The Lion Guy

Imagine a young man on his way to a less-than-thirty-second event--the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.

As a schoolboy, he was a promising student, a fair-minded and likable kid, without being terribly original. Those classmates who could remember the future hand recipient from his elementary-school days would never have described him as daring. Later, in high school, his success with girls notwithstanding, he was rarely a bold boy, certainly not a reckless one. While he was irrefutably good-looking, what his former girlfriends would recall as most appealing about him was that he deferred to them.

Throughout college, no one would have predicted that fame was his destiny. "He was so unchallenging," an ex-girlfriend said.

Another young woman, who'd known him briefly in graduate school, agreed. "He didn't have the confidence of someone who was going to do anything special" was how she put it.

He wore a perpetual but dismaying smile--the look of someone who knows he's met you before but can't recall the exact occasion. He might have been in the act of guessing whether the previous meeting was at a funeral or in a brothel, which would explain why, in his smile, there was an unsettling combination of grief and embarrassment.

He'd had an affair with his thesis adviser; she was either a reflection of or a reason for his lack of direction as a graduate student. Later--she was a divorcee with a nearly grown daughter--she would assert: "You could never rely on someone that good-looking. He was also a classic underachiever--he wasn't as hopeless as you first thought. You wanted to help him. You wanted to change him. You definitely wanted to have sex with him."

In her eyes, there would suddenly be a kind of light that hadn't been there; it arrived and departed like a change of color at the day's end, as if there were no distance too great for this light to travel. In noting "his vulnerability to scorn," she emphasized "how touching that was."

But what about his decision to undergo hand-transplant surgery? Wouldn't only an adventurer or an idealist run the risk necessary to acquire a new hand?

No one who knew him would ever say he was an adventurer or an idealist, but surely he'd been idealistic once. When he was a boy, he must have had dreams; even if his goals were private, unexpressed, he'd had goals.

His thesis adviser, who was comfortable in the role of expert, attached some significance to the loss of his parents when he was still a college student. But his parents had amply provided for him; in spite of their deaths, he was financially secure. He could have stayed in college until he had tenure--he could have gone to graduate school for the rest of his life. Yet, although he'd always been a successful student, he never struck any of his teachers as exceptionally motivated. He was not an initiator--he just took what was offered.

He had all the earmarks of someone who would come to terms with the loss of a hand by making the best of his limitations. Everyone who knew him had him pegged as a guy who would eventually be content one-handed.

Besides, he was a television journalist. For what he did, wasn't one hand enough?

But he believed a new hand was what he wanted, and he'd alertly understood everything that could go medically wrong with the transplant. What he failed to realize explained why he had never before been much of an experimenter; he lacked the imagination to entertain the disquieting idea that the new hand would not be entirely his. After all, it had been someone else's hand to begin with.

How fitting that he was a television journalist. Most television journalists are pretty smart--in the sense of being mentally quick, of having an instinct to cut to the chase. There's no procrastination on TV. A guy who decides to have hand-transplant surgery doesn't dither around, does he?

Anyway, his name was Patrick Wallingford and he would, without hesitation, have traded his fame for a new left hand. At the time of the accident, Patrick was moving up in the world of television journalism. He'd worked for two of the three major networks, where he repeatedly complained about the evil influence of ratings on the news. How many times had it happened that some CEO more familiar with the men's room than the control room made a "marketing decision" that compromised a story? (In Wallingford's opinion, the news executives had completely caved in to the marketing mavens.)

To put it plainly, Patrick believed that the networks' financial expectations of their news divisions were killing the news. Why should news shows be expected to make as much money as what the networks called entertainment? Why should there be any pressure on a news division even to make a profit? News wasn't what happened in Hollywood; news wasn't the World Series or the Super Bowl. News (by which Wallingford meant real news--that is, in-depth coverage) shouldn't have to compete for ratings with comedies or so-called dramas.

Patrick Wallingford was still working for one of the major networks when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Patrick was thrilled to be in Germany on such a historic occasion, but the pieces he filed from Berlin were continually edited down--sometimes to half the length he felt they deserved. A CEO in the New York newsroom said to Wallingford: "Any news in the foreign-policy category is worth shit."

When this same network's overseas bureaus began closing, Patrick made the move that other TV journalists have made. He went to work for an all-news network; it was not a very good network, but at least it was a twenty-four-hour international news channel.

Was Wallingford naive enough to think that an all-news network wouldn't keep an eye on its ratings? In fact, the international channel was overfond of minute-by-minute ratings that could pinpoint when the attention of the television audience waxed or waned.

Yet there was cautious consensus among Wallingford's colleagues in the media that he seemed destined to be an anchor. He was inarguably handsome--the sharp features of his face were perfect for television--and he'd paid his dues as a field reporter. Funnily enough, the enmity of Wallingford's wife was chief among his costs.
 
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