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The Perfect Evening to Celebrate Not Celebrating : He searched his mind for celebratory memories awash in nostalgia and champagne. Then all of a sudden he remembered: New Year’s Eve stinks and always has.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the last couple of weeks I’ve searched my brain for a memory of bygone New Year’s Eves. Any memory. Any New Year’s Eve. So far, zip. Well, not entirely. One year I think I watched my electronic watch crank over a new day, a new month and a new year, all at once. What a thrill that was. I was digitally aroused for about a nanosecond. But I still can’t remember which year it was.

At first I dismissed this absence of memory as one more sign of middle age, another database deleted in the old cranial abyss. And since the original notion came from an editor, it wasn’t really my problem anyway.

Yet the question nagged me. I worried that I had suffered a two- or three-decade blackout, the mother of all hangovers. Maybe I had invented the collapse of the Soviet Union, various riots, floods, earthquakes, wars and slaughters to mask the memory void. Maybe I lived in a perfect world! Maybe I wasn’t even who I thought I was!

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No such luck. Many of my vivid recollections of the past were easily confirmed. For instance, a peek at an almanac proved that Richard Nixon actually had been elected president--twice.

Even so, the New Year’s Eve conundrum still wouldn’t go away. Here were fortysomething days of my life I didn’t have a clue about. I could not coax one great party, one fond auld lang syne from my neurons. But I knew they were supposed to be there. Everybody has at least one great New Year’s Eve, right? A night of warm nostalgia, rosily fuzzed with a couple of magnums of champagne. An enchanted evening when the tuxedo fit and nobody barfed in the backseat.

Then I finally remembered something--New Year’s Eve stinks and always has. It is a truly rotten evening, followed by a day of televised football. What could be worse? It’s an exercise in masochism. First, you trick yourself into greeting a year that probably won’t be any better than the last one. Often, you will do this with people you barely know or can’t stand, all while wearing a funny hat. In my book, it would be much more appropriate if we saluted the next year with a moment of apprehensive silence.

After that blinding insight, the memories came tumbling out--kind of.

When I was a kid, New Year’s Eve was no big deal. In our Southern Baptist household, the night was one more temptation to go astray in this wicked world. Besides, midnight was way past everybody’s bedtime. Later, freed from the constraints of childhood, my peers and I disdained the night as party time for amateurs. Better to report a six-car fatal or barroom stabbing than be in one, we agreed.

Much later, in Los Angeles, I noticed that New Year’s Eve was the subject of ceaseless moralizing. In fact, New Year’s Eve is antithetical to the California lifestyle. Not only does the night call for booze, but also high-fat foods. Traditionally, at least back East, exercise, endive and bottled water have not been part of the celebration.

Furthermore, the turn of the year brings out the Highway Patrol in full force. Umpteen organizations offer rides to the alcohol impaired and do-gooders of all sorts--even a few cemeteries--serve coffee to drivers who manage to arrive alive. Less well-intentioned are the morons who fire guns into the air to show their joy. This habit apparently can be cured in Beirut, but not here.

So I wasn’t too surprised when my friend Norman called with the perfect idea for a truly Southern California New Year’s Eve.

“Hey,” he said over the static of his cell phone, “I’m renting the Everlasting Life Memorial Garden. We’re going to do New Year’s Eve right.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m bringing in a coffee stand and a salad bar,” he replied. “All the espresso and cappuccino you can drink and all the radicchio you can eat. The coffee and salads will all be organic, of course. At midnight we toast in 1996 with double mochas. Then we’ll have a tour of the graveyard, show where the poor jerks who kicked off early from bad habits are buried. After that it’s off to the chapel for an anti-smoking and home safety lecture. The finale is a slide show on how dangerous January is in this state.”

But Norman, I told him, it’s dangerous out there on the last day of December too. I don’t want to take too many risks.

“No problem,” he said. “I’ve got it all taken care of. All my guests will be picked up by armored limousines. And here’s the best part: Each limo will have a security escort, front and back. Believe me, these guys will be armed to the teeth.”

Norman paused, apparently sensing my lingering reservations. “If you want, they’ll fit you in a bulletproof vest before you leave the house,” he said.

I was less than thrilled with Norman’s plans. But he had covered all the angles and he did have a point about January. Lately, it has been a white knuckle month.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll be there, but I may need the coffee to keep me awake through the safety lecture.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” said Norman, sounding abashed, “I’m serving only decaf.”


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