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Germ Bag

The War at Home

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 10/24/2001

I thought my sister Marcia was whacked.

In my final pre-wedding moments, as we made our way from the hairdresser's to the Alabama resort where the nuptials were to go down, Marcia suddenly wanted to scour the town of Gulf Shores for hot-off-the press copies of Time and Newsweek. She had to have the special issues focusing on the atrocities of Sept. 11.

On another day, it would have been hard to fault her. The terrible attacks had occurred only four days earlier. But my wedding was to happen any minute.

"Do you mind if we drive around to a few drugstores?" she asked sweetly.

Huh? I marveled at Marcia's sense of timing, and, for the first and only time this day, began to feel my gut clench with nervous cramps.

"Yes, I do mind." My intestinal butterflies practically said it for me, as they were already clogging my bridal esophagus.

At that moment, Marcia seemed to me like a real fruitcake. But a month later, I have to admit that I'm now every bit the obsessive she-monster she was that day, if not more so. No sooner had we all returned home from the wedding then I myself fell ill with a particularly crippling case of News Fixation, exacerbated by a concomitant bouts of Patriotic Fervor and General Paranoia. And oh, I've got it bad.

Thanks to a bunch of terrorists, I am now a creature transformed. Where before I barely cared about current events, I'm now utterly unable to take my eyes off CNN. Suddenly it is absolutely imperative that I stay completely current on all things anthrax-, Islam-, and jihad-related. The only human contact I desire is with CNN's Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown--or, if I have to go tooling around in the car, NPR's Bob Edwards and Linda Wertheimer. That's it. I don't want to hear from anyone else.

Thank goddess I work at home. I can ignore work and stare at the tube all day. Since I don't want to answer the phone or leave the apartment, though, my friendships have begun to suffer. And my marriage? Though only one month old, it has developed serious communication problems. Specifically, I only want Marty to speak during commercials, and only if he's giving me new information about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

In addition to upsetting my family life, all this crazed news-junkie behavior is really scrambling my brain. Brushing my teeth the other day, I looked in the mirror and instead of seeing myself, I saw CNN foreign correspondent extraordinaire Christiane Amanpour. Hmm, I wondered, when did my jaw get so square?

Then there are the words that, through sheer televised repetition, have branded themselves into my consciousness, and some of which I can't stop saying.

"Kandahar," I told Marty at dinner one night last week. "Kandahar."

"Yes, Kandahar," he replied. He seemed to understand.

"Donald Rumsfeld," I said over dessert. "Al Jazeera."

"Yep," he responded, knowing not to say much more than that, as the TV was on in the living room.

The next morning, as Marty was getting dressed for work, I told him I thought he had a great Islamabad. He responded by telling me he thought I had an equally fabulous Jalalabad. At that moment I realized I'd married the right man.

Thanks to CNN, the strangest things please me now, like when Paula Zahn wears her crimson sweater. Juxtaposed with the network's sapphire-hued morning set, that turtleneck is just stunning. I've also come to enjoy the uncomfortable pauses that are an inevitable part of interviews with someone clear across the globe.

Aaron Brown: "Christiane, can you tell if ground troops have reached Kabul?"

Silence. Christiane has a blank expression.

Silence. Blank look.

More silence. Then suddenly, the electricity of a message received flashes across Christiane's face.

"Well, no, Aaron, we're not sure about that yet."

There's something oddly pleasing about that, and it has me considering incorporating such awkward pauses and delayed recognition into my daily conversations--if I ever have any again.

OK, I may not be interacting with anyone or getting any work done, but at least I'm adding to my skill set, thanks to CNN's nifty new headline crawl, which forces you to listen to one story while simultaneously reading about others. And then there's my sudden interest in foreign affairs, which, as I've always understood it, is one of the warning signs of the apocalypse. Before Sept. 11, I'd run at the mention of things like "Mogadishu," "Bahrain," or "WTO." Now I can't seem to get my head out of international-affairs journals. The other day, something I could never have predicted happened: I picked up a book called Political Thinking, Political Theory and Civil Society. Truly, the end must be near.

Another new sensation I'm feeling is patriotism. Marty's dad bought an American-flag T-shirt for Marty the other day. I was jealous. Hey, I want one of those, I pined internally. That was definitely a first. Never before in 35 years have I craved an American flag. And now American songs make me sad, where before they made me kind of sick. Before Sept. 11, if I heard the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" playing in the distance, all that came to mind was the alternative version I'd learned in grade school: "Glory, glory hallelujah/ Teacher hit me with a ruler/ Shot her in the butt with a rotten coconut/ And there ain't no school no more." But now all of that has been wiped out and I just think about war and death and stuff. You know, and triumph.

And now that I'm regularly lulling myself to sleep by reading about the horrors of smallpox--about how your skin turns black and comes off in sheets--paranoia has taken hold. Our cable goes out for a few minutes and I assume the Capitol has been bombed. The National Emergency Broadcast System does a test and I go frigid, expecting the sear of napalm at any second. An unmarked truck passes below my office window and I jump up and stare at it, pondering what people think about in the split second between a nearby explosion and their demise. My hip joints get a little achy and I wonder if you can use old antibiotics to combat bio-engineered plague. And when Marty goes to work, I think about him coming home with his arms and legs blown off. Would I still be attracted to him if he was just a midriff and head? Jeez, I'd have to find a way; I'm his wife.

And I'm all about assigning spooky meaning to random events. Last week, we spent the night at Marty's parents' home in the suburbs. The house had a cartoonlike American flag taped to the front door. In the morning, that flag was still there, but it was upside down. A chill went through me. Oh my gawd, has a band of dissidents moved through Northern Virginia, quietly inverting American flags as a harbinger of the next attack? But then Marty's dad declared it the wind's work and we went about our day.

Recently, I read a column in The Washington Post about how 80-year-olds aren't really that freaked out by all this because they've been through so much shit already: a world war, nuclear threats, stock-market crashes, the Depression, a century-long series of a-holes du jour (Hitler, Khomeini, Hussein). The octogenarians have seen all that, and they're still here to calmly buy Polygrip and diapers. That really soothes me.

But what really makes me feel better is getting the hell out of Washington. Admiring fall leaves and the rural countryside is what mid-Atlantic dwellers do in October. This year, I've been doing it with them, and out there amid the dapple-gray ponies and cider stands, I forget about up-to-the-nanosecond news, and it feels like everything's going to be all right. It's just really hard to imagine a bunch of pigs and llamas getting nuked, I guess.

Then I get back home, and wonder if Marcia wants to go in on a hillside bunker with me. I'll have to ask.

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