AT EXACTLY midnight last night, Dec. 31, starry-eyed lovers, casual dates, hardened party-goers and nostalgic octogenarians fell into each others' arms and embraced, tearfully saluting the emotional moment.

Me? I was asleep.

New Year's Eve first started leaving me cold back in the late '50s when, as a well-rooted wallflower. I celebrated Dec. 31 with my best girlfriend, Naomi, a flickering eight-inch black-and-white TV screen, and Guy Lombardo's happy chatter. In later years, even after I'd racked up my deferred share of New Year's Eve kisses, I continued to be just as skeptical about the magic moment. For one thing, I dislike maudlin drinking and forced jollity. For another, the year doesn't REALLY begin Jan. 1. It begins in the fall.

The reason is quite pragmatic. For 20 years, beginning at age 3, my years were divided between summer vacations and the advent of a new school semester. In my mind's eye, the year became and elipse, with the variations of summer vacations making up one "long side" and winter the other one. The sahpe of my year has since been reinforced by marriage to an academic and the growth of our children, whose calendars also begin with the first day of classes.

I'm not the only one whose time is out of joint. Historically, of course, there have been all sorts of calendars. The Jewish New Year is still calculated by the ancient 28-day lunar calendar. In 15th-century Italy, the calendar varied from state to state, which must have made interurban correspondence somewhat puzzling. The 12-month system that begins in January is fairly young (only 1,977 years to the Hebrew calendar's 5,738) and still has a few wrinkles to iron out. There's that messy quarter day "carried" for four years at a time and even then it doesn't exactly tally. And we all have to recite those silly rhymes or go up and down the valleys and hills of our knuckles to recall whether the current month has 30 days or 31 or those infamous 28.

Regardless of the "official" calendar, though, a calendar year is really a personal thing, and often reflects our interests or work. In a practical sense, the farmer's year begins as soon as the earth is ready for plowing and planting. The fiscal year begins in April. The Good Humor man's year begins with the hot weather. It makes one wonder. Whose year DOES begin Jan. 1? even calendar manufacturers must have their product ready long before the New Year.

Personal time concepts also reveal something of ourselves. I stand at a fixed point, a passive observer of events that "happen" along with the way around my ellipse. Time always arrives back again each year - predictably, comfortably. Of course, I realize that despite the classic cyclical nature of my year, each ellipse must actually be part of a continuous spiral, since although September returns each time, it is not the same September as last year's.

My friend Marj a theoretical mathematician, has a different view of time. She stands beside a sort of moving sidewalk of time, watching the moments slide past. There is no "beginning" point - just infinite continuity. (Perhaps mathematicians can confront such concepts more easily than we humanists who search for symbolic recurrences in nature). Each year the moving sidewalk moves a little faster, and Marj is fond of quoting the Red Queen's admonition to Alice: ". . . It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" Perhaps realists perceive time as a moving sidewalk with all of us moving along futilely in the wrong direction!

I suspect my own concept of time came from my early lessons with the face of a clock or my first instruction in planetary relationships. Time means things going round and round. When I was a child there was a moon-faced clock in my bedroom that ticked its way around each circle only to begin its plodding course once more. I don't believe it even had a luminous dial to keep me company in the dark, and the only certainty I knew for years was that the hands described a circle.

Things are different for my daughter when she sleeps in that same room at her grandparents. After she turns out her reading light, she lies back on her pillow, clutches her stuffed dog to her chest, and dreamily watches time march by, projected on the ceiling - updated eavery five minutes. For Jessica, it's the perfect mystical solution to the intensely baffling problem of telling time.

The problem runs in the family. My own second grade teacher sent home a note advising my mother that my precocity in reading was matched only by my dullness in interpreting the hands on the clock. My mother, the very embodiment of pedagogical patience, exhausted herself in the manufacture of paper-plate clocks with cardboard hands. Yet I still blanch when someone asks me the time, and am inclined to thrust my wristwatch forward to let my inquisitor make that judgement for himself.

I have taken my place now in the hereditary march of paper-plate-clock markers and from the perspective of motherhood I finally realize that my earlier confusion was entirely justified. The reason I never learned to tell time is that it simply made no sense at all.

Children learn the subjectiveness of time at an early age. From the time an infant awakes to the time it is fed may seem an eternity. For a busy toddler, time "flies." For the child waiting for his mother to get off the phone, time creeps at its infamous petty pace. Any child who has played in the bright, quiet light of a summer's evening and eaten dinner in the darkness of a winter afternoon knows from experience that all "days" are not the same length.

But here is my daughter, an eminently reasonable 6-year-old, being asked to accept a priori that there are 24 hours to the day, 60 minutes to the hour, 60 seconds to the minute. Why should there be? Why, if the numbers are going to march around a perfect circle, should they go as far as 12 (or no farther)? Why not all the way to 24, like ships' bells and European train schedules? Why should a child who has not yet begun to study fractions accept our assurances that 15 is "a quarter past" and 45 "a quarter to?" She likes to count by fives, but 10s are easier, and why stop at 60? I haven't the heart to tell her that after we master the hours, the half-pasts, the quarter past and quarter to and multiples of five, we've got to stick all those untidy units on as well (3:42, 3:43 . . .).

Nor do "a.m." and "p.m." make much sense to the practical child who awakes at 2:30 a.m. and knows that it may be "ante meridian," but it is most definitely not "morning," but rather very dark night time. Logically speaking, the 12s, or starting points of our clock cycles should be the first thing in the morning and last thing at night (bedtime, more or less), not noon and midnight. (In Renaissance Italy, they did just that, with "2 o'clock" signifying "two hours after sunset." Cinderella might then have had to flee at "4 o'clock" had she not become too preoccupied with her prince to notice the exact instant when the sun went down.)

Still, despite its many shortcomings, I am not about to advocate the overthrow of the entire system. However subjective one's own time warp may be, we all need some common denominator by which to arrive at the airport before the plane leaves or at the theater before the curtain goes up, and we shall all no doubt continue to strap timepieces to our wrists and anxiously consult their sweeping hands or flashing digits. Given the pace of contemporary life, it just wouldn't do to get out of "sync."

So I shall dutifully get out the paper plate and begin the half-past's again (Jessica's been promised a watch as soon as she masters the basics), but I am sometimes tempted to resort to evasive action and buy her a digital watch, letting her enjoy the deceptively easy mastery of time she knows at night at her grandparents'. Each moment would announce itself as a figural entity, relieving her of all those untoward calculations and leaps of faith.

I hesitate, though, to tamper thus with time. After all, those cycles of second, minute, hour and day are echoed in the grander scheme of things, the circling of planets and the cyclical nature of the seasons. The old-fashioned timepiece implies a continuity of past and present that we tend to forget. When a birthday dawns, we are not a year older, but a fleeting moment. The year 1978 is not "next year," but another instant arriving from the future and melting into the past. The infinite flow of time, while denying us a "present" by continuously turning future into past, is somehow reassuring. The digital system, by contrast, dissociates time into discreet, isolated moments. It seems somehow timely, but ominous, that in the age of the "A" and "N" bombs, our children should see time announced in flashing lights, here one moment, gone the next.Those neatly encapsulated seconds clash with the poetic rhythms of nature.

Therefore, I shall probably take the arduous route after all, and give my daughter a clock with hands, although the hands may belong to Mickey Mouse or Sleeping Beauty, by way of compensation. There's time enough in her growing years for her to make her own reckoning with time and to ponder the mysteries that provide infinite grist for epistemological mills.

Ultimately, like the rest of us, Jessica will no doubt come to accept time as an arbitrary but convenient "given," taken on faith (like the figure for "pi" to five decimals once one's long since derived it) and concede that the most certain knowledge we have of this uncertain entity is that, in the words of a certain melancholy folk song. "Time brings all things to an end."