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Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2001 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

John Williams

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Consumer Reports

Feeling a gripe comin' on -- You know, you just can't complain anymore. The tragedy bar is so high right now that all the aggravations in life that previously warranted honest and healthy complaining now seem trivial. Or self-centered. Or stupid.

You know that missing bag of french fries from the fast-food joint, or leaky basements, or fussy children, or slow service, or people who don't turn off their cellphones (remember what a social issue that was?) or SUVs aren't the biggest worries a person can have. You sort of knew it then. But you still got to gripe--and would find people who would gripe along, too.

"Yes," someone would say on my radio talk show, "this idiot was doing 55 m.p.h. in the left lane! I nearly had a heart attack." Before Sept. 11, I could do an hour on this topic alone, with every caller spouting the same sentiment and every one of them with conviction. "So, now, I gotta go around on the right side." It was such a heavy burden, remember?

That which we once did so naturally we now indulge in self-consciously. You want to look both ways and then whisper tersely, to a friend, "The lady in front of me at Jewel had 12 items in the "Under 10 Items" line. Not 11. Twelve."

To compound things, plenty of Americans are singing the virtues of our newfound civility. We're waving flags and saying things like "No, after you." What a shame, they say, that it took a terrorist attack for us to rediscover the joy of being American. To which a part of me wants to say, "Yeah, tell that to someone waiting in line at Best Buy." But I don't dare.

Even if the guy in front of me who has just cut in line to use his credit card on a 79-cent purchase while his SUV is double-parked in a handicapped spot is Gary Condit and he is smoking, I know this complaint is small. Before Sept. 11, complaints that rose above the nuisance level, that were at least moderately valid--orthodontia and real estate closings come to mind--now lose their pop. Which is a shame because the dirty, little secret out there is that we still have many of the same sensibilities that we had before this war. And they are being suffocated by the daily onslaught of unbelievable, unbearable news.

It makes me wonder how The Greatest Generation managed during World War II.

How did they allow themselves all the simple, petty, ordinary observations in life as they read about Pearl Harbor, or Normandy, or Dresden, or Iwo Jima, even Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Didn't they notice the commercials on TV were louder than the programs?

To be sure, we should rise above this crisis. But let's not kid ourselves. For as we heed President Bush's call to return to our now-not-so-normal lives, we need to be able to vent, too. It's honest, it's healthy, not unpatriotic and a sign that maybe we can move on.

What a juggling act--anthrax and stickers on fruit.

So, tomorrow, if I go to a movie--for $8.50, mind you, and that's before the $12 best value popcorn and soda--and the lady next to me is talking the whole time, using bad grammar on her cellphone and breast-feeding, well . . . I just may have to say something.

John Williams is the afternoon drive host on WGN-AM radio in Chicago. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, John Williams