She had the shiniest black shoes I'd ever seen, and I told her so. Looking back, that might have been a mistake.
Either because of my prodigious journalism skills or because I sit alone in the house all day and am infinitely available, I was dispatched last week to Central America. My mission: to document humanitarian efforts in a remote and impoverished Guatemalan community.
To get there, or at least to get someplace from which I could get there from there, I was assigned to 1B of the prop plane that connects my small town to the rest of the jet-propelled planet. She was the flight attendant, with the misfortune of being strapped into the seat facing me.
So there we were, knee to knee, in awkward proximity. Understand that as a Canadian, I'm forbidden to make direct eye contact, but whenever I looked down, there were her shoes, buffed and radiating like solar panels straight into my face.
"They're very shiny," I began, by way of light conversation. "I can't look away."
She pulled one earplug out and looked puzzled. "I'm sorry?"
"Your shoes," I repeated with a dashing grin. "They're hurting my eyes."
"Oh," she nodded vacantly, and put the earplug back in. But I was undeterred.
"By the way, the Hubble people called. They want their mirrors back."
Rolling her eyes, she took the earplug out again. "What?"
She wasn't fooling me. I knew she was amused under that veneer of icy disdain. "Your shoes are even more reflective than my scalp. Do you have any sunscreen on that beverage cart?"
I laughed heartily at the clever gibe, but she chose not to share in my mirth. Instead, she looked at her feet, sighed, and finally said, "Yeah, the pilots have been mocking me, too."
Now I felt bad. Obviously, she wasn't taking this as endearing banter, so I marshaled my sensitive side. I told her not to get me wrong, that the shiny shoes were very, very attractive and that I liked them very, very much. She immediately appeared to interpret this as unwelcome flirting, which led to long minutes of awkward wing-staring silence.
When we finally landed, I beat a hasty escape, still smarting from my abject failure of wit and charm, but glad to have avoided both a restraining order and permanent retinal damage. I wondered if she'd be using those shoes to start grass fires or perform laser surgery after work, but decided not to ask.
The rest of the trip went better, and soon I was on the ground-and on the ground hard-in Guatemala. (Our captain had apparently missed the gravity component of flight training, and we fell to Earth at a frightening velocity.) I felt considerable apprehension as I walked to the terminal. For a guy who speaks no Spanish-gracias mucho-it was bound to be an uncomfortable time, like being stuck as the silent half of a Penn and Teller comedy routine. I expected to spend the week helplessly mute, which is exactly what happened.
What I didn't expect was to be cut off from all communication with my homeland. I had been under the impression that we live in a shrinking global village, but I found no broadband connections in the Central American jungle. No wireless hot spots. Not even a Starbucks. My cell phone didn't work either, and since it doubles as my watch, the problem was magnified. For the next week, the time was always ten past "Looking for Service."
But the most difficult adjustment of all was the total lack of available news. Back home, I spend the first hour or two of every day online, clicking and reading. Now without Internet access, I was engulfed in a news famine. I heard nothing of the world outside for seven days. Read nothing. Knew nothing. Our nation's Vice-President could have shot someone in the chest and I would never have known about it. (I realize that's an absurd example that could never happen in real life, but I'm just trying to make a point here.)
Then a funny thing happened-I started to like it. The news famine turned into a welcome media detox, like one of those wacky juice-only diets. I was hungry at first, but gradually the "news pangs" disappeared, and I began to enjoy my unaccustomed ignorance. By the end of the week, I had developed a working hypothesis-that most news, with the possible exception of the Joey Buttafuoco/Amy Fisher TV reunion story or anything involving Brangelina, is utterly without redeeming social purpose or value.
A quick search of CNN.com proves this point. Take this smattering of helpful headlines:
60 Filthy Pets Found in Home
David Hasselhoff Files for Divorce
Abandoned Girl Asking for Slain Mom
Bids Open for Two-Headed Snake
Tractor and Sling Used to Tug Blind Horse From River
Author Says Harry Potter Is Gay
All of these stories have one thing in common-they teach us nothing. We're not better people for reading them. We learn nothing important from them. By definition, they're news, in that they probably happened recently. But they serve no purpose but to entertain, inflame, excite, and incite. I call them "gratuitous newsity"-stories that publicly disrobe just to provoke a visceral, but ultimately vacuous, response.
And it's not just the stories themselves, but the way they're packaged. The evil geniuses who market the news understand that when faced with a choice between "Global Warming Threatens Life as We Know It" or "Katie and Tom Conceive Amphibious Reptile," we'll always be drawn to the aberration. So they mix the two together-the important with the trivial, inane entertainment with matters of life and death, until we really can't tell the difference anymore, or don't even feel like trying. "We have dramatic photos to show you of a boy being rescued from a pipe in China," led our local news anchor and his hair a few nights back, before bringing us up to date on Iran's nuclear plans and a critical Supreme Court nomination.
On a typical news day, seniors seem to suffer most. My search for relevant, meaningful coverage yielded stories such as "Elderly Man Drives With Body Stuck in Windshield," and "Grandpa Dies on Hearing Seven Children Killed in Fiery Wreck." Much was also written about prescription drugs, fire ants in nursing homes, the death of Nipsey Russell, and the tour boat passengers who drowned in a New York lake. But the positive stories I had hoped to find, maybe with headlines like "Nation Celebrates Wisdom of Elders" or "Senior Care Funding Assured: President Vows to 'Retrocancellate' Tax Cuts," were mysteriously absent.
I guess that's what happens when you leave home. You think too much. None of this, of course, is my epiphany alone. "I am sure I never read any memorable news in a newspaper," said pond-master Henry David Thoreau a few years back. "If we read of one man robbed or murdered, …or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, we never need read of another." I couldn't agree more heartily, although I'm guessing if Henry were with us today, and could read about how the cow had five legs and was dating Lindsay Lohan, he would feel differently.
We're helpless, of course. We know that. News these days is like shiny shoes. It isn't doing us much good, but we can't look away.
Gary Tetz is the former editor of SNALF.com and SNALFnews.com, and writes from Walla Walla, Washington. To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.