Smelling Roses

Thursday, January 01, 2009 /by

Rb2Do you make New Year’s resolutions? They seem to fall into that category of activity—like watching American Idol or Sex and the City—that many, many people do while simultaneously laughing off as a hopeless joke. Today, in the nick of time, the New York Times ran its annual article about the impossibility of following through on them. It included this line from a corporate counselor named Alan Deutschman: “It’s exceptionally hard to make life changes, and our efforts are usually doomed to failure when we try to do it on our own.”

Unfortunately, the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from my gym suggests that he isn’t wrong—every January the treadmills and elliptical machines are jammed; every March they’re back to normal. It makes me feel lucky that I get my exercise by playing a sport—tennis in summer, squash in winter—that always involves another person. How many times have I woken up with no particular desire to get out of bed and haul myself over to the courts, only to persevere because I knew there was somewhere there waiting for me? So far, I’ve always been happy I made the effort.

But like anyone else, I've broken my share of New Year’s resolutions over the years. Somewhere in my apartment there are probably a few dog-eared cards with hopeful, snappy imperatives like “Cook more!” or “Write more!” scrawled on them. (No, I didn’t actually put exclamation points on them, but that was the idea.) I dimly remember cooking one extra time last January and then leaving the stove to itself again for the next month. I’d say the reason that resolutions fail so often is their ambition. When I wrote “cook more,” I was really thinking “be perfect this year.” I was determined to finally live the slothless, ultra-industrious life that I’d imagined for myself for so long, where simple, effortless force of habit would have me writing hard all day, cooking after work, reading Shakespeare at lunch, exercising at the crack of dawn, relaxing in the evening to Stravinsky, and sleeping with a smile on my face all night.

In other words: It wasn't gonna happen. Still, even with this knowledge, I like to make New Year’s resolutions. They give me a brief chance to pull myself together and point myself in a new direction, which is a satisfying and clarifying feeling in itself. This year I’m going to make a more general one: to appreciate the good more. This doesn’t sound hard, but have you ever tried it for an extended period? It’s one of the most difficult things in the world to do from day to day. I had lunch with Kamakshi Tandon last month and we laughed about how, during the current economic crisis, we were suddenly hearing that the last six years—2002 to 2008—had been “boom” years, the best of times, the good old days, easy street. I don’t know about you, but all I remember reading during those years was about how it was the most dangerous and terrorized era in the history of the world, and that the country was at an all-time low. Appreciating, savoring, or even properly enjoying good times seems to be against human nature.

Since I will likely forget all about this resolution by mid-January, I’ll try to do it today. I’m in Austin, Texas, for New Year’s, just to check out the town. It’s a nice, funky little place, though from a New Yorker’s perspective, the emphasis might be on little. I’ve heard about the music and the food, but the thing I’ve enjoyed most has been the air. It lies so softly on you, the way I only associate with perfect California late-afternoons. I have no idea how long this air lasts in Texas, or if it will feel like this when I leave my hotel room today. But a Northeasterner can’t ask for much more than wide, sunny skies and light, 70-degree breezes in early January. I could feel good walking in circles—dizzy, maybe, but good.

As for other resolutions, I hope to write here more often in 2009, about tennis and other subjects that interest this particular tennis fan (if I don’t, just forget I ever mentioned it; we’ll file it way with my cooking plans). With that in mind, I've taken the liberty of setting out a few 2009 goals for our favorite pros over at ESPN.com. Let’s see if they follow-through.

Enjoy another slow-footed, foggy-brained New Year’s day. I’ll be breathing the Austin air and taking a moment inside to appreciate the colors—of the deep green gridiron, of the Pasadena sun, of the venerable uniforms of the players, the cheerleaders, and the marching bands—that come with the Rose Bowl. No matter who's playing, it remains the pinnacle of the college game and of a certain old-fashioned, bigger-than-life amateur athletic tradition in the U.S.

Who knows, maybe someday we’ll look back in envy on a time when we could create such an inspiring and colorful sporting image in this country. As hard as it to imagine, even the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of them all, can’t last forever.

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