The Joy of Detachment

by Chez Pazienza

There was a time I was a slave to my cellphone or, in the now unthinkable pre-cellphone era, my pager. When my phone rang or my beeper buzzed, and it was work on the other end, it was as if Pavlov had picked up a bell and started clanging it all over the room. I stopped in my tracks and knew what I had to do next: run to a television; call the newsdesk; forget whatever my plans were for the rest of the day; prepare myself for the next round of breaking news to come barreling into my relative calm. Because that was my job. I was a TV news producer. I was a slave to my pager and my phone and, most importantly, the world they kept me in constant contact with. I was never not on-call. A big enough breaker could upend even the most significant personal commitment and could keep me at “the office” for days on end. As such, there was never a minute that I didn’t know exactly what was going on in the world. My job both depended on it and kept me constantly reminded of it.

When I left television news, the weight was lifted somewhat. Yes, I still had to know what was going on in the world if I wanted to be an informed and insightful online writer, both here and at my own site, Deus Ex Malcontent, but I was under no ironclad obligation to write about any particular subject. One of the great joys of working here has always been that I’ve gotten paid to write only about subjects that interest me from one minute to the next. The columnists here at The Daily Banter have complete editorial and creative freedom, which means that if I’m, say, burned out on seeing Donald Trump’s cartoonish face, no matter how important it may be that we continue to knock him down a peg at every opportunity, I can shirk my responsibility to report on every grotesque thing he does. We’re not the paper of record here. We serve at our own pleasure — and that’s a great position to be in.

But there are times when even that level of freedom begins to feel like a cage. And maybe this is why: It often seems impossible to escape the news when you’re trained to pay attention to it. Particularly if your job requires you to, if not be a slave to current events, then at least have some idea what the hell is going on out there. When you sit in front of a computer writing all day, with every news site as well as social media open in a tab in front of you, the events of the day filter in even if you’re not 100% paying attention to them. You have a basic situational awareness of what’s happening in the world. Given the prevalence of social media, to say nothing of the fact that each of us now carries around a supercomputing link to everything in his or her pocket, I figured it was simply impossible to be so distracted that big events just slip by without your noticing at all. 

As I learned two weekends ago, however, it can happen. You can still miss major “stories” if you’re not sitting down someplace staring directly at them and if you’re not required by your career to be on the lookout for them. It was two weekends ago that I arrived in Detroit for a new television job I’m doing, one that has nothing at all to do with day-of news. While I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of my new gig right now — not until after the show debuts early next year — what I can say is that for the first time in a quarter-century it’s taken me fully out of the realm of daily events. That’s probably why I was shocked, after spending late night Friday, September 16th through the morning of Monday September 19th working nonstop, that it took me three days to first learn about the shooting death of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Normally, when there’s a police shooting involving an unarmed black man, it’s the kind of thing I’m aware of immediately — and yet this time it took 72 hours for me to finally see what had happened, what was caught on video, 1,000 miles away from where I was. 

There was the by now familiar video — by now both specific to the Tulsa shooting and in general the kind of thing we’re now used to as a culture. There were the cries for justice, the family explaining who Crutcher was, and the police promising a full investigation. All of it having already unfolded but all of it rolling across the TV in my hotel room for the first time. “How did I not know about this?” was my first thought. “How did I somehow remain unaware that this was the lead story on the national news networks and in print?” It simply didn’t seem possible in an era where hyper-connectivity was a cultural touchstone. It didn’t seem possible to be shocked anymore, certainly not by information you’d missed entirely. Now obviously there’s a political and social angle that can easily be argued here, which is that as a white guy I have the privilege of being able to ignore the death of another black man by police. But that’s just it: I didn’t ignore it. I genuinely didn’t know.

The kind of story it was I don’t think is as important as the fact that it was a big story. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News ran with it, giving it the coverage it no doubt deserved. But somehow all of those signals hadn’t made it through to me — not the TV signals and not the social media signals upon which rode white-hot outrage — because I had been too immersed in other things, too distracted by my own life, to allow them to get through. Again, this isn’t meant to be a commentary on the type of story I’d somehow miraculously avoided, since I think it’s imperative that all of us face the reality of police violence, particularly against black people, head on. What I’m saying here is that I had honestly come to believe that “zoning out” couldn’t happen. And yet it did. Whether I wanted it to or not, it did.

That left me with the question: Is it like this for everyone and I’m just shocked by the radio silence because I’m so used to being immersed in the noise, or is everyone immersed in the noise whether they want to be or not — and therefore any moment of quiet is as surprising to the news layman as it was to me? It’s hugely important to know what’s going on around you, but there’s little doubt that it can have a negative effect on a person. Several times over the past few years, with the crazy cacophony reaching a point of utter madness, I’ve found myself wanting to tune out. To disappear. But I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think anyone could do that anymore. What’s fascinating is that given how busy and otherwise preoccupied I was the rest of last week, I missed almost everything. I had no idea what was going on outside of my general vicinity at any moment.

So am I blowing off my responsibility to know everything that’s going on (and to subsequently form an opinion on it that I then shoot out in every direction)? Here’s the thing: I kind of don’t care. Because while I know I can’t do it forever, it felt good to be detached for a little while and it feels good knowing that that may happen more and more as this new job progresses. Obviously, I write here at Banter and I’ll continue to because it’s always been a labor of love as much it has a career. But given how much noise each one of us both endures and contributes to, it was nice to find myself removed from it for a little while — and it will be when it happens again. It’s good for a person’s sanity. And it’s probably even good for the discourse in general to go dark sometimes. To pull ourselves out of this muck and just go, well, do something else.