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Sights for sore eyes 

You have arrived at the office Christmas party. You drink in the atmosphere and two glasses of wine as though they were Gatorade just after you finished playing in the Super Bowl. Having located the bathroom, the bar and the front door, you move through the room giving big Hey!s and How-are-ya!s to people you offered a distracted nod to only hours before, when you were trying to get the hell out of the office.

Your eyes drift over the crowd, and you get an idea of what your co-workers think it means to "dress up." You assess the food (better than you expected); and, if there are gifts, you realize your offering is inappropriate in some way: too cheap, too expensive or, hell, you thought "penis-shaped pasta" was funny at the time. But before the shindig can really get moving, someone has to announce with mock seriousness that tonight no one, and that means no one, is allowed to talk about work!

This gets an ingenuine laugh, but it works for about five minutes. Then everyone gets a nice red-faced buzz and doesn't shut up about work for the next four hours.

This, without the holiday effects, is exactly what it feels like in the wake of the 11th of September. You go out into the world and -- whether you're just trying to converse or to write a newspaper column to delight your readers (or at least get paid) -- you try to avoid the subject, as I promised myself I would. But, like talking about work at the Christmas party, it comes back as unavoidable and inescapable.

True grit

You may find you have some connection to someone lost at ground zero, or you may just have someone nudging you to read "The Onion," the online humor magazine that always gets it right. (A recent issue featured a list of everything we've all been doing since the terrorist attacks, including feeling guilty about renting videos.)

Then there's TV. Despite Red Cross President Bernadine Healy's warnings to "avoid viewing repetitive images" of the tragedy -- her public-service spots are airing a lot on "Nick at Night," as if it is necessary to tell us avid viewers of '60s reruns to avoid reality -- avoidance is impossible.

One show I didn't avoid was a CNN special, "Behind the Veil," which gave sickening insight into Taliban rule. In it, a female reporter, Saira Shah, goes into Afghanistan and, with the aid of the Afghan women's resistance, takes hidden-camera footage of hell on earth. There's the sports stadium, a gift from the international community, given in hopes that playing and watching games would raise the people's morale. The Taliban uses it for public executions, footage of which is shown. Then it gets worse.

As much as we all want to avoid such sights, to turn away would be the equivalent of hiding from the Holocaust. Not to mention how astonishing it is to watch the grit of this reporter. I won't even go into nasty gas-station bathrooms; she went into the most dangerous place on earth to show it to the world. Why this doesn't air as often as "Family Tiesâ" I don't know.

On a lighter note, because it doesn't get much darker, another way we're reminded of the state of the world is that the American flag is almost more ubiquitous than Emeril. Having been born in the '60s, I'd never seen the country in a patriotic fervor. I now have seen houses draped with flags so large that (from a speeding car, at least) they could pass for bug-spray tents. I've even seen a pickup truck riding around with a bloody, hanging bin Laden effigy, something one doesn't usually expect to see while gassing up at a 7-11 in Winter Park.

Cost of repression

One friend reports a marquee in Apopka that should have read "God Bless America," only the "B" had fallen off, leaving it to read, "God less America." We hope an angry mob didn't drop by before the the business got its "B" back up.

So, yes, it's everywhere you look, and I'm genuinely sorry that it's in this space again, too. But maybe it's better to just keep talking the trauma out. You know what happens when you repress: You end up like the family in "The Prince of Tidesâ" and then you have to see Dr. Lowenstein three times a week.

Let's face it, who can afford that much analysis anymore?

On what I hope will be the final note on all this (at least for me), my good friend Dave Mitchell offered an eerily prescient page out of Chase's Calendar of Events for 2001. It showed that a group called Wellcat Holidays had cast 9/11/01 as "No News Is Good News Day," saying, "Don't read, listen to, or watch the news today and you'll feel better tonight."

Now, on Wellcat's website, Sept. 11 has been changed to "Remember Freedom Day." Naturally, this means that you are still free to avoid any news of what's going on in the world. And I'm free to bet you that it's not going to work.

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