Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Media Fast

The So We Might See Coalition, an interfaith media justice group coordinated by the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc., is joining a national effort for this year’s Media Fast: Free Screen Week.
Initiated by the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents, and individuals who care about their children, Free Screen Week is slated for April 18 – 24, 2011. This year it coincides with several of the holy observances of various faith communities.
The coalition is offering a series of on-line reflections from various faith perspectives, Christian Protestant and Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, among them.
My friend Andrea Cano, chair of OC, Inc., invited me to submit one of those 250-word reflections. My humble contribution follows:

He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
─ Psalm 46:9-10a (NRSV)

God, our heads spin with raucous music, news updates, tweets and TXTs, interspersed with noisy ads that – as Brother Thomas said – treat all products with reverence due to the sacraments. Save us, God. Soothe us with silence. Amen.

My formative years came at the end of the golden age of radio and at the cusp of the golden age of television. My blogs are filled with nostalgic reminiscences of radio dramas that evoked dazzling images in my brain far superior to anything 3D Blue Ray has yet achieved. And when I recall my childhood friends, I think first of Lucy and Desi and Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett.

I am not the only Boomer for whom media were as profoundly influential as our teachers. No two people had a greater impact on my life than John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and I remember them with affection, quote them to my children and choke-up on the anniversaries of their deaths. And yet I never met either man; their images and voices were merely flickers of light and sound on cathode ray tubes.

Media are pervasive. Just driving around, you can tell by the bowed heads, contorted hands and interrupted gait of passersby that they are TXTing. Others show by vague expressions that their brains are locked between the earphones of an MP3. None of this is inherently bad, except that it diverts you from the real human beings who you live and with whom you live. “A daydream,” Brother Thomas Merton said, “is an evasion,” and media create daydreams that don’t go away.

A week-long media fast can bring us closer to those we love. May God clear our heads of the daydreams and evasions that distract us.

Squeezing this important topic into 250 words was discipline enough; following through on the challenge will require even greater self-control.

Dream On, a nineties HBO series featured a neurotic New Yorker portrayed by Brian Benben whose childhood was spent watching fifties television programs in his New York apartment, and whose adulthood was spent flashing back to memories of TV past. When Benben’s Martin Tupper character faced stressful situations, scenes from black-and-white films noir or Leave it to Beaver flashed before his eyes. Dream On made the point that television has permeated our consciousness and blurs our reality.

My childhood differed from Martin Tupper’s only in venue: I watched television in a small town house with an expansive yard surrounded by cow pastures and forests. When George Reeves’ Superman was on, my brother Larry and I would tie towel capes around our necks and leap heroically off our bunk bed. When Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett was king of the wild frontier, we hunted b’ar in a small but dense forest at the top of the hill, sometimes dragging our father’s heavy crowbar along because we thought it looked like a flintlock. Unlike cloistered apartment dwellers in Manhattan, our TV-stimulated imagination had practical outlets, most of them healthy. (I do apologize to Larry for blinding him with cellophane-molded Clark Kent glasses and pushing him off the top bunk. What can I say? I thought we could fly.)

My last media fast was in 1964 when I was in basic training in Texas – an eight-week span that included the deposing of Khrushchev and the U.S. presidential campaign. After 18 years of getting my news from John Cameron Swayze and Douglas Edwards, it was strange to tune into the outside world entirely through the jaundiced eyes of drill sergeants. For weeks they convinced me that Barry Goldwater had the election in the bag. The experience was enough to persuade me that no one should be deprived of media, even if it was Fox News.

So – now that I’ve gone on record of supporting a media fast, how will I spend those seven desolate days in April. Is there really life without Facebook, House and Bones? Will I sublimate my inner rage without Criminal Minds? How will I know what’s going on in the world without Roger Ebert’s tweets? And what will the rest of the world do without my penetrating press notices and web updates I’m paid to write?

One of the purposes of the media fast is to set aside the distractions that place psychic walls between you and your loved ones. But I must admit that I am happiest at the end of the day when I lie in bed with my partner, humming along with Glee’s New Directions chorus, laughing at Homer and Bart or watching a favorite character actor on Law & Order SVU and wondering where we’d seen her before. It’s possible for media to bring folks closer together, though not always.

My spouse hates John Wayne, who I loved. And I hate HBO’s Big Love, which she adored.

As the seven-day media fast looms closer, I will try to follow the code of John Woolman, the 18th century Quaker mystic whose journal had an enormous impact on my college days. Woolman, a notary public, resolved he would do nothing that would hurt another person. He refused to notarize wills that passed on slaves as property. He convinced tavern owners to stop selling whiskey. He wouldn’t ride in stage coaches because the drivers abused the horses. And his daily garb, contrary to the image of a frontier Quaker, was made of white muslin rather than black wool because he feared the harsh dye blinded the slaves who made the clothing. He must have cast a memorable image in colonial America, ambling around New Jersey on a dusty ass, dressed in a permanently wrinkled yellowing and possibly redolent costume.

