The Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists gave this column, from Dec. 21, one of its first place awards last night.
Thank you, SPJ, and thanks to Peter Pach and Carolyn Lumsden at the Courant.
One night in August, 1994, a man sitting alone in a New Haven coffee bar stood up, pulled a knife and stabbed seven people.
One of them was a journalist, Bruce Shapiro. He was badly wounded, but he lived. By some miracle, everybody did. A few months later, Shapiro was watching television news and saw himself, as he would later write, “writhing on an ambulance gurney, bright green shirt open and drenched with blood, skin pale, knee raised, trying desperately and with utter futility to find relief from pain.”
It was a news report about a legislative initiative he didn’t even agree with. They needed, as he told me this week, “B-roll.” They used him.
“B-roll” is supplementary footage. It’s the old, inert, archival clip you drop into the fresher, more vivid report.
The idea stays with me, because that’s what we all do. We’re little TV stations constantly converting raw experience into B-roll. You have to. You’d go crazy if your wedding day, your father’s funeral, the birth of your daughter, the death of your dog, your best kiss and worst Little League strikeout were all as crisp and new in your mind as they were the day they happened. You’d feel the way you did last week, as if the wrong song spilling out of a speaker could tip you into an hour of crying.
From that perspective, healing almost seems like an act of betrayal. Columbine. 9/11. These dropped down on us with poisonous sorrow and bright stinging pain in their day, but now they’re leaden and pickled. We bring them out to make a point about something else. B-roll.
I’m asking. How do you water a moment like this one? How do you keep it green and rich. How do you keep it alive, calling to you like a bird in the nearest tree?
We’ll try to fix a few things, right now, while our skin and souls still burn. What choice do we have? That’s what the president said last Sunday night. What choice do we have? There aren’t many moments like this, when we really understand how thin the ice is, when we understand that life is not on the verge of breaking but is badly snapped and cracked in very important places.
Most of the time, we have a choice. We could read a book about the child soldiers in Africa or we could watch something cool on cable.
For just a little while, we have no choice. Children and teachers were massacred just a few miles from where you’re sitting. We have to do something.
So what comes next? Some gun control laws? Maybe some new attention to mental illness. Something in the schools. I’m all in favor. I really am. I’m all in favor of doing something before we go back to sleep.
One of Ezra Pound’s poems ends “So that:”
Those are the final words. It’s a long meditation on love and death, and it ends “So that:”
So that what?
So that we’ll start it up all over again. We’ll love. We’ll get lost. We’ll wander off course. We’ll see death. We’ll grieve. One day, we’ll be the ones dying.
We pray that there’s something more than that. Who would want to live inside such a crazy clock with such merciless works?
If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.
What a joke. Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love.
Do you keep it oiled and cleaned? Is it right close at hand, so you can grab it and brandish it? Are you packing it right now?
This is all going to turn into B-roll. With each passing day, the filing clerks of our hearts and minds will cart it a little further back, to a dimmer and dustier shelf. But it happened, so that:
I don’t know. I don’t know what comes next.
But I am reminded to love.