Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: News Cycle Fatigue, unplugging yourself, and fighting off the thieves of wonder

Matt Labash Columnist
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Matt, I am world weary from gas prices, Wisconsin unions, Charlie Sheen’s web Korner (sic.) and the constitutionality of Obamacare. However, I am looking forward to a forthcoming fly fishing trip in Buena Vista, Colorado. What do you recommend for an out-of-season fisherman from Kansas to do with the idle hours that beats wandering political websites and entertainment blogs? A good read? A good rye whiskey? To be sure, I already have a copy of “Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.” — Ian Bartalos, Prairie Village

Well I’m really sorry that nuclear meltdowns, thousands of bloated bodies washing ashore, and natural disasters straight from the book of Revelation aren’t enough to hold your interest. (In fairness to you, you wrote this question before the Pacific Ocean tried to swallow up the good people of Japan, but you could have known it was coming anyway, since all was foretold on YouTube.)

If I’m being honest however, we’re on the same team. You have what we in the information gathering business know as NCF – News Cycle Fatigue. I suffer from it myself. Aside from paying extra attention during calamitous happenings which bring about massive human suffering — the Japanese tsunami, the  Haitian earthquake,  9/11, “The Joy Behar Show” – I’ve been going through the motions since about ’97. I don’t remember if there was a single event which triggered my NCF. Perhaps it was the orgy of attention which accompanied Princess Di’s death. Which much resembled the orgy of attention that accompanied her life. Her candle might’ve burned out long before her legend ever did. But my interest burned out around her 47th People cover.

Part of the problem is that no matter what you do to busy yourself, no matter how hard you try to ignore it, the news keeps coming – and most of it’s bad. In the pre-Internet era, you’d be reminded of this only occasionally when your local newspaper thudded onto your doorstep (this was in the olden days, when people still read newspapers, and still had doorsteps, before their houses were foreclosed on). Or when Dan Rather brought you his nightly Dan Ratherisms, news “that was hotter than a Laredo parking lot” which left us not knowing “whether to wind the watch or to bark at the moon.” (I still have no idea what he was talking about.) Perhaps you got a little extra dose of local news when pulling up a peach crate down at the General Store, where you’d help yourself to the pickle barrel and a cold RC Cola, as Farmer Jim, whittling a block of wood while holding court, disseminated town gossip and sweet-corn planting tips.

But for the most part, you weren’t so ever-connected not only to global misfortune, but to the soul-sucking death by a thousand cuts that social media brings. You weren’t chained to your computer, and felt freer to leave the house and live your life, to make some catastrophes of your own, instead of vicariously absorbing everyone else’s so that you could pass ironic judgment on them in the comments section of someone’s bile-spitting blog.

Which is not to say you should be detached. Help whomever you can, whenever you can. God knows plenty of people need it. But nowadays, if you buried yourself alive in a hermetically-sealed coffin beneath six feet of Mother Earth, your chirping smart phone, which you forgot to turn off, would seek you out and bring you the RSS feed of The Damned. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of which sign of the Apocalypse we’re on – earthquakes, financial ruin, the aforementioned Charlie Sheen, who seems to have popped the Seventh Seal (“The scoreboard doesn’t lie,” as the Prophet Charlie sayeth).  So all I can suggest if you’re in need of breathing again, is to find a way to periodically unplug yourself. Drop your iPhone in the john. Stay off Facebook and Twitter and Drudge. The Daily Caller – who needs them and their loser advice columnist? The guy’s kind of a downer.

You’re a fisherman, so get next to water – always my first prescription for whatever’s ailing you. If you can’t, then take the sainted Walker Percy’s advice, and pour yourself a bourbon (I don’t drink much rye – I leave that to our Canadian friends). Preferably Maker’s Mark or Blanton’s, though if you feel like going cheaper, Evan Williams will do. Get quiet. Read the Proverbs. Listen to the voice of God, if He happens to be in. And try to remember what your own voice used to sound like before you started spending 24/7 listening to everyone else’s.

Then let what Percy called “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx  and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime” work its magic. Since “what, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world and him thinking, ‘Jesus: is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’”

Or if that’s too nihilistic for you, tuck into the wonderful outdoors writer Nelson Bryant. A great friend of mine shoved Bryant’s collection, “Outdoors,”  into my hands years ago, and I’m forever grateful that he did. Because if you can’t get outside into nature (it’s not terribly hard to find – it resides directly on the other side of your door), he will take you there with words. He wrote the following to his daughters. And while I’ve not been a daughter –not since the gender reassignment  procedure —  his advice is sound enough that it’s worth letting him cut in at length:

“The secret I would have you know……is that even though the years will steal your fresh beauty, it need only be, in truth, a minor theft. What you must guard against is that jaded state wherein there is nothing new to see or learn.

“Marvel at the sun, rejoice in the rhythmic wheeling of the stars and learn their names, cry aloud at the swelling beauty of an orchid in the white oak woods, or December’s first snow; slide down the wind with a hawk and cherish the smell of woodsmoke and mayflowers, or the caress of a warm wool blanket; tarry by a stream where willows bend and flee tedium’s gray embrace.

“Cherish laughter and whimsy, but battle unrelentingly for what you know is right and be aware that the thieves of wonder can enter any heart.

“This does not mean that you will forever walk in fields of flowers where sweet birds sing, although there is no father who has not, for a time at least, wished this for his girls.

“You will love and be loved, hurt and be hurt, and you will know despair and taste regret, but if your father’s wish is answered, you will accept all this and ask for more.

“Look back, my girls, but not too often and more to learn than to regret, for regret grows fat as hope grows lean……”

In short, get away from the news whenever you’re able to find an escape hatch – you’ll feel cleaner when you do. Some of it’s important, but most of it’s just background noise people use to distract themselves. So you’ll be better served by learning to selectively ignore it, while getting down to the more pressing business of living. As Kermit Ruffins sings, along with my friends in the Rebirth Brass Band, “It’s Later Than You Think.”

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.