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Consider the Ostrich

Some words of advice from a man who’s been self-isolating since 2001

by
Shalom Auslander
June 03, 2020
Flickr Commons
Flickr Commons
Flickr Commons
Flickr Commons

I blame Wolf Blitzer.

I was fine before Wolf came along. I was healthy, I was writing, and 20 milligrams of Prozac was keeping me on a chemically even keel. I was practically functioning. Sure, now and then I’d watch the news, who didn’t? After a long day at work, just to catch up. But I didn’t have a problem. I could stop at any time. Then Sept. 11 came, and with it, Wolf Blitzer.

I was living in the West Village of New York City at the time, a 20-minute walk to Ground Zero. The terrorists won immediately: I was terrified, everyone was. Every passing siren made me wonder if another building had been attacked. Anxiety and anger blanketed the city like the terrible ash from the World Trade Center. But there was Wolf, with all the information, all the updates, all the time. I couldn’t stop watching him, I couldn’t look away.

“Let’s go live to Ground Zero,” he said, and I went with him, unquestioningly: to Ground Zero, to the White House, to Tora Bora, to Baghdad.

“Let’s get more on this story from Whoever in Somewhere.”

Yes, Wolf, let’s. Overnight, it seemed, everything had changed. We were under attack from an enemy we couldn’t defeat. The dead were piling up. This was the new normal, and things would never be the same. I wanted answers. I wanted vengeance. I wanted my old life back.

I watched Wolf in the morning with my coffee, at lunch on my laptop, at night on the couch in front of the TV. And then, as midnight came and went, and my eyes grew heavy as my heart, and my wife begged, “Honey, enough already, come to bed,” Wolf looked at me and said the words that I had been waiting to hear all day:

“We’ll be right back with Donald Rumsfeld.”

After Rummy there would an interview with Cheney. After Cheney, Rice. After Rice, Powell. And through them all, God bless it, the emergency yellow news crawl at the bottom of the screen, endless, eternal, unceasing. Some people forget, but there were no news crawls before Sept. 11 except in times of great national emergency—a hurricane, an assassination, a coup. It would come up for a few minutes, then disappear.

Now the scroll never stopped, and I didn’t want it to.

I stopped exercising. Worse, I stopped writing. Writing had always been my coping method, my way of surviving in a world I’ve never felt comfortable in. But how could I write now? How could I do anything?

Soon, autumn turned to winter, and Wolf wasn’t enough. Not his updates, not his special reports, not his Sunday morning program. I needed more. I watched everything, read everyone. Left wing, right wing, mainstream. My wife grew concerned. We weren’t walking, we weren’t talking, we weren’t having sex. Worse, I am loath to admit, I was reading Drudge Report.

“I’m worried about you,” she said. “About us.”

“How can we have sex,” I asked, “when the bodies are still warm at Ground Zero?”

“What warm bodies?” she asked. “It was three months ago.”

“You know what I mean.”

“So we can’t have sex until Ground Zero is cleared?” she asked. “Does the memorial have to be finished, or can we fuck after they break ground?”

“We’re at war, Hon,” I said. “Doesn’t that concern you?”

“So it’s celibacy until after the war,” she said, “got it. The war with Iraq, or the war with Afghanistan? Just so I know.”

But Drudge had the red light flashing at the top of his site, and I wasn’t listening to her.

I clicked every link, I followed every trail.

Why didn’t the Times update more than twice a day? Didn’t they care? What about Andrew Sullivan? One update a day? What was wrong with him? Eventually I hit bottom, and found myself, one evening, reading Daily Kos.

“Who?” asked my wife.

“Kos,” I said. “Short for Markos, the founder.”

“Jesus Christ,” she said, and turned and went to bed.

Alone.

Again.

And so, the following day, broken, bleary-eyed and worried about WMDs, I went to my shrink.

“Stop watching,” he said.

“Stop watching what?”

“Stop watching all of it,” he said.

I couldn’t hide my contempt.

“And I’m the crazy one?” I asked.

I was incensed. I couldn’t believe I had looked to this man for guidance. Did he have any idea what was going on out there? Did he know that our military was unprepared for a desert war?

Did he know that we had spent billions on the XM2001 Crusader SPH and it was neither mobile nor precise enough for the Afghan geography where even the Soviets failed to achieve victory?

He upped my dosage to 40 milligrams, and repeated his advice again:

“Stop watching.”

“It’s just so easy to stick your head in the ground,” I said, and slammed the door behind me. I got home, turned on Wolf Blitzer, poured some gin and wrote nothing. Two martinis and five special reports later, I crawled miserably to bed.

As it happened, I was reading the diaries of Franz Kafka at the time. Kafka was then, as he is now, a hero of mine, a model of emotional honesty and single-mindedness in the pursuit of his art. I had all but dismissed my shrink’s unconscionable advice when I read this entry in Kafka’s diary:

August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.

It was the beginning of the First World War, the war to end all wars. Nations were under attack; soon 16 million would be dead and the world would never be the same.

And Franz? He went swimming.

One year later, war raging around him, he wrote his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis.

And so, I decided to give abstinence a shot.

Not for ever, not for good.

I started with a day. One day. The world seemed to survive, so I went another. And another.

At the end of the first week, I was writing again. Friday, I checked in with Wolf, just to see how things were going, to see what had changed.

Nothing had.

Not a thing.

There were still press conferences at the White House, Bush still mangled the language, Cheney still frowned, Powell still shrugged. It was like skipping ahead in a novel you once couldn’t put down, only to find that three chapters later, nothing much had changed. They were exactly like the chapters beforehand.

“We’ll be right back,” Wolf implored me as I reached for the TV remote, “with Donald Rumsfeld.”

