Here are my New Year’s resolutions:
- Spend more time reading and writing, and less time watching television
- Get in better shape–work out a little less, and eat a little healthier
- Be more proactive and efficient at work
These resolutions are as ordinary as they come. But they’re incredibly frustrating. Don’t worry–I’ll explain why. To do this, I’ll take you back in time. Starting when I was an oil-faced, frosted-tipped high schooler:
January 4, 2004
I’m in my school’s library for study hall. I was a junior, and eager to remake myself for my final year and a half of high school. Glancing at the cool kids at the other end of the table, I whip out my notepad, click my pen, and inscribe my resolutions for the New Matt.
- Lift weights so you can bulk up for basketball–maybe even get some regular varsity time.
- Don’t waste so much time playing video games. Instead, read actual books. And get started on that Great American Novel you’ve been planning during Chemistry class.
- Finally *glance over shoulder to make sure the cool kids aren’t looking* stop worrying so much what other people think.
Eleven months later, I sat on the end of the bench, picking a stubborn hangnail. Sure we were in the middle of a basketball game, but there was no reason to pay attention–it’s not like I was going to play. Because I hadn’t worked up a sweat, the gym felt cold. So I was glad I’d thought to wear that t-shirt beneath my uniform. It gave extra warmth, and hid my scrawny arms. A few more picks and–success!–I get the hangnail. Now I could get to more important things. Like remembering where I left my second copy of Halo–that last level wasn’t going to beat itself. It was probably in some lonely corner of my bedroom–right next to my half-finished Northwestern application and the lone half-chapter of my Great American novel.1
December 10th, 2007
I paced around the oak-panelled common room, too excited to work on my final paper. My semester at Oxford was almost over, and I was eager to tackle the “real world” when I got back. Not as the nervous slacker from 2007–the Matt of 2008 would be different. Opening my laptop, I set my new pipe in my teeth at an intellectual angle.2 I entered my resolutions:
- Ramp up the workout. I lived in a post-300 world, and had to keep up with Leonidas. That meant more protein, more intense workouts, and more Spartan swagger. Then maybe I’d work up the nerve to talk to that girl from my international studies class…
- Read more. And not those silly novels I’d been picking at–serious philosophical books. I was sick of being the only one in the room who didn’t get the professor’s Heidegger references.
- Get cracking on those MFA applications. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop wasn’t going to apply to itself. It was my first step toward a career as a wildly esteemed author and man of letters. To make sure I had enough material, I was going to write a short story every two weeks. And also get going on that serious literary novel I was outlining…
Sixteen months later, I leaned back, locking my arms against the muddy creek bed, numb to anything but self pity. My eyes glazed through the water’s smooth sparkle, seeing only the trite openings of my MFA rejection letters. If only I had more material than those two measly stories I’d managed in the past year and a half. I sighed, shook my head, and stared. My sore arms finally snapped me out of it. If I’d kept to the 300 workout, they wouldn’t feel this way. And maybe that girl from international studies wouldn’t be engaged to some other guy. Sighing again, I lumbered to my feet, trying to remember where I kept my Simpsons DVDs. Probably by that unopened copy of A History of Western Philosophy…
December 16, 2011
On a Pepperdine patio, I let my body slide down the deck chair, sighing in bliss. My first finals period of law school–three weeks of constant work and stress and panic–was over. Toward the end of finals, I felt like Frodo at Mt. Doom. I couldn’t remember the sun, or strawberries, or anything other than finals. But now I just let the Pacific waves, glittered by the sun, lull me into sweet inattention. I finally drift to a thought: “Huh, New Year’s is coming.” I should really write some resolutions. I could do that as soon as I…wait. For the first time since August, I had nothing else to do. Grinning, I whipped out my laptop and started typing:
- Get in better shape. Everyone at Pepperdine had perfect beach bodies. Except me. Since classes started, my “exercise” consisted of walking back and forth between study spots. I had to keep up with everyone else.
- Read more on serious subjects. I wanted to be one of those people with deep knowledge on Important Legal Topics like the First Amendment or Natural Law. When my classmates started pontificating during class, I wanted to do more than just pretend and nod along. That may also help that new book project I’d been toying with…
- Get better at networking. I wanted to be one of those law students who chatted with professors and visiting scholars, and led law societies. In other words, I wanted to be less the quiet nerd studying on the patio, and more the cool young lawyer who knew all the right people.
A year and two months later, I was tucked into a corner of Yale’s law library away from everyone else. I was reviewing my book project. Again. It had basically been done for months, but I couldn’t work up the guts to send it to anyone. Also, I kept thinking about my First Amendment class earlier that day. Class discussion was about all those religious liberty principles I cared most about. But when my classmates explained how “religious liberty” was just a post hoc justification for bigotry, I didn’t say anything. I was afraid that, if I spoke up, somebody would point out a legal or philosophical point I missed because I hadn’t read the scholarship enough. Sighing, I took another drink of soda, and wondered if I’d ever bother stopping by the university’s gym.
Thus, we get to me, sitting in my office this January, staring at my same list of resolutions….
What happens next? Well, that’s for the next post….
1 Yes, I probably do still have that half chapter around somewhere. No, I won’t share it with you.
2 And one day I would figure out how to actually light it.