Chapter OneSeptember 2000
I was just going to say, when I was interrupted....
"Nobody interrupted you," said my wife. "People have tried, but-"
That was a literary reference, dear, the first line from The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, author of "The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay,'" "The Chambered Nautilus," and-
"Other poems used mainly to torture high school students," said my young assistant, Max.
It's a shame the way the classics are treated in our schools, I continued. Holmes was a brilliant aphorist. Americans don't read anymore. Somebody sent me some quotes from The Autocrat. Where's that letter?
"Right next to you," said my wife, "under the remote."
Listen to this: He must be a poor creature who does not often repeat himself. Imagine the author of the excellent piece of advice, "Know thyself," never alluding to that sentiment again.
"Hmmm," said my wife.
And this: All uttered thought is of the nature of an excretion. A man instinctively tries to get rid of his thought in conversation or in print so soon as it has matured.
"Good point," said my wife, flipping through some manuscript pages of mine.
"I printed out the rough draft of your article on the UN 2000 Millennium Summit," said Max, "and I'm almost done with the fact-checking. I just have to go to the UN web site and-"
I stopped him. Max, Oliver Wendell Holmes declares: All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called "facts." Who does not know fellows that always have an ill-conditioned fact or two which they lead after them into decent company like so many bull-dogs.
"You're welcome," said Max.
And, Max, here is Holmes on the subject of computers-a hundred and fifty years ago. He hears about Babbage's mechanical calculating device and foresees the whole pathetic computer age: What a satire is that machine on the mere mathematician! A Frankenstein-monster, a thing without brains and without heart, too stupid to make a blunder; which turns out results like a corn-sheller, and never grows any wiser or better. Holmes calls it the triumph of the ciphering hand-organ.
"Max," said my wife, "I thought you were going to teach P.J. how to use the laptop."
Holmes was a man of towering intellect, of wide and deep scholarship-essayist, poet, professor, physician-
"And major babe magnet for Transcendentalist chicks, I'll bet," said Max, "at least compared to Thoreau."
He gave the Atlantic Monthly its name.
"What," asked Max, "were they going to call it? The Cape Cod Nude Beach Express?"
Holmes anticipated the germ theory of disease. He fathered the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He demolished the Puritan doctrine of predestination.
"And thought he was fated to do it," said my wife, the Catholic. Anyhow, as I was just going to say.... What was I going to say, dear?
"You were probably going to say, 'Where'd that remote go?'"
Speaking of electronic devices [or electric devices, and I'm not sure I precisely know the difference, although I intend to have Max find out because I'm writing an article for the online magazine freeSpam about how the computer is the triumph of the ciphering hand-organ], the other day our daughter, Muffin, announced, "I want a cell phone."
"You're three," said my wife.
"But I love them."
"Ask your father."
I love them too, Muffin. Daddy loves cell phones because Daddy doesn't have a cell phone. Daddy doesn't have a cell phone because Daddy can't see the tiny numbers on the buttons without his reading glasses. And Daddy doesn't have his reading glasses because he left them on the shelf under the Grand Central Station pay phone, which Daddy was using to call you because Daddy doesn't have a cell phone.
And that is what Daddy loves about cell phones-not having one. It makes your father unreachable. Being unreachable is a potent status symbol in the world today. Every dateless pimple nose with a dot.com has a Lexus, a business jet, a weekend house in Phuket, and a cell phone. But, Muffin, you just try getting the Queen of England on the blower. Or try finding the direct-dial number for the president of the United States-unless you're a rich campaign fund-raiser or a fat girl in saucy underwear. And those are two things that I trust you, Muffin, will never be.
[Although, by this time, Muffin had in fact wandered off to watch the Sugared Cereal Channel on TV. And so, come to notice it, had everyone else.]
But as far-too-accessible Bill Clinton has proven, out-of-touch is the important thing to be. Not that anyone would be able to get in touch with me anyway. If I had a cell phone, I'd lose it. I lose everything. I left my first wife in the back of a cab somewhere. And what a great way to be important this is. I'm a big deal because my Zippo slips between the couch cushions, and I once forgot being married. That is so much easier than making a fortune or inheriting a crown.
