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Kingston, NY, Friday, Jan. 2, 2008

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Moving, Turning in Time
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

THIS New Year's Eve, for a change, I had a date. We are, in Pea Patch vernacular, 'running together'; I'm still amused by the notion, since nothing has inspired me to break into more than a brisk trot in 20 years, and barring some unforeseen emergency, I have no such intention. Still, in the Patch, if you ride in the front seat of somebody's truck more than a couple of times, you're running with them.

I was married once, for about 20 years, and I remember having a standard line about the benefits of marriage, when asked: you don't have to worry about getting a date for New Year's Eve. For reasons that still elude me, it's the one time when being dateless prickles. Maybe it's conditioning. Ringing out the old seems to require a kind of mob consciousness.

When I was a little kid, my parents would throw New Years parties. Those were the days when women never wore pants; their skirts were either skin tight with a kick-pleat, or full enough to park a bus under. Men wore buttoned-down shirts, smelled like Old Spice, and ignored children as best they could; the ladies were usually cheek-pinchers. Couples arrived at the house with covered dishes, the gals shifting to the kitchen and the gents gathering in what was most often called the rumpus room. Now they call it a family room. I never figured out what a rumpus was, but I saw early hints of it at those year-end parties.

Good tea-toteling Baptists for the rest of the year, on such occasions church friends weren't invited. Conversation was a little more interesting, I noticed. The orange juice always smelled slightly off, the music got a little loud and so did the laughter. The adults seemed inappropriately happy for the entire evening, and even indulged in a good bit of touching -- touching wasn't standard operating procedure in the up-tight 50s -- and dancing to Sinatra-type tunes. Maybe that's where I got the idea that you got the green light to let 'er rip on Dec. 31.

By the time I had a turn at it, it was the 60s and the world had opened up in front of my bedazzled eyes. I was looking for a mob to celebrate with. I headed for San Francisco, the city of dreams, and I looked out on from my front window in the Berkeley hills. My college days were mostly about street theater and rowdy protests, New Years spent jammed into China Town with its colorful crowds and fabulous food, flying higher and higher. By then I knew what to put in the orange juice, although I preferred my booze more to the point -- and I learned quickly enough that ending a year by puking in your shoe wasn't a good way to start a new one. Ahhh, youth.

The world seemed bigger then, more full of wonder. I spent one New Year's Eve pondering the silicone-filled 44-inch breasts of a half-naked Carol Doda in North Beach; she was swinging on a trapeze high above the crowd and no matter how fast she moved, those 44s seemed slightly ahead of her, as solid as Rushmore. There was an element of danger there; you never knew when the cops would raid the place as Ms. Doda was considered lewd. Those were the days when bare breasts were considered a blasphemy, well before the all-naked shows, as the nation awaited the first court decisions; now you can have your lunch delivered to your table by one of Carol's clones.

To my mind, I was wallowing in the new incarnation of the old Barbary Coast, that strip of fast-talking pitch men and wide-eyed rubes -- all of the city's decadent rebellion in one plastic package. We went on to a comedy club, and finished the evening with a drink at the Top of the Mark, 19 stories above that jewel of a city, gazing out at a future bright with promise and adventure.

Then the kids came. You know how it is; adventure was replaced by Disney movies and family traditions and the occasional babysitter, who you were obligated to call a couple of times to make sure the kids hadn't killed, or visa-versa. If you're thinking about having children, you should know that they save up things like soaring fevers and broken bones for when you've tucked them safely into the back of your mind, and you're dressed to the nines; this requires you to come screaming home to arrive in time for THEM to puke in your shoe. It's alright though, surprisingly, since their faces are dearer to you and infinitely more interesting than the crowds that used to dazzle you.

When you're doing the linear thing, the stages are predictable -- the kids become teens and you spend your New Years evening worrying if they're pitching themselves off a cliff to see if they can fly; mortality doesn't register until you're a parent, yourself. The next phase is empty nest and reinventing yourself. Interests change, patterns resolve or don't; there's always some new place to invest yourself.

I don't know when I noticed that I was happier without the party at New Years; it was an evolution of attention. They say you slow down with age, but that isn't how I experienced it. I was never the one who stayed on, partying until the bitter end, anyway; I'd get my fill of hilarity and then slip away, unnoticed. It just became evident to me that the things I was thinking and feeling on a day designated for change were more interesting than any bright diversions.

I don't make hardbound resolutions, either; they've always felt like a set-up to me. I don't need to give myself a set of challenges to feel badly about in six months. Lose weight, for instance: Lord, that's not a resolution, that's a cry to the universe -- but my metabolism isn't listening. Besides, does it make sense to start a diet in the winter, when you've gone into hibernation mode and need the calories as a hedge against cold? No, keep your resolutions.

