Dorothy Vogt is 57 years old, and this holiday season, she decided to learn the jitterbug. According to the encyclopedia, the jitterbug is an “exuberant ballroom dance,” characterized by “freewheeling acrobatic swings and lifts.” It is a descendant of the swing dance, if not more energetic and more complicated.
We had only just finished a New Year’s Day meal when Dorothy gave herself this task. Alex Trebek was reading out a Jeopardy clue in our living room, and his reassuring presence had nearly distracted us to the extent at which we didn’t process what our mother had told us.
I, a man devoid of culture, was as confused as my older sister was excited. “Mom,” I said, pausing the television and Mr. Trebek with Godlike, live-TV-pausing magic, “what the fuck is the jitterbug?” She told me to use the tiny supercomputer in my pocket to figure it out for myself, and I, a member of the technologically-dependent generation, was watching people dance the jitterbug within a matter of seconds.
I can share with you two more things about Dorothy Vogt. First, she doesn’t like it when I write about her. In this regard, I can’t blame her; I, like her, appreciate the entirely fabricated constitutional right to privacy, and it’s not as if I write exclusively with her interests in mind.
Second, Dorothy was a runner in high school, and that mode of exercise has in part defined her as a person, or at least my conception of her, for a very long time. 15-year-old Nick and his mother share memories running at our local high school’s track, with no one else in sight and only the floodlights to guide us in a never-ending circle. For me, I could run for maybe 30 minutes and get nowhere, while my mom could run in circles for perhaps eternity and still seem to be running somewhere.
Yet, her running days appear to be replaced by her walking days; I’m a bad son and don’t know the surrounding details, but some form of leg — I wanna say knee? — injury has led to the uniform doctor’s advice: stop running. While “A Prayer for Owen Meany” has always been my Catholic mother’s favorite book, Murakami’s memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” always manages to find its rightful place in that discussion.
Given this surrounding context, I was and remain reasonably shocked by my mother’s New Year’s resolution: learn a high-speed dance from the early twentieth century. One can forgive her randomness if this is all taken as a big bit of irony, but her laughter and lightheartedness when explaining this plan could not be mistaken by a lack of intent. She has a whole plan: She will reduce her carbon footprint, and in saving money and gas and oil for essential things such as heat and the ability to drive, she will use her newly found funds to take jitterbug lessons. I think she’s actually gonna learn how to fucking jitterbug.
My implied doubt in the success of all this similarly should not be mistaken for something it isn’t. As is the case with most people, I think my mom is the absolute best mom. She does my laundry when I come home from school, makes the perfect amount of lasagna to feed a family dinner and has managed a small business for as long as I can consciously remember. She serves as a comedian, a professional and a role model for her kids. She can do anything she sets her mind to, and I genuinely believe that.
My doubt in my mom’s jitterbugging success is not manifest in my conception of my mother; instead, it’s my disillusionment in New Year’s resolutions and a general feeling of exasperation when people claim they are pursuing one. New Year’s resolutions are stupid for the same reason people’s feelings about the spring are generally stupid. I don’t mean to sound like the angsty teen that I am, and I don’t mean to offend the lovers of springtime. However, the popularly held conception of the springtime is that we should be happy for a variety of reasons: Nature is rebirthing itself, the weather is warmer and we should partake in these feelings of rebirth and warmth in our self-reflection and outward, personal interactions.
It is a widespread practice of artificial happiness, simply because the earth is in a particular period of its orbit around the sun. I’m not so stubbornly ignorant to ignore the evidence that warmer weather does simply make people happy. But in an increasingly warming world, in which it can be 60 degrees Fahrenheit in New Haven, a New England city, in January, we can begin to acknowledge that the feeling of increasing warmth is perhaps not unique to March and April.
I don’t mean to fall down the rabbit hole of climate change and its implications on our conception of springtime. My point is any feeling of collective, artificial happiness because society has accepted on the whole that we should be happy is a societal pressure I refuse to submit to. In that same vein is my distaste for New Year’s resolutions, even when they are as whimsical and charming as “learning the jitterbug.”
January gym enrollment statistics highlight the ridiculousness of New Year’s resolutions. It has been found that 12 percent of gym signups occur in January, and that of those who sign up at the New Year, 80 percent of those new gym-goers will cancel their membership in only five months. Furthermore, while exercising is reported to be the most popular New Year’s resolution, weight loss and healthier eating also fall towards the top of the list. I, dear reader, am made uncomfortable by the idea that America has body image problems every first of January, using one societal pressure to fulfill another societal pressure: an unrealistic and unhealthy body image.
Perhaps most laughable, however, is the fifth most popular New Year’s resolution: “Be a better person.” As I find a way to mention in every essay I write, I was born and raised Catholic, only attending Catholic institutions in educational upbringing until attending Yale. The Easter season entices Catholics to participate yet again in a shorter, 40-day “resolution,” that, of course, being a part of the season of Lent. I grew up with the same reservations for a “Lenten promise” as I did with New Year’s resolutions. They both felt artificial then, and the latter still feels artificial today. I am not a theologian, and I have never claimed to be. But we were taught that we should either give something up for Lent, the most likely losers being chocolate and Xbox, or take on an added responsibility — this usually translating to something not far off from “being a better person.”
While this, too, feels artificial, that the world of Christians celebrates the Easter season with a litany of tasks and fasts, at least it is based on something not as shallow as the celestial calendar. At least in these instances, those celebrating the Easter season are acting with a model in mind, in this case, their lord and savior. It is alarmingly unclear as to what motivates the New Year’s resolution other than the societal pressure and mass consciousness that “everyone else is doing it.” To borrow my mother’s rhetorical questioning, “If your friends are jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you join them?”
I’ve tried to limit the content about my mother, but I’ll end with this; she’s the type of person who finds ways to be happy for no reason, which is in part why it was so pleasant to be her son. Every day was glorious or exciting or an adventure waiting to happen, and while she never said any of those things out loud, she was good at showing, not telling. When I came home from my first semester at Yale, she was kind enough to tell me to stop being “so pretentious,” and in complaining about mass consciousness and taking the fun out of both her favorite season and her proposed 2020 goal, I can hear the critique about my pretentiousness ringing in my ears, a deafening pitch characteristic of a son’s guilty conscience.
I tried to find a variety of ways to support her. I went to the gym for a few days at the turn of 2020, in an attempt to show that I, too, can get over my pretentious nature and just be a part of a New Year’s resolution. This, coupled with a diet, was soon thrown out the window when I realized the intensity of my love for food other than grilled chicken, and going to the gym is hard. With the most popular resolution attempted and failed, I’ve since moved on to something further in the vein of “be a better person.”
To put it in writing, in the Oldest College Daily and online forever, for the year of 2020, I will resolve myself to call home at least once a week, an improvement from my once-a-month “Mom, I have $0.37 in my bank account and slept through dinner” phone call. I will put aside my long-standing reservations chronicled above, reservations that have always prevented me from maintaining a yearly resolution. This year, my resolution is to be a better son — whatever the hell that means.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org