January is a month of transition and transformation.
Daffodils have elbowed out poinsettias in florist shops, each yellow bloom a tiny sun lighting up the barren landscape. Posters of white beaches and azure seas fill travel agency windows, teasing passersby with tantalizing alternatives to gray skies and slush. And pristine calendars adorn walls and desks, their blank pages promising new possibilities.
No wonder January is a month that inspires hope.
It also produces clichés. A fresh start. A new beginning. A clean slate. A blank sheet. The ubiquitous phrases float like snowflakes through the wintry air. Determined change-seekers vow that the coming year will be different, and better. As confirmation, they reach for paper and pens to turn good intentions into firm resolve.
New Year's resolutions can be serious or funny, depending on your perspective - the stuff of earnest longing or the object of David Letterman-Jay Leno ridicule. Resolutions also can be ethereal, melting like snow on the first mild January day.
Which raises a question: In a hurried world, do many people still pause to reflect on New Year's goals - the post-Christmas version of making a list and checking it twice?
For some would-be resolution-writers, the process is as awkwardly self-conscious and ultimately self-defeating as trying to keep a diary. For others, committing their fondest hopes to paper is the only way to make them a reality.
Thanks to technology, serious resolution-makers can now strengthen their resolve with help from a website called Resolutions Reminders (www.hiaspire.com). Its 6,000 subscribers receive an e-mail message every month, gently nudging them toward their individual goals. Yes, yes, you can do it!
"It's meant to nag a little bit, and remind you that these were the things you wanted to be reminded of," says Troy Surratt, a Colorado web designer who created the four-year-old website. "A lot of them say they're really hopeful this will work for them."
Last year, the most popular resolution on the site was exercise, listed by 15 percent of goal-setters. Twelve percent resolved to diet, while 10 percent wanted to save money. Another 10 percent yearned to become a better person, while 5 percent hoped to be a better spouse. Four percent expressed a desire for more family time or more travel. Others were determined to have more fun, get organized, find a hobby, or volunteer more.
This year, in a post-Sept. 11 world, Mr. Surratt sees signs of a shift in priorities. "Instead of smaller, more trivial goals, more people seem to be leaning toward wanting more family time, being a better spouse, and things like that," he says.
Not for them the narcissism expressed in a Bloomingdale's catalog, where headlines read: "I will resolve to celebrate a beautiful me" and "I will indulge myself inside and out."
Instead, a new mantra might be: Less is more. Rather than acquiring more stuff - the 1990s definition of success - some change-seekers might resolve to make 2002 a year to pare down, striving for what one author calls "joyful simplicity."
Skeptics wary of this annual exercise in idealism might agree with 19th-century poet Frederick Lawrence Knowles, who scoffed at the whole idea, saying: "He who breaks a resolution is a weakling; He who makes one is a fool."
Not necessarily. Given the insatiable American desire for self-improvement - most visible on the crowded "self-help" shelves in bookstores - resolutions capture a touching longing for transformation and renewal. As rituals go, this one still holds promise.
Please pass a sheet of paper and a pen. And no fair peeking at anyone else's list.