Wake Me When It’s Over

hibernating

“Every winter,

When the great sun has turned his face away,

The earth goes down into a vale of grief,

And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,

Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –

Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses”

–   Charles Kingsley

This first month of the Gregorian calendar is a time for reflection, self-flagellation and cynicism. It is the nadir of the solar year and the emotional equivalent of the basement level in the underground parking lot of life. January is named after a feckless Roman God named Janus – the God of all passages. Literally translated, he is the God of Doors and Gates. We essentially named the first month of the year after a guy who stands with a clipboard and velvet rope deciding which of us gets to go through into the new year. As jobs go on Mt Olympus, being an immortal doorman was not the best assignment.  You could be responsible for oceans like Poseiden or the underworld like Hades – where there were very good parties and no supervision. Personally, I admire the lesser known Gods like Lecheros who was the God of Greek fitness instructors.

Yet, I identify with Janus. I imagine him as class clown – overweight and acerbic sitting at the back of Zeus’ lectures as he wisecracked under his voice and passed notes to Aphrodite in hopes that she might go out on a date with him.  There were no mirrors in Janus’ house and he filled his garden with laughing hyenas.  He thought he was funny.  Perhaps after a tenth consecutive rejection from Aphrodite who was dating Apollo because he had biceps and a fast car, Janus snapped and made a flip remark about Zeus looking a little “prosperous” in his tunic.  “Has our divine father violated the laws of moderation or perhaps he has mistakenly sat on the empire of Gaul by mistake?“

The next thing he knows, Janus is passing out hand towels in the Mount Olympus executive bathroom.  After a millennia of squeezing soap into the hands of lesser Titans, Janus is finally promoted and immortalized as the Father of January responsible for the first 31 days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, this assignment is clearly a punishment.  South of the equator, it is a pretty good gig especially January 1st in Rio.

A northern longitude January is not a time to be a mammal. As warm-blooded, propagating, card-carrying primates, we were designed to be dormant creatures in winter. It is our genetic predisposition to gorge on fatty, high carbohydrate foods, eat take out, and then root around for warm, dark places to hibernate. Some mammals choose to hibernate symbolically eschewing social engagements and hiding out under generous oversized winter clothing. Others retreat into mahogany cocoons of work.

It is a fact that our brain chemistry changes with the lack of winter light.  We become irritable and restless.  Sleep eludes us.  Our dopamine and serotonin receptors begin to flicker.  Our brains become a rolling brown out of highs and lows as we grow desperate for a 12 hour day of sun and the green grass of spring.

The first month of the year can be an endless squall line of Alberta clipper storm systems surging down from the Great Lakes that pull in moisture from the South – producing snow and myriad reasons to be lethargic.  Lethargy and self-pity are two overly maligned character defects that can turn even the most selfless among us turn into an effective whiner and complainer.  Janus intended that his month should have this effect on us. If he had to guard all doors and public bathrooms, no one was going to be very happy in his month.

He decided January would be a time for remorse, resolutions and a mounting physical and emotional pressure to change – preferably into a Greek God of War with a pimped out V12 car. It would be up to us as mere mortals to float above our weaknesses, fueled by the hot air and methane of good intentions, poor digestion and self-loathing.

A few brave souls seek to defy the laws of hibernation and embrace January.  They firmly rest their hands on their hips, throw their heads back and offer the God Janus their most indignant pirate laugh.  These mockers of the Janus own an entire super hero wardrobe of spandex, Gortex, okaytex, Underarmour, and polypro clothing.  They have snow shoes, ice axes, crampons, cross-country skis, snow skis, ice fishing shacks, snow sleds, snow mobiles and snow saws for building igloos. These hardy souls secretly want to hit a patch of black ice, skid into a ditch and use all their survival training until they are rescued and offered an opportunity to be featured on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. These winter-lovers are perpetually happy.   While you are scrawling “I hate winter” on the frosted mirror of your bathroom that never heats up, these psychotic winter sprites are outdoors shoveling snow or preparing for a Polar Bear plunge in Long Island Sound.

The Saxons referred to January as “Wulf-monath”, the month of the wolf.  Others considered it “the time of ice”.  The month has a bad track record in history.  Instead of just laying low, mortals feel the need to betray their natural instincts and crawl out of hibernation.  The need to get a head start on the Gregorian calendar has caused many well-intentioned world leaders to move across a denuded landscape of poor choices to attempt to influence the trajectory of a new year.

In 1644, Brit Guy Fawkes was convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament. It seems dissatisfaction with a two-party system and government waste traces its roots well beyond the 112th Congress. Fast forward to January, 1862, when the first income tax was proposed of 3% on incomes above $ 600 increasing up to 5% for incomes up to $ 10,000. I mean, really.  As if fighting the Civil War was not enough, the average American had to file their first income tax return.    In 1874, New York City annexed the Bronx.  Enough said. In 1899, the US liberated Cuba from Spain, presumably to gain access to some better public beaches.  However, they failed to outlaw bearded people wearing berets on the boardwalk which was our undoing.

