I, unlike so many other Americans, grew up
without TV. A Navy pilot, my father toted us around Europe
finally unpacking us among the vineyards and volcanoes of
Naples, Italy. One of my earliest childhood memories, in
fact, doesn’t involve Saturday morning cartoons at
all but rather the stomping of grapes in a large wooden
vat. Goodness, I can’t remember, but I hope we washed
The new neighborhood children, fresh from the States, moved
in and chattered on about Happy Days incredulous
that I had never heard of Fonzie and had no idea what his
“ehhhhh” was all about. My days were spent hiking
the ruins of Pompeii (my incredulity was reserved for the
elaborate mosaics and frescoes so delicate yet somehow surviving
lava, fire, smoke, ash). My nights admiring the fireworks
of Mt. Vesuvius just west of where we lived. We had no TV,
and I didn’t know to miss it.
I sipped orange Fanta, muscled up the courage to jump off
the diving board at the neighborhood pool (not dive, just
jump), and played kick the can in the streets at sunset
with a dozen other American and Italian kids. I even scaled
a fence and picked apricots off the neighbor’s tree.
I relished those sweet fruit treasures as precious to me
as rubies in a pirate’s chest.
We went to dinner – never before nine because the
ovens needed time to warm up – and ate the most amazing
pizzas, the crust bubbled and charred. I had gelato for
desert – raspberry. Always, my father sipped espresso.
Our days and nights were spent with family, friends, outdoors,
far from the seduction – and sadness I was to learn
– of a television set.
After we moved back to the States, we bought a TV, and before
long, we were as obsessed as the rest of the nation with
Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, and the
nightly news. Then came the cable explosion, and soon after
– CNN, and on its heels – Fox News. Now we were
watching the events of the world unfold in real time.
After years of war and genocide and rape and torture, the
steady diet of an adult news watcher, I finally reached
my breaking point a few weeks ago. You may not believe this,
but I turned my television off.
What was the reason, the story, the straw?
The mining accident at Sago in West Virginia.
After the initial explosion was reported,
I watched for two days, obsessed with every word, hoping,
praying that the thirteen miners survived. Then finally,
the news. They were okay. The first one had been rushed
to the hospital. I was overjoyed, overwhelmed, so, so thankful.
Then came the fist in the face. A woman with two children
ran out of the church meeting in which the mine executives
told the relatives that there had been a miscommunication.
There was a mistake she told Anderson Cooper. The story
was wrong she said. Only one of the miners had survived.
The other twelve were dead. Irreversibly, irretrievably
Devastated, as if my own son had been in that dark shaft
three miles under, I thought back to the days of youth,
far from TV, far from the unbearable weight of tragedy.
So overwhelmed was I, in fact, that I didn’t listen
to the radio for those two days either, and I turned my
head when I passed a newspaper.
Where were my frescoes, Fantas, apricots? In their stead,
bone crushing reality. Suffocating and painful.
With the TV and the radio off, I turned to my books and
found little solace in Keats, as forlorn then as I was feeling
now. “O for a beaker full of the warm South,”
he wrote in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “With
beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained
mouth, / That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
/ And with thee fade into the forest dim – ”
Hemingway once said that life is basically a tragedy, and
I have always been angry with him for saying that. I clung
to the gelato and pizza cooked in a real woodfire oven,
but as I get older I know he was right and I’m only
resisting the grown up truth. I mean, how can we put a positive
spin on the loss of a father, brother, son, perhaps the
primary – if not the only – breadwinner in a
family? We can’t. It’s truth. Brutal, unforgiving
truth. But Keats, elsewhere, also told us truth is beauty.
Beauty truth. Perhaps we can find something there to sooth
the ravaged soul.
Perhaps we can also find something of a soothing in the
fact the each of us, in each generation experiences the
same realization, thus the same longing. Keats, me, all
Is there at least some comfort in company?