I don't even have children yet, and I already pity my grandchildren. Two generations from now, I expect the hypothetical rugrats will ask their gray-haired grandpa what he was doing when the year 1999 gave way to 2000. When that day comes, I will certainly wish that I had a better tale to tell. Maybe I will invent one for their amusement: something with aliens and explosions, maybe including a little romance if the kids are old enough to appreciate it. There's no doubt that the youngsters will be horrified at the prospect of the elderly patriarch of the family getting some action on New Year's Eve, and that will be part of the fun.
If I'm forced to tell the truth, I will remind the kids that many people thought the first moments of the year 2000 would be accompanied with explosions and panic, if not the end of the world as we know it. Nuclear annihilation had been a real threat for most of my life. My generation learned in school that warheads were pointed in our direction because of something called the Cold War. We were egotistical enough to believe that the world would meet its end in our lifetime. I remember hearing the song 1999 by Prince on the radio in 1983 and wondering if we would even make it that long.
And then, just as we were coming of age, everything started to change. The Berlin Wall was dismantled and its components were sold as souvenirs. Nuclear arsenals ceased to exist. The Soviet Union fell apart as a series of leaders with names that were difficult to pronounce and harder to spell played hot potato with Communism. Nasty upstart countries like Iraq were swiftly smacked into submission. I can't speak for my whole generation, but I know that I personally felt a tad cheated by this turn of events. We had been told since birth that our day of reckoning would be coming. Were the feelings of impending doom supposed to simply disappear? I don't think it's coincidental that people my age came to be characterized as detached and cynical, seeing how our dreams of sweet oblivion were yanked out from under our feet.
As the year 2000 approached, somebody decided that Y2K would be an appropriate condensation of the date. How brilliant! A four-syllable word was contracted into three, preventing countless hours of wasted speech. More importantly, the nine characters in "year 2000" could be squeezed into three spaces, giving hysterical journalists the opportunity to write succinct headlines about the infamous Y2K bug. What a nightmare! Who could have imagined that computer systems built in earlier decades would have lasted so long? More to the point, who could have imagined that computer systems built in earlier decades would not have been upgraded to recognize the actual four-digit year? Up until 1999, we got along quite well using truncated two-digit years, but now the hardware manufacturers and software engineers were forced to fix the glitch so our precious machines could make accurate calculations past Prince's big year. We needed to beat the New Year's Eve deadline or suffer horrible consequences: cities without power, airplanes falling from the sky, nuclear meltdowns galore. Just like that, the threat of nuclear annihilation made the comeback of the century.
By this point in the story, my grandchildren will likely be bored to tears. (One can only imagine how impatient young people will be in a few decades. I can imagine a future packed with five-second commercials and one-minute pop songs as attention spans spiral downward.) I will make assurances that this historical background is an essential part of the tale. They will love me enough to forgive this long-winded delivery and allow me to continue.
I'll help the kids do the math and calculate that I was 28 years old when the 1900s went into the history books. I may have to remind them that the 21st Century did not actually begin until the first day of 2001, as the very first century started at the dawning of the year 1 A.D. so the first year of each subsequent century must start with the number one, not zero. Then I will rant and rave about millennium fever.
Until that moment in history, the word "millennium" was reserved for science fiction novels and trivia contests. If you started a sequence with years, decades, centuries, most people would finish it off with eternity, maybe eons ... certainly not millennium. It was dragged out of a dusty closet and co-opted by the advertising industry to sell us new cars and sneakers. This glittering word came to represent the enormity of what would collectively happen to us at that big moment when the millennium arrived. As expected, my generation remained coolly detached from the hubbub.
"Who cares about the millennium?" we all gasped, rolling our eyes in unison. It's all a big numbers game anyway, and nobody likes math. The Christian calendar is based on the birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth, but the accuracy of this system has always been in question. Didn't the church skip over a handful of years in the Middle Ages? Wasn't there a time when all the months had 28 days? And didn't scholars later learn that Jesus was likely born in the year 3 B.C.?
While I don't know anyone who took the time to consider what they would be doing when their car odometer rolled to 100,000 miles, I can remember talking to friends about what we would be doing in the year 2000. Wasn't this moment simply a glorified, collective odometer rollover? When you take leap years and atomic clocks into consideration, the whole numbering system seems as arbitrary as the order of the alphabet. The countdown to the millennium held little interest for many spectators, myself included, yet for some reason it seemed to tickle the back of the head.
