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The Age of lite

`WHO says you can't have it all?'' the commercials ask, about the 300-plus products from hair mousse to ketchup which are preceded by ``lite'' or ``light.'' And the company that markets a program to build a ``powerful vocabulary without studying.'' And the Reagan administration, which has devised a way of giving us both guns and butter: a trillion-dollar-and-rising deficit. Consequences seem to be on the wane of late. The hardheaded realism of the early 1980s -- those days of ``there's no such thing as a free lunch'' -- has disappeared. Times have really ``lite-ened up.'' Soon it should be possible in ``can do'' America to have your cake, eat it, too -- and not put on an ounce. Someone, somewhere, is undoubtedly working hard on that age-old conundrum. As a nation, we now wage wars without bothering to declare them, because such formalities are tiresome and politically confining. We haven't even felt compelled to break diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, whose government we are trying to overthrow. The social equivalent of such curious behavior would be carrying on a civil conversation with someone you are trying to punch in the solar plexus. Who says we can't have war and peace simultaneously?

On the literary front, lite reading has evolved into an art form. Workman, a New York publishing house, is selling a cassette tape entitled ``Ten Classics in Ten Minutes.'' Sounds like the best idea in communications since Gutenberg was wet behind the ears, doesn't it? ``Moby Dick'' in one minute is every high school student's dream, after all. Let's try and guess how Melville's masterpiece might play in eight-track stereo:

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`` `Call me Ishmael' is how this padded fish story begins. Trot that line out and people will think you actually read this interminable yarn. Ishmael ships out on the Pequod with crazy Captain Ahab, and the whole zany crew chases a whacky white whale around for what seems like forever. Man, this Ahab dude is way too intense, totally. Here's the kicker: The big slippery one gets away. Predictable stuff or what?''

We don't read the news so much anymore, either. We absorb it mostly, from folks like Dan Rather, who has taken to dying his hair to obscure the natural aging process. Can we rely on broadcasters and presidents who dye their hair? Most of the philosophy we acquire today is off the bumper stickers of other people's cars: ``The one with the most toys when he dies wins.''

A car dealership hereabouts proclaims boldly on its billboard advertising: ``We Want It All!'' And so we all do, apparently. Before too long, we'll probably want to live forever. Right now, we want to drink and eat hearty and not get heavier. We want to grow old without gray hair. We want to get the gist of ``Moby Dick'' but not by wading through 700 pages if we can help it. We want to learn without studying. The trouble is that the shortcuts usually don't work -- or they take us places that aren't worth the trip.

Let's face it; if we drink enough lite anything, we're going to get filled up. Furthermore, have you ever seen Chuck Berry or Bruce Springsteen in pin stripes?

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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