Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

What a wary year it’s been

Metal detectors, moody economy, Martha Stewart scare Americans

December 29, 2002


If you had to pick one word to describe our national mood in 2002, that word would be "wary." We went to sleep wary, and we woke up wary. We wallowed in wariness. We were wabbits.

This was partly because bad things kept happening. But it was also because government officials kept issuing alarming, yet vague, warnings. "We have received reliable information," an official would say, "that something bad might happen. We don't know what, or when, or where. But it is very, very bad. Also we are seeing the letter 'E.' So we urge all citizens to continue leading normal lives, while remaining in a state of stark, butt-puckering terror. Tune in tomorrow and we'll see if we can't ratchet this thing up a notch or two."

We were also wary of the stock market. One day it was up; the next day it was down; the next day it was WAY down. And as we watched our 401(k) plans decline from a retirement villa in France to a refrigerator carton in an alley, we heard the unceasing babble of the financial "experts," the ones who have never yet failed to be wrong, speculating endlessly on whether the market had bottomed out.

We became even warier when we found out that some large corporations had essentially the same business ethics as Bonnie and Clyde. It got so bad that we even became wary of Martha Stewart, who hit her own personal bottom (we are speaking figuratively) during a June appearance on the CBS early-morning show. Martha was trying to chop some cabbage for a salad, and the show's host, Jane Clayson, kept pestering her about her alleged insider trading, and finally Martha emitted what was probably the most poignant quote from all of 2002: "I want to focus on my salad."

But, somehow, one wary day at a time, we got through 2002. Now we are poised to enter a new year, which according to Wall Street analysts will be 2003, so we would not bet on it. But before we move ahead to wherever we're going, let us take one last, wary look back at the year just completed, starting with ...


... which begins on a hopeful note in Europe, as the nations of the European Union replace their individual currencies with the new "euro," which is expected to boost the European economy by tricking clueless American tourists into leaving unintentionally gigantic tips.

But the economic news is not so good in the United States, where President George W. Bush and Congress discover that the federal budget surplus, which only moments earlier had been trillions of dollars, is now ... missing! Everybody looks high and low for it, but the darned thing is just GONE. Iraq is suspected.

But the big domestic issue is Homeland Insecurity, which is most noticeable at airports, where the Department of Transportation, having determined that every single Sept. 11 hijacker was a young male from a Middle Eastern country, has implemented a shrewd policy of hassling randomly selected elderly women.

Dave Thomas flips his last burger. In sports, Mike Tyson, appearing before the Nevada Athletic Commission to plead for a boxing license, expresses deep remorse for his past misbehavior, and informs the commissioners that if they turn him down, he will have no option but to eat their children. The Department of Homeland Insecurity responds by placing the nation on a Code Fuchsia Alert ("Relatively High").

Speaking of effective tactics, the month of ...


... opens with a World Economic Forum meeting in New York City, where angry protesters, determined to rid the world of poverty, hunger, disease and pollution, attack the obvious root cause of all these problems: The Gap.

In the War on Terrorism, security personnel at Chicago's O'Hare airport wrestle would-be passenger Merline A. Grelpner, 91, to the ground after an alert screener notices that she is carrying an object that is later confirmed by the FBI, using spectrographic analysis, to be a pretzel. The Department of Homeland Insecurity places the nation on a Code Magenta Alert ("A Tad Higher Than Relatively High, But Not Totally High.")

In sports, the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, thus using up all the sports luck that New England has been accumulating for decades, and thereby guaranteeing that the Red Sox will not win the World Series for another 150 years.

But the big sporting event is the Winter Olympics, which brings thousands of athletes and spectators from around the world to Salt Lake City to celebrate the official Olympic theme: "A Salute To Metal Detectors." The big scandal occurs in pairs figure skating, where the Canadian team clearly outskates the competition, only to see the gold medal awarded, in a judging decision that creates an international uproar, to ... Iraq.

And speaking of international tension, in ...


... the situation worsens in the Middle East as Israeli tanks, following a series of Palestinian attacks, surround Yasser Arafat's headquarters, cutting off the electricity, telephone service, water and pizza delivery. This is roughly the 25th time the Israelis have had Arafat surrounded, but the crafty leader persuades them to let him go by promising to take a shower, a pledge he immediately violates.

In business news, investigators probing the Enron scandal finally track down the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, which had sought to evade prosecution by changing its name to "Arthur Smith" and disguising its corporate headquarters with a gigantic red wig and sunglasses. Troops are sent to capture the firm, only to discover that the top auditors have escaped to ... Iraq. The Department of Homeland Insecurity responds by ratcheting the nation up to a Code Ochre Alert Status ("Deeply Concerned").

In the Academy Awards, the Oscar for best picture goes to "A Beautiful Mind," the uplifting story of legendary mathematical genius John Nash, who received a Nobel Prize decades after his descent into insanity, caused by attempting to do his own income taxes.

On a sadder note, two beloved public figures pass away: Milton "Mister Television" Berle, who was 93, and Britain's Queen Mother Elizabeth, who was 247. They are laid to rest in identical dresses.

