Here we are on the brink of a new century, the mightiest nation on Earth, at a time of peace, plenty and prosperity, and what are we doing? We're in a defensive crouch, full of dread and apprehension. The official attitude is glum. The watchword is if Y2K doesn't get you, terrorists will.
Our airports are full of more sniffing dogs than usual, reservations for royal and presidential suites in the best hotels are being canceled by the score. People who had been looking forward to millennial orgies of champagne and caviar are retreating to their firesides, settling for beer and bathrobes. For the first time in memory, it's in to be in on New Year's Eve, safe from the threat of dark cities or downed planes that Y2K might bring us.
The only beneficiaries of this state of affairs that I can see are women who at last have an alibi for being on their own on the biggest New Year's of the last 1,000 years. When asked, they say, "Who can plan?" and shrug, adding "with Y2K"--leaving the impression they are about to man the ramparts against the demons of malevolent technology.
Call me sexist, if you will, because I did not include lonely men. A dateless male would not admit his situation. Have you ever seen a man ask for directions? I rest my case.
I am one of the few people who are not baffled by the rebellion in cyberspace. The kindly--I should say, saintly--people who try to instruct me in the mysteries of the greatest advance since Gutenberg insist that technology is my friend. I have always known better. I have in my terminal sensed disdain and hostility, a disposition to ask mean questions and throw screensful of unsought options. Now the world is learning that its great invention, the computer, is turning on us. I am reminded of Lyndon Johnson's comment in 1968 on hearing that his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin, was also writing for his rival, Bobby Kennedy: "It's like being bit by your own dog."
The other day, just back from a harrowing round trip to Lotus Notes, my screen suddenly lit up with a message that terrified me as much as the thought of an Algerian with bombs in his backpack slipping into Vermont. I'm sure I pushed the wrong button, as I so often do, but I didn't deserve what I got: "This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." I instinctively put my hands up and waited for the sound of the truncheon on my office door. Should I call my lawyer? Should I demand my Miranda rights? (Do we still have them?)
I tiptoed away and sought advice from an old pal on the premises. I asked if such a thing had ever happened to her. It had, and what did she do? Her answer might as well have been in Sanskrit: "I upgraded my browser."
I am not pessimistic about the new century. I suspect it may be very much like the old one, which means a lot of war and pain and official idiocy, relieved by patches of light provided by brave, cheerful or funny people. I don't believe for a minute that our existence will be swept clean of louts and boors, people who never look behind themselves when they go through heavy doors and let them close in your face, or drivers who flatly refuse to use their turn signals. I imagine the relationship with the personal computer, although frayed, will be resumed, maybe with a little more reserve on the part of promoters who propose to put all human communication on the screen. Perhaps a "Beware of Dog" sign on each monitor--a reminder that while it can do all sorts of tricks for those who know the right commands, it also bites.
Anyway, if you do run afoul of Y2K over the holidays and get stuck in an airport, I hope you will have gotten Jack Germond's memoir "Fat Man in a Middle Seat" for Christmas. It's the year's most readable book. My bias: It's about my business, newspapering, and the author was a colleague in the exhilarating struggle to save the Washington Star, an afternoon paper, doomed almost by definition.
Jack has been a political reporter for 40 years, and glad of it. He is also a horseplayer, a most congenial avocation for a man of undimmed zest who also watches presidential ponies go round the track. His other hobby is drinking Scotch, which has affected neither his head nor his feet--he still plays tennis.
Jack is blessedly free of the self-importance that afflicts so many reporters and television personalities in our nation's capital. He gives you no-guff pictures of people and presidents who insist on public office. He makes you laugh.
Finally, if you are going to leave something in a cab, I hope it will be in one of the Yourway fleet. I left a case in one and the driver found my address and drove to my home to return it. He is No. 24, one of those people who make me believe we'll muddle through, no matter what high technology and low terrorists throw at us.