Above water. (On writing.)

Let me confide in you what it is to be a writer of a novel. You’re at the end of your book and terrified of what you wrote: a 350-page shit-storm. You laugh at yourself as you find a selfie that came out expressionless, crop your image into a head-shot, harden it with the angstiest filter you can find – the one that turns the dark bits darker and deepens the shadows in the corners – because suddenly, you need digital armor. It won’t help. You think, I had a moral obligation to write this, and it’s been 30-odd years in the writing that began, in earnest, 18 months ago.

 

Life in two minutes.

 

The drama, the irony, the cliché! You can look at this image once and never see it again, or you can look at it once and see it every day. It’s worse than a mirror, so you share it with the world… especially easy to do when the world makes no sense.

We all have a dark side. Most of us keep it hidden, because it’s our business and no one else’s. Artists tend to display theirs through their work, whether others can see it there or not. Art unravels from buried places, taking form in every medium and genre from comedy to Shakespearean tragedy, capturing curiosity and beauty in music, writing, visual arts, poetry, photography, dance, dramatic arts, and so on, and so forth. Products of our creation spawn out of our darkest secrets, reflecting them in worlds we create… and we do create them, because we can. We can create art that belies the angst from which it springs, art that makes people laugh, even. “Tortured artists” have the means to express what others need to express. Then a step further: everything is okay. But the world, we know, doesn’t need our reassurance. We’re talking to ourselves, but it’s not about us.

So if just one person can find something of value in our work… something that helps… it’s worth it, we feel. One person includes everyone. We believe.

On remembrance: atomic bombings and 1,000 paper cranes. (+ Atomic Blonde.)

I know that this title seems all over the place. It’s just that today is August 8, 2017.

Two days ago, it was the 72nd anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Tomorrow will be the 72nd anniversary of our atomic bombing of Nagasaki. These, as we know, were the first and last nuclear attacks in wartime history.

We’re familiar with the official justification for the attacks: Japan had to be stopped before more lives were lost, American, Japanese, and otherwise. The bombs were dropped, Japan surrendered, and WWII ended.

While debate continues as to the ethics of the atomic bombings, there’s another, less-familiar controversy regarding a possible “hidden agenda” behind the decision to launch the nuclear attacks on Japan. Some historians believe that the bombs were actually dropped in order to intimidate the Soviet Union (thus beginning the Cold War), and that Japan didn’t surrender because of the bombs, themselves; rather, they surrendered because of the post-August 6 Soviet invasion.

This theory has always fascinated me. (War fascinates me, in general, but that’s a topic for another day, perhaps.)

Reflecting on atomic bombs and the Soviets and the Cold War, then, I found it funny that the espionage action film Atomic Blonde, whose plot centers on Soviets and the Cold War (the film’s title quite possibly a nod to the atomic bomb “hidden agenda” theory), dropped in U.S. theaters the weekend before the atomic bomb anniversary weekend.

Even more interesting to me, personally, Atomic Blonde’s release date landed pretty much on the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb memorial service I’d attended at my hometown Buddhist temple 20 years ago. The film’s release date was July 28, 2017, and the memorial service date was July 27, 1997.

Yet another happenstance: I went to see Atomic Blonde the weekend following its release weekend. By sheer coincidence, I saw Atomic Blonde on Sunday, August 6… the 72nd anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack.

Then there’s the fact that nuclear weapons dominate our global concerns these days. We’re looking at atomic bomb anniversaries, atomic bombs in the news, and Atomic Blonde in the theaters.

All of this has had me thinking of Sadako Sasaki and her 1,000 paper cranes.

Sadako was two years old when the first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, where she lived. 10 years later, she developed leukemia as a result of radiation from the bomb. She started folding paper cranes with an aim to create 1,000 of them, wishing for recovery and for peace in the world. In Japan, it’s said that folding 1,000 paper cranes can make your wish come true.

Sadako remained in the hospital for 14 months, then passed away at the age of 12. One account of her story says that she surpassed her goal of folding 1,000 paper cranes. Another account says that she did not, but her friends and family completed the project for her. Regardless, no superstition was going to undo the devastation of the atomic bomb. Since Sadako’s death, the paper crane has become a universal symbol of world peace as well as a symbol of good luck and longevity.

As explained on the origami resource center’s page,

Sadako’s friends and classmates raised money to build a memorial in honor of Sadako and other atomic bomb victims. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was completed in 1958 and has a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane. At the base is a plaque that says:

          This is our cry.
         This is our prayer.
         Peace in the world.

 

****

About six months ago, I found my Atomic Bomb memorial service program as I went through some old papers. I’d forgotten that I kept it. I took this pic to share it with you (sizing it large enough to be readable when clicked):

 

Atomic bomb memorial service program, pic taken on Sunday, August 6, 2017 – the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan

 

After I found the program, I put it in this old frame. It sits near my butsudan, where I can see it every day as a reminder and a visual point of meditation on peace in the world.

By the way – to end this on a lighter note – I really enjoyed Atomic Blonde.

Remembering the Four-Four-Deuce. (The U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII.)

My parents had wanted to see Hacksaw Ridge, but they weren’t able to catch it in the theater… so we all watched it together in our living room when they came to visit a couple of weeks ago. Callaghan and I were eager to see it again, and we liked it even more on second viewing. Mom and Dad also enjoyed the movie.

Hacksaw Ridge is a World War II film, and it’s an important one for an unusual reason: it tells the true story of a young American man who joins the army as a conscientious objector, refusing to touch a weapon, but determined to make it to the front line as a combat medic. He was eventually allowed to complete basic training without rifle qualification. After finishing skill training, he was sent to Japan with an infantry regiment. There, the regiment fought the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa atop the treacherous Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man whose extraordinary valor saved many lives.

As I watched the scenes of Americans fighting the Japanese, it brought to my mind, as a Japanese-American, another WWII story: that of the United States Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion. This infantry regiment was also extraordinary, and also for an unusual reason: the unit was comprised mostly of Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, mostly from Hawaii.

I say “as a Japanese-American” because I’m not sure how many Americans in the general population are aware that there was a United States Army infantry regiment of Japanese-Americans fighting during WWII. As a Japanese-American, I’m aware of it, as it’s a part of our history in this country.

And it’s an important part of our history… not just in Japanese-American history, but in United States history, and in Hawaii’s history: the WWII Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd went on to become a key factor in Hawaii gaining statehood. As intoned by narrator Gerald McRaney in The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers, “On August 21, 1959, largely because of the Nisei soldiers, Hawaii became the 50th state.”

*****

American Desmond Doss (subject of Hacksaw Ridge) wanted to serve his country in wartime, but almost wasn’t permitted to do so because of his refusal to touch a firearm. Second-generation Japanese-American men also wanted to serve their country during the same wartime, but almost weren’t permitted to do so because of their Japanese ancestry.

It was a time when Japanese-Americans on the mainland were forced into incarceration… because of their ethnicity.

*****

The only ethnic Americans are Native Americans.

To say that we’re “American” is to describe our nationality – who we are as a nation. Americans are Irish-American, for instance… or African-American, or Japanese-American, or German- or Italian-American. Americans are Polish-American, Franco-American, Korean-American. Americans are Arab-American. And because of the ethnic diversity that characterizes our country, we’re a nation with a proud “mutt” population: many of us are of mixed ethnicity.

Our ancestry does not define who we are nationality-wise.

But during WWII, Japan was our enemy, and Japanese-Americans had the misfortune of looking like the enemy. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the incarceration of west coast Japanese-Americans, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans removed from their homes and placed in the internment camps. Houses and businesses were confiscated. Families were broken apart. Living conditions in the camps were poor to horrendous; many internees were forced to live in horse stables, and all of them behind barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards.

Not a single Japanese-American was ever found to be guilty of espionage.

Now, today, there are some amongst us who would like to repeat this shameful part of American history. They would like to round up innocent Arab-Americans and imprison them, just as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII.

*****

My parents are from Japanese-American families in Hawaii, some of which moved to the mainland to settle in California. While parts of these earlier branches of my family in California were incarcerated in the internment camps, two* of my uncles from Hawaii volunteered to fight in the United States Army as members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion.

When one of those uncles passed away in 2006, a retired veteran found his obituary, read that he was a WWII veteran of the 442nd, and contacted his son, my cousin. The gentleman told my cousin he would ensure that his Dad was recognized with the appropriate ceremony: a military funeral service. And so my Uncle’s casket was draped with the American flag and carried to his gravesite in the presence of an honor guard, and a bugle playing “Taps.”