But there is little rest to be had in ...


... when Secretary of State Colin Powell travels to the Middle East to (a) restore peace to the troubled region, and (b) receive a plaque from the Association of Troubled Middle East Travel Agencies honoring him for making the 5,000th official U.S. peacekeeping trip. At the awards ceremony, Powell jokes: "We expect to get this thing resolved any day now," which gets a big laugh, punctuated by mortar fire.

On the domestic terrorism front, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, tightening up its procedures, quietly reverses its decision to grant a student visa to Osama bin Laden. This decisive action enables the Department of Homeland Insecurity to ratchet the nation's Color Code Security Status all the way down to Mauve ("Calm, But Tense").

Things are not so peaceful, however, in professional baseball, where a dispute between players and owners threatens to ruin the season, and with it the social lives of thousands of fantasy-baseball dweebs. At issue is what the players and owners can do to restore the good will and trust of pro baseball's increasingly alienated fans.

Ha, ha! No, really, the issue is how each side can snag the most possible money before the game goes completely into the toilet. The talks open on a tense note, as the owners' charges of steroid abuse are met with vehement denials by player's-union representatives, who quickly reduce a large oak conference table to kindling.

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes hip-hops off the big stage.

And speaking of the entertainment industry, in ...


... the big news is the release of the fifth installment in the Star Wars series, "Star Wars II," which continues to express creator/director George Lucas' artistic vision, summed up by the statement: "I don't understand Roman numerals." The movie seems to be an effort by Lucas to connect with younger audiences, as evidenced by the exciting action scene in which Anakin Skywalker battles the evil Count Dooku in a deadly high-stakes game of quidditch.

In other film news, al-Qaida, apparently seeking to disprove reports that its leader is dead, releases its latest video, "The Osama bin Laden Fugitive Workout." The Department of Homeland Insecurity decides to ratchet the nation's Color Code Security Status up a notch to Key Lime ("Partly Cloudy").

In sports action, the World Cup gets under way with defending champion France playing Senegal -- a lowly underdog and former French colony -- in an exciting match that ends in a stunning upset win by ... Iraq.

Sam Snead finally reaches the 19th hole.

And speaking of icons, in ...


... Britain's Queen Elizabeth II celebrates the 50th year of her reign at a star-studded gala concert featuring performances by Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Ozzy Osbourne, who, in the dramatic highlight of the evening, bites the head off one of the Queen's Welsh corgis.

But the mood is not so jubilant in the Middle East, where, following a series of Palestinian attacks, Israeli tanks again surround the headquarters of Yasser Arafat and slowly press against it until it is the size of a twin bed. The crafty Arafat escapes again by claiming he has a dental appointment.

In another alarming story, wildfires rage out of control in Colorado and several other western states, burning thousands of acres and destroying dozens of homes. Investigators searching an area where one of the largest blazes originated find a Zippo lighter bearing a thumbprint belonging to ... Iraq.

The nation's Color Code Security Status is quickly raised to Maroon ("Dark Brownish Red").

On Wall Street, the bad news continues. First, WorldCom announces that it has improperly accounted for $3.9 billion and has "at least six" movies seriously overdue for return to Blockbuster. Next Martha Stewart is linked to a string of bank robberies.

And speaking of legal trouble, in ...


... two pilots scheduled to fly an America West plane from Miami to Phoenix are ordered from the cockpit at Miami International Airport and found to be drunk. The pilots aroused suspicions when they made a preflight announcement asking if any passenger "happens to have a corkscrew."

In sports, baseball immortal Ted Williams dies. His son says the body will be frozen so it can be revived in the future. A court approves this plan, on the condition that the son be frozen at the same time, so he can be revived in the future to explain everything to his dad. We wish.

In political news, the U.S. House of Representatives votes to expel Rep. James Traficant, D-Sopranos, after a House Ethics Committee investigation shows that the thing on his head is a diseased weasel that has eaten nearly 80 percent of his brain. The vote to expel him is 420-1, with the lone dissenting vote coming from ... Iraq.

But a month of bad news ends on an upbeat note when rescuers break through to a collapsed Pennsylvania mine shaft and free nine miners who have been trapped 240 feet underground for more than three days. Also rescued are 157 lawyers who have burrowed down there to offer their services in the filing of lawsuits.

Speaking of money, in ...


... financially strapped Brazil, in a cash-raising move considered by some experts in international law to be of questionable legality, announces that it has sold Uruguay to Paraguay for $200 million.

On a brighter note, the owners and players of Major League Baseball agree, in a heartwarming display of cooperation and concern for the National Pastime, to continue raking in money. Commissioner Bud Selig announces that, in an effort to win back the trust of disillusioned fans, "we're going to fix it so Anaheim wins the Series."

On the history front, divers seeking to recover the gun turret of the USS Monitor on the ocean floor off the coast of North Carolina discover surprising evidence that the Civil War gunship was sunk by ... Iraq. The nation's Color Code Security Status is raised to Peach ("Viewer Discretion Advised").

