YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"

Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.

How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .

Ninth in a series

This is the Air Guitar Decade.

People aren't themselves, they're the roles they play. Things don't have to be things, just be like things--authentic imitation bomber jackets, suburban country kitchens with the Martha Stewart baskets that never carry anything . . . Martha Stewart herself, in fact--the air-guitar perfection of Martha as mom, hostess, gardener and chef . . . she's an idea in people's minds, like Donald Trump playing Donald Trump and building buildings he can put "Trump" on. (He gets called "The People's Billionaire" by the New York Daily News. That's the kind of decade it is.)

"I'm not a doctor but I play one on television," says a soap opera actor who then does an ad for Vicks cough syrup as if he were the top upper-respiratory man at Johns Hopkins.

An actor is elected president. Talking to a journalist who mistakenly recalls seeing him on a movie set, Ronald Reagan says: "You believed in it because you wanted to believe it. There's nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time."

Previous presidents have played the hero, but Reagan understands that the presidency of the '80s is a character role, requiring a character actor's coy opacity--a face like folk art, simple and sturdy, a cameo carved in a walnut shell, a face so familiar you seem to see every detail even at a distance: the 1940s hair he never changed (that wave mounting back from his forehead, a reverse of Kennedy's mop), the chevron tilt to the eyes, the preoccupied alertness of the nearsighted, the glance of the slightly deaf, sharp and meek at the same time. His mouth puckers in an unhurried O and then a smile slides to the side of his face while he arches an eyebrow--the jaunty but purposeful look of a man who looks like he's got his hat cocked to one side even when he isn't wearing a hat.

Symbol is substance everywhere.

Witch hunts--literally--ruin the lives of day-care workers. Altar orgies! Satanism! (Are we feeling guilty about handing our children to strangers on our way to work? Is that what this craziness symbolizes?) The media get very serious about the Iran-contra scandal, but it looks more like air-guitar Watergate. The homeless symbolize America's callousness but it turns out many aren't homeless as much as they're schizophrenic or alcoholic.

The symbolism of taking up combat positions might hurt our diplomacy in Lebanon, so a Marine unit bunks down in an office building where a suicide bomber kills 241 of them. Days later, this setback is symbolically redeemed by our victory over a Caribbean country called Grenada, which has gotten too cozy with Cuba and communism for our liking.

New Hampshire schoolteacher-citizen-mom Christa McAuliffe isn't a scientist or astronaut, but she gets to ride on the Challenger space shuttle for 73.621 seconds as Mrs. Front Porch U.S.A. in Space. Then it blows up.

Reagan gets the news. He asks: "That's the one the teacher's on?"

Some news is not so symbolic. There are recessions and firings, drug-driven crime turning cities into free-fire zones. Reagan gets shot. The pope gets shot. Airplanes blow up and people are afraid to travel. Your kindly hometown savings and loan collapses, and you, the taxpayer, have to make good on its debts. AIDS is going to kill everybody if we don't do something.

After some patches of early-'80s fog, Reagan announces: "It's morning again in America."

Not dawn's early light, maybe, but a placid 10:30 or so, with "Doc down at the drugstore thinking about pulling the skin books off the magazine rack, the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit a thing of Jimmy Carter's age-of-limits past, the school kids back to basics, and most people back to work," as a media type writes.

The Cold War ends. America shrugs off a stock market crash. There's a conditional stability to things, like the feeling when you walk toward baggage claim after a bumpy plane ride. Things feel larger than life and unreal at the same time, a condition Jean Baudrillard calls "hyperreality." (He's a French intellectual--they've gotten very big again.) Experience is a theme park, reality sings through a karaoke microphone, and authenticity is a brand name on your shirt, sneakers, blazer, purse. Those aren't underpants, those are Calvin Kleins. That isn't three days' growth of beard, you're just doing Don Johnson from "Miami Vice."

Cocaine is the drug of the moment. It turns existence itself into an air guitar, as if you can become an idea of yourself. Cocaine makes you feel famous, gives you an edgy hyper-clarity, as if you were looking at yourself through the wrong end of the binoculars. Airless, wary, presumptuous--this is the founding mood of postmodernism, which is to say self-consciousness.

Not a painful self-consciousness, but a feeling of being a peeping Tom looking through your own window. It's a short step to the exhibitionism of televised confession on the Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera shows, or to upscale trend-toadies replacing their curtains with "window treatments" that let passersby see them sitting on chintz couches petting a Lhasa apso as if they were practicing for Robin Leach's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Except the Lhasa apso keeps peeing on the rug--they have an appointment with the pet psychologist to work on this.

The personal is the political--as if private and public lives were the same, nothing to hide and nothing to tell. The ideal for these people is to live at one pleasant remove from reality, as if they're touring another country--drinking bottled water and sampling food from each other's plates while the waiters talk about them. They fill the rest of the time by working 82-hour weeks, then standing in movie lines and asking their friends what happened on "Miami Vice" or "Hill Street Blues."

The response: "All I watch is MTV. I start watching some horrible video from Twisted Sister or somebody and I'm hooked."

You jog in your jogging clothes, lift weights in your weightlifting clothes and look at yourself in the mirror as if you're auditioning to be your own body double. Sweet pain, cruel pleasure. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone inspire men to grow breasts at the gym. Women "go for the burn" with Jane Fonda's workout tapes. They burn off so much body fat that they stop having periods. Air-guitar sexiness.

Air guitar: as in kids in their rooms playing phantom guitars and duplicating every last Bruce Springsteen wince of astonishment and leap of sweaty ecstasy while a boombox hammers out "Born in the U.S.A." Or Guns N'Roses mime-bands of high school talent show kids raging through "Welcome to the Jungle"--hurling hands, hair and groins around with evil triumphalism.

