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January -- the art of starting over

January is the favorite month for people who like beginnings -- people who keep saying the words ''fresh start'' until the syllables melt as sweetly on the tongue as vanilla ice cream.

Every American sails toward January like Columbus toward the New World.

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Each New Year is the New World, discovered all over again -- for the first time.

At midnight, everybody's toes wriggle toward a never-touched Plymouth rock.

Fresh start. New Beginning. The clock of history goes back to zero.

Was there ever a time before the January 1 of this year -- the now-of-now?

''Where are the snows of yesteryear?'' Francois Villon asked. French poet, American question.

The only snow is the snow that falls next, covering the tracks of 1981.

The first words of January are: ''I promise.'' The bumper crop of the month is good resolutions. One promises an all-new self, so superior your own mother would not recognize you.

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Who was that second-rate imposter daring to use your name last year?

But these familiar first-of-the-year expectations can also be a trap. January is almost frightening in its perfectionism, devoted to good deeds, the reading of Great Books, vigorous exercises, and home improvements that would leave a Renaissance craftsman weeping in admiration. At least that's the theory.

Taken in its purest form, January is innocence at the point of amnesia.

There are charms to the assumption of every January that this time it's going to be different. But finally January is not quite serious. All that optimism seems unearned, like the confidence of a skier who has never fallen down.

You can't live through too many Januarys without feeling that the month is somehow out of context. How can any other month with the tracks of history all across it relate to this month that is all intentions?

Once you get to January 16, the month becomes half-February, and everybody can live with that. By the 16th, the New Year has a past, and after two weeks in a vacuum of projections a past turns out to be indispensable.

A world with no past is as difficult to take as a world with no future.

Even resolutions have their roots in memory.

Each January we resolve to be what we started out to be -- and forgot -- many Januarys before.

One of the things we might remember is that January was named after Janus, the Roman deity who possessed a second face so that he could look in two directions at once.

Was he looking back at December and ahead to February? Good for him if he was! We need entrances, we need exits. We need to connect January to the mainland.

Treated as an island -- a fantasy island -- January, like another island, is a nice place to visit. But you wouldn't want to live there.

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