There Is No Time, There Will Be Time

I suppose it is commonplace to say it, but it’s true: There is no such thing as time. The past is gone and no longer exists, the future is an assumption that has not yet come, all you have is the moment—this one—but it too has passed . . . just now. The moment we are having is an awfully good one, though. History has handed us one of the easiest rides in all the story of man. It has handed us a wave of wealth so broad and deep that it would be almost disorienting if we thought about it a lot, which we don’t.

But: We know such comfort! We sleep on beds that are soft and supporting, eat food that is both good and plentiful. We touch small levers and heat our homes to exactly the degree we desire; the pores of our bare arms are open and relaxed as we read the Times in our T-shirts, while two feet away, on the other side of the plate glass window, a blizzard rages. We turn levers and get clean water, push a button for hot coffee, open doors and get ice cream, take short car trips to places where planes wait before whisking us across continents as we nap. It is all so fantastically fine.

Lately this leaves me uneasy. Does it you? Do you wonder how and why exactly we have it so different, so nice compared to thousands of years of peasants eating rocks? Is it possible that we, the people of the world, are being given a last great gift before everything changes? To me it feels like a gift. Only three generations ago, my family had to sweat in the sun to pull food from the ground.

Another thing. The marvels that are part of our everyday lives—computers, machines that can look into your body and see everything but your soul—are so astounding that most of us who use them don’t really understand exactly what they’re doing or how they do it. This too is strange. The day the wheel was invented, the crowd watching understood immediately what it was and how it worked. But I cannot explain with any true command how the MRI that finds a tumor works. Or how, for that matter, the fax works.

We would feel amazement, or even, again, a mild disorientation, if we were busy feeling and thinking long thoughts instead of doing—planning the next meeting, appointment, consultation, presentation, vacation. We are too busy doing these things to take time to see, feel, parse, and explain amazement.

Which gets me to time.

We have no time! Is it that way for you? Everyone seems so busy. Once, a few years ago, I sat on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Suddenly I realized that everyone, all the people going up and down the steps, was hurrying along on his or her way somewhere. I thought, Everyone is doing something. On the streets of Manhattan, they hurry along and I think, Everyone is busy. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone amble, except at a summer place, in a long time. I am thinking here of a man I saw four years ago at a little pier in Martha’s Vineyard. He had plaid shorts and white legs, and he was walking sort of stiffly, jerkily. Maybe he had mild Parkinson’s, but I think: Maybe he’s just arrived and trying to get out of his sprint and into a stroll.

All our splendor, our comfort, takes time to pay for. And affluence wants to increase; it carries within it an unspoken command: More! Affluence is like nature, which always moves toward new life. Nature does its job; affluence enlists us to do it. We hear the command for “More!” with immigrant ears that also hear “Do better!” or old American ears that hear, “Sutter is rich, there’s gold in them hills, onward to California!” We carry California within us; that is what it is to be human, and American.

So we work. The more you have, the more you need, the more you work and plan. This is odd in part because of all the spare time we should have. We don’t, after all, have to haul water from the crick. We don’t have to kill an antelope for dinner. I can microwave a Lean Cuisine in four minutes and eat it in five. I should have a lot of extra time—more, say, than a cavewoman. And yet I feel I do not. And I think: That cavewoman watching the antelope turn on the spit, she was probably happily daydreaming about how shadows played on the walls of her cave. She had time.

It’s not just work. We all know the applications of Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time allotted to complete it. This isn’t new. But this is: So many of us feel we have no time to cook and serve a lovely three-course dinner, to write the long, thoughtful letter, to ever so patiently tutor the child. But other generations, not so long ago, did. And we have more timesaving devices than they did.

We invented new technologies so that work could be done more efficiently, more quickly. We wished it done more quickly so we could have more leisure time. (Wasn’t that the plan? Or was it to increase our productivity?)

But we have less leisure time, it seems, because these technologies encroach on our leisure time.

You can be beeped on safari! Be faxed while riding an elephant and receive e-mail while being menaced by a tiger. And if you can be beeped on safari, you will be beeped on safari. This gives you less time to enjoy being away from the demands of time.

Twenty years ago when I was starting out at CBS on the radio desk, we would try each day to track down our roving foreign correspondents and get them to file on the phone for our morning news broadcasts. I would go to the daily log to see who was where. And not infrequently it would say that Smith, in Beirut, is “out of pocket,” i.e., unreachable, unfindable for a few days. The official implication was that Smith was out in the field traveling with the guerrillas. But I thought it was code for “Smith is drunk,” or “Smith is on deep background with a really cute source.” I’d think, Oh, to be an out-of-pocket correspondent on the loose in Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris—what a thing.

