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The merits of a mini-millennial meltdown

By Michelle Goldberg

When I was a college student in Buffalo, N.Y, there were blizzards so bad that the city would declare a state of emergency. Everything would close--schools, offices, restaurants, stores, theaters. Everything, that is, except a few bars: Buffalo is a drinking town, and a whiteout was all the more reason to hunker down with stomach-warming cocktails. As I sat watching the snow swirl outside frosty windows, I'd savor the reprieve from my hectic life--the papers I had put off writing, the late-night waitressing job that left my eyes red and my soul bruised. During one such storm, I was living in an abandoned kitchenless warehouse with eight friends. Much of the time, as tends to happen with eight people with too much free time, too little money and too many gradations of sanity, there were feuds and intrigues swirling around our squat, and quite a bit of screaming, scheming and sulking.

But when the city stopped for a few days, so did our conflicts. We consolidated food, boiling water for pasta with the propane torch my roommate usually used to brew beer in the bathroom. We all gathered together to watch videos, or played cards, or just sat around talking in cozy shelter from the disaster outside. Those snowstorms are among my only good memories of what was otherwise an ugly and desperate city, and they're the reason I'm hoping the world stops--temporarily--with Y2K.

It's not that I want to be forced into some kind of back-to-the-land survivalist thing. I love technology, and I hate lentils. Without email I could never work the way I do--at home, for myself. I love the cell phone that means I'm never in the hideous position of trying desperately to hail a cab on a dark, menacing downtown street where all the pay phones are busted. I love my gym, where I can watch talk shows while I burn off lunch on the treadmill. But, as every stressed-out tech worker knows, there's no respite. I recently spent a month in India, where even small cities had a least one Internet cafe, and I couldn't resist checking my email a couple of times a week to make sure that my apartment or my career hadn't gone to hell in my absence. Which means, of course, that though I was surrounded by a strange and ancient culture, I hadn't really escaped home--not the way I would when I went traveling just a few years ago, in those innocent days before hotmail. Even my rickshaw driver, a man who lived in a one-room shack with his wife and three children, with neither electricity nor running water, gave me his email address before I left.

The world's gotten much smaller, obviously, but that doesn't mean it's more intimate. The people I know are constantly in and out of town, forever moving from New York to California and back again, spending weekends in Las Vegas or L.A. or Sonoma, vacationing all over the globe. I imagine Y2K forcing everyone to be still for a while. I don't mean, obviously, that I want explosions and food riots and nuclear weapons running amok in rogue Soviet states. But here at home, at least, Y2K doesn't appear to be life-threatening, even if nearly everything that doomsayers predict comes true. Ed Yourdon, author of the ominously titled Time Bomb 2000, said in USA Today that he was expecting something "on the order of two weeks of absolute chaos." Two weeks? I'll stay inside with a book, play Scrabble, have a potluck.

After all, there are few kinds of relaxation more profound than those enforced by forces larger than ourselves. During a typical weekend or holiday, leisure can become its own work--there are movies to see, concerts to attend, parties to appear at, a hundred varieties of fun to keep up with. I can't remember the last time I did nothing with other people.

But imagine a few days with no work and no power. There'd be no things to be bought, no TV to eat the time, no email to check, no dragging oneself off to nightclubs. It would be like camping, except with your own apartment and bed and all your friends around. And everywhere would be the frothy thrill of the unknown, the feeling that something huge is happening and no one quite knows how it will turn out, with stories and theories and gossip speeding along old-fashioned grapevines.

Remember when you were in high school and something enormous and morbid happened--there was a fire, a teacher was caught sleeping with a student, the cops showed up and arrested some miscreant? Everyone mimicked sober concern, but what they really felt was an electric excitement heightened by the solemn hush of disaster's aftermath. Suddenly routine breaks open and all the rules are suspended--you can walk out the school doors and no one will stop you--and life just seems so much more potent and dramatic, full of intense conversations and urgent news. Y2K, if it happens, will be like that on an exponential scale.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels like this--behind many of the dire warnings about Y2K I sense a tingly anticipation and relish. About a year ago, Utne Reader published The Y2K Citizen's Action Guide, a 120-page book that purports to somberly size up the risks of a computer catastrophe and offers advice for serious but nonhysterical preparation. "We have come to believe those who say that the world's energy, transportation, food, banking and communications systems, and other basic infrastructure are so thoroughly dependent on interlinked computer networks and embedded computer chips that there is no way we can fix all of them in time to avoid some disruption," writes Eric Utne. "We hope they are wrong, and that we look foolish when Y2K passes."

But really the authors of the Citizen's Action Guide hope nothing of the kind. Beneath all the hand-wringing, Utne and company can barely contain their glee. As he writes later on, "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and unexpected and quite wonderful is going to happen. We're going to get to know our neighbors. Possibly for the first time in our lives, we will begin to know what it means to live in real community. Most Americans these days live in networks, not communities ... Y2K is an opportunity to change all this. Y2K is the excuse we've been waiting for to stop making so many compromises in how we know we should, and want to, live our lives. Y2K is our opportunity to stop our polluting and wasteful practices, and start living more sustainable, environmentally friendly lives. Y2K is the conversational gambit that can lead to discussions that begin to knit webs of affiliation, care, and mutual support. Y2K can bring a family feeling throughout the community."

The same secret hope--Y2K as holiday from postmodernity--runs through the Cassandra Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to raising awareness about Y2K preparedness. A wistful utopianism underlies the writing of Paloma O'Riley, the project's organizer. "Life isn't just survival, it's about living, building and growing; and passing it on to the next generation," she writes in an article on the Cassandra Project's website (www.cassandraproject.org). "The only way to get through this is to pull together and work through it as a community. It can't be escaped, it can only be dealt with. If you're concerned about your safety, the best means of securing it is to make sure your neighbor is prepared." So Y2K will give us the chance to be better people and do lots of visiting at the same time. Doesn't that sound like fun?

Students at the 12,000 schools that the Department of Education estimates will have to delay opening because of Y2K glitches are surely delighted about their extended vacations. I know my mother, a teacher at a community college, is perfectly thrilled that her semester is starting a few weeks late, allowing her to take a trip to California. My boyfriend works at a huge Internet company and would love a week or three off.

And all those survivalists stockpiling freeze-dried venison and machine guns in the Montana hills are obviously hoping that they're right about impending cataclysm. It will be a devastating anticlimax if Jan. 1 comes and goes without a hitch and they're forced to slink back to their mundane lives with their savings depleted and their dignity injured.

Unlike them, I'm not hoarding much of anything, though I'll probably stash away a couple of bottles of Bordeaux. I have faith that my neighborhood will provide for me in a crisis, that here in California, the food capital of the world, nobody's going to go hungry. There are enough canned things in the Safeway near my house to feed thousands for a week, and there are bodegas and restaurants on every corner. The overwhelmingly gay, artsy people in my neighborhood aren't the rioting types--instead, I imagine impromptu street parties. I've heard that in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta quake, everyone around here streamed outside, walking up to strangers and asking if they were all right. Sure, if there were a long-term collapse, we'd all probably resort to Lord of the Flies Darwinism. A brief emergency, though, brings out the good in people. And really, what better way to start the millennium that with an extended national holiday from the accouterments of the 20th century?

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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