Looking Back Before Looking Forward

The turn of a new year is inevitably a time for looking forward:  for resolutions about how we’re going to change our bad habits, our diets, our savings patterns, and our exercise regimens, how we’re going to move the needle in a positive direction in our personal and professional relationships, and how we’re going to otherwise become the better people we hope we can be.

mus-fapc1114_850But before we start looking forward, I think it makes sense to look backward at the bearded, white-haired, old man year that is limping out the side door with that scythe and hourglass.  How did the past year go?  What did we accomplish?  Sure, a year is a somewhat arbitrary time period to use for assessment purposes, but thanks to the fact that it’s what marks another lap of the Earth around the Sun it’s what we’ve got to work with.

How do you evaluate an entire year?  I think there are certain baseline criteria, like health.  If you and your loved ones have made it through the year unscathed and without any significant health concerns, current or impending, you’ve got to chalk it up as a pretty darned good year.  By that means of measurement, 2019 was a good year for us and our immediate and extended families, and we’d take another one just like it.

You can also look at what you’ve done.  For 2019, I made some modest resolutions that I thought were reasonably achievable with a little effort, and I’m happy to say that I’ve accomplished every one.  In fact, I’m reading a pretty interesting and challenging book right now.  Perhaps my approach simply shows the value of going small, but it’s nice to know that I’ve met my resolutions for once.  Positive things also have happened on the work and home fronts.  We bought a new car that we like, and we enjoyed spending some time this past summer at our cottage in Stonington, where we’ve made some new friends and made progress at getting it to where we want it.  We’ve enjoyed some travel, and are ending up the year in a pretty place where it’s warm.  These may seem like little things, but in my experience the little things are the things that you can really control, and the little things add up.

Finally, you can compare the year to past and future years.  The past years tend to blend together, unless they are years marked by a life-changing event, like marriage or the birth of children, so it’s hard for me to do that.  As for 2020, it’s a presidential election year in a country where many of the people seem bitterly divided.  Who knows?  At the end of next year, we may well look back fondly on 2019 as a year of comparative peace and harmony.

Sure, I still weigh more than I would like, and my knees creak when I stand up after sitting for a while — there may be a connection there — and when I look at what’s going on in the big world outside our little world I wonder where we’re heading.   But that’s life for you.  All things considered, I think 2019 has been a pretty good year.

Warning Labels

Do warning labels really work?

Consider this pack of Gauloises that I saw on a bench at a nearby dock. It notes that smoking not only kills — quit now! — but also increases the risk of blindness. And to make the point visually, the pack features a large blind eye.

But did the warnings stop the smoker from buying the pack of Gauloises, or cause him to quit the habit that could blind and kill him? Nope! So what did the warnings accomplish, really?

Inferences From A Magazine Rack

When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?

First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.

Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?

And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?

Out Of Whack

I’ve been on the road a lot recently, and I feel like it’s had an impact on my normal routines.  I’ve moved back and forth between time zones, spent a lot of time on planes, gotten up at odd hours (even for me) and stayed up later than normal, and am no longer on the schedule that I’ve typically followed.

a41_lot271_2-maxAnd I’m feeling all of that, too.  My circadian rhythms are out of whack and off kilter.  I feel like an old golf ball that has lost its crisp bounce and now is just landing on the fairway or in the rough with a pathetic, disappointing thud.

The hoary saying is that you are only as old as you feel.  Of course, that saying suggests that there are times when you do feel older, and are reminded by mind and body that you’re not the spring chicken you used to be.  The realization that your rebound process seems to be taking a lot longer now than it did in the past is one of those times.  But right now I’m just too tired to care.

McMansion Envy

American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be.  In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet.  As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet.  And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.

mcmansions-real-estateSo, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes?  A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is:  not really.  Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed.  According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.

The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness.  These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops.  The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house.  Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.

I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction.  But I do know this:  I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others.  It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.

Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long.  Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.

Working For The Three-Day Weekend

In the distant, early days of Homo sapiens, there was no concept of “work” in the modern sense, and thus there were no holidays, either. Every day involved its many toils, from hunting and gathering to working to find shelter and water and protection against predators.

Then, as civilization developed, designated jobs became an inevitable part of the process. No city could exist without people charged with performing essential functions like laboring in the fields to bring in the crops, delivering food from the countryside, serving as scribe for Pharoah, or building the new pyramid or ziggurat.  The concept of holidays came later still. First, there were only religious holidays or seasonal holidays, to mark the Feast Day of Set or commemorate the harvest with a day of celebration. In the medieval era, when a saint’s day arrived, the duties of the job were replaced by lengthy religious obligations and, perhaps, fasting and the ritual wearing of a hair shirt.  It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

As humanity advanced even more, the concept of a work week was introduced and, then, secular holidays. When some brilliant soul realized that secular holidays really didn’t have to be tied to a specific date on the calendar and instead could float — so that the holiday could combine with a normal weekend to create a three-day weekend — it was a huge step forward in human development. And when an even more enlightened individual realized that we could use those three-day weekends to bookend the summer months, so that the joys of summer could begin with a glorious three-day revel in the warmth, it marked a true pinnacle in the annals of human achievement.

As we celebrate the joys of this three-day Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember those forgotten figures of human history who came up with the ideas that led us here — and be grateful that wearing sweaty hair shirts isn’t part of the equation.

Like A Dog In The Rain

Recently I went for my morning walk on a blustery, rainy day.  As I was walking along, struggling with my umbrella in the gusts and grumbling about the cold, crummy weather, I saw a raincoat-clad woman with a dog.  The woman also looked peevish about the rain and wind.

4149865894_7a5fd51c5a_oThe dog, however, was undisturbed.  It clearly recognized that, as a four-legged creature without clothes, rain slickers, or opposable thumbs capable of gripping an umbrella handle who was subject to the walking schedule and whims of its human companion, there really wasn’t much it could do about being out in the rain and the wind at that moment.  It obviously needed to get out, walk, and answer the call of nature.  And so, it just went about its business, as usual, without concern about the fact that it was getting soaked.

I was struck by the dog’s placid expression and its contrast with the stormy looks on my face and the face of the dog’s owner.  There were no snarls or bared teeth — by the dog, at least.  The dog, who was powerless to do anything about its situation, was imperturbable, while the humans who had total control were letting the bad weather bother them.

It was a very zen-like moment, and it made me realize that, in the right situations, there is value in following the dog’s example:  don’t worry about what you can’t change, accept your circumstances, go about your business, and when you get back to that safe, dry, warm place . . . shake it all off.