Revisiting some General Resolves à la Jimmy Gatsby

A painting of a woman reading by Henri Matisse in
Woman Reading, Henri Matisse     Oil on Canvas    1894

Back in 2013 I revisited The Great Gatsby for the first time since sophomore year of high school.

The point was to tell the handful of people who read this blog that at twenty-seven, I now had a better grasp of the novel than I did at fifteen. As a teenager, I could tell I enjoyed the simplicity of Fitzgerald’s writing, but I wasn’t sure what the point was. Why was this sad man’s story so great?

But I’ll tell you one thing: every New Year since the year 2000, I think about Jay Gatsby’s  “General Resolves”:

SCHEDULE 
Rise from bed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling . . . . . . 6.15-6.30 
Study electricity, etc . . . . . . . . . . . . 7.15-8.15 
Work . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8.30-4.30 P.M. 
Baseball and sports . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.30-5.00 
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 
Study needed inventions . . . . . . . . . . . 7.00-9.00

GENERAL RESOLVES 
No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] 
No more smokeing or chewing 
Bath every other day 
Read one improving book or magazine per week 
Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week 
Be better to parents

And every year I think I’ll make a list just like that and stick to it, but obviously with less tragic consequences.

Gatsby’s father shows the list to Nick Carraway. The young Gatsby – “Jimmy,” as his father calls him – had written it on the back cover of a “ragged old copy of a book called ‘Hopalong Cassidy.'”

“I come across this book by accident,” said the old man. “It just shows you, don’t it?” 

“It just shows you.” 

“Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he’s got about improving his mind? He was always great for that. He told me I et like a hog once and I beat him for it.” 

He was reluctant to close the book, reading each item aloud and then looking eagerly at me. I think he rather expected me to copy down the list for my own use. 

If that was Gatsby’s father’s intention, he had a point. Sure Gatsby ended up at the bottom of his own pool, but he had come from nothing, made a (questionable) fortune, and went out with a literal bang, and was then immortalized. At fifteen, I vaguely sensed there was something admirable in his character. Misunderstood, yes. Sadder, yes. But admirable. It was all that effort, that risk, taken towards an unworthy goal – that careless Daisy – but still.

I modified Gatsby’s list and wrote it down in my diary. A year later, nothing resolved but undeterred, I did it again. And then again and again and again, until I turned twenty-seven and started dating Tom.

Before our first New Year’s together I asked him, “What are your resolutions?”

“I don’t make resolutions,” he replied, “If I want to do something, I just do it. I don’t need to wait for the New Year.”

He reminded me of my father. When I was in elementary school, I watched – sometimes with envy – as friends attended lively youth groups on Fridays and then met again at church on Sundays.

“Why don’t we go to church?” I asked my dad, “Almost all of my friends at school go.”

“I don’t need it,” my father said.

“You don’t believe in God?”

“I believe in myself.”

At fourteen, I believed more in my future self. Hence the resolutions. It was always this list, plus or minus a few pounds.

  • Lose twenty fifteen pounds
  • Read more – a book a week! 
  • Go to bed earlier (10:30PM) 
  • Start running (at least one mile three times a week)
  • Learn 10 new words a week
  • Learn French
  • Learn Japanese
  • Get better at math 

Most of them never happened. I’m still bad at math. Not only have I not learned French or Japanese, but my Chinese has worsened as a result of marrying a non-Chinese speaking white dude. Also, I will never, ever start running unless someone’s chasing me.

I do however go to bed before midnight now, but that’s mostly because I’m older. And I did lose twenty pounds, though not until a solid twelve years after I gained it all sophomore year (thanks, badminton!). Mostly because I wanted to start dating and knew I couldn’t judge fat guys if I was fat too.

In short, my longtime list of resolves slowly fell away and I came into my mid-twenties and now early thirties generally okay with who I am.*(Though had I refreshed the list in 2015, after graduating from Columbia, I would have had to add “Get a Job” for three years in a row.)

Except for one, which I haven’t really stuck with and it gnaws at me: read more. More specifically, to read more books, because I’m reading all the time: on my phone and on the computer, but fewer and fewer actual books. I read articles by the dozens on a weekly basis but remember less than 1% of them. I read texts, emails, and Instagram captions, but very rarely, unless a friend shoves a book in my face or literally brings it to my house, do I sit down and read a book.

It is a sad thing.

But this year, I’m resolving to change that. I resolve to reestablish a good habit I established as a young girl, but somehow let slip away as a young woman increasingly, unfortunately attached to her smartphone.

I revived my Goodreads account as well and set a very ambitious goal of 52 books this year, which made Tom snort.

“Why not start with book, you phone zombie,” he says.

Whatever, I do what I want. I aim high. Even if I only read half, it’ll be more books than I’ve read in the past four years combined. Which for a supposed student of letters, is abysmal. Anyway, if you use Goodreads, feel free to add me there at “VeryHighbrow.”

I’m starting with Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins, a Christmas gift from Tom’s parents and a fitting place to start: an accomplished Chinese American writer looks back on her family history and upbringing to examine why she is the way she is. It’s really good so far. The kind of book my future self will thank me for reading.

Anyway, Happy New Year. My present self thanks you for reading 🙂

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One thought on “Revisiting some General Resolves à la Jimmy Gatsby

  1. Aim high, miss high! Couldn’t agree more, breaking the phone habit is stupidly difficult. I’m with you in solidarity.

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