In late 1990, when I was 19 years old, I developed a huge crush on a girl who was smitten with my best friend, despite the fact that he was already dating someone. It felt like we were traveling through a Bermuda love triangle. Before the year was out, my best friend and the girl were in love and they would later marry. (I was at the wedding, standing by his side as best man.) Prior to that, the three of us had a long discussion about where we would be in the year 2000. It was decided that we would meet in Wyoming at Devil's Tower, the bizarre mountainous lump made famous in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In retrospect, it's hard for me to understand why we made that choice. Devil's Tower is a mecca of sorts for rock climbers, and none of us knew how to scale a sheer cliff. Never mind the fact that Wyoming in December is bitterly cold and buried under a foot of snow. We didn't really think it through, and why should we? At age 19, a date nine years in the future might as well be a century away. Or a millennium.
Not long after that, I fell hopelessly in love with a gorgeous, brilliant, sweet lady who looked forward to parenthood as much as I did. After we had been dating for a few months, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. While I never gave her an engagement ring, we spent our college years sketching out the next 50 years of our life together. Then doubts gave way to disagreements, and we broke up in 1995, after spending three years together.
My grandkids will probably wonder why I'm talking about my college girlfriend instead of the matter at hand, and in response I will try to explain the undeniable power of first love. The experiences are mind-blowing, and the memories of those times remain almost tangible for years to come. In addition to the real memories, you can start to invent future memories of experiences that could potentially happen down the line. In my mind, these were just as intense as the real memories. I knew what it would feel like to marry my first love. I heard the cries of our first child. I watched the two of us sprouting gray hairs and growing old together. And yes, I had projected what we would be doing together in the year 2000, only to find myself overwhelmingly single and unattached when the day finally came.
The lengthy prologue now complete, I will relate to my grandchildren the story of what I was doing on the final night of the 1900s. This assumes, of course, that they have not fallen asleep or disowned me.
New Year's Eve 1999 fell on a Friday night. I spent the day in the office, listening to co-workers tell me about their plans, both magnificent and mundane: some had purchased expensive tickets to exclusive parties at swanky nightclubs, others planned a quiet night at home with their families, and so on. I had a few friends who had chosen to be out of the country for the dawning Y2K, just in case the rumors about end of the world were true. Without exception, all of these people were making plans with husbands, wives, lovers, or significant others. I had no such person in my life. I had moved to Boston from the Midwest years earlier, so family time was not an option. My last relationship had ended in the spring, and since then my life had been peppered with a few glimmers of romance that didn't pan out, meaning that I was now facing the biggest date night of the past 1000 years without a fair damsel to accompany me. However, my solo status meant that I would not be forced to commit to any one event. I felt free to move from party to party as the night wore on, and so I did.
The first stop on the Millennium Party Train was a barbecue joint managed by the guy my friend Valerie was dating. I had met Valerie in high school when we performed together in a school play and by a strange coincidence we both ended up moving to Boston in the late 90s. There was a time in the deep dark past when I thought that I had fallen in love with young Valerie. We used to talk on the phone every night until the wee hours of the morning, and I thought the intimacy we shared on those calls must be romantic love. I later learned that this was simply a matter of two members of the human race developing a close friendship. (Silly me!) We sat together at the bar of the rib joint, eating appetizers, babbling about the potential of disaster due to that nasty Y2K bug, reminding each other about our shared pasts, and every once in a while Valerie's boyfriend would come over to peck her cheek. Seeing Valerie in that light made me think of her as a missed opportunity, a woman in my past that could have been something more if the stars had been properly aligned. While I had no passionate feelings for her, I still wondered whether my lonely status had been my own making. After all, here I was at age 28, approaching 30, unmarried with no children and no prospects on the horizon. Wasn't I supposed to be closer to the end of the line by now?
I gave Valerie a big hug and left her at the rib joint for the evening. I got into my car and set off to do some more soul-searching. I remembered how my grandmother had been nagging me at Thanksgiving about my romantic prospects, wondering I might actually settle down one of these years. She told me that I was too picky, and I suggested that maybe the women I knew were the picky ones. Grandma simply shook her head.
I arrived at the next gathering about 20 minutes before midnight, so it was clear that this would be where I brought in the beginning of the next 1000 years. As I pushed myself into the apartment and looked around, my brain swelled up with anxiety. I knew that most of my friends had been invited to this party -- their names had appeared on the email invitation alongside my own -- but I could find no familiar faces. With all the hustle-bustle of the holiday season, it had not crossed my mind to compare notes with my friends. Had another party trumped this one? Did everyone flee the country without telling me? I felt dizzy, stupid, and more than a little bit alone.
