A Little Chopin in a Time of War

A CONFESSION: The other night, some minutes into the evening news report on the war, I turned the set off and put on a recording of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. Conscience jabbed for a moment as the disc player gathered its energies to start to play. But clearly, there would be plenty of time in the morning to tune back into the continuing drama in the Middle East.

Chopin isn't necessarily my favorite composer, nor would I have thought of that concerto as a favorite piece of music.

But from the way the cadences of that concerto have kept coming back to me in the days since, I'm convinced that turning off the war for a time and putting on the music was one of the wiser things I've done for a while. The value of having the little interstices of one's days filled with harmonies rather than worry, chattering away like a nervous teletype, is immense.

Surely all of us need to make time for whatever our particular Chopin may be in these times, when the shock of war is compounded by the stress of recession; when more things seem to be shutting down or falling apart than opening up.

I don't suggest that we harden our hearts against concern for our fellow beings in the Gulf - that would be impossible anyway. But we need to remain stable, balanced. The lifeline we would hold out to those who really need it is meaningless if we are swept up in the tide ourselves.

If there is an upside to war, it is in the way peoples pull together in a crisis. (This is true, of course, for both sides.) There is a single national conversation, as on an old-fashioned party telephone line.

At the diner, the radio that usually plays oldies is now tuned to the station that is airing the Pentagon briefing live. Is anyone listening? A reporter is exploring with one of the generals how an engagement resulting in the taking of 500 prisoners is not to be construed as ``major.'' We are beginning to recognize the voices of the generals even before they are identified.

A local flag company has a big Old Glory flying at the front door and a row of little flags on sticks, sprouted like very early crocuses through the cracks in the sidewalk. The local florist's shop has little yellow ribbons available at the cash register: ``Free - one per customer.''

The conventional wisdom of early January that any war against Iraq would be over in a matter of weeks has faded away. President Bush's warnings against ``euphoria'' have been heeded; he needn't have worried. As this newspaper's opinion pages reported last week, the numbers of those who thought a war could be wrapped up within a few weeks have all but evaporated. And public support for the war effort looks as if it it might last longer than generally thought.

The telephone traffic of a newspaper editor's office has some elements in common with a call-in radio talk show - live coast to coast - and with a community drop-in center.

Many are calling for reassurance of some sort, perhaps unconsciously, or at least an opportunity to vent their concerns. The calls are like the special chirps and cries that birds and animals make before a storm. Often there are two or more conversations going on simultaneously: The ostensible subject is whether a given article was fair, where more information can be obtained on this or that, what is the paper's editorial policy on such-and-such.

The real concern is likely to be, ``Is the United States falling apart?'' or ``Are my relatives in Israel going to be safe?''

Sometimes people call because they want to discuss a theory or an idea they have. One reader has called to express concern that the Soviet Union would enter the war on the Iraqi side and precipitate World War III. Another wants to discuss how children, if properly taught under a special system he is eager to explain to us, could learn languages and music simultaneously - could become little polyglot Mozarts in a twinkling. It's an intriguing idea, but it will have to wait.

Musical theory is not the only thing that risks being crowded off the agenda in time of war.

Even those who believe there is still a role for moral leadership to be exercised by great nations, backed up by use of military force on very rare occasions, are still dismayed at the relative ease with which an armada can be funded at a time when conventional wisdom says that there is no money available for any enhanced government support on the home front. As a polity, we need to remember that there are other issues than war that need our attention.

And personally, we need to keep remembering to allow for a little Chopin in a time of war.

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