But now there is no “out of pocket.” Now everyone can be reached and found, anywhere, anytime. Now there is no hiding place. We are “in the pocket.”

What are we in the pocket of? An illusion, perhaps, or rather many illusions: that we must know the latest, that we must have a say, that we are players, are needed, that the next score will change things, that through work we can quench our thirst, that, as they said in the sign over the entrance of Auschwitz, “Work Brings Freedom,” That we must bow to “More!” and pay homage to California. I live a life of only average intensity, and yet by 9 p.m. I am quite stupid, struck dumb with stimuli fatigue. I am tired from 10 hours of the unconscious strain of planning, meeting, talking, thinking. If you clench your fist for 10 hours and then let go, your hand will jerk and tremble. My brain trembles.

I sit on the couch at night with my son. He watches TV as I read the National Enquirer and the Star. This is wicked of me, I know, but the Enquirer and the Star have almost more pictures than words; there are bright pictures of movie stars, of television anchors, of the woman who almost choked to death when, in a state of morning confusion, she accidentally put spermicidal jelly on her toast. These stories are just right for the mind that wants to be diverted by something that makes no demands.

I have time at 9. But I am so flat-lined that I find it very hard to make the heartening phone call to the nephew, to write the long letter. Often I feel guilty and treat myself with Haagen-Dazs therapy. I will join a gym if I get time.

When a man can work while at home, he will work while at home. When a man works at home, the wall between workplace and living place, between colleague and family, is lowered or removed. Does family life spill over into work life? No. Work life spills over into family life. You do not wind up taking your son for a walk at work, you wind up teleconferencing during softball practice. This is not progress. It is not more time but less. Maybe our kids will remember us as there but not there, physically present but carrying the faces of men and women who are strategizing the sale.

I often think how much I’d like to have a horse. Not that I ride, but I often think I’d like to learn. But if I had a horse, I would be making room for the one hour a day in which I would ride. I would be losing hours seeing to Flicka’s feeding and housing and cleaning and loving and overall well being. This would cost money. I would have to work hard to get it. I would have less time.

Who could do this? The rich. The rich have time because they buy it. They buy the grooms and stable keepers and accountants and bill payers and negotiators for the price of oats. Do they enjoy it? Do they think, It’s great to be rich, I get to ride a horse?

Oh, I hope so! If you can buy time, you should buy it. This year I am going to work very hard to get some.

[header] II

During the summer, when you were a kid, your dad worked a few towns away and left at 8:30; Mom stayed home smoking and talking and ironing. You biked to the local school yard for summer activities—twirling, lanyard making, dodgeball—until afternoon. Then you’d go home and play in the street. At 5:30 Dad was home and at 6 there was dinner—meat loaf, mashed potatoes and canned corn. Then TV and lights out.

Now it’s more like this: Dad goes to work at 6:15, to the city, where he is an executive; Mom goes to work at the bank where she’s a vice president, but not before giving the sitter the keys and bundling the kids into the car to go to, respectively, soccer camp, arts camp, Chinese lessons, therapy, the swim meet, computer camp, a birthday party, a play date. Then home for an impromptu barbecue of turkey burgers and a salad with fresh Parmesan cheese followed by summer homework, Nintendo, and TV —the kids lying splayed on the couch, dead eyed, like denizens of a Chinese opium den—followed by “Hi Mom,” “Hi, Dad,” and bed.

Life is so much more interesting now! It’s not boring, like 1957. There are things to do: The culture is broader, more sophisticated; there’s more wit and creativity to be witnessed and enjoyed. Moms, kids and dads have more options, more possibilities. This is good. The bad news is that our options leave us exhausted when we pursue them and embarrassed when we don’t.

Good news: Mothers do not become secret valium addicts out of boredom and loneliness, as they did 30 and 40 years ago. And Dad’s conversation is more interesting than his father’s. He knows how Michael Jordan acted on the Nike shoot, and tells us. The other night Dad worked late and then they all went to a celebratory dinner at Rao’s where they sat in a booth next to Warren Beatty, who was discussing with his publicist the media campaign for “Bulworth.” Beatty looked great, had a certain watchful dignity, ordered the vodka penne.

