In Search of Some Good Amusement

When you don't want to watch war coverage, there's plenty to keep you entertained.

A person cannot watch CNN all the time. Three weeks into the war, the crawl across the bottom of the screen started doing something perceptibly bad to my brain: I find myself becoming unreasonably angry when the news I'm getting is more than an hour old and Wolf Blitzer's excitement has become intensely irritating. It now takes less than a minute of a White House briefing before I'm desperate to smack Ari Fleischer.

And then there's Donald Rumsfeld, who's in a class by himself when it comes to infuriating smugness. The other day, he actually feigned confusion when weapons of mass destruction as a rationale for the war were mentioned. No, silly, it was never about them. Nor was it ever about Saddam, personally. Where did you people get that idea? This week, the war has always been about the Iraqi People--that vast, homogeneous entity--whose lack of voting rights has been keeping the Pentagon up at night all these years.

I, for one, get vertigo just trying to keep up with the morphing scenarios. Our morning paper has trouble with it, too: They're still framing war news with the header "Disarming Iraq."

Hel-lo? Disarmament is so last month.

We won't even talk about the TV news, national and local, all of which seems to be increasingly pitched to kindergartners. (But in a tweaked sort of way. The Your Weather daily temperature screen on KVOA Channel 4 Eyewitness News--and isn't that a mouthful to be chanting every two minutes?--gives three daily temperatures: breakfast, lunch and afternoon. Afternoon? Does that mean, like, anytime after lunch? Or are they really talking about Din-Din Time?)

Besides, as I tell myself several times a day, watching the war makes no difference. I've been resorting to the Serenity Prayer, the one about knowing the difference between things you can change and things you can't. The war is definitely a non-changeable item. The wreck is fully underway--massive budget deficit, suicide bombers, Halliburton, Bechtel Corp., cuts in veterans' benefits and all--and so we all might as well return to doing what we ordinary Americans do best, which is seeking amusement.

Innocent entertainment is everywhere, and at times like these, it's most comforting when it's about the entirely innocent: plants, animals and stars. Lately, I've been finding loads of such idle amusement with some help from my friends.

My friend Bonnie See, who's as passionate a gardener as she is a reader, first loaned and then gave me Michael Pollan's entrancing tour of four plants, The Botany of Desire (2001). She more or less insisted, in her sweet way, that I read it, and I am so glad I did. Pollan is an original thinker, a terrific, quick-witted writer and a true lover of plants. Thanks to Bonnie and Pollan, I am now armed with whole new phalanxes of intriguing, little-known facts--did you know that apples in America were originally all about hard cider? And then there are Pollan's startling but persuasive interpretations: For example, that Johnny Appleseed, about whom I had not thought for maybe 35 years, was a weirdly American hybrid of St. Francis and Dionysius. (I mean, how many people writing about evolutionary biology cite Nietzsche?) Read Pollan's book and you'll never look at a Granny Smith or a Red Bliss the same way again.

Another resource during this unsettling time has been the most popular show on Animal Planet, The Pet Psychic. My dear friend Catharine Harold turned me on to its marvels, which occur every Monday at 5 and 8. The pet psychic, Sonya (she has a last name but we all think of her as just Sonya) reads the minds of animals, both living and "passed over," reassuring their owners about their well-being and gratitude, solving mysteries about their behavior and, not so incidentally, making the animals' case for decent, thoughtful treatment. Since just the words "pet" and "psychic" pronounced together make my husband's eyes roll like ball bearings in a funnel, the dogs and I watch Sonya in my son's room with the door closed. We like to enjoy her insights into the minds of trick alligators who won't perform, guinea pigs who just can't get along and dogs with unexplained phobias--in a scoff-free atmosphere, thank you very much. Every once in a while, Sonya meets an animal who'd been badly abused by former owners, and she chokes up and can't go on. We choke up right along with her, and prefer to do it unobserved. Go, Sonya.

Finally, there's the news arriving hourly from the heavens, via the Hubble telescope. Everything about the Hubble project demonstrates that our government can do some things perfectly. I knew there were spectacular images from the Hubble floating around, but until my son turned me on to the NASA Web hadn't realized that you can watch engineers and technicians actually at work on Hubble stuff in real-time. And then there are these huge archives of downloadable images, lucid explanations, press releases, links to cosmological speculations that will make you feel profoundly dumb and much, much more. It's a feast that makes waiting for AOL to slow-ly, slow-ly load its obligatory photos of J-Lo worthwhile.

I'm just hoping that, after all the bills for this war have come in, we can still afford this level of entertainment.

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