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Life in a constant state of panic

As I heard the final boarding call announced for my flight to Los Angeles, I saw a fellow passenger lingering at a free Internet-access computer, pecking feverishly at the keyboard. I peered over his shoulder: He was checking stock quotes.

"I manage a fund," he explained. "I usually hold stuff long term, but I still want to see how we're doing."Seeing how you're doing on the stock market has become the overriding obsession of this decade. When I was a child, stocks were stored deep in safe-deposit boxes, to be removed for college tuition or distributed to heirs when the stockholder died. Today, I get a daily e-mail bulletin after the market closes that gives me ulcer-inducing news about my stocks rising and falling 5, 10, even 22 percent, huge changes that used to take a year or more.

If the recent push to keep the market open longer becomes reality, such bulletins will be rendered obsolete. But even if I stopped getting the bulletins, it would be impossible for me to avoid market reports. In this era of rapid buying and selling and wildly vacillating prices, every available space has been turned into a stock ticker, providing a continuous EKG to the nation's economic -- and, ultimately, mental -- health.

Now even when I'm getting my hair cut I am faced with scrolling prices. The television in my barbershop is set to CNN with the sound turned off, and the bottom of the screen -- formerly devoted to those old-fashioned national obsessions, sports and weather -- now often lists stock declines and gains.

When I try to get away from it all at Shea Stadium, my eyes drift to a sign above the left field bullpen that alternates between the type and speed of the last pitch thrown, and, yes, a stock ticker. (If you notice more botched fly balls than usual, it might be because a millionaire outfielder is peeking over his shoulder too often.)

In the Times Square area, already home to a Dow Jones zipper and a Morgan Stanley wraparound triple zipper, pedestrians will soon be treated to a Nasdaq ticker and a Reuters video sign featuring stock information.

When the fund manager and I boarded our plane, the in-flight telephone nestled in the seatback in front of me had a small LCD screen that included the day's Dow Jones industrial average. I had to stare at it the entire flight. Now the latest Palm Pilot gives Internet access, so people walking down the street talking on cell phones will be bumping into people walking down the street hunched over their ETrade screens.

As the baby boom generation tries to rejigger the boundaries between work and family, extending the hours of the stock market might seem like a convenient solution. Like the 24-hour drugstore, restaurant, grocery or Internet shopping site, the full-time stock market, in theory, would allow people to deal with their investments at their leisure instead of forcing them to cut into their workday or quality time with their children.

But actually it promises the reverse: a life in which there isn't any down time, in which the tickers screaming across the sky, the computer screen, the television, the Palm Pilot, the stadium keep us all in a constant state of panic.

These ubiquitous tickers convey a false sense of security, as if we are all as up-to-the-minute as traders on the floor, a phone call away from striking it rich. But the truth is, if another crash comes, all these tickers will be as useless as the old men with signs saying "The End Is Near." And when the dust settles, maybe they can be used for something truly important -- like sports scores or weather forecasts.

David Handelman is a contributing editor at TV Guide.