Monday, December 31, 2012

Why We Break Our Resolutions

Part of the reason, I think, that we tend to do poorly on keeping our New Year's Resolutions is that we have so little time to think of good ones. The Yuletide is such a beast of a holiday that by the time we finish singing carols, clean up the wrapping paper, drive/fly/walk/teleport/pogo-stick home, and sleep off Christmas dinner, it's already four days to New Year's. And if you're anything like the rest of us, you probably haven't given the idea of resolutions a single thought until right about now.

 So we jot something down. Some vaguely responsible- and grownup-sounding thing that comes easily to mind: "Exercise more," "Quit smoking," "Drink less," etc. But there's no specifics, no way to measure or determine success. How much exercise is "more"? How many drinks are too much? Are we talking drinks per night? Per week? For the rest of the year? If you don't even know how much you drank last year, how are you supposed to arrive at a smaller figure this year?

If there's anything that National Novel-Writing Month has taught me over the years, it's that you can do a lot more than you think you can, as long as you've got a meaningful deadline and consequences for missing it. A good resolution, like any good goal, is a measurable one. Don't just say that you're going to exercise more, say how often you're going to exercise, and for how long, and to what intensity. What kind of exercise will you be doing? If you miss a day, will you have to go double the next day? Donate to a charity? Spend time doing chores for friends and family? Make it so you've got an actual incentive to keep the resolution. Otherwise, it's a lot easier to just slack off than to keep up the hard work, and since there's no accountability for missing your own resolutions, you can just go tumbling down into that satisfying darkness, the darkness of ease, the darkness of acquiescence, the milk-livered niddering darkness of sweet sweet cowardice..

So don't give up on your resolutions! It's easy to stop walking when you don't know where you're going and don't have a plan for how to get there. Just pull out your map, trace a route, and follow it. And if the road washes out, well, choose another route and keep on truckin'. Just don't stop moving.
You won't get anywhere unless you're going somewhere.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Every year, the Capitol selects two children from each of the twelve outlying Districts: one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen. These twenty-four young men and women are taken by train to the Capitol, where they participate in the nation of Panem's biggest annual sporting event: The Hunger Games. The winner takes home a lifelong pension from the government, a fancy new home for their immediate family, a year's worth of extra food for the members of their home District, and exemption from being entered in the Hunger Games for the rest of their lives.

All the other contestants are murdered in the arena, live on national television.

That’s the setup for Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy of young adult novels: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I can’t say enough good things about these books. They’re intense, gripping page-turners from the mind of a professional screenwriter. They’re a blistering commentary on the state of our nation and the world, and the vast disparity of wealth between different countries. They’re a thoughtful deconstruction of the nature of fame, celebrity, and mass-media spectacle. They’re a guidebook to how oppressive regimes, from ancient Rome to modern-day North Korea keep their citizens frightened, in-line, and downtrodden. They’re a damn good read. The list could go on and on.

But mainly what keeps me coming back to The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the leading character and central focus of the trilogy. She’s honestly one of the most complex and nuanced characters I’ve ever encountered in YA literature. She’s a brutally efficient hunter, and a survivor to the core, but she’s also vulnerable, confused, and deeply scared not just for her own life, but for the lives of those she loves and depends on. Classifying her is difficult, as she contains so many seemingly contradictory elements, but one thing about her is always clear: no matter how long she lives, the emotional and psychological scars inflicted on her by the Capitol will never truly vanish. Collins' commitment to psychological realism is striking, and brings into sharp relief how easily the characters of other books (especially young adult fiction, or YA) seem to shrug off emotional wounds which would be permanent and crippling in real life.

The Hunger Games are brutal and gut-wrenchingly honest, but really that's the only way you can write about a dystopian hell and maintain your integrity. To those who say that the books may be too intense for younger teens, I call "bullshit". There are kids in our world who live lives very similar to those of Katniss and her family in District 12. When I was talking recommending trilogy to a coworker from South Africa, I mentioned that the series had really changed the way I look at the world, because I realized how very fortunate I am to live in a country where, unlike Katniss, no one I know will ever, ever need to worry about dying of starvation. My coworker's response was chillingly honest:

"Well, come to Africa sometime."