The new year, once so full of bluster and promise, has already waned to 75% of its former self. It is a time to look again at hoped-for accomplishments in 2014.
I have been making resolutions, and subsequently failing to keep them, since third grade. My first attempt originated in a parent-teacher conference with my parents and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Bedford. To be clear, this wasn’t the kind of parent-teacher conference with cookies and smiling faces and compliments all around. This was the kind of conference with frowns and, “John Wilson just doesn’t apply himself,” and papers with red marks and F’s on them, and papers that mysteriously never got turned in. The type of conference where the teacher is tight-lipped and stern and the parents have those looks on their faces… the mom’s look says, “Oh, little John Wilson, our sweet little John Wilson. How can we motivate him?” The dad’s look says, “John Wilson. Is. Going. To… Get… Beat!! The minute we get home! He’ll also be grounded for the rest of the school year. I’m gonna spank him, he’ll get no supper, and he’ll have to write a 10 page letter apologizing to Mrs. Bedford and all the other teachers he’s ever had, and all the teachers he’s going to have. And then I’ll spank him again.”
That type of conference.
I remember thinking to myself, as I sat there looking back and forth from Mrs. Bedford to my parents, “John Wilson, you’re gonna get beat like a rented mule this afternoon. Dude, you better make some changes.” So… my first attempt at resolutions was born.
First thing on my list was to quit smoking. My friends and I had two main strategies for securing cigarettes. The most effective was to steal from my friend’s mother. That was the easiest. We’d go into the kitchen, get a snack, locate the carton of smokes in their usual place, and steal a whole pack if we could. It was far better to steal a whole pack than to try and open a pack to steal just a few cigarettes. Of course, the downside was hiding a whole pack in little boy pockets. I learned the delicate risk versus reward thing, which was my first introduction to economics.
Our second strategy was more out of desperation. If we had gone through a stolen pack, which usually took awhile, or if that friend was gone so we couldn’t get into his house, then we would hit the road. More people smoked back then, and we would find butts along the road. Some of them still had tobacco in them and were worth picking up and finishing. This was the more difficult strategy, of course, but it taught us resourcefulness. It was another economics lesson also… the concept of scarcity. Limited resources, unlimited desires, that sort of thing. Either method, steal or scavenge, ended with a trip into the woods to enjoy the bounty.
Next on my list of resolutions was drinking. I couldn’t be a very good boy if we kept drinking, so I determined to stop. There was an empty lot in our neighborhood between two of my friends’ houses, where the woods were especially thick. A boy could go in there and hide and never be found, or so it seemed. The lot was overgrown with hardwoods towering above, as well as the usual suspects of understory trees. But best of all, it was thick with muscadine vines. Many an afternoon would find us scrambling through the thickets, on the ground and in the trees, picking the sour grape-looking appendages, eating some but conducting warfare with most of them. If I squeezed one just right, the skin would release the pulpy innards, sometimes with enough force to pretend it was a missile of war. Honeysuckle was in there, too. Pick a flower, pinch the end and draw the sweet nectar through the tube, a little drop of heaven.
At any rate, some time before, someone had hidden a bottle of crème de menthe in those woods and forgotten about it, probably an older neighborhood boy. One of my friends eventually found it. I thought it tasted like sweet mouthwash, but I can’t recall with certainty. It was an exciting thing to be a young boy in the woods with a bottle of found liquor. We didn’t take much though, just a swig, tops. I know this because the bottle lasted the remainder of my childhood. Had someone not eventually built a house on that lot, it would probably still be available for the children of today. Sad sometimes, to see things change. Anyway, in my third grade mind, I somehow made the connection between secret consumption of crème de menthe in the woods, and poor academic performance, so I vowed to quit.
Last on my list of resolutions was actual schoolwork. I told myself, “John, from now on you will apply yourself!” And I meant it. I made a plan to attack my homework that very night, to close myself off from all of the distractions of the outside world, including our old black and white Zenith TV with three stations. I would make my parents proud. I would make Mrs. Bedford glad again that she was an educator. My educator.
Of course, along with the making of resolutions quickly came the breaking of those resolutions. How many times since then I have resolved to quit eating candy, or limit my calories per day, or to eat nothing but tuna and fruit, only to find myself polishing off a bag of Kisses that very evening. So it was, sad to say, with my third grade list.
I tried. I did. I remember closing my door that first late afternoon and getting all of my school supplies out, most of them barely used. Getting my textbooks out, looking over my assignments, looking over my past due assignments, sharpening my pencils, spreading them all out before me… and then I remember the word, “Nah,” entering my mind, quickly followed by the word, “Later.” I swept all of it, every last bit, onto the floor. There was no way to sneak out into the family room to watch the Zenith, not with my parents around. But there was nothing to keep me from lying on the bed and playing with my assortment of baseballs and Nerf balls. After that, I pulled out an old chess set and conducted a full tournament with imaginary folks from all over the world, eventually winning with a final act of desperation, a feint with my bishop and then a brilliant checkmate of Bobby Fischer himself with a last strategic, never before thought-of move with my lonely Queen.
When finished with all of that, it was time for bed. I looked at my schoolwork strewn on my floor. Assignments due the next day. What to do?
My solution was to set my clock for the middle of the night. I would get up and work on my homework. I would finish it. I would do what I resolved to do. I would change myself. I would be a good boy.
But that didn’t happen. The next morning, I was awakened by my mother’s knock on the door. “Hurry, John Wilson. You’ll be late for school!” I had slept through my alarm, and the realization that I had done nothing, absolutely nothing, was a horrible thing to wake up to. I hopped out of bed and stepped all over my papers and books. “Ok, coming!” I hollered back.
Realizing that desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures, a plan quickly fomented in my mind. A very quick go with the morning routine, and out the door I went, incomplete assignments jammed into my notebook. Taking my usual route to school, I headed up the road for a ways, at least to give the impression that I was headed for school. Of course, what did I see along the road but little white temptations littered along the way, each stubby nugget calling out, “John Wilson!… pick me up! Smoke me!” I tried in vain to shut out the voices.
Eventually, I circled back and cut into the woods to find a good hiding spot. Playing hooky in those days was a lot easier, as I went to a large school and there was no electronic monitoring of attendance. A quick forging of my mother’s signature on a carefully written note would take care of things the following day.
I remember sitting under a tree, spreading my school supplies about me. I had everything I needed. It was rough going, and lonely. The assignments were hard, third grade hard, but I soldiered through. The cigarette butts I had scavenged on the road and the crème de menthe helped.
Ever since then, I have realized the pain of resolutions made and broken, the glory and futility of trying to change myself. Every year I try to improve, part of realizing the frailty of the human will, I guess, but I have come to accept myself for who I am. As some former Husker fan wrote one time, “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.”
So here’s to a start-over. Happy Second Quarter.