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.

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.

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.

Finding comfort in the blues

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.

For Thomas, the main distraction from the war has been playing in her jazz and R&B band, Theresa Thomas and Vibe, at gigs around San Diego.

"It does help a lot because it gets my mind off of what [Jerome] is doing. He can't e-mail. He can't call. So it's very, very hard," says the data analyst and mother of two teenagers. Thomas says she's avoiding the radio and relying on her trusty CDs instead. "Blues always helps me get through," she says.

Changing the channel

With TV showing people in real danger, some have wondered if "reality" shows such as NBC's "Fear Factor," which asks contestants to do dangerous or disgusting things, would seem less appealing.

"It's sort of beyond belief to me that you flip one channel over and you're watching bombs go off in Baghdad and then you're watching this sort of silly stuff," says Evie Goldstein, a lawyer who lives in New York.

On March 10, before the war began, "Fear Factor" easily won its time period. Last Monday, it dropped to second, coming in well behind CBS comedies "King of Queens" and "Yes, Dear." Viewership for the Oscars, one of the prime TV events of the year, had the lowest ratings in its televised history when it aired the first weekend of the war. But as the war completes its second week, entertainment shows have bounced back.

Nonviolent fare like "America's Most Talented Kid," a talent show that got off to a solid ratings start last Friday night, would seem to be obvious escapes. But intense dramas like "24" have kept fans, too. Hyson says he's engrossed by the show, whose plot centers on international terrorism. "It's unnerving, but it's pushing all the right buttons," he says.

Ms. Goldstein agrees, adding that "24" is her favorite show. "The parallels are so weird" with the war in Iraq. But, despite its intense themes, she says, "it's still escapism. It's not real bombs going off."

Parents' desire to limit children's exposure to war coverage has proved a boon to kid networks. Nickelodeon has seen a ratings rise of 35 percent in prime time since the war began, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Disney Channel saw a 31 percent uptick in prime time. And TV Land, home of classic sitcoms, is up 45 percent since the war's start.

On the big screen, wars have traditionally helped the movie box office. During the 1991 Gulf War, attendance rose dramatically over the previous year. But receipts have been lackluster thus far. The top 12 films last weekend brought in $87.4 million, a drop of 23.5 percent from a year ago. Movie audiences have headed mostly for comedies. "Bringing Down the House" was the No. 1 film for three weeks before being displaced by another comedy, "Head of State," last weekend.

Judy Hart of College Station, Texas, and her husband, Gary, haven't gone to the movies since war started. She still wants to see the Oscar-nominated movie "Gangs of New York," but "I don't want to see something that violent right now."

Not all moviegoers have avoided war- related topics. Alain Othenin-Girard, a Swiss businessman living in Hollywood, Calif., ventured out to see the Oscar-winning German film "Nowhere in Africa." His other choice was "The Quiet American," about the early involvement of the US in Vietnam. Only afterward, he says, did he realize that both movies dealt with war.

Broadway - hit by shaky tourism and a musicians' strike - had been worried about losing its audience before Americans took to their TVs to watch the bombing of Baghdad. Last week's box-office take was down 14 percent over the previous two years. The theaters quickly inaugurated a discount-ticket promotion called "Greetings From Broadway."

They're counting on local theater lovers like Goldstein, who attends "three or four times a month," to help pull them through. She is especially looking forward to the "Encores!" series at Lincoln Center, which presents old Broadway musicals. "Talk about escapism," she says. "There's nothing better than sitting there for 2-1/2 hours watching great dancers and great singers."

With the Major League Baseball season under way, and the NCAA basketball tournament heading into its Final Four weekend, Americans are beginning to be lured away from war coverage by two traditionally powerful sports draws. Early ratings for CBS's NCAA tournament coverage were down 24 percent from the previous year, something the network said it had expected because of the war. If baseball gets off to a slow start, pundits will have to decide if it's the effect of the war or merely a continuation of the diminished interest of last season, when the World Series drew the lowest TV ratings ever.

In popular music, only Darryl Worley's pro-war anthem "Have You Forgotten?" seems to have found a broad audience. It's the No. 1 song on country charts. A number of other groups, from Fleetwood Mac to the Beastie Boys, have released songs protesting the war, but are reportedly having trouble getting airtime.

Sorensen, the Iowa resident, is finding that music from the 1950s has fresh appeal for her. "Not the rock 'n' roll I grew up with, but from before that; it's more soothing, not as harsh," she says.

But David Lubin, an art history professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., says that while he loves music, he's loath to reduce it to a sedative. "I don't look at the arts as a kind of pharmacy, a dispensary, that I have this problem today, and I'll turn to a Beethoven symphony [or] I'll listen to a little Mozart."

Interest in Islamic art

Professor Lubin, for one, isn't sure that the conflict in Iraq will have a huge cultural impact - unless it becomes a long-term war like Vietnam. For example, he says the 1991 Gulf War didn't create a lasting impression on the arts - certainly nothing compared with the effect of Sept. 11, which, he says, "caused a lot of soul-searching on the part of artists and filmmakers and creative individuals.... With the Iraq conflict, it's way too early for people to have gone through that soul-searching." He adds, "The situation is not the same as 9/11. In 9/11, the homeland was attacked."

He believes one long-term effect of the war on terror will be to make Americans more interested in Middle Eastern culture. "More students are going to be ... opening themselves up to what's being produced in other parts of the globe ... to get outside a provincial, chauvinistic value of what is art." For example, sales of the Koran rose immediately after Sept. 11.

In the meantime, Americans may be ready to take the advice of writer Anne Lamott, who wrote recently in Salon: "I am going to walk to the library. It's so beautiful out. The hills of my town are lush and green and dotted with wildflowers.... I am going to check out books by P.G. Wodehouse, some 'Goon Show' scripts, and a collection of Mary Oliver poems."

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