FLINT - There's something gnawing at us, isn't there, America?
It's not the debt ceiling debacle. It's not the U.S.'s credit dropping below, as the comic Jon Stewart noted, the Isle of Man's. It's not the subsequent stock market collapse. It's not the rise of the Tea Party or the hyper-partisanship that has blotted out all reason. It's not even the recession, which truth be told has never left us.
Yes, to a degree all of those things are part of it. But I'm talking about a sense that something has changed in some subtle, indefinable way.
A sense that we have come to a new normal, and that - without us even realizing it - things have changed forever. And not for the better.
Maybe it's just me. But I don't think that it is. I think a lot of people feel it. There's something going on, and it feels inevitable and irresistible and beyond our ability to change.
I hope we're wrong.
I grew up with the assumption that everything would be all right - in fact better than all right. I grew up assuming without ever consciously thinking about it that America would always hold a pre-eminent place in the world.
Maybe that's arrogant. Or simply foolish. But it's how I felt. And because America would always do well, so would I. Maybe that's the inate "sunny optimism" that you sometimes hear foreign pundits describe Americans as having.
And why not? Everyone I knew grew up middle class. House, yard, dog, food, cars, color TV.
In truth, it wasn't much, but compared to many we had it all. And some part of us recognized how great it all was.
As a nation, we had tough times - wars, civil turmoil, the Carter years, gas shortages, economic woes, the Cold War. But there was never fear without optimism. There was always a sense - again, unstated - that we'd work things out. And, magically, we always did.
Until now. The Great Recession seems to have ushered in a low-grade, widespread dread and a feeling that a tipping point has been reached. We no longer automatically figure we'll lick our nation's problems. We just wonder how we're going to survive them. The rules seem changed, the playing field permanently tilted. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class seems to be dwindling faster than a snowball in summer.
And it seems permanent. Housing prices will never rise. Gas prices will never fall. Jobs will never be plentiful again - unless they come with an apron. Wages will never increase. College will never again be affordable. Congress will never stop squabbling. And the lords of Wall Street will never rest until they own it all.
Is this the new normal?
When I pose that question, the old spirit flickers within me and says, "Don't be silly, this is just a really, really long rough patch. We'll get through."
But another part of me gets the distinct feeling that, for the first time ever, the fabled American dream is about to become just that.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.