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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown
Dateline: Downtown

I recently bought a new video game, NBA 2K7. It’s a good game. A time-waster. The best part is, it only cost thirty bucks!

The day after I bought it, one of my classes began a wonderful little book called, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by a French writer, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of the French version of the style magazine Elle. I’ll spare my professor the embarrassment of naming her here, but she has impeccable taste- every book she’s chosen for the class has been a winner. This one in particular, though, left a powerful impression on me. I wake up with it. Bauby occupies my thoughts on the daily.

It’s one of those books, like Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, that are slight (neither are much more than a hundred pages) but deserve slow, careful, sensitive reading. They’re the type of books that alter the mood of your day and can divert the tenor of your life if you let them.

Diving Bell is a sort of autobiography in that it concerns Bauby’s reminiscences after he is hit by a stroke that leaves him a paraplegic. The book was dictated to an attendant through a specialized alphabet composed for paraplegics, letter by agonizing letter. Some time is spent in worry for the children and wife he will soon leave behind (he died two days after the book was published) and the life, intellectually and professionally fulfilling, he is also leaving behind. It’s not, in the long view, about him, though. It’s about life- Life- how it is lived, and what has been termed “the persistence of memory”: the past, and how it indelibly shapes the present.

We spent, in my view, not long enough on the book. I could have taken a whole semester mining the references to Dumas and Chateaubriand nestled within it, drawing them out and savoring them like sweetmeats, but more than anything I could have spent forever with the message that permeates the book, unspoken; life is short and can change at any time. Like 50 Cent said, “Tomorrow is not promised.”

My friend and I were talking one day. He was unhappy with his job (which he carefully separated from his work, and there is a separation). It wasn’t just that the money was bad. It was that the job itself wasn’t fulfilling. He estimated the worth of his time as five-hundred dollars an hour, and until he could find someone willing to pay him that, everything else was expendable. I understand the mindset and would go further to say that time can’t be placed a value on. But, you can freely donate your labor in the service of others while accepting a cash stipend. See, that’s how I rationalize my crummy job.

When I’m working, though, I am providing a service. The money is secondary. If I’m playing a video game, I’m wasting my time and providing a service to no one; on top of that, I’m spending my own money, my own labor value, in order to do it! I’m taking my time, which I should place inestimable value on, and forfeiting it to the makers of NBA 2K7. Do I enjoy playing the game? Sure. I also enjoy lying in bed. But I was endowed with this life, this time, and these capacities, and I want to make something that is good with them. Every second we spend in the world is one less we have in the world. Tomorrow is not promised.

I could have a stroke tomorrow and die soon after. If I did, would I have looked on that video game time as well spent? How often do people say it, “I’m just killing time”? When they are on their deathbeds, will they regret that dead time? Haven’t wealthy men desired, on the precipice of eternity, to give everything away for more time in the world? What did Goethe say- “Oh, give me back my youth again!” So that is what Bauby’s book gave me. An understanding of my time. I’d dwell over a chapter on the train and people would look at me like I was a madman as I swayed my arms slowly, got up out of my seat so ponderously, feeling the ripple of the muscles of my healthy, compliant legs as they moved me. I’d pass by a man in a wheelchair and try to feel that anxiety, the claustrophobia of a disobeying body. It’s true- health is our greatest wealth.

After I finished The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I went home, broke NBA 2K7 in half (it only cost thirty bucks!) and took a slow walk through the Arboretum for a good long while, feeling the sun at my back as the road passed beneath my feet. Tomorrow is not promised.

About the Contributor
Dan Roche served as opinions editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2006-2007; 2007-2008; 2008-2009