The Breakfast Table

Under Mouse Arrest


The day has come, the spotlights are up, a line of police buses sits at the ready. Times Square is expecting half a million people to usher in the New Year, and as I intimated in yesterday’s delicate critique of the district, I will not be one of them.

Crowds daunt me. New Years daunt me. Most daunting of all is the job of summing up the old one. It’s a relief that the news doesn’t stop at these turning points in life’s odometer. I can charge ahead, too, and mention the lead stories in the Times (the report that China’s been purloining U.S. military secrets for 20 years, not just on Clinton’s watch–bully for the Democrats); in the Daily News (more on the dramatic decrease in NYC homicides–bully for the gun-control lobby); and in the Post (one of the paper’s photographers caught a rodent scampering among the pastries in a midtown Dunkin’ Donuts–bully for the writer who came up with the headline “Under Mouse Arrest.”).

I say that the news doesn’t pause to take stock, Maud, but I may have to revise that judgment. Is it a coincidence that as the century winds down, we’ve seen several old horrors creep out of past like so many scythe-bearing Fathers Time? First Pinochet, then leaders of the Khmer Rouge, and now, as reported in today’s Times, two more officers of the Argentinean military who organized kidnappings and torture during the “Dirty War.” Yes, the political circumstances that pulled these men into the spotlight differ; and it remains to be seen whether the KR leaders will even come to trial. Hun Sen wants to pardon them, and the Times, which also had a piece today on the debate about bringing the KR to justice, points out the reluctance of many Cambodians to revisit past atrocities. Still, I would like to believe that beyond the fin-de-whatever inspiration to put history in order is the urge to do some global housecleaning. Maybe the Post had the most profound take on current events after all, with its picture of the rodent exposed to public censure after it had trotted on the last doughnut it would ever defile.

When, a couple of weeks ago, a Republican congressman–I forgot who–was asked why he risked alienating his constituents by voting to impeach Clinton, the congressman said he believed people would forget the offense by the time elections rolled around in two years. Maybe he was suffering from a bout of amnesia of his own–overlooking the fact that two years after pardoning Nixon, Gerald Ford was ousted from office by people who still felt stung by the act. Memory may be selective, especially in these information-flooded times, and in this epilepsy-producing modern landscape of flashing signs and animated screensavers. But it seems to me that cavalier efforts to suppress memory, or breezy assurances that amnesia will set in, or the hope that time will defang murderous tyrants are the best ways of keeping recollection alive.

You asked about my New Year’s resolutions. They are modest. I resolve in 1999 to make a decent vinaigrette. I buy expensive olive oil, I work hard at the proportions, and still it never tastes right. I also resolve to use fewer hyphens and to be more diligent about recycling. Anything more ambitious will leave me feeling inadequate by February, forget about the millennium. My New Year’s wishes are of a different order, and start with the hope that Karadzic and Mladic will be dragged kicking and screaming to The Hague.

Much joy to you, dear, in this final year that begins with a “1” and has three consecutive identical numbers for the first time in 101 years. Nothing so rare can be truly insignificant, can it? I look forward to seeing what’s in store for us and the world.