Then I spotted Josh, a former roommate of mine, standing alongside his girlfriend Ashley. Salvation! Josh was holding a glass of champagne in each hand and looked to be quite sloshed. I shimmied through the wall-to-wall crowd and said hello to the giggly couple, unconsciously reminding myself about the particulars of their relationship. They had met as teenagers, just like Valerie and myself, but the two them had gone through the trouble of dating for a good chunk of their high school careers. They broke up around the time Josh graduated, when he moved to Massachusetts. I met him shortly after that. He was only 19 when we got an apartment together and quite opinionated for such a youngster. When we lived together, he criticized me for my lingering feelings of loss over my college girlfriend. "Burn your bridges," he said, "and never look back." Good advice, I thought, and I took it to heart.
A year or two after that, I learned that Josh was seeing Ashley again. Never look back, huh? Perhaps never has various meanings depending on the circumstances. Like I said, first love is undeniably powerful. The high school sweethearts fell in love again as adults and she moved to Boston to be with him. The adorable couple was now making plans to be married. Meanwhile, my bridges had been burned. There would be no second chance for my first love.
I was handed a glass of champagne. Josh the computer whiz pontificated about the dreaded Y2K bug while the seconds ticked away. Someone in the crowded apartment had turned on the television, and now we were watching the insanity at Times Square while the chaotic conversation grew louder and louder. We got down to the last ten seconds, and someone started counting down. The crowd of revelers chanted along:
THREE! TWO! ONE!
The Times Square ball dropped. The millennial moment had arrived, and yet there was a split-second of hesitation as everyone at the party assured themselves that the world was indeed planning to stay in one piece. Relief washed over the crowd, and everyone screamed "Happy New Year!" at top volume.
Happy New Year. Not Millennium. Get that? Nobody said a word about the millennium when we reached Y2K. Nothing exploded. The world did not cease to exist. I watched people smooching and hooting and guzzling cheap champagne, and listened carefully to the drunken banter of the crowd. When you get right down to it, this was your average New Year's Eve party: nothing more, nothing less. So much for the hype.
I said goodnight to Josh and Ashley and the Millennium Party Train departed for the next station. I walked through Boston Common and watched a mob of drunken citizens stumble across the park, including a pack of unsupervised preteen girls with slurred voices who barely looked old enough to have outgrown Barbie dolls. I've never seen such a pure display of hedonism. I didn't know whether to be proud or nauseous, so I drove home.
1 A.M. approached on the East Coast, which meant that it was almost midnight back home in the Midwest. The couple who had traveled through the Bermuda love triangle with me in 1990 were throwing a party in Nebraska with all of our mutual friends, and I thought it would be fun to phone them right before the millennial moment and celebrate all over again. The thought of two countdowns in one evening made it all the more obvious that this event was completely arbitrary.
I made the phone call and learned that the hostess, the girl I adored nine years ago, was drunk and miserable, sobbing in the bathroom because two friends had declined their invitation to attend, claiming they had work commitments, when in truth they had planned a party of their own. The hostess told me the story with words that had been soaked in vodka and tears, and then the phone was handed around the room to other friends, who all seemed quite uncomfortable. Her husband, my best friend, got on the line and I mentioned that proposed trip to Devil's Tower. He was so distracted by his wife's behavior that he didn't even remember the conversation. The man sounded positively humiliated. I hung up the phone a few minutes later, thinking about our past triangulation. Had the fates allowed for it, I could have been the humiliated husband. Nope. No humiliation. No husband. No nothing.
Then I went to sleep and had wonderful dreams.
Now that my grandkids are completely depressed and annoyed by my lengthy account of the last few hours of 1999, I'll get to the point.
Y2K was supposed to be a gateway to the future, but I had spent most of the night wallowing in the past. As I fluttered into dreamland, however, something clicked in my head. Humanity had survived the awful Y2K bug. We had not been exterminated. So, in a sense, we were living on borrowed time. Every moment from now until the real end of the world would be a gift.
Extrapolating that concept to my own life, I noticed that those future memories from old relationships were no longer in the future. They were behind me. I wouldn't be haunted anymore. It became alarmingly clear that every day is the same as the one before. Every individual second is identical. The difference is made when you choose what to do with your time. Should you watch television? Eat peanuts? Mope? Whine? Sleep? Dance a jig? Celebrate life? The choice is up to you.
A year after these events, in early 2001, I would be turning 30. Some people are horrified at the prospect of being forced into the next column of adulthood, but what is that but another irrelevant odometer rolling from one number to another? No matter what my grandma said, life makes its own timetable. It sets its own odometer. Lots of people were single when the 1900s officially became history. Others were married. Still others were courting or engaged or licking their wounds from a love affair that had just fallen apart. Since that time, some of the married couples have split up. Some of the single folks have found a lover. Everything changes as nature has its way with us.
Having said all that, I will leave my grandchildren with one final cornball expression before I retire to the bedroom for a well-deserved nap. You may want to pay attention too:
A millennium is simply a measure of time. A new one starts every second. When will yours begin?