Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Watching Local News with a Too Aware 8-Year-Old

I stopped watching local news years ago. It was Jeffrey Dahmer that did it. This was in 1991. One story of the bodies found in his apartment was enough. But 20 minutes of a 25-minute newscast, for days at a time, with each story giving more gruesome details, was more than I could take. Sometimes the headlines are all we need.

When I've glimpsed local news since then – mostly when my parents are in town – I see it hasn't gotten much better. It's occurred to me that during the 20 years since I stopped watching local news, Illinois has had two governors convicted of crimes, the country has witnessed the dismantling of any safeguards on our financial system, we've seen scores of kids killed while standing on the street corner, our education system has lowered dramatically compared with the rest of the world (we are now ranked 18 out of 36 industrialized nations) and we've been plunged into a recession. I wonder how much better our country would be if the broadcast media had focused on any of these things before they became out of control and did damage. Instead, we got cursory looks at the stock market, against the backdrop of incessant reporting on Jeffrey Dahmer or Casey Anthony or Balloon Boy or OJ.

But I digress.

Recently, a friend of mine has been touting WGN news in the morning as fun and entertaining, while still reporting about important things. So, since I was wide awake at 5:30 this morning, I headed downstairs to get in a quick workout – and thought I'd see what the show was all about.

Problem is, I wasn't alone. Ever since her other mom (her Uma) moved to Florida last month, Dixon has been my shadow. I can't pee without her following me – even at 3am. This morning, just as I tried to sneak downstairs, her head popped up. So off we trudged together.

The first thing she noticed on the news was that the Sox were playing the Twins today. “The Twins” is a specific phrase that, in Dixon's lifetime, has mostly been used when referring to her and her sister. So she was confused by the baseball game.

“The twins must be part of the Sox team,” she said.

“No, the Twins are a team from Minnesota. They're named that because there are two big cities in Minnesota, and they're right next to each other, so they're called the “Twin Cities.”

“But...are there TWO of them?” she asked.

“There are two cities, but there's only one team.”

“And that one team is called the Twins?” she clarified.


“But there's only one team.”

It was more of a statement than a question. She got it, but she thought it was kind of nonsensical.

I should mention here that my children do not like sports. I have no idea where this came from.

The next story on the news was about four teenage boys who were shot in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood around 10 o'clock last night. The newscasters, who had just been joking about a lame story about dieting, seriously described random shooting on a crowded street of a late summer evening.

“People were shot in Chicago?” Dixon asked.

Let's digress for a moment. I live in the suburbs, but I bring my kids to the city every chance I get. I want them to be city-wise and unafraid. It was one of the issues I dealt with when we decided to move out of the city. It would be easier in the suburbs, but I was not going to allow my kids to be sheltered. But Dixon's world is rocked right now, and suddenly she gets to add murder in the city to her worries.

“There's a section of town that is having a real problem with violence right now,” I said. “The places we go are pretty safe.”

“We NEVER go to that section of town?” she asked.

“No. We never go there.”

I declined to tell her how lucky she was that she had a choice, that the people who live there don't want the violence either, but they can't do much about it. That's a discussion for another day.

The next story on the news was about a woman who was shot in the head playing dice last night.

“Wow,” Dixon said, “there's a lot of murder and shooting.”

“Mostly on the news,” I answered. “The news doesn't report good things. They only report bad things. So when you watch, you get this weird sense that only bad things happen. That's why I don't watch news that often.”

This seemed to mollify her, and I was spinning hard on my trainer...until the next story, which was about a mom who was getting out of prison after having abandoned her baby in 2009. She wanted the baby back.

To Dixon, this is worse than murder.

“She left her baby in the bushes!” she said with some alarm.

I stopped pedaling.

“Yes,” I said, getting off the bike. “She was probably very young and very scared and her family probably would have done something bad to her if they found out that she had a baby – or at least she probably thought they would. She didn't know what to do, but she probably just wanted her life to be like it was before she got pregnant. So she did something stupid. They actually have a law where if you're in that situation, you can bring the baby to the hospital or the police station or the fire department and they will take the baby and the mother won't get in trouble.”

Dixon looked at me. I could see the film playing in her head as if it was being projected on a movie screen.

“But they only have that for babies, right? Not bigger kids?”

“No. They don't have that for bigger kids. Most people don't want to get rid of either their babies or their bigger kids. Most people love their kids. But sometimes women are scared and abused and they don't know what they're doing, so they give the baby away.”

“Like Quinn did in 'Glee,'” she pointed out, then added, “Except Quinn didn't leave her baby behind a bush.”

“Yes,” I said, “like Quinn in 'Glee.' Except Quinn was smart and made choices and gave her baby a good home. She wasn't desperate and scared.”

“And,” I added, “you will never be desperate or scared either. You have a family that loves you and supports you.”

She nodded. I resumed my workout. A few minutes later she jumped up.

“I've got to call Uma. I've got to tell her that I watched the news and it was all about murder!”

She ran out of the room to get the phone. I turned to ESPN.


  1. Add friends to that love and support you part.

  2. Loss. Such a small word to carry all that it suggests. I am an "other mom" and I actually moved to Chicago FROM Florida to be closer to our son, who lives in Indy. I now see him pretty often (but never often enough), and it was not always like this. What I can offer is that to a young child, the reasons why a parent is not around usually do not matter; they just miss having them around. Parents are their kid's security blanket. To this day, no matter how much fun we have had, and how much we talk about how he will see me again, soon, every time I return my son to his birth mother after a visit, the last look I get is usually one of perplexity, as in, "Why are you leaving me?" All rationalization goes out the window.