The bleak tradition of making New Year's resolutions affirms the fact that life offers second chances, but also calls attention to the fact that, however many chances life offers, we will, in the end, come up at least once chance short.
Josh Billings showed how to make resolutions pertaining to general prudence: "Never work before breakfast; if you have to work before breakfast, get your breakfast first." But resolutions vary with the vocations of the resolvers. Pickle-makers probably resolve to make more and better pickles. Legislators should resolve to pass better and fewer laws. It is less clear what we writers should do on New Year's Day.
On that day in 1660, a Londoner evidently resolved to start a diary. His first entry was: "This morning (we lying lately in the garret) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other clothes but them." That was not particularly gripping, but Samuel Pepys got better at it.
Two other literary figures made good use of New Year's Day by being born (E. M. Forster in 1879 and J. D. Salinger 40 years later). But that use, although momentous for them and their mothers, was less momentous for literature than was the bang-up use another writer made of New Year's Day, 1909. On or about that day (the myth is clear, the facts are not, but let's not be picky), Proust dipped -- ever so delicately, of course -- a bit of toast in his tea, took what we may assume was a delicate nibble, and then all hell broke loose.
Well, not hell, exactly, at least not for him. The hell came later, to those readers who, lashed on by a professor or a sense of duty, have tried but failed to find as fascinating as Proust did the flood of childhood memories that were let loose by the taste of the toast. The flood of memories led to the cataract of words that became "Remembrance of Things Past."
So, dissolute reader, try this. During the fourth quarter of the fourth football game you watch this New Year's Day, dip a Frito into a Miller Lite, take a bite, and see what happens. You might leap from your reclining chair, rush to your word processor and process words like: "For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that. . . ."
That is how "Remembrance" begins, and that is about as far as I get before my eyes close. So my first (of two) resolutions for 1985 is to read the damned thing and get it over with.
(I will not, however, read Henry James' "The Golden Bowl," for two reasons. The first reason is Jamesophobia -- a dread of being swallowed up and lost forever in one of James' sentences. Second, you should leave one undisputed masterpiece unread. Why? So that when you are asked if you have read this or that forgettable book currently being treated as earthshaking, one can say, "Gosh, I would love to, but I should not read it until I have read 'The Golden Bowl.'
My second resolution for 1985 is to avoid saying anything beastly about the United Nations, the American Civil Liberties Union or the State Department. At least until February. Unless provoked. Adhering to this resolution will be harder than reading -- harder than memorizing -- "Remembrance." Consider the following.
Although the SALT II agreement, signed in 1979, will never be ratified, both sides have agreed not to "undercut" it, including its provision limiting both sides to 2,250 long-range bombers and missiles. The Soviets have never adhered to that limit and in recent weeks have passed 2,500. But a U.S. official, eager for continued unilateral U.S. compliance with SALT II, has come forth to say:
"We are not sure that the 'no-undercut' provision is violated if the Soviets do not keep the 2,250 limit on missiles and bombers. It means not complying, but does it mean undercutting?"
The Soviet Union has a lot of people whose job is to violate agreements, and a lot of people whose job is to try to hide violations, and a third lot whose job is to try to explain away violations that are detected. Do we really need to employ, in the State Department, a lot of people to help with the rationalizations by distinguishing the act of "undercutting" agreements from the act of "not complying with" agreements?
Anyway, that is just an example of the kind of cross writing I am resolved to avoid in 1985. At least until February. Unless provoked.