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 following an erratic course as far 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.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.
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 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. 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 10 early warning signs of cancer.
Out West, high-stakes enterprises seem to have less allure than job security. Nearer home, a teacher talks of colleagues who became real-estate agents. Once she envied their commissions; now they envy her paycheck.
The word of the '90s is not "plastic" but "cash." Pay-as-you-go or don't go.
The list of symptoms would be far from critical without other quiet nagging fears that came to me repeatedly labeled like this: Environment. Children.
And everywhere women in their 30s, 40s and 50s 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 to change the course of the future.
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. It's clear that the feel-good era is over.