The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001


The year of booby traps

The year 2000 can be summed up in four words: Don't touch that dial!

by Robert David Sullivan

Kabloom! 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- mail, which carries the tantalizing subject line ILOVEYOU. You open the e- mail 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- mail 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- mail attachments from people we don't know, so anyone should have been smart enough not to open an e- mail 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- mail system crashed.) I didn't know enough to be scared at the time, but now I get a shiver every time someone e- mails me what purports to be just another jpg of Jesse Helms in a compromising position with a farm animal.

Florida 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 leeches.

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

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

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 years.

Car 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.

pig costume 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