Opinion » John Rember

Resolutions Unbound

Happy subliminal new year


I've discovered some New Year's resolutions in my life. They're neither as arduous nor as depressing as they're supposed to be. Instead, they seem to be promoting mild and gradual improvement of self, soul and morale. One of them seems to be to read 100 books in 2015. Another is to get plenty of exercise. Yet another is to drink better wine.

Since Jan. 1, I've been behaving as if I'd written these changes out and had them notarized. I'm on schedule to read 100 books. Good snow and bright sunshine have had me skiing Copper Mountain instead of sitting in front of the computer screen all day, lurking on Julie's Facebook account when I'm not clicking on the Huffington Post's cosmetic surgery disaster photos. The better wine resolution has resulted in increased enjoyment and possibly reduced intake, although the latter is hard to measure unless you open the box.

One problem: I deliberately didn't make any resolutions. Julie and I treat New Year's resolutions the same way we treat Christmas presents and bucket lists, which is to say we don't do them. If I see that Julie wants or needs something, I try to buy it for her regardless of the time of year. She does the same for me. We both come from frugal families, so it's with genetic relief that we confess to each other that we can't remember what we wanted for Christmas—but it's clearly something we could do without since it's the end of January and we still haven't missed it.

And if we have a place to visit or thing to do, we visit that place and do that thing instead of adding it to a bucket list and putting it off until the winning lottery ticket, the gold watch or the occluded artery. There's no time like the present, we tell ourselves, which is as good a justification for low impulse control as any.

So no resolutions. Just intense January cravings, which cause me to go to the Stanley library, check out a dozen books, put them on the table next to the couch, and begin to read through them one by one, a glass of wine in my hand. Or I wander out to the garage and pull a couple of pairs of obsolete skis down from the rafters for a good filing and waxing. I once again check our ski packs for fresh batteries, first aid supplies and granola bars. I tighten down the ski rack on the 4-Runner.

None of these are conscious choices. They have the force of Fate, and they make me think that someone is in my head, and—to paraphrase Pink Floyd—it's not me. The good news is that these days, whoever it is seems to have my best interests in mind. It wants me to go skiing and read good books and get the health benefits of a resveratrol-laden beverage consumed in moderation.

It wasn't always this way. For the first four decades of my life, these unconscious New Year's resolutions seemed diabolically calculated to mess up my life. It wasn't uncommon for me to have an urge to get involved with Mean Girls, or a whole succession of Mean Girls. I would write stories that took me into dark places from which there was no exit. I would make fun of resorts that advertised in the travel magazines I wrote for, prompting my editors to send me to places that lacked resorts or even the cheerful quid-pro-quo ambience of a local chamber of commerce.

Had I written them down after the fact, a typical New Year's resolution for those years might have looked like this: "This year I resolve to quit my good teaching job, get involved with several women who will become insanely pissed off at the mere fact of my existence, offend the advertisers who pay my editor's salary, cash in my 401(k) to pay for a useless MFA degree and dig myself out of an avalanche in the backcountry."

At the end of some of those years, I was convinced that whoever or whatever I shared my skull with was out to get me. No matter that my good teaching job was a dead end, that it took me a succession of unfortunate relationships to know a fortunate one when I saw it, that the MFA rewarded me not with riches but with a world of new and expanded options or that the avalanches were deep—but not too deep—learning experiences that have thus far ensured my survival in these winter mountains. At the time they all looked like assassination attempts, and I was their target.

So it's good that we have made peace, this unconscious entity and I. I count its presence as a blessing, because there are no doubt other unconscious entities that would take its place if I somehow got rid of it, and they might not be as favorably disposed to my existence.

You, dear reader, may regard yourself as a unified, totally conscious being who shares a skull with nobody. But in a long career of working with people, I've observed that almost no one makes big decisions consciously. Who to marry, whether or not to have children, what to major in, to succeed or not to succeed, to get sick or be healthy, to even live or die—all these seem to be decided by a being within us over whom we have little conscious control. If I choose to see mine as a minor god who needs to be acknowledged and placated, whose resolutions need to be strictly obeyed, I'm sure you'll sympathize.