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Reality check: What are the important issues these days?


Looking back over the news stories that have appeared in the last month or so, several items stand out as candidates for the most-talked-about events currently on the American agenda:

* The Mia Farrow-Woody Allen scandal.

* The semi-tragic love story of Republican strategist Mary Matalin and Democratic strategist James Carville.

* George Bush's alleged affair.

* A reprise of Bill Clinton's alleged "skirt-chasing" and "draft dodging."

* Hillary Clinton's alleged comparison of marriage to slavery.

* The great "My Political Party's Family Values Are Better Than Your Political Party's Family Values Debate."

* Dan Quayle's misspelling of "potato(e)."

* Hillary Clinton's new hairstyle.

* Tina Brown's move from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker.

* And, finally, The Really Big Story That Refuses to Die: The Princess Di Saga.

I don't know, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just having a bad day. But does anyone else out there feel the way I do: That there's something weird or sad about paying so much attention to Hillary's headbands and so little attention to the fact that the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket?

Which is not to say that such things as Hillary's new look don't interest me. They do. In fact, I fear they interest me too much. No one loves to read about the in-fighting at the White House more than I do. Or about the latest in the Mia-Woody split. Or the late-night wars between Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall.

But every once in a while, some event or another reminds me that the world of movie star scandals and political wives' hairstyles and personnel changes on magazine staffs is not the real world. At least not to most of the people who inhabit this planet we live on.

I thought about this recently when, in what I guess you would call a reality check, I found myself wondering about real life as it's lived by, for instance, the crying, orphaned, 3-year-old Bosnian girl who was photographed undergoing surgery to remove shrapnel from mortar wounds.

Or the starving, 14-year-old Somalian child whose picture shows a boy so thin and weak he had been mistaken for dead and almost buried alive.

Or the old man who burst into tears before the TV camera when, after a four-month siege of his village near Sarajevo, a United Nations relief truck appeared on his street.

Of course, we don't have to look abroad to observe that one person's reality is another person's abstraction. But sometimes when the disturbing view is too close for comfort, we tend to look the other way.

A few years back, however, a boy I know quite well decided not to look the other way. At the age of 16 he spent some time working with a group of Quakers in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. On his first visit home, this boy -- who loved loud music, fast cars and the Baltimore Orioles -- seemed subdued.

But finally, in a midnight session in his mother's bedroom, he opened up: He talked about the disabled woman whose kitchen he had scrubbed and of how there was nothing in her refrigerator except crackers and packages of ketchup from a fast-food store. And he talked of how she had cursed him, even as he was cleaning up after her cats.

He spoke of cooking meals for three young children whose mother was hospitalized; and of how they had never eaten fresh vegetables and didn't know what a peach was. And he wondered how some people managed to stay hopeful despite the odds. Then he posed a question:

"Why," he asked his mother, "do some people have it so hard and other people don't?"

For some reason I remembered all this the other day when I saw this question staring out at me from the cover of Life magazine: "Is there intelligent life in outer space? A $100 million NASA program, beginning this fall, may finally answer one of mankind's most compelling questions."

Sure, I'd like to know the answer to that question. But the really compelling question I'd like answered is the one raised by that 16-year-old boy: "Why do some people have it so hard and other people don't?"

It was a good question then.

And it still is.

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