Bad news: Mom hasn’t noticed but she’s half mad from stress. Her face is older than her mother’s, less innocent, because she has burned through her facial subcutaneous fat and because she unconsciously holds her jaw muscles in a tense way. But it’s okay because the collagen, the Botox, the Retin-A and alpha hydroxy, and a better diet than her mother’s (Grandma lived on starch, it was the all-carbo diet) leave her looking more . . . fit. She does not have her mother’s soft, maternal weight. The kids do not feel a pillowy yielding when they hug her; they feel muscles and smell Chanel body moisturizer.

When Mother makes fund-raising calls for the school, she does not know it but she barks: “Yeah, this is Claire Marietta on the cookie drive we need your cookies tomorrow at 3 in the gym if you’re late the office is open till 4 or you can write a check for $12 any questions call me.” Click.

Mom never wanted to be Barbara Billingsley. Mom got her wish.

[header] III

What will happen? How will the future play out?

Well, we’re going to get more time. But it’s not pretty how it will happen, so if you’re in a good mood, stop reading here and go hug the kids and relax and have a drink and a nice pointless conversation with your spouse.

Here goes: It has been said that when an idea’s time has come a lot of people are likely to get it at the same time. In the same way, when something begins to flicker out there in the cosmos a number of people, a small group at first, begin to pick up the signals. They start to see what’s coming.

Our entertainment industry, interestingly enough, has plucked something from the unconscious of a small collective. For about 30 years now, but accelerating quickly this decade, the industry has been telling us about The Big Terrible Thing. Space aliens come and scare us, nuts with nukes try to blow us up.

This is not new: In the ‘50s Michael Rennie came from space to tell us in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” that if we don’t become more peaceful our planet will be obliterated. But now in movies the monsters aren’t coming close, they’re hitting us directly. Meteors the size of Texas come down and take out the eastern seaboard, volcanoes swallow Los Angeles, Martians blow up the White House. The biggest-grosser of all time was about the end of a world, the catastrophic sinking of an unsinkable entity.

Something’s up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful. We fear, down so deep it hasn’t even risen to the point of articulation, that with all our comforts and amusements, with all our toys and bells and whistles . . . we wonder if what we really have is . . . a first-class stateroom on the Titanic. Everything’s wonderful, but a world is ending and we sense it.

I don’t mean: “Uh-oh, there’s a depression coming,” I mean: We live in a world of three billion men and hundreds of thousands of nuclear bombs, missiles, warheads. It’s a world of extraordinary germs that can be harnessed and used to kill whole populations, a world of extraordinary chemicals that can be harnessed and used to do the same.

Three billion men, and it takes only half a dozen bright and evil ones to harness and deploy.

What are the odds it will happen? Put it another way: What are the odds it will not? Low. Nonexistent, I think.

When you consider who is gifted and crazed with rage . . . when you think of the terrorist places and the terrorist countries . . . who do they hate most? The Great Satan, the United States. What is its most important place? Some would say Washington. I would say the great city of the United States is the great city of the world, the dense 10-mile-long island called Manhattan, where the economic and media power of the nation resides, the city that is the psychological center of our modernity, our hedonism, our creativity, our hard-shouldered hipness, our unthinking arrogance.

If someone does the big, terrible thing to New York or Washington, there will be a lot of chaos and a lot of lines going down, a lot of damage, and a lot of things won’t be working so well anymore. And thus a lot more . . . time. Something tells me we won’t be teleconferencing and faxing about the Ford account for a while.

The psychic blow—and that is what it will be as people absorb it, a blow, an insult that reorders and changes—will shift our perspective and priorities, dramatically, and for longer than a while. Something tells me more of us will be praying, and hard, one side benefit of which is that there is sometimes a quality of stopped time when you pray. You get outside time.

Maybe, of course, I’m wrong. But I think of the friend who lives on Park Avenue who turned to me once and said, out of nowhere, “If ever something bad is going to happen to the city, I pray each day that God will give me a sign. That He will let me see a rat stand up on the sidewalk. So I’ll know to gather the kids and go.” I absorbed this and, two years later, just a month ago, poured out my fears to a former high official of the United States government. His face turned grim. I apologized for being morbid. He said no, he thinks the same thing. He thinks it will happen in the next year and a half. I was surprised, and more surprised when he said that an acquaintance, a former arms expert for another country, thinks it will happen in a matter of months.

