You got some sleep this weekend. It was deeper, longer -- but there were strange dreams. During halftime Sunday night on television you had seen a Marine sergeant drilling troops about land mines. "Toe poppers," he called one kind. Then he pulled out bigger ones. The desert sand, below its surface, is studded with them. "Step on this," he said, "and you won't see your feet again. Or your legs. Just red mist."
You forget about the dream soon enough. You can forget a lot these days. You may be obsessed by the war, or impatient or ambivalent or hardened or disgusted. But you think you're getting used to it. "It's like living with cancer," says one man. "Once you find out you've got the disease, nothing is ever the same. But you try to resume some kind of normal life. Now we're living with war."
President Bush is described as "preoccupied" by the war, as "obsessed and possessed by his mission." But he pounded on a lectern Friday and insisted that the Super Bowl must go on, that his State of the Union address tonight must go on, that life must go on ...
"We are not," he said, "going to screech everything to a halt."
So life goes on. A father lets his teenage daughter watch the news in her room while she does her homework, but he suspects that she's been switching the channel to MTV. A woman at work is overheard giving an airline her frequent flyer number. A Washington literary agent calls a book editor in New York for the first time in weeks. "I haven't talked to you since the world changed," the agent says.
"You mean," says the editor, "since Susan Moldow went to HarperCollins?"
You go to a party. Friends call about going dancing. You try reading the biography you started two weeks ago. The movie theaters are packed. The video stores report normal sales: high, as usual. Fun movies, happy movies.
On Saturday, protesters sat sunning themselves on the steps of the National Gallery facing the Mall. Inside, it was the next-to-last day to see the Titian show, and there were protest signs lined up outside the museum, like bikes in a bike rack. Everybody's entitled to enjoy himself. The war news can wait awhile. Titian won't.
A cop, just off duty, drove by with his dry cleaning hanging in the back window of his police car. He'd been doing riot-squad work -- billy clubs and helmets and standing in a line with arms locked. But very little action. He stopped at a souvenir stand and bought a hot dog for his trip home. He said he was looking forward to the Super Bowl.
The gym is crowded again. "People have bounced back," says Michael Clark -- reservist, Howard student and membership rep at the YMCA in Northwest. "The talk on the war here has dropped off," he says. "People now are talking about the oil spill, the environment, the air pollution from the smoke, and the bird that was seen dying on television."
Clark will be called up soon. "I'm a medical specialist," he says, "something like a nurse. When the land battle comes, the injuries will start. That's when I'll go."
Red mist. Dying birds. People admit they're running away from the war coverage. Somebody points out the cover of this week's Newsweek -- "Hard Days Ahead" is the line over the horrifying bloated, bruised face of Lt. Jeffrey Zaun in captivity -- and says it made her feel sick. Somebody says he wants a "news-activated TV monitor" that only blasts on when there's real news to report. Death or something that serious, not just a couple Scuds lobbed near a press tent.
You find yourself interested in the small asteroid that barely missed hitting the Earth on Jan. 18.
But if it had hit, would anybody have noticed?
The sports bars, which became war bars the night of Jan. 16, are trying to become sports bars again, but there's a certain amount of channel flipping and discussion. There are still news junkies who never miss Gen. Schwarzkopf's morning briefings. "I've muted all the channels on my remote control," says one, "except the three networks and CNN. So when I wake up, I can just flip through the war without interruption."
Others feel impatient. "I stopped watching all that stuff last weekend," says a working mother of three. "I have to get on with my life. ... And why can't we just find Saddam Hussein, slit his throat and string him up upside down?"
Americans: Are we that bad at waiting? We don't want the ground war to start, we want it over already. Somebody wonders why it took a week into the war before we heard that Iraq had the fourth-largest army in the world. "And it seems to get bigger," says one cynic, "every time I hear about it."
We don't make jokes about the war; we make jokes about ourselves. Several people mention the old Tom Lehrer song "So Long, Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb," and one line in particular: I'll look for you when the war is over: an hour and a half from now. "I don't think the average American attention span goes much beyond miniseries," says one woman, "and the war is now longer than 'Roots' or a soap opera."
A man confesses something: "It has become boring," he says of the war, "but I am still obsessed with it. ... It's starting to eat away at me. An obsession with boredom. I'm even starting to get used to Lesley Stahl's hair. Worse yet, last night I thought John Cochran looked a little like Timothy Dalton."
At the White House, staffers have purchased buttons: SUPPORT DESERT STORM. A woman says she's "just disgusted" with the way King Hussein of Jordan has been acting. "Jordan," says her friend, "is the Peter Lorre of the Middle East." A man calls from Vermont to say he doesn't know anybody -- not one person -- who's "in favor of what we are doing in the Middle East. It seems to us," he says, "that all these polls are screwy."
Washington, he continues, "is like an artificial country."
Gen. Colin Powell is addressing the press on television. He wants to give some figures. You find your eyes straying from the map and counting the rows of colored ribbons above his left breast. Five rows of ribbons. "I hear Bush is going to drop Dan," says a man watching, "and run with Powell next time."
"Great idea," somebody says.
"That rumor," says somebody else, "is a year old already. He's more likely to run in '96."
Powell continues. The war continues. Our interest continues, but our reactions are changing. "The two nights after war started," says one Vietnam veteran, "I drove home from work crying, just thinking about the dead. I don't do that anymore. You become hardened somehow, and you don't even know it's happening. That's what's scary."
War before the red mist. There was a sense of recklessness. The rules didn't apply. "I feel a part of it," said one woman last week. "It's momentous and exciting. ... It's a little like a political campaign -- you feel like falling in love with somebody you shouldn't." She probably doesn't feel that way anymore.
The night we stayed up with Bernard Shaw's cutout photograph on the CNN map of the Middle East seems a year ago. It was 13 days ago. The news now leaves people less excited, less hopeful. But National Geographic and Newsweek have both provided pullout maps of our own, to live with.
Normal life? What's there to get back to, anyway? A recession, falling housing prices, the rising murder rate, drug wars, crack addicts, illiteracy, disease, disappointments. And now, after the Super Bowl, it's just basketball. Or hockey.
You're living with war. You're living with waves of news and non-news. With the sorties: 16,000 accomplished, then 22,000, then 26,000. With the ground war to come. You live with dreams. With dying birds, for God's sake. "But how far do we go with life going on?" somebody asks. "How normal can we get?"
Will people, he wants to know, start printing up signs and buttons that say: REMEMBER OUR TROOPS IN THE PERSIAN GULF, or NEW WORLD ORDER: ARE WE THERE YET?