My own personal millennium ended on a high note and a low.
The high was the arrival on Dec. 20 in Dallas-a hundred miles or so south of Bowie, where my father was born in 1906-of my third grandchild and second grandson, Michael Joseph Thomas. He is by all accounts thriving, and the knowledge that there will be yet another of us to discomfit the ungodly deep into the new century is a source of much comfort and joy.
The sad note was the passing of Irwin Kramer, a man of parts if ever there was one. Irwin lived a rarefied life; the difference was, he knew how to do it-with panache, verve, wit and a distinctive style-with no small help from his one true partner, Terry. Irwin’s roots were deep in the schist of this great city, which his grandfather helped build. His family owned the Edison Hotel, where, to hear Irwin tell it, every morning was like the curtain going up on a new production of Guys and Dolls . What was said of the late Robert Benchley, whom Irwin resembled in many particulars, although with sharper corners, could be said of Irwin Kramer: His passing has left a huge hole in the lives of his friends.
There was something about Irwin that reminded me of my father, as I hope there will also be about Joe Thomas’ new namesake in Dallas. A quarter-century ago, not long after I had left Lehman Brothers, I asked Pop, a senior partner and erstwhile head of the venerable firm, how things were going at 1 William Street. “Terrible!” he snorted in disgust. “Every time I try to get hold of anyone around here, they’re either in a meeting or making a list!”
List-making was Joe Thomas’ shorthand for-if not outright intellectual deficiency-middle-class thinking of the most bourgeois sort. People should be up and about thinking and doing creatively, finding their own style, not raking over old or still-warm coals in the hope of finding truth or emulation. By his standards, list-making bespoke a lumpen craving for identity-by-association and an appalling lack of originality.
Of course, a craving for lists is understandable in a fluid world where the rate at which people can rise economically and organizationally far, far exceeds the rate at which they are able to “rise,” as it were, culturally or intellectually (or, for that matter, socially, as the word is used by those who really understand society). But no matter how you dress it up, list-carpentering is still work for small minds and small men, unoriginal work, and useless when it comes to unlocking the doors that really need to be unlocked if we are going to step all the way through into the bright, shiny new millennium in which this is published.
Most people prefer to have their choices made for them, choices that they may not fully grasp, but choices in which they know themselves to have company whom they can cite, to their mirrors or to others, as estimable or exemplary. Finally, and I can see no way around this, list-making is the easy way out. List-making is safe.
When it comes to list-making, no one takes a back seat to Time . One can understand why. I am truly fond of the magazine’s managing editor, Walter Isaacson, so much so that I introduced him and his daughter to Harry Potter, and thereby instigated a friendship that catapulted J.K. Rowling’s now-immortal creation onto Time ‘s cover, but there is about Walter’s editorial style a quality that reminds me of a famous theatrical anecdote concerning the poet-critic Eugene Field.
Field is most famous for his children’s verses (“The little toy dog is covered with dust …,” “Wynken, Blynken and Nod …,” etc.), but at the time of which I relate (the 1880′s) he was serving as drama critic of The Denver Post . In those days, the great stars of the London and European stage made a good thing of performing in the mining towns of Colorado, where the silver boom was still in full cry. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to the immortal soprano Lilli Lehmann.
One of the reigning luminaries of London’s West End (it might have been Edwin Booth) came through Denver playing Shakespeare. In the mile-high city, he performed the role of King Lear. Field, attending as the city’s theater critic of record, was measured in his praise. “Last night,” he wrote (and this is what makes me think of the way Time so often seems to be edited), “Mr. X played the King as if someone else were about to play the ace.”
Still, lists are fun-especially when parties can be organized around them, and most fun of all is the “the envelope, please” moment when the Time “Persons” of the year and of the century are announced with ruffles, flourishes and self-congratulatory talk-show appearances beyond counting. This year, those laurels were awarded, respectively, to Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.com Inc., and to Albert Einstein.
It is, by any standards, a millennial daily double of great ingenuity. An inspired pair of choices, even though one might quarrel with the selection of Einstein. A great man, no doubt of that, but in this writer’s opinion, the most consequential figure of the 20th century has to have been Adolf Hitler, whose war “enabled” not only Joseph Stalin and the cold war and applied nuclear fission and the unspeakable, slimy geopolitical postwar morass from which would emerge the likes of Henry Kissinger, but also bailed out the U.S. economy and F.D.R.’s New Deal, and might even be said to have tempted the Japanese into a war, the loss of which put Toyotas and such into a great many American carports.
What makes the choice so ingenious is its intellectual symmetry, perhaps unintended. Mr. Bezos represents the new relativity, in which numbers apparently mean nothing, to judge by AMZN’s market value relative to its “fundamentals,” whereas Einstein formulated the old (premillennial) curved math, in which the numbers meant everything when it came to describing the immutable facts of the universe. E=mc2 versus E=anything you like, if you will.
Now, far be it from me to belittle Einstein’s work, which proved useful when it came to incinerating Hiroshima or sending an Apollo mission to the moon, but no one ever got rich off Einsteinian relativity the way they have off the Bezos variety. Since we have spent the past 20 years learning that “rich” isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, it’s the whole and entire point of the cosmic joke, it is the Bezosian calculus of relativity that is “the new philosophy that casts all in doubt,” as was said of Newton in his day.
Here’s how it works. You have a car with a fair market “blue-book” value of $1,000 for which I wish to trade an interest in my house, which knowledgeable local realtors appraise at $10,000, and which is about what I would get if I put it on the market. The trouble is, you want $100,000 for your $1,000 car, which means I’d have to trade you 10 houses, which is nine more than I own, plus I know in my heart of hearts that my house is worth 10 of your car. No way either of us makes out on this basis, which is reckoned according to boring old real-world math.
So what we do is bring in someone expert in Bezosian calculus-a.k.a. an “investment banker”-who for a price will opine that my house is in fact worth $1 million and forget what the experts say, because what do they (or Einstein, for that matter) know from “dot-com”? Now I can swap you one-tenth of my revalued house, and you can tell everyone you got $100,000 for your car-which in fact you just might if the “greater fool” will only continue in force long enough for you to become vested.
In other words, relativity is as relativity does. Nothing to measure; everything done on the say-so. Which is perhaps as it should be, because if we come right down to it, and go to the heart of the matter, where the bucks are, the most influential relativist of the past 1,000 years wasn’t Einstein, it was that other egghead, the one who proclaimed that words-and, by implication, numbers-meant exactly what he wanted them to mean, nothing less, nothing more. So while we’re huzzahing Einstein and Jeff Bezos, how about a big cheer for the guy who really foresaw where we were heading, calculus-wise? How about we hear it for Humpty-Dumpty?