So now I have frightened you. But we must not sit around and be depressed. “Don’t cry,” Jimmy Cagney once said. “There’s enough water in the goulash already.”

We must take the time to do some things. We must press government officials to face the big, terrible thing. They know it could happen tomorrow; they just haven’t focused on it because there’s no Armageddon constituency. We should press for more from our foreign intelligence and our defense systems, and press local, state, and federal leaders to become more serious about civil defense and emergency management.

The other thing we must do is the most important.

I once talked to a man who had a friend who’d done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became in fact the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl’s high school graduation, she won the award for best all-around student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she’s at college.

The man’s eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. “These are the things that stay God’s hand,” he told me. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained: These are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.

So be good. Do good. Stay his hand. And pray. When the Virgin Mary makes her visitations—she’s never made so many in all of recorded history as she has in this century—she says: Pray! Pray unceasingly!

I myself don’t, but I think about it a lot and sometimes pray when I think. But you don’t have to be Catholic to take this advice.

Pray. Unceasingly. Take the time.

“The people have spoken, the bastards”

Forbes has asked me to expand upon my article of two years ago (Apr 25, 2004) saying Bill Clinton was sure to be a one-term President. This led me to experiment with different leads, such as, “After I saved a child from a raging fire some time back, I was forced to use painkillers to deal wit the burns. Unfortunately, I became dependent on them. It was about that time that I wrote a piece about for Forbes . . . ”

Or: “You probably don’t know how much Forbes changes a writer’s copy, but let me tell you . . . “

But of course I was, simply, wrong. And I can’t claim that I didn’t think it through, for I didn’t think it through, for I did; nor can I say I foolishly bowed to the common wisdom, for I didn’t. I was simply way ahead of everyone else.

This is how I saw it: Early on, Bill Clinton was so confused about what he wanted to do as President, so unsure as to his Administration’s reason for being, that he flailed about wildly, jumping from gays in the military to nationalized medicine to budgets so big and greasy they could have been served with hot sauce at a Texas barbecue.

He was like that—a walking, talking Human Blunder—for two years. And everywhere I went in America—for I often leave the island of Manhattan and journey to the continent to find out how they’re thinking over there—people, when I mentioned Clinton, would roll their eyes. They had hired him, and now they would fire him. But he had two years to play out his contract, and they’d have to suffer through it. Here’s something they also did that I wish I’d paid more attention to: Every time people damned Clinton, they’d smile. They’d smile when I brought up his name. They’d smile as if he were an erring younger brother. There was a kind of softness to their disapproval.

Any, I never thought he’d recover from his first years, in part because you only get one chance to make a first impression, but more seriously because it involved imagining liberalism would change its stripes. And that just wasn’t likely.

Then Clinton was blasted almost out of his chair by the 1994 Republican sweep, and as is often the case with those who are tough and hungry competitors—and that, for all his much bitten lower lip, is what he is—defeat contained the seeds of victory.

He looked down into the abyss and saw his death. He called into the Oval Office a thing that had not been there since Nixon—a sinister force: Dick Morris. Clinton listened, declared the era of big government over—liberalism, at least rhetorically, was changing its stripes!—and changed the subject matter of his presidency. Now he was a new traditionalist, a protector of schoolchildren and single mothers. He eliminated some potentially dangerous issues, such as welfare, by bowing o the conservatives, and stole other issues by obscuring them. Thus family values became parental leave.

Clinton read, and read well, the emotional terrain. And he was smart enough to step back from the limelight, letting Newt Gingrich dominate the news, Clinton smiled as the fierce and dramatic Georgian turned too hot. And ever so slowly, ever so steadily, Clinton recovered.

People told me: “Watch out, Bill Clinton is a great campaigner.” And I’d say, “No, he’s not, great campaigners say great things never said anything interesting in his life and never will.”

Little did I know, she said defensively, that the Republicans would nominate to go against him a man with even less to say, and who said it even worse.

I didn’t think Bob Dole would get the nomination. I thought it wasn’t his year, that he’d retire one day as one of the great legislators of U.S. Senate history, go down in the books as a man who lived by shrewdness and shorthand and who expressed himself in code. He would not win the nomination because Republicans know the presidency is in large part a speaking job, and that isn’t what Bob Dole does.

But in a crowded field Dole emerged as the winner, and that was the final good news for Clinton.

