EVERY August when we were children, the family visited a somewhat exotic second cousin who had retired to Cape Cod. He was a bachelor of indeterminate years and indeterminate wealth - lots in both cases. The occasion invariably was a lunch. The cousin had a chef who made the perfect cheese souffl'e and a butler who served it with airy elegance. The rolls were fresh, hot, and fluffy as a summer cloud.
At some point between the cranberry juice that preceded and the chocolate mousse that followed, the cousin, spotless in white flannels, would clear his throat thoughtfully and ask the table: ``Well, what's the mood of the country this summer?''
Every year he asked the same question, out of the blue - rather in the tone of an expatriate. He was a playful man, one of those bachelors who are good with children, and we children had no idea what he meant by this sudden detour into seriousness. Nor did our parents.
``It's not like Bert,'' they said every August, puzzling over the little ritual on the drive home.
Cousin Bert's question - with its assumption of volatility, of fickle moods - seems ironic in retrospect. Few people lived a more stable life than he in his richly ordered retreat, from which the annual question emerged as from an island kingdom.
Furthermore, nobody's mood changed in those days at the trendy pace now set by The Great Media Hustle. There were troubles, there were agitations - history certainly moved. But opinions, attitudes - the country's mood - tended to stay in place.
Unless embarrassed silence counts, the family never gave an answer to Bert's question - surely a journalist's question if there ever was one. Well, Bert, if you're still interested - wherever you are - here goes a belated try.
``What's the mood of the country this summer?'' Better you asked, ``What are the moods?'' Just since June, the consensus has zigzagged like a waterbug on any number of issues.
1.What's the country's mood about the contras? A couple of months ago every poll found a clear majority of Americans opposed - but hold everything! A stiff North wind blew in a change of climate. And now, the latest polls report, the swing is back to the mood as before.
2.What's the country's mood about the economy? Thumbs up. But wait again! This is just for 1987. According to a survey in the Wall Street Journal, Americans are wary about bubbles bursting further down the yellow brick road.
3.What's the country's mood about the Constitution in this year of its celebration? Everybody's all for it. Of course. But on the other hand, three cheers for lieutenant colonels who salute, then write their own rules - and maybe four cheers for anybody who sues the press and wins, whether the First Amendment is wobbled or not.
4.What's the country's mood about the environment, civil rights, nuclear disarmament - all the ongoing issues of civic virtue? Yeah! Yeah! Sure! Sure! Count me in. But don't bother me now. Say, didn't I give last week?
5.What's the country's mood about AIDS or surrogate babies or pulling the plug on a life-support system? All the ethics-and-compassion questions. Here the mood of absent-minded assent (see above) turns to one of disputatious confusion, not only between factions but within the individual's divided heart.
Does this combined mood - that issues are difficult to decide (see No. 5), and even more difficult to do anything about (see No. 4) - suggest the dominant tone for the summer: namely, a certain desperate recklessness?
Are the gunslingers on the Los Angeles freeway the pathological expression of a great impatience of the soul? Why can't we just reflag the tankers everywhere, we seem to be asking - and full speed ahead!
When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, he made the country uneasy with his remark that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. In the summer of '87, his statement might even pass for moderate.
An exaggeration? Maybe. But if the man on the Cape from so many Augusts ago were to ask, ``What's the mood of the country - in one word?'' an honest relative would have to reply: ``Jumpy, cousin - very jumpy.''
A Wednesday and Friday column