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Taking a post-holiday breather, it's rare to pick up a magazine and not trip over the persistent catchwords of the '80s. They are sprinkled through the dozens of decade wrap-ups that we glossed over in last week's print. They became as predictable as the stale Christmas cookies that still showed up with dessert, days after the packages were unwrapped. Now it's time to put them to rest.Several weeks ago one of those wrap-ups, in the News & Record Commentary section, compared the '80s with the '50s. The writer moaned that both decades were times of superficial concerns, of preoccupation with image over substance and form over content. The analysis wasn't far off base.

It's not only that we twice elected an actor to the White House, but that we became actors ourselves. We adopted styles and their accoutrements that would qualify us as trendies - opting for yuppie BMWs and Wall Street's trademark black overcoats. A whole generation suddenly made ``thirtysomething' the new chic. Houses had to have at least two stories above ground with a Palladian window on the street side and enough neighbors to notice. It even became stylish to take relief from the madness by ``cocooning.'

Our language contributed to the charade by means of its phrases. Chief among them, of course, was the president's well-intended ``kinder, gentler nation,' the first I suggest we relegate to history, but only on the basis of overuse. His ``thousand points of light' and ``read my lips' should go, too. But more insidious were the terms by which we characterized our own age: me-ism, sexism, the plastic revolution, Japan-bashing, to name a few. Labels helped us distance ourselves from the realities of our time without giving them a clear look.

My wish for the '90s is that we come down to earth, that we trash our easy labels in the interests of honesty. That we look at our neighbors and see, without the assistance of PR experts, their real plight. It could open up a new era of public candor along with the trust that it makes possible.

We can begin as individuals by seeing past the car windows - by parking in downtown Greensboro, or in Glenwood or Stokesdale, and going on foot, talking to shopkeepers, watching what people buy. Or doing the same in Raleigh or Asheboro. (Crabtree Valley Mall and the Grand Strand don't count.)

Prudently, we could peer into own pocketbooks. Without regard to its cumulative effect on the nation's economy, we can take a hard look at our spending-vs.-savings ratio and project where it will leave us as the '90s wind up. We can make it a habit to save part of today's income, before we get a chance to parrot the promise that we'll do it next week.

We can thank the sexual revolution for helping us to see members of the other gender as individuals with real abilities and real problems. But we can look askance at the bitter accusations of chauvinism that spew from that still-smoldering battle of the sexes.

As a nation, we can stop believing we're the most educated and technologically-advanced nation on earth. We can therefore aim beyond our spot-check improvements to start planning education that will define Americans in the 21st century and reserve their place in the world.

Now, along with Japan and Europe we are still one of the world's three leading economic powers. But our economic influence is in decline. Instead of twittering every time Japanese investors buy another corner in America, we can honestly applaud the success of Japan and West Germany, then set about to improve the U.S. trade deficit with a more realistic measure of world needs and an unforgiving assessment of our own productivity.

We can look for strains of - yes - patriotism in those tiresome do-gooders who consider the quality of the environment one of our sacred mandates. We can join their efforts and encourage international pacts that will protect the global ecology from our inevitable industrial assault.

We can expect 95 percent of the world's population growth in this decade to be in Third World countries. That will mean a heavier burden on industrialized countries, where populations are getting older. It could also mean a worldwide surge of sentiment against environmental concerns, education and government control.

While we're at it, let's question whether our foreign policy is sometimes defined by worn-out ties to nations and parties we should no longer implicitly trust. We should take a second look at the rulers we've boosted to power, demand accurate reports of human rights violations and re-evaluate our foreign policy as a result.

Finally, we can stop accepting the media's definition of who we are and what we want. We can denounce the smoke screen of with-it sitcoms and demand instead a varied menu of facts, opinions and drama along with our best entertainment. By falling in line with every new Mad-Ave. concept, we consumers give more power to the media at the same time that we lose a little of our own identities.

Freed from the parameters of so-called conventional wisdom, we could have the final say on who we will be in the '90s. But nobody will give us the last word: We have to say it.

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