Clinton is a lucky man, and that is not a put-down. A Broadway musical from my youth, Pippin, had a character sing of “the rule that every general knows by heart/That it’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.” History gave Bill Clinton peace. And prosperity. And a national mood of anxious well-being, a sense out there that change can, should, be incremental and inch by inch, and that the most interesting politician in America—our Newt—should stay on as a force and be happily moderated by a newly practical and even chastened second-termer named Clinton.

Who was it who said, “The people have spoken, the bastards”? I mean, apart from Steve Forbes. Anyway, whoever said it knew something about losing, about the proper attitude to defeat: Look ’em in the eye and tell ’em they were wrong. In this case I was wrong. Though I’d have been spared this humiliating admission if I’d been more prudently edited by Forbes’ editors, the bastards.

You’d cry too if it happened to you

    “In his lifetime he had seen America rise and rise and rise, some sort of golden legend to her own people, some sort of impossible fantasy to others . . . rise and rise and rise—and then . . . the golden legend crumbled, overnight the fall began, the heart went out of it, a too complacent and uncaring people awoke to find themselves naked with the winds of the world howling around their ears . . . A universal quilt enshrouded . . . all who participated in those times . . . Now there was a time of uneasiness . . . when all thinking men fretted and worried desperately about ‘how to catch up’ and ‘how to get ahead’; and also, in the small hours of the night’s cold terror, about what it would be like if America couldn’t catch up, if history should have decided once and for all that America should never again be permitted to get ahead . . .”

Well, so much for Camelot.

When Allen Drury wrote those words—they set the scene for his classic political novel, Advise and Consent—he was trying to capture the mood of America in 1959, as the peaceful and composed Eisenhower era receded, John Kennedy geared up for the presidency and the go-go Sixties waited to be born. We remember those days as innocent and hopeful; Drury recorded them as anxious and depressed. Which demonstrates a small but not insignificant point: It is writers—journalists, screenwriters, novelists, newswriters—we turn to more than anyone to tell us exactly how. our country is doing, and they are precisely the last people who would accurately point out that in the long tape of history this is a pretty good few inches.

There are many reasons for this—catching and tagging whatever angst is floating around is their job—but the biggest is simple. Writers always see their time as marked by pain because it always is. Children die. People lose their homes. Life is sad. To declare the relative happiness of your era is to sound stupid and uncaring, as if you don’t know people are suffering, when people always are.

I am inclined toward the long view. The life of people on earth is obviously better now than it has ever been—certainly much better than it was 500 years ago when people beat each other with cats. This may sound silly but now and then when I read old fairy tales and see an illustration of a hunchbacked hag with no teeth and bumps on her nose who lives by herself in the forest, I think: People looked like that once. They lived like that. There were no doctors, no phones, and people lived in the dark in a hole in a tree. It was terrible. It’s much better now.

But we are not happier. I believe we are just cleaner, more attractive sad people than we used to be.

*   *   *

There are serious reasons members of my generation in particular are feeling a high level of anxiety and unhappiness these days, but first a word about how we “know” this: the polls.

I used to like polls because I like vox pop, and polls seemed a good way to get a broad sampIing. But now I think the vox has popped—the voice has cracked from too many command performances. Polls are contributing to a strange new volatility in public opinion.

A year ago, at the conclusion of the Gulf war, George Bush’s approval ratings were at nearly 90%. As I write, they are 30%. This is a huge drop, and in a way a meaningless one. President Bush didn’t deserve 90% support for having successfully executed a hundred-hour ground war; Abe Lincoln deserved a 90% for preserving the nation. Bush didn’t deserve 30% support because the economy is in recession; John Adams deserved a 30% for the Alien and Sedition laws. It is all so exaggerated.

The dramatic rises and drops are fueled in part by mass media and their famous steady drumbeat of what’s not working, from an increase in reported child abuse to a fall in savings. When this tendency is not prompted by ideology it is legitimate: Good news isn’t news. But the volatility is also driven by the polls themselves. People think they have to have an answer when they are questioned by pollsters, and they think it has to be “intelligent” and “not naive.” This has the effect of hardening opinions that haven’t even been formed yet. Poll questions do not invite subtlety of response. This dispels ambiguity, when a lot of thoughts and opinions are ambiguous.

And we are polled too often. We are constantly having our temperature taken, like a hypochondriac who is looking for the reassurance that no man can have, i.e., that he will not die.

