I was thinking of a real new year, the sort of year that comes awash in toasts, swaddled in hope. But 1981 has arrived middle-aged, rather wary and worried. There is a tightness around the edge of Americans this January, a tenseness in the national jaw line. People aren't eager to embrace 1981. They are braced for it.

In this transition from one year to the next, perhaps one era to the next, there is a feeling of mid-life closure in the cold air. I see people putting up the storm windows of their lives, laying down the insulation for the tough weather ahead, battening down for bad times.

Maybe this is a first for Americans. I don't know. We used to be pretty good at futures, good at looking ahead, optimistic, expansive, even with a touch of idealism.

But this is not a year when excitement seems very appealing. We have had enough surprises lately, and most of them have been bad. They've come in supermarket checkout lines and evening news reports.

The world seems out of control. Out of our control. Other people have kept Americans hostage. Other people have helped push up inflation rates.

Now there is a rather hard-edged urge for order, for books to go by and guidelines to hang onto, and for somebody -- somebodies -- to be in charge.

I don't know quite how to describe the symptoms. But they are legion and all around us.

In November we voted against weakness. We opted for the man who promised to take charge. By December his inner circle talked openly about the character they wanted in those hired for this new government. They were looking, they said, for the S.O.B. factor.

For 1981, yes, tough guys are in; softness is out. Certainty is in; doubt is out. True or False Questions are in; essays are out. For better and for worse, the atmosphere is changing, the reins are being tightened.

In the past year, I saw three books sticking up for the power of parents. Some of the same people who supported children's rights in the 1970s are supporting parents' rights in the 1980s. Americans want to be in charge again, at least for their children.

The same urge for "order" and authority has struck at women's rights. The S.O.B. factor, if you will, can be seen in the blatant new macho spirit. At home, too we are told by the pro-family movement, "somebody" has to be in charge. That somebody is the husband, father, man.

The season is not ripe for negotiation, compromise and sharing. This is the year for authority, control and power.

In the trend world, it's the time of cowboys. In television, we cheer for J.R. In foreign policy, it is a moral majority for missiles. In the schools, it is cut-rate regulation. In crime, it is civilian patrols and juvenile sentences.

Even theologians who deal with the mysteries of eternity, the complexity of the world and the ethical dilemmas of human life are now told to go by The Book.

The man of this year is the one in the surreal Betamax ad. He sits in a cool armchair holding his remote-control tuner aloft under the motto: "Experience the freedom of total control."

It's no surprise that hard times breed hard lines. Under pressure we all retreat. We replace growing with coping. We react to the troubles outside by defending our own turf with dozens of rules and tens of commandments.

If we cannot create order in the world, we try to create its image at home. If we are afraid of the future, we assume some safety in tradition. Afraid of uncertainty, we give and take orders.

But there is a desperate age to this transitional winter. This 1981 comes in, middle-aged and worried, with its spine already stiffened and its posture defensive.

Its mind is fixed on survival. It's method is control. This is not the bubbly stuff of a happy new year.