I didn’t tell anyone what I was not doing, I couldn’t. I was filled with shame. As the weeks went by, and I knew less and less, I pretended to know what friends and colleagues were talking about.

“Did you hear about the WMDs?” they said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Can you believe what happened with Whoever?” they said.

“Crazy,” I said.

“The Burrow,” one of the last stories Kafka wrote before he died, concerns an animal of some unspecified sort trying to fortify his beloved hole in the ground. The story is unfinished, though allegedly the missing ending involved a beast that was trying to get in.

My burrow was also under attack. I had been mistaken when I yelled at my shrink—living with my head in the sand was anything but easy. People on the subway held newspapers, their headlines louder and more outraged with every passing news cycle. TV screens were everywhere, all of them tuned to one news network or another—in restaurants, airports, store windows, the backs of taxicabs. There was no escape. Even my home wasn’t safe, as friends would email me links to the latest stories.

“OMG,” they wrote, followed by a hyperlink I couldn’t resist clicking.

“WTF!”

“Misery doesn’t just love company,” my shrink said. “It demands it.”

In a desperate attempt to protect my beloved hole in the ground, I took to including a signature in all my emails:

Note, it read. All emails with links will be deleted unread. I don’t care if you think they’re funny or OMG or WTF. Send them to your other friend. I don’t care and I don’t want to know. Do not fuck with my fucking bubble.

That was 20 years ago.

I am still in my bubble, still in my burrow.

And I can’t recommend it enough.

It has been a constant struggle. In that time, Huffington Post was launched, along with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, each one more insistent, more desperate and ultimately more depressing than the last.

There have been a few relapses, a few face-plants off the wagon. Some of the news stories get to me, no matter how hard I try to resist. The recession was the first one. Then Obama’s improbable victory. Then Trump’s horrifying victory. Then the Mueller Report. Then the impeachment trial. I binge, I watch Wolf, I lose sleep, I stop writing. But then, after a few days, I grow miserable and depressed enough to fight back, and I turn it all off and go back to my burrow.

COVID-19 has been the worst, though, and I must admit that I have been off the wagon for three months now. How could I not? Overnight, it seemed, everything had changed. We were under attack from an enemy we couldn’t defeat. The dead were piling up. This was the new normal, and things would never be the same. I turned on CNN.

“We’ll be right back,” said Wolf, “with Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

I’ve been reading the Times. I’ve been reading Huffington Post. And yes—God help me, I’ve been checking out Drudge and Daily Kos. I stopped exercising. I stopped writing. I was in the know, and it was killing me.

I was in the know, and it was killing me.

And so, two weeks ago, broken and bleary-eyed, I went back to my shrink.

“Why are you going to these sites?” he asked me. “What are you looking for?”

“Answers,” I said. “Cures.”

“Hope,” he said.

I nodded.

“But they don’t sell hope,” he said. “They sell fear. They sell hopelessness.”

I was incensed. It was bad enough Trump was attacking the press, now my shrink was, too? Did he know that democracy dies in darkness? I did, because The Washington Post said so in their email asking me to subscribe.

He upped my dosage to 60 milligrams, and repeated his advice:

“Stop watching.”

I am not a big believer in fate, but every once in a while, the universe, which is usually out to get me, does me a solid. That night, as I sat fuming about my shrink’s disparaging of the press, a friend sent me a text:

They had a treatment, he said.

For COVID.

The FDA had approved it.

“I know you don’t read the news,” he said, “but you should check this out.”

With trembling fingers, I went on CNN. They sell hopelessness, my ass, Doc! A treatment! An answer! Wolf would be smiling, cheering; he’d be beside himself with joy. Hell, if I was lucky he might even be joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci!

But Wolf wasn’t happy.

He wasn’t hopeful.

He wasn’t joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

He wasn’t even talking about COVID.

“Murder hornets,” he said grimly, “have reached North America.”

And so, the following morning, I returned to my burrow, to the sand. I added a signature in all my emails:

“Note,” it reads. “I am officially in the no. No news, no links, no memes, no nothing. Thanks.”

Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.

Were Kafka alive today, his Twitter account would no doubt be filled with enraged responses.

“Swimming in the afternoon? Check your privilege.”

“I can’t even.”

“Because Jew.”

“It’s so easy to live with your head in the sand.”

Maybe it used to be. These days it takes tremendous, valiant effort. Try it if you think it’s “easy,” I dare you. Go a week. Go a day. You won’t make it past lunch.

Real isolation, healthy isolation, is hard.

In case you’re interested, these are the rules, and they are inviolable: no news, no newspapers, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Insta, no nothing.

You’ll still hear the news, trust me. There’s no total escape. Sadly, sand is porous, and the news still gets through. I know the COVID-19 death count, I know the fear, I know the grief. I know that George Floyd was murdered, and, yes, the brutality of it made me break my own rule. I watched the news, for two days. For what? What did I learn? That there’s institutionalized racism in America? That cops like power? That authority is a drug, and those who are hooked on it only need more of it to feed their addiction? True, I didn’t know about the curfew, but the police and their megaphones let me know pretty quick. Being controlled by media doesn’t make you a better citizen. It doesn’t make you more caring or more concerned. It makes you dizzy and tense, and something of a sucker. If I could bury my head in cement, I would.

“That,” social media will insist, “is no way to live.”

Tell that to the ostrich. Sure it’s ugly and not a big draw at the zoo. But with its head buried in the sand, it’s one of the oldest, most successful mammals on Earth. The giraffe, meanwhile—head up, seeing all—is endangered.

Shmuck.

So you go ahead. You watch the news and follow Twitter and check in with Facebook. I’ll be here with the ostrich, enjoying the sand, and swimming with Kafka in the afternoon.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.

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