Sensationalizing homophobia, engaging with aging, and testing mindful eating

by Rob Tiller

Coming back yesterday from a short trip to Manhattan, I had a few minutes to spare in the crowded Delta terminal at LaGuardia. There were no seats near my departure gate, but I found one three gates away, and flipped through The New Yorker magazine. With only a few minutes, I purposely chose a story I expected to be relatively uninteresting — a piece by Ian Parker titled A Reporter at Large: The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy.

The story keyed off a widely reported incident at Rutgers University in 2010 in which a student spied on his roommate with a webcam and tweeted that he’d spotted homosexual behavior. The ensuing mediathon developed the story line that a heartless homophobe had posted video on the web that caused a vulnerable closeted gay student to kill himself — an emblematic hate crime.

In Parker’s reexamination, the popular media story turns out to be a gross distortion. Dharun Ravi, the surviving roommate, is now facing a criminal trial on vague charges with the potential of years in prison. Ravi created an extensive record of tweets, texts, and other communications that seem stupid and immature, but not unusually so for a 17-year-old. There turned out to be no web cast of video. The suicide victim was actually out of the closet. Ravi’s juvenile online socializing comes across as frenetic and somewhat pathetic. He seems smart, selfish, insecure, and not all that unusual.

I got a few a columns into the story before I decided with boarding time approaching I needed to position myself closer to my gate. I wheeled my possessions a hundred yards or so. Somewhere in that process, my New Yorker disappeared. I retraced my steps, but it had vanished. How annoying! I hope whoever recovered it enjoyed it. After I got home, I managed to download the piece to my iPad and finished it.

It’s too bad, in a way, that the facts don’t support the story line of a bullied gay martyr. Homophobia plainly exists, and violence against gays exists, and those things need to be publicly condemned and appropriately punished. Tyler Clementi’s suicide was unquestionably a tragedy. But, as Parker’s story shows, the cause is unknown, and probably complex. There’s no simple way to assign blame for it. The media’s hype and erroneous reporting fed hysteria and calls for revenge, and now comes a criminal trial that will at a minimum scar a second life.

As an alumnus of the editorial staff of The New Yorker, I enjoy flipping through it every week, though I admit to reading less of it than in days gone by. Last week I read with intense pleasure in the January 23d issue a piece by Donald Hall titled Out the Window: The View in Winter.

The 83-year-old poet has written about getting old. He now needs a wheelchair and has various physical problems. He’s conscious of being “a separate form of life,” treated with either indifference or too much solicitude. He spends a lot of time looking out the window at his bird feeder and the countryside beyond. The outline of his life sounds sad and dull.

This is the amazing thing, though: his life is full of incredible beauty! His descriptions of the drama at his bird feeder are marvelously clear and vivid. He writes of the sequential blossoming of spring flowers with rhythmic, muscular prose. To think that this depth of perception and power of expression can be part of growing old is inspiring.

I’d like to become more conscious of ordinary sensory experience, and to reduce, if only a little, the percentage of each day lived on autopilot. It’s challenging, though, to engage with the present. There are distractions inside and out. Art, like Hall’s essay, can help. I find yoga is also helpful. I hadn’t really thought of meal time as a possible aid, but was inspired by a column this week in the NY Times headed Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

The basic notion is to focus carefully and completely while eating on the sensations of eating — the flavors, smells, and textures, down to tiny details. The way I normally eat involves talking to people, reading, listening to music, thinking about things, and sometimes combinations of these, jumping from one to the next, hardly noticing the food. Mindful eating is the opposite — quiet and slow.

According to the column, this approach to food is an antidote to over eating and helps with distractedness. It also could lead to greater pleasure. I was reminded of my old friend Tom, now departed many years, a casualty of AIDS, who considered great cooking to be an art entitled to no less respect than painting or music. Accordingly, he had an enthusiasm for high-end restaurants at a time when neither of us could well afford them. He once used part of his Watson fellowship money to treat me to a meal in a four-star restaurant in Paris. His only request was that we not talk while we ate. We enjoyed the incredible meal in perfect silence.

More recently, on an average day I have a hard time focusing for half an hour on anything, and that includes eating. But at least now I’m thinking about it. So far, I’ve managed to eat only a few mindful bites at the beginning of a meal, but I’m going to keep trying.