Let me tell you a tale about the state of planning in America.
The tale begins in April, when we booked a flight to Alaska. This should have been a relatively uncomplicated sort of thing. Two tickets, round trip to Anchorage, please.
In fact it required hours to figure out the routes, costs and airlines. But never mind that. In the end we found a super- saver to Alaska that did not go via New York or Salt Lake City and did not require us to sleep one Saturday night on a glacier.
Then, in May, Northwest Airlines put Alaska on sale. Never the sort to pass up a bargain, we turned in our super-saver for two new tickets. Another two weeks went by, during which time we applauded our economy and planned our itinerary. Then, before the end of the month, Northwest went on strike.
Now, as D-day looms, we are faced with two choices: the cheap ticket on an airline that may or may not be flying the day we want to fly, or a full-blown fare to go to the very same city on the very same day.
Now this story is not a sympathy ploy. People don't get sympathy for going to Alaska in June. They get sympathy for going in January.
But it seems to me that at the core of this minor hassle was a major fact about our current life. Planning isn't rewarded any more. It's thwarted.
This is true whether you're trying to get to Anchorage or college. True, whether you're trying to buy airline tickets or a house.
Almost everyone I know has one or another "life plan" on hold right now. Huge numbers of us are unable to map out the next move while the facts and figures keep changing. Even the experts, the agents of the public world who try to keep up with assorted government "flight plans," can do little more than chronicle the changes. And nobody, but nobody, is making promises about the future.
I know a half-dozen young men and women who are trying to devise college plans. One of them ritualistically calculates how much money he has, how much he can earn, and how much he needs to borrow. What he cannot calculate is the existence of a student loan. If he cannot plan, neither can the college.
For the past several years a friend of mine, a single mother of two, has worked on government grants from September to June. This June there is no word about September. The unknowns eat away at her family plans and, in turn, the plans of the camp where her children were registered.
It is as if we were all going about our daily lives, planning our futures, when someone yelled "FREEZE." In Washington, the Congress seems unable to devise a budget. In the real world, people don't know whether their job will be RIF-ed or rescued.
On Wall Street, economists disagree about whether things are getting better or worse. On my street, there are people waiting to see . . . if interest rates are going up or down, if it's time to buy or save, move or stay.
Instead of making decisions, we're sifting rumors. Instead of balancing facts, we're weighing opinions. If there is a "mood of the country," it is a kind of quivering, immobile uncertainty.
I know that uncertainty isn't new. In other eras, people began their last will and testament with the primal statement that they were "being mindful of the uncertainties of life." But the uncertainties of the past were different from ours. In the 18th century, the 19th century, people were more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, to weather and to disease.
We built a society that protects us to a larger measure from nature--from cold and drought and even germs. For a long time, we held high the conceit of our own control.
But today the farmers who were once anxious about harvests are more anxious about loans. The people whose lives depended on the soil now find their livelihoods depend on the political ground.
We have become remarkably vulnerable to the same society that protects us. So this season, our insecurities are human-made. It's the government that seems as unsettled as the weather; the economy that thwarts the best-laid plans of mice and men and Alaska travelers.
We come around the cycle, but we are willy-nilly, more than ever "mindful of the uncertainties of life."