Affirmations are a bit different. New Years is definitely a time of gratitude for what's ending and hopeful longing toward what's to come. It's kind of like the biggest, brightest New Moon that rolls around, asking you to put out a vision for the coming year. The vibration will change, since we give it another number; our attention will change, since the traditions and weather patterns of our planet require them to. We have a winter to get through, a spring to anticipate. Using the evening to create a new energy you wish to infuse the year with makes a good deal more sense to me than that shoe thing.

Planet Waves
Somewhere near Times Square. Photo by Danielle Voirin.
So another year's ended -- and what a year it was. It deserves a celebration. I'm thinking dinner at the one up-town restaurant here in the Patch; the one that sets your place with matching silverware and doesn't ask you if you want a side of white gravy with everything you order. Then maybe a nightcap, because this IS New Years, after all.

Not having at least one drink on Dec. 31 is like Christmas without candy canes; Easter without eggs. It strikes a false note. I once spent a New Year's Eve in the California Sierra's, snowed in with about 30 of the nicest Mormon people you ever met and I went a bit stir-crazy. We'd played several group games, including charades, and -- about four hours in, a good half hour past the legal limit for niceness -- had finally divided into neat little groups of pairs to play Yahtzee.

I'd downed half a dozen hot ciders, smiled pleasantly until my cheeks hurt and broken a sweat as my New Years authenticity gathered in a scratchy ball in my throat. I'm sure that if I could have braced myself with a nice Scotch and 7, I wouldn't have jumped up, waving my hands in the air and shouting, "Scratch my Yahtzee," while laughing maniacally. There's nothing more sobering than 30 suddenly quiet Mormons in a snowstorm, believe me; in its own way, that was invisible vomit in a proverbial shoe.

There are two local pubs in the Pea Patch, if you can call them that. One is the VFW, which does little business besides bingo and booze, except for planting dozens of little flags in dozens of little graveyards on Memorial Day; the other is a ramshackle establishment called the Mule Lip. The boys from the cop shop show up at closing and park in the lot, to pick off those too drunk to notice the black and white parked next to them.

The locals are serious drinkers, if you count daily beer by the twelve-pack as serious; me, I like my snake-bite medicine neat and occasional. If I'm obliged to find a year-end drink at one or the other, I'd rather go with the weaving-on-their-feet warblers of country karaoke at the Mule Lip than the slightly sinister 'patriotism' found in a group of drunken vets. I thought I might have been saved the choice when my guy mentioned that he'd thought to bring some wild turkey back from his Christmas visit with family; turns out, he meant the kind you shoot in the yard and cook. Silly me -- for a nanosecond, I'd forgotten where I was.

Planet Waves
Photo by Danielle Voirin.
So it's probably the Mule Lip that will get my quick in-and-out business this year. One glass raised to 2008, with all its trails and all its thrills. Then it's likely home to a comfy couch, a DVD and the inevitable fireworks that the Midwest uses to punctuate all celebrations. There will surely be some hillbilly that's saved back some quarter-sticks of dynamite for a New Years sound off; that will mean more potholes in the morning. The sky will fill with color and light, like that city of dreams when I was a kid, and the stars will be as bright as they ever ... as they always ... are.

The truth is, the year isn't really turning; we just pretend it is. We made it up, the whole calendar thing, because we can't bear not to know where we are in linear time. We have the need to chart our progress, keep our momentum. But the world isn't linear anymore; it probably never was. We aren't linear any more. You can sense that, can't you?

Time is slipping. It's happening all around us. Sometimes it drags: have you ever waited this long -- this absurdly, achingly, painfully long for an incumbent president to take the nation? Doesn't it seem like years since he got the nod? Sometimes it folds, taking whole weeks with it. Think about Christmas -- that was just a few days ago, yet it feels like months. By the time you read this, your 2009 New Year memories will be tucked away in your personal archives and we'll be into another cycle.

New Years is, loosely, about the celebration of time -- but our experience of that is changing, as are we, ourselves. The thing about New Year's Eve -- date or not, drink or not -- is that it isn't about the year at all. It's about you. Where are YOU this year? What do you bring to the moment? What have you learned? What do you want? Where will you put your energy and attention?

So reading this, safely launched into 2009 with all its promise and problems, think of me in the Pea Patch on the year's turning, raising my glass in salute to you -- to us, all of us. That's what New Years is about, has always been about: us. Where we're going, what we're becoming, how high our vision can soar and how wide our hearts can stretch. And if my good wishes count for much, it's going to be a heck of a ride!

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