I am having a very difficult time in my French conversation class and it is not so much because I don’t speak French that well, but rather because frequently the conversation turns to politics and/or news items. I am not up on either. As for politics, if I know the name of the President of the “Communauté de Communes” it is because I read it in the latest bulletin and could remember it because it has only one letter difference with my own last name (Domercq), but I couldn’t tell you who the mayor of Salies is if my life depended on it and I probably will never know it unless I need to speak to him urgently about something like a neighbor’s unleashed cat attacking my dog that I must put a leash on to take out on the street.
Then again, in as far as politics, I know who the president of Spain is even though I didn’t vote for him (I hadn’t become a Spanish national yet) because I was there when he was elected and because Spaniards are convinced that he is responsible for every problem the country has including, probably, the lack of rainfall. I know who the president of France is because it is hard not to if the only French songs one had listened to before moving here were those of Carla Bruni, and if, since moving here, one hears the name everyday accompanied usually by a sneer. I know who the president of the United States is because his election is the only political event I have gotten excited about in the last twenty years at least. I know who the president of Italy is because he is also mentioned nine times out of ten in negative conversations and now, of course, who the president of Egypt was up to a couple of days ago. I know the Chancellor of Germany is a woman but have no idea what her name is and only today discovered (I think although I might not have heard the French correctly) that she is East German and therefore looked down on by West Germans (although now there is but one Germany).
All this to say that in French Conversation Class I find myself sometimes very lost: they are talking about people of whom I have never heard. And I have never heard of them because I do not read newspapers or look at the news on the television or listen to the news on the radio.
Ok, I admit it: there aren’t many people in the world like me today. Uninformed. Politically illiterate. A moron when it comes to Current Events. People tend to ask me how I can live without knowing what is going on in the world. Very well, thank you, is my answer. And I would question that I don’t know what is going on in the world. I know what is going on in my world. For instance, the tiny bird that visits my bird feeder every day is called a Blue Tit and is not considered an endangered species which is a relief because a friend’s cat eats about three or four a week; the veterinary is on the road going up to my friend’s house and has emergency service 24/7 (I have his phone number); the neighbor who lives below me does not hear when I throw balls for Salomé because there is excellent sound insulation in the flooring; the regular garbage collection comes on Mondays (very early) and the recyclable collection every two weeks also on Monday, also very early; the gasoline (or petrol as the English call it) is cheaper at Carrefour on Saturdays; across the street from the supermarket there is a nurse’s office where for a minimal price one can have an injection administered; I know how to help people with their stressful thinking if they ask me and how to work on my own stressful thoughts if I happen to hear the news of the day by mistake; I know how to buy my local veggies in French which is good for me and for the locals that I buy from; I know where all the dog-sack dispensers are to pick up my idem’s droppings and usually any others that have been left and are nearby; in short, I know everything I need to know to be totally responsible for my own life and perhaps occasionally useful to the world around me. So, I ask you that might think I should be better informed:what use do I have in knowing that another Palestinian suicide bomber has just blown up thirty people of whom six were children and three elderly citizens in Jerusalem? Will it make me a better person to know this? Will it avoid my having accidents on the highway? Will I take more care of my dog if this information is in my head? Will my children be happier if their mother is duly informed of all the suicide bombers who blow themselves up in this world? I mean, what in heaven’s name is good about having this information in my head. I cannot do anything about it, but probably will do the worst thing possible which is to inform another person –who was happy up to that moment- about this tragedy so that then we can be two unhappily informed people.
Ok, so here you have it: as far as I am concerned , THE NEWS –BEING INFORMED- IS JUST ANOTHER ADDICTION which one can add to the already long list of possible addictions, including alcoholism, drug addiction, workaholism, addiction to computer games, sex, spending, soap operas, etc. I first understood that this was true for me -although it might not be for anyone else- during “Desert Storm” when I found myself glued to CNN 18 hours a day watching the same scene over and over again and feeling the same emotions each time I watched. The FDA should investigate what this kind of news does to our adrenaline system and perhaps regulate it. Remember 9-11? How many times did we see the Towers fall? And they only fell once. How many times did we watch that man who jumped from the umpteenth floor fall to his death? And he only died once. But I personally felt the horror of that fall –which I can’t know existed in that man’s experience- a hundred times over. It was watching how I was allowing my emotions to be manipulated over and over and over again that suddenly made me realize just how addictive bad news was for me. Good news is not as addictive in my experience: all I have to do is compare the times I watched the towers fall to the times I watched the celebration for the Obama election to know this.
