January 02, 2013


In my 20s, each January for six or seven years in a row I’d attempt to re-read Thoreau’s Walden. I had enjoyed it as an undergrad, and the introductory bits that everyone remembers are bracing, indeed.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

I’d start with a good head of steam. But then I’d get a few chapters in, and without the threat of exam or paper, I’d give up. There are, of course, the wonderful passages about the sounds he hears from his cabin, and the beauty of Walden Pond…and then there are the seemingly endless chapters about the logistics of his bean field and how he plasters his chimney. So, each year my Walden effort would last fewer and fewer page turns. And eventually I stopped picking it up entirely.

Wikipedia tells me that New Year’s resolutions have religious origins, dating back to the Babylonians. But I like to think of them as this distinctly American thing: an annual ritual of renewal, a wish to head to the woods (or at least the woodshed) to Make Things Better.

I’m learning that one of the things you do as a parent is instill habits. Good ones, hopefully: brush your teeth, say please and thank you, wash your hands before dinner, keep your room neat, write thank you notes, do your homework. To steal from The Power of Habit, it’s a continual cycle of cue, routine, reward…and you can’t forget the reward.

So when I set my resolutions for 2013 (and posted them) I did it deliberately, with an intention to make regular, measurable habits out of things I already love to do; things that for me are their own reward. Read 50 books. Write 50 blog posts. Cook 50 dinners. Run 500 miles.

When I explained the resolutions to my kids, they asked why I’m giving myself two weeks off. “Everyone needs vacation,” I replied. On Twitter, a smartass friend asked if this is the year I turn 50.

Nope, not this year. But soon enough.