Posts Tagged ‘new years’

I’ve never seen an episode of “That Was the Week That Was,” the British comedy series from the early 1960s often referred to as “TW3.” However, I’ve read that each episode always started with a song whose first lines were, “That was the week that was; it’s over – let it go.” Sitting here six hours before New Years’, trying to resist the temptation to reflect back and look ahead, that would be the most honest expression of my reaction to the change of year. It’s over – let it go.” I feel much the same about every year, which is why I don’t plan on any resolutions, either.

It’s not that 2008 was a kind of wild ride of horrors sweeping across my horizon, although it did have its share of moments I’d just as soon forget. And it’s not that there weren’t high points that have left me a partly different person from whom I was a year ago.

But I don’t see much point in dwelling on either horror or highlights simply because the calendar has reached an arbitrary point. Long ago, the year used to start on March 25, and other cultures celebrate the change of year by a different, fluctuating count, so there is nothing special about January 1st.

Nor is there any point in making resolutions – a custom, I suspect that is more often joked about and talked about than actually observed these days. I imagine that, for companies that benefit from what is left of the custom are hustling right now – companies that offer fitness coaching, for instance, or job advice – but I don’t happen to be one of them.

The closest I came to making money off the change of the year was to write an article a couple of weeks ago about what several prominent people thought about the outlook for free and open source software in 2009 – and, even then, I felt like I was pandering to popular prejudice.

Besides, the cynical part of me that stands to one side of my brain making flippant remarks can’t help point out how commercialized the whole idea of resolutions has become. Instead of being a time for renewal of purpose, the new year has become, in its way, as commercialized as Valentine’s Day or Christmas – and that’s I trend with which I have little sympathy or patience.

I do have plans, of course. I always have plans. But, just as I have long observed that people who talk about the books they are going to write rarely finish them, so I have noticed that people who talk about their plans never seem to carry them out. Last year, for instance, I noticed a rise in the people going to the local gym for the first few weeks of January – and a drop by the end of the month, as most of the newcomers disappeared. I have a half-superstitious belief that making a talking about my plans is a sure way to guarantee that I don’t follow my plans, so you won’t hear anything about resolutions from me.

Besides, they’re kind of private, you know? I don’t feel like telling everyone about the domestic changes I’d like to see, or the quarrels I plan to end, or the places I hope to sell my writing. Like charity – like prayer, according to the parable in Luke about the Pharisee and the publican – plans and resolutions are private concerns that you don’t parade in public if you sincerely mean to follow them.

For these reasons, I plan on starting the next year neither nostalgic or full of resolves I am incapable of keeping. Instead, I’ll plod along one step and one day at a time, the same as I always do. And, if you think that sounds Grinchish or just plain unimaginative, I’ll tell you what: I bet I reach my personal goals before you reach yours.

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I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me – for I was likely to have but few heirs – as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered.

– Daniel Defoe, “Robinson Crusoe”


The year end lists in newspapers and blogs always leave me bemused. The ones that list top stories for the previous year always leave me feeling that I’m either living in an alternate universe or that I’ve missed everything important while preoccupied with the business of living. As for the ones that predict the coming year, they seem purest fantasy – my own included. Still, like Robinson Crusoe, I find it useful to look to my karmic accounts now and then. So, as the last hours of the year wind down, and I wait to leave for tonight’s party, here’s my accounts for the last year:

On the negative side, my mother-in-law and her sister died within a few days of each other last spring. Neither death was unexpected, since they were both in their nineties, but when you’ve known people for decades, they leave a large gap. I also lost a friendship, apparently irretreivably, although I don’t quite know why and I’m irked at my ignorance of the causes. And, most important of all, my partner’s illness continues to be chronic, with me helpless to do anything about it.

On the positive side of the ledger, I made a few new friends for the first time in a year or two, and have become marginally involved in Free Geek Vancouver, one of the worthier causes I’ve encountered recently. I’m a firm believer that volunteer work is as good for my psychological health as any advice I’m able to give might be to the recipients.

However, the largest addition to the positive side is my development as a writer. Although I dropped my efforts at fiction about May, 2007 has been by far the best year I’ve ever had for writing.

Just in terms of volume, I wrote about 245,000 words of articles on free software, or about 185 articles. I also wrote about 45,000 words for the Imperial Realms online game divided into 17 articles and about 55,000 words spread over 135 posts. That’s a total of roughly 345,000 public words alone.

