Yet Another Post About New Year’s Resolutions

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In true, smart-alecky philosopher fashion, I’d like to start this post by pointing out that chopping up time into units is just something humans do so we can practice better self-management. The whole idea of there being a beginning and an end to something on a specific date is artificial, even contrived. Circle the globe and you’ll find at least a handful of other dates for the new year to begin. Hell, according to some ancient calendars, the universe should have caved in on itself by now. From a cosmic perspective, the notion that we’ll wake up on January 1st and find things different, just because it happens to be January 1st, is a more than a little silly. There, cynicism dispensed.

Now’s the part where I admit that, despite good reason, I still make resolutions for New Year’s. Part of me still believes that my trajectory in life is a little like doodles on an Etch-a-Sketch, and I get to give it a good, hearty shake when the clock strikes midnight. Some of my resolutions are frivolous and typical:

  • I want to have abs like a Spice Girl circa 1993.
  • I plan to meditate myself into oblivion.
  • I shall sew my own clothes.
  • I will eat less refined sugar.

Others are more serious, and heart-felt. I really do want to do something useful, something helpful, something different. Something that doesn’t revolve around swearing off shopping for Doc Martens and swearing at inanimate objects. These are the promises that I’m much more likely to keep, although they usually take more than a year (or two, or three) to accomplish.

Ever wonder where the whole notion of making New Year’s resolutions came from? Ever look up the word and search for its origins? Just me? I’ve always thought it was funny that “resolution” and “resolute” have the same etymology, seeing as people are usually not very resolute in keeping resolutions. The word “resolution” itself used to mean something about breaking things into more manageable chunks, or simplifying them. Maybe the big problem with resolutions isn’t that we make them, but rather that we tend to make them in such a way that complicates our lives, adding layers of obligation and complication to what’s already pretty hectic. “Resolution” in the traditional sense does what philosophy does on a regular basis- it peels away the excess so we can really see what’s underneath. It’s a call to think deeper, not bigger, to focus on quality over quantity. It’s a tall order when we’re hung over and staring down the barrel of a grey winter, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to get done in one day, or in one year. You can shake the Etch-a-Sketch anytime you want to. It’s a practice that’s calorie free, less expensive than a gym membership, and generally speaking, it fulfills the whole “make the world a better place” requirement.

Happy New Year, everyone, whether it’s today, tomorrow, or sometime over the next 365 days of human-constructed time. May your resolutions bring you peace, happiness and enlightenment- and a much-needed dose of simplicity.

A Star Wars Memory

Outer Space

What better way to celebrate this holiday season than with another installment of Star Wars? No sarcasm intended. In my opinion, sci fi is just as festively appropriate as anything else. In fact, I think it’s probably more emotionally healthy to spend time waiting in line with fellow geeks, anxiously awaiting a shared film experience than to shove your way through a shopping mall in pursuit of the perfect pair of reindeer socks. One can still be merry and bright while spending time in a galaxy far, far away, and “May the force be with you.” seems a perfectly amiable seasonal greeting. When you get right down to it, the holidays are a time for great stories, and this series of movies is nothing if not a great story.

And here is my story.

I was too little to see the first movie in the theatre. I might have been a tad on the young side to see the second one too, but my Dad took a handful of us anyway.  I remember loving the pace and the excitement, the funny noises R2D2 made, and being allowed to eat copious amounts of popcorn. All was going well, until a certain young hero decided to almost freeze to death on a faraway planet. Then his friend rescued him…and then came the scene with the Tauntaun. You know the one I mean. Big, furry, horned, camel-type thing gets chopped open, future Jedi gets shoved inside for warmth. Weird gooey, gutsy grossness ensues.

I’m pretty sure I sat with my eyes closed for the rest of the movie. I spent the night thinking I saw Tauntauns jogging through my room, waiting for them to pop open and for their innards to decorate my floor. Throughout each of the movies that followed, I sat on pins and needles waiting for another of those poor creatures to show up on screen. Years later, in grad school, a fellow student and Star Wars aficionado tried to take the edge off the mental image by explaining that Tauntaun guts were made of latex and tuna salad, or something like that. It was still gross. Since then, I’ve seen Tauntaun sleeping bags, tauntaun action figures with flip-top bellies, little plush tauntauns that warbled when squeezed. And yet, even with all the cutesy-poo merchandise, I still get queasy when I think of that scene.

So what’s the moral of this story? Part of the appeal of Star Wars, then and now, for me and for others, was that it delivered a strong dose of movie magic. When I was little, I believed. For better or for worse, I was invested. Even though I’m all grown up and I know better now (sort of), part of me still believes, and is still invested. Seems pretty holiday-ish, non?

May the force be with all of us.

