being of the individuals who trade away their realities for their 30 minutes of fame. Later deprived of the lime light, they might do something completely crazy, like invent a giant balloon and pretend their child has flown away in it. Others are concerned about the spectators, or at least -- like Tertullian condemning the patrons of the Roman amphitheater -- about their souls.

Now I'm getting my history books down off the top shelf and preparing to have discussion with people who know more about this than I do. "Tertullian? You brought up Tertullian?!" But I feel confident that I can defend this one position: we have not suddenly become bloodthirsty. Nor were we bloodthirsty for only a short period of time during a unique and bygone era. The desire for horror in entertainment persists. Beowulf, for example, was a sordid little tale, full of bone crunching and otherwise similar t0 Grand Theft Auto.

The internet did not create our attraction to disaster. But by virtue of its ability to distribute information, it is keeping us in nearly unlimited supply. The internet specializes in information access. On the one hand, we have access to the information. On the other hand, the information has access to us. I used to have monsters under my bed. Now I have them in my computer.

About a year ago I moved my email from aol to gmail, and in the process I stopped seeing the "AOL News" on a more-than-daily basis. Now, when I go back every once in while to check for lost emails, I am shocked by the tabloid-style headlines. Today, of course, the DC sniper's execution; yesterday, an over-stressed mom who overdosed on alcohol, drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway (that's on the way to my brother's place in Westchester) and killed four children and four adults. The actual email page loads notoriously slowly. I'm not the one who can tell you whether that has to do with clunky programming, or a targeted bid for advertising revenue. But either way, that slow load gives you plenty of time in which to click on those sordid headlines, to pick up the tabloid from the check out aisle, to be voluntarily inundated with crystal clear, high-pixel images of the absolute worst things done by the absolute worst people anywhere in the world on this particular day.

Anxiety disorder, anyone? I'll take just a small one, thank you.

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