The year of booby traps
The year 2000 can be summed up in four words: Don't touch that dial!
by Robert David Sullivan
I LOVE YOU. Kabloom! That's what kind of year 2000 was. Let me set up
the scene: you're at work, trying to finish a report so that it can be
distributed and ignored before a meaningless deadline. You look at the clock
about as often as you blink. You're contemplating another trip to the bathroom
when your computer alerts you to a new e-
which carries the tantalizing subject line ILOVEYOU. You open the e-
and download the attached file before you realize what you're doing, perhaps
because of the massive doses of caffeine in your bloodstream.
Five minutes later, you're surrounded by angry guys from tech support, who have
traced the collapse of the company's entire computer network to your hot little
fingers. You really want a Snickers now, but you're afraid that if you push the
wrong button on the vending machine, you'll cause a famine in Australia.
This little drama was repeated all over the world on May 3, when the "ILOVEYOU"
computer virus, sent by a hacker in the Philippines, caused $10 billion
worth of damage to software and e-
files (as if anyone can accurately measure this sort of thing). The disaster
was certainly preventable. We've all been told not to take candy from strangers
and not to open e-
attachments from people we don't know, so anyone should have been smart enough
not to open an e-
attachment whose title can be found in a bag of Necco Sweethearts. But it
seemed so harmless. I opened the attachment myself. (I admit this only because
I wasn't the first person in the company to do so, meaning that it was
technically not my fault that the e-
system crashed.) I didn't know enough to be scared at the time, but now I get a
shiver every time someone e-
me what purports to be just another jpg of Jesse Helms in a compromising
position with a farm animal.
Of course, that's nothing to the panic I'm going to suffer the next time I try
to vote. In past elections, I've wondered whether I did it right, but I was
able to dismiss my fear as a side effect of my hypochondriacal nature. Then
came Election 2000 and the fiasco in Florida, where every county seemed to
offer voters an entirely new number of ways to screw up a ballot. We also
learned that a few hundred votes really can swing a presidential election, and
that the Electoral College, which had been sleeping quietly in a corner for 112
years, can indeed deny the White House to the candidate who got the most votes.
It was an unexpected outcome to a campaign that was little more than a series
of public-opinion polls. The whole experience was like checking in to Mass
General, getting all the latest blood tests and brain scans, and then being
wheeled into an operating room equipped with a polo mallet and a bucket of
The most bizarre aspect of the election had to be the elderly Jewish voters in
tears over the possibility that they'd accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan,
thanks to a device called the butterfly ballot. When I first heard the term, I
remembered a short story about a young boy who catches a particularly beautiful
caterpillar and leaves it in a jar in the hall outside his bedroom. Awakened in
the middle of the night by a strange thumping noise, he opens his door to see a
butterfly with wings about the size of grand pianos. The butterfly promptly
grabs and eats the little boy, who doesn't realize how lucky he is. At least he
isn't trapped in that hall for a month, waiting for the Supreme Court to decide
whether the midnight snack is constitutional.
the year in review
cultural explosions -
film culture -
local punk and metal -
Maybe we were lulled into a sense of false security by the disaster that
didn't happen this year. The Y2K bug did not cause power failures and
street riots on New Year's Day, not even in Russia. People who took all their
money out of the bank to stock up on bottled water and assault rifles had to
admit that Murphy's Law isn't always as reliable as the binary code. So the
value of cautionary advice took a nosedive in January. I suspect that a lot of
people jaywalked in front of buses while wearing torn underwear.
But as we approach another New Year's Eve, I'm plagued by a nightmare. Maybe
the nitpickers who insisted that we celebrated the new millennium a year too
early were right, and all hell is going to break loose when the calendar
changes to 2001. Is it possible that the disasters of this year were just a
warm-up for what the Chinese call the Year of the Snake -- as in the animal who
asked what harm could come from eating one goddamn apple? Is 2001: A Space
Odyssey prophetic, and will our appliances try to run us? There
could already be a HAL in every home, waiting to assert itself: "I'm sorry,
Dave, but I can't microwave that burrito for you. However, I will sing `Oops!
... I Did It Again' in a flat but oddly childlike voice."
We can be thankful not to have the same Baby New Year who led us into 2000:
Elián González, the five-year-old survivor from a boat of Cuban
refugees that sank off the coast of Florida on November 25, 1999. (Note the
irony of the two biggest headaches of the year coming from the "Sunshine
State," once known for stress-free vacationing. I would have predicted
Michigan, the "Wolverine State," whose nickname suggests that tourists must
allow for the possibility of being torn apart by wild animals.) Elián,
whose mother died at sea, dominated the news for seven months, until the
Clinton administration sent him back on June 28 to live with his father in Cuba
-- over the loud objections of his relatives in Miami, the religious right, and
just about anyone who didn't like Bill Clinton. (There were milder protests
from Al Gore, who saw the issue as a useful way to put some distance between
himself and Bubba.)
