I took a vacation. I went to France. When I go away, I like to go far away, someplace where they don’t speak English. I do this not because I enjoy ordering what I think is a hamburger, only to have the waiter bring me ox brains.
I do it because going someplace where they don’t speak English is the only way to escape my addiction.
My addiction is the news.
When I am here, I cannot avoid it. The news greets me on my doorstep. It hollers from my car radio. It is my life. My work. My addiction. The news. Who’s dead? Who’s been elected? Who’s been traded? Maybe it’s different if you don’t work in this business. All I know is, after a while, the news just finds me no matter where I am.
And at some point each year — usually when the weather gets hot — I suddenly don’t want to know anymore. I overdose. I turn off. The stories are no longer absorbed. Instead, they pile on top of me like dead leaves. I am smothered. News sick. I cannot hear about another death. I cannot hear about another drug bust. I cannot listen to another athlete complain that a million dollars is lunch money.
There is only one cure for this: Go away. Where they don’t speak English. I took a vacation. I went to France.
It worked. For a while.
From French provincial . . .
I got a bicycle there. I went riding. Every day, through the southern countryside of Provence, I pedaled my seven- speeder with a small group of friends, our wheels spinning tirelessly, gears clicking in rhythm. The roads were empty. The sun was hot. Like quiet wind, we whistled past olive groves and peach trees. Past vineyards thick with grapes. Now and then we would glide by a farmer tending to his crop, and he would look up, wipe the sweat from his brow and shake his head at these fools on wheels, out in the heat when they didn’t have to be. We said nothing. We rolled on.
I liked that part, saying nothing. I was not there to talk. I was there to disappear, to blend in, to smell the aroma of fruit trees, to feel the sweat dripping down my arms, a victim of the same French sunshine that baked the red tile roofs and left dogs panting under shade trees. This was what I wanted: to join the picture for once instead of analyzing it or reporting it. I gripped the handlebars of my bicycle and tried to forget about the U.S. trade deficit and the latest teenager to be shot for his sneakers.
By the third day, it was working. I felt clensed, lighter. I no longer felt the need to pull off the road and click on CNN. Instead, I ate breakfasts of fresh bread with jam, and listened to the crickets that sang in the trees. I walked through the water beneath an ancient bridge. I bought yellow plums from a vendor who had just picked them.
One day, while riding, a large bee flew into my face, startling me so much that I crashed into another cyclist and we both tumbled into the grass. Unhurt, we looked up and began to laugh uncontrollably, like kids who had just fallen into mud. The day was hot and dusty, and you could hear our laughter half a mile down the road.
. . . to Milwaukee madness
This lasted two weeks, and when my plane touched down in Detroit, I was still feeling good. I had a nice tan and strong legs from all the cycling. I vowed to continue my healthy eating, and went to the supermarket for fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.
And at the supermarket I finally bought a newspaper. And this was the first story I read: A man in Milwaukee had been arrested for the murdering at least 17 people. He not only killed them — drugged them, strangled them and cut their bodies into pieces — but he also had sex with some of their corpses.
He took pictures of them with arms missing, heads cut off. There were even reports that he ate their dead flesh; he claimed to have cut one victim’s heart out and put it in his freezer “to eat later.”
He told the police all this in a calm voice, and as I read it I felt the breath leave me, as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. Lord, how on earth is a man like this created? What happened in his childhood to turn him into such a monster? And all those victims! Their families, no doubt wondering where their sons had gone, now learning they are not only dead but in pieces, perhaps even . . . eaten. Is there any understanding this?
I felt a sudden shiver and then a familiar oozing, sinking feeling. The news. The news. My job. My addiction. I was home.
I folded the paper and put it in the bag. A humid breeze blew. For a moment, I thought about France, the breads and jams, falling off my bicycle and laughing beneath the olive trees. And then I thought about this lunatic in Milwaukee, slicing the heads off his victims, licking his lips. And I realized, like most people who take a vacation from the news, that I already need another one.