I also love cell phones because cell phones punish the most discourteous people in the world-phone users-by giving phone users the punishment they deserve-phone calls.
Why does the cell phone always ring while you're having sex? This would be okay if the ringer were set on vibrate and the cell phone were properly located. But it isn't. The cell phone is in the pocket of your pants, which are hanging over the back of a chair next to the bed with your friend's wife in it, that you are hiding under because your friend has just returned, unexpectedly, from a business trip.
"Excuse me?" said my wife from the next room.
Just a joke, I shouted from the sofa. But why does a ringing cell phone take precedence over every other activity in life? People are willing to interrupt anything, including hiding under the bed, to answer a cell phone. During papal audiences, John Paul II probably hears, "Scuzi, Papa, mia pizza deliverio."
Although, in fairness, the situation was as bad or worse before cell phones were invented. Muffin does not remember the pre-wireless era when people had to carry their large desk-model telephones around with them on the street, trailing miles and miles of cord. The result was an alarming tangle. It was this, rather than mismanagement of the economy or Jimmy Carter's incompetence, that caused the well-known malaise of the late 1970s.
And what about Call Waiting? How rude is that? Why not have F- Waiting? That way you could leap up, right in the middle of being discovered by your angry cuckolded friend, and say, "Sorry, my other f- is on the living room couch."
Why do we need cell phones? Why do we want phone calls? Think about the phone calls we get. How often do we get the following calls?
"You've won the lottery!"
"It's a girl!"
"Uncle Ned just died and left us a golf resort in Florida!"
No, the cell phone rings and it's "Honey"-you can tell by her voice she's still furious about your friend's wife-"on the way home would you pick up the dry cleaning and a gallon of milk, a package of frozen peas, new linoleum for the kitchen, and an in-ground pool?"
What do we need cell phones for? Certainly not to say anything. Especially not in America. Americans are so inarticulate that 411 had to be supplied with a recording-"What city? What listing?"-because the phone company couldn't train operators to say anything but "Huh?" and "Whassup?"
And all those people on their cell phones, to whom are they talking? Men are famously unable to communicate. Women are always on the other line. Parents don't talk to kids these days. Kids say "Huh?" and "Whassup?" You can't call people at work anymore because nobody comes in to the office, and if you try their cell phone you get "no service."
Yet everyone everywhere is always on a cell phone. The best kind come with an earpiece and a microphone built into the wire so that cell phone users don't even look like they're using a cell phone; they look like crazy people raving on street corners. This, of course, is hard on the crazy people who really are raving on street corners and who-instead of receiving sympathy and 25 cents-are assumed to be calling their brokers. Anyway, whomever it is that cell phone users are raving at, it keeps them from raving at me. So I love cell phones.
In fact, I love cell phones so much that I'm getting one. I'm getting a top-of-the-line highly miniaturized cell phone with all the exotic features. I'm buying new reading glasses. I'm programming my cell phone to continuously auto-dial the headquarters of both of the current presidential campaigns. Then I'm going back to New York to hang my cell phone under the tail of a Central Park carriage horse.
"It's for you," said my wife. "Your godson has been elected to the Model UN. He's going to represent all the high school students from his region."
Since when did Darien become a nation? Hello, Nick. Congratulations! And, boy, are you in luck! You know, I've just come back from covering the UN Millennium Summit for Instant Access Quarterly. I've got everything you need. Max, would you get my UN piece and all my notes? They're in the file cabinet. Bring the whole drawer. Got a second, Nick?
You should have seen this. I wish I'd taken you with me. You wouldn't have believed it, Nick. One hundred heads of state, forty-seven heads of government, three crown princes, and assorted other eminencies such as Yasir Arafat. It was the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of mankind-and no one cared.