Actually, my realization of the addictiveness of television news came some time after I had already given up reading newspapers. That decision came somewhere back in the early eighties. It was at breakfast. I was eating a fried egg which looked –at that moment- brightly up at me from my plate. Like so many other people in the world, I had the morning news spread out between my coffee cup and the plate and was reading the headlines which said something like: FIVE HUNDRED SIXTY THREE DIE IN WORST AIRLINE CRASH IN HISTORY and there was a picture in black and white of pieces of aircraft, clothing and human forms strewn across a landscape somewhere in the world. Suddenly it hit me: something had to go, either the fried egg or the news, and I really loved fried eggs. There was a basic incompatibility between normal everyday life and the NEWS. Obviously I stopped reading the paper, I unsubscribed and never again has a paper darkened my doorstep. Eggs I still eat.
So how do I manage to live, in this world, without information? Very well, thank you. I have realized that everything I need to know will reach me eventually, usually in time to avoid a disaster if there was one lurking, which is not very often. For example: one day in Madrid not so long ago, during Chi Kung class, my good friend Carmen asked what I was going to do about my investments in the stock market. When she saw my blank look she informed me that the stock market was taking a plunge. So I went home, opened up my internet program, sold all my holdings on the stock market and put them into a savings account, closed the internet and went about my day. Did I lose money? Well, that depends. If I measure what I received from the sale against what I had the day before the market started to fall, then it might be said that I had lost money. On the other hand, if I measure what I received from my sale against what I originally invested, then no way did I lose money. But people will tell you that millions were lost because they read the newspaper and that is what the newspapers reported: Millions lost as Stock Markets across the world Plunge!!! They don’t tell you that the people who lost those “millions” had a lot more after the plunge than what they had invested in the first place because that is not “news” unless they can prove that those people actually stole that money from you and me (the small guy). So I was just as well informed about an event that it was in my interest to do something about as the millions of people reading the headlines that morning. The only difference was that as I hadn’t read the papers I didn’t panic, and my vision of what had been lost and what had been gained wasn’t the least bit unsettling for me.
The truth is that I don’t want to know about things that I can do nothing about, and that brings me back to politics. I can do nothing about politics. I know: you’ll say I can vote, well that isn’t true in my case. I have only voted in a presidential election once in my life. It was back in the year 2000, precisely the first of December of that year, in Mexico. I was 58 years old and I had never voted before. Up to that time I had been an American citizen but as I had not lived in the United States since the age of 9 it had never interested me to vote for an American president. At the age of 57 I gave up my US citizenship and became a Mexican. I still remember the ceremony and receiving a kiss on the cheek from the then president Ernesto Zedillo when I gave him a copy of one of my novels. So when the historic elections that removed the dominant PRI party from office after 72 years of uninterrupted rule came about, I could vote and vote I did. That time in Mexico was just as exciting as the Obama election in the US, it just wasn’t as important to the rest of the world and therefore to international news coverage. I remember standing in line for the first time, showing my brand new voting credential, putting my mark on the ballot and depositing it in the urn and then going absolute bananas along with the rest of the country that night when the victory was announced. So that was the one time in my life that I voted for a president.
During the next elections in Mexico, I was already living in Spain. When the presidential elections took place in Spain I still didn’t have my Spanish nationality (I spent some years playing musical nationalities) so I couldn’t vote; now, there are upcoming elections in Spain but I have moved to France and the fact is that I don’t even know who is running (I don’t read the papers) and I would have to drive to Madrid to be able to vote. So I won’t vote in those elections either.
So in French conversation class, I understand very little of what goes on once the topic of politics appears. And as far as news goes, I am definitely a wet blanket for adrenaline junkies. If someone tells me about the latest car crash on the A64 (from Bayonne to Pau) I will probably counter that 546 people arrived home safely that same day or 6789 have driven back and forth to work on that same highway this month without a scratch on their cars. A couple of weeks ago, a lion trainer with a visiting circus had her arm slightly mauled by one of her lions: it made headlines in the Salies newspaper (Trainer Mauled by Lion) with photos and all and a good friend told me about it waving the paper in my face. The fact is that probably that same lion trainer had worked with that same lion for over 12 years without a mishap and nobody thought of putting it in headlines. One plane crash makes front page; five million flights a year that arrive safely go unsung. In other words, we have a barrel of bright, red apples and we’re going to eat the rotten one every time.
So I guess I must beg the forgiveness of my French conversation class when I fall silent and perhaps stare down at my notebook or scribble in the margins. It is not that I don’t agree with you, it is that you lost me a long time ago: I have no idea at all what you are talking about, and probably would have no opinion on the matter even if I did.