Within the first few minutes of hearing Wednesday's tragic news about the two Virginia journalists killed on air in a murder recorded by the gunman and disseminated on social media, I joined the manic and lurid viral lapse of will, and googled the execution video.
And just like that, in spite of myself, like Eve to the apple, in some cursed stroke of primordial muscle memory, I clicked the "play" icon -- that python green arrow pointing to the flickering fruit of knowledge, good and evil, ISIS beheadings and kitten vines.
But, fortunately for me, I unwittingly selected a low-hanging, cleaned clip that did not show the shots fired point blank from the killer's POV, but which, nonetheless, proved sufficiently traumatic to thwart my deeper dive for the unedited version that was breaking the Internet and revolting the world.
That night, I couldn't sleep and at 3:41 a.m., I was revisited by the temptation to watch the "real" thing. It surfaced quickly with an emboldened WARNING in all caps:
GRAPHIC FOOTAGE. VIEWER DISCRETION STRONGLY ADVISED.
With my finger ready at the click, my 9-year-old son ambles in my bedroom half-asleep, to pee. His child body casts a cherubic silhouette on the bathroom wall and registers a more vulnerable shadow of itself...
I take my finger off the play button and give up on sleep.
Feeling a little dirty and very sad, I shower and make a cheerful sandwich (to forget the implacable heartbreak and fragility of mortality), then crack the laptop at the dining room table and read the news in the blue of pre-dawn dark.
But this time, like most cringing addicts of election porn, I admittedly do not turn away.
I learn that Donald Trump does not believe he should apologize (shocking) for starting another Twitter war with Fox reporter Megyn Kelly, whom he suggested was a "bimbo," among other super statesmanly quips about her appearance.
This story is stupid (and indiscernible to civic utility) but it is sufficiently distracting and almost does the job of replacing the earlier morning's ghoulish imagery with a droll embarrassment.
I turn a light on and turn to a replay of Jeb Bush's equally presidential "anchor baby" blunder, delivered Monday at a convenient and safe location six hours from the Mexican border, where he was ingratiating himself to the Latino base that Trump likely lost when he puckered up plans to simply do away with birthright citizenship, despite its solemn guarantee under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Then I wonder if Trump sees the U.S. Constitution a bit like an irresistible tax loophole, and not the sovereign predicate of global freedom, chartered, consequently, by a disgruntled group of illegal immigrants...
Dark thoughts follow and I almost click on the execution link again.
At this point I feel guilty for not using my sleepless night to do something more productive, like meditate or exfoliate or teach myself how to code or bake gluten-free confections or write about how vapid and isolating self-improvement culture can be.
I get up and fix a cup of coffee. Then with the dumb tautological reflex that keeps me returning to the kitchen to review the same disappointing fridge contents in search of miracle food items, in this primal fashion, I return to the news.
Yawn... All predictable plot lines in Watch Trump Gleefully Hurl Republican Orthodoxy Without Bothering to Sugarcoat it in Polite Party Line Doublespeak Whilst his Polls Surge.
The sun was coming up and I had seen enough, but I still didn't feel like self-improving and it was too late to sleep and too early to work.
So I did what I've done for my entire adult life when democracy turns tragic or absurd or scary: I googled to see what comic comfort Jon Stewart could offer another sleepless citizen.
A semi-panicked breath later, I remembered that he was gone... Left us almost a month ago for the more honest animal kingdom in Jersey, to have dinner with his family on Tuesday nights, whom he'd heard are "very nice people." (The nerve.)
But in that split-second memory lapse, while staring unblinking into the Google abyss and verging on a latent speed-tour of the first four stages of grief (shock, pain, rage, depression), a glimmer appeared midway through search page one...
A petition, appealing to Stewart to host a presidential debate.
Neither his reps nor the Commission on Presidential Debates have commented, and it's unlikely the freshly retired host will sacrifice eight hours of sleep to moderate a circus of political players whom, he recently told the crowd at the SummerSlam he emceed at Barclays, hold "less respect for their audience" than WWE contenders.
Still, a girl can dream and I, along with over 300,000 signatures at the time of this writing, think he should seriously consider the gig.
In these few weeks he's been off the air, I've realized how much I've come to rely on Stewart (and his invisible staff of hypocrisy-de-jour montage magicians) not so much for news, but for church. Temple. Yoga. Shrink.
Better yet, moderator.
The brand of satire conferred by The Daily Show was another indispensable tool in the bag of spiritual and secular correctives I've pulled from in those fitful wee hours to feel less lonely and scared... more connected. Lighter.
I, like so many, would come to his altar, all cut up in a zillion pieces, like our toxic asset mortgages, bearing the shards of duplicities and disasters scrapped piecemeal over the course of a day from sound bites and posts and pixels collected on commutes, on line at the market, at the office, at home alone with a baby.
And we would keep it all in, cigarette cellophane membranes sheathed over the frozen viscera of the day's headlines, until we got to the salving waters of The Daily Show and took a dip and laughed and cried about the state of affairs, and felt better for it. Felt apart of something. Felt whole. Felt American.
Jon reminded us that while democracy (and life) is funny, it can also be intermittently devastating, and leave the pausing complex thinkers eating the tyranny of inanities left by the panting race of power-obsessed double-dealers; but that the ecstasy and release that arises from the ritual of having those offenses voiced and mocked on our behalf felt more profound and enduring than the quiet desperation itself.
Watching him, one sensed that no matter what depravity goes down in America tomorrow, that the reasonable and human of us will have the last laugh and history will be on the side of logic and the cleaner ego.
Of course it could be argued that the pleasure extracted from "ritual" replaces the need for rebellion. You know, church (or naked rain dances or Mother's Day or casual Fridays or listicles) keep the disgruntled natives happy and colonized and back at work on Monday, two weeks after giving birth, etc.
Perhaps if it weren't for Stewart preserving our sanity and good faith during the Bush administration, we would have flooded the streets and stopped the war in Iraq and impeached Dick Cheney, or demanded more sensible gun legislation.
But I don't think so. We were busy looking for jobs and keeping our homes out of foreclosure, while discovering the endless distraction provided by newly minted social media accounts.
Still, Stewart did not so much offer escape.
He was more the twinkle-eyed bartender who saw we'd already had too many and offered a glass of water and some laughs at the end of the night. He was not another court jester with a crazy pet trick or a dubious priest dishing out dogma, so much as a happily-married, well-read Sunday School teacher bestowing relevant hermeneutics to a class of confused and wounded adolescents.
Which, frankly, is the regressive state this election season finds us in -- laughing into our palms during the school assembly, but secretly feeling terrified and divided.