*****

In 2011, Japanese-American WWII veterans – more than 19,000 of them – were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a mass ceremony.

In the article “Unlikely World War II Soldiers Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor,” Barbara Maranzani details the extent of the Nisei’s wartime achievements:

“The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. In less than two years of combat, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor. Upon their return to the United States, they were praised by President Harry Truman for their brave stand both home and abroad, and were even the subject of a 1951 film, “Go for Broke”; the film’s title was derived from the unit’s official slogan. Many members of the 442nd went on to distinguished careers in science, academia and government, including nine-term U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, who lost an arm due to World War II combat injuries and was among those attending Wednesday’s event.”

 

 

*****

Many Japanese-Americans were already serving in the armed forces when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. When the attack occurred, Japanese-Americans were as horrified as any other American, and in Hawaii, especially, Japanese-American men wanted to join the armed forces to fight for their country.

To this day, Japanese-Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces. I’m proud to have been one of them.

My Dad directed me to the above-mentioned documentary from the History Channel. If you’re interested, watching it will be worth your while:

The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers

 

 

Japanese-Americans’ wartime service didn’t begin and end with the 442nd: in addition to the 442nd, thousands of Japanese-Americans also had roles in the army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII. These Japanese-Americans “provided translation and interrogation assistance to the war effort. The MIS is perhaps best known for the crucial role it played in deciphering a captured set of Japanese military documents, known as the ‘Z Plan,’ which outlined plans for a final, large-scale counterattack on Allied forces in 1944. The discovery of the Z Plan has been hailed as one of the most important military intelligence successes of World War II.”

[source: http://www.history.com/news/unlikely-world-war-ii-soldiers-awarded-nations-highest-honor]

*****

Valor comes in unexpected forms. It comes in the form of a young man who wants to serve unarmed on the front line of a bloody battle. It comes in the form of men who want to serve despite looking like the enemy, thus feared, maligned, and betrayed by their own country as Japanese-Americans were incarcerated because of their ethnicity.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion in WWII was the face of Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to their country. It was a loyalty they proved in bloody campaign after bloody campaign, national pride a stronger force than the racism that tried to oppress them.

*[Editing to add: since posting this piece, my family has remembered at least two more uncles who joined the 442nd. Two of them were incarcerated in internment camps in California when they volunteered.]

“Self”-contemplation (or, selflessness in Buddhist thought.)

Lately, I’ve been increasingly wary of the words “self” and “myself.” I finally wondered, “how could I replace those words in my internal and external dialogue?”

I thought, well, it’s not possible to get away from first-person pronouns. “I” and “me” are unavoidable, so why not use those words instead of “self”?

Just as an experiment, I tried for a day to remove “self” in the first-person context. It’s surprisingly hard.

For instance, “I’m doing this for myself” vs. “I’m doing this for me.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself” vs. “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy.”

Emphasis is placed on the self: “I, myself, have a habit of hitting the snooze button” vs. “I, too, have a habit of hitting the snooze button.”

“I’m getting myself a glass of water” vs. “I’m getting a glass of water.”

The word popped up when I thought of defining who I am: “I feel like myself again” vs. “I feel right again.”

Grammatically speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away from “self.” We need the word in the first-person context in order to communicate. Psychologically speaking, it’s hard to think away from it. So much of our popular conversation revolves around the love, care, improvement, maintenance, scrutiny, reflection, actualization, esteem, and empowerment of the self that the idea of it has become ingrained in how we imagine we should perceive and move through the world. Pseudo-psychologists have been spawned, and they have written books (and made millions): “Self-help” has become a genre. We’re a culture obsessed with our selves. We are self-centered.

Self-importance and self-hood. Is it possible to be an individual without being selfish?

“Love yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” “Be kind to yourself.” “Value yourself.” “Do something nice for yourself.”

The problem is that such commands have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve. In being encouraged to wonder why we’re not doing these things, we’re being called upon to focus on ourselves relentlessly. Those self-help gurus have made fortunes off of the insecurities they’ve managed to establish in us (so that we’ll buy their books/tapes/retreat admission tickets/etc.).

“If you (insert action), you’ll improve your self-esteem.” Self-esteem! So much focus has been concentrated on self-esteem that we’ve almost stopped looking beyond that, as if self-esteem is the end-all, be-all of our collective existence. Would it be possible to navigate life detached from our esteem of our selves? It seems that the more esteem and concern for esteem we direct onto ourselves, the less we remember to place value elsewhere.

