ESSAY- Vigilance front: Doctor, my eyes have seen the Web

My contact lenses are dried out; everything's turning milky. I'm blinking and squinting into the glare of my iMac: just one more blog, one more web site. I need to keep going. 

After all, what do responsible citizens do? We stay informed; we dig deeper for information. People, there's an election looming!

Oh, but it would feel so good to pluck out these contacts. I rub my eyes, and the cloudiness dissipates for a few seconds. 

When he went up to bed, my husband flipped off the lights. I think he was trying to tell me something. But now, the monitor is all I see.

As I wait for the next page to load, I wonder if it was always like this, always so time-consuming and exhausting to be a well-informed citizen. 

That's when it hits me– of course it wasn't always like this! 

My parents were responsible citizens. They voted. They read the newspaper. Boy, those were the days: one newspaper. 

My parents read The Boston Globe every day. And you could skip the sports pages, the women's pages (what the style section used to be) and the comics, if you were pressed for time. How hard was that? Then, they watched the news on the Huntley-Brinkley Report after supper and they were done.

Skip to my generation, and even before the Internet age, we had CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. It was getting harder to keep up, but if I kept CNN on during whatever crisis we were going through, I wouldn't miss any new developments.

The thing is, I was able to keep CNN on and still have a life. I raised my kids, baked cookies, kept the house sort of clean, often with CNN on in the background.

But now, our household has swapped cable TV for DSL, and now it's all about the computer.

Thank God my kids are grown and gone. If I were raising them now, they'd be foraging in the yard for nuts and berries, feral children abandoned by their mother, the pathetic computer addict:

"Mummy, I'm hungry!"

"Not now. The Army's Third Infantry division is training for domestic operations—"

"What about supper?"

"Supper? What about posse comitatus?"

But you cannot make a meal of righteous indignation, and it's lucky for all of us that the only person I'm abandoning is my husband, who can make his own supper.

I could use some parameters, some way to know when I'm done. I need someone like Chet Huntley or David Brinkley to appear on my computer screen and say, "You've done your duty as an American today. I will now turn off your computer. Good night, Janis."

But it's not just about this election, not just about politics. Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, I worry that something might be happening right now, something awful, and I don't want to wait for the phone call from someone saying, "Turn on your TV." I'll already be tuned in, ever vigilant. 

And, if the truth be told, that's what this obsession with Internet news is really about: vigilance.

It makes me feel like I have some control over all this: the election, the economic catastrophe, the disdain that the rest of the world now has for us. 

Quite the seductive illusion, isn't it?

So, how will I know when I'm done? How will I know when I've completed my duty as a well-informed American? 

If I had a lick of sense, I'd rely on my contact lenses: when they call it quits, so would I.

But, um, let's not start that right now. Maybe after the election. In the meantime, I'll keep digging for information – and next to my computer, I'll keep a bottle of Visine.