'Being there' at the millennial moment

Ralph Costas is in a Y2K funk.

Weeks ago he narrowed his New Year's eve plans to three possibilities:

*A "personal growth experience" in the Peruvian Amazon (complete with nocturnal cleansing ceremony, $2,499).

*Hunting elephant, rhino, leopard, Cape buffalo, and lion in Africa ($10,995).

*A black-tie ball in the style of Russian czars, with a horse-drawn troika ride at Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia ($3,999).

Now the excursions are a vanished dream. After a "democratic" family vote with wife and kids, Mr. Costas will be in his California home with friends and in-laws for a night of singing, cookies, and nog.

The choice reflects a common struggle: deciding how to mark an event that comes but once in 1,000 years.

"So many multithousand-dollar excursions to choose from, so few millennium eves," mourns Costas, a writer.

The same dilemma - to party hearty or to hug the hearth - may have faced revelers planning for Dec. 31, 999. How we answer the question today, say cultural observers, explains much about how the world has changed, the issues we face, and how we perceive the world as humanity passes a major milestone (at least on the calendar).

The 'I remember' impulse

"We have become so much a self-conscious culture of 'I remember when ...' that we are consuming all these pre-packaged experiences, not for the experiences themselves but to mark the event for posterity," says Robert Thompson, a cultural historian at Syracuse University in New York.

"It's the fear that if you say, 'I was taking a nap and scratching myself' as the clock struck 12, that you will never be a part of the great conversation," he adds. "We feel that if we don't give our kids a link for their memory, we may deprive them of social currency for the rest of their lives, like they won't marry well or get into good schools."

With the date fast approaching, the dynamic of decisionmaking is changing almost hourly. Because of early reports that many extravaganzas are short on business, slashed ticket prices are drawing new customers for everything from hikes up Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania and prayer vigils at the Garden of Gethsemane to flotillas of tall ships off New Zealand.

Ron and Maralee Knowlen were all set to spend another New Year's Eve at a senior center, dancing with friends. Then they heard about a group tour to China - seven days, including air fare, food, and lodging for $880. Now they will be doing the samba on the Great Wall in the morning, a cha-cha in Ming Tombs at noon, and the rumba in Tiananmen Square beneath fireworks at midnight.

"For me, it just sounded like something really fun and different to do for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration," says Mrs. Knowlen, a retired school principal. "For Ron, it was the price."

Celebrating civilization

Price was also a factor for Krishan Kumar, a sociologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who was all set to be in Manhattan's Time Square to watch the new Waterford Crystal ball drop. Then he found a half-price fare to Rome ($800 round trip) and will now hang out by the Pantheon with his wife and son come midnight.

"Rome is a kind of emblem of civilization to me," says Mr. Kumar. "Everything from Etruscan to Classical to Renaissance to Baroque is piled on top of each other there. What better place to celebrate a global event?"

It is, in fact, the wish to reach out and share this turning point with others that drives the urge for many to vacate the home and seek out both crowds and fellow seekers.

New Yorkers Bob and Jenny Lee say they are headed to Sedona, Ariz., for a week of cultural, religious, spiritual, and racial fellowships (seven nights, about $1,200). Event organizer Debbie Thomas - former concierge, pastry chef, and realtor - says she wants to "invoke the passion of people and awaken them to what's out there. My belief is that the prior millennium has been based on separatism, countries fighting each other, religious wars."

Her antidote: spiritual lectures, music, seminars, sharing circles. And at midnight, laughing meditation. "We are going to laugh in the new millennium," says Ms. Thomas. "Once you laugh hard enough, you reach a kind of bliss and feel like you are being reborn."

But another large share of New Year's eve-ists will not be laughing - at least not in a large group.

To the consternation of event planners on every continent, a high percentage of people have chosen to be at home because of concerns about computer glitches that could cause problems at ATMs, fuel pumps, and airports. There are also concerns about terrorists and looters who might try to take advantage of the cover of confusion.

"We don't yet understand how interdependent our society has become, not just one computer to another but social organization to social organization," says Lee Clark, professor of sociology at Rutgers and author of "Mission Improbable," a book about how managers and organizations prepare for disaster.

And even if society and technology weren't evolving rapidly, stay-at-homers would have plenty besides cashews and Brazil nuts to chew on: the changes that have already occurred.

The future has arrived

"The 20th century was all about getting to the future," says Syracuse University's Mr. Thompson. "Now we're there, and the biggest story is not about predicting what's ahead anymore. It's about figuring out what to do now that we're there - and whether or not everything we invented in the past is going to melt down. This is a significant change in the way America sees itself."

But for many, partying prevails over pondering.

In Hong Kong, revelers will gawk at a pyrotechnic 1,400-yard "dragon" lasting five minutes.

In Moscow, ticket-holders can enjoy a musical extravaganza in Red Square.

In Paris, people will ride 11 illuminated Ferris wheels due to stand along the length of the Champs lyses.

But neither foreign destinations nor philosophizing was the goal for Lou and Mildred Stephens, a Los Angeles couple. After narrowing their options in recent weeks to just two - a romantic weekend in a downtown San Francisco hotel or the appliance of Mrs. Stephen's choice - they flipped a coin.

"I lost and she chose a trash compactor," says Mr. Stephens, a retired construction worker. "I lose two nights overlooking the Golden Gate bridge so she can get more stuff in the trash. I'd say I'm the one getting the squeeze."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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