I once knew a man who was so neurotically fearful about his physical well-being that in the middle of conversations he would quietly put his hand to his wrist. He was taking his pulse. When I was seven or eight years old, I became anxious that I would stop breathing unless I remembered every few seconds to inhale. This mania was exhausting. At night, on the verge of sleep, I would come awake in a panic, gulping for air.

People who take their pulse too often are likely to make it race; people obsessed with breathing are likely to stop. Nations that use polls as daily temperature readings inevitably give inauthentic readings, and wind up not reassured but demoralized.

*   *   *

There are reasons for our discontent. Each era has its distinguishing characteristics; each time a big barrel of malaise rolls down the hill there are specific and discrete facts rolling around inside. Here are some of ours:

Once in America if you lost your job—if you were laid off from the assembly line at Ford, for instance—you had reason to believe you’d be rehired. Business cycles, boom and bust—sooner or later they’d call you back. There was a certain security in the insecurity. Now it’s different. Now if you’re laid off from your job as the number two guy in public affairs at the main Jersey office of a phone company, you have reason to fear you’ll never be hired back into that or any white-collar job, because employment now is connected less to boom and bust than to changing realities, often changing technologies, in the marketplace. The telephone company doesn’t need you anymore.

You are a boomer, and obscurely oppressed.

But there is nothing obscure about your predicament. So many people are relying on you! You and your wife waited to have children, and now they’re 8 and 10 and you’re 48—too late to start over, to jeopardize the $75,000 a year you earn. And if you tried, you would lose your medical coverage.

Your mother and father are going to live longer than parents have ever lived and will depend on you to take care of them as they (as you, at night, imagine it) slide from mild senility to full dementia. Your children will have a longer adolescence, and expect you to put them through college just as mom and dad are entering a home.

Your biggest personal asset is your house, which has lost value. You have a hefty mortgage, your pension fund is underfunded, you don’t think your social security benefits are secure and you do not trust the banks.

The last may be the most serious in terms of how people feel. In the years since the Depression we have been able to trust that the institutions we put our savings into would be there tomorrow and pay us interest. We don’t know that anymore; most of us are afraid that all of a sudden a major bank, strained from its own feckless investments to middle-aged mall builders who make political contributions, will fold, taking the other banks with it.

We wonder, “in the small hours of the night’s cold terror,” if there is another depression and the banks fail, how will I and my family live? How will we buy food and gas and pay for electricity? We don’t know how to grow things! What will we eat if it all collapses?

*   *   *

I think the essential daily predicament of modern, intelligent, early-middle-age Americans—the boomers, the basketball in the python—is this: There is no margin for error anymore. Everything has to continue as it is for us to continue with the comfort we have. And we do not believe that everything will continue as it is.

It is embarrassing to live in the most comfortable time in the history of man and not be happy. We all have so much!

Think of the set of “The Honeymooners.”

What did Ralph and Alice have in 1955? A small rented apartment with a table, two chairs, a bureau, a picture on a faded wall. The set designer was spoofing the average.

Think of the set of “Family Ties”: the couches, the lamps, the VCRS, the color TVS. There is art on the walls. The children had expensive orthodontia.

You will say, one show was about the working class, the other the middle class. But that’s the point: The average couple was working class then and is middle class now.

We have so much more than mom and dad that we can’t help but feel defensive about feeling so bad, and paying off our charge cards so late, and being found in the den surfing from channel to channel at 3 a.m., staring back at Brian Lamb’s eyes.

And there’s this: We know that we suffer—and we get no credit for it! Sometimes we feel the bitterness of the generation that fought World War I, but we cannot write our memoirs and say “good-bye to all that,” cannot tell stories of how our boots rotted in the mud, cannot deflect the neighborhood praise and be modest as we lean against the bar. They don’t know we’re brave. They don’t know we fight in trenches too.

I find myself thinking of Auden’s words about the average man in 1939, as darkness gathered over Europe—the “sensual man-in-the-street,” barely aware of his emptiness, who promised that he will be “true to the wife,” that some day he will be happy and good.

Auden called his era the “age of anxiety.” I think what was at the heart of the dread in those days, just a few years into modern times, was that we could tell we were beginning to lose God—banishing him from the scene, from our consciousness, losing the assumption that he was part of the daily drama, or its maker. And it is a terrible thing when people lose God. Life is difficult and people are afraid, and to be without God is to lose man’s great source of consolation and coherence. There is a phrase I once heard or made up that I think of when I think about what people with deep faith must get from God: the love that assuages all.

