First, an apology. This is yet another article about the (sigh) Y2K thing.
Yes, I agree that everything that could possibly be written about it has already been written… at least 20 times. Now, on supermarket magazine racks, you have your pick of three special publications telling you how to prepare for what Y2K may wreak upon our cities, banks, hospitals, and airports.
It is precisely this fascination with Y2K that I am taking as my subject.
I don’t question for a moment that there are legitimate technological reasons to be concerned about it. But I’m not in a position to survey all of that. And even if I were, I’d like to think that I’d still be more interested in what fears and fantasies Y2K connects with in our minds.
Because there is something going on here. One need only look around — and look within — to see it.
A little personal history as preface. Because of “hard-wiring” in my self-dramatizing Irish family’s genes, as well as patches of utter strangeness in childhood — at least, that’s my excuse — I am what can best be described as “good in emergencies.”
I’m a terrific friend if you (or a loved one) have been mortally wounded, are in the throes of a divorce or a similar relationship hemorrhage, broke your leg playing basketball, have a poisonous secret that you need to be rid of, are contemplating suicide, or have just lost a small fortune in the stock market.
I can be reached in the small hours of the morning when the phone calls never carry good news.
However, let me quickly point out that there is a flip-side: I am next to lousy at the everyday. I don’t maintain cars. My daily nutrition is, basically, a circus-goer’s diet of hot dogs, cotton candy, soda pop, and stuff with unnatural colors and bizarre textures. And if small talk is the lubricant of good society, which it most certainly is, there is a disturbing metal-on-metal sound wherever I go.
But, to repeat, I am — and long have been — darned good in emergencies. (That said, I’m not as good as I used to be.)
As a young man, when I read the novelist and thinker Walker Percy, I understood immediately when he talked about how we were living in an age that allows us to breathe easily and feel most ourselves only when tragedies, e.g., cancers, tornadoes, hurricanes, explosions, car wrecks, etc., cut through the crust of too many ordinary Tuesday afternoons.
I think Percy was writing specifically about an American middle class that had slipped by degrees from material comfort into full-blown material sleep. Perhaps only tragedies can shake us from our slumbers.
And I was one of apparently ten people in North America who felt, rightly or wrongly, that they understood President Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech. I took it to mean that our country had lost a sense of urgency. That it needed new causes to rally around, new enemies to inveigh against, new threats to awaken us. In short, it needed emergencies. Stuff that I was good at.
So it is against this personal background that I look at Y2K and look at others who are looking at Y2K. First, let me assure you that I don’t hold some secret hope that Y2K will unleash social chaos upon our cities.
To be plain, I am not in league with millennialists and other apocalypse-craving sorts. To be plainer still, those folks scare me.
I believe there are people who want Y2K to summon forth some sort of end-time. They may or may not be millennialists. (But, if you’re of a certain mind, imagine the power of this one-two punch: the neo-Baal, which is technology, failing us, right on the cusp of the new millennium.)
These vigilant souls are certain they hear the music from the ending.
Like readers of formulaic short stories, though, they want something satisfactory out of this end-time. They may not be able to adequately articulate just what that satisfactory thing is. Maybe it’s a kind of personal redemption, writ large.
“My life wasn’t what it was meant to be,” you can almost hear their inmost whispers. “But come the apocalypse, those that have been low will be lifted and those that have lived high will fall.”
Maybe a life in which you never had the courage to ask that pretty high school cheerleader out to a Saturday night dance — or, worse, you did and she turned you down with a jagged sneer — maybe that kind of life will feel somehow better and easier in the leveling and the rubble and the dust.
Maybe a life in which you were convinced that some rigged system, whether government or race or status, was always working against you — maybe that life will feel that it has been brought to even and balance when things are, for the rest, rendered broken and chaotic.
Others, I think, have wondered if there might ever be a day of reckoning for our heavy reliance upon technology.
As a “modern” man, I sometimes feel that we are (pardon my in-elegant language) bullshitting our way through our lives. Most of us don’t even superficially comprehend what’s spinning and whirring and calculating and processing around us.
The basic question, “How does that work?,” isn’t as common as one would think it would be. Perhaps, given the pace and sheer mass of technological innovation, there isn’t any time to be asking that basic question. There is only so much you can attend to in one life. And so, to the rest, you extend a strange, almost religious faith.
All of this comes at a heavy cost, though. It is as though you are walking through a landscape that is both dead to you on one level and essential on another. It is odd and unsettling to be so reliant and yet so uninterested in this reliance.
I’ve often thought that, if there is one thing above all else that our schools should try to give children, it is that palpable sense of life-long curiosity.
Not just curiosity about the big things: The stars, the way that love can transform you, how a lifetime can be viewed as a kind of composition, and how to nurture an inward sense of purpose and continuous creation.
But also curiosity about the little things: The origins of the specific chairs in a given classroom, the particular tile underneath the teacher’s feet, certain words in the textbooks, the chalk on the chalk tray, the names of the school and the street it’s on.
Why is it that education forgets these humble obviousnesses? And if we were somehow encouraged not to turn a blind eye to the stuff of our “ordinary” lives, how different might our lives be? And mightn’t we have to re-think our conception of what is ordinary?
Others among us, in my opinion, just hope that Y2K shakes up the routine.
You may feel that you have settled into a numbing rhythm. You want a shaking-up that is much more profound than the overhyped, underdelivering Comet Kohoutek that was only a hiccup in the heavens. But on the other hand, you don’t want anyone to die.
Who knows? Maybe a failing traffic light here, or a closed airport there, will cause you to take a different route home.
And then, along that detour, something mysterious might happen.
You’ll see a dog, with a watering bucket balanced on his snout, tending a bed of zinnias. Maybe you’ll feel that strange stirring in the air that always follows a city power failure, as millions of rushing thoughts wonder, “Is it just my apartment or the entire world?”
Maybe the love that you thought would be denied you will be standing there, in a pale orange sundress with tiny blue flowers, waiting for a bus that she doesn’t know is broken. Instead, in the grand scheme that includes happy accidents and terrible ones, she will be waiting for you. You who are good in emergencies.