“And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
“I read the news today, oh boy.”
— The Beatles
I wanted to write about new fall releases this week. I really did. But this here came tumbling out.
Because this week I found myself hunting in my closet, looking for my old flip-phone.
This week I reread novels set in quiet long agos, landscapes as remote as I could find: Jack London’s Alaska. Ernest Hemingway’s Africa. Cormac McCarthy’s Mexico border.
This week I lost myself in nature shows on TV. Shows about people who live on the outer edge of the outer edge.
One episode featured a tribe living in unmapped swath of rainforest; they hadn’t changed their way of life for 3,000 years. They still hunt as one village with one big net. They were barefoot, they trapped porcupine, they lived 30 miles downriver from the nearest dirt road.
And I thought to myself: Hmm. That hut looks like a nice little escape. Nowhere I’d want to live forever… but for week? I could deal with porcupine.
This week, buddy, I dreamed of escape.
Maybe all of us did.
Maybe everybody is having the same dream.
Of taking John Prine’s advice: blowin’ up your TV, movin’ to the country, eatin’ lots of peaches, buildin’ you a home. (But please, dear God, don’t throw away your paper. Or at least save the Living Arts section.)
But we don’t really want to leave home. And I wouldn’t last a day in the rainforest.
We fantasize about escape because we need a mental escape.
This is nothing new.
The escape fantasy has existed long before this year, and long before Henry David Thoreau lasted two years at Walden Pond.
The escape fantasy is all but built-in to human social structure. It’s human nature. As long as we’ve come together in tribes, we’ve simultaneously sought escape.
We’re not looking to escape comfort or protection or camaraderie — which is why we don’t often run. Or switch back to flip phones.
We’re looking to escape some aspect of the tribe’s overall culture that begins to grate on our insides.
The real phenomenon here is that these past weeks have felt, for many of us, like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Google and you’ll find newspaper articles from around the country about what we now call “news fatigue.”
There are memes, and gifs about it. A growing number of meditation apps for your phone.
According to a Pew Research Poll in June, 68 percent of Americans described being "worn out" by the news. That’s 7 in 10 of us.
That was in June. That’s lightyears ago in 2018 time. A far more innocent time.
A New Yorker cartoon summed it up with two people talking: “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”
— — —
In the mid-19th century, when Thoreau ran to Walden Pond, he was looking to escape some aspect of his tribe’s culture that was grating on his insides.
He was looking to escape the defining cultural movement of his time and culture: Growing Industry. Capitalism.
He tells us right off the bat:
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life … to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
In 2018, the defining aspect of American culture is Ubiquitous Information.
It’s all but inescapable.
It buzzes from our phones and plays nonstop on TV and blinks and beeps and pulses from every screen and tablet and waiting room and gas station pump with TV news built in near the nozzle.
But it’s really not the screen or the news we’re trying to escape.
It’s the sadness.
It’s the sick feeling. The uneasiness.
The squiggle of despair that grows inside us, a blackened sprout, millimeter by millimeter, emerging from some rotten seed, somewhere deep inside you, branching out with every sad announcement. Encroaching and choking the hope.
Each sad story, another millimeter.
One by one by one by one by one by one by one.
Yes, and I thought this week of the defeated Daisy Buchanan, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
I thought of the scene when she tells Nick about her baby daughter:
“It'll show you how I've gotten to feel about things … [I] asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said, 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool — that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’"
And that may be the saddest truth of all.
And that may be what a lot of us have felt this week.
And that might be part of what makes a lot of us want to escape.
Maybe that’s why I read Jack London and shut off my phone and watched a tribe in the rainforest. They seemed so happy dancing around that fire.
But you know what?
It’s easy to turn it off. It’s easy to run away. To dream of jungles and porcupines.
Believing is what’s hard.
And we have to believe.
We have to believe that ok, yes, maybe Daisy is right today — but that she won’t always be right.
We have to believe the news will not always be this sad. That depressing stories won’t always keep coming like a broken faucet.
Because at the end of the day, we have to be more like Gatsby than Daisy.
We have to believe in tomorrow.
We have to believe in the green light. The hope sitting across the water.
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and book columnist. Contact her at email@example.com. She tweets @laurendaley1. Read more at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer.