Have a good New Year's Eve? Party a bit? Drink too much? First week of 2012 been going pretty well?
Well, enjoy yourself while you can because, if some anonymous and long-deceased Mayan calendar-maker is to be believed, it's the last new year you'll ever get.
That's right: The official countdown to the biggest blowout Ma Earth has ever seen has begun.
Unless, of course, it hasn't.
Wishy-washy? Sure. And for that, blame a calendar created by the Mayans a few thousand years ago that, some believe, portends all sorts of apocalyptic ugliness happening on or around Dec. 21, 2012.
Sure, sure. You're not buying any of that mystical hooey. But admit it.
It's still kind of fun to think about, right?
No need to be embarrassed. We humans always have been suckers for a good apocalypse story. And be it a rogue asteroid heading our way, a pandemic that turns us into characters in a Stephen King novel or armies of the dead arising to turn us into not-so-happy meals, nothing gives us a tingle in that part of our brain that loves scary stuff more than thinking about how it all might end.
This most recent version of Our Coming Inescapable Doom involves what's known as the Mayan long-count calendar. While it's not the only calendar the Mayans used and it's a pretty complicated piece of work -- expressing a date in Mayan apparently involves smushing a half-dozen "Star Trek" star dates together -- the long-count calendar is notable for one reason: On or around Dec. 21, 2012, it wraps up a 5,000-years-and-change-long cycle.
And that means ... what exactly?
For some, the end of the cycle -- and some, by the way, have disputed the calculations used to arrive at that date -- means the beginning of a new era of peace and progress.
For others, it means The End of Life As We Know It.
For that latter view, blame, at least partly, doomsday scenarists who have attached to this reset of the Mayan calendar all sorts of dire apocalyptic events.
"It got tied in, first of all, to the conclusion that, OK, the end of the cycle means the end of the world," said Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
However, Lindsay added, "actually, there's nothing in Mayan religion or culture that indicates that you can't have another cycle. So many experts are kind of dumbfounded by this."
Then, Lindsay said, the calendar somehow became linked with such supposed havoc-causing, even apocalyptic events as the impending arrival of a mysterious -- and, NASA says, nonexistent -- planet into a near-Earth orbit, the alignment of the sun with the center of the Milky Way galaxy and, even, some sort of reversal of the Earth's magnetic poles, any of which apparently means very bad things for Earth and its inhabitants.
"There is this kernel of truth, that the long-count calendar will end a cycle on or about Dec. 21, 2012," Lindsay said. "But there's no indication in Mayan culture that supports the signaling of some sort of catastrophe, let alone the end of the world. Quite contrarily, the Mayans use the end of the cycle as an occasion for celebration and beginning a new cycle."
Count Michelene K. Bell among those who think that, while there is significance to the ending of the Mayan calendar's cycle, there's no reason to think the worst.
Bell, founder and publisher of In Light Times, a Las Vegas-based metaphysics journal, said the Mayan calendar and 2012 have been popular topics of discussion among readers during the past year or so. But, she added, "many of the people, unfortunately, are buying into the doomsayers."
"It's never been the end of the world," Bell said, even if some "have taken it and made it into a fear-based event, and that was not what the Mayans intended."
On the cosmic upside, "in the metaphysical world, people are noticing a higher vibration or frequency out there," Bell noted. That's good, because it means the beginning of an era of planetary change that, while painful, ultimately will prove beneficial.
"Most of what I hear is optimism," said Lori Steele, general manager of The Psychic Eye Book Shop, 5835 S. Eastern Ave. "(People) think it's more of a beginning than an end. I get a couple of doom-and-gloom people in here, but not many."
So why all the apocalyptic talk? Because apocalypses -- apocalyii? -- are so fun to ponder.
People always have held "a sort of fascination" with morbid doomsday tales, said Clayton Schmit, professor of preaching and academic director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
Stories of death, tragedy and disaster, whether they're in film, books or real life, always have piqued our interest. "If the death of an individual is interesting, how much more interesting is the death of humanity?" Schmit said.
Our fascination with hearing about how It All Will End also "may be just kind of an existential thing," said Felicia Campbell, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas English professor who teaches courses in the always doomsday-friendly genre of science fiction.
"In terms of existentialism, you live for the day, and the fact that death is imminent makes living more intense," Campbell said.
A good doomsday tale also may offer a vehicle for taking a huge, nebulous, free-floating fear -- nuclear war, a terrorist attack, global climate change -- and turning it into a more easily focused-upon fear.
"We feel kind of helpless in the face of all these events, so maybe by watching them ... it becomes more familiar," Campbell said.
A good doomsday prediction also feeds our simple love of fantasy.
Fantasy "captures a person's imagination and kind of takes them out of the humdrum, day-to-day mundane existence," Lindsay said. "And even though you're talking about a doomsday scenario, still, that's pretty exciting, isn't it?
"For a lot of people, it's just a question of fantasy is better. A Dan Brown novel sells better than some dry book about the Mayan culture itself."
A good doomsday tale also can bestow on those who buy into it "a sense of privilege," Schmit said. "They're the ones who seem to be on the inside, they're the ones in the know who've been given a revelation about such things."
Take, for instance, California radio evangelist Harold Camping who twice in 2011 swung and missed with his predictions that the Rapture, an event that some Christians believe will kick off the end times, would occur. (However, Schmit noted that several Bible passages say the date cannot be predicted.)
While Schmit said he "wouldn't say that's what motivated" Camping, "it certainly gave him his moment in the spotlight."
So, now, a quiz: What does every doomsday prediction in recorded human history have in common?
Answer: Every single one was wrong, because ... well, just look around.
Yet, a failed doomsday prediction seldom deters a truly determined believer. Even when doomsayers strike out, "they get a huge amount of publicity out of it ... and really no penalty for it," Lindsay said.
That's because studies have shown that "our beliefs are formed through a prism of emotions," Lindsay said. "And, yes, we reason about things, but our reasons are heavily influenced by our emotional commitment. If you are really emotionally committed to something, it becomes a critical part of your life. You're not going to give up that belief, at least not easily."
It's one of the reasons conspiracy theories are so popular and so indestructible.
"Lots of times, people get angry when you give them the history or the science," Lindsay said. "If your belief is central to your worldview, you'll cling to it and come up with some other explanation: 'Oh, they're not telling you this because they don't want people to know' because they might panic or something.' "
But most of the time, and for most people, savoring the potential End Of It All a mere 348 days from now represents nothing more dangerous than a reality-based thrill.
"You may be half-serious about it," Lindsay said, "but if you aren't true believers, you aren't going to sell the house or anything like that."
Besides, the really interesting thing about apocalypses is that they'll probably always arrive when you're not looking for them. "I have this personal belief that people have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning," Steele said.
"I do think the world is changing, but I don't think it's ending."
Still, do us a favor: If Dec. 21 does turn out to be a really bad day, just pretend you never read this story, OK?
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.