ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

LETTING 2001 KNOW WHO'S BOSS

When I think about New Year's Eve, I think about pots and pans.

Not for cooking. For banging and clanging and raising a ruckus.

It was a tradition at our house, as much a part of our annual New Year's Eve celebration as the non-alcoholic "champagne" we drank to toast the New Year (in plastic champagne glasses, of course) and watching on TV while that big ball came down over Times Square in New York. Dick Clark would count down the last seconds of the old year, we would all shout "Happy New Year!" at the appropriate moment, Mom would make her way around the room kissing everybody and then we would go outside and pound on pots and pans and make all kinds of noise.

To be honest, I never cared for non-alcoholic champagne -- my taste always ran more toward Dr Pepper. The magic of the big ball coming down on Times Square evaporated as soon as I figured out it had actually happened two hours earlier. Mom's kisses were . . . well . . . Mom's kisses. But going outside in the middle of the night to pound on pots and pans and make noise . . . now, that was something. Pot-pounding was generally frowned upon, even in the middle of the day. And doing it outside for all the world to hear . . . well, it simply wasn't done. Except on New Year's Eve.

And that made New Year's Eve special, although I wasn't exactly sure why.

"I don't get it," I said to Mom one New Year's Day. "We don't go outside and pound on pots and pans on Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving. We don't do it on Easter or on birthdays. The only time we do anything like it is when we set off fireworks on the Fourth of July, and I know why we do that. But I don't know why we pound on pans on New Year's Eve."

Mom gave me that why-didn't-I-stop-after-seven-children look. As a parent myself, I finally understand where that look comes from: not having any idea of the answer to the question. But as anyone who ever played cards with her knows, Mom was a master bluffer.

"It's an ancient . . . Indian . . . tradition," she said, forgetting for a moment that early Native Americans probably didn't have many pots or pans upon which to bang. "They believed that every year has its own spirit, and if you wanted the year to be good you needed to frighten it into submission from the beginning. So every New Year the Indians would gather to make all of the noise they could in order to frighten away evil spirits and motivate good spirits to action."

That seemed at least as reasonable to me as flying reindeer, or a rabbit that lays colored chicken eggs. "So when we're out there banging on pots and pans, we're actually chasing away evil spirits," I said, sucking it all in like the huge, pre-adolescent sponge that I was.

"Well, yes," she said. "But mostly, we're trying to let the new year know who's in charge."

And that isn't such a bad idea, when you stop and think about it. New years can be a little scary, filled as they are with hidden traps and unknown obstacles. Maybe if we set out anxiety aside and enter the New Year boldly, aggressively, noisily, we'll convince ourselves that there's nothing to fear. And that we're in charge -- at least for ourselves.

So don't go gently into 2001. Pound on some pans. Bang on a bucket. Raise a ruckus. The way I see it, even if we don't scare away evil spirits, at least we'll let 2001 know who's the boss.

And who knows? Maybe we'll remind ourselves, as well.

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--- © Joseph Walker

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Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.