In the balance of a moment, much can happen. Or not, and instead the moment itself is all that happens, and maybe that is enough.
Ready or not -- or, more likely, tired of it already -- the most anticipated New Year's ever arrives at the stroke of midnight tonight. But after more than a year of exhaustive millennium-watching and century-dissection, the year 2000 begins with something less than clarity.
It means something, but what? It should be noted, but how?
"There are so few moments that touch our lives this way. People are searching: What is the way to mark this?" said Paul Andrews, the San Francisco-based organizer of "72 Hours," a worldwide interfaith event that takes place this weekend. "They don't quite know, but there's a yearning for a connection to something larger than their own lives."
There will be those who are so underwhelmed -- or perhaps so overwhelmed -- that they'll decide to just sleep through midnight and sort it out tomorrow. But just as certainly there will be those who have sailed to Fiji to catch the first sunrise of the new year or chartered a jet to ring in the new year over and over again. For every person who grumbles that it's just an arbitrary moment no different from the one before or the one after, there is someone seeking a memory, a legacy, a way to bottle this flicker of time.
Few moments have much shared meaning any more. With programmable VCRs, we're not all watching Ed Sullivan at the same time; with instant e-mail, we don't have to be in the same room or even on the same continent to share a thought.
Which is why this stroke of this midnight seems, well, momentous. At least for those within the same time zone, there is a common moment.
'It's a scatter plot'
There just isn't a common there. There is Times Square, and there is home; there's a cruise down the Nile, and there's a quiet dinner at the neighborhood bistro.
"It's a scatter plot," Bjorn Hanson, of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said of where revelers will spend tonight. "It's all of the above."
Hanson, a partner with the consulting firm's hospitality and leisure group, said consumers haven't been able to make up their minds on how to best greet 2000. First there was the fear of Y2K mayhem -- computer meltdowns, power outages, looting and shooting. Then there was the sticker shock as hotels and restaurants greedily raised their usual prices. But just when it seemed everyone was going to throw up his hands and stay home, another powerful fear kicked in: missing out.
That, coupled with drastic discounting by promoters faced with the depressing prospect of half-filled rooms, led to a spike in last-minute bookings and reservations, Hanson said.
"Many people who were saying, 'I'm not going out,' now are saying they want to," he said. "Children seem to be a factor: 'We have to give them a memory.' "
Hanson will take his wife and daughter to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth at Lincoln Center tonight and have them safely home by midnight.
"I don't want any strangers kissing my teen-age daughter on the street," he said with a laugh.
Home, always popular with those leery or weary of enforced New Year's Eve gaity, is particularly appealing this year.
"I thought it would be Times Square, everyone out screaming their heads off," said Amitai Etzione, the George Washington University professor who directs the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. "But many more people are going to be celebrating with family, more so than with their community, and let alone with strangers."
It's not just on New Year's Eve, though.
"There's a retreat, a general thinning out from public events to private celebrations," Etzione said. "When you look at the Fourth of July, for example, everyone used to come out for the parade and then eat together. Over the years, people instead have decided to have picnics in their back yards. There's an enormous unease about public spaces today."
This year, that general unease has been heightened by Y2K neuroses. Although earlier fears are waning as Y2K experts reassure the public that the airplanes will stay aloft and the lights will stay on, the past couple of weeks have brought something else to worry about -- terrorism. End-of-the-year jitters have prompted Seattle to cancel its Space Needle festivities and other cities to hold them earlier than tonight's witching hour.
In the end, where to be is not as important as how to be.
"There's no magic place to be," said Danny Hillis. "In a sense, the hype is so great, nothing can live up to it. It's starting to sink into people that, when you get right down to it, it's going to be just another New Year's party.
Hillis, who is part of the brain trust leading Disney into the future, spends a lot of time thinking about time. Having conceived the concept of parallel computing, which dramatically speeded up computer operations, he is among the digerati most responsible for accelerating modern life.
And yet it is precisely this dizzying speed, Hillis believes, that makes this new year so hard to get a handle on.
"People have gotten so short-term in their thinking," he said. "Technology is changing things so quickly, it's gotten harder to imagine the future. In the past, people actually had an easier time imagining the future because computers couldn't do it for them.
"I thought about the year 2000 all the time as a kid. I used to dream about it and imagine it," said Hillis, 42, who grew up in Towson. "Kids today don't try to imagine 2050."
The year 2000 used to be shorthand for the future. People once fantasized a future of space-commuting and mylar clothing, pills for food and robots for pets. But as 2000 got close enough to touch, people started looking backward not forward, shopping for an imagined past at Restoration Hardware and arguing over who was the greatest athlete, movie or idea of the past century.
"People are looking back -- it's very retro -- rather than stepping back and taking a longer view of the future," Hillis said.
He plans to mark the moment by taking a distinctly longer view: He and fellow futurists will gather around a prototype of a millennial clock that he has designed and watch it chime twice at midnight -- for the two millennia.
The San Francisco-based group calls itself the Long Now Foundation, and it is composed of brainy, creative people like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and experimental musician Brian Eno. Their mission is to build a 10,000-year clock on a mountaintop in Nevada. It will mark centuries, rather than seconds, minutes and hours, moving until the next time it will chime -- three times -- Dec. 31, 2999.
If you think in cosmic time spans like that, tonight's turnover from 1999 to 2000 suddenly seems both fleeting and momentous.
"It's the end of something, but on the other hand, we'll find ourselves in the beginning of something else, which is always much more interesting," Hillis said. "We'll have this big blank sheet of paper."