Is it OK to have fun?
After two weeks of war, many Americans are feeling torn between the obligation to stay informed and the need to take a break.
BOSTON AND SAN DIEGO
At a time of war, who better to turn to than Elmo? The muppet was part of a recent attempt on "Sesame Street" to calm the concerns of pint-sized Americans, such as Jeffrey Hyson's two toddlers.Skip to next paragraph
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As the threesome watched, Maria, one of the adult characters, assured Elmo that he could still go to the park or eat ice cream - or see an elephant on roller skates (cue the clip of the skating elephant).
The youngest Americans aren't the only ones trying to figure out what kind of fun is OK when the nation is involved in the most intense conflict since the first Gulf War a dozen years ago. "I feel guilt" watching entertainment shows, says Avonelle Sorensen, a Mason City, Iowa, resident whose daughter is in the Army but so far hasn't been deployed. "Those people over there are suffering, and here I am sitting in my comfortable home with my feet up."
Anecdotal evidence and a slumping box office indicate many Americans are feeling similarly conflicted about the luxury of leisure. After two weeks of war, many are torn between an obligation to be informed and the need to take a break from it, says Monica Kintigh, a professional counselor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She is counseling people to feel free to do the things that they like. "Do you like to go out dancing? Then go out dancing," she says. "Find ways to find some laughter in your life."
Interviews with a sampling of people across the country indicate that laughter is exactly what many are seeking. Cultural observers say that is similar to people's reactions after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a majority of Americans gravitated toward the cultural equivalents of comfort food.
Historically, "during wartime, popular culture tends to emphasize entertainment and patriotism, when it talks about war themes at all," points out Mr. Hyson, a cultural historian at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Observers say that, people's short-term reactions will probably center on a desire to be entertained, rather than creating high art. They add that it will take years - even decades - before the fine arts respond either to the war or to cultural shifts brought on by it and, even more profoundly, by Sept. 11.
"It's the high culture - literature, fine arts, poetry, and so on - that mounts the critique of the culture, of the war effort," Hyson says. He cites "The Red Badge of Courage," published 30 years after the Civil War, and "Catch-22," a scathing look at World War II that came out in 1962.
In the meantime, Americans are relying on instinct when choosing a diversion. Sheri McLoughlin, a homemaker in Beaverton, Ore., says she isn't comfortable watching shows like "Alias," a drama about a young female spy. "It's almost like I feel I shouldn't be watching that unless I'm going to just watch the war coverage," Ms. McLoughlin says. Since the start of the war, "I'm turning away from [police dramas] like 'CSI' and 'Law & Order' and turning more to something like 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' " she says.
McLoughlin has also been trying to get her children out of the house and away from CNN. Last week, she took them to the Oregon Zoo, Portland's Children's Museum, "Piglet's Big Movie," and the library.
Theresa Thomas, whose husband, Jerome, is serving in the Gulf, is very worried about him. She says the Navy airman has been incommunicado since he left in January on the USS Dubuque. Mrs. Thomas watches TV soap operas to help her sleep at night.