After The Feel-Good Era

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 02, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Boston.----I HAVE COME BACK with no poll in my pocket. I have brought home no statistics in the carry-on bag that was wheeled through half a dozen airports in September, following an erratic course as far from New England as Nevada and Montana.

What I have collected in a score of conversations are not scientific samples of public opinion with margins of error. They are stories, impressions, echoes of anxieties. And yet, as I unpack these verbal souvenirs and look them over, they seem as representative of the country as the snow shakers, T-shirts and mugs sold in every airport shop.

How to describe middle-class America in the fall of 1990? If I were a doctor, I would call it the land of the worried well. I haven't been with many who believe the country is suffering from a terminal disease, from catastrophic illness. They know America is healthy compared to much of the world. But there is a bad case of the jitters going around.

Those I talked with, not a hypochondriac in the group, may feel OK, but they share a vague dread. It's as if the whole country had gone in for a CAT scan and was waiting for the results to come back. We are not sanguine about the future.

Some of the symptoms are those of war jitters. A dinner companion in Delaware says, ''We are not at war . . . yet.'' He sounds like a man waiting for the other combat boot to drop.

A fellow traveler in Salt Lake City shares the sentiment that I hear again and again, the fear that we will precipitate fighting. If our soldiers are there, I am told warily, they will be used. A woman in Cleveland, a grandmother and community volunteer, asks me XTC earnestly: ''Isn't there a general in the Pentagon in charge of getting us out of conflict?''

The jitters also come in a domestic strain, equally or perhaps more virulent. The middle class, even the worried well-off, are hunkering down. The Dow-Jones, the price of oil, the Japanese, the banks, the deficit: These words are rattled off repeatedly like the ten early warning signs of cancer.

Out West, high-stakes enterprises seem to have less allure than job security. Nearer home, in a coffee shop, a teacher talks of colleagues who became real-estate agents. Once she envied their commissions; now they envy her paycheck.

The word of the Nineties is not ''plastic'' but ''cash.'' Pay-as-you-go or don't go.

The list of symptoms would be far from critical without those other quiet nagging fears of the future that came to me repeatedly labeled like this: Environment. Children.

One day, in Montana, as I stand sputtering every cliche about the beauty of the Big Sky country, I am told in no uncertain terms about pollution in the pristine landscape. Later, at dinner in Billings, the talk turns to family, to young children who don't get enough attention, older ones who can't get established.

''Don't you think it's harder for them than for us?'' I am asked. And everywhere women in their thirties, forties, fifties are now as anxious about their aging parents as their growing children.

If the jitters in all their forms abound, few sufferers look to politics as a preventive. In most gatherings, I was the one who asked about elections. Rarely did anyone grant politicians the will or the power or the willpower to change the course of the future.

I did not find America to be an emergency room full of patients. I didn't come home weary of whiners who bore others with their aches and pains. But when you fill the national medical chart with myriad impressions, we seem as uneasy as a family in the waiting room.

This is what seems so different today. For the first time in my memory, people believe that many systems are breaking down at the same time. Schools and bridges, families and peace are mentioned in the same breath. Anxiety about the economy and the Earth are spoken of together.

Indeed on the last day of my travels, a systems analyst from the Midwest said, laughing, ''It's like one of those messages on the computer screen: All systems going down.''

I don't pretend to know whether there is something catastrophic coming on. But it is clear that the feel-good era is over. No one is whistling ''Don't Worry, Be Happy'' anymore. In America, even the well are worried.

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