A FEW MORNINGS ago, I was wolfing down a bowl of cereal when the truth suddenly hit me. It's the millennium and we're all gonna die. No fooling. Needless to say, the realization stopped me in my tracks. I let my spoon clatter to the table as I pictured the Earth spinning off its axis, shooting sparks like some hellish bumper-car in an Orwellian theme park. What if it really happened? What if human civilization - monuments, libraries, supermarkets, all of it - suddenly careened toward the sun, dumping masses of people into the boiling maw of red-hot oblivion? Nervously, I gulped down a bite of sodden cereal and craned my neck out the kitchen window. It was quite sunny outside. Maybe a little too sunny for late November. The cereal stuck in my throat. Man, this was it, the end of the world. And I was a sitting duck.
There was nothing to do but finish my breakfast and wait for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to hoof their way to my doorstep. Did I mention what kind of cereal I was eating? Only the newest General Mills invention, Millennios. Basically, the cereal consists of ordinary Cheerios, with a few sugar-sweetened 2s thrown in for good measure. The idea had seemed cute in the grocery store, but now each bite was a chilling reminder of just how little time I had left.
Wearily, I dipped my spoon into the cereal, and felt the metal strike against something hard. I thought it was the free time capsule included in every box, but as I tried to scoop the prize, a sugary puff of smoke arose from the cereal bowl, and an insect climbed out of it. Immediately I recognized the creature as a Millennium Jitterbug, the main force behind all the fearful anxiety currently permeating the world. Our conversation was brief, but notable. Here's a transcript to ameliorate the fears of those faithful readers who even now are hunkered down in their basements, anticipating the worst for the New Year.
Me: Great, it's you again. OK, what are we supposed to worry about this week? Plane crashes? Bank failure? Queensryche's new album? Let me tell you, I'm doing plenty to prepare for the impending chaos - stockpiling water, canning fruit - I even built a bunker in my backyard of old ARAmark boxes and circus peanuts.
Jitterbug: Nice work. That is, if you feel like going to all that trouble.
Me: What are you talking about? It isn't like I have a choice here. I mean, the millennium is upon us. Just take a look at your calendar, and you'll see it written in black and white. January 1, 2000 - it's almost zero hour, man.
Jitterbug: Right, because when the world finally does end, it'll definitely happen according to the Christian calendar.
Me: Right ... I mean, huh?
Jitterbug: Do I have to spell it out for you? There are other religions besides Christianity, you know, and many have developed their own calendar systems. According to Jewish tradition, for example, it's the year 5760, while Islam's lunar-based Hijri calendar records the date as 1420. Different systems, comprende?
Me: Yeah, so?
Jitterbug: So ... maybe the world is scheduled to end in the year 6000 according to the Jewish system - in which case, you have 240 more years to finish that cereal. After all, Judaism predates Christianity by a few millennia. So why get all hot and bothered over the year 2000? It's only the Gregorian date, after all. It's not the only calendar system in the world.
Me: Pretty sensible words coming from a Jitterbug. Aren't you supposed to be whipping me into a pre-millennium froth right about now? What's with the laid-back attitude?
Jitterbug: Aw, I'm a commercial Jitterbug. Selling products is my game. Like this cereal, for instance. What person in her right mind would buy a box of glorified Cheerios shaped like 2s and 0s? A scared person, someone who believes the hype. My job is to make the millennium into a looming presence, a menacing idea that ultimately is just as arbitrary as the date that occasions all this. Look closely at the advertisements, and you'll see what I mean. The new millennium always is described as "arriving," "coming soon," or, to quote you, "upon us." It makes people feel like they have to prepare. It unsettles them, gives them -
Me: The jitters?
Jitterbug: Exactly. And the only cure is a new dress, a souped-up cellular phone, a designer car, a CD burner, a home-entertainment system, a food dehydrator, a microwave, or some other expensive household bauble.
Jitterbug: All in a day's work. By the way, here's your Millennios time capsule. If you're still interested in that kind of thing.
Me: Gee, thanks.
Jitterbug: Another satisfied customer.
(Kiki Petrosino's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)