What’s it all about Alfie?

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I never paid much attention to the lyrics of this song past the second line, but find myself on not infrequent occasions muttering or humming the tune’s first lines. If you need a refresher…here’s how it starts:

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give…

There are those among us who have a difficult time giving ourselves permission to become completely absorbed in the day to day trivialities of life. You know who you are. You’re the ones who when you leave work, joining the throngs of people in mass exit heading home towards parking lots or public transit, wonder if it isn’t reminiscent of the ants we marvel at in summer, all marching along in concert to support the colony.

You are the ones who have conversations with yourself, while trying to convince a colleague, group or client of the value of a particular course of action and the long and short term beneficial consequences.

You are the one who, while walking down the street curiously observing your fellow man, queries yourself if you are indeed the only one thinking about, “what its all about,”– for you are sure everyone seems quite absorbed in the task of getting somewhere, going somewhere, doing something, none of which  include being perplexed about their state of being.

Do you sometimes think, in 50 years most of the people I’m looking at will not be on this planet and wonder if this thought has occurred to them? I do, with more regularity than I’d like to admit, and in those moments, this e e cummings’ quote comes to mind:

little man
(in a hurry
full of an
important worry)
halt stop forget relax

wait

How apropos is it then, that as I write, this ad appears in my inbox, imploring me to get the “big picture” into my life. I chuckle. For some the “big picture” refers to a  large screen TV, nothing more, nothing less.

big picture2So today, I leave you with this: try a little Socratic scrutiny in your life. What’s your deal?  How do you see “the big picture?”  If it is true that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I do believe that is the case, then consider  periodically pressing your personal pause button.  Purvey the landscape of your life, the people in it that you value, the values that you espouse and consider whether they are all in sync.

If after reading this you happen to pass me on the street, no need to say hello, just nod. I’ll get it. Despite all the warnings my kids give me about not making eye contact with strangers, I’m likely to return the nod with a deeply satisfying, but polite and appropriately reserved smile.    So, go ahead, make my day.

On the Eve of New Year’s Eve: This Year’s Resolution

12-30-2013 11-25-40 AMThis is the time of year, when for a a few short days, sometimes weeks, “time,”  philosophically speaking, assumes its rightful place in peoples’ lives.  In a  Dickensian sort of way, we are  aware of present, past and future, if only briefly.  As the calendar runs up to January 1st,  many will reconnoiter and with uncustomary resoluteness, propose a change or action that should occur in the year ahead to improve the quality of their lot.

As we get older and with the passage of time,   the New Year Resolutions begin to overlap with Bucket Lists.   There are nuanced differences between the two, even as they begin to merge. Whereas the New Year’s Resolution is supposed to connote positive change or direction and thusly generate action, the Bucket List involves recognition that the window for wishing and hoping is narrowing. The Bucket List  generates action–in a “speak now or forever (no metaphor intended) hold your peace” sort of way.

paraprosdokianYou will not be surprised to learn that America’s number one New Year’s resolution this year is to “lose weight.”  I think for many of us, weight loss is  a perennially welcome guest. But, for some, and I am among them, the time has arrived when it does not top either the Bucket or New Year’s Resolution list.  As I write, I am reminded of a Erma Bombeck quote and book title, written  when she looked back on her life and, referring to her own tug of war with weight, if given a mulligan-life option she might have elected for “Less cottage cheese and more ice cream.”

While verifying the sourcing of that quote,   I came across a word I had never before encountered:  paraprosdokian. Its has classical roots, but not classical origins and apparently it hasn’t yet appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. No matter, I like it and what it stands for:

“A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part of the sentence. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.”

Apparently Winston Churchill was adept at it: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” Here are a few other examples:

  • War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
  • To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
  • Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?
  • If the enemy is in range, so are you.

Google the term and you can read and enjoy dozens of examples of paraprosdokian phrases.  But, beware, while they are delightful to read, they are harder to create than one might imagine. Inspired by the new addition to my vocabulary, on this eve of New Year’s eve, I am inclined to view life metaphorically through the paraprosdokian lens.  To do this, you merely substitute the word “my life” for “sentence.” The definition, rewritten, looks like this:

“A paraprosdokian is an approach to life  in which the latter part of one’s life  is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes a person to re-frame or re-interpret the first part of one’s life.”

You’ve heard of 12 steps? This involves 3.

Step 1: The First Part
Everything until now falls neatly into the category of the expected–a life I’ve grown accustomed to living, a persona I’ve come to know well, a past I’m certain I recognize.

Step 2: The Surprise
Resolve to  create for myself a context that makes room for the surprising and unexpected, so much so, that it…

Step 3: The re-frame
…causes me to take a second look at life up to today, seeing it in a new and different way–paving the way for the future to change the past without changing the past, just changing how it looks to me in retrospect.

I had a wonderful aunt who often said, “if you can’t change something, change the way you look at it.” A paraprosdokian approach to life does that for you. Making room for the unexpected and surprises in one’s life, will at the very least oblige you cast off  the morsels of intractability that sometimes creep in as we mature.

And so, 2014’s  New Year’s Resolution might look like this: Resolving to  make room for being surprised with the unexpected in 2014 in a way that casts the past in a new light, provides continued purpose going forward and rewards me with the kind of unpredicted delight one feels when a good comedian leads you down the path that ends with a chuckle, or better yet, a belly laugh.  Yes, more belly laughs in 2014.