Don't look now, but the 1980s are behind us!

That's right. An entire decade filled with interesting events. And now, many experts are trying to make sense of it. You have probably read several news stories already about the eccentricities, political problems and social nuances of the '80s.It happens at the end of every decade.

What people say about a decade may or may not be true. It is actually too early to make definitive statements, because we are talking about history in the making. We are still very close to it. Historians usually apply meaning to the past only after they have acquired considerable distance - 20 or 30 years is a good start.

We know the meaning that we think we see in it right now, but we aren't sure that it will be the same meaning we see in the year 2000.

But it is still fascinating to try.

Presidents always set the tone for their time. Ronald Reagan, who politically presided over this decade, was anything but cerebral. He brought a casual, relaxed approach to government, and that manner seemed to catch on. Reagan, all his charisma, made the presidency seem easy. In the wake of Richard Nixon, the office was tainted by corruption, and neither Ford nor Carter were able to recover the lost prestige. But Reagan brought it all back. Even Democrats who were troubled by his programs voted for him.

Not even Reagan's national embarrassment over the Iran-Contra Affair could eclipse his impregnable image. This was the "Teflon president," the "great communicator," whose anecdote-laden speeches were incomparably smooth. He had an almost unparalleled ability to influence people.

Most important, Reagan was an actor in a media-conscious age. In speeches, he used examples taken from movies and retold them as if they had actually happened. This habit fulfilled the fears of those who thought an actor should not be president because he spent his life pretending.

Reagan's phenomenal success lead to an era of narcissism. The innaugural was unashamedly flashy and extravagant. Americans seemed to join in the excessiveness of the Reagans. Nancy stocked the White House with new china, 220 settings at $1,000 each. She also accepted clothes from famous designers, underlining the unabashed wealth of the first family.

Americans patterning themselves after the first family, become fascinated with gadgetry and shortcuts. Brevity in whatever form became the hallmark of the period.

VCRs. Cellular telephones. Answering machines. Compact disc players. Personal computers. Fax machines. Federal Express. Copiers. Microwave ovens. Walkmen. Camcorders. Cable-ready, remote-control stereo TVs. Atari, Coleco and Nintendo.

MTV, a term now synonymous with garishly hued surrealism served up in quick cinematic cuts, institutionalized the counterculture, bringing video recordings of Cindy Lauper and Madonna (singer of "Material Girl") into 47 million households.

USA Today revolutionized journalism with the new quick-read, color format that everyone predicted would fail. Instead, local newspapers across the country aped the style. It has become fashionable both to criticize USA Today and to read it, secretly of course (inside a New York Times).

America became the quintessential example of the shortcut.

In spite of Reagan's penchant for jelly beans, the country became obsessed with fitness, embodied in celebrities like Jane Fonda and Victoria Principal, doing videotapes and books promoting exercise programs. People walked, jogged, swam, and rode bycycles in a effort to attain eternal youth. Some relied on Retin-A to improve their skin, and Minoxidil to defer baldness.

People worried about cholesterol and made everything out of oat bran, even though it seemed impossible to eat enough oat bran muffins to effectively counteract cholesterol. Knowing your cholesterol count became more fashionable than knowing your blood pressure reading.

It seemed that fitness represented one of society's greatest needs. As if it might make up for world problems. As if retreating to one's own world, carefully controlled, would help those problems go away. It helped us forget that the world might be obliterated one day.

Celebrities wallowed in excess before the world. Robin Givens and Mike Tyson. Hugh Hefner and Kimberley Conrad. (A one-bunny man) Jim Bakker and Jessica Hahn. Liz Taylor and several different men. Cher with various men, none of them Sonny. There was disgusting emphasis on BMW's and Porsches.

One of the biggest celebrities was incredibly successful moneymaker Donald Trump, who not only became THE person to emulate by all aspiring moneymakers, but a parody of himself by allowing his name to be immortalized in "Trump, the Game." A person who emulated Trump could "play" the game to learn the secrets of wealth and power. It was the ultimate irony - playing for success instead of working for it.

