Reflections of a ModemJunkie

December, 1999

Thoughts at the End of a Century

by Leonard Grossman

I do not usually find it hard to find words. I can talk about anything. But finding appropriate comments for the last column of the decade, the century, the millennium, has not been easy. I compared our times to the end of the nineteenth century. I took a look at the technology which was transforming the world a hundred years ago. I looked for inspiration at end of the first millennium. I even reviewed recent films as a commentary on our time. Each stimulated thought but in the end, it is a personal story and one that actually involves computers which to me summarizes the best of our century and provides hope for tomorrow.

Fin de Siecle. The end of the century. In French the words seem so elegant. They call forth a touch of fashionable sadness, world weariness and despair. These words describe the late 19th-century climate of sophistication, escapism, and extreme aestheticism, as well. On the surface that mood could well be seen to apply to our times as well.

Of course it is the onslaught of the '00s which inspires these remarks. The argument as to whether the decade and the century, even the millennium, ends this year or next continues to rage. Some say it will end in fire and some in ice. The U.S. Naval Observatory holds we have another year to wait and even has a detailed set of millennium pages as well as a Millennium Clock counting down the seconds.

Some people actually get worked up about the issue. For example, one author rages about people refusing to accept the "fact" that the millennium doesn't end until next year. The article leads to a whole thread of posts on the issue.

I tend to side with those who favor ending the century and the millennium NOW! I know the rational arguments. And I also know that just as there was no year zero, there was no year one or two or.... (I said that last month didn't I?) But I favor ending it now for a couple of reasons.

First of all I am impatient. Who knows if I will be here next year. Second, When we talk about decades we know that 1990 was in the Nineties. We don't refer to 1960 as the last of the 50s. For whatever reason we think of clumps of years (gaggles? prides?) by their digits not by some theoretical starting point. And besides, if we count this as the end, we can start the next century and the next millennium twice. And most of us could use a second chance. (If next year is perfect, I'll withdraw this remark.)

This age doesn't seem to have the dignity of the end of the last century. What appellation will they apply to these days? We don't even know what to call the next decade yet. The 00s? the Aughties? there is even a web page, suggesting the Naughties (I side, for now, with the 00s, perhaps because I know NOTHING about them yet. We can rename them when we get to know them better.)

As I have said before, I don't believe that there is any magic in the turning of these digits, even though I have since childhood been an incurable odometer rollover watcher. (How sad it is to have had at least two cars pass the hundred thousand mark and to have missed the mystical alignment of the numbers both times. I wonder, was the last digit almost "1" by the time the first digit came into place?)

So, I tried to compare the end of this century to the end of the last. I began searching websites for information.

It was a time quite different, yet much the same as ours. Newspapers were the primary source of information. The term yellow journalism had just been coined. Photography had been around since the middle of the century.

Although Edison had begun early recordings, the ability to transmit radio signals had just been demonstrated by Marconi in 1895. Never the less, by the end of the century the telegraph and telephone were speeding the transmission of news and information from around the globe.

A Byte review of a new book, The Victorian Internet asserts that yesterday's telegraph is more like the Internet than we imagine. The author states that [i]t contains parallels between the reception of the telegraph and the Internet which I knew nothing about. Still. It was a far quieter time. The press may have been as irresponsible as it is today, but immersion in media was not so total and unrelenting.

All of this may be interesting. But it doesn't capture what I have been looking for.

I went farther back, I looked at sites discussing the middle ages. Then, somehow, I found a fascinating article in the Manilla Times. As the turn of the millennium approaches an Associated Press reporter tried to piece together what happened in Jerusalem and in Europe around the year 1000. It is written as a contemporary news story.

Still, I couldn't put my finger on what it is I wanted to talk about. I thought of movies which I think, wittingly or unwittingly, reveal much about our own times.

I have found it fascinating that a whole series of movies rebels, in one way or another against our materialistic era. "What Dreams May Come" presaged a series of movies that desperately seek solace from an anguish we don't ordinarily acknowledge.

This summer "Sixth Sense" was the surprise sleeper hit of the season. I am extremely grateful that no one spoiled the ending for me, and I hope I am not giving too much away by placing that movie in this list.

