SAN DIEGO — This is what I saw sitting across from me: Don King, the boxing promoter, with his frizzled gray hair and shaded glasses, grinning and yelling and mopping his brow with a napkin. He was mouthing on and on about his latest boxing promotion — “Call your local cable operators! Call your local pay-per-view!” — working himself into a real lather.

Meanwhile, as he spoke to me, a host from the Playboy Channel came over and leaned atop his head. She was wearing a low-cut black blouse, and, because this is a family newspaper, I will simply say that the assets God gave her were on billowing display. What was less obvious was why she was doing what she was doing. She primped. She smiled. She wiggled the “We’re No. 1” finger
— and a few other things.

Meanwhile, as she swayed atop Don King’s head, he never broke stride, never stopped reminding me that “this is the greatest country in the world! The United States of America! Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing!” In fact, I don’t think he realized that playmate was hanging over him at all, which tells you the kind of world Don King lives in on a daily basis. Anyhow, as she did this, cameramen raced over and began filming. What were they filming? They had no idea. They captured Don King, me, the jiggling Playmate, a crowd of onlookers, and, look, there in the corner, who’s that coming? It’s . . . Refrigerator Perry!

What do you call this?

The Super Bowl.

Celine and Johnnie

I sometimes think I was the only person after Sept. 11 who heard our leaders say: “This event will change the way America thinks. No more will the silly and trivial be held important. We’ve learned what really matters. Our perspective is forever changed.”

Do you remember that? The death of irony? The end of excess? Wasn’t it at last year’s Super Bowl that former presidents addressed the nation and NFL stars read from the Declaration of Independence?

And this year, just 12 months later, we have the Raider Nation, a group of silver-and-black fans, down from Oakland, apparently led by Darth Vader, who are scaring the locals with rumors of ransacking and pillaging the streets of San Diego.

And we have a pregame concert (Santana, Michelle Branch) and a halftime concert (Shania Twain, No Doubt) and a national anthem (the Dixie Chicks) and
“God Bless America” (Celine Dion.)

We have Super Bowl television that began Friday night and will go nonstop until late this evening.

And, look, over there, here’s Johnnie Cochran racing from interview to interview, talking about how he’s going to sue the NFL for not having enough black coaches and general managers.

And Don King is still yelling: “It’s the land of opportunity! I love it so!”

Reality TV and monster SUVs

Now, look. I’m not a party poop. Heck, I’m here for the Super Bowl, and have been to every one since 1984.

But I’m beginning to wonder what “normal” is for my country. If the excesses prior to Sept. 11 were not really us, and the loving, patriotic, comfort-your-neighbor approach was, then how come we’ve jumped so far back over the broom?

How come reality TV, the most indulgent form of self-aggrandizement, is bigger than ever? How come video games are more violent than their predecessors? How come we demand our rights to drive gas-guzzling SUVs? How come porn is a growth industry but tech is not?

These are strange times. Strange indeed. Monday, we get a UN report that may determine whether our sons and daughters die in a war. But today, we party like the sun will never set. Can the two things really happen in 24 hours? Can we really be that diverse? Don King is across from me, smiling, mopping his brow, with the jiggling Playmate over his head, and he’s screaming like a banshee: “America! America! There’s no country in the world like it!”

We hold that truth to be self-evident.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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