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March 2022

Post image for Why Do We Want Problems to Be Someone’s Fault?

Last weekend I was driving a friend home down Portage Avenue and we encountered an unexpected traffic jam. Four lanes had been reduced to one because a crew was working on the overpass.

Even though it was Saturday afternoon and neither of us were in any sort of rush, and even though I was consciously trying to take the delay in stride, I couldn’t help but comment that they’ve been working on that bridge “for 8,000 years now” and that contractors seem to take as long as possible to finish things.

Having worked in the construction industry, I know this isn’t true. Contactors get paid for the completion of the job, not the time spent on it, and the city does everything they can to minimize traffic disruption, which is why this was happening on Saturday and not Monday.

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Post image for You Don’t Need a Promise, You Need a Plan

I sleep better when I don’t eat snacks after dinner, especially junky carbohydrates, so last week when I visited a friend’s house I made a specific resolution to decline all such snacks.

Sure enough, as though the scene was a moral fable I had written myself, I was at one point handed an open bag of Doritos. I then watched myself pull out a handful of chips and start eating them, while making a resolution for next time.

Later, when the Doritos were reduced to crumbly fragments barely worth fishing out of the bag, I reflected on what had gone wrong, and remembered something I discovered years ago about resolutions but forget constantly.

If aliens were to visit earth and observe us living our lives, perhaps what would baffle them most about our species is not our struggle to co-operate with each other, but our struggle to co-operate with our own selves. You’d think a sentient organism should at a minimum be able adhere to its own decisions — to leave in time to catch the early bus, to do the lunch dishes right after lunch, to refrain from eating the entire sleeve of Oreos, especially after making explicit vows to do precisely those things because they make perfect sense.

For whatever evolutionary reasons, part of the game of being human is to wrangle ourselves into acting out the choices we’ve already determined are the right ones, and the resolution is our first-order tool for doing that. You make a promise to yourself – whatever that means exactly — that you will indeed do the thing you worry you won’t do. I will start the term paper the day after it’s assigned. I will not read the comments beneath news articles. I will wave away the Doritos bowl when it comes around.

There may be people for whom these sorts of bare resolutions do work reliably, and I assume these people become astronauts, pro athletes, and heads of state. For the rest of us, the resolution is a comically ineffective tool for changing course.

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Post image for The Good Old Days Are Happening Now

My junior high English teacher laughed involuntarily when one of my classmates teased, “Don’t you wish you were our age again, Mr Harvey?”

He was a polite man but he laughed at her comment for a long time. “This may surprise you,” he said when he was able to speak again, “but no grownup wants to be fourteen again. I’d go back to twenty-five in a heartbeat, but not fourteen.”

My fourteen-year-old brain found it interesting that Mr Harvey did have a preferred age, and that it was somewhere between fourteen and his current age (late forties, I guessed). It meant there must be some important quality that disappears after a certain time and then you want it back.

At that age I don’t think I knew that feeling yet — of yearning for some unrecoverable quality of the past — but I was familiar with the concept. Adults seemed to refer constantly to the Good Old Days, when this or that, or everything, was better. Cars. Presidents. Music. I watched the whole run of The Wonder Years, a TV show about exactly that sentiment.

I think I even remember our valedictorian, a few years later, including in his address a famous line from Mary Schmich’s “wear sunscreen” monologue — “You will not know the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded.” I probably nodded at this remark, assuming its truth but still only able to imagine it.

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