Fears and fresh beginnings

BOSTON—The fog had fallen over the Labor Day coast like a curtain officially bringing down the summer season. We followed it south, bumper to bumper, riding from vacation to home, passing through tollgates that marked time off from time on.

By the next morning, the curtain had lifted in one horizontal line onto a new scene and season. The country sounds of gulls and foghorns had been replaced by the urban sounds of cars, radios and alarms.

To someone who will forever regard the first day of school as the real first day of the real new year, the city seemed momentarily in sync. The annual crop of college students had arrived while we were out of town, unpacking energy and expectations. The streets were humming. At the coffee shops freshmen eagerly scoured course catalogs as if they were reading menus.

In our neighborhood as well, flocks of small children carrying dinosaur lunch boxes were being ushered into schoolyards by crossing guards. They wore their excitement like new shoes. Maybe for some the optimism about second grade was like the adage about second marriages—a triumph of home over experience—but it was palpable.

I thought of a teacher who once said that if someday school opened without goosebumps, if she didn’t feel a rush of energy meeting a bunch new of children, it would be time to quit. A sign of burnout.

But walking through the youthful city scene this New Year’s Day, counting the harbingers of the season, I find myself wondering more about a triumph of wiriness over hope.

In Washington, the fall course catalog is full of tough classes. Reinventing Government I has already begun. Soon we will have Economics II: The NAFTA agreement; and Human Sciences III: Overhauling the Medical System.

This is a core curriculum for the country, but so far Clinton and Gore have been like energetic professors trying to rouse an 8 a.m. college class to life. They are trying to stir up the possibilities of change while students ask: What will it mean for me this semester, will it be on the final exam?

Seven months ago, they danced into office to the sound of “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow.” It was a changing of the guard, a generational change, a change for the sake of change. There was a sense of possibilities.

But now the change agents are again faced with the change-anxious. The long-term reality is that even their own baby-boom generation, who, in their mythologized youth, overhauled a culture, upended tradition, has become change-ambivalent. Not just about government, about everything.

Americans seem to have memorized only the most chilling lessons from the recent history classes. We have memorized “Bosnia” from our course about the End of the Cold War. We have learned “Job Insecurity” from the New Economics. “AIDS” from the course on Human Sexuality. Even the sudden possibility of peace in the Middle East—that other Forty Years War of lives—is greeted with as much watchfulness as joy.

Maybe the triumph of wariness, the fear of change, is a function of school children stay the same age but the country is growing older. The “youth generation” is middle-aged. Today only about one out of every three of our households has a child in it. In some communities, including my own, the figure is much lower.

Losing touch with youth, it’s easy to lose touch with youthfulness, the eager sense of possibilities. Exhorted by all sorts of gurus to remember the “inner child” who was in pain, we may forget the one who went off to school in high spirits.

Wariness is wisdom when it cuts our losses. But not when it stops a new beginning. Not when it tarnishes a fresh start in public or private life. And that is what seems to be happening.

I am reminded this fall morning of a friend who once told me about a love affair she never began. In midlife and mid-divorce, she could see across the arc of affair to the (bitter) end. She called it caution. I called it burnout.

Well, September is not for burnouts. September is for beginners. We can’t fully reinvent ourselves anymore than we can truly reinvent government. But on a clear first day, we can walk again in footsteps marked by fresh sneakers and hear a different lesson: Have a new year.