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When your head gets stuck in the rut of the future

It was an exciting week for the Once-and-Future Fellow - our friend who looks in only one direction: ahead. Way ahead. ''What's new?'' we asked in all innocence when we ran into him on the street one chilly late-October morning.

''Temperature's going up,'' our friend announced.

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''That's g-g-great,'' we said, rubbing our bare arms and stamping our open-toe sandals. ''This October frost can really nip you when you're still pretending it's September.''

''No, no,'' the Once-and-Future-Fellow snapped. ''I'm talking about the year 2100. The news this week is that the 'greenhouse effect' will raise the temperature nine degrees by then, and the icebergs will melt and . . . .''

''2100!'' we interrupted crossly. ''The question was 'What's new?' not 'What's next?' ''

''What's new is what's next,'' the Once-and-Future Fellow said. ''If you keep your eye on the present, you're already living in the past.''

He pulled a file of clippings out of his parka pocket - naturally, he was dressed for December, at the very least. We caught a glimpse of the headlines: ''Looking Ahead . . .'' ''Things to Come . . . ,'' ''Focusing on the Future. . . .''

We just hadn't realized how much news - like our friend - was dedicated to the crystal ball.

''Let's suppose you're trying to decide where you want to live eight or nine years from now,'' the Once-and-Future Fellow began. ''Let's pretend - I say, pretend - that you're a future-oriented person, so you're eager to be where the action is. Here's a report that came out last week, telling you what the fastest-growing cities in the United States will be in 1992. Can you guess which city will be the second-fastest-growing?''

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''Haven't got the smoggiest idea,'' we replied.

''Funny you should say that,'' our friend said, ignoring our lack of enthusiasm, as if it were something stale from the past. ''Oxnard, California - that's the correct answer. Austin, Texas, will be the fastest-growing, and San Diego will be right behind Oxnard.''

''We'll put in our 1992 flight reservation for Oxnard, next week at the latest,'' we promised.

''I wouldn't do that,'' our friend said, frowning thoughtfully over his clippings. ''The future for the airlines isn't that assured. And don't depend on your old gas-guzzler, either. There've been a lot of articles lately, warning about a return of those lines at the pumps.''

Rather contemptuously thumping the rusty hood on the nearest jalopy - which just happened to be ours - our friend concluded, ''You might do well to think about an electric car.''

''What will we and our electric car do when we get to Oxnard, nine years from now?'' we asked.

''Good question!'' the Once-and-Future Fellow cried. ''Now you're getting into the spirit!''

He reached down and picked up a chart that had slipped from his Artic-proof mitten. ''Here you are. Service industries will be booming. Fast-food restaurants. Anything to do with computers. You don't want your second career to be teaching Latin, I hope? Forget it!''

''I suppose military defense industries will be booming, too,'' we observed, thinking to sober up the undiscriminating optimism of the Once-and-Future Fellow.

''Now that you bring it up,'' our friend said, ''there was a story last week, summarizing the Pentagon budget for 1985 to 1989. The total comes to $2,000 billion.

''But listen - don't go all gloomy and Apocalyptic. If you'd been reading your predictions this week, you'd have learned from the boss of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, no less, that any war of the future will be fought between high-technology systems rather than soldiers. And the high-tech will be so sophisticated that for every irresistible force, there will be an immovable object. The ultimate nuclear missile will meet the ultimate nuclear shield.''

''I guess you Cassandras win some and lose some,'' we said in our most placating tone. Our sense of the immediate future told us we had to break away from the Once-and-Future Fellow, or the rest of our day would be shot, talking about everything from 1992 to 2100.

''We have only two objections to futurology,'' we said, as we sidled toward our car and the fairly open road and our own version of ''What's next?''

''In the first place,'' we began, ''it's all scenarios. Here's a prediction - Oxnard will not be the second-fastest-growing city in the United States in 1992 .''

''You're on!'' the Once-and-Future Fellow said. ''What's your second complaint?''

''Even if you're right,'' we said, as we gunned our engine, which certainly has a limited future, ''even if you're right every time, you're so obsessed with the future you're not going to enjoy today. Look at that sun! It's warming up. A jewel of a day in late October is something to be prized all winter. You ought to savor every minute of it.''

But the Once-and-Future Fellow had dug into his hip pocket for his Old Farmer's Almanac and was already deep into the forecast for February 1984.

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