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 everywhere 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 I 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. Why were people lined up to get into the Uganda mission? To get Uganda immigration visas? Were their own countries so screwed up that they wanted to move to Uganda? Actually, probably, yes.
In due time I found the proper line. It was a much shorter line. In fact, it wasn’t a very long line at all, notwithstanding which I stood in it for an hour and fifteen minutes. The Division/Department was bare and stuffy. The only decorations were photocopied flyers Scotch-taped to the wall, bearing such enticing messages as:
The Presidents of Finland and Namibia,
the two co-chairs of the Summit,
will meet each other for the first time
at 6:20 P.M.
today, 5 September,
in the neck area outside the
Well, who knows, maybe sparks would fly. (The Delegates’ Lounge has a “neck area”?)
The credentials were prepared, waiting for us journalists to collect them. But our names seemed to have been filed according to shoe size, or phase of the moon when application was submitted, or by using the ancient Cretan Linear A alphabet, the key to which has been lost in the mists of time.
UN functionaries were arrayed behind wobbly folding tables. Whenever a journalist approached and asked for credentials, the functionaries would express mild shock and dismay. Such a request came as a complete surprise to them. The functionaries would consult among themselves, agree at last to search for the appropriate document, then plunge into an enormous heap of manila folders and stay there for the rest of the afternoon.
Maybe this is why we don’t see so many of those black helicopters. The pilots are probably stuck down at the United Nations Secret Weapon and Unmarked Aircraft Registration and Licensing Division/Department of World Domination while somebody looks for the helicopter keys.
Or maybe the pilots got arrested in some foul-up among the various competing security agencies on hand. There was at least one pack of big-buddies-with-sunglasses for every foreign poobah, plus Secret Service, State Department Security, UN Security, FBI, ATF, NYPD–the works. Forget pol”ticos, this was the largest gathering of guys with radio earpieces sticking out of their jacket collars in the history of mankind. And all of the security people were listening to voices through those earpieces, making them twitch and look around and mutter to themselves. It was like arriving in the midst of a gigantic convention of unusually well-dressed schizophrenics. If these fellows got together and made any treaties and agreements among themselves, we’re all in trouble.
It’s a shame the police types were too busy to do anything about actual criminals, such as about one-fourth of the world leaders on hand. The political opponents of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have a knack for conveniently dying, and Mugabe uses the thugs in his political party to terrorize landowners. China’s Jiang Zemin is brutal with Falun Gong religious dissidents and murderous in Tibet. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, president of Sudan, leads a genocidal war against Christian and animist tribes in his country. Mohammad Khatami’s Iran sponsors worldwide terrorism. Islam A. Karimov is a vicious dictator in Uzbekistan. God knows what Vladimir Putin has been up to in Russia, but it’s nothing nice, say the Chechens. Castro is an old butcher from way back. And, in the matter of mopery, sexual misdemeanors, and lurking with criminal intent, there was our own Bill Clinton.
At least the loathsome North Koreans didn’t make it. The number-two Pyongyang commie, Kim Yong Nam, and his fourteen wiseguy delegates stopped by–of all the unlikely crime-fighting forces–rude airline personnel. American Airlines wouldn’t let the North Koreans onto the Frankfurt-New York flight without pat-downs and luggage inspections. I can just hear the snippy people at the check-in counter: “I’m sorry, but your weapons-grade plutonium must fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.” By the time Kim Yong Nam et al. got done throwing tantrums, they’d missed their flight. And happy fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War to you, too, assholes.
Fortunately I was walking to UN headquarters instead of flying and only had to contend with all the law enforcement agencies on earth and not American Airlines. Thus I was able to saunter into the General Assembly building simply by flashing my credentials. These consisted of one piece of laminated plastic containing blurry print and a picture, allegedly of me, which looked like it was clipped from the middle of a five-dollar bill.
I was just in time to see the fifty-fifth session of the UN brought to order by the newly elected president of the General Assembly, a former prime minister of Finland, Harri Holkeri, who seems like a perfectly nice man despite his Japanese suicide of a name and who can almost speak English. After some opening blandishments, President Holkeri presented the General Assembly with its first piece of serious business under his regime, a plan “to start the General Assembly meetings on time.” A fitting proposal, inasmuch as this particular General Assembly meeting was starting twenty minutes late with most of its delegates absent from their seats.
Next order of business was the admission of Tuvalu as a member of the United Nations. Two-of-what? You may well ask. Tuvalu is a former British colony consisting of nine coral atolls halfway between Hawaii and Australia with a land area one-tenth the size of Washington, D.C., and a population of 10,297. My college had fraternity houses larger than that. What’s next? Sigma Chi becomes a NATO power? Tuvalu has no crops, no industry, and no known mineral resources. It has no drinking water except what’s collected in rain barrels. The economy is based–seriously–on selling Tuvalu stamps to collectors.
The charter of the United Nations states in Article 2, paragraph 1, “The Organization is based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its Members.” And no doubt a very good principle this is. But Tuvalu? “If there are no objections . . .” said President Holkeri. And no one in the General Assembly did object or, as far as I could tell, notice.