The exercise of replacing “self” in the first-person led me to realize the extent of the importance we’ve allocated to the self: we’re hyper-aware of ourselves, and I, for one, am keenly cognizant of this. I’m socially awkward, which I think is partially because I tend to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness is almost never used with a positive connotation; it almost always refers to an uncomfortable state of being.

Self-consciousness and self-confidence aren’t mutually exclusive, though, fortunately. Self-confidence is critical. We need it to live in society with assurance; we need it to be successful. We even need self-confidence to stay safe. Predators looking for victims watch for indications of an absence of self-confidence.

In art, the self-portrait has been a genre since antiquity, and an important genre, at that. The selfies we take today fall in a sub-category of the self-portrait. Vanity notwithstanding, many of us enjoy documenting and sharing photos we take of ourselves with those who find value in them.

I’ve been revisiting this train of thought not as an armchair psychologist, but as a life-long Buddhist, pondering the subject again following the recent death of my cat. The Buddhist service I did for her prompted me to think back on the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned from the time I started attending Dharma school at seven years old.

Because of the teachings of the Buddha, I grew up knowing that an ideal endeavor in life is to strive for selflessness, but I never made earnest attempts to live in accordance with the principle. Such an endeavor has never seemed more important than now, in this time wherein self-esteem and emphasis on the self has been given highest importance.

We are all out for ourselves. We feel that we have to be in order to survive.

The Buddhist principle of the Middle Path is that “both extremes, self-affirmation and self-denial, are simply forms of self-preoccupation and self-attachment.”

This is what I would like to try to avoid.

Coming back to my exercise: it’s good to be “self-reliant,” I thought, but being “independently capable” is the same thing. I started to see that making an effort to direct my thinking away from terms of self might allow me an unexpected measure of peace. It’s a starting point, at least.

 

 

 

Everyone Needs Water. (A tale.)

[Author’s Note: (Or should I call this “Author’s Fail”!) … Thank you to those who read this blog post earlier. If you thought that the event in this story actually happened to me, I sincerely apologize for the lack of clarity at the outset. The story is an analogy (‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ vs. All Lives Matter). I should have made this clear at the outset. Thank you again for reading.]

Remember how I mentioned in my last post that I like to give water to the homeless? We’ve always got a few of those small, store-brand bottles of cold water on hand when we leave the house, just in case we see someone in need.

We keep bottles of water for ourselves at home, too. We have several five-gallon bottles we refill weekly. It’s hot, and we drink a lot of water. Can’t imagine life without access to all the water we want. We’re so lucky that we don’t even have to try to imagine it.

 

16.9 fl oz of water in the small bottle. 5 gallons of water in the large bottle.

16.9 fl oz of water in the small bottle. 5 gallons of water in the large bottle.

 

[ETA: The following tale is analogous to the #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter controversy]

I made a quick stop at a Circle K (convenience store) the other day when I was out running errands.

There was a homeless guy sitting on the curb outside the store. He wasn’t holding a water bottle or a drink cup, and there was nothing of the kind around him, so I took a bottle of cold water from my insulated grocery bag before I got out of the car. On my way into the store, I handed him the bottle of water.

At that moment, another guy exited the store and pressed a button on his key fob to unlock his vehicle. As his headlights flashed with the unlocking, he saw me giving the homeless guy the bottle of water. He stopped and said, “Hey. I need a bottle of water, too.”

This threw me off a bit.

The guy clearly wasn’t homeless. He was groomed and attired in clean clothing, and he was about to take off in the vehicle that got him there.

He was carrying a small plastic bag containing his purchases, indicating that he’d made a retail transaction.

What the heck? I wondered.

He answered as if he heard my question.

“I need a bottle of water, too,” he repeated. “He’s not the only one here who gets thirsty. I’m thirsty right now. If he gets a bottle of water, then so should I.”

I looked at him for a few seconds, because now I was even more confused.

“Can’t you go back into the store and buy water?” I finally thought to say.

“Yeah, but that’s not the point.”

“Then what’s the point?” I asked. I don’t like to challenge strangers on the street, but I had to know.

“The point is,” he said, obviously annoyed at having to explain it to me, “that to be fair, whatever he gets, I should get.”

He’s comparing himself to a homeless guy. Bizarre, I thought. But I said, “I gave him water because he didn’t have any, and he can’t go in to buy any because he doesn’t have the means.”

“Not having the means doesn’t justify him getting a special bottle of water just for him,” said the guy with the key fob that unlocked his car.

“You make it sound like I’m discriminating against you by giving him a bottle of water.”

“You ARE discriminating against me by not giving me a bottle of water!”

“I’m giving him something he needs that you already have.”

“I don’t have a bottle of water.”

“Something he needs to survive.”

The conversation was getting surreal.

“This is wrong,” he said. “We ALL need to survive.”

“But you’re not the one wondering where your next bottle of water is going to come from! You can get your own water here or at home or wherever.”

“You don’t get it,” he replied. “What’s so hard to understand about EVERYONE needing water, not just homeless people?”

I gathered myself.

“I’m not giving him water like it’s an all-expenses-paid cruise to the Bahamas,” I said. “I’m giving him water because it’s his basic human right to have water. He needs water in order to survive. He has a right to survival.” 

Then it occurred to me that he might be thinking it’s the guy’s own fault that he’s homeless, so I added: “And it doesn’t matter what he did in the past, whether he’s been in jail or has a drug or alcohol problem or anything like that. ALSO…. ” I was on a roll. “It doesn’t matter if he was trying to buy water and got belligerent with the store clerk for some reason. It doesn’t matter. Whatever he’s done in the past is irrelevant. He’s a human being, a person, like you. He needs water. To survive.” Now I was repeating myself.

“I need water in order to survive, too. I also have a right to survive.” And now he was repeating himself. The conversation had gone from bizarre to surreal to ridiculous.

“But you can get your own water!”

“Who died and made you the queen of who gets free water handed to them and who doesn’t?”

“The only one here who might die is this guy who doesn’t have water and can’t get any water himself! This is Arizona. We’re in the desert. We’re in a harsh environment. His life is at stake out here with no water.”

“My life is at stake too!”

I could see that this was going nowhere, so I left.

The End.

#BlackLivesMatter

P.S. Here’s a pic of me drinking water before class at the gym last night, just demonstrating how I’m drinking water without thinking about it:

 

The civilian water canteen comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. This one's my favorite... but the water inside is precious.

The civilian water canteen comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. This one’s my favorite… but the water inside is precious.

 

(Now it’s really the end.)

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Thoughts on trolls, suicide, Robin Williams)

In any given human interaction scenario, there’s that proverbial line. Once you cross the line, you’ve entered the land of excess. You’re beyond. I think that as humans, for the sake of decency, we make efforts to not go there. We don’t want to offend.

Conversely, there’s a sub-species of human who regularly and deliberately crosses the line, a sub-species that evolved out of the masses somewhere in the mid-90’s when the World Wide Web opened for business and ushered us into a new dimension of existence. Suddenly, we could hang out in the ether. No one could see us, but we were there. And we had keyboards. They had keyboards… they of the sub-species whose raison d’être is to go there, into the beyond. Those with a propensity to offend could now do it in the most cowardly fashion: Invisibly. At some point, someone started calling them “trolls.” The name stuck, and the verb form quickly followed. Trolling is now a behavior that’s as common-place online as annoying ad pop-ups you have to “click to close” before you can read what’s on the page.

Trolls are everywhere. It’s just a fact of the internet that nothing is sacred to them. I know this, but still, I was aghast at their comments on articles about Robin Williams’ death (if I may use that event as an example). As a reader, I saw that as crossing the line of all lines. When trolls unleash their misdirected anger in the comments section of an article about someone’s death, they’re so far beyond that I can’t begin to comprehend it.

Maybe it’s naïve of me to expect nothing less from trolls who spend their days seething under the bridges of the interwebs, but really? Robin Williams committed suicide in an apparent state of confusion and despair. He was a fellow human being, an artist who devoted his career to making us laugh and using his acting gifts to enrich our collective human experience with the depth of his dramatic performances.

We now know that Robin Williams suffered with Lewy Body Dementia and a couple of other, related neurological diseases. His depression was likely a by-product of LBD, but what if he didn’t have LBT? What if he was simply, clinically depressed, as everyone assumed at the time of his suicide?

Disdain for those who commit suicide* confounds me.

Within our legal system, we have a mechanism by which murderers are shuttled away from incarceration. We informally call it the “insanity plea,” and those who use it can take up residence in a medical facility instead of in prison… because to be determined to be too mentally unfit to stand trial is to be recognized as suffering with a medical condition.

Given this, I often wonder why the murderer of one’s self doesn’t deserve that same consideration. Why do we judge the deceased who took their own lives? Why does the church refuse to bless a soul that died deliberately? The act of suicide comes from a place of inner chaos, whether from clinical depression or from neurological disorders such as those that Williams experienced. Regardless, to be in this state of despair is to be mentally unfit. If a criminal can escape prison due to being mentally unfit, why can’t a person who committed suicide also be spared? Why can’t we acknowledge the fact of mental illness and let the dead rest in peace?

 

Works of two of my favorite poets (of the many who've committed suicide).

Works of two of my favorite poets (of the many who’ve committed suicide).

 

You can’t explain such concepts to trolls. They can’t be reasoned with, but you can reason with others. You can explain how it’s offensive to speak of the deceased as being selfish, pathetic, immature, “a loser,” etc. Many of us say such things. “Suicide is cowardly and selfish. It’s the easy way out that only hurts those left behind.” In my opinion, if we’re into Political Correctness, we should deem it un-P.C. to speak unkindly of those who commit suicide.

Suicide is only tragic. 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and do we speak of them with disdain? No. For the most part, we understand that P.T.S.D. (whether from military experience or from other traumatic events) and depression go together. We reserve our disdain for civilians… but suicide is suicide. No one who commits suicide is mentally fit at the time of the act.

Trolls who emerge to spew their vitriol in the comments section of article about people who committed suicide – such as Robin Williams – are the worst, as far as I’m concerned. They’re gleeful to have this excuse to rant about politics, religion, etc. They want their hatred to be heard, and they’ll use any occasion to achieve that.

The fact is that trolls are the cowardly ones… not the victims of suicide. (This is not at all to say that those who judge suicide victims are trolls.)

People who commit suicide can no longer avoid “going gently into that good night.” Let’s honor their bravery in fighting it, rather than looking down on them for dying.

 

*****

*Please note that I don’t include extremists in my definition of suicides.

Because “resolution” without the “re” is SOLUTION.

Like many people, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, I’ve been an on-and-off cynic most of my adult life. My birthday falls five days before New Year’s Day, though, so at some point, I finally thought, Why not turn my personal one-year-older goals into resolutions? Because what are birthdays if not opportunities for introspection and decision-making to move forward with new or refreshed goals, right? Or something like that (says my inner self-help guru to myself).

“Resolution” minus the “re” is “solution,” after all… and that stands out to me. I’m a fan of solutions.

As it turns out, I do well participating in the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions. It’s glorified goal-setting that could be undertaken on any random day, sure, but January 1 is as good a day as any, fanfare or no. If we don’t have the motivation to commit to a goal on any other day of the year, at least there’s that day!

“Goals” is a popular word right now, but I want to talk plainly about how there’s a difference between wanting to achieve goals and needing to achieve them. Resolutions, in my opinion, are goals that we need to achieve; we make them in order to reignite the mechanisms we have for growth, self-improvement, joie de vivre… whatever it is that we’re lacking, in whatever way it needs to manifest. Ultimate goals are things like contentment and productivity. Contentment and productivity are good. People who are content and productive are good for society, good for us all.

You might receive advice that’s actually detracting, usually coming from the hearts of well-intentioned loved ones. There’s the old “…but you have to WANT to do it,” which I think is psychobabble for “You have to feel that doing xyz is going to result in personal gratification, or it’s not worth the effort.” I don’t believe this. Some of my greater achievements in life resulted from goals that I needed to pursue, but I absolutely didn’t want to pursue them.

Quitting smoking, for instance. I smoked between the ages of 15 and 23. I only smoked for eight years, but addiction is addiction no matter how long you’ve had it.

I absolutely did not WANT to quit smoking. I loved smoking. Whenever I’d think about quitting, all I WANTED my next cigarette. When I finally committed to breaking the habit, I still didn’t want to. I did it because I knew that I needed to.

Quitting was every bit as excruciating as I thought it would be.