By other measures, my writing year was also successful. During the year, I found new sources for my work, and I now make as much money freelancing as I ever did as a communicatins consultant (good thing, too: I’m getting too old to learn how to knot a tie again). I was interviewed four or five times over the year, either as a writer or as a subject matter expert. I also returned to an academic project that I started years ago and abandoned. And, just as I was typing this paragraph, I received an email from a friend telling me that an article of mine had been Slashdotted, making the perfect end to the year. So, in many ways, I think that 2007 marks my first real understanding of myself as a writer.

Looking over the paragraphs above, what strikes me is the imbalance between the personal and the professional. Not that the personal was particularly awful, but it seems thoroughly overshadowed by the professional. If I were superstitious, I’d be tempted to say that there’s only so much karma to go around. Or, from a psychological perspective, perhaps I’ve been practicing the fine old Freudian tradition of sublimation.

And what do I see looking ahead? I can’t even begin to guess. But there’s a scene in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King where Lancelot says that, after an encounter, he got down on his knees and “thanked God for the adventure.” I’m not religious, but I hope that I can must the same combined sense of stoicism and adventure as I face what’s waiting for me in 2008.

Upon the whole, here was an undoubted testimony that there was scarce any condition in the world so miserable but there was something negative or something positive to be thankful for in it; and let this stand as a direction from the experience of the most miserable of all conditions in this world: that we may always find in it something to comfort ourselves from, and to set, in the description of good and evil, on the credit side of the account.

— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

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If I were a passive member of our consumer culture, I would be preparing my New Year’s Resolutions for next year. Full of reforming zeal and determined to create a better me, I would be promising myself to lose weight, start an exercise program, improve my attitudes, get a job, and plan to initiate any of a dozen other self-improvement programs. However, being a contrarian preparing for a curmudgeonly old age a few decades down the line – one that’s “coarse and anarchistic,” as Utah Phillips puts it – I don’t plan to make any resolutions. I haven’t done for years, and I see no reason to do so now.

For one thing, my tentative probing reveals no area of major discontent where I could make a difference from personal effort. I already eat next to no red meat, caffeine, salt or sugar. My alcohol consumption is light, and, while enthusiastic, falls well short of drunkenness. I’m in good shape, and exercise daily, even if my build doesn’t make that readily apparent when I’m wearing clothes. I’m doing work I love that gives me autonomy and as much income as I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t want to spend my time in pursuit of wealthy, or need to spend it pursuing meaning, either. So, in other words, the major incentives for resolutions don’t exist for me.

Yet, other years, when my outlook was bleaker, I’ve been no more inclined to make a resolution. I’m well aware that the start of the new year has shifted throughout history, and January 1 seems a symbolically inauspicious time to change my ways. At least on March 25, the first signs of spring might have occurred, and I might renew myself just as the trees and fields were doing the same. But looking forward to a new start on January 1, we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment as we face a cold and unpleasant day that looks as winter-bound as the one before.

Anyway, I’m not sure that resolutions actually help you to improve yourself. So far as I’m concerned, taking the time to promise yourself changes is just a distraction from actually making them. If you’re not careful, making resolutions create an illusion of doing something when all you’re doing is making yourself obsessive-compulsive as you constantly remind yourself of your assertions or even write them out repeatedly. I can’t help filling that there is something pathetic and even poignantly misguided about making resolutions and imagining that you are doing yourself good.

In my experience, the decision to change yourself doesn’t come at a particular time of year. Nor is it accomplished, or even supported, by any secular form of prayer like resolutions. The decision comes from a sudden realization of weariness about your current situation, or a sudden resolution that may begin intellectually, but ultimately includes a sense of revelation at the gut level. You can’t manufacture these emotional catalysts to order – either you have the will to change, or you don’t, and making resolutions won’t give you that will. Nor will anything else. Having taught and observed thousands of students, I’m convinced that most people can only change or improve themselves when they’re ready to, and never to order.

At best, making resolutions can only give you the illusion of taking control and seizing the initiative. That illusion may be comforting for a few days, but it’s like taking an extra dose of caffeine: After the initial rush, the comedown is only that much harder.

Rather than giving head space to that illusion, I prefer not to waste my time or go through the feeling of disappointment when I let myself down because of a lack of commitment. When I set out to make changes in my life, I act because I realize the need, not just because it’s a particular time of year. The stretch between January and spring can be long enough without making it more bitter from disappointment.

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