Leaping ahead to 1945, January was the month where France was admitted to the United Nations to offset the heartburn of growing American hegemony.  France actually nominated Russia the following month but could not convince people that if allowed to join the UN the Russians would bathe more and only invade countries with names that ended in a vowel.

In 1946, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced he was not a God.  He was actually a pauper named Ichiro Kawasaki who had agreed to switch places with the real Emperor who was determined to abdicate his royal role to open a sushi bar in Soho.

In 1950, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign to rid the French from Indochina. Earlier in the month, President Eisenhower, suffering from a prostate infection, is misunderstood during a meeting with the coalition French President, Georges Bidault. As Bidault presses Eisenhower to renege on our commitments to Ho Chi Minh (who fought side by side with us against the Japanese) and support reintroducing French colonialism back into Vietnam, Eisenhower confides to an aide that he must go “wee”.  Bidualt is overcome with gratitude assuming the American president has just consented, saying “oui”. The rest as they say is history.

In 1959, Fidel Castro leads Cuban revolutionaries to victory over Fulgencio Batista and closes all public beaches and mafia owned casinos.  The Kennedy family fumes over unreimbursed hotel deposits and vows revenge. In 1978, The Sex Pistols performed their last concert at Winterland in San Francisco.  History as we know it, essentially ended on that January when nihilistic Sid Vicious hung up his angry guitar. A year later he was dead of an overdose.

January has its high points with the Rose Parade in Pasadena ( isn’t California in the Southern hemisphere?) We do have football playoffs, the return of the pro bowling tour and the reconvening of Congress. In between bouts of the flu and a false positive in the stock market known as the “January Effect”, mankind looks ahead to Fortunate February – a month that arrives faithfully with perfumed promises of Valentines and better days ahead.

Personally, I think we should be allowed to sleep through the entire month of January. The Northern hemisphere world be better off and we would really save on our electricity bills.  Why not just deploy the old Vonnegut “night canopies”, hibernate and wait until longer days restore our sanity and replenish the chemicals that fire our neurotransmitters. A little dopamine and a little less dopiness could make all the difference in a flat, crowded and discombobulated world.

That’s it. Hold my calls. I’m going to go lie down.

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

New York City skyline from Continental Terminal C
Image via Wikipedia

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community.  Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.  ~Mark Twain

I am standing, no, sleep walking in Penn station at an ungodly morning hour staring at the rattling tote board of arrivals, departures and assigned track numbers.  A heroin addict has just scampered out in front of me like a giant subway rat clutching a handful of C&H sugar packets – presumably to temporarily mollify the beast of addiction stirring within her.  The dank corridors, low light and my bleak midwinter Vitamin D deficiency make me feel as if I am transforming into a vampire.  Perhaps sun deprivation is causing Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I consider the year that awaits me as I carry on to Newark airport and a business trip to Ohio – – another 365 days of yo-yoing stock markets, political uncertainty and twice-as-hard-to-be-half-as-good work environments. I know I am not in a good place when an elderly woman walking by with cup of coffee makes me despondent.  Am I losing my mind in this neon and halogen habitrail underworld of planes, trains and cheap hotels?

During thirty years of laboring in the vineyards of America Inc and Europe SSA, I do occasionally experience episodes of self-pity. I refer to them as my “Talking Heads Moments.”  Somewhere off in the distance, David Byrne is jerking his shoulders and crooning:

“And You May Find Yourself Living In A Shotgun Shack

And You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World

And You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Large Automobile

And You May Find Yourself In A Beautiful House, With A Beautiful Wife

And You May Ask Yourself-Well…How Did I Get Here? ”

My descent into the limbo of self-assessment is predictable.  It appears like a noon-day demon every first few weeks of a new year – brought on by post holiday blues, back to work doldrums and the frenetic pace of travel that always precedes budgets and a fresh year of earnings expectations.

The dark thoughts scratch at my mind’s door on a snowy January morning in an economy hotel outside of Toledo where I am giving a speech. The Toledo Comfort Inn is the depressing vortex of my self-reflection.  My room resembles that old couch that you purchased from a second hand store for your college dorm room or first apartment. If one were to use a black light in this den of drab, it would most likely resemble a Manson Family crime scene. My wake up call through paper thin walls is the muffled hacking and unearthly sounds of a heaving travelling salesman as he takes his first cell call of the morning.  Against a backdrop of his bellicose cursing, I step under a showerhead the size of a thimble.  The hot water is a stinging stream of pins that push me against the tiled wall like a bystander in some riot. I am not amused. In these nadir moments of life, it is best not to write a memo to your boss, make major decisions or operate heavy machinery. On these days, life just seems to be one endlessly existential, nihilistic rut.

At breakfast, I remember why I hate staying in commuter hotels as I make eye contact with an elderly man from a tour group.  He has been staring at me for over 15 minutes.  His is not one of those, ” don’t I know you? Or ” didn’t we meet at…” kinds of stares.  This is an ” I wonder what your head would look like in my sweater drawer” stare. I move to a new seat in the waiting area.  The temperature in this overheated corral is around 100 degrees.  It’s like an Indian Sweat Lodge and I am about to see my spirit animal in a dehydrated state of blue-collar delirium. I remember that someone once told me when feeling low that I should “ move a muscle and change a thought”.  I decide to write down my goals for the year.

