Fresh eyes

Those raised on television during the 1970s might remember a sappy episode of the Korean War comedy M*A*S*H in which Alan Alda's Hawkeye character is temporarily blinded by a gas explosion while trying to light a stove in a nurse's tent (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

The wisecracking surgeon spends the next week adjusting to the idea that he may never regain his vision but begins to experience life through his other senses in ways he hadn't previously -- he is even able to dictate instructions in the operating room based on his sense of smell and hearing. As the bandages are about to come off his eyes, he tells fellow surgeon BJ:

 Hawkeye thinks a rainstorm sounds like steak being barbecued. I disagree -- it's more like steam escaping a vent.

Hawkeye thinks a rainstorm sounds like steak being barbecued. I disagree -- it's more like steam escaping a vent.

"One part of the world has closed down for me, but another part has opened up.  Sure, I keep picturing myself on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I'm going through something here I didn't expect. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to that rainstorm. And I didn't just hear it. I was part of it. I'll bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they're barbecuing."
 

I have seen or read other accounts of this hyper-sensitivity that comes with blindness but, for some reason, I have always remembered this fictitious one. Maybe because I don't think a rainstorm sounds like steaks on the grill (for a moving and realistic description of what blindness is like, read Edward Hoagland). I do remember this scene made me think -- at the time I saw it -- how important it is to experience and understand life from many perspectives. I thought about it, and then forgot it.

I forgot it over 35 years working in journalism and communications where nearly everything I did was focused on making me successful in those professions. I said to myself that I didn't have time to try new things in literature, music, and art. I mostly shunned fiction even though I was an English Literature major in college. I read only non-fiction books by or about journalists, biographies of leader and other business books, and the news and business sections of newspapers and magazines. 

My music never matured beyond what I listened to when I was my teens and 20s. The Beatles, Motown, Springsteen, some country, southern rock, Seger, Clapton -- your basic college dorm playlist.

I can see now that this selective engagement with the world actually made me worse at my work, not better.

My eyes began to open when I retired a year ago and had time for new discoveries. However, the real catalyst was that I had the chance to spend more time with our four children, who are voracious consumers of culture and whose diverse interests provoked mine.

Mark, 17, and his friends needed a ride to a concert featuring the Black Keys, so Barb and I took them and there I discovered Gov't Mule, a great rock/blues jam band. Gov't Mule led me to Tedeschi Trucks Band which led me to Gary Clark Jr., which led me to The Allman Brothers Band for the first time and back around for a second consideration of Neil Young. Driving Mark to and from school introduced me to the works of David Byrne and Brian Eno, MatisyahuTV On the Radio, and to the new Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Coming back from a dinner one night with Barb and the kids, we were cranking Froggy Fresh and his song "Dunked On," which led to a family catch phrase and a figurative answer to why you might be feeling down -- "'cause I just got dunked on."

Sarah, 27, and Emily, 23, advocated broader reading beyond my military history and political non-fiction. Soon, I had committed myself to reading the most recent Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction -- from The Sympathizer back, so far, to Empire Falls. I jokingly declared the day after Christmas "National Reading Day for our family and we spent 10 hours together just with our books. 

Peter, 25, is a brilliant historian with an iconoclastic view of the world. He had often encouraged me to open my mind to new perspectives on public policy, politics and how they are reported. When I made arguments about these topics using my talking points training, he cut me to shreds with his deep knowledge and skepticism of those with power.

So I stopped relying solely on ideologically predictable media like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and The New Yorker (although both are must reads). I added to my regular reading and viewing Vox, The Nation, and the great Nicholas Kristof and tried to learn more about emerging news leaders like Pro PublicaBuzzFeed and many others -- even when I disagreed with the ideological underpinning that informed their reporting.

These changes made 2016 a great and expansive year for me. I tried new things and looked at life differently and am better for it. Many are glad to see this year end. I am not. I feel more informed and curious than ever and I am anxious to make up for lost time.

I also sense growing interest among Americans in ending the selfishness, division and personal rancor that arises from living a narrow life of cultural isolation.

We can't keep reading the same things and listening to the same people over and over, thereby shunning discovery, understanding, and empathy. I'm not so much worried about fake news but about homogenous "news," in which we select information sources solely to reinforce our worldview.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan said it well recently, encouraging the news media to adopt fresh eyes:

"If news organizations learned anything after the campaign, they should have learned that groupthink has a tendency to miss the point and journalistic myopia requires some extra-strength corrective lenses.

"Do something different. Represent the interests of a broader, more ideologically diverse population. Figure out what they're thinking and feeling -- and why."

I once heard a senior executive tell a younger colleague he did not read anything that was not related to his job. Recreational reading for him, would wait until retirement. If anyone gives you this unwise advice, maybe you should ask them to fix your faulty stove.