Actually, Nick, everyone cared-about the traffic. New York local TV news led, the first night, with stories on the gridlock caused by 1,300 UN dignitary vehicles, including twelve cars just for the president of Georgia. And not even Newt Gingrich Georgia but the somewhat less populous sliver of mountain chaos squeezed between Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. ABC World News Tonight began with a Peter Jennings quip about Manhattan traffic jams. The next morning the front-page New York Times article noted, in its lead, "Traffic was backed up across the East Side yesterday because of a crush of limousines carrying VIPs every-where from the United Nations Plaza Hotel to the Bronx Zoo." The latter being the big non-traffic story in the New York press. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Congo Republic, visited the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit to see gorillas that come from the Congo where he's president. A global convergence, we-are-one-world moment? Or gridlock on Planet of the Apes?
The next morning, a TV news show reported that Bangladesh had a thirteen-car motorcade. This was modest compared to President Clinton's, which, a traffic cop told me, consisted of forty-five vehicles. "And the last two times they were in town," said the cop, "they had accidents." But Bangladesh is a country where 29 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Figuring the thirteen motorcade cars and drivers at $50 an hour, twelve hours a day, for the four days of the summit, the Bangladesh delegation just took the bread out of the mouths of 31,000 people. Not that I'm accusing the delegation of living large. I saw the entire collection of Bangladeshi Lincoln Town Cars lined up at a Wendy's on Second Avenue.
The indifference with which the Millennium Summit was greeted by everyone except commuters says a lot about present-day global politics. Not to mention what it says about present-day global politicians-this was no confab of Churchills, Roosevelts, Hitlers, Tojos, and Stalins. And what a relief. An excess of international leadership usually results in bullets and breadlines.
Maybe the world-Bangladesh to the contrary-has become rich enough to be bored by global politics. This is good. Politics cause more grief than money. Take the Vietnam War, for instance. How much would the U.S. government have had to pay 47,000 Americans, putting the job out for bid under strict free-market conditions, to go die in Vietnam?
Not that money can't be used to do harm. Ted Turner says he's giving a billion dollars to the UN. Turner's overfunded UN Foundation helped sponsor a convocation of more than a thousand religious and spiritual leaders at the UN the week before the Millennium Summit. Thank God-as it were-I didn't have to cover that. The purpose of this "Millennium World Peace Summit" was, according to the mystical gathering's communications director, "to see how religious leaders can bring the power of their own spiritual traditions to work with UN forces ... to help reduce conflict." For fear of conflict with the communist Chinese, however, the Dalai Lama wasn't invited. The communist Chinese being atheists, I'd say religious and spiritual leaders are 0 for 1 so far.
But, Nick, I don't want to give you the impression that I don't like the United Nations. I do. I think it's extremely cool, especially the whole black-helicopter New World Order secret-global-government thing. I love it. It'll be like DC Comics' Justice League International, except the Security Council members will have superpowers such as the ability to sit through six-hour meetings without going to the bathroom, the ability to figure out what "Document 5: Text of draft optional protocol submitted by the Chairperson (E/CN.6/1997/WH/L.1)" means, the ability to simultaneously translate the click language of the Kalahari bushmen into Farsi, and the ability to fly (business class). And to judge by the crowds in Manhattan's pricier restaurants during the Millennium Summit, UN superheroes will also have supper powers. I can hardly wait. I figure a world government run by the UN will be like getting an old, purblind, half-deaf substitute teacher-or like being baby-sat by your fifty-two-year-old godfather when I'm drinking. Have you seen The Art of War? Wesley Snipes is a member of a United Nations covert action unit, and he's completely out of control.
"Uncle Peej," said my godson, who seemed to be in a hurry, "could you, like, get Max to e-mail this stuff to me?"
I was just going to say, when I was interrupted....
Because The Art of War had a lot of good chase scenes and explosions, it
was with a certain measure of enthusiasm that I went, last week, to the
United Nations Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit Media
Division/Department of Public Information to get my 2000 UN Millennium
Summit press credentials. Except I couldn't find the Division/Department.
Though with a name as long as that, you'd think just the size of the sign
would give it away. The UN was cordoned off by thousands, maybe tens of
thousands, of uniformed officers, security guards, and plainclothesmen,
every one of whom was almost, but not quite, too busy and annoyed to point
me in the wrong direction. I mistakenly got into the line for the Uganda
mission-a long line.