Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Paradox Of Resolution

I've never been one for New Year's Resolutions. I always figured that if you decided to stop smoking, or drinking, or tormenting your cat, or whatever, on, say, December 15th, you could just stop doing those things on December 15th. What's the point of waiting to quit on Jan 1?

This thought of mine may seem overly rationalistic. It invites the obvious reply that it's precisely because it's hard to quit doing these things that one needs a resolution. If you could stop smoking now, you wouldn't need a resolution; you wouldn't be discussing it; you wouldn't need any Jan 1 nonsense. Really, odds are that if you could stop smoking now, you probably wouldn't even be smoking. You'd have quit already.

OK. True enough. But resolution-making has the same problem. Once you've made, and broken, a resolution, the next time you resolve to do something has less force, because you already know you're likely not to stick to it anyway. Make and break resolutions enough times and the whole point just kind of goes out the window.

This problem with resolutions is typified perfectly by the character of Zeno in the Italian novel Confessions of Zeno. Zeno resolves to quit smoking on pretty much every significant occasion, and then every insignificant occasion, of his life.

In his dictionary, he writes,
"2 February 1886. Today I finish my law degree and take up chemistry. Last cigarette!"
The new century is predictably exciting for him:
"First day of the first month of the first year of 1901." "Final monument to my vice!" "Even today I feel that if only that date could repeat itself I should be able to begin a new life."
He always goes back, of course:
"I am sure a cigarette has a more poignant flavor when it is the last. The others have their own special taste too, peculiar to them, but it is less poignant. The last has an aroma all its own, bestowed by a sense of victory over oneself and the sure hope of health and strength in the immediate future."
After years and years, Zeno solicits advice from a friend who has recently lost a lot of weight. The friend tells Zeno that he must stop making resolutions, because by making so many he has split his own personality in two: there's a master who makes the resolutions and a slave who takes the first opportunity it can to exercise its liberty. And thus to smoke. He tells Zeno that what he ought to do is to give the slave "absolute freedom," and at the same time look his vice in the face "as if it was something new" and he were meeting it "for the first time."

Zeno takes his advice. It works. For several hours. But then Zeno, feeling so fresh and innocent and cleansed, longs for a cigarette. He smokes. He resolves anew. He suffers. "The way was long," he concludes, "but the end was the same."

The logical conclusion is that the only time a resolution can be really effective is the first time you make it. But if that's true, you have every reason not to make a resolution at all. Because really, if you can't quit Dec 15th, what makes you think you're going to quit Jan 1? You're not, and not only will you have the broken resolution on your hands, you'll have broken your whole resolution-making capacity.

If that's right, you always have a reason not to make a New Year's resolution. Actually, if that's right, you always have reason not to make any resolutions at all. But then it seems to follow that it never makes sense to decide to quit doing anything

Quitting anything would make sense only if your quitting was totally spontaneous.

But that conclusion seems crazy.

Doesn't it?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Facebook and I Are On The Rocks

Facebook and I have been out twice together, and frankly, our relationship isn't working out very well. It may not last.

I took the initiative, of course, going to and setting up a profile. But Facebook came on strong right away. Once I'd let it slip what university I'd happen to go to, Facebook inundated me with information. Look! Here are all the people you went to college with! Here are their thumbnails! Click here for more!

I was like, Whoa, easy there, fella! A quiet living girl like me isn't ready for this kind of tsunami of memory, nostalgia, and mixed feelings. Let's take things a little more slowly. K?

OK. So I went back and deleted my university information. Then I deleted, um, pretty much everything informative, and I set my privacy settings to "Nobody should even know I exist, ever."

Having set the proper tone, I was emboldened enough to start participating in Facebook. Baby steps. I added a friend. I checked out the little apps like "bookshelf" or whatever it is where you can list the books you're reading. I considered what photos would be good. I read my friend's "wall."

But even at this pace, Facebook was too much for me: too indiscriminating, too much, too light and heavy at the same time.

Honestly, thinking about all the people I am sort of friendly with, or have been friends with in the past, or sort of like or find interesting, or have liked and found interesting in the past, all put together in one place where I would put information about what I am doing -- well, it just wigs me out. Thinking about it would be like a full-time job for me.

Also, there's the problem of friend requests you don't want to fulfill. Everyone I know on Facebook says the same thing about this: you just don't answer, and the person never knows if you decided to reject them or if you just didn't get around to answering or even if you're still on Facebook.

Really? Because this is hard to picture. I'm thinking everyone knows when they've been "declined." I guess people just don't mind it too much. I don't know.

Anyway, after a couple of months I tried again with Facebook. I added a new friend. I looked at the new friend's cute cat pictures. I read the first friend's "wall."

But it just wasn't happening. I'm just not up to encountering all this information all at once.

If Facebook could be a little quieter, a little gentler, a little more circumspect, we might have had a good thing going. But you know what they say. People don't change. You gotta take them as they are.

I'd check out his brother myspace, but I have a feeling he's just more of the same.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

You're Always In A Mood, Whether You Like It Or Not

I've been moody lately.

Me at 4:30 heading to the gym: Boo-hoo, life is pointless, I'm just a speck in the universe : (

Me at 7:30 having a cocktail: dum-dee-dum, I love my new cute shoes, cuteoverload is so awesome, and I wonder what's on the radio?

People like to talk about moods as if you can be "in a mood" or not be in one but that actually makes no sense. It's like talking about whether there is weather. There's always weather.

Just like you're always in a mood. Sure, some moods are more extreme than others and when you say you're moody you really just mean that your moods are shifting a lot or unpleasantly extreme. It doesn't mean you're in a mood as opposed to not being in one.

