Some people approach the new year like they approach a swimming pool in the spring, before the sun has really had time to share himself with the water. They step up to January first cautiously, poke one toe into the wintry water, and then decide that the only way they’ll survive the shock of a New Year is to dive head first into the deep. And so they take a breath and plunge into the New Year by making resolutions to change. To lose 100 pounds. To pay off all the credit cards. To learn Portuguese and read A Tale of Two Cities.
But what is it about the midnight between this year and the next that makes people decide they should make life altering resolutions? Why must we celebrate a new calendar year by buying a membership to a gym we’ll never use or spending ten torturous days dropping a smoking habit that we’ll be forced to find again in February? Why do we start our year with a maddening sprint when the finish line is still a long 365 days away? It just doesn’t make sense.
That’s why, when the New Year says jump, I don’t ask how high. I ask for how long and set the bar accordingly low. If I’m really going to commit an entire year to doing something that’s so unpleasant it requires a resolution, I at least want to know that I’m capable of finishing what I start. I like to set my New Year up for success by making bite sized changes that are small and easy to swallow.
One year I resolved to make my bed every morning. After 365 days of straightening my sheets, I finally realized how much more inviting it is to sleep in a bed that looks like it got dressed-up for the evening than it is to crawl into one that seems to have just wrestled a small goat. I liked the change so much I’ve made my bed every day since. Success.
The next year I committed that I would always hang my keys on the hook next to the front door instead of keeping them between the couch cushions or under my bed. I find that I’m much more punctual now and tend to swear less in the mornings. Success.
One year I told myself that I’d floss regularly. For the first three weeks of January I ate an unusual amount of corn-on-the-cob just to start the habit. This strategy met with mixed results. Literally.
I enjoy my manageable resolutions so much that several years ago I challenged myself to train for a marathon.
Three days a week I stretched my legs and laced my shoes, preparing my body to run its way through dehydration and heart attack. As anyone who has followed in these footsteps knows, whenever you attempt to run any mile number greater than your shoe size, death always feels approximately one breath away.
Although running carries with it both positive and excruciating side effects, it really is a wonderful way to learn your neighborhood. When you run, not only do you burn calories and exercise your heart, but you also see a snapshot of the people who share your sidewalk and your mailman.
When I ran the ten mile loop around and through my Nashville neighborhood, I often passed a thirteen year-old boy at the corner of mile three. I saw him only on colder days, but I think the boy wore his hood pulled up more for attitude than for warmth. He never smiled, and I learned that I shouldn’t either. Instead, when we meet on the sidewalk, we frowned coolly at each other and raised our chins in a sort of cranial wave. I assumed this meant hello, but considering the neighborhood it might have also been the boy’s way of telling me his pockets were filled with smokeable plants that he was “holding for a friend.”
If the boy’s nod was some sort of subtle sales pitch, I hope he takes a marketing class when/if he gets to High School. The boy obviously has no idea of how to recognize his target consumer. Trying to sell weed to jogger is like trying to sell a bikini to a nun . . . in December.
I also occasionally saw a man I called “Cross Country.” When he ran, Cross Country looked as if he was concentrating, like his mind was thinking about things like form and balance and breathing, like his brain had to focus to control his body. Until I began training for the marathon, I had no idea running was so complicated. I thought it was simply an evolution of walking that we all learned when we were toddlers and our cholesterol had not yet awoken.
When he jogged past me, Cross Country never nodded to acknowledge that we were both sweating through the same sadistic ritual. He ran in his own world, and no one else was invited. Cross Country wore special shirts that were loose and synthetic and probably designed to recycle his sweat and prevent dehydration. Not me. I wore pre-stained shirts bought from the bargain bin at Goodwill. They were 100% cotton and advertised everything from credit cards to Christian camps. They also retained water like a pregnant woman.
Some people like to run with partners or groups so they can encourage each other along the way. But what is there to say while you’re running except “help,” “oh God,” and “glycerine”? When I run, I don’t want to be encouraged. I want to be alone. Sometimes I don’t even listen to music. Although I like the distraction of music, I get mad at the singers for breathing so easily.
