Resolving to think

For years now, in this space, I’ve cautioned readers against the fallacy of making “New Year’s resolutions” – that January 1 marks the beginning of absolutely nothing in the real, natural world.

True, those who – like me – have not entirely surrendered to electronic devices will mark the date by putting up a new calendar and pocketing a new datebook.  But aside from that, January 1 is just a day in early winter.

Which is no time to start, say, a program of diet and exercise.

We are natural beings – products of a long process of biological and social evolution.  As such, we’re close kin to those mammals who wisely choose this time of year to hibernate.
In winter – with its short, chilly days and long, frigid nights – our bodies want to develop an extra layer of insulation.  They crave extra hours of sleep.   Attempting to cut back on calories – or getting up an hour earlier to go to the gym – is rather like rowing against the current.

The proper time for new undertakings of the diet-and-exercise type would seem to be Nature’s “new year” – the vernal equinox – when life is visibly, aurally, and fragrantly returning to the world.   Longer, warmer days invite activity.  The resurgence of our – shall we say – “romantic” appetites provides incentive for firming up, or dropping a few pounds.  

All this, I have written before.  Today, I ask permission – as they say in Congress – to revise and extend my remarks.

Because there are some resolutions which make perfect sense in this cold, dark  season of the year.  These involve developing new habits which stimulate and invigorate the mind.
A New Year’s resolution to take more mental exercise – or cut back on empty intellectual calories – makes perfect sense.

For example, this New Year might be a perfect time to give up watching television.

It can be done.

For over two years now, I haven’t owned a TV.  I still watch television shows – but only by deliberate  choice.  I borrow boxed sets of selected television series from my public library – or order them from Netflix – and watch them on my laptop.

Abandoning television has saved me a wealth of time, while significantly increasing the quality of what I watch.  

There’s a cost, of course.  I have to wait for new seasons to be released on DVD – which is why it was only last week that I finally saw the surprise ending of Season Three of Downton Abbey.  

But on the good side, I have absolutely no idea what Duck Dynasty is all about.

In the past two years – in terms of my intellectual diet – I’ve eliminated the equivalent of perhaps half a million empty calories, simply by giving up television.

Worth a try?

In terms of mental exercise, now is the perfect time to set aside an hour every evening to read a worthwhile book.

What book?

That’s a personal decision, but one might start with three basic categories.

First, there are the great books – whatever you consider those to be.  A quick online search will reveal dozens of lists of books deemed important for one reason or another:  all-time great novels in English – or in translation; winners of major book awards; personal lists compiled by individuals – often other authors – whose taste and judgment merit respect.

Choose any list.  It will keep you busy for years.

Alternatively, we might go back to re-read the books we were required to read in high school and college.  It’s always possible that some of their qualities escaped us when we tried to finish them on the night before that big test or paper deadline.

Another option is to read important new books – perhaps by joining a book club.  In 2005, I helped to start a non-fiction book club.  The club is still going, under the leadership of Chris Wiegard – reading ten important books a year.  I strongly recommend this group, or any book club which has survived for more than one year – the usual test of a club’s viability.

Here’s another exercise possibility.  If the advancing years cause you to worry about maintaining your mental vitality, a good New Year’s resolution might be to start doing a puzzle every morning.

Personally, I’ve been doing the New York Times’ crossword and Ken-Ken for years – and it’s always a relief when I finish the Saturday crossword – always the week’s hardest.

Any daily paper will have a puzzle page, and the internet offers ample options for exercising one’s brain.

My personal New Year’s resolution is to tackle a new language,  Gaelic.

Wish me luck.  

As we begin 2014, I still believe that New Year’s resolutions of a diet-and-exercise sort are better postponed until the vernal equinox.

But midwinter is the perfect time to do something about one’s mental fitness.  

Think about it.

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