I spend much of my time in Costa Rica. When I’m there I have very little exposure to North American news and culture. The big scandals and important world events show up in the newspapers and on cable TV, but I have to make a real effort to see them and without any context I often don’t understand what’s going on. In Costa Rica, if we walk into Cahuita from the jungle to watch an important soccer match or to get groceries, Roberto always gets a couple of newspapers to consume till the next town trip. If we stay in a hotel in San Jose with television, we devour lots of news and movies. In Monteverde it’s the radio. The world comes to me in fits and starts.
When I’m in Canada, I’m constantly on the internet, listening to CBC on the radio, watching TVs that are mounted everywhere it would seem, talking about it all with friends – I’m full of what’s going on, listening to the buzz of pop-culture and politics, and caught up in the latest media diet.
And so – how nuts is this world? There are the horrid images of crimes and tragedies that bombard us, played over and over again until a new one replaces them. Just as disturbing are the outrageous lives that we are voyeurs of, the excess of wealth and celebrity that plays in stark contrast to the devastation of war and poverty.
After awhile a person can lose their perspective and get real confused about what is of real importance or not, and whose lives seem to be of more value or interest. Television obscures reality from both ends – for those of us consuming the edited fodder, and for those who live their lives feeding us what they think we should know.
When I get away from the media, I feel myself slow down and my breathing changes. My exasperation builds when I’m paying too much attention. I’m aware that the extreme stuff is still happening when I’m oblivious, but I don’t have to think about it when the images aren’t in my face. I can concentrate on choosing what I think are more valuable issues to fill my brain with. I feel a very different sense of tranquility when I’m living in the jungle or the bush, and it’s not just because of the beauty, power and peace of my natural surroundings.
Because I’m savvy to this huge media cloud that threatens my own truth-o-meter while telling me the-way-it-supposedly-is, and my awareness is peaked when I return to my North American life after chilling in my less-hooked-up life in the tropics, I admit that I react more to what I hear, see or read. For a brief while upon my reintroduction to North American culture, I am still thinking straight before I become blurry once again. It makes me worry for children who consume massive amounts of television, much more than we were allowed in our day – and really, we only watched nice shows like Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan.
What is considered important, normal and reasonable, that is, what is reality in the developing brains of children today?
Lately there have been a few conversations on television that have blown my mind, some by celebrities who I basically respect. Is it my imagination or are the wealthy celebrities having a little backlash to the New Order for the Common Good as suggested (if not yet implemented) by Obama (and in the new documentary by Michael Moore.) In the last week I heard Oprah and Barbra Streisand sit together and talk about just being poor girls at heart – “if you are raised poor, you’ll always be a poor girl at heart”. And in the next breath, Barbra declared how Oprah needed to go to Spain and join her at a restaurant which I happen to know is considered one of the most expensive in the world. I appreciate that they may cherish memories of the simple life and insecurities might follow them from their humble beginnings, but these women are so beyond not even just rich anymore, it is staggering. I don’t understand how they can’t just shake their heads in disbelief at how ridiculously wealthy they are rather than claiming to still think in terms of food stamps. Maybe they could start a new fad – instead of adopting children from the third world, they could adopt whole countries and share their wealth that way since they have more money than many countries’ GNP. I know I know, Oprah does lotsa good I’m sure, probably Barbra too, but there is also a disconnect going on that grates me.
A year or two ago, I remember catching a moment of Oprah on a roadtrip with her sidekick Gayle and they had to stay in a regular motel – the family-run kind that my family certainly would be staying in (with great excitement) on the one night of the holiday when my parents let us stay in a motel instead of camping. The kind that millions use gracefully and billions more would be happy for the opportunity of visiting one day. Oprah whined and fussed about having to be there so much that I remember feeling embarrassed for the motel owners. She almost kissed the tiled floor in the lobby of the Ramada or Hyatt or whatever upscale hotel she was in the following night. I guess it was honest of her producers to keep these scenes in her show, but anyone I know who saw this bit came away shaking their heads.
My personal biggest beef with Oprah is her love of “stuff” and her desire to share “her favourite things” with the world. I guess with all the thousands of shows she’s done and the experts she’s met, she hasn’t figured out that consumerism is one of the biggest threats to the planet. Promoting more and more stuff and sharing the satisfaction she feels in accumulation of it also grates me.
I guess she won’t be putting Walking with Wolf on her bookclub list any time soon!
Another day, I saw Whoopi defending wealthy folks who do good work with their cash, not wanting to be lumped in with the wealthy folk who don’t. This was in reaction to Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. There were many things she could have said about the doc, and the issues it raised, but that was her reaction. Of course it was only a day or two later that she defended the convicted-rapist-escapist Roman Polanski – it wasn’t really “rape-rape” (read the court transcript and decide). How would she look at the case if he wasn’t a fellow celebrity? I’ve always really liked Whoopi as both an entertainer and a smart out-spoken woman, but I’m questioning if she and I are on the same planet these days.
Then there’s the foofarah of David Letterman’s admitted trysts with female employees. Does anyone really think this stuff DOESN’T go on? If we hear that there was actual harassment as opposed to mutual consent or jobs lost because of refusing to partake – well, that is different. At this point, doesn’t one expect to hear these stories about celebrities (that alone your neighbours?)…and if you were going to marry one, would you truly be surprised if this happened? And in a celebrity-driven-universe, don’t you expect underlings to want to have their moment with the great ones? Perhaps personal morals aren’t what they used to be, but certainly in moments of idol worship, what else do you expect. I’m sure Cleopatra had the pick-of-her-groupies too.
My favorite response to Letterman’s situation was Craig Ferguson, the recovering alcoholic Scots-funny man who’s show follows Letterman’s, saying, “If we are now holding our late-night talk show hosts to the same moral accountability as our politicians and clergymen, I’m out. I’m gone.” Those standards obviously aren’t always being met by the latter gang but don’t we have more reason to be concerned about their behaviour and how it affects our daily lives? Some things are just more important than others.
I seldom write about this stuff, but it has been in my face these last couple weeks as autumn comes on. I’ve been in my house, writing, staying warm, trying not to spend money. I’m letting myself be distracted from my work to see what is going on out there on the glamorous side of the world (while tsunamis, earthquakes and wars continue to terrorize those in other hemispheres). My head is spinning from the absurdity of what I hear, my heart breaks for those who suffer in this lop-sided world, my body reminds me to leave all this behind, go outside and breathe before I’m grated raw.
I really appreciate the wonderful, down-to-earth, thoughtful people I’m lucky enough to have as friends and the time I spend with them reminds me that there is still something in the middle, a “normal” class, that crosses economic lines but is based on humane notions of accountability. I thank my friends for making it through life with kindness and humour even when we struggle (and I thank them for providing the photo-track to this blog.)
And then Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. May he get the support he needs to live up to the challenge of making this world a better place, starting in Washington.
I can turn off the TV now… I’ll go grate some cheese instead.