This wouldn't matter except that the whole concept of the no-mood mood infects how we think about "normal life."

For instance. People will tell you that if you're going to make an important decision in your life, you should wait until you're in a quiet, reflective state of mind, rather than in any particular mood.

But if you think about a quiet reflective state of mind as a mood, you wonder, what's so great about a quiet reflective mood over any other kind of mood? After all, sometimes you have to get all fired up in anger, or all passionately miserable, or all jublilantly excited, to really commit to something. What makes those decisions any more arbitrary than any other decisions?

When you're all wound up, the quiet reflective mood seems so boring and dull. Who would want that to be the representative of their true self?

The most you could say in answer to this, I think, is that for some people the quiet mood is more like an average of moods than any particular mood. But for a lot of people that just isn't true: they're so seldom quiet and reflective that this doesn't really reflect their mood average at all.

Also, you sometimes hear people trying to say that what a person really cares about, really values, is what they care about and value when they're in a quiet reflective state of mind—when they're not in any particular mood, they would say.

It has a kind of comforting plausible sound. But if you think of a quiet state of mind as a dull mood rather than no mood at all, then it doesn't make any sense. What's so great about a dull mood?

If you think about the hormonal basis of moods, it's even more puzzling. Famously, women are thought to change "moods" with their menstual cycles. But if you look at the hormone changes of women throughout a month, it's not like there's three weeks of one thing and then a week of another and then "back to normal." It's more like choas: there are several different chemicals, and they go up and down in all kinds of ways.

So when someone says "what you really care about is what you care about when you're not in a mood," I always think, "Is that the ovulating no-mood? The pre-menstrual no-mood? The post-menstrual no-mood"?

Or as a woman can I never be expected to be in no-mood until childbearing years are over? You see how peculiar it is.

Anyway, it reminds me of how adults always think of teenagers as being in some wacky non-normal frame of mind, and themselves as normal. But if you remember being a teenager, probably you thought you were normal and that adults were always half-sleepwalking.

Maybe we are. Who's to say? Just don't think you're going to make a more "accuarate" assessment of the situation just because you're "not in a mood." You're always in a mood. Whether you like it or not.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Anti-Death and Pro-Living: Two Fallacies

OK, so my last post was all about how much I don't want to die. How I'm anti-death.

You won't be surprised to learn that I'm not just anti-death, I'm pro-living. That is, I'm desperate for life to continue, even when I don't like it so much.

There are two big mistakes people make when they think about life and death and other people.

The first one is to think that people who dread death are naturally risk-averse. This thought is not only false, but is really, deeply, the opposite of true. Here's why. To be risk-averse, you have to really be thinking about the fact that something could be a risk. Which means you have to think about the fact that you are not only fragile, but breakable. You could die. But if you dread death, you really really don't want to think about that fact.

And if you don't think about that fact, pretty soon there you are riding motorcycles, smoking, taking drugs, and — you can fill in the blanks.

The second big mistake is to think that people who are anti-death are that way because they are really happy. This is also totally false. Because if you're not happy, your dread of death doesn't change or go away. Not at all. It's when you're most unhappy that it seems cruelest to top off an unhappy time with no time at all.

Indeed, I would say it's happy people who tend to be most at peace with death.

On the subject of the monotony of everyday life and the dread of death, we may again consult the master, Don Delillo, in his canonical text on the subject, White Noise. Jack has been asking his wife, Babette, whether she is taking a mysterious drug.
"Either I'm taking something and I don't remember or I'm not taking something and I don't remember. My life is either/or. Either I chew regular gum or I chew sugarless gum. Either I chew gum or I smoke. Either I smoke or gain weight. Either I gain weight or a run up the stadium steps."

"Sounds like a boring life.'

"I hope it lasts forever."
I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Me, I'm anti-death in a big, big way.

I know there are people out there who don't really worry about their own mortality, who either don't think about it, or who just regard it as a normal part of life. There are even people who feel that it is basically a good thing that human life is finite, because this enables us to create a narrative of our own existence, or because living forever would be "boring" or "tedious."

I know these people are out there because they say these things to me. "I don't really worry about it," they say. "I'm not sure I'd want to live forever," they tell me.

I don't understand these people. And I mean this in the deepest way possible. I can't imagine for myself what their inner lives are like; I can't see how they can hold on to these thoughts; I can't find a way to translate these words into my own idiolect so that they make sense.

My feeling is, how could the fact of death not be the worst thing imaginable? I don't mean that the process of dying is bad—though surely that is also true. I mean that the fact that one will exist only for a certain amount of time, a time rapidly approaching an end for all of us, how is that not the worst tragedy ever?

The only work of literature I know that treats this subject in any serious detail is Don Delillo's book White Noise. It's all about the dread and despair of dying. It is part of the genius of this book that this topic does not make the book depressing or sad.

In one crucial scene, the character Murray Jay Suskind gives the hero, Jack, a quiz on death, with several true-false and multiple choice questions. Here's one:

"A person has to be told he is going to die before he can begin to live life to its fullest. True or false?"

"False. Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life."

I'm in total agreement.

Here's another. "Do you believe life without death is somehow incomplete?"

"How could it be incomplete? Death is what makes it incomplete."

I couldn't agree more.

Eventually, Murray lays out Jack's options for dealing with his impending death. You can "put your faith in technology"; you can cultivate a belief in the afterlife; you can "survive an assassination attempt."

A final option is to become a killer rather than a dier. That's what people have been doing through the centuries, Murray says: storing up life-credits by killing others. Ridiculous as it may seem, it's "a way of controlling death."

But you know, I don't want to control death, or forget about it, or be distracted by surviving an attempt on my life. I just want not to die.