The Person of the Year
A friend recently posted (I nearly typed “a friend recently said” but we all know that we don’t actually say anything to anyone these days, but merely update and tweet) a question about why “Auld Lang Syne” is the theme music for New Year’s Eve; why not something more upbeat, more funky, more par-tay? It’s a reasonable query. The only truly rockin’ New Year’s Eve tune that leaps to my mind is Prince’s “1999”; a decade past that highly optimistic yet damp squib of a party date, it feels as quaint as the Y2K panic and meeting people at the gate at airports. Still, its funky beat perhaps beats the melancholy farewell to the past that Robert Burns penned in 1788:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?
For those of you whose Scots is rusty, that’s “old” acquaintance; the phrase “auld lang syne” more or less translates to “for old time’s sake.” Singing the chorus in English results in “For old time’s sake, my dear, for old time’s sake, we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet, for old time’s sake.”
Not precisely the rump-shaking, cup o’ binging the party-minded are looking for at the stroke of midnight, especially in America. Here, we typically emphasize not just drink and debauch when it comes to the New Year, but the coming year itself: all those resolutions, all those plans, all that “2010, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” Outside of a few year-end round-ups of news stories (usually depressing) and some Top Ten lists (usually half-wrong), the dying year, like the elderly personification of Old Man Time, is shunted off to the rest home of memory with the briefest of backward glances (much like the elderly themselves). Until the “death reel” pops up during the Academy Awards telecast, people barely remember all those who vanished along with the year itself.
But the meaning of “Auld Lang Syne,” which few who drunkenly bellow it pause to consider, is precisely that backward glance. Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind, is a rhetorical question: obviously not, and the passing of the year is the appropriate moment to bring them not just to mind but to acknowledge them, even as you toast with those around you, friends and family, strangers even, who have not vanished, who are present in that moment (an artificial moment, manufactured like all our calendar days precisely for such rituals) when the new supplants the old.
For many years, I hosted a New Year’s Eve party; at five minutes to midnight, I made a point to turn the music down, put Dick Clark on mute, and quiet the crowd for a toast. It was always the same toast, and I’ve continued to make it, even at parties not my own (sometimes to the bemusement and annoyance of others). I would thank the guests or host for, and then lift my glass with the phrase “To absent friends.” For a second or two, silence would briefly descend on everyone, before the roar of conviviality returned. But that second is crucial to meaning of New Year’s Eve. Forget about the “meaning of Christmas” (and its ludicrous proxy, “the war on Christmas”); set aside the resolutions that you’ll invariably fail to embrace (pegging your hopes on the Chinese New Year in February). The absent friend, whether dead, lost, or simply at a great distance (and social networking is still no substitute); the person who, for whatever reason, meant something to you and is no longer present, who only comes to you now in dreams or memories or cold pixels; who once perhaps shook their rump to Prince, their plastic cup of beer sloshing like laughter, but who is now on the other side of all those other New Year’s Eve’s, all those dead years: that person or persons is the real meaning of the holiday.
There was some speculation that Time Magazine’s annual irrelevancy, the Person of the Year, would be WikiLeaks founder and electronic bomb thrower Julian Assange. Instead, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of that strange nation of Zuckerberglandia, where many if not most of us find ourselves wasting a good deal of time, got the nod (if Assange had Aaron Sorkin around to put a few words in his mouth, perhaps he would have edged out that particular “Revenge of the Nerds” moment). We here at Monkey Goggles would like to take a different tack, and nominate as our Person of the Year someone who wears far more many faces than can ever be put in any book, digital or otherwise. This midnight, do us and them the honor of raising a cup of kindness (or whatever poison you’ve picked) to the true person of this year and every year:
To the Absent Friend.
Happy New Year.