American Demograpics Magazine said that there were many marketing mishaps during the 1980s, including Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, the new Coke, home banking, miniskirts, wine coolers and smokeless cigarettes.

Ignoring the cardinal rule that says if it isn't broken don't fix it, Coca-Cola Co. abandoned its traditional soft drink in favor of a new formula. Evidently, Coke did not take into account the baby boomers, the generation that controls much of American business, and new coke bombed. The company went back to "Coke Classic," which now has 20.1 percent of the soft drink market while new Coke retains only 1.4 percent.

Such snaufus are frustrating at the time, but laughable to look back on.

The feminist movement, so important in the '60s and '70s, stalled in the '80s. Young women in their 20s took for granted advantages won over a 20 year period, and often rejected outright the philosophy of active feminists. A woman under the age of 30 will likely say she is not a feminist. Yet she usually looks forward to a career as well as marriage with three kids. And she expects her husband to do his share of the dusting, diapering, dinner and dishes. She is also outraged if she is paid less than a male colleague. She has benefited from the movement without realizing it.

Geraldine Ferarro was the first woman to be nominated for vice president, and Sandra Day O'Connor was the first to take a seat on the Supreme Court. There was never such rapid improvement in opportunities for women in business, professions, government, arts, sciences.

Yet feminine clothing came back. Motherhood too, but at the end of the '80s married men are doing 30 percent of the housework, whereas 20 years ago they did only 20 percent. While not impressive on its face, some experts have called it a "silent revolution" in male attitudes. In only a small proportion of dual-paycheck families, do males share equally the domestic workload with their wives. Yet more than 50 percent of married women work full time outside the home.

Women's roles are changing, but few women, at least those under 30, seem aware of the origins. It seems to bode ill for the future of feminism.

The killer disease, the sexually transmitted AIDS, acted as a qualifier of sexual mores, as more and more people became dedicated to monogamy and less likely to embrace one-night stands. In the meantime, this plague of the decade caused the death of thousands of people. The new term coined to cope with this frightening development was SAFE SEX.

Broadcast news saw the accidental birth of Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC, evolving from extended coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. Koppel's unparalleled gift for interviewing provided viewers with the last word on the day's events. His support among viewers was modest, but there were obviously some people hungry for more news, who rejected the quick read.

CNN also started in June, 1980, as a 24-hour cable news network, the brainchild of Ted Turner. Although it was supposed to fail quickly, it established a following, giving worthy competition to the big three. Although continuous, CNN was more analogous to the quick read, suggesting to the viewer that he or she could tune in at any time for a few minutes, then tune out.

Beginning in 1984, "Wheel of Fortune," whose illustrious letter-turner Vanna White became a household word, became the No. 1 game show in the country and still is. Other game shows flourished, exemplifying trivia.

There was an explosion in talk shows, with Oprah Winfrey competing favorably with Donahue in a battle for the most bizzare slice of life to depict on national television. Both tried to be more tasteful than the overtly sensational Geraldo Rivera, but the point was clear. It was reminiscent of the Great Depression, when people entered marathon dance contests for small amounts of money while the general public came to watch them suffer. It was comforting to know that some people were worse off.

NBC, which had been for years mired in third place, produced two path-breaking television shows, "Hill Street Blues," which pushed the boundaries of TV drama, and "The Cosby Show," which revived the sitcom genre to a lucrative dominance. "Hill Street" proved that quality programming was possible. "Cosby" proved that family values still dominated. Even though "Cosby" had been turned down by one network, it attained unparalleled popularity with the story of an elite black family (doctor married to lawyer both of whom are always home) who had all the predictable, mundane family problems.

Comedy clubs proliferated around the country, and stand-up comedians tried to make their mark, based on people's escape needs. As David Letterman often said, "You people are STARVED for entertainment!" He found a niche for his own brand of off-beat, inventive humor in the late-night slot. Carson remained on top, but Jay Leno, a regular substitute for Carson, established his own loyal following. The need to unwind was fulfilled.

