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Nashville Scene Brave Old World

The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Margaret Renkl

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Okay, I admit it: I prepared for Y2K. Despite the fact that my brother-in-law, the computer-systems troubleshooter, assured me that absolutely nothing would happen at midnight on New Year's Eve--nothing, that is, other than widespread adolescent behavior on the part of adults--I stockpiled for the worst.

I talked my husband into filling the fuel tanks of our gas grill, our kerosene heater, and our propane lantern. I bought 15 gallons of bottled water, 12 loaves of bread, six jumbo jars of peanut butter, and 29 cans of tuna fish. I gassed up the minivan, backed up every file in my computer and washed every item of clothing in the house. And I was, I confess, a little disappointed when nothing much happened except that my own Dec. 31 efforts at responsible husbandry looked on Jan. 1 like nothing more than paranoia.

"Do you maybe feel a little dumb?" my oldest son asked the next morning as he watched me standing in front of our packed kitchen cabinets, searching futilely for a place to store all that tuna.

I looked at him.

"I'm not saying you should feel dumb or anything," he backtracked hastily, the same way his father has in similar conversations.

Well, I do feel dumb, but not because I overprepared for New Year's Eve. The eminently sensible Consumer Reports filled an entire page recommending the very precautions I'd taken. Besides, I'd have felt a lot dumber if all the utilities had gone down and my husband and I had been stuck in a cold house with three hungry children wearing dirty clothes and calling piteously for a drink of filthy water.

No, what really bothers me about my own reaction to the New Year's hype is not my fear of temporary infrastructure breakdown. What bothers me is my temporary, avid interest in the gloomy (or ecstatic, depending on the teller) predictions, at the dawn of a new millennium, of how life is going to be different.

Books are going to be obsolete, I heard pundits speculate, as the Internet takes over the business of storing and communicating thoughts. Humans will propagate themselves by cloning and extend their own lives with body parts manufactured to replace those that wear out--or, in an alternate and less sanguine scenario, die out completely by way of bird-borne influenza or blood-borne Hepatitis C. The air will warm, and the oceans will rise; Seattle and Manhattan will go the way of Atlantis; Bill Gates will rule the world from his bunker beneath the sea over what used to be the Pacific Northwest.

For the first couple of weeks of 2000, these predictions fascinated me. I loved the reports of cloned monkeys and artificial blood and paper-thin LCD screens you can load up with whatever collections of words (formerly known as "books") you want from an Internet site.

Then I thought of the first time I realized that my father had grown up before television was invented, and that his father had taken a trolley to work. No TV? No car? Poor, poor Daddy, I thought; lucky, lucky me. How fine to have been born into a world in which all the crucial discoveries had already taken place!

But even as a child, I could already hear time's winged chariot hurrying near. Along came cable TV. Betamax and VCRs. Eight-track tapes. Cassettes. Microcassettes. CDs. DVDs. Seat belts. Air bags. Antilock brakes. Global Positioning Systems. Hand-held calculators. Pagers. Portable phones. Cellular phones. Digital phones. Personal computers. Laptop computers. Hand-held computers. The Internet. Furbies.

One thing this blitz of millennial predictions has forced me to acknowledge is that life will surely change even more for my children. They will live in a world that I cannot even begin to imagine. And they will live in it, thanks to their generation's drastically extended life expectancy, long after I am gone.

But the more I think of it, the less I think these changes will change anything really important. At 14, I wrote my first fumbling essays on an Underwood Noiseless typewriter. Today I fumble on a keyboard. My home office is equipped with a cable modem, two phone lines, a fax machine, and a high-speed printer, but most of the pages disgorged by my high-speed printer end up in the trash because, in the end, I'm still the one who's writing. Computers have made the Underwood Noiseless obsolete, but bad writing lives on.

In the next millennium, there will be important, life-changing breakthroughs. There will be cures, perhaps, for some of our most insidious and persistent enemies--for cancer, for poverty, for pollution. But there will be no cures for love gone wrong, for loneliness, or for the cavernous grief of losing a loved one to death, a death that's still inevitable despite medicine's advances. And no matter how exultant the media may be when we colonize the moon, or discover a clean and infinitely renewable energy source, or create a world federation that ends warfare--for ordinary people, those triumphs won't even touch the huge and inexplicable miracle of falling in love with someone who loves them back.

So I lift my glass to the brave old world, to the place where people love and live together and do their best for their children, where what really matters is not to be found in the pages of a newspaper, nor the broadcasts of CNN, nor even on the Internet, but where it's always been found, ever since we lurched up out of the muck and started scribbling on the walls of our cave--in the frail, bewildered, but nonetheless steadfast human heart.


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