Now that the weather is warm and businesses are open I’ve opted for a short summer haircut, which means visiting the barber (a hip guy place that also welcomes women with short hair) around every six weeks. Like many people during the pandemic I’m out of practice with the small talk that transpires in a hair salon so I let him do much of the talking. He had to close his shop for many months last year, and since he reopened he has completely stopped following the news, online, on TV, in print (although he does offer an assortment of magazine and daily papers in his shop, he doesn’t read them). I learn this as my first short cut occurred during the Derek Chavin trial of the murder of George Floyd, which I was watching on my phone. He barely knew about the case although he was aware of all the protests that took place in the murder’s aftermath last year. This past visit the big story was Israel and Hamas.
No news at all?! I ask him. No, he’s done with it. I don’t want to argue with a man with a pair of scissors in his hand, there’s too much at stake. Steak is more like it, or the lack thereof. We talk about healthy eating instead because he sees his news fast as somehow related, that he is abstaining from something that didn’t feel good for him. He is careful with his diet, he has a business to run and doesn’t want to feel too heavy or bloated. I try not to judge him for removing himself completely from what is going on around him, and yet I do question the extremity of his choice. What about news that affects him as a small business owner? Surely he cares about how much funding should go to help Main Street, the recently passed Relief Act, the debates about the infrastructure proposal? Whether he follows it or not the news will have an impact on him, his life and his livelihood.
I’m such a news junkie by comparison, although I see it less as an addiction and more as a civic duty to know what is going on in the world: locally, nationally, internationally. Yet the fact is he’s right in one regard: much of what I read or hear IS depressing: from India to Israel to the latest mass shooting in Indiana/Florida/California…every few weeks another gun tragedy. Whether you keep up or close yourself off, major events occur every day that affect millions of people, and local politics and national policies have a big impact on our lives. How much you pay in taxes and what you get for those taxes, proposed changes and compromises on both sides reflect a divisiveness that is wearying. I see his point. Do I really need to keep reading about the vast number of people who believe in big lies (most glaringly, that Trump won the last election)?
There are days and even weeks I try to limit myself, but I can’t see myself going cold turkey. Just when I feel burnt out on the same old same old a new story grabs me, like Naomi Osaka’s backing out of the French Open for mental health reasons and I see opportunities for important conversations about depression and anxiety, in sports and the wider world. I find discussions that bring in diverse swaths of people around important topics. What used to be called human interest stories are called that for a reason, for all the ways news can pull people apart into their separate political camps it can also bring people together. And in this way following the news can make me feel less alone, remind me that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, an ecosystem of other humans; it gives me perspective beyond the sameness in our lives in this household where the biggest change is the weather. Life in a bubble is dull and limiting.
I scroll through the news on the NY Times app and skip more than I read this week. I can easily get lost in headlines that depress me: more than a third of heat deaths are tied to climate change. Another example of how devastating so many stories are. Do I really need to read the article when I know the conclusion ? And yet isn’t that important? I like learning new things and this is how I do it: I read, and to a lesser extent watch – because I find cable news ever more slanted – programs that fill me in on what is happening around me. On topics I know I care about and also on those I don’t have as much interest in yet want to be informed of, like business and technology. Things that still matter whether they are on my radar or not.
I have tried to do a news fast once a week, a Shabbat unplugging of sorts but I find even that challenging. I could easily go a day and not miss out on anything so important I can’t catch up on Sunday yet it’s a daily habit I find hard to break. It’s a goal I have not been able to reach completely, yet I have been able to limit myself to a quick skim or two rather than any deep dives some Saturdays (harder to do now that the days are so long). And those days when I do take a break it does feel good, like a cleanse without sugar, something that is not really as difficult as you anticipate once you do it once or twice.
Yet I can’t imagine the detachment required to say no to the world around me to the extent that my barber has. I want to ask him more about how it feels to not know about anything going on outside of his own life and business for a whole year, but again, the blade in his hand, my head in his care, I don’t know how to broach the subject without getting too impassioned. And haven’t I taken a complete break from social media? That might feel extreme to some people. There are many attributes to it: keeping up with loved ones, sharing important information or pieces/pictures of your life, being part of groups that are helpful, gaining other perspectives. As a writer I’d have a much wider network, something I know I’d appreciate. But the endless perfect family photos; the vacations (at least pre-pandemic); the bragging, humble and otherwise; the elaborate renovations and landscaping I could do without; the travel and socializing and other things I long for…it all put me in too much of a funk that it wasn’t worth it. I appreciate people who are good at separating what is useful or nourishing from what is not, something I can do with the news far better than I could with social media. Maybe my barber too struggles with being judicious, with being more selective with what he takes in and so he chooses to shut it all out. I try to have compassion for that, for the part of his decision I understand all too well. Balance is a hard thing to maintain.
And so we talk about food, mention our kids and family, the weather. I watch as he take a little too much off the sides of my head and hold my tongue. It will grow in soon enough, and I’ll be back. I’ll know the result of the New York City primary by then, there likely will be some closure on the infrastructure bill, I’ll probably be watching Wimbledon and keeping up with a handful of other stories. No news is no news. Not good or bad; simply a way to live without the stories that swirl so freely around us.