Air guitar gets so big it becomes a movie bit: Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" does "Old Time Rock & Roll" in his underpants, using a trophy for a microphone. The bit makes both the movie and Tom Cruise, who plays an '80s-bred greedhead kid who is shown as a hero for blackmailing his way into Princeton.

He's an air-guitar kind of guy, when you think about it--one of those ambitious, well-handled, career-driven '80s actors who don't play characters as much as they play successful actors playing characters, like Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas or Harrison Ford. Unlike the stars who are dying off--Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire--the new generation makes it look hard instead of easy, the work ethic as work aesthetic.

Wall Street hustlers become heroes of the new capitalism not only because they work so hard and get so rich but also because they've learned how to turn work directly into money without the grubby middleman business of making things--cars, clothes . . . why bother? If you want to make money just make money by manipulating money, wallowing in it like Scrooge McDuck diving into his comic-book pile of gold coins. "Greed is healthy!" Ivan Boesky tells Berkeley business students three years before he goes to prison. "You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."

Michael Jackson makes his mega-millions by cutting out the middleman of artistic soul and becoming his audience's expectations, with the haunted face of too much plastic surgery, and a collection of clever moves: the single glitter glove, the moonwalk. He doesn't dance as much as he presents a series of nifty gestures, in the manner of a particularly deft store clerk wrapping himself up as a birthday present.

Jesse Jackson becomes a national political figure without ever holding office. Why bother? Just do the photo ops, the press conferences, the disaster visits, the head-of-state conferences.

Fame seems almost a right, a need, a psychological food group. It comes in various intensities, from victimhood as portrayed in People magazine to the air-guitar notoriety of a singer named Madonna. She writhes around onstage in her underwear singing, "I am just a material girl, living in a material world." But she isn't. She's just an idea in the minds of teenage girls, along with assistant professors who write essays about her in language like "the deployment of difference in the tactical form gender pastiche . . . shifts the quality and meaning of resistance to institutionalized heteromasculinity."

Nothing material about her at all--Madonna is a fictional character without an author. She creates herself. Madonna becomes "Madonna."

How nice. We don't have to take these people very seriously, but we can enjoy their performances. How comfortable.

In the same way, Tama Janowitz writes novels--"Slaves of New York," for instance--so she can become "Tama Janowitz." She is quite famous.

"You see Tama Janowitz doing that vodka ad, her and that older guy?" asks a bond trader. He's eating dinner at Portobello with a decorator who got a spread in W for doing whole apartments in taupe.

"I think I bought her book," says the decorator. "Or maybe it was by Elizabeth Tallent. Or David Leavitt. One of these people everybody says are geniuses. They all write like they're bored--they tell you what people are like by what's on their T-shirt. Like 'Save the Wetlands,' and you know it's an ecology type."

They rummage through their food--pappardelle with a wood duck and porcini ragout, and seared salmon with wild mushroom risotto. The restaurant around them broods in shadowy teal and fuchsia. Stray Greek columns support nothing but the idea of postmodern chic.

"The guy in the ad with Tama Janowitz," says the bond trader. "He's from back in the Kennedy administration--Arthur Schlesinger. What a great comeback shot for him."

"He writes books about history," she says. "There's a lot of nostalgia now. It's like everything's been on rerun since the '60s, people want to read about that stuff. They go crazy over anniversaries: Elvis's death, D-Day's 40th, 1984 from that novel by George Orwell."

"You've got this literary side," he says. "You've definitely got this literary side."

"A lot of my clients want us to do the books along with the bookshelves. The classics--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, anything leather-bound, morocco-bound. All the arts are like a religion now."

"Definitely," says the bond trader. "I know a commodities guy who's investing in painters. Julian Schnabel, he's so great--he gets to know all the right people in the art world, and then he figures out, 'Nobody ever glued dishes to a painting before,' and the next thing his prices are through the roof. My friend has five Schnabels. Never looks at them, just keeps them in storage."

"Basquiat did it without the dishes," the decorator says. "Then he went and OD'd. Do you know how great his stuff looks on walls? It's like, you don't have to pay any attention to it, but it's a great statement."

"I've got to get you to look at this place I bought in Brooklyn Heights. What time is it? We could get a cab. Talk about undecorated. Just me living there with the leather furniture I bought after my first bonus. Me and a small supply of Bolivian marching powder."

"I'd be happy to give you some advice, but I have to be up at 6 when my trainer arrives," she says, with a cool appraisal that concludes he's just another Wall Street trading-floor cowboy who feels obliged to go for a score--he doesn't really want it that much.

She goes out with a lot of these types--she's been known to savor a score herself--she thinks about men like a casting director, maybe because she thinks of her life as a movie. Last week there was this sad guy with a heavy upper lip and a motorcycle, the kind of guy who folds his hands behind his head and waits for you to come on to him, and you do--that's sex in the '80s.

The bond trader consoles himself . . . what the hell, even sex has become a sort of air-guitar duet. Both men and women fake orgasms now . . . too tired . . . work so hard, too tired . . . cocaine . . . people talk about this new mood-elevator called Prozac . . .

He imagines Prozac producing a sort of air-guitar happiness . . . maybe ask his shrink . . .

CAPTION: Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" eclipsed Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and ushered in a political conservatism at odds with the growing exhibitionism of pop culture: Tom Cruise lip-synced in his underwear in "Risky Business" and Geraldo Rivera interviewed nudists in a hot tub. Financier Ivan Boesky told us that greed was good; the space shuttle Challenger blew up in a catastrophe that killed seven astronauts and horrified millions.

CAPTION: Michael Jackson waved, Martha Stewart decorated, Sylvester Stallone overacted, Madonna made a name for herself, Oliver North testified and "Miami Vice" made it okay to wear a T-shirt under your blazer.