I quit cold turkey, and I never smoked another cigarette. That was 24 years ago. (I think I was successful in part because I suffered through the process without the aid of chemical replacements. This was pre-nicotine patch. There was nicotine gum, but I wasn’t attracted to that strategy.) Suffering for that victory, that solution to the problem of my compromised health, made me value my success even more. If at any point in my smoking cessation journey someone uttered those condescending words in my general direction – “You just have to WANT to quit!” – I would have had to bite my tongue REALLY HARD. I know why I’m quitting. It’s a decision that I made. I don’t need you to tell me that if I just WANT to quit, I’ll effortlessly break my addiction overnight and ride off on a unicorn into a field of flowers and happy little bunnies.

Overcoming addiction of any kind is never easy, no matter if someone WANTS to do it or not.

But I digress. My point is, make a resolution, for the New Year or on any other day. Think of it as going after a solution. Focus on seizing something that will change your life for the better if you capture it. You’re not just making a change (passive connotation). You’re taking action (aggressive connotation). So be aggressive in tackling your resolution. Be a New Year’s resolution badass. Go for it.

Another thing people commonly say: “Do it for yourself. If you do it for someone else, you won’t succeed.” Again, I disagree. I mean, I don’t think this is always the case.

Last year, my main New Year’s resolution was to go cruelty-free… for Ronnie James, my feline fur-child. As Callaghan and I tried desperately to save his life, I told the Wrah-Wrah that I’d make every effort to avoid purchasing and using personal care products and cosmetics made by companies who engage in animal cruelty practices. (Granted, this wasn’t difficult, as I’d already been boycotting a couple of big-name brands for years to avoid contributing to their human rights violations. Boycotting companies that test on animals wasn’t a far stretch from that.)

I did it for Ronnie James. He died five months into the year, but I’m still doing it. For him. For all animals, but first and foremost for him. And doing it for him has kept me motivated to stick to my resolution more than I would were I just “doing it for myself.” In a strange sense I can’t really explain, the act of consciously and continuously striving to remove myself from the cycle of animal suffering at human hands keeps Ronnie James alive.

This strategy of goal-planning works for me, anyway. Everyone is different, but it might work for you, too. It would be worth trying! Dedicate your resolution to someone who deeply matters to you. Make them a promise you won’t want to break, and you might find that it’s easier to stick to your efforts.

This brings me to Resolutionary Road, 2016! I have more than one resolution. Here’s my list:

1). Get more sleep on a regular basis.

2). Improve my French (conversation).

3). Commit to strength-training.

Getting more sleep was my secondary resolution in 2015. Since I failed completely, it’s at the top of my 2016 list. I really, really need to get more sleep. Here, again, is the difference between wants and needs: I don’t WANT to get more sleep. I WANT the opposite… I want more hours in the day. I want to stay up until 3:00am, because for some reason, I’m often possessed by a rush of creative energy at around 11:00pm every night, and I’m afraid that if I don’t utilize it, I’ll squander it. But more sleep is an absolute necessity for my health, so this year, I’m going to try to shut everything down at 10:00pm so I can be in bed by 10:30pm. I get up at 5:30am on weekdays, so this would give me seven hours of sleep IF I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow. (Which never happens. But nearly seven hours of sleep would be a great improvement over the four-five hours I typically get.)

I dedicate this resolution to Mom, who always worries that I don’t sleep enough. I don’t want her to worry about me for any reason, because worrying is detrimental to her health.

For my second resolution, improving my French conversation, I simply need to speak more French. I have a bad habit of answering Callaghan in English when he speaks to me in French. The divide between my comprehension level and speaking level is now so great that it’s ridiculous! I have no excuses. I just need to speak it more; that’s the only way I’m going to improve.

I dedicate this resolution to Callaghan, obviously!

As for strength-training, I need to make that a regular part of my workout routine. I’m not weak, but I would feel better in a stronger body. Doing pull-ups in my home office doorway every once in a while isn’t sufficient, and shadow-boxing with dumbbells isn’t cutting it, either. We have heavier dumbbells, so I need to start using them.

I dedicate this resolution to Ming, my best friend who died suddenly in 2003. Ming was one of my Tae Kwan Do instructors, and as friends, we developed a brother-sister bond that made him a member of my family. Ming was an extremely talented martial arts athlete, and his work ethic in the do-jang inspires me to this day. Improving my strength so I can be a better martial artist is my tribute to him.

 

Ming and me, 1996

Ming and me, 1996

 

Happy Resolutioning, if you do it!