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Xx Files

What we really want


It's tempting to gloss over the news because, well, it's depressing. And hard to follow. All that policy stuff. All those numbers. As a woman, I have a brain which --- any Harvard president will tell you --- can barely recall my own phone number, never mind conceive of all those facts and figures.

The news overwhelms: 37.9 percent of children in Rochester live in poverty. Sixty percent of families headed by women in this region can't afford necessities. In 2006, 300,000 low-income Americans will lose food stamps.

Lately I've been turning to the comics before I read the rest of the paper. Reading the Living section used to be my reward for slogging through the news. Sometimes I skip the paper altogether, grab People instead of Newsweek, and turn on the Simpsons instead of the news.

I know I'm not alone in my pursuit of the trivial. Someone's reading all these new and redesigned lifestyle publications --- The Insider weekly, the revamped Democrat and Chronicle Living section, and the Rochester Business Journal's monthly pullout section, Time Out.

Does this mean more people are enjoying Rochester in their free time? I hope so, but I suspect they, too, are just looking for something other than news to focus on. Even the local TV morning news is lighter than ever, rivaling talk radio in its focus on entertainment, notably movies and reality shows.

I'm not here to spank anyone (though if you're very bad...). Who am I to judge others? I'm just as caught up in this phenomenon as the next person. I have a theory that we're wired for this: a preference for fun, easily digested information. And gossip is actually an evolutionary advantage in humans.

My theory hijacks (and distorts beyond all recognition) some of author Steven Pinker's ideas. He's a cognitive scientist who wrote How the Mind Works. Our brains, he says, evolved to focus on bits of useful knowledge. Think of those bite-sized articles in the Living section --- by reading them first, we're not avoiding the hard news. We're enhancing our "cognitive niches."

Even better, mass media's gossip culture --- and our tireless consumption of it --- is a kind of social intelligence which, evolutionarily speaking, is also useful in our lives. (I think Pinker means if I, for example, run into Jennifer Aniston on the street I can knowledgeably discuss her intimate life. Or if Julia Roberts is ahead of me in line in the Irondequoit Mall I can tell her little twins, Engelbert and Tituba, apart.)

Let's take some of this brain science and apply it to our own lives in a meaningful way. Repackage those opaque statistics as entertainment. I propose we make reality shows based on real news. Instead of surmounting impossible obstacles in exotic locales (Survivor) or vying for a great job (The Apprentice), contestants on real-life reality shows would struggle to survive in the stress and uncertainty of a shaky economy, domestic budget caps, urban police cuts, and the loss of health insurance.

Like the scrappy contestants on reality shows, these regular Joes and Janes will be playing for very high stakes --- their own lives! The drama and suspense will come not from contrived challenges but from the fact that we, the audience, know the deck is stacked against them. Fascinating statistics, presented in pop-up form, will show viewers just how bad things are. As bullets whiz past their homes, hunger prowls their empty cabinets, and illnesses go untreated, these folks will make for must-see TV.

Some lucky viewers --- those who earn more than $200,000 a year --- will have an extra thrill. They're the ones receiving 97 percent of the tax cuts from the slashed programs once intended to keep these very contestants afloat.

"Honey, bring the turkey jerky and Diet Coke. This is going to be good!"

Finding Neverland: Watch six Rochester school children attempt to reach adulthood as they battle a host of obstacles thrown in their paths. Tommy, for example, learns his family is no longer eligible for food stamps, forcing his mother to choose between bus fare to her job and feeding him dinner. Pop-up fun fact: 36 million Americans are hungry or on the edge of hunger. Watch the thrilling climax when Tommy's mother makes a choice she thinks is right but soon regrets. Pop-up fun fact: Last year, emergency food assistance requests jumped by 28 percent nationally.

A Room of One's Own:Little Tina's family's goal is to find --- and keep! --- affordable housing. They have to move in with relatives when federal housingsubsidies dry up after four years of cuts. Tina and her sister don't mind sleeping on the couch of their beloved aunt's apartment. Pop-up fun fact: Requests for emergency shelter increased nationally by 27 percent last year. It's not so much fun later, in the middle of the night, when her aunt's boyfriend shows up, turns on the TV, and pushes the kids off the couch. Pop-up fun fact: 3.5 million Americans, including 1.35 million children, experience homelessness every year. Watch the fireworks fly when Tina's mother and aunt get into a screaming match with the boyfriend.

Thank God I Have Insurance: Eight families from all walks of life learn that anyone can lose their health insurance through job loss, serious illness, or just plain bad luck. Pop-up fun fact: More than 15 percent of Americans are uninsured. Tagline: The fun begins when the insurance stops. Contestants lose homes, jobs, even limbs!

Everyone loves to ogle the wealthy. Let's watch Bush's America react to new tax breaks in a show called Gimme.A posh family discusses the newest "rollback" --- an average of $19,000 for families earning $1 mil-plus. Pop-up fun fact: NYS minimum wage workers earn $12,480 a year. Son: "Wow, $19,000? That's so much money!" Father, scoffing: "No, it's not."

Hmm. On second thought, this would make for pretty dull viewing.