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.