Year-end lists and new year's resolutions are as easy to mock as they are to make. But in uncertain times, reviewing and previewing are serious business. They let us imagine we can impose some order on the fresh calendar page marking holidays, graduations, movie premieres, tax-free back-to-school shopping week even as we wait to see which days, now anonymous or devoted to watching groundhogs, will be raised from obscurity to eternity in the history books.
"It's tough to make predictions," Yogi Berra said, "especially about the future." A whole lot of predicting went on 10 years ago, at the door to the new millennium. (We were so unsure about it that we couldn't even get the word right: in 1999, newspapers and magazines misspelled millennium 4,709 times.) In TIME's pages, writers predicted cures for the common cold and baldness (sadly, no). We would give up meat. Religion would replace politics as the prime shaper of American society (sure feels that way sometimes). Retirement would disappear (sadly, yes), along with much of major league baseball. Teeth would become a fashion accessory, like fake nails, and the only thing we wouldn't be doing online is brushing them.
People stockpiled gold and grain and canned chicken chow mein in anticipation of the apocalypse that didn't happen. But few foresaw the apocalypses that did, not to mention the then inconceivable phenomena Twitter, Twilight, Rachael Ray. So we come to a new calendar eager to assign certainty; each month has its rituals, and somewhere, someone is forever celebrating something. January, naturally, is National Oatmeal and Hot Tea Month. April, less naturally, is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month. July seems a strange month to choose as Bioterrorism/Disaster Education and Awareness month. I don't want to be aware of anything disastrous in July other than tan lines. But July is also National Hot Dog Month, Ice Cream Month and Cell Phone Courtesy Month, as well as National Share a Sunset with Your Lover Month.
Official bodies at every level, intent on drawing our attention where it would not otherwise turn, carve the year into un-anniversaries marking those things that haven't happened but apparently should. The new year begins the U.N.'s Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification. It is also the Year for Biodiversity and the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures, whose mandate is to build "the defenses of peace in the minds of men." Presumably, the other half of the human population is already sufficiently peaceable.
Then there are the real anniversaries; how we mark where we've been tells us something about where we are. This is the centennial of the Boy Scouts, and South Africa, and Krazy Kat. It's the 75th anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the 50th anniversary of the Pill, the 40th of the Beatles' breakup how many Rock Band requiems will be held that night? Then there's the 30th anniversary of CNN and the 20th of the invasion of Kuwait.
And there's our once-a-decade constitutional ritual: the U.S. Census, in which we attempt to become more certain about ourselves. The last Census, in 2000, determined that there were 281.4 million of us, more than three times as many as in 1900. Half of us live in suburbs. The center of population shifted 324 miles west and 101 miles south, to Phelps County, Missouri. America used to be majority male, but by 2000 only seven states, all in the West, had more men than women. In 1900, the average household contained five people; by 2000, it had dropped by two.
So what will we learn 10 years later? Conspiracy theorists, notes Wired magazine, worry that Census workers equipped with GPS devices rather than paper maps to pinpoint each housing unit will enable the New World Order to "launch Predator Drone missile attacks ... against a long list of undesirables" in the U.S. or help President Obama cede authority to the U.N. Or maybe we'll just discover that there are now more Starbucks in America than there are churches.
Finally, those who believe that language shapes reality eagerly await the annual Lake Superior State University Banished Words List, due out New Year's Day words and phrases that have earned retirement because of overuse. The 2009 list included Wall Street/Main Street, iconic and game changer, but who could have foreseen that the iconic Tiger Woods scandal would become a game changer that reverberated from Wall Street to Main Street? Whatever is in store for 2010, it's a comforting thought that we'll at least know how not to describe it.