Winning! (By turning away!)

Well, we made it. We are finally moving beyond the Charlie Sheen real life sit-com: Middle-aged guy sleeping with a couple of wild and crazy porn stars while raising his kids. Sounds like the next “Everybody Loves Raymond” to me.

The next time you are searching for irony, google the script for “Apocalypse Now” and read aloud the first words you hear from Charlie’s dad, Martin Sheen. I am telling you, you will spit your coffee all over your computer screen. Fortunately, Sheen’s battle cry, “Winning!” does not seem poised to become this year’s, “You go, girl!” and we can all take some comfort in that.

In any case, with Sheen receding to the TMZ Hall of Shame (joining Lindsey Lohan, Mel Gibson, and anyone in a cowboy hat with the last name of Cyrus), as a nation we can now redirect our attention to Libya. (Quick, name the capital!) Or Wisconsin. (Quick, name the capital!) Or South Burlington. (Quick, name a corner that does not have a traffic light!) There is real news out there that affects us all.

When I look back on this week in years to come, I hope I will recall first of all Monday night’s Town Meeting here in Lincoln, Vermont. It began earlier than usual, a minute or two after six pm on the night of February 28 and ended. . .in March. Not quite. It was adjourned at 11:26 pm, according to my watch. And in that five and a half hours, we had spectacularly civilized debates about budgets and bond votes and whether a corporation really does merit personhood. I’m not kidding. It was terrific and, once again, I was unbelievably proud of my neighbors and of this Vermont tradition.

When we look back on this week, perhaps we will mark it in our minds as the beginning of the end of a despot’s regime in North Africa. Or the week that a boatload of heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles fell into the hands of terrorists. (There’s a news story some of you are thinking right now you’re going to have to find.)

There were negotiations, confrontations, and standoffs involving unions and union rights. Schoolteachers and linebackers alike faced the prospect of picket lines. One key difference? South Burlington administrators insist they will teach classes if necessary. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones insist they will not don helmets and risk concussions themselves.

Incidentally, Roger Goodell and I played on the same high school football team together. Actually, he played. I sat on the bench. He was the starting tight end and I was a last string cornerback. For me to have had any playing time, the entire rest of the team would have to have broken their legs in a bus accident. I am not sure my white uniform pants were washed once that entire season. Just for the record, Goodell was a terrific guy. I am confident he still is.

And, of course, the catamount was officially stamped extinct. Arguably, this was not news. The last verifiable catamount sighting in Vermont was in 1881. Someone shot it.

The truth is, we are all capable of engaging with important news and debating issues that matter. I saw that again on Monday night. And yet many of us – well, yours truly at any rate – find it all too easy to focus on the escapades of this week’s Charlie Sheen. Is it because I have the emotional maturity of a 14-year-old boy? Well, yes. But the answer may also exist somewhere in the profound complexity of the world and its utter connectedness. Sheen is less threatening than Qaddafi and his name is much easier to spell. Make no mistake, that latter point is a big asset when it comes to reality TV star fame. Moreover, his antics are more comprehensible than a collective bargaining agreement. Sheen is (pun intended) easy.

Nevertheless, this coming week I am going to try to focus more on the big picture – and less on one very, very small story. Now that would be winning indeed.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on March 6, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.