"Being John Malkovich" ultimately devolves into a silly resolution handled much better twenty years ago in "Rosemary's Baby." But this movie, in which people line up by the hundreds to experience 15 minutes in the mind of a movie star, also poses questions about just how satisfied we are with our era of full employment and low inflation.

All of this is brought to an unpleasant conclusion in "Fight Club", a movie which is entirely too violent and full of gore, but it painfully reveals a measure of the entirely unfashionable despair of our times as its main character ultimately rejects defining his life through an Ikea catalogue.

There are t.v. series like "Touched by an Angel" which further refuse to accept the realities of our age. Even "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" seeks answers beyond reason. Several new series this season continue the search.

All of these entertainments evade the issue, however. It is David Lynch's "The Straight Story" that led me to the true story of the end of this century. It is not surprising to find possibilities of despair and agony in a Lynch movie. His "Blue Velvet" and the t.v. show Twin Peaks would not fit uncomfortably among the films I have discussed here. But in "The Straight" Story," Lynch did something entirely different. He demonstrated how despair can be overcome. Throughout the quiet, true story of a 73 year old man, he demonstrated that one can deal with pain, physical and psychic. That wounds once opened and then covered with scar tissue can be healed. He demonstrated an amazing belief in the ability of people to connect - - in a movie ostensibly about a loner in isolation.

And this movie brings me back to this weekend and my own life and, of course computers.

Today is my mother's birthday. She is not a loner and she is certainly not isolated. But other elements of the story resonate. She is 87. She left Germany in 1934 in the face of an uncomprehending family and came alone, a 21 year old girl, to this great country, leaving all she knew behind. She married a much older man, my father, born in 1891. He died young after a long illness, leaving her with two young boys and a sea of medical bills.

If anyone has faced a right to despair she has.

Elsewhere I have told some of her story. Some time I hope to put it online. She has written, in pencil on the backs of newsletters and flyers, over 200 pages - translating her early letters home. Those, too I hope to get online. But this week something happened.

For several years she has been coming over about once a month to use my old computer. She climbs up the stairs, trying to ignore her arthritis to use Quicken to keep track of the dozens of charitable contributions she makes and to keep track of a few other expenses. We print out e-mails from her grandchildren who are spread at universities throughout the country.

At dinner, the other night, she said. "You know, it might be good to have my own computer."

Good thing she felt that way, for the next night, last night, we celebrated Chanukah and her birthday at her house as we have for countless years. 20 of us gathered for roast goose and red cabbage. And lit the candles. And the kids (great grand nieces) looked for presents hidden in the bookshelves and behind the furniture, as has become our tradition.

And then my brother, Ray, and I went to the car and brought in HER presents: an older Pentium, a new printer, a 16 inch monitor. Tears filled her eyes. (Could she have known that Ray and I had been planning this for weeks.) As we left we were debating the best AOL screen name for her account.

At 87 she is still learning, still eager. Many of her friends are gone, some are in nursing homes and can't or won't communicate. She can't move as well as she once could. She can't hear as well, either. But she refuses, ever, to succumb to despair.

That is the story of this century.

In September, 1999, West Suburban Temple Har Zion honored my mother for a half century of volunteerism and community participation. Sarah Grossman, my daughter, wrote a beautiful tribute to her grandmother on that occasion.


Encyclopedia Britannica <>
Fin de Siecle <,5716,137883+1,00.html>
The U.S. Naval Observatory <>
Millennium pages <> as well as a
Millennium clock <>
When does the millennium end? An extensive discussion.
The campaign for the "Naughties" <>
The Sensational Beginnings of Yellow Journalism. <>
Jones Telecommunications & Multimedia Encyclopedia section on photography. <>
The 100 years of Radio Web <>
A Brief History of Networking(telegraph), <>
Byte review of The Victorian Internet <>
The History Page - Middle Ages
Jerusalem and Europe and the First Millennium
"What Dreams May Come" <>
"Sixth Sense"
"Being John Malkovich" <>
"Rosemary's Baby" <>
"Fight Club" <">
Ikea catalogue <>
"Touched by an Angel" <>
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" <>
"The Straight Story" <>
"Blue Velvet" <>
"Twin Peaks" <>

Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman

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