For the last few days, I've been trying to remember who Gary Condit is.
Yes, I know. Sleazy congressman. Missing intern. Connie Chung interview. What I mean is, I've been trying to remember what it felt like back in the days when he mattered more than anything else in the world. It all seems so distant now. As unreal as dreams.
But it's not just him. It's football and reality TV, Anne Heche and the Social Security lockbox, Michael Jackson and, really, so many other things that seemed important right up until 8:44 on the morning of Sept. 11. Right up until what we recognize only now as the last minute of our youth.
Sixty seconds later, we all became old. Sixty seconds later, in a flash of fire and a bloom of smoke, things that once mattered ceased to, things that never mattered began to. And everything was abruptly and irrevocably changed.
Now we're told by the leaders of our nation that it's time for us to get back to work, get back to play, get back to life, that to do anything else hands the terrorists the one victory they sought above all others: disruption. And you know that's right, know we have to deny them that triumph, have to get back to what we were doing. . . .
But it's hard, man. Damn, it's hard.
Suddenly, life feels not unlike when you walk into a room where your wife has rearranged the furniture. You recognize the pieces, but at the same time, the room seems strange. Nothing is where it was.
That's how it feels in the American house right now. Like terrorism has moved the sofa. So that hotels that ought to be full are not. Limousines that ought to be booked are not. A McDonald's faces layoffs because folks have lost their taste for McNuggets. A stock market graph looks like a cliff. Researchers report that many of us are having trouble sleeping and most of us are depressed.
And my 11-year-old has new interest in my business travel, wanting to know if I really have to fly to Pennsylvania next month. Couldn't I just drive?
What's it like, I asked my colleague, Dave Barry, to be a humorist right now? At a time when most folks feel as if they'll never laugh again, what do you do when laughter is your job description? Dave had been wondering the same thing. "For the last week," he told me, "I haven't even tried to write anything funny, and for a while I thought maybe I never would, or should."
But, he said, his readers have told him that they need laughter from him. "So I'm going to try again, because people seem to want it, and I don't really know what else I can do."
How suddenly strange is the world when Dave Barry doesn't know whether he can be funny in it? How suddenly strange, when you tune in David Letterman's first broadcast since the event, and even King Smirk himself looks ashen and grave. How suddenly strange.
We have come into a frightening new place. But it's important to know that it demands from us what frightening new places always have. Our toughness -- and our faith.
As Letterman put it, "There is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous. Because courage . . . defines all other human behavior. And I believe . . . pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing."
I repeat the words because I think they're wise and because I think we need to hear them and heed them.
In recent days, we've marveled, and rightly so, at the spectacular courage of firefighters, police officers and soldiers as they've searched for the injured and made ready for war. But we ought to remember that at a time when all is upheaval, it's necessary for the rest of us to have -- or, yes, pretend to have -- a different courage. The quiet courage to return to our lives now. To do things we used to do. To make ourselves at home in an unfamiliar room.
I'm going to the movies tonight. I hope I see you there.