What Your Birthday Says About You

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Got a minute? Try something: go to Wikipedia and punch in your day and month of birth (year doesn’t really matter). You’ll get a list of births, deaths and events, in chronological order. Take a little time and scan through the people born on that day. Notice anything interesting? Yup, there are a ton of amazing individuals who share your birthday-heroes and scoundrels, inventors, artists, politicians…

Sometimes there’s a pattern. I have a family member who was born on the same day as a bunch of political mavericks, classic rock icons, and pot-stirring writers with big mouths. Surprise, surprise, they’re a bit of a stubborn, outspoken, loose cannon too. A friend was born the same day as quiet, analytic types like scientists and composers. Yup, the shoe fits in their case too. I share a birthday with a bunch of nerdy, artsy types who managed to make good. Maybe still waiting to make good, but the nerdy, artsy thing is a pretty good descriptor.

I have no idea if astrology holds any truth, but this little exercise is pretty interesting. It’s not just amusing to find that we share birthdays with famous people (because that makes us a little like a famous person too, right?). It’s fascinating to think that there might be some cosmic influence on who and what we become. Okay, that’s maybe a bit too much. It’s at least plausible that what typically happens during that time of year might play into our lives in a bigger way than we think. Was it springtime, and were your early days spent in the park? Were those around you preoccupied by tax season? Did you, like me, choose to show up close to a holiday? Was there a major world event that could have nudged your life path this way or that way? If we share the same birthday, what else did we share, even though we were decades/centuries and sometimes an entire world apart?

Maybe I’m just overly nostalgic, looking for a warm, fuzzy way to connect with the rest of humanity. Perhaps I’m nothing like the people who share my birthday, but I’d like to be like at least a few of them. The chronology is really just a wish list for me. The world is a big place, and with 7 billion of us (and a whole lot who aren’t around any more), it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, to feel insignificant and forgotten. It’s possible that I’m just wistful about the notion that someday, someone will see my name on the list and think “Hey, she has my birthday.”

Go ahead. Try it. 

The Naked Writer

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If I had a quarter for every student who ever told me “English class is stupid. I don’t see why we have to take it.” I could have retired from teaching a whole lot sooner than I did. Ask anyone tasked with covering language (including second languages) and communications, and as they brush away a tear of rejection, they’ll tell you that getting the their students on board is tricky. For quite a while, the study of language and literature has had a bad rap, and I have a theory about why this is so.

Okay, so you don’t walk out of English class with a set of tangible skills. We wordy types don’t generally teach people to weld (insert playful dig at foot-in-mouth politician here), or to code, or to design skyscrapers. Admittedly, if you’re going to be an engineer, you probably won’t find yourself dissecting Shakespearean sonnets at the office. English class won’t help you get into the NBA, or make you a better cook. I could launch into a diatribe about how soft skills like communication and argumentation are just as important as any technical know-how, and that our society is losing its soul as it loses touch with language arts. I won’t go into either of these, because I really don’t think they’re the reason why some people hate English class so much, why we classify it as something we have to take, instead of something we want to take.

Here’s what I think our collective fear is: writing (and public speaking too) make a lot of people feel like they do in those dreams where you realize you’re out in public and you’re surprisingly naked. Remember when you were little, and your teacher asked you to read a page out loud, in front of your leering, judgmental peers?  Remember your shock and disgust when you found that someone had stolen your diary? Remember when you wrote a straggly love poem for your teenage crush, and they weren’t impressed? Yup, that’s what I’m talking about-naked, metaphorically speaking, anyway. It’s the worst form of public nudity, actually. Nothing like people pointing and laughing at your ideas.

My very wise mother, also an English teacher, has always insisted that the key to being successful in learning any language is the willingness to take risks. You could be linguistically gifted, exposed to a number of different dialects, read to on a regular basis, and you’d still have to be willing to make a jackass of yourself at some point, screw up a little and have other people see it happen. Language is, after all, a communal thing.

When you write for a living, you get to know this fear of exposure intimately, because you put your work out for public consumption on a regular basis. You either take risks, or you don’t get read. Sometimes you are made fun of, or worse, sometimes no one responds at all. You get used to it (or not), and sometimes you forget that for people who don’t choose language as a career path, writing anything, even something technical or impersonal, can make a person feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed. Like it or not, even in the age of text messages and emojis, being able to express one’s self effectively still holds currency. Choosing this word over that word, using shorter or longer sentences, and properly punctuating all make a world of difference. Even those who claim that “English class is stupid” know this. It’s scary if you’re not confident in your ability to do these things. It’s freakin’ scary even when you are confident.

The pen is mightier than the sword. True in ages past, still true now. Also still true: the pen is heavier than it looks, and it rarely does what we expect it to do. Perhaps instead of shooting the messenger (aka our English teacher), we should be a little more appreciative of those willing to take time to train us in its proper use.