Having exhausted my interest in the doings of the General Assembly, I wandered into Conference Room 1 in the UN’s unimaginatively named Conference Building. Here something called ‘dialogue Among Civilizations’ was being conducted. Conducted by whom and for what purpose I don’t know. Although I do know that ‘dialogue Among Civilizations’ was Iran’s idea and, considering the ideas Iran has had in the past, such as holding scores of Americans hostage, having an eight-year war with Iraq, and sponsoring worldwide terrorism, I figured it would be interesting. I was wrong.
I had missed the morning session where Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami himself, gave a speech that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called thought-provoking and The New York Times called “vague.” And I would have missed the afternoon session if it hadn’t (notice to President Holkeri) started fifty minutes late. Somebody on the conference podium, I have no idea who, spent a long time proposing a “Question for Conversation,” the question being “How do we focus the conversation on dialogue?” Although I was under the impression that conversation is dialogue, otherwise social life would be like . . . like sitting in Conference Room 1 listening to the first speaker on the subject of dialogue, who was former UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, age eighty, who couldn’t find the ON button for his microphone and, when he did find it, said, “For almost sixty years we are dialoguing here.” No, no, Javier, twenty minutes by my watch, although I know it seems like sixty years. The former secretary general wanted countries to have ‘dialogue not only among but within themselves.” He said democracy was good for this, although I’ll bet the upcoming Bush/Gore debates will argue otherwise.
Then some jerk university professor spoke, asking “Internet companies to act on the basis of something besides self-interest.” A novel concept and I can hardly wait for the e-mail notices from AOL telling customers, “We considered improving our online services in order to attract more business and increase our corporate profits, but then we decided, ‘screw that, we’re joining the Peace Corps.””
The next speech was in French, and one of the UN’s famous corps of simultaneous translators went to work. She was good. Either that or she just made up stuff and pretended it was what the froggy bozo in Conference Room 1 said. Whatever, the gist was that Western civilization had made the mistake of thinking it was the center of the world just because it was, like, the world center of stuff. This was followed by a pronouncement that “It is the element of the barbarous that everyone must find in his own civilization,” which I took to be a suggestion that the delegates hit the lap-dancing bars later on. The bozo then began a declamation upon tolerance: how tolerance begins with sufferance and progresses to the idea that differences are good and progresses further to embrace the realization that “the contrary of a profound thought is another profound thought,” this being the definition of tolerance according to the French philosopher Pascal. At which point I ran out of tolerance.
Nick, I’ve provided you with a taste of UN political and intellectual discourse here, and I sincerely apologize. At least it’s better than actually being at the UN in person, the way I was. The place is a dump. The UN headquarters complex was completed in 1952 in the Hanna-Barbera Jetsons style of modern, which is now back in vogue–but with light, with color, with irony. At the UN it’s with linoleum. There are acres of gray linoleum that seem to have been given a light mopping, once a month, by the same cleaning lady for the past forty-eight years. The Secretariat Building smells of old food. The pole lamps take themselves very seriously.
The chief architect was Wallace K. Harrison, who also designed Rockefeller Center but apparently wasn’t feeling so well during the three or four hours it must have taken him to dash off the UN blueprints. Wallace had additional input from Oscar Niemeyer, creator of dreadful Brasilia, and Le Corbusier, who led a lifelong campaign to make the whole world as pretty and comfortable as o’Hare Airport.
Use of bilingual signage in English and French gives the corridors of the UN a sadly Canadian air. One widely posted warning reads, SMOKING DISCOURAGED/VEUILLEZ EVITER DE FUMER, and that says it all about the United Nations, its power and its might.
The dumb slab of the UN Secretariat and the skateboard park shape of the General Assembly are matched with what might be the worst collection of art on earth: A tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica full scale, in earth-tone needlepoint; two Fernand L”ger murals that appear to be the graffiti tags of a street gang that never learned the alphabet and ran out of spray paint; a painstakingly detailed 660-pound sculpture depicting the construction of the Chengtu-Kunming railroad, gift of the People’s Republic of China (tucked away out of sight on the third floor of the Secretariat because it was carved from eight elephant tusks); a huge pistol with its barrel tied in a knot, symbolic of, I guess, the UN’s botched peacekeeping missions; an enormous bronze by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich showing an heroic figure beating his sword into what looks like a beaten-on sword; a great big hunk of alloy, vaguely face-shaped, with a hole in its head (a memorial to UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskj”ld); and much more, including a thirty-ton pot-metal cast of a sleeping elephant, visible on the way to the UN children’s playground, that was partly paid for by donations from the Church of Scientology and sports a two-foot erection. Bushes have been planted in strategic places.
Everyone connected to the UN must have breathed a sigh of relief in 1987 when the secretary general “informed all the Permanent Representatives of Member States that there would be a moratorium on the acceptance of further gifts.”
The United Nations press corps didn’t look so good either. Being sent to cover the UN is, for a journalist, not a vote of confidence from the front office. The last–and possibly first–truly dramatic thing to happen at the UN was when Khrushchev pounded his desk with his shoe in 1960. And the main source of drama there was suspense about whether Nikita was too fat to get his shoe back on by himself. Would he have to ask for “foreign aid”? (Ha-ha. A little specimen of General Assembly jokes. Who says the UN has no sense of humor?) This was before most journalists were born but not, alas, before most journalists covering the UN were. Appearances tell the story–the pallor, the jowls, the ill-fitting suit, the self-serious demeanor, the pathetic interest in pointless UN minutiae. And that was just me. You should have seen the others.