This is a family newspaper, but it's time to deal frankly -- steel yourself -- with that awful, four-letter F-word.


As a family newspaper, we've printed vivid descriptions of planes exploding into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. We've detailed the deaths of upstanding local men due to anthrax-contaminated mail, explained color-coded terror alerts and described pleasant people being shot dead while loading their cars.

Now we're at war, so "embedded" war correspondents are providing minute-by-minute accounts of brave men and women whom our nation may call upon to maim and kill or be maimed and killed.

Those too genteel to scream the other F-word out of frustration may find themselves lashing out at family members, spending free moments exploring Army-Navy stores, or sealing their doorways until . . . when?

Last week, Karen Dunkley of Northwest received a note from Shepherd Elementary, where her son, J.R., is in second grade. Parents were asked to stuff a backpack with clothes and nonperishable foods for use in case of a terrorist event.

Dunkley, 30, felt saddened by "kids that age having to bring home a note like that . . . . My son asked my fiance, 'Are we going to get killed?' "

She still hasn't filled the backpack. Recent events "make you fearful just sending your kid to school," Dunkley says. "You always keep [terrorism] in the back of your mind."

A friend whose kindergartner attends a Silver Spring Montessori school found a similar note tucked among her daughter's valentines. Studying the list, my friend realized, "There are a dozen other things your child could need. . . .

"How do you prepare when you don't know what you're preparing for?"

How indeed? By Saran-wrapping a safe room? By burning Dixie Chicks CDs because fear makes dissent seem unpatriotic, not one of democracy's blessings?

By fleeing the D.C. area for anywhere that doesn't feel like Fear Central?

Shepherd's principal, Katherine James, says the backpack idea resulted from a meeting of the school's safety committee after President Bush's announcement of a March war deadline. If war started, James says members wondered, "would we have a plan in place to protect the children?" A soothing lesson plan was prepared that likened the terror preparations to getting ready for a camping trip. Being prepared "seemed better than to do nothing," James says.

Sure. But hearing so much free-floating, terrorism-based anxiety made me wonder: What would have happened if we'd known nothing about the nation's many fear-producing events? What if I'd spent months in a media-free cave?

I would have been, well, fine. Un-anthraxed, un-snipered, unalerted to terrorist attacks that never occurred, I would have felt heartened by my family's wellness, concerned about my son's college admissions process, saddened by the recent death of a friend's mom. Everything I felt when I wasn't in terror's thrall.

Like millions of Earth dwellers, I have a gratitude-worthy life. Sometimes, I've been too fearful to notice. Just like in the "halcyon days" -- or so they seem now -- before Sept. 11.

Such thoughts, of course, are heresy. They smack of willful ignorance, self-centeredness and a lack of empathy for other people's tragedies.

As if my being terrified helps anyone. As if reflexively responding to the media's bottomless supply of alarming, anxiety-inducing "news" makes sense. Inevitably, after we shudder, sympathize and read the awful details often enough, we move on.

Life continues, and us with it -- to new fears, perhaps, or to a fresh realization of the blessings that put them in perspective.

In his article "Living in an Age of Fear" in April's Yoga Journal, Phillip Moffitt discusses fear's shrinking effect, which he says in San Francisco "has people afraid to cross the Golden Gate Bridge."

Many "confuse the need for alertness with the need to reside in fear," Moffitt says. Alertness is useful; fear contracts or narrows your view until all you see is potential danger. "So your 'enemy' has already inflicted harm. You become much more willing to give up your freedoms and your perception of fairness." Besides, fear is "short term in its thinking." Our current situation has terrifying, long-term possibilities.

What we need is perspective. ''Every year, 45,000-plus people die in automobiles," Moffitt reminds us, yet we don't fear cars. Perspective requires being aware of when you're in fear's grip, which "doesn't make you bad or weak. Fear's origins are outside of you."

"Ask yourself, 'What's true right now?' " Moffit suggests. React to that, not an unknowable future.

In a fearful world, it's as sane to search for balance as for the Rolls-Royce of gas masks. The latter, God willing, you won't need; the former you'll surely be happier for having. You can pray or work for peace, prepare for what you can and be skeptical of anything that tempts you to regard constant terror as a viable lifestyle.

Then relax. Love. Enjoy. A new fear will arrive shortly.