Unwrapping the Present


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Like many people, I make a list of New Year's resolutions.

For an artificial construct, a new year packs a lot of weight. It forces the kind of self-examination that is usually reserved for college applications and psychiatric consults: on this day, one year ago, was I more or less ___ than I am now?

A New Year's list offers a welcome chance for redemption. It is a list that delineates the difference between the person you are now and the mythical being you would like to be. Generally, it is an exercise in futility, designed to test the empty reservoirs of will power.

This year, however, I've got the system beat.

After making the usual hollow resolutions to exercise more, read more, eat healthier, think before speaking, improve my posture, gain inner poise, stop watching VH1 under the guise of social critique and floss daily - I realized that every wish I had, every desire to do something or be someone, could be condensed into one simple phrase. Resolution 14: Be Better (the capitals are needed for emphasis).

This slogan is going on t-shirts, baby. I'm seeing billboards.

The spirit of Be Better is simple. Be Better. Be Better at anything or at everything, whatever you feel like.

Overachievers, the field is wide open. Specifically, though, being better means not just tying yourself to the image of the person you wanted to be when you woke up on the morning of Jan. 1 (morning here being a relative term).

The first of January is, quite possibly, the worst time to reevaluate our lives. After the gluttony of the holidays and the memories of last year's mistakes, New Year's resolution lists read less like realistic plans of action and more like drafts for some higher life form.

Therefore, after failing even to buy running shoes, I decided to give up on my conception of myself as a Lithe-Athletic-With-Inner-Glow-Type to focus on something I actually cared about -writing.

Before this January, I had not written a word in over a year. Upon coming to college my creative output had flat-lined. I began to doubt not only my capacity but also my desire to write.

That is, until I received a sign. The message-bearer took the unlikely form of an elderly man with a snow-white beard. I was dodging flyers on Sproul one icy December afternoon, when I saw him for the first time.

You may have seen the man before. He stands, like a frail prophet of the modern age, holding a sign over his head, as if to ward off incoming nuclear fallout. On that day, the sign read "124."

"124, what?" I thought to myself. The amount was clearly too small to be about the budget cuts and not long enough to be his telephone number.

Seeing my interest, he shouted to me. Most of the words were unclear, but among the gabble I could pick up the words "brimstone," "sinner" and "Obama." The man was obviously another one of Berkeley's prophets of the apocalypse.

If you've made it this far in your academic career at Cal, you must have met a few. On my first day, as a terrified freshman, I was informed by a dumpster diver that Chancellor Birgeneau had direct contact with our alien overlords. Therefore, it was no great surprise to be told that the world would be ending in a mere three months. Indeed, I thought little of it at the time. I simply remarked to myself that it was sure to happen on a Monday.

I had forgotten all about our impending doom until several days later, when I saw the man again. The sign now read "119." The next day it read "118." Two days later, it said "116." Eight days, eight days out of my life, had vanished. I tried anxiously to recall what possible life-changing situations I had encountered in the past week.

Oh right, I had finally caught up on "How I Met Your Mother" ... and "Community" ... and, oh god, there was a new episode of "30 Rock" waiting for me.

Eight days of my life had passed and the most memorable thing I had done was to listen to the laugh track for someone else's life. The realization was chilling.

It is easy, in college, to go unconsciously through life, without noticing or taking advantage of the singular place we inhabit.

Hence, Resolution 14: Be Better. Hence, this column.

As to what I would like to do with this column, I'll fall back on the bad writer's habit of using a quotation as a replacement for original thought. The opening passage to Joan Didion's "The White Album" begins, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

Those are, I believe, the truest words ever written. We do tell ourselves stories, and if we are writers, we'll tell them to anyone who will listen.

So, I want to tell you a few stories that are very dear to me. I want to tell you the story of how the technology is changing our brains. The story about the time I shot a shotgun and the one about the earthquake. Maybe I'll even tell you about that one time at band camp.

There's a lot to say, after all ... and we've only got 74 days left.


Resolve to e-mail Meghna at [email protected]

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