Nineteen ninety-nine was a suitable exclamation point for a century that would like to be remembered more for its wealth than for its wars. America's prodigious wealth-creation threatened to deprive Americans of the delights of complaining, at least other than as Gilbert and Sullivan did:
Some baseball fans grumbled: a Los Angeles TV sports anchor said, "Dodgers and Angels highlights at 11. Please watch anyway." And there was war.
In Kosovo--actually, over Kosovo--NATO practiced a kind of warfare made possible by modern technologies and perhaps made necessary by modern sensibilities. It was a war waged on the principle that there are values important enough to fight, meaning kill, for, even if they are not important enough to die for.
Kosovo was a small, mostly Muslim entity, brutalized by a mostly Orthodox nation of which Kosovo was (and is) legally a part. As the year ends, Chechnya is a small, mostly Muslim entity being brutalized by a mostly... oh, never mind. At the year-end, Albanians in Kosovo are conducting ethnic cleansing against Serbs in Kosovo.
Hillary Clinton visited the Balkans and said scenes of ethnic cleansing reminded her of... the Holocaust? No, silly, she is a baby boomer, so the scenes reminded her of a movie about the Holocaust ("Schindler's List"). When she decided to make of herself a gift to New York, Pat Moynihan, whose Senate seat she aspires to fill (well, occupy), tartly said she would bring to the job "Illinois/ Arkansas enthusiasm."
The author of the autobiography "Monica's Story" said, "I like to be able to reach up on my bookshelf for one of Shakespeare's plays, and I would like to think that people will do that with this book." The majestic constitutional machinery of impeachment seemed simply too large to employ against someone as small as Bill Clinton. Elsewhere, the annals of romance were enriched: Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, John McCain and the national media.
The Republican-controlled Congress, which convened five years ago vowing death to four cabinet departments, especially Education, this year appropriated for Education $320 million more than Clinton requested. When Marines in North Carolina were ordered to fly 42 jets out of the path of Hurricane Bonnie, only 21 were fit to fly. The sclerotic government, fierce protector of the public education system, called Microsoft a dangerous monopoly and lectured it on the importance of innovation.
Friends of high art were in high dudgeon when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opposed a museum exhibition that included a portrait of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. Would the dudgeon have been as high if Giuliani had acted, as surely he would have, against similar treatment of a portrait of Martin Luther King?
Some 2.5 million-year-old skeletal remains of a creature who used tools--sharp stones, to cut meat--were discovered in Ethiopia. They may come from the earliest known human ancestor. Scientists discovered an ancient coastline 550 feet below the Black Sea, evidence of a catastrophic flood about 7,500 years ago, perhaps when Noah set sail. The Associated Press: "Israel has marked a new spot where it says Jesus fed a multitude of 4,000 with just a handful of fish and loaves." Israel says that?
In the publishing fiasco of the year, Edmund Morris wrote an unintelligible novel about himself and called it a memoir of Ronald Reagan. Three books about Harry Potter of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were numbers one, two and three on the best-seller list, and exasperated children were snapping at their parents, "Please turn off the TV, we're trying to read."
Crayola renamed its "Indian red" crayon "chestnut." Next target for the sensitivity police: the Oldsquaw duck. A Department of Agriculture diversity enforcer was indignant about lack of diversity on the Florida Tomato Committee.
Even though no notice is posted forbidding the sin, a spokesman for New York City's parks department justified the $1,000 ticket issued to a man whose two daughters, 9 and 11, and a friend, 11, were caught climbing a tree in Central Park: "If we listed every rule, we'd have more signs than trees." More from the annals of crime: "I don't think we'll be tape-measuring," said a sheriff's spokesman concerning the Manatee County, Fla., ordinance forbidding women to expose more than 75 percent of their breasts in public, or anyone to expose more than two thirds of his or her buttocks. Russian mobsters rented a casino for a bash to celebrate Al Capone's 100th birthday. Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita's son, 63, became an American citizen.
The best players in the history of hockey (Wayne Gretzky) and basketball (Michael Jordan) retired and the best columnist (Meg Greenfield) died. Bessie Cohen, dead at 107, was 19 when she survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 of her co-workers in Manhattan in 1911. Prince Rostislav Romanov, a London banker and great-nephew of Tsar Nicholas II, died at 60. In 1993 his DNA helped establish that human remains found in a wood near Ekaterinburg were those of the murdered tsar and his family.
In the last month of the last year of the last century before medicine becomes really modern, scientists completed mapping virtually an entire human chromosome. Soon the $3 billion Human Genome Project, the most important scientific undertaking ever, will have mapped all 23 chromosomes. The 3 billion bits of information will lead to a revolution in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases.
In 1999 health was helped by heeding warning labels like this on a Swedish chain saw: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO STOP CHAIN WITH YOUR HANDS.