Doin’ it right

I have always felt the need to get New Year’s Eve “right.” I don’t think of myself as a festive person, but the pressure weighs on me to make certain days special — typically turning points or important dates from years past. And New Year’s Eve checks both boxes for me: Over the years, I’ve fallen in love, felt spiritually lost and made out with strangers on Dec. 31st. Other years fade into the void, yielding nothing when I search my memory. But mostly those past years of blowout parties, trips to Cape Cod and nascent relationships colored my attitude toward New Year’s Eve and set the standard high.

As the capstone on the year, New Year’s Eve feels to me like the final word on that waning year. A new year awakens in the morning, and the night before seems like an inescapable commentary on the past 12 months, showing me whether I triumphed or failed. Maybe unfortunately, I’m persuaded that human memory is largely our own construct. As I pare down my raw mental footage of the past year, New Year’s Eves feel like supervisors, examining and influencing what I believe about the years of my life.

Mercifully, New Year’s Eve 2019 broke with this suffocating psychological tic. It wasn’t a showstopper. It wasn’t extraordinary. The party was a gathering of early risers, so guests were gone just after midnight. It was just another night in suburban Oregon — sushi burritos, ’70s disco and a dozen family friends drinking moderately. The streets outside were quiet and dark; no fireworks filled the sky. And yet it was wonderful. I played dominoes like a retiree and flirted with no one. Quite to my surprise, New Year’s Eve 2019 was an object lesson in life’s simple pleasures.

Though I’ve always been at ease defying tradition, the conventional idea of New Year’s Eve has still felt like a bar to clear. If my New Year’s Eve was to be atypical, I thought, it needed to be at least as good as any traditions I’d be turning down. The “classic” New Year’s Eve — Times Square high jinks on TV in the background, assorted spirits, music and midnight kisses — sets a pretty thoroughgoing standard. Even if liquor and TV don’t appeal to me, I still imagine a breathless, hopeful atmosphere. That’s a hard one to beat.

This past New Year’s Eve won by rejecting that premise for what the night should be. I shook loose my immiserating notion of the night I ought to be having. Something about the turning of calendar pages used to leave me existential and detached on New Year’s Eve; this year, however, it scarcely crossed my mind. I went to sleep pleasantly surprised that such a simple evening had been so comforting, so fun. Without knowing how I got there, I reached that vaunted state of “being in the moment.” For the space of one evening, I was conscious only of the people in front of me, of their laughter, of the hardships of their year and of their hopes for the year to come.

Alas, I am not a simple man — to my chagrin, I have expensive tastes and a flair for melodrama — so I’m forever caught off guard when low-key affairs hit the spot. An evening with friends, games and good food surely sounds like a safe recipe for a good time, and lo and behold, it was. If offered a New Year’s Eve spent in downtown San Francisco, I’d likely have accepted before knowing how much I’d enjoy the night I had instead. But New Year’s just highlights the persistent chasm between what I think I want and what I actually enjoy. That sorry misperception follows me everywhere.

The joy of my understated New Year’s does, however, suggest I could love simplicity after all. In fact, the recipe has come into focus after 2019: a helping of Whitney Houston, a hefty portion of the Village People, any food I love but wouldn’t have normally paid for, a nice smattering of my favorite people and a few hours left to our own devices, making outlandish predictions and commitments for the year to come. 

In this regard, New Year’s Eve is precisely like any moment on the cusp of something else — it’s a chance to bask in the promise of the future and savor what we have in the present. If this strikes you as kitschy, I don’t blame you. But as someone who spends too little time counting his blessings, I think I should indulge in optimism more often, especially when the occasion calls for it.

Clearly, trying to get New Year’s “right” is somewhere between overrated and misguided. Great expectations have only ever left me with room for great disappointment. In Daft Punk’s apropos 2013 hit “Doin’ It Right,” I’ve always rolled my eyes at the inane line “If you lose your way tonight, that’s how you know the magic’s right,” but I’m now convinced that getting over my silly fixations is the point of New Year’s. The end of the year is the perfect time to let the year go, to cut loose the worries and the preoccupations and set a course for another, different, better trip around the sun. After all, any evening that makes you feel unburdened and cleansed has to count as doing it right.

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected].