By Hank Stuever
Originally published Dec. 31, 2001, in The Washington Post
It recedes now. You'll feel the year start to slip off this afternoon like some frayed comforter. There'll be that washed-out-blue melancholy light as you head home, against the cold air, and the day will feel like a picture hung slightly crooked. The year was distracting like that — you want to fix it. You'll sit in traffic for a minute staring through everything like you have X-ray eyes; every song on the radio seems to be deliberately taunting you from other years, already so long ago: 1994, 1978, 1981, 1963, 1989.
Later you'll be getting ready for a party you don't really want to go to, and you'll take that three seconds to look in the mirror, suspicious of something.
Before you go, you'll take the dog out, and you'll hear footsteps on the sidewalk behind you. The dog will stop and you will stop and you'll both breathe in, and that's it. There weren't other footsteps besides your own. That's how 2001 ends, a few hours before it really ends, and you go back inside, and get ready to step a little bit more into the future.
Did we ever want a year to be over worse than this one?
The money shot plays over and over on TV.
Secretly, it's our new porn.
We're not supposed to watch it anymore but we still do, especially on shows that look back at 2001, which ought to call themselves "Let's Look at the Buildings Fall Down One More Time and Talk About It Some More."
Plane inserts itself into skyscraper, like a quarter into a Coke machine. It was this, but now it's that. We were asking for definition in our lives, some other kind of meaning, a way to know that we'd amount to something besides our things, our cars, our witty dialogue. We got it, and are still figuring out what to do with it.
The national loathing for New Year's Eve seems even more pronounced this year (the amateurish kissing and drinking, the weightiness of expectation), but still and all, New Year's Eve is a good thing. It's a fascinating invention, time.
We are those ancient nomads, hash-marking on the side of the hut how long it takes the big white ball to go across the night sky, and then come all the way back again, telling stories about it, measuring it against the coming and going of flowers and the seas and babies. So 15,000 years later, tonight, you stand around someone's house in your tight jeans and sip merlot, and wish you were somebody else, and wait for midnight. Worse things have happened.
Worse things have happened than your own private definition of the human condition.
The good news in 2001 was the brief subsiding of pointless ennui. Initially, we withstood the planes hitting the buildings, digested our grief and misdiagnosed it as the death of irony (or humor, luxury, selfishness).
When really all that happened is that we were finally given something to think about other than ourselves -- and sustained this feeling for weeks on end — which surprised us. We were asked to stay alive, stay frosty, stay aware.
How stupid to think you were going to die of boredom.
Because up to a point, in 2001, it felt like our world might die of boredom, that the 1990s would simply never be over. The pop singer Mariah Carey sent up a warning flare in late summer, from various undisclosed rehabilitation hospitals: The end is near. Secretly, perhaps she envied J. Lo to the point where it drove her to madness, exhaustion, candy bars. But maybe Mariah was also a bodily vehicle for the larger message that nobody deciphered, a prophet in our midst.
Many, many New Year's Eves from now we'll think back on the beedy-beedy sound of everyone's musical Nokia phones, and the idea that the meeting would be in New York unless it was in Chicago or Seattle (and the constantly advertised notion that everyone lived this way, everyone but you), the easy amassing of frequent-flier miles, the French blue dress shirts and squared-off Prada loafers and shag haircuts with blond highlights. The whiny 27-year-olds who apparently knew nothing of economic cycles or Newtonian physics, that what goes up must go down, including their ability to switch jobs every six months because they didn't like the flavor of the job they had. (Did all of life bore you? The Onion wasn't funny anymore. Rock was dead. Hip-hop was dead. Politics was dead. We seemed to be pronouncing everything as out, as So Five Minutes Ago, as belly-up, and in most cases all of it sadly was.)
The Beyonces, the Xboxes, the Planets of Apes, the Harry Potters, the sexy Moulin Rouges, the hope we hung on Brad and Jennifer's happiness, the Zone diets, the fringe. The endless freaks to get on.
Now you know that none of this was supposed to matter.
(You already knew it. Okay.)
(Let us agree that now you really know it.)
Perhaps, a friend suggests, there should be legislation against New Year's Eve. Some people would vote in favor. It would take off the pressure, the forced staring at the passage of time, the needless logistics of dinner and parties, the drunk driving.
But it's that terrible mix of the sad and the possible, of the year slipping away, that will always keep us coming back for more. Nobody really pays attention to the words to "Auld Lang Syne," but everyone knows what it means. It means goodbye, right? It means goodbye and it means forever.
A bad year? The picture is crooked, and maybe it looks good that way.
Let someone else decide.
Let a few more New Year's Eves go by — some of them spent on the couch, flipping channels; some of them spent on beaches, gazing at stars. Let them blur together. Let there be pictures that end up collected in shoe boxes in spare closets, pictures of unfortunate hairstyles and strange clothes, and yes, here's one of those buildings collapsing in 2001. That was part of it all, too. That's why we have New Year's Eve, so that there will be shoe boxes of photos we never look at and someone will say, no, I think that was later.
I think this picture comes after 2001.
I think that was 2002.
Yes, because, look, it's different.
You won't be sure how you can tell the difference, but the point is that you can.