Kage Baker resolutely refused to watch most television news.
For many people – writers emphatically among them – current events are a rich and never-ending source of inspiration. Absolutely nothing is as weird as what people do; Kage believed firmly that truth was not just stranger than fiction, it was more entertaining. And she made full use of that in her writing. Many of the more peculiar habits of her future world in the 24th and 1/2 century were extrapolations of 20th century trends. And all too many of them were just the simple truth, no extrapolation needed.
But she got most of her research done via the printed word. Newspapers were still in full flower up until about 5 years before her death; I went through two or three every day, hunting for references that might yield an idea. We were seldom disappointed. The last couple of years of her life, Kage discovered news aggregators on the Web – those were great, too. But it was all the printed word. She liked her news in text.
The main exceptions to this were disasters and car chases. (Space launches were no longer carried on prime time channels in the burgeoning 21st century.) Footage of honest-to-God disasters fascinated her – how often does one get to see a forest fire, or a lava flow, or great floods? Kage stored up the imagery for future use. As for car chases … she admitted it was a great vice to watch the damned things, but they were like potato chips: once you got into them, it was so hard to stop! And since, in Los Angeles, even sports will get pre-empted for a car chase, there wasn’t much use looking for something else on the telly anyway.
Ultimately, though, she’d give up even on those and put on a movie, or write. When Kage was in a mood for passive visual entertainment, though, the void was often filled with chases, warehouse fires, broken water mains, and landslides. On a busy day in LA, she might get all of those on the late news …
Kage gave up watching car chases, though, after the 5-second delay on the news broadcast failed a couple of times. A man in Altadena was killed by panicked police in a stand-down; a man on a downtown bridge shot himself in the head. And it all went out live. She stopped watching them so much after then.
CNN – which is now so venerable an institution that it’s showing signs of senility – was born in the green fires of tracer bullets over Baghdad and Tehran. It was the beginning of the 24 hour news cycle, and we watched it avidly. After a few years, though, even that got to be too much for Kage – she stopped watching war on the telly; because, she said, “It’s fucking immoral.”
“You’re a wordsmith, all right,” I remember commenting at one point (from the depths of a book, probably).
“Oh, screw you,” Kage said. “There’s nothing else to call it. This crap is nothing but bread and circuses. We’re all doomed.”
And then she’d either put on The Wrong Box, or go to her desk and write a better world into being.
Kage utterly refused to watch footage of the ever-increasing school shootings; she wouldn’t even let me read to her from the paper after a while. Unless it was a story about a new breed of platypus or something useful like that.
I thought of that last March, watching live footage of the tidal wave engulf Japan – how Kage wouldn’t have been able to watch. Especially those parts where you could see the slow, deep wave devour roads and little cars like bright toys, little cars with little faces behind the windows and frantically waving little arms … I’ve been thinking of it again these last 24 hours, as the babble of horror, grief and – yes, admit it, folks – voyeuristic fascination goes over and over the massacre of Connecticut children.
So I’m going to turn it all off and write. Kimberly has turned on the lights on the Christmas tree, and the outside lights as well. The little black cat is asleep under the tree, her coat spangled with coloured reflections. Harry is napping on the couch beside the ruins of his latest toy – a Kleenex box – and even the vigilant Corgi is blinking. My family is safe and Miracle on 34th St. is on, and Constantinople is calling me. Time to go feel the wind coming in off the Bosphorus and smell the spices of the Orient.
Because nothing matters. Except the work.
Aaron Sorkin has called it ‘tragedy porn’ recently, on ‘The Newsroom.’ I think he’s right, after seeing so many colleagues chasing stories with no feeling of empathy or compassion for the subjects of the story.
I’m a fairly articulate person; I fancy myself even a wordsmith, of some degree, but I find I am completely inarticulate- without words or sensible thoughts- about this. I’m a therapist. Human nature is my stock in trade. I do not understand this. It is alien to me. I only hope that, in time, I will have something to say, if only to myself, that will allow me to comprehend such an action.
For now, I can only remind myself that I cannot control others, only myself. That doesn’t seem enough, but it’s all I’ve got, right now.
Between writing and Dickens, I feel like I have left the storm windows off my soul. And someone keeps flinging garbage in.
A hard winter, in many ways. And it turns out I am not as flexible as I used to be.
“I feel like I have left the storm windows off my soul. And someone keeps flinging garbage in.” You nailed how so many of us feel when we see television news. And I couldn’t agree more with Kage’s comment about bread and circuses.
“Because nothing matters. Except the work.”
I would be hard pressed to calculate how many times this phrase has been a rope to get me out of depression and sadness. Thank you for repeating it here and sharing your view of the world.
Gwen, one of the things that was mostly definitely written from Kage’s heart was that philosophy.