From "E.T." to "Batman," fantasy films and comic-book style adventures were the most popular movie genres of the decade. It made sense that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, masters of both, were the most successful filmmakers. Together, they produced the Indiana Jones trilogy, all three of which were included in the top 10 moneymakers of the '80s.

Other popular fantasy films were "Back to the Future," "Return of the Jedi," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Ghostbusters." Of the top 10, only "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rain Man" did not qualify as fantasy films.

Clearly, Americans were seeking escape.

The '80s. Cheerful. Unpredictable. Excess. Fantasy. The shortcut. A relaxation of activism. A dedication to the trivial. In fact, "Trivial Pursuit" was the favorite board game. People wanted to work hard so that they could get on the fast track with Donald Trump, but they wanted to play hard, too. It was a bundle of contradictions.

Reagan initially breathed fire at the Soviet Union, and many people sensed a fear of nuclear war. For those who thought the '80s could be the beginning of the end, the "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" philosophy encouraged narcissism. Few would have predicted that before the end of the decade, communism would be reduced to a shambles.

There was such pressure to succeed that people reacted by withdrawal or escape through film fantasy. Yet there was a return to family values and patriotism. So people watched family sitcoms and renewed interest in the flag. The '80s were ambitious and materialistic, dominated by an emphasis on ME. Although it has been fascinating, most of us hope for greater idealism from the '90s. In any event, historians almost certainly will have more perspective in another generation than we have today. Will the '80s seem an isolated period with isolated problems - an eccentric era that we single out like the '20s? Or will it be considered a harbinger of things to come? We just don't know.

At least not yet.

*****

(chart)

Top 5 memorable mistakes

1. In 1985 the Cola-Cola Co. reformulated "Coca-Cola Classic" their "New Coke" was pronounced the "biggest marketing travesty ever."

2. A printing error for a Kraft Co. contest made thousands winner, they matche d two halves of a van picture in an ad and a Kraft package. The mistake cost $4 million.

3. A discount chain's 1986 television commercial offered a stereo system for "299 Banans." Many customers got stereos for the equivalent of $40 to $60.

4. Millions tuned in to watch Geraldo Rivera open Al Capone's vault. it contained empty bottles. The 1986 show was the highest-rated syndicated special in tv history.

5. TV Guide showed an illustration using Oprah Winfrey's head on Ann Margaret's body.

(Chart 2)

'80s Triva

An obssession with informational tidbits of no particular importance was the craze of this second-to-the-last decade of the 20th century. From the board game that everybody was playing to the game show that everybody watched, things trivial were in.

What do you remember about the '80s?

Identify:

1. Vanessa Williams

2. The lingerie that was still holding up in 1989 after 100 years.

3. The best-selling board game of the `80s

4. What Alf's name really stands for

5. The number of "Police Academy" reunions in the '80s

Answers:

1. Black Miss America who was dethroned when "Penthouse" published a series of nude photos she posed for prior to winning the crown.

2. Brassiere

3. Trival Pursuit

4. Alien Life form

5. Five

(Chart3)

They're gone

We said goodbye to"

1. Watches that tick

2. Vinyl records

3. One-night stands

4. Playboy clubs

5. Breakdancing

6. Deep

7. 8-Track Cassettes

8. Long Miniseries

9. Rented Telephones

10. Typewriters

11. Discos

They're back

1. Convertibles

2. Miniskirts

3. Wire Rims

4. Meatloaf

5. Red M&M's

6. Vanity Fair

7. Condoms

8. Polyester

9. Flag Waving

10. Flag Burning

11. Disney

12. Elvis

'80s talk

A new vocabulary developed and outlined the character of the '80s, in part reflecting subtle shifts in domestic life.

Yuppies nuked food in microwave ovens some days, and interfaced at upscale eateries on other days.

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Interaction became networking while getting some help from those more knowledgeable was mentoring.

Some two-career couples cultivated commuter marriages, sometimes even bicoastal. Those who had kids worrised about developing parenting skills.

The computer generation bred hackers and viruses that were spread in machines.

The entire population seemed to turn Thirtysomething, and some worried about the ticking of their biological clocks.

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