Foreshadowing the presidential election, the González story evolved with
a sense of logic not seen since the silent-film era. It was as if Buster Keaton
pulled one loose string off a sweater and suddenly the entire country was
naked. A year and a half ago, it was a no-brainer to rescue a five-year-old
clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean. I'm not saying that I wouldn't
help a small child in a similar situation today, but having lived through the
national screaming match over Elián's fate, I might try to flag down a
Carnival cruise ship and ask the crew to keep him under wraps for a few
Everyone is more skittish after the events of 2000. Concorde jets flew for a
quarter-century without an accident, but this summer we saw a crash that killed
all 109 passengers. And lest you think that God is only punishing first-class
travelers, I refer you to a December 5 item from the Associated Press: "NEW
YORK -- A 3-year-old boy fell out of a moving subway car to his death as his
mother looked on Tuesday when a sliding door leading to the next car apparently
jolted open, police said." Not that your own car is perfectly safe: in August,
some 6.5 million Firestone tires were recalled because they had a tendency
to blow apart at inopportune moments (leading to at least 148 deaths).
Suddenly, road rage didn't seem like such a big problem.
Getting around on your own two feet isn't the answer, either. The New Yorker
recently ran a story by Burkhard Bilger titled "Our Crumbling Skyline,"
which warned of unwanted souvenirs hitting the sidewalks of our older cities.
An example: "In July, a twenty-five-pound ornament came loose from a building
on Seventh Avenue at Thirty-third Street, dropped fourteen stories, and
fractured a tourist's skull." So far, no one's been killed by a falling anvil,
but the new century's not getting off to a good start if we have the same fears
as Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote.
We worry that cell phones cause cancer, and we wonder whether the burgers and
tacos at fast-food chains are going to screw up our DNA. Now we have to worry
about our Halloween costumes, too. This October, a Los Angeles man at a costume
party was killed by police who thought his toy gun was real. Maybe you already
know better than to wave a toy gun around police, but I should point out that
the man was chatting with friends in a bedroom when he was shot four times in
the back -- by a police officer standing outside the house and looking through
a glass door.
Who needs vampires and extraterrestrials when you can be killed by a loose
piece of terra cotta while trying to outrun a nearsighted cop? With such
pedestrian fears gripping the country, it's no wonder that the films of Alfred
Hitchcock -- who was born 101 years ago -- are more popular than ever.
Hitchcock never messed around with the supernatural, but terrified us with the
commonplace: motel showers (Psycho), apartment neighbors (Rear
Window), non-genetically-enhanced crows and seagulls (The Birds),
spiral staircases (Vertigo), and even neckties (Frenzy). Every
movie was an attack on false security.
Or perhaps the past year can be better explained through comedy. Thirty years
ago, the British series Monty Python's Flying Circus anticipated our
recent headlines with a sketch called "The Bishop." A parody of TV crime
dramas, it featured a succession of clergymen being violently killed for
reasons never made clear. As soon as one vicar begins his sermon, the church
explodes. Another vicar is blown to bits after speaking the name of an infant
at a baptism. Yet another victim is killed by a cannon that rises from a
freshly dug grave. A memorable scene opens with a bride and groom standing at
the altar. I quote from a script included in the Python book All the
Words: "Cut to vicar taking the ring out of the Bible. The ring is attached
to a piece of string. A sixteen-ton weight falls on top of them with a mighty
crunch.... Cut to two bell ringers. One pulls his rope, and the other rises off
the floor, hanged by the neck."
Maybe "The Bishop" was in bad taste, but so were the newspapers in 2000. The
year was one booby trap after another, and the explosions weren't so funny
after a while.
Then again, Monty Python may have been closer to the mark with the "Crunchy
Frog" sketch, all about innocent-looking chocolates with unpleasant fillings.
After the "cockroach cluster" and "anthrax ripple" are met with resistance, a
candy salesman touts the "spring surprise." ("When you pop it in your mouth,
steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks.")
The "ILOVEYOU" e-mail certainly qualified as a spring surprise, but it was a
mere appetizer for the rancid sweetmeats we got a week after Halloween. I now
realize that the movie character Forrest Gump was a sick bastard when he said,
"Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."
Next year, I'm sticking to Gummi Bears.
Robert David Sullivan is a contributing writer for the Phoenix. He
can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.