Alex Heard

A year ago this month I moved to San Francisco to start working at Wired. My wife couldn’t come out from New York for another three months (job commitments), so I put off finding an apartment and stayed in one of those “guest suite” places. (Really a glorified hotel room.) Wired issued me a laptop–my first!--and since I didn’t have any friends yet (sniff), my nightly self-entertainment routine shaped up like so: eat, drink half a bottle of wine, glance at Behind the Music on VH1, listen to Art Bell on the radio, and cruise the Internet for millennial-themed e-mail discussion groups–also known as “listbots.”

My initial motivation was simple: spamming the globe with news of my book and Web site. But along the way I started signing up for all the listbots, including ones devoted to Y2K, Christian prophecy, Earth Changes, UFOs, general paranormal topics, the quest for physical immortality, out-of-body travel, militias, Nazis, and racial separatism.

A year later, Behind the Music is but a dim memory–except for the one in which Leif Garrett tearfully comes to terms with his drug-addled past–but the fringe e-mails are still with me. I get about 300 a day, and have about 20,000 stacked up unread at any given moment. They range in intensity from Mitch Battros’ “Earth Changes Breaking News” (“Finally the weather phenomenon we are experiencing is being acknowledged beyond cutsie names like ‘El Nino’ and ‘La Nina.’ This is a ‘Mega Cycle’ related to … an escalation of solar flares, gamma ray blasts, CMEs, Class M flares, and X-ray bursts”) to that very special week last fall when premillennial Christians in coastal Florida were pray-bombing Hurricane Floyd to please go away.

They were serious, too. As it turned out, Floyd didn’t come ashore in the Electrocution State, causing a man from Daytona Beach to crow: “Hey, guys, is the Lord God or is he God?? He has put his hand out and told Floyd, ‘Up to here, and no further!’ So Floyd made a right turn when he was practically at my front door, and went north. … My Dad (God, my father) is Big Bad John.”

This week I’ve been dipping into the archives, trying to decide which listbot theme, artifact, or moment is my favorite for 1999. Among the top candidates: an ongoing debate about whether babies who haven’t been baptized are eligible for the Rapture (consensus: hard to say); an attempt to organize a joint out-of-body soul-flight mission to escort the souls of Columbine victims to Heaven; a 40,000-word musical drama about Waco; and speculation that floating coffins dredged up by Floyd’s floods might be a portent that the Last Judgment is coming soon.

But in the end I gotta go with “Dear Karen,” a periodical online advice column penned by Karen Anderson, doyenne of a Texas-based group called Y2K for Women. Karen set up shop around this time last year, offering Heloise’s Hints advice for the Y2K preparation set–with a special focus on “the distaff side.”

I snickered when I first ran across Karen, then I thought again and realized: Well … she’s probably providing a useful service. Back then Art Bell was running a stentorian ad every night warning that Y2K would be the worst human disaster since the bubonic plague, and terrifying Y2K journalism was all over the place, including the cover of Time. If you know Middle America at all, you can imagine how this talk inflamed the built-in tool-purchasing lust of the typical Bible Belt dad. No doubt, Karen was/is trying to cash in with her service–she sells stuff–but I’ve always felt that she’s also sincerely trying to help women get through it all the low-impact way, without having to set up a diesel generator in the living room.

These days, the “Ask Karen” mood is best described as “cozy hunker.” Preparations are still advised–no way is she buying the government’s “We’re OK” pronouncements–but there’s no underlay of stark terror like there used to be, when Karen issued an advisory about timing pregnancies to avoid risky Y2K delivery-room episodes. Now it’s more like: A nasty winter storm is coming; you’re prepared; so enjoy it, even. The latest newsletter is full of Christmas gift hints from readers. Barbara from Texas is sending family and friends Y2K gift baskets that contain “a first-aid kit, a multipurpose camping tool, two flashlights with batteries, four emergency candles, butane, lighters, a manual can opener, plastic cups, paper plates, plastic silverware, a liter of water, a can of Spam, a roll of toilet paper, and CRASH, the millennium bug (a stuffed toy sold through Hallmark, for the kids).”

That’s pretty generous, and as Barbara points out, “nothing in the kit is useless, and it is better than the usual stale crackers and weird cheese.”