I don’t think it is unconnected to the boomers’ predicament that as a country we were losing God just as they were being born.

At the same time, a huge revolution in human expectation was beginning to shape our lives, the salient feature of which is the expectation of happiness.

*   *   *

It is 1956 in the suburbs’ in the summer. A man comes home from work, parks the car, slouches up the driveway. His white shirt clings softly to his back. He bends for the paper, surveys the lawn, waves to a neighbor. From the house comes his son, freckled, ten. He jumps on his father; they twirl on the lawn. Another day done. Now water the lawn, eat fish cakes, watch some TV, go to bed, do it all again tomorrow.

*   *   *

Is he happy? No. Why should he be? We weren’t put here to be happy. But the knowledge of his unhappiness does not gnaw. Everyone is unhappy, or rather everyone has a boring job, a marriage that’s turned to disinterest, a life that’s turned to sameness. And because he does not expect to be happy the knowledge of his unhappiness does not weigh on him. He looks perhaps to other, more eternal forms of comfort.

Somewhere in the Seventies, or the Sixties, we started expecting to be happy, and changed our lives (left town, left families, switched jobs) if we were not. And society strained and cracked in the storm.

I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated—that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery—about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such-unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness—if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.

In a Catholic childhood in America, you were once given, as the answer to the big questions: It is a mystery. As I grew older I was impatient with this answer. Now I am probably as old, intellectually, as I am going to get, and more and more I think: It is a mystery. I am more comfortable with this now; it seems the only rational and scientific answer.

My generation, faced as it grew with a choice between religious belief or existential despair, chose … marijuana. Now we are in our cabernet stage. (Jung wrote in a letter that he saw a connection between spirits and The Spirit; sometimes when I go into a church and see how modern Catholics sometimes close their eyes and put their hands out, palms up, as if to get more of God on them, it reminds me of how kids in college used to cup their hands delicately around the smoke of the pipe, and help it waft toward them.) Is it possible that our next step is a deep turning to faith, and worship? Is it starting now with tentative, New Age steps?

It is a commonplace to note that we have little faith in our institutions, no faith in Congress, in the White House, little faith in what used to be called the establishment—big business, big media, the Church. But there’s a sort of schizoid quality in this. We have contempt for the media, but we have respect for newscasters and columnists. When we meet them we’re impressed and admiring. We respect priests and rabbis and doctors. But we are cynical about what they’re part of.

It’s also famously true that we hate Congress and keep reelecting our congressmen. I don’t know how to reconcile this. Sometimes I think there is a tinny, braying quality to our cynicism. We are like a city man in a Dreiser novel, quick with a wink that shows we know the real lowdown, the real dope. This kind of cynicism seems to me … a dodge. When you don’t believe, you don’t have to take part, invest, become part of. Skepticism is healthy, and an appropriate attitude toward those who wield power. But cynicism is corrosive and self-corrupting. Everyone at the top is a moral zero, I’ll be a moral zero too.

*   *   *

But our cynicism is also earned. Our establishments have failed us. I imagine an unspoken dialogue with a congressman in Washington:

Voter: “Do what is right!” Politician: “But you’ll kill me!”

Voter: “Maybe, but do it anyway! I hired you to go to Congress to make hard decisions to help our country. Take your term, do it, and go home. Kill yourself1”

Politician: “But I have seniority and expertise and I’m up to speed on the issues. Replace me and it’ll be six years before he knows what I know.”

Voter: “Well maybe we don’t want him to know what you know. Maybe we want someone dumb enough not to know what’s impossible and brave enough to want to do what’s right.”

Politician: “But I love this job.”

Voter: “But we never intended Congress to be a career. We meant it to be a pain in the neck, like jury duty. And maybe I won’t kill you. Maybe I’ll respect you. Take a chance!”

*   *   *

The biggest scandal of the modern era, and the one that will prove to have most changed our politics, is the S&L scandal, in which certain members of both parties colluded to give their campaign contributors what they wanted at the expense of innocent taxpayers who will pay the bill, in billions, for generations.

Watergate pales, Teapot Dome pales. It is what was behind the rise of Perot. The voters think Washington is a whorehouse and every four years they get a chance to elect a new piano player. They would rather burn the whorehouse down. They figured Perot for an affable man with a torch. They looked at him and saw a hand grenade with a bad haircut.

