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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2001 / 28 Tishrei, 5762

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

The Other Shoe: Waiting -- THE New York Times reports that Americans have returned to their pre-911 cultural habits, tuning into the same television shows, renting lots of movies, and otherwise acting as if the massacres never happened. Experts disagree as to what this means: The most compelling argument is that people hold to past habits because they impose some degree of order and certainty on the future. That may also explain the national gallop in the direction of Nostradamus and fellow soothsayers, who have allegedly peeked beneath Time's skirts and in so doing have rendered Time incapable of rendering another surprise attack (at least if one can correctly interpret their gibberish).

Most people, however, believe the future has sharp teeth. The CIA and FBI have all but promised further attacks: One official says there's a 100 percent chance of one if we strike Afghanistan, and it's safe to say there's a 100 percent chance we will do exactly that. Seventy-five percent of Americans expect we'll be hit again, the other 25 percent apparently believing that our aircraft carriers and Special Forces will nip this problem in the bud. When the second shoe drops, the veil of disbelief that still surrounds September 11 will evaporate and we will truly know we are in a war. Death will have fully entered the room, and what remains of our carefree lives will end.

Down my way, the general mood seems to be increasingly that of a person whose doctor has phoned up with news about an ominous shade on the left lung. There's a sorting out of what is worthwhile from what is cheap. I see this in many acquaintances, including in a group of musicians with whom I spend most Sunday evenings.

C. S. Lewis had a great line about what the proper role of authority: to maintain an environment in which friends can gather for beers and darts and converse about the things they desire to converse about in the way that they wish to converse about them. In our case, the gathering place is a brewpub, where we drink beer and play acoustic music, often on a large, wooden deck. Since the attacks, toe tapping has been interrupted by some degree of finger drumming. We still scan the skies for constellations, but for crop dusters as well.

Some of the pickers, typically those with younger children, agree we are all targets now but don't like to talk about future attacks. They would rather talk about the security measures imposed on them at work, or the manic nature of the stock market. Those of us who are older are a bit more fatalistic turn to other concerns. With a son in college in Boston, the possibility of having to run an extraction mission requires various calculations: How much gas should be carted along, in case none is available on the Garden State Parkway, and how does one best bribe a Boston cop, should that be necessary to enter the city. Posing as a cleric might do the trick, especially when said cleric can pass along, as a love offering, a decent bottle of whiskey.

At other time we spin theories as to why our enemies would take such extremes to kill us. Early on, a popular line had it that they are envious of our way of life: they too would like to spend Sunday evenings drinking beer, checking out the chicks, and singing songs on those and related subjects. But those assumptions have given way to the belief that our enemy is an entirely different breed of human. Indeed, these guys might as well be from outer space. Such impressions gained power when the will of the hijacker Atta made the news. He didn't even want women at his funeral. These are the same fellows lured to their deaths, in part, by the promise of 70 virgins. What on earth would be the nature of such encounters? One would suggest beaming up some Arabic sex manuals, but if the virgins were raised according to Taliban rules they would be incapable of reading them. All agree that this type of religion is not for us.

Yet God is certainly spoken of much more freely. Prior to the attacks, those who ridiculed traditional Western religious belief had the wind at their backs. That wind has died. Now, the fragility of life sends even scoffers searching for a foothold in infinity. With a few Brown Ales down the hatch, one easily reflects that our zone of life is breathtakingly thin. Dig a few feet beneath the garden and you strike rock. Drive up a mountain and experience how quickly the air grows thin. Beyond the clouds are the heavens — beautiful to contemplate and completely hostile to human life. All of which provides some dissent to the popular view that man holds no special place in the universe. These days, it seems very special indeed.

As we wait for the dropping of the other shoe, there is the realization that any given Sunday may be the last one spent this way — not necessarily because we will perish in a cloud of anthrax spores, but because the next attack will put us fully at war, and that will keep us close to home on Sunday evenings. What will we do with our time? Some will patch broken relationships. Some will read. Some will sharpen their knives. Some will impart wisdom to their children. Some will even watch television. But viewers will, one guesses, be more discerning. Anything that cheapens life — including obsession with violence and sex, or cars for that matter — won't fare so well.

There are countless areas of solace, most quite mundane. The simple act of sitting in a favorite room — books on the shelves, dust on the table, a fish on the wall — while running scales on the guitar suddenly takes on a lightly magical nature. So, for that matter, does the act of tuning into a game of college football. Who knows how long these options will be available?

Horrible things are afoot in our thin zone of life. But there is much to comfort and cheer us, even as we await the other shoe. Death has entered the room, and suddenly the life we have taken for granted is taken for granted no more. The patient with the shade in his lung sees the world afresh.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett