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Goodbye to All That

Somewhere around mid-November the Y2K whimpering died down out of sheer exhaustion. Humboldt county is calm. A couple of weeks ago I asked the amiable Jim, proprietor of Western Chainsaw in Eureka, how many generators he'd sold recently and he said two. Then he added that at a sales rep meeting in Fresno near the start of December a fellow from the San Joaquin Valley reported he'd unloaded as many as fifty generators on folks fearful of impending apocalypse.

Driving by Costco I saw a couple staggering towards their truck with a pallet load of toilet paper. Few things agitate the American soul more sharply than the possibility of a shortage in this vital commodity. It's up there with oil and electrical generating capacity. At least one of my neighbors has been investing heavily in gold stocks under the supposition that a) the Arabs wont have fixed their computers, and so b) there'll be an oil shortage, with c) a rapid decline in living standards, morals, the rule of law and thus d) the collapse of capitalism, requiring e) gold as the only fungible medium of exchange.

The year waned with the usual uptick in deaths. Folks on the lip of eternity seem more inclined to let go in those weeks before the dead end of the year. My father died on December 15, the old motor running out of gas about five minutes after he'd dictated a fluent 750-word column to me, printed in the Irish Times three days later. Here in Humboldt county I've attended two memorials for prominent citizens in the past month.

Nothing delights any European more than these memorials where emotional recollections from relatives and friends of the deceased, each following pell-mell upon the other, are truly American, perhaps even western, in their directness and informality. In Fortuna, at the memorial for Billie McWhorter, a Humboldt matriarch and for many years the guiding hand at Sequoia Gas, one of her sons, Sterling, recovered sufficiently from grief fierce enough to require the comforting arm of his wife Cindy to launch into a fierce denunciation of the inheritance tax, or “death tax.” I can’t imagine this kind of robust eloquence at any equivalent Irish or English function, where mannerly dolor pickles all emotion in the brackish vinegar of Anglican good taste.

People wearied of millennial summings-up even earlier than they got bored with Y2K. Jeffrey St Clair and I did put together our CounterPunch list of what we reckoned to be the best, or most influential non-fiction books of the twentieth century first published in English. Adamics Dynamite, Architectural Standards, A Potters Manual, Gertrude Jekyll on gardening, Learning from Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Desert Solitaire, I Claud. All in all, about 120 books, at least half of which are out of print. Probably the ones on our list I look at most frequently are the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. Those who imagine the OED to be a nineteenth century publication should know that by l900 only the volumes covering A, B, C, D, E, F and H had been published. As a reader has already pointed out to us, the thirteenth edition of the Britannica is even better than the Eleventh, containing all the material in the earlier one, plus useful stuff on the first world war. I'd like to say that a century producing the Eleventh Edition and the OED can't be all bad, but then again in both cases the animating force behind these vast projects was nineteenth century energy and intellectual style.

People deploring the twentieth century usually imagine themselves in some more leisured epoch, maybe chatting with Dr Johnson in a Fleet St tavern or attending one of Sophocles plays in classical Athens. But on the law of averages one would more likely have been a half starved peasant, then and now.

I thank my own stars I was presented to the world in the twentieth century, in 1941, by a Scottish doctor in a kilt angered at having his Sunday fishing interrupted by my mother's labor. This was near Inverness and my father was in London, pondering how to get us out of that era's version of Y2K, which was Hitler's impending invasion. But Hitler never did make it, even though one of his rockets did for our house. The century has been good to me, and when you think about the horrors we might have endured in other aeons or in other lands I suspect it's been good to most AVA readers too. So let's wave out the millennium gracefully, with a hearty adieu. Onward!

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