Once, however, I was running up the hill that marked mile eight when I passed a fellow jogger who smiled and shouted “That’s right! Good job!” as he reached out his hand and gave me five. At the time I was so busy needing something actual like oxygen that I didn’t feel the need for something abstract like five. To my surprise, however, an encouraging slap from a stranger was exactly what I needed to finish the last two miles. When I collapsed exhausted in front of my house, I repeated his words “That’s Right” and “Good Job” just before I threw-up.
Then, one afternoon, just after I passed the hooded boy and shortly before my encounter with Cross Country, my heart and iPod were each thumping their own separate rhythms when a homeless man stepped into the sidewalk fifty feet in front of me. The man looked confused and unsteady, like someone who has just rolled out of bed and is still uncertain of how to start his day.
In my mind, I called him Oscar.
I gave the homeless man this name not because of his unusual aroma or wild, discolored hair. I didn’t call him Oscar because he was green or because I had ever seen him associate with a Cookie Monster, Big Bird, or Mr. Snuffleupagus. In fact, I don’t think there was a Sesame Street anywhere near my house. I called the man Oscar because of his unpleasant personality and half-empty attitude.
Oscar was a grouch.
After climbing over the curb and into my path, Oscar stood in the sidewalk silently watching the cars pass. He looked left. He looked right. And when Oscar finally turned toward me, made eye contact, and raised his right hand, I smiled, preparing to wave and say hello as we passed, pleased that I was making a new friend.
It soon became clear, however, that Oscar wasn’t interested in becoming friends. If he had been, his raised hand would have been opened in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood. But it wasn’t. His hand was almost entirely closed. Except for one lone finger.
Fortunately, since the middle finger is the tallest of all the fingers, it can be most easily seen from the farthest away. Even at fifty feet I knew exactly what Oscar was trying to say, and it wasn’t hello.
(As a child, I often played checkers with my grandfather. We called him Granddaddy Jack, but I’m not sure why. His first name was Harvey and his second name was Lee. We called him Jack because that’s how he was known to everyone in the small town of Trenton, Tennessee where he lived - but I don’t think anyone in Trenton knew why he was called Jack either.
I liked to play checkers with my Granddaddy Jack because he had style. When we sat down to play, Grandaddy Jack didn’t move the checker with his pointer finger like I did. Instead, he always used his long middle finger . . . his “bad finger” . . . the finger tough kids on the playground used when they were angry . . . the finger that got you sent to your room without any dinner if you used it while you were shouting at your sister. Granddaddy Jack was a deacon in his church and a man of great integrity. He never got in trouble on the playground and probably had no idea why I giggled every time he moved his checker.)
Oscar began his unfriendly gesture when we were still a staggering fifty feet apart. As I ran toward him, the grouch and I stared at each other for every bit as long as it has taken you to read this story. I’m not a very fast runner. And for each of those seventy-five awkward steps, Oscar’s finger stood in its lonely salute as a testimony to his feelings for me. He and his finger hated me for fifty feet. It was like watching a Peter Jackson movie or reading Tolstoy or listing to Queen’s almost six minute Bohemian Rhapsody. Oscar’s grouchy middle finger took a simple message and turned it into an epic statement.
I would like to think that Oscar was like my Granddaddy Jack and was simply using his middle finger for some innocent and utilitarian purpose. Maybe he was checking the wind or letting his nail polish dry. But I don’t think so. Oscar didn’t seem like the nail polish type.
But because I try to see the best in other people, I choose to believe that when Oscar raised his finger that day, he had the best of intentions. He probably meant to give me five and simply forgot the other four. I understand. I’m not very good at math either.
That’s why, when we passed, I decided that Oscar didn’t need something actual like income. He needed something abstract like encouragement. And so, instead of ignoring him or saying something unkind and trotting by in a sweaty blur, I acknowledged Oscar’s finger with a smile, gave him five, and cheerfully said “That’s Right! Good Job!”
And then I finished my last mile, happy to be a bright spot in someone’s day.