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.

No presents please.

no-gift-imageMy grandparents reached a stage in their later years when they often said at Christmas or on birthdays: “Don’t buy us anything.” They didn’t offer more. They didn’t suggest substitutes nor did they feel the need to explain. Being on the giving end of that mandate was unpleasant. Giving them gifts made us feel good. Their not wanting gifts was discouraging, to say the least. What we didn’t comprehend was that we were gift enough…our accomplishments and our companionship. I finally get it. They derived pleasure, as I am beginning to, from our just (to borrow a phrase from Jerzy Kosinski) “Being There.”  Being There is the gift I want from those close to me and Being Here in the moment is the gift I give to myself.

The journey to this place was pretzel like–it was a journey that truly is only recognizable in retrospect, that is “through the rear view mirror.” It is a state of mind that you can achieve, but cannot map. You can only hope to land at this spot, but planning the journey in a way that guarantees you will, well that’s something else. Not much different from the measure of the parameters of obscenity, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter,  I can only offer that while I can’t explain how one gets to this place “I know it when I see it.”

That’s about as lofty as things will get here today. For, having arrived at this state of mind that does not require my fighting traffic, pushing my way through crowds in stores at any hour of the day or night, no matter the enticement or otherwise being in “go” mode, the following is a list of things and holiday messages that I’m finding particularly irksome–and in some instances, downright problematic this week:

Hollywood Messaging:
1) Being committed to work and high caliber performance (male or female) must necessarily involve short changing family–and if you don’t have a family, your work is a likely culprit. 2) Life in New England or other backwoods country locale (=good) is preferred  to life in New York or other urban area (= bad). 3) Hard working type A’s probably don’t believe in Santa Claus and are, no surprise, often found on the naughty list. Additional faulty personal traits that tag along  include lacking true Christmas spirit and understanding what, in Charlie Brown’s words, “Christmas is all about.” This list could actually benefit from an entire blog, but you get the gist.

Commercial Enterprises Changing Roman Calendar:
Friday, Saturday, Sunday–the names of the week date back hundreds of years. Sure, there’s a favorite I have of “Over the hump Wednesday”–but that’s a prepositional phrase–falling far short of the current trend towards adding  adjectival descriptives to the days of the week that in effect become  name changers.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is no longer,  as in “Do you have to work on the day after Thanksgiving?”  but is now:  Black Friday. What was for some a welcome day off from work, generating one of the only fourdayweekends in American working life, has been transformed into a day when everyone bears a piece of the responsibility for turning the economy around, signalling recovery and the harbinger of hope for the year ahead. Opt out of being part of that message at your peril for being labeled downright unpatriotic.

If you thought that skipping Friday was a simple way of avoiding falling into that commercial trap, special thanks to American Express for naming Saturday “Small Business Saturday.”  Just when you patted yourself on the back for staying away from the big box stores on Black Friday, your guilt can only now be assuaged by visiting the mom and pop stores and “shopping small.” You don’t want to be seen as a Scrooge, do you?  Lastly, lest you believe you have outsmarted every effort to draw you into the shopping melee, on Cyber Monday when you return to work your inbox and every website you visit will bombard you with promises of the bestprices, steepestdiscounts, todayonly lastchances to shop for those special people on your list.

In what world that you or I may have ever conceived would spending the weekend listening to music, reading and writing be viewed as excessively sedentary downright unpatriotic pursuits? In what world could reading about the comet that managed to escape capture by the sun or contemplating from my window the lone swan who swimming  back and forth without his/her now missing spouse not hold  a candle  to running around saving the economy through endless shopping?  In what world could reminding your fingers and brain that you once played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude and can again, ever be mentioned in the same breath as an admonition that includes the words”staying home and sitting around?”

Something is amiss.

For a long time now I have enjoyed these lines by notsofamous poet, Hugh Prather from his book “Notes To Myself”:

“Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight. But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud.”

And by that, I don’t mean let’s head out to the mall and check out the sales.