A New Year's reflection
Author’s Note: Every year, at the turn of the year, I tend to get all maudlin and reflective. Most of the time, I keep it to myself. But one January, a little over a decade ago, I committed my thoughts on the subject to print in my old magazine, The Weekly Standard. I hadn’t even been drinking. Or I had, but I’d sobered up by the time I filed. The passage of time has a way of doing that to us. In any case, below is that mini-essay. Have a Happy New Year, and we’ll be back with fresh Slack Tides next week:
For the last many years, my New Year's Eves have had a ritual sameness: Put on my party heels, pour several warm-up pops, then take off for a friend's house to join him, his lovely wife, and a circle of regulars, who, as my friend delicately puts it, "come to watch you make an ass of yourself." It's an evening full of bellicose singing, filthy limericks, libidinous overtures, and tearful confessions. That's when my wife usually says, "Are you done? We're here. Time to get out of the car."
Once inside, we play a game called Salad Bowl, in which players give their team clues about words written on slips of paper by other players, drawn from a bowl. The women write the names of famous people or things. The men tend to favor popular euphemisms for unspeakable acts that would draw a suspended sentence with heavy community service if practiced in large swaths of the Bible Belt. Around midnight, somebody half-heartedly suggests turning on Ryan Seacrest in Times Square to see if his ball has dropped. But by then, deeply into our own besotted rhythm, we quickly return to barking out "Phoenix Flugelhorn!" or "Crisco Pole Vault!" and watching our wives/designated drivers recoil in horror.
I don't typically welcome hangovers, but my New Year's Day one is practically restorative. The physical discomfort helps mute the mental anguish that inevitably accompanies the turning of the year. Unlike most people, I bypass the disheartening crush of destined-for-failure resolutions. Maybe this year I'll try to pay my back taxes or let my aged uncle out of the padlocked tool shed—we'll see how it goes. But ever since I was a kid, I've been acutely aware of time's passage, and my inability to halt it.
For me, January 1 is always a disquieting marker, since, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "Last year's words belong to last year's language, and next year's words await another voice." It somehow feels as though you leave the old life that went before that date behind, and you must start over and reconnect with it for it to count as part of your present. So the simplest things—the first call to family members, the first story written, the first fish caught—take on pressing significance.
This year, however, we broke with tradition. Felled by flu and without a babysitter, my wife and I stayed home with the kids. We played games, sent them off to bed, then slow-danced at midnight in front of the fireplace right into 2010. A few hours later, I went to see my two sons in their bunk bed, dead asleep, wishing to be the first person they saw this new decade. As I patted the head of Luke, who is 10, he bolted upright, wiping sleep from his panicked eyes. "No worries," I said, "just wanted to tell you Happy New Year, pal." He looked alarmed, as if someone had cut his Christmas vacation short and was shuffling him off to school.
Luke wasn't the only one afraid that he'd been pickpocketed by time. I remember where I was exactly 10 years ago this evening: hunkered down at my in-laws' house to ring in the new century. My sister-in-law played "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight—the Kenny G "Millennium Mix" version that was popular that year. Unable to accept that the last century I'd ever live through had been inaugurated by Kenny G, I snuck off to a back room where a two-month-old Luke slept in a baby carrier so I could rock him until the song was over.
I can now only dimly recall the new-parent apprehension, how the specter of having this strange being in my charge for at least the next 18 years looked like a sprawling infinity of duty and expense and obligation. But I don't remember much more. Just that I blinked, and now here we are, me driving with the parking brake on, futilely trying to slow time down, to keep him a kid as long as he's willing to stay one.
Later this New Year's Day I took off for my home river, needing to catch my first fish of the year. I caught 26 instead. I don't believe in omens, though now might be a good time to start. Maybe the New Year isn't so intimidating after all. Nor the decade that will unfold behind it. The one that will see my kids become adults. Why get spooked by the 10 years to come?
That's all the time in the world. Isn't it?
Still haven’t subscribed, even with the paywall going up in January? Procrastination is a bad way to kick off the New Year. I’d been meaning to tell you that, but was putting it off.
Bonus track: We could always do worse than letting Van Morrison play us into the New Year. Here’s a 2005 track called “Celtic New Year.” Which technically, is observed on November 1, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. But I’ve worked the judges, and since the song has “New Year” in the title, they’ll allow it. It has everything you could want: strings, a warm horn section, some nice piano runs, a little tin whistle, Van Morrison echoing his own guitar-picking near the end. Blue-eyed soul at its finest. At least I think it’s blue-eyed - it’s hard to tell with his auto-tint glasses.