Outflanked by Those Instant War Experts

A minor annoyance of the cruel war has been the proliferation of instant Middle East experts, military strategists and Saddamologists. You cannot avoid these people. They pop up in supermarket checkout lines, on radio call-in shows and, worst of all, when you're trying to exercise.

They suddenly appear beside you with some late-breaking thought. "You know, Saddam--he was just playin' coy."

Or: "You can't win a war from the air."

Or the ever popular, "Truth is the first casualty of war."

Right. And cliches are the survivors.

I suppose one might argue that there is merit in people debating the war rather than what to buy, who's sleeping with whom, which celebrity is fatter--Liz or Roseanne. But, as the commander in chief likes to remind us, we must guard against euphoria.

Most of the time, strangers who approach you with war thoughts are not debating. They're assuming. And what they're assuming is that you agree with them no matter what they believe.

If you are trying to figure things out as they happen, a sudden assault from one of these armchair experts is a real test of your ability to remain calm.

I have been working out my war anxieties at the health club, a kind of escapist boot camp. The other day, after reading three papers and listening to an hour of news, I was trying to Exercycle my way out of this world but could not resist watching the Pentagon briefing on the TV in the corner of the gym.

Suddenly, a sweating social critic appeared beside me and said: "Don't you hate the press? How stupid can these people be? They expect us to tell them what we're doing before we do it. Why don't they just go to work for Hussein?"

Now, I have a choice. I see his point. But I don't hate the press. I can argue with the man, but then I'd have to listen to more of his line, which I already know. So I just walk away to the comfort of a cold shower.

In the shower--yes, even the shower!--there is no escape. A naked woman under the next shower head looks at me and says, "Pray as much as you can. It's the only thing that will end the war. I read a study that showed that people with heart attacks who prayed got better faster than people who didn't."

I jump in the pool. I'm swimming away from it all. Surely I am safe from the opinion explosion in the water. I stay in my lap lane and enjoy the submersion and the release. Where else is it socially acceptable for an adult to kick and thrash about except in the pool?

People have such different pool styles. I'm a no-equipment freak. No nose plugs, no ear plugs, no goggles, no cap. But the man in the next lane has gone all the way--snorkel, mask, flippers. I wonder when he will pull out a scuba tank.

He swims as if he were the last man on Earth, madly churning up huge waves. At the end of the pool, another woman and I stand back to avoid the deluge. "It's like swimming next to a motor boat," she says.

Another swimmer adds: "It's the whole macho thing that got us into a war in the first place, right?"

I don't know! I don't know!

I try the last escape route--the sauna. The woman in there turns to me and says, "We had a great meeting last night. Everyone spoke out and said the right things about this war."

Do she and I know the right things, the same right things? I have never seen her before.

"The only ones who spoke up for it were a couple of Jews," she said.

That's the trouble with assuming. Maybe if I knew her, that word Jews wouldn't have stuck in my heart like a knife.

I began to long for the people who want to talk only about carbohydrate loading and oxygen debt. At least they're open to suggestion.

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