Issue February 16, 2011

Lose yourself

Since Valentine’s Day has come and gone, it’s time for my annual joke about making a New Year’s resolution to stop procrastinating. Ha ha, that one never gets old. On the other hand, considering my birthday is in the middle of February, I might argue that my “new year” is just beginning.

There are many different ways to identify the start of a new year. Our calendar could begin on the first day of spring, for instance, when things start growing again. We could start at the end of summer with the beginning of the school year.

Being an Aquarian, I understand that a lot of the rules most people follow simply don’t apply to me, so I could make New Year’s resolutions whenever I feel like it. (You could, too, if you wanted, but it’s a slippery slope from people doing things willy-nilly like that to the total collapse of civilization, so be careful.)

Will I stop procrastinating? Probably not (although my editor would almost certainly appreciate it). Procrastinating is funny (although my editor probably doesn’t think so), and my life is guided by nothing so much as comedy. And pathos teetering on the brink of tragedy. And random whims. And good intentions based on limited understanding and poor judgment. And stumbling compassion. Oh, and a persistent desire for the perfect blend of sweet and salty. And something else I can’t remember right now.

I love being an Aquarian, even if it does mean I am a bit air-headed. I get to face overwhelming odds with blissful ignorance. I look beyond the apparent and see the absurd. Every once in while, I catch myself floating away … like a cloud.

Meanwhile, “New Year’s” references aside, it is always a good time to consider engaging the spirit of self-improvement. First Lady Michelle Obama did the talk-show circuit a week or so ago to let us know her husband has been smoke-free for about a year. I was impressed they waited so long to make the point; while it seems obvious that any earlier report would be premature, it also seems to be culturally acceptable to enlist the moral support of one’s community for such an endeavor, as if the fact that I know that you are “trying to quit” (whatever bad habit you have) is going to help you in some way.

While I suppose it is possible to adjust one’s behavior by creating the potential for disappointing your loved ones when and if you fail, the surer path is self-driven. There was a scene in a recent episode of “The Mentalist” that pointed more clearly in this direction. While talking to a woman who was struggling with her effort to quit smoking, Patrick Jane (the titular mentalist, played by Simon Baker) told her to think about a wealthy tobacco executive laughing at her whenever she lit a cigarette, whenever she drew “that putrid smoke” into her lungs. His communication had an intense, hypnotic effect, and after he finished speaking, he snapped his finger, and the woman put out her cigarette.

Would she smoke another one? Well, that’s a dumb question because she is a fictional character, but the lesson for us is that we, as a people under the influence of this curious entertainment, can do for ourselves what has been demonstrated in fiction. We can choose to do healthy things for ourselves by adopting a mantra that helps us move in a healthy direction. We don’t even need a reason beyond the fact that we are only here for a short time, and we might enjoy ourselves more fully if we take better care of ourselves and our loved ones.

For additional study: Richard Brautigan’s novel, “In Watermelon Sugar,” written over the course of about nine weeks in the summer of 1964, tells the story of a group of people who live in a magical little commune called iDEATH, where the sun shines a different color every day of the week, and (almost) everything is made of watermelon sugar. The main action concerns a rift between those who run the commune and a group of dissenters who move out and take up residence in the Forgotten Works, a place where “you might get lost.” It has its grim aspects, but, more than any other of Brautigan’s books, it offers a brilliant, sweet example of how people can live selflessly in support of one another.