Ah yes, the New Year resolutions. Perhaps this simple act of planning will prove cognitively therapeutic – breaking me out of my mental doldrums and distracting me from the octogenarian serial killer who is day-dreaming about holding me hostage in his basement. I gaze across this lumpy ocean of Middle America grazing on glazed donuts and coca puffs in the breakfast lounge,  and wonder what happened to my grand goals and resolutions?  Where did the upstart populist Senator go ? What became of the college literature and history professor? Was it me or my goals ?

“How did I get here?

Goals and planning were compulsory in my family. Each January, we were asked to record our goals for the year.  My father insisted at age ten that we charted our “stars to steer by”.  We were expected to focus on personal, academic, financial and community goals. We thought it was a bit odd that we were the only kids in our class with a balanced scorecard and performance appraisals.  It was bad enough that we would receive a day planner every Christmas as a stocking stuffer.  What I was going to do with a calendar when I did not even have a secretary?  I do recall attempting entries for the first few days of January only to eventually orphan the calendar and finally condemn it to the garbage. Dad’s theory was that boys were like cars with no GPS device. Goals were important touchstones and fundamental DNA for any worthwhile life journey. “For God’s sake.  You would not drive to New York from Los Angeles, without a roadmap. Would you, son?”  This query was usually followed by my best stupid face as I incredulously pondered,” Why would I ever drive to New York?”

Our family patriarch promulgated goals.  Acceptable submissions included: Get good grades, don’t hit your brother, do not be rude, pick up your clothes, set aside $ 100 to your college fund and do not steal my (father’s) underwear. My dad would smile and clap me on the back, as I tendered and posted my public objectives. He would faithfully staple my manifesto to the breakfast room bulletin board along with my brothers’ best intentions.  These lists would remain like public health inspector assessments for the entire year. They were constant reminders of our commitment to self improvement.

As we moved into high school, we created two sets of goals.  Like any worthwhile double agent, we had public goals and private agendas. Under threat of death, we would share our goals and attempt to outdo one another with wild boasts about our prowess as men. Life was not about the future but about the venal here and now. Forget next year.   Quality of life was measured in three-month increments.   Carnal knowledge, sporting accomplishments, plausible hyperbole and bouts with acne impacted your social standing greater than any grade point average, religious denomination or economic trend. My 17th year was a critical transition year and I was determined to exploit my new driver’s license and fourteen hairs flourishing like palm trees on my upper lip.  My confidential aim for the stars aspirations included:

Goal 1 – Ask the majestic Kerry K on a date (I had adored this girl since the fifth grade but would experience a mild form of verbal constipation when I so much as laid eyes on her. For several years she believed I was mildly retarded)

Goal 2 – Attend 4 Dead concerts (I was not sure how I would get the money or transportation but becoming a frequent flyer at Grateful Dead concerts was the social equivalent of being a Platinum card holder)

Goal 3 – Do not drink and drive (we all saw the film “Red Asphalt” in driver’s ed), do not drink beer on weeknights or the night before any baseball games  (In the socially liberal 70’s, boys did indeed buy pony kegs and parents were not hauled off to jail for being ignorant of this fact. Moms sometimes returned the kegs to the liquor store to get the deposit back)

My resolutions would fluctuate from ambitious to aimless with each New Year but I never failed to put pen to paper. I was always focused, like Catholics at Lent, on striving to cure my defects of character and mastering suboptimal parts of my life. As I got older, resolutions became like spiritual deductibles that instantly reset each January 1.  My goals became mountaintops that I sought to conquer to test and define my character. I did not complete many resolutions.  Like any good baseball player, I considered a .300 average as worthy of being an all-star. In some cases, I did not complete a resolution for years.

I think of my goals and resolutions.  I still have not tracked a snow leopard up the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, published a book, battled with a massive sailfish in the Gulf Stream or studied the great religions of the world.  I have not left footprints on every continent.  However, there is still time. As I sit in the warmth of the Comfort Inn, I realize there is time. There are mountains to be climbed, books to be read, children to be educated and a world to be changed.  William Thomas said it best when he remarked, “it would not be New Years, if I did not have something to regret.”  To which FM Knowles would glibly reply, “ He who breaks a resolution is a weakling.  He who makes one is a fool.” Personally, I think Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better person. “

As for the resolutions of 1978, I finally asked Kerry K out but not until I was 22.  By then, the bloom was off the rose for both of us.  I did make those Grateful Dead concerts but all I can remember is some twirling girl named Golden Blossom.   I did not exactly master self-imposed prohibition but years later, I discovered my own boundaries and learned to appreciate a Saturday morning sunrise.

The snow has stopped and the Comfort Inn breakfast lounge has emptied.  It is time to get moving – into a new day and a new year.  I have miles to go before I sleep.

Who knows, perhaps this will be the best year ever.