In our rather more complex society, a media fast – boycott would be another way to put it – may hurt as many people as it helps. It may create holy spaces for families to come closer together or it may create caves of resentment as children smolder over their parents’ decision that family time is more important than DeGrassi. And too often decisions about which media hurt and which media help are made for the wrong reasons – as when Republicans vote to remove funding for public broadcasting.

In the final analysis, perhaps a media fast doesn’t have to be absolute. Some Christian traditions (not mine) suspend Lenten fasts on Sundays to give the faithful the will to remain sacrificially strong all the way to Easter.

That could work for me. I don’t know yet how successful my own fast will be. But I can say this without equivocation: this April 18-24, I will righteously eschew O’Reilly, Beck and – no matter how much it hurts – Limbaugh. But after a draining week of media deprivation, I will sneak out to my car and turn on the radio and drink in the wisdom of America’s true pundits: Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, on NPR’s Car Talk.

No one else need know. And what a glorious breakfast that will be.

Comment below: what will YOU give up?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Doris from Rego Park

She died in 2003, and unless you follow all-night sports radio in New York, you would not have  heard of her.

In fact, the woman satisfied all the criteria for perfect obscurity.

Into her fifties, she lived in Queens with her parents, elderly Jews who fled the Holocaust. She suffered from neurofibromatosis - Elephant Man's Disease - that required frequent operations to remove skin tumors from her face and body. She had lung cancer and a chronic cough. She had an autistic compulsion to memorize factoids and arrange small objects in straight lines. She never married, she never learned to drive, and she never worked beyond menial office jobs.

Her name was Doris Bauer. Under most circumstances, she was the kind of person who elicits pity - an emblem of lives that amount to little and never quite begin. She's the kind of person you think of when you're alone on dark, cold nights, appraising your accomplishments and wondering if they add up to anything. And in the loneliness of the hour you might be tempted to thank God that your life - at least - adds up to more than Doris Bauer's.

But in New York, Doris is remembered for more than that. She is fondly recalled by thousands of people who never met her but whose lives she touched.

This year, as spring training begins and a new baseball season looms, a mournful ballad is making its way to New York area radios and MP3 players, first on WFAN - a sports call-in station - and more recently on Jonathan Schwartz's weekend program of wonderfully eclectic music on National Public Radio's WNYC. Written and performed by Don Rosler, the song tells of the frequent late-night calls Doris made to WFAN, introducing herself as "Doris from Rego Park." Her voice on the radio became so familiar over the years that when she took the subway to Shea Stadium for Sunday games, people would recognize her by her irrepressible cough.

Listeners to WFAN quickly realized that Doris was also a loyal Mets fan and a superior tactician. In an always pleasant but sometimes struggling voice, Doris would suggest trades, line-ups and ways of motivating the team to play harder and smarter. Mets managers who tuned in to WFAN realized her advice was valuable, even when it came too late. She said trading Lenny Dykstra "was the second worst trade" the team ever made. She did not deny rumors that she had a crush on Dykstra, as well as on Ed Kranepool.

It's hard to imagine a more lonely medium than late night radio. 

"What is comes down to is aloneness," WNYC's Schwartz said in an email to the New York Times. It's the medium of choice by shift workers, insomniacs, nocturnal loners and those recently separated from someone they love. It's the medium that enables people who have no one to touch to imagine a connection with the voices of strangers. "The city at night," Schwartz writes. "Doris calls. You hear, you listen. It's snowing. Alone."

No one really knows if Doris was a lonely person herself. Her brother, Harold Bauer, told the New York Times that she was happiest when she set her alarm for 1 a.m. so she could call WFAN. She did that so often that regular listeners looked forward to her voice. Doris from Rego Park made a connection with untold hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people who came to depend on her insights, her auditory companionship and her unfailing politeness. She ended every call with thanks to the host and listeners "for your time and courtesy."

There may be hundreds of rabbis, priests, imams and ministers in New York who would have pitied Doris while thanking God that their own lives had a greater impact on people. Some of them might be right, but when Doris died in 2003, her brother said he inundated with sympathy cards.

Listeners of WFAN knew they had lost someone very important to them. Doris reached out to other lonely people on cold, dark nights, and together they found the spark that makes life important.

Doris of Rego Park

By Don Rosler

Doris from Rego Park,
Calls by day and calls by dark.
She just phoned in at 2:10 am
In NYC on FAN.

Doris talks about the Mets,
Who they shouldn’t have got,
Who they should get,
I’m not quite sure if she ever sleeps.
She seems to keep all her hours with me.

She has a chronic cough that makes it hard for her to talk
But that don’ t stop tonight’s discussion of offensive woes.
I think we have in common that our most constant companion is our radio’
I know I’m tuned every night when I hear
Doris from Rego Park
She mourns the lack of lead-off spark.
Through central park up to outer space
Floats her new proposal for a trade
I wonder if those far away and in the future will agree
The second worst trade ever, letting Dykstra go?
Are they under their own spell of great obsessions
they express on space age call in shows.

Well all I know is I stay up ‘til hear
Doris of  Rego Park,
Calls by day and calls by dark.
Each call concludes when she says thank you for your time and courtesy.
Now I wonder if she’ll drift off to sleep
With her radio on like me.