"I'm a fatalist," a friend said at lunch. "I can't do anything about the war. So I pay attention, but I don't agonize over it. Life goes on."
I asked what he thought will happen, that open-ended question Americans have been asking each other over cups of coffee, over plates of lo mein, inside cabs, at bars, at work, in living rooms, over the telephone. What do you think will happen?
"It'll go on for a while," my friend said. "People will die, and then somewhere down the line there'll be a settlement of some kind and things will be quiet until the next time. . . . Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you! Another good movie I just saw -- 'Last Exit To Brooklyn.' "
The war didn't come up again. We talked about movies. We talked about the Super Bowl. And we talked about the Baltimore City Council elections coming up this year. We talked, briefly, about the violent crime in Baltimore and the mayor's efforts to do something about it. That was a major issue in Baltimore just 10 days ago. There hasn't been much talk about it lately.
After lunch, we stopped at the Goodwill Book Nook on Charles Street. My friend bought some old copies of Nancy Drew stories -- "I collect them," he said -- and a hardcover edition of "The Accidental Tourist."
I found two books that promised to provide starkly different spiritual experiences: Lyn Macdonald's "The Roses of No Man's Land," a history of the casualties and medical services in World War I, and "The Dorothy Day Book," readings and writings by the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, pacifist, healer, crusader, the woman Evelyn Waugh called "an autocratic saint who wants us all to be poor." The Day book was filled with quotes from Henry David Thoreau, Thomas More, Isaiah, Martin Luther King Jr., St. Therese de Lisieux, W.H. Auden and many, many others. The World War I book told of battle wounds and poison gas, the struggles of men to survive and of women to heal.
These will provide distractions for the weekend, something to fill the time between special reports from the television networks.
"I'm going to a Super Bowl party Sunday," another friend announced. "That is, if there is a Super Bowl."
That is, he meant, if something doesn't happen.
The Persian Gulf war is everywhere. No escape from it. Those with troops in the family, those who have family and friends in Israel must feel smothered by this new monster of history.
The rest of us are overwhelmed, too.
Life goes on, but it stops every hour on the hour -- or every 20 minutes -- for an update from CBS, New York. Step into a bar and CNN delivers a new report, or repeats an old report. The streets are full of reminders: Yellow ribbons tied to trees and the side mirrors of pickup trucks, flags on flagpoles, flags on front porches, flags that once appeared only on holidays.
But these are overt reminders. We don't really need them to know there is a war in the world, and that we have a lot at stake in it. The war has cut a wide path through the nation's collective consciousness. We are speaking its language. "Scud" pops up in conversations everywhere. The military experts on TV have given us "amateur expertise" to take into the dialogue of barrooms and dinner tables. It's a rain of war -- in words and images, in the heavy-breathing fear that hovers over our shoulders.
We try to escape, but the war keeps creeping back into daily life.
A weekend approaches. A couple has a ticket to a black-tie affair. They've lined up a baby sitter. The nation is at war. Do they still go out and have a good time?
"Well," someone said at such an affair last Sunday night in Harford County. "You can go out. You don't have to have a good time."
Do we make plans? Do we look to May? Should we make decisions only from day to day, hour to hour?
"Only had one person in the showroom all day Saturday," a Buick dealer told me.
Did the recession or the war have that effect?
"I think it's the war," another man said. "Everyone's home watching TV."
Could this distant war be strangling our instincts to act, to move, to do the things we usually do, to talk about things that affect the way we live? Has it rendered everything else in life incidental?
Surely, bombs aren't going to fall from the sky. Surely, we're safe at home. But how long will the war last? How will it affect our plans? What do you think will happen?