Washington Times, January 05, 2011

New Year’s for youth in this or any year by Mark Hensch

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2, 2011 – My first midnight of the year provided my most exotic New Year’s Eve yet. Diving into the “Washington D.C. New Year’s Eve Passport to the World Gala: An International Red Carpet Affair” at Dupont Circle’s Hilton Hotel was like touring the globe in one glorious party. It also gave me insight into where my generation is going as we enter a new decade just starting the growth of its full potential.

When it comes to New Year’s Eve, parties are my business, and business is good. I’ve hung out with world-champion rodeo rider and “Jackass”/”Deadwood,” stuntman Gary Leffew, eaten heavy metal hamburgers at Chicago’s meat patty palace Kuma’s Corner and gotten caught in a 2008 Michigan blizzard so bad it added two more days to my three day weekend. Notching another number on the A.D. count thus requires something epic every time.

Hosted by Professionals in the City, an urban social networking group, the D.C. Professionals in the City’s website boasts 200,000 members and trumpets its New Year’s ballroom bash as a 3,000-reveler affair.

Witnessing this crush of humanity firsthand, I’m concluding the masses have embraced multiculturalism as I saw aspiring professionals of every race, religion and creed raising toasts with the same triumphant abandon. The ease with which seemingly different people embraced one another’s music, food, dancing and skin color seems like an indication cultural barriers keep breaking down.

The Gala’s activities – rock music, rumba lessons, Bollywood techno and beyond – also reflected this by displaying an international flair. It’s a testament not just to D.C.’s diversity but the possibility its post-millennial men and women are wholly comfortable with a multi-faceted culture.

Proof of this was furthered by the buffet line. American staples like pork and turkey tickled taste buds, but equally prominent were a mix of Asian delicacies including Peking duck, beef dumplings and spring rolls.

Such fare dared partiers to peek past January towards February 14 and the Chinese New Year. The Chinese cycle follows lunar patterns and celebrates each New Year with a corresponding zodiac animal.

This year’s avatar is the Rabbit, meaning those born this year are gracious, reserved and artistic souls.

This doesn’t mean the Gala lacked American attributes. An entertainment staple for the night was recurring performances by Athena Reich, a Lady Gaga impersonator. Ms. Reich’s Gaga gig fired up not just the crowd but my synapses, prompting me to ponder the nature of 21st century celebrity.

What kind of world is it where people would rather appear as someone else other than themselves? A visit to Ms. Reich’s website post-holiday confirms my suspicions – she looks and sounds less like Lady Gaga and more like a real individual. If the performance left a bad taste in my mouth, it’s because Ms. Reich has relegated herself to playing another person’s role. As Pantera’s Phil Anselmo howled in 1992’s “Walk,” “you can’t be something you’re not.”.

It’s a question of image that was the tip of the cultural iceberg. The evening’s main event was the lightning-quick matchmaking process known as speed dating. In this iteration, prospective pairs sat facing each other, chatted for four minutes and then rotated to the next test case.

Only in a culture as frequently shallow and flighty as ours could such a concept catch on. I entered the romantic racetrack with cynicism intact, expecting endless waves of desperate men and women vying for a midnight tongue-tying.

And though that there was, I also got the sense that human interaction isn’t dead.

Sitting in a chair with only minutes to spare, I got the feeling I had to make every word count. Speed dating is in essence the first impression, and as such, one must exercise maximum control in what face is put forward.

“What celebrity do I most resemble?” I immediately ask a girl named Connie.

She pauses, studying my features with speed and sincerity. In an age where people my age are glued to their phones texting and tweeting, it’s a refreshing to have somebody look me in the eye and say I resemble Matt Damon without my glasses on, even if it’s blatantly false.

“Why did you want to do this again?” I ask her a minute later, after hearing she’s tried speed dating before without worthwhile results.

“It isn’t just about the possibility of romance,” Connie responds. “I like the fact it makes me think on my feet and challenges me to deal with the unexpected as quickly as possible. It gets me out of my comfort zone.”

After a couple more “dates,” I’m concurring with Connie on that loss of personal comfort. One girl – the daughter of scientists – confesses she is unsatisfied following in their professional footsteps at a neurology company and wants a way out. Another woman grimaces as I mispronounce her exotic name, obviously disliking my Hindi pronunciations.

A final “date” – an older woman working for a Connecticut politico – exudes a sense that she’s quietly looking for love on a night when many have it. I leave the rotation cycle shortly thereafter, not remembering the conversation so much as her troubled countenance.

Despite my speed date squirming, the rest of the night is spectacular.

My friend Nathaniel “Wilkes” Wilkinson and I hijack the karaoke room with a duet of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”. Later on, we grab impromptu shawarma sandwiches – juicy, succulent chicken pita wraps coated in Mediterranean spices – with Raif Antar, the proprietor of Charlottesville, Va. restaurants Semolina and Basil, and his girlfriend Jessica. The former dining spot is a best-of-the-best pizza bakery, the latter an equally-exquisite Mediterranean bistro. A glance at either establishment’s menus seems like a good excuse for a roadtrip to Virginia.

Meeting my fellow revelers was a chance encounter, initiated by something as simple as sharing a cigarette lighter outside the hotel. It’s the kind of spontaneous celebration that defines not just New Year’s, but any social festivity.

And celebration is a key component of life. This story has been as much about an old year as it is a new one.

As great a night as 2011 was, it pales in comparison to my favorite New Year’s back in 2007-2008 where it wasn’t about the glamour, the networking or rocking out with Ms. Reich.

It was a simple affair, one spent at my Hillsdale College campus with close friends and a night of partying at our favorite watering hole. It’s also the New Year’s that Michigan blizzard roared through, trapping us together for five outrageous days.

Three years later, much has changed – that bar sports a new name and management, I’ve left Hillsdale College’s halls and one of my friends trapped by the snow, Dylan Lindgren, passed away shortly thereafter from Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

To all the youth out there, in this or any year, heed the words of your peer.

Live life loud and proud every chance you get, even if it cuts you off from your comfort zone. There’s no line to cross unless you lay one down. There’s ease in settling for safety and brilliance in pushing boundaries.

Life can get snatched from you so, so quickly. 2011’s here: throw the ball in the air and hit it out of the park.