And speaking of fugitives: Martha Stewart, pursued by the Securities and Exchange Commission, flees to a remote area of Westport, Conn., and barricades herself inside a primitive cabin with only nine bathrooms. SEC agents surround the structure but are reluctant to attack, as Stewart is known to possess a set of very sharp paring knives and a military-grade glue gun. "She can't hold out forever," states one agent. "We believe she has only a three-day supply of fennel."

But things get even scarier in ...


... when Florida, having learned nothing from history, attempts to hold another election. Everything goes smoothly, with virtually no problems reported, until the polls open. Election officials begin to suspect that new computerized voting machines might have been programmed incorrectly when, instead of reporting the vote totals, the machines connect to the Internet and send out 126 million e-mails offering discount Viagra.

Robert Torricelli announces that he is dropping out of the New Jersey Senate race because he is a good man who has done nothing wrong. The state Democratic Party, looking for a "name" to replace him on the ballot, decides, in a move of questionable legality, to go with "John F. Kennedy."

U.S. news organizations observe the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with investigative reports about the nation's continued vulnerability to terrorism. First, the New York Daily News reports that two of its reporters carried box cutters, razor knives and pepper spray on 14 commercial flights without getting caught. Then, Fox News reports that it flew Osama bin Laden to Washington, D.C., and videotaped him touring the White House. The nation's Color Code Security Status is ratcheted up to its third-highest level, Burnt Umber ("Medium Rare").

On the medical front, an outbreak of the deadly West Nile virus prompts six states to enact strict laws requiring the registration of mosquitoes. It does not go unnoticed by the Bush administration that the West Nile is probably in the same general area as ... Iraq.

But the bad news only gets worse in ...


... when the Washington, D.C., area is terrorized by a string of deadly sniper attacks. After weeks of escalating fear and tension, police are finally able to break the case by identifying, then arresting, the only two males in the United States who have not appeared on CNN or Fox as sniper experts.

But the scariest news comes from North Korea, which announces that, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States, it is developing nuclear weapons. An angry President Bush responds by pointing out that "if you spell Korea backward, you get Aerok, which sounds a heck of a lot like ... Iraq." Reacting quickly, the Department of Homeland Insecurity produces, in mere hours, a new National Security Color Code: Tangerine ("UH-oh").

In politics, a tragic plane crash claims the life of Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, whose loss is mourned at a memorial service featuring rousing eulogies and music by Limp Bizkit. The state's Democratic Party, looking for a replacement with name recognition, taps Walter Mondale, who, after some prompting, is, indeed, able to recognize his name.

In the feel-good sports story of the year, the plucky and spunky Anaheim Angels, in what almost seems like a scripted outcome, defeat the San Francisco Barry Bonds in a nail-biter of a World Series that captivates millions of viewers, including several dozen living outside of California.

And speaking of contests, in...


... the Republicans win big in the midterm elections, giving President Bush a clear mandate to push forward with his foreign and domestic agendas, as soon as he thinks up a domestic agenda. The Democrats, desperate for leadership and beginning to realize that Walter Mondale is not the answer, begin making discreet inquiries into the availability of Hubert Humphrey.

World tension eases when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, under intense international pressure, announces that he will allow UN weapons inspectors "full access to Ahvaz, Hamedan, Mashad, Rasht, Urmiya and Zahedan." World tension increases again when the UN inspectors, having visited these sites, report that they are located in Iran.

In an ominous development, SEC agents confirm reports that Martha Stewart recently contracted with a leading New York architectural firm to design her a cave. The National Security Color Code is quickly bumped up to Jalapeno ("Everyone DOWN!").

Speaking of scary situations, in ...


... hopes for peace soar when Saddam Hussein, as ordered by the UN, finally turns over a list of materials that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction. These hopes are dashed when UN inspectors begin translating the list from Arabic and find that the first item is "a partridge in a pear tree."

In a surprise political development, Al Gore, having apparently received a status report from earth, announces that he will not run for president in 2004. Within hours the Democratic party leadership, reacting to this devastating news, runs out of champagne. On the Republican side, Sen. Trent Lott gets himself into hot water when the news media report that (a) he suggested Strom Thurmond would be a good president; and (b) his DNA is virtually identical to that of a mackerel.

The news is not so good from a remote, forbidding mountain region near Westport, Conn., where SEC agents prepare to attack a 24,500-square-foot, centrally heated, country-French-style cave containing Martha Stewart, only to discover that their worst-case nightmare scenario has become a reality: The fugitive taste goddess has gotten hold of a nuclear food processor. "If she presses the power button," states one official, "New England is radioactive cole slaw." In response, the National Security Color Code is ratcheted up to its highest level, Traffic Cone Orange ("Yipes").

And thus the year ends on a somewhat disturbing note. But this does not prevent the nation from pausing, on the eve of 2003, to gather with friends, to drink champagne, to blow into cardboard horns, to sing "Auld Lang Syne," to reflect on the year gone past, and above all to realize, a little too late, that those cardboard horns are manufactured abroad and would make a perfect vehicle for spreading chemical or biological warfare agents.

But happy New Year anyway.

-- Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him c/o The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.

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