Fear factor 

Ernest Hemingway said about writing that the first step in the process is to defrost the refrigerator. I've defrosted the metaphorical fridge 800 times this week, avoiding the blank screen. After all, what can I tell you that you don't know? What emotions could I tap into that haven't been tapped out?

Our hearts all fell with those towers and rose again, watching the astonishing resilience of New Yorkers pulling it together. And ever since, we've all veered among shock, anger, despair, optimism and a desire for things to be "normal" again, whatever "normal" may be.

Part of my "normal" is to get at least one laugh out of you every week. I love it when people tell me they were reading this column in a restaurant and laughed so hard they choked on their McFlurry. There wasn't anything to laugh about last week, just plenty of things to think about -- not dwell on, since we don't want to get quicksanded over this. But things to think about, and from plenty of surprising places, about how "normal" is changing.

One girl I know with Middle Eastern ancestry finds herself looking in the mirror and at other people, saying, "I could pass for Hispanic." She could. And, because she has an easy laugh when she says it, it seems like a joke. But it isn't, and you know it isn't when she expresses thanks for the fact that she married an American because now her name blends like melted butter. If she kept her family's name, she believes that no one would hire her now.

Stuck in the middle

Some weeks ago, when I found out that this girl was Middle Eastern, I thought she was really lucky to have such an exotic background. My background is German and Canadian -- nothing wrong with that. Mike Myers embodied both as Deiter on "Saturday Night Live's" "Sprockets," which is a fine thing. But I can feel very vanilla standing next to someone with so romantic a heritage, like a friendly little daisy planted next to an orchid. That she's afraid to tell people where she's from now is terrifically sad, but not unjustified in a climate where distrust and even outright violence against Middle Easterners is becoming a threat none of us could have imagined just days ago.

"I'm proud of being Egyptian, but now I'm scared," she says, to the point of not even wanting to speak Arabic in public. She's also Muslim, though she doesn't wear a scarf and says she wouldn't now, anyway. "I respect my religion; I love it deeply. I don't want to be condemned for my religion," she says. But she's stuck in the middle: It's against her religion to deny it if she's asked, but it's against her better judgment to tell anyone, at least right now.

It's hard to understand what she's facing unless you've been a target, which many of us have not. It would be as if you went to New York and people automatically thought that, as a Southerner, you must be in the KKK. Or, as a Floridian, you must be too ignorant to mark a presidential ballot correctly. They might seem like minor examples, but they show that tarring everyone with the same brush tends to leave the mark of an idiot. GW visiting mosques and having multi-theistic prayer services doesn't seem to have conveyed the message to many that not all Muslims or Middle Easterners are terrorists.

Wallowing in corruption

In fact, it may seem like a small note at the moment, but it doesn't even look like those hijackers were good Muslims, never mind extreme ones. Some of them allegedly spent the night before the suicide mission not in prayer, not preparing for death, but getting drunk in a Daytona nudie bar -- stuff that would earn a proper Muslim a trip to hell three times over. It may seem like a small point to find them voluntarily wallowing in a hybrid of the (alleged) corruption and freedom they wanted to destroy; nonetheless it's a point worth making.

How religion inevitably gets twisted into evil is and always has been hard to comprehend. While we're watching some Americans grow suspicious of anyone in a turban, the Taliban -- pretty much acknowledged worldwide as an armed pyscho ward -- is busy making Hindus wear gold badges on their clothes (ring a bell?) and detaining relief workers for preaching Christianity while the Afghani people starve. The human race has evolved, but somehow it never seems to change.

So all Muslims aren't terrorists, and all Americans aren't vigilante loonies. In fact, the brother of my acquaintance has found that people have gone out of their way to be supportive and reassuring that his background makes no difference to them and shouldn't to anyone else. This is an important point, and I hope it's the attitude most Americans are and will be taking: We should not all be tarred with the same brush, either.

All of us are not one thing, good or bad. Most of us right now are just hopeful, nervous, dreading war and, despite drifting off into an occasional distance when reality hits, fundamentally the same as before.

Except for this one girl, who suddenly became Hispanic.

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