Finally, another thing has changed in our lifetimes: People don’t have faith in America’s future anymore.

I don’t know many people aged 35 to 50 who don’t have a sense that they were born into a healthier country, and that they have seen the culture deteriorate before their eyes.

We tell pollsters we are concerned about “leadership” and “America’s prospects in a changing world,” but a lot of this is a reflection of a boomer secret: We all know the imperfect America we were born into was a better country than the one we live in now, i.e., the one we are increasingly responsible for.

You don’t have to look far for the fraying of the social fabric. Crime, the schools, the courts. Watch Channel 35 in New York and see your culture. See men and women, homo- and hetero-, dressed in black leather, masturbating each other and simulating sadomasochistic ritual. Realize this is pumped into everyone’s living room, including your own, where your 8-yearold is flipping channels. Then talk to a pollster. You too will declare you are pessimistic about your country’s future; you too will say we are on the wrong track.

Remember your boomer childhood in the towns and suburbs. You had physical security. You were safe. It is a cliché to say it, but it can’t be said enough: We didn’t lock the doors at night in the old America. We slept with the windows open! The cities were better. A man and woman falling in love could stroll the parks of a city at 2 a.m. Douglas Edwards, the venerable newscaster, once told me about what he called the best time. He sat back in the newsroom one afternoon in the late Seventies, in the middle of the creation of the current world, and said, “New York in the Fifties—there was nothing like it, it was clean and it was peaceful. You could walk the streets!” He stopped, and laughed at celebrating with such emotion what should be commonplace.

You know what else I bet he thought, though he didn’t say it. It was a more human world in that it was a sexier world, because sex was still a story. Each high school senior class had exactly one girl who got pregnant and one guy who was the father, and it was the town’s annual scandal. Either she went somewhere and had the baby and put it up for adoption, or she brought it home as a new baby sister, or the couple got married and the town topic changed. It was a stricter, tougher society, but its bruising sanctions came from ancient wisdom.

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”

The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.

*   *   *

But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.

(This section was written before Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown, about which one might say he said a right thing in the wrong way and was the wrong man to say it. Quayle is not a stupid man, but his expressions reveal a certain tropism toward the banal. This is a problem with some Republican men. There is a kind of heavy-handed dorkishness in their approach that leaves them unable to persuasively address questions requiring delicacy; they always sound judgmental when they mean to show concern.)

Two final thoughts:

1. We might all feel better if we took personally the constitutional injunction to “preserve and protect.”

Every parent in America knows that we’re not doing a very good job of communicating to our children what America is and has been. When we talk about immigration, pro or con, there, I think, an unspoken anxiety: We are not inculcating in America’s new immigrants—as someone inculcated in our grandparents and great-grandparents—the facts of American history and why America deserves to be loved. And imperfect as it is, and as we are, we boomers love our country.

In our cities we teach not the principles that our country great—the worth of the Founding Fathers, the moral force that led us to endure five years of horror to free the slaves, a space program that expanded the frontiers of human knowledge, the free market of ideas and commerce and expression that yielded miracles like a car in every garage, and mass-produced housing. We are lucky in that the central fact of our country is both inspiring and true: America is the place formed of the institutionalization of miracles. Which made it something new in the history of man, something—better.

We do not teach this as a society and we teach it insufficiently in our schools. We are more inclined to teach that Columbus’ encounter with the Americas produced, most significantly, the spreading of venereal disease to their innocent indigenous peoples.

We teach the culture of resentment, of grievance, of victimization. Our children are told by our media and our leaders that we are a racist nation in which minorities are and will be actively discriminated against.

If we are demoralized we have, at least in this, demoralized ourselves. We are certainly demoralizing our children, and giving them a darker sense of their future than is warranted.

*   *   *

2. It’s odd to accuse boomers of reticence, but I think we have been reticent, at least n this:

When we talk about the difficulties of our lives and how our country has changed we become embarrassed and feel . . . dotty. Like someone’s old aunt rocking on the porch and talking about the good old days. And so most of us keep quiet, raise our children as best we can, go to the cocktail party, eat our cake, go to work and take the vacation.

We have removed ourselves from leadership, we professional white-collar boomers. We have recused ourselves from a world we never made. We turn our attention to the arts, and entertainment, to watching and supporting them or contributing to them, because they are the only places we can imagine progress. And to money, hoping that it will keep us safe.