Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sign me up for the paving crew

Once upon a time—January 1, 1863, to be exact—Samuel Clemens published the following newspaper column (in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise) under the headline, “New Year’s Day.” I consider these words of true inspiration.

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

It is traditional to make resolutions as we begin the new year. Somehow we imagine that we get to start it with a clean slate, although I’m not sure how that happens. Does tooting on a noisemaker cause all the leftover marks of the previous year to disappear? Do they get washed away with a splash of a champagne toast? Do they just get thrown out with the old, suddenly out-of-date calendar?

What about unfinished business? Where does that fit into the shiny and new? I’m afraid it sits right where it was and reappears after we’ve tossed aside all our resolutions. And once we’ve washed all the dishes and vacuumed up all the crumbs and confetti and put all the lampshades back where they belong, the party’s over and it’s just life once more. Life with its usual struggles and smiles. Another year with old dreams and, with any luck, a few new ideas.

Here in the northern hemisphere where the new year starts mid-winter, it comes at a time when we’ve reconciled ourselves to the cold weather and various forms of precipitation and when we may even have begun to notice that the days aren’t quite as short as they were in December, so maybe spring will come again. The new year comes when we’re in the mood for something to look forward to, so we can “enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

In a week or two or ten most of us will have misplaced the books or DVDs we bought to help us get rich and lose weight or play golf and meet Mr. Right. That’s okay. We’re bound to get in slightly better shape and meet all kinds of people who will also be joining the paving crew. I wonder if that Road to Hell got funding from the government stimulus package.

I wonder what kind of resolutions young Sam Clemens made for 1863 out there in Virginia City. He might have promised himself to make the most of opportunities that presented themselves. For example, later in January he wrote this short piece for the newspaper, headlined “Territorial Sweets.”

The following, which will do to sweeten some bachelor's coffee with, was picked up in front of the International:
"’DARLING: I have not had time to write you to-day - I have worked hard entertaining company. Do come and see your little pet. I yearn for the silvery cadence of your voice - I thirst for the bubbling stream of your affection. 
“We feel for that girl. The water privilege which she pines for so lovingly has probably dried up and departed, else her sweet note would not have been floating around the streets without a claimant. We feel for her deeply - and if it will afford her any relief, if it will conduce to her comfort, if it will satisfy her yearning even in the smallest degree, we will cheerfully call around and ‘bubble’ awhile for her ourself, if she will send us her address.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any follow-up account about the youthful journalist fording that particular stream.

But, he did embark upon a relationship later that month that would last him the rest of his life, for on January 31, 1863, came the first appearance in that very same newspaper of the name “Mark Twain.” The newly dubbed correspondent wrote a “Letter from Carson City,” an account of his trip by stagecoach and attendance at the territorial governor’s ball. He described his “cheerful” journey, the details of the governor’s fine house (“I have a great regard for a good house, and a girlish passion for mirrors.”), the vast offerings of the gala feast and his enjoyment of it all.

I think I may take a little inspiration from both Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain as I look forward to this new year. I’ll aim to keep my eyes open for those unusual opportunities and interesting journeys and try to write about them all.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're back! I like this one!