Two and a half weeks ago, just before the nation’s concentration was seized by events in Boston, we went to a family wedding out of town. We would return to Boston on the eve of the Marathon, amid hordes of arriving runners. But on that Friday afternoon before the rehearsal dinner, I found myself in a mammoth fitness center, attached to the hotel in a suburban mall. The exercise emporium was so big it gave me vertigo. And the more I thought about it, the more the room — with its ubiquitous electronic gadgetry and with so many of its patrons running in place — seemed to embody certain stereotypes of contemporary life.
I dutifully took my place on one of 20 or so treadmills, facing a mammoth wall across which were arrayed perhaps a dozen large-screen televisions. That each one was tuned to a different channel made the sight dizzying. A loud disco tune pulsed through the space, drowning out all other sound. During my half-hour on the running machine, I tried without success to make the multiple screen images cohere.
This was the week of North Korean belligerence, and CNN was showing alarming footage of missiles and tanks. On the Fox News screen, President Obama stood sternly at the Rose Garden podium. Beside that, a network soap opera showed a bedroom scene, a passionate embrace suddenly broken by a guilt-stricken beauty, with the man left to clutch his head. Nearby, on the Weather Channel, the continental map bore zigs of occluded fronts, zags of high pressure zones, and the curlicue symbols of tornadoes. On Bloomberg News, the ticker coursed across the lower screen, while arrows darted on the graph above, news of an exuberant market. Another network displayed the fake living room of a daytime talk show, ladies on a couch, camera cuts to the audience full of screamers. On one more screen flashed a montage of Kate Middleton.
Soon enough, I was seeing none of these images individually, but the strange juxtapositions among them. On what scale, I wondered, does a nuclear threat weigh the same as the pregnancy of a British royal? I recalled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Only two ideas? What about seven?
But then, a few days later, when I thought of those fitness center screens, I realized that they — like televisions across the nation — would surely have all been tuned, if not to the same image, then to the same subject: Boston. Scenes of the Marathon bombing and its aftermath no doubt dominated flat screens across the country throughout the week. For once, the American affliction of mass mental fragmentation was healed by a universal and focused absorbedness. Not only did the nation’s sense of place change — “We are all Bostonians now,” went the refrain — but so too did its awareness of time. Distinct days melted together into one long and unending episode. The televised inciting incident flowing into emergency response flowing into investigation flowing into pursuit flowing into capture was a real-time drama unmediated by reporters, who were as flummoxed as viewers. It all unfolded with an immediacy that turned most of a week into one unbroken present moment. And it was momentous.
This week, I presume, the nation’s flat screens are back to their visual cacophony. American television returns to normal. But what about us viewers? Do distractions, divisions, and fragmentation once more consume our daily lives as if the communal concern of last week’s shared grief and relief never happened?
On the treadmill, fleeting thoughts come and go. Once in a rare while, we glimpse amid the mundane stuff of daily living a transcendent value. Even as routine resumes, and focus splinters again into a familiar feeling of disjointedness, we need to hold such exceptional moments in a special place in our memory. For a while yet, the name of that place is Boston.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.