SPRINGFIELD, MO—Were this an ordinary Tuesday night, Wendy Vance would return home from her receptionist job at a Springfield chiropractor's office and spend the evening engaged in any number of empty, meaningless diversions: watching old, taped episodes of Friends, browsing the new issue of Cosmopolitan, or driving to Center Square Mall to browse for shoes.
Tonight, however, the 29-year-old is unable to bring herself to turn on the TV or even half-heartedly flip through the new Pottery Barn catalog. Instead, she has decided to visit her grandmother in nearby Mountain Grove.
"If none of this had happened, right now I'd probably be watching that stupid Journey VH1 Behind The Music episode for the 40,000th time. Or talking to my friend Kerri about the Gap skirt I want," said Vance, holding her grandmother's frail, time-worn hand. "Now, all I can think about is how precious life is, and how important it is to spend quality time with the people who matter to you, because everything could change in an instant."
Added Vance: "I just want my regular life back."
Vance is not alone. Shaken by the tragic events of Sept. 11, people across the nation have abandoned such inconsequential concerns as the Gary Condit scandal and Britney Spears' skimpy outfit at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. No longer are they talking about shark attacks or what's-his-name, that Little Leaguer who was too old to play. Instead, they're focusing on the truly important things in life: friends, family, and being good to one another.
How long can it go on like this?
Three weeks after the horrific attacks that claimed more than 6,000 lives, many Americans are wondering when their priorities will finally be in the wrong place again. Some are wondering if their priorities will ever be in the wrong place again.
"In the aftermath of this horrible tragedy, people find themselves cruelly preoccupied with the happiness and well-being of their loved ones, unconcerned with such stupid bullshit as the new Anne Heche biography or Michael Jackson's dramatic comeback bid," said Dr. Meredith Laufenberg, a psychologist and family therapist at UCLA Medical Center. "Who knows how long it will be before things are back to normal?"
Reading a book to his 7-year-old nephew, Adrian Mauer of Chicago echoed Vance's longing for banality.
"I don't even know what happened at the Daytime Emmys, much less the Latin Grammys," Mauer said. "How could these monsters do this to us? Is nothing sacred? It makes me want to enlist in the Marines and slash bin Laden's fucking throat from ear to ear."
According to Laufenberg, Mauer's anger is a natural response to the current situation.
"Across America, there is a profound sense of grief for the victims of this tragedy," Laufenberg said. "But there is also a profound desire to inflict great pain upon its perpetrators, to make them pay for taking away our ability to get way, way too into the McDonald's Monopoly game."
Even as America's television networks slowly return to regular programming, the vital issues of our pre-Sept. 11 lives are relegated to the background.
"If Access Hollywood would just go back to blathering about Julia Roberts' surprise platinum-blonde makeover and Brad Pitt's new dog and a bunch of other crap that doesn't matter in the least, I'd know everything is right with my world," said Shelley Orr, a Stockton, CA, data-entry clerk. "Oh, my God, what's going on with the whole car-phone controversy? Are they going to ban them? I haven't even thought about it in weeks."
Laufenberg and other therapists are seeing countless cases of Sudden-Reality Shock Syndrome (SRSS), a disorder affecting those suddenly and violently re-grounded in the real world. Crisis and grief-counseling centers across the nation are offering therapy groups for those who need to discuss their newfound inability to care about mass-market crapola.
According to Iris Huffman, emergency-services director at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, the key to enjoying vapidity again is to extract oneself from the hard realities of the world very slowly.
"The instinct is to immediately throw yourself back into your regular daily routine, but this isn't always best," Huffman said. "Allow yourself time for a gradual return to the petty, shallow, meaningless little life you led before this horrible tragedy. I'm telling my patients: Don't go see Zoolander until you know you're actually ready."
According to Georgetown University history professor Timothy Schuitt, our interest in stupid bullshit is what makes America great.
"The United States is a free country, a strong country, a prosperous country," Schuitt said. "Many veterans gave their lives so we would have the right to focus our attention and energies on the DVD release of Joe Dirt, the latest web-browsing cell phones, and how-low-can-you-go hip-hugging jeans. It is a sign of our collective strength as a nation that we genuinely give a shit about the latest developments in the Cruise-Cruz romance. When Mariah Carey's latest breakdown is once again treated as front-page news, that is the day the healing will have truly begun."
While Schuitt says he is optimistic that Americans will one day obsess over stupid bullshit like they used to, others are not so confident.
"This is a life-changing, society-altering catastrophe of the first magnitude, on par with a Pearl Harbor or Great Depression," said noted historian and author David Halberstam. "The sad truth is, this country may never go back to caring about pointless, inane trifles as we once did."
Where have you gone, J. Lo? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.