An American civilian prepares for war

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President Bush's televised ultimatum to Saddam Hussein Monday night was a kind of sad relief - now we know the deadline has come. What seemed crazy two months ago is now very real.

I've lived this past week as "the week before the war." I felt myself counting down the days and I heard myself asking, like a little kid, "Do you think something bad will happen?"

My husband is in Canada this week, and I'm here. We talk about, "what if." What if the war comes and we cannot communicate? Who should go where? Yes, it's probably the combination of being geographically challenged and having had too many viewings of the epic separations of Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in the movie "Reds," but I study the map to see just how I would walk to Canada.

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We have prepared this past week in many ways. "What if" became a little more real. "We should get some water" became a couple of plastic jugs stored in the basement. We don't want to be duct-tape foolish, but can having a little extra water be a bad thing? My friend Stephanie one-upped us on water, saying she had figured out how to get the water out of her water heater if she needs to. This, from a woman who does not take out her own trash.

Does this create stress? Yes. Scare us? Uh-huh. But does it hurt us? I don't think so. As scary as this "what if" war thinking can be, I know from experience that good can come from living close to danger.

At one difficult and sad period, there were many deaths in my family. It was a time during which I seemed to live in intensive-care units, waiting rooms, and funeral homes. I could have been depressed.

But even though I certainly was grieving, I also had some of my most joyous, clearest, and wisest days.

My priorities began to stand out in luminous relief - I made some of my best and easiest decisions about work and love and life.

War - with its implications - tempers your conscience like that well-known life-raft exercise: If we go to war where do you want to be? With whom? Doing what? If you have to leave your home quickly what will you take?

Joan Didion writes about living in California, where homes are frequently threatened by fire. Her neighbors keep boxes near their door with items they want to save when the fire comes. What they value is in their "fire box."

What would be in your "war box?"

This values-clarification game is now much less hypothetical. Remember the early part of the day on Sept. 11, before we knew what was happening? When the planes began to crash and we didn't know if real war had begun?

We can use this week's threat of war to check our lives and choices. Play the game: What if we have six months? Two weeks? How will you spend your money? Your time? Your energy?

It's not fun to confront questions of life and death, but it can make us better people. If we thought that this week was what we might some day remember as "back when things were normal," then mightn't we be nicer, kinder, more caring? Or conversely, maybe it's time to not suffer fools or waste time doing things we don't like.

And should war somehow be averted this week and nothing bad happen? If you overreacted by being too nice to others or too true to yourself? Is that a decision you'd regret? Would you be sorry?

Diane Cameron is a writer and fundraiser living in Albany, N.Y.

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