Most of my time this fall has been spent in orgies of whale-ish reading, in which nothing whatever has escaped the baleen. I have ingested multiple tomes, speeches and conference reports about oil leases, revolutionary politics, highway subsidies, MX missiles, air pollution, the economics of recession, solar energy, abortion, killer satellites, gay rights, liberation theology, SALT II, the foreign policy of Red China and the physiology of the snail darter -- every day becoming better informed, but feeling stuffed, queasy and even more stupid than is usually the case.
Then, about 10 days ago, I was over at my grandmother's apartment a quiet place bordering on a gorgeous yellow wood, and found her sitting by the window with my 8-year-old daughter, engaged in leisurely conversation that had long satisfactory silences in it. These two were enjoying each other's company, and this gave me occasion to reflect on the natural affinity between the old and the young, both of whom are thought to be "out of it" -- contemplatives and mystics who are uninvolved in the serious matters occupying those of us who run the world, or think we do.
They were discussing the Indians who'd lived from 4000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. along the creek that ran through those woods and down to the Potomac. And I was half listening to that when suddenly I caught a glimpse of my own face in the mirror -- tense, ferret-quick, datacrammed -- hardly a human face at all. And at once, the thick folder I was carrying -- the collected speeches of Jerry Brown -- seemed clammy and alien to the touch.
Dropping these into the wastebasket, I went on an instant vacation -- sat there with my family by the windown until it got dusk, watching the silver squirrels scamper through the golden forest, idly watching the leaf armadas sail down to soft rest. After that, the vacation, which was utterly secret, went on for 10 more days: I read no newspaper, turned on no TV, ingested no new data, accepted no phone calls, wrote nothing, made no notes, had no conferences -- but merely took long ruminative walks with my old black dog, or sat mildly by the window watching the leaves change and listening to Morzart.
I was as happy during those days as I have ever been, and thought a lot about those Washingtonians who preceded us -- the Indians who were around these parts for 10,000 years. All their deeds had been forgotten. And there was something conforting in this -- the sure knowledge that ours, too, would be. And under the circumstances, it came to seem less than crucial that a man should have to break his brain with minute information about events that would soon be covered by deep accumulating drifts of colorful years.
Cessation of work, unfortunately, did not mean cessation of expenses, and one lugubrious morning it was necessary to join the world again -- return to the old familiar anguish. And so I flipped on the TV to see my countrymen being led blindfolded from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, amidst the howls and execrations of that savage mob. All this had been going on for days while I had been watching the leaves change. And, as any good Washingtonian would, I felt wretchedly guilty for having tuned out like that, and what had been delightful now came to seem a viciously irresponsible act.
In other words, I was just like almost everybody else in this city, where one's real vacation is almost always secret -- some idyllic woods of the mind to which one slips away with all the guilty lust of a congressman accosting a K Street whore, and from whence one returns sated and sheepish. Because in our city, which thinks it overturned Puritanism years ago, we believe that leisure is a mortal sin. It is, in fact, our only mortal sin; although "recreation" -- which is usually done in groups, and is planned, scheduled and strenuous -- is still regarded as okay, because it is that process by which we "charge our batteries" for more of the demolition derby that passes for everyday life. Not for us are the musical rhythms of the 18th century, wherein leisure was guilt-free and thought of as worthwhile in and of itself.
And yet, even while sharing the current orthodoxy, one sometimes wonders whether our energetic lust to be fed perpetually on data of new disasters is wise, sane or even patriotic. For the impotent rage we feel toward the Iranians, while unusually intense, is hardly a novelty. Because that is precisely how we have felt, all our lives toward all that passes for news. Most of us, after all, will never think, say or do anything that will have the slightest test impact on public events. For our sense of helplessness attaches to everything and not just to Iran. Yet we still conceive it as our duty to keep heroically informed. And one wonders why. Is it merely that we find news -- especially bad news to be "fun," in the way a slow-motion replay of a knockout blow is also fun"? Or do we believe that by gathering more information we may become wise?
Such would be a noble hope, for this country does need wisdom more vitally than oil. But we seem pretty well convinced that it is to be derived not from contemplative detachment, but from the compulsive ingestion of computer pointouts. And so it is that contemplative people are not much valued among us, and bode to be crouched in the closet long after every necrophiliac has emerged and started a liberation movement.
These thoughts free no captives in Iran. On the other hand, however, neither does "data" -- of which the president had whole avalanches in the months leading up to the catastrophe. Possibly he was too busy doing his homework to reflect on what it all might mean -- a madman whipping on a crazed and structureless mob. All 60 Americans in the midst of all that rage -- for what? Togather yet more data -- or so it seems.
And so, even in the midst of our well-informed hurry, our rage and our disgrace, deep and primitive questions rise. For we have been told that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." But are not some brands of eternal vigilance slavery in themselves? and are not the blindfolded men you and I?