This year, I'll learn to ...

Forget the usual promises. Why not take up a language, or take on the Web?

Sue Buck Heflin takes new year resolutions seriously. Sure, hers include the perfunctory "lose 10 pounds." But by the time she is through with her list, Ms. Heflin, a statistical analyst for the US State Department, has allotted herself an education budget and set down her goals - for learning.

"Then," laughs the Washington resident, revealing the secret of her success, "I give myself a 60-day extension."

Her 1997 goal was to make a Web page; by Christmas of that year, friends and family could access holiday greetings at Heflin's site. In 1998, she wanted to explore creative writing, so she joined an informal writers' group that meets biweekly to critique one another's work.

For millennia, people have used the new year as a time to wipe their slates clean and realize their desires and ambitions. Babylonians in 2000 BC, it seems, undertook new year's

resolutions, the most common one being to return any farm implements they had borrowed. They made their promises in March, not because they allowed themselves an extension la Heflin, but because the calendar was pegged to the corn harvest.

Indeed, our new year is itself the product of a resolve. By 153 BC, people had so tinkered with the calendar that it no longer bore any relation to the solar cycle. Exasperated, the Roman Senate resolved to straighten things out and arbitrarily set the Jan. 1 date.

Since then, this date has served as a springboard for personal enrichment, with many realizing that the most gratifying resolutions involve learning.

"Compare that to resolving to go to the gym and lose weight," says New York lawyer Fred Rich. "That takes six months to accomplish. You can read a book in a weekend and it stays with you always."

Or buy a computer program. Or enroll in a class. It may be no coincidence that buyers for CompUSA report that January is a peak sales time for software that teaches languages, typing, cooking, nutrition, and how to write rsums.

'A New Year. A New Language.'

Berlitz International, too, has discovered the power of resolutions. In January 1998, it tested a new ad campaign that read: "A New Year. A New Language." To the company's delight, inquiries rose by 17 percent over those triggered by the previous year's campaign, which highlighted cost and efficiency.

Similarly, the Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills and Framingham has adopted in the last two years the motto "Celebrate the holidays with the gift of education." Pam Eddinger, executive director for college relations, says the ad for gift certificates targets those "who are looking to get something that lasts, versus Nintendo or a golf club."

Theoretically, the certificates can be cashed in at the college store. "People can stock up on chocolate," Ms. Eddinger points out. "But they don't." Instead, the recipients use them toward fees for a variety of courses, from professional development to swing and line dancing.

Some are probably carrying out a new year's resolution - but you can't necessarily assume that the resolution is to master that particular dance step or computer program. A self-confessed "chronic resolver," Theresa Walker one year signed up for "Drawing With the Right Side of the Brain" at Georgetown University's continuing-education program in Washington. She explains that she did this not because she had resolved to learn drawing, but "to get into my creative writing, to go deeper." Earlier, she had undertaken (and since completed) a master's program in writing at John's Hopkins University. "The culmination of several new year's resolutions," she says, adding, "I do things in steps. I'm a gradualist."

Sharon Bahus adopts a slightly more formal approach. As she has done every year, Ms. Bahus is right now sitting in her apartment in New York, looking over the list of projects she drew up last January. Whatever did not get done in the last 12 months, she will pen on a new piece of paper. "I used to write the list and put it under the blotter on my desk," she says. "But then I would forget to look at it."

Now she posts it where she can see it every day. Whenever she has some free time, a quick scan of the list galvanizes her into action. Her list acts as a prompt, not as a reprimand.

At first glance, it looks like a simple list of tasks. Until, that is, you discover that "paint the hallway" really means: learn how William Turner achieved "radiance and incandescence" in his glazed layering technique. On and off for months, she has studied his paintings in museums, pored over a book that describes the landscape artist's techniques, and experimented mixing pigments and testing various combinations on large sheets of paper she previously covered with the same base paint that is in her hallway. For a 1999 project, Bahus has already signed up for classes to learn how to veneer and gild wood.

Many, on the other hand, frown on making a list of resolutions. Some feel that they get in the way of living each day to its fullest. While others, like Mr. Rich, worry that they merely set people up for failure. He believes that the new year can serve better if used "for a more generalized appraisal."

It is a time, he says, "to prioritize, to sort out what I am truly interested in and what are more than intellectual dalliances."

What am I really interested in?

A few years ago, Rich realized that even though he had always been interested in religion he had no more than a superficial knowledge of Christianity. So he bought and listened to a series of taped lectures on the Old and New Testament. "It was - sorry for the pun - a revelation," he says.

Among other things, he learned the important role the Bible has played as a genesis for literature. When he reads it now, the experience is far deeper and meaningful than before the course-on-tape.

Another area of inquiry has been math, so he selected books that would introduce him to what he calls "this enormous dimension of the nature of existence." Not being mathematically minded, Rich figures he has only scratched the surface, but already, the rewards have been great. After reading "Nature's Numbers: The Unreal Reality of Mathematics," by Ian Stewart, Rich gained "a whole other way of understanding the nature of the world, its underlying order." He has learned that "mathematics can describe things that are otherwise indescribable and to some extent explain them."

For many, making new year's resolutions or using the landmark to reassess priorities is a way of propelling themselves ever forward. And delving into an unexplored subject can add a new dimension to daily life. As Rich says, learning is "a series of doors; you never get to the end of the corridor."

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