Pity the political consultants these days, polling and trolling the electorate in a frantic search to find out what's on the collective mind of America. Every candidate wants the latest data from the phone surveyors and focus groups so he or she can appear to be thoroughly in tune with public opinion.
I have no idea what the mood of the country is right now.
But one good way to take the measure of any society is by talking to people, which is exactly what I did for several days last month while traveling.
Obviously, it's not a scientific method of collecting data, but I came back with some insights about modern life that aren't being reported on the nightly news.
At a lodge along the Rogue River in southern Oregon, I met a man from northern California who had achieved financial security by designing Web pages for businesses.
After the breakup of what he described as "a short, ugly marriage," he decided to seek a new mate on the information superhighway, and claimed that 2,500 women responded to his electronic posting.
His new spouse, from Tennessee, said the relationship had gone very smoothly. They enjoyed mutual interests in scuba diving and other outdoor fun. "I don't want kids, ever," she added emphatically.
Other guests listening to this story included a realtor from San Diego who wondered aloud about the economic ripple effects of Internet romances.
She said several of her recent sales had come as a result of marriages that were broken up by online affairs, forcing the abandoned partner to seek new housing.
As I ruminated on how these trends might affect family values, everyone else headed off together on a rafting trip. Shortly after their departure, I found myself chatting with a cheerful couple who had just checked in to prepare for their daughter's wedding, which was taking place at the lodge the next day, with a hundred guests expected to attend. I felt suddenly reassured about the current state of matrimony.
During the next leg of our trip, we were standing in line for an outdoor concert by Nova Scotia fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster (who is, in my opinion, the hardest working woman in show business - see her perform and you'll agree). Just a few feet ahead of us, a jolly security guard was regaling several other visitors with a list of all the times he'd been punched, stabbed, or otherwise assaulted during his long career in crowd management.
"Never git between a man an' a woman havin' it out," he advised. "That's the worst kinda fight. Guaranteed."
Then, before I had a chance to feel depressed by these tales of mass misbehavior, he proudly revealed that his son had just landed a well-paying job teaching kindergarten. Again, I felt a surge of optimism. With enough good kindergarten teachers, we might someday reduce the variety of hazards faced by security guards.
I now have a renewed appreciation for the metaphor of life as a vast river. It's hard to know for sure what lies ahead, and navigating the rough spots can get pretty scary. But there's no turning back, and whenever I start thinking disaster is inevitable, something good is usually waiting just around the next bend.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society