That January is the worst month of the year has been documented by many surveys, by which I mean a few surveys that I am overemphasizing to make a point. Of the 12 of them, January is our avowed enemy—the Judas Iscariot of the calendrical world, if you will—and all who know it loathe it, save the divorce lawyers, for whom the annual bumper crop of break-ups generates much post-Christmas spending money.
Some blame January’s shockingly low approval rating on its place in the batting order (would you want to follow December?), others its weather, and a few its near-rhyme with “Katy Perry.” But I am here to tell you that it is none of these. It is instead the fitness imperative, the impulse toward self-discipline, the rage for extreme makeovers, the onslaught of network morning shows commanding that a new year bring a new you. It is the culture’s fault that January makes us feel like utter crap, as if having awful weather and a busted-up marriage weren’t bad enough.
There was a time when I too succumbed to this fetishistic fascination with starting over. It was 1978 and Jill Clayburgh was wowing critics in An Unmarried Woman as a rich Manhattan wife who loses her stockbroker husband to a bubble-headed 20-something, which forces her to spend many a night alone in bed wearing a T-shirt and bikini panties. I was 15 years old then, and lifetimes away from the first of various midlife crises, yet there was something in Clayburgh’s performance that spoke to me. The movie taught that there was no situation in life so secure that it might not be upended. No, everything I held dear might be taken away in an instant, forcing me to rebuild my life and ask myself Who is the real me? while working in a Soho art gallery.
I won’t wait, I told myself. I’ll ask myself right now. Who is the real me? I wondered, as opposed to the counterfeit me concocted over the preceding decade and a half. Had my studied bookish persona (then represented by wireless rims and wide-tread corduroy) been forced on me by societal pressures conspiring to suppress my inner popular kid? What, besides a little weight training and aerobics, was preventing me from becoming one of those white tuxedoed marvels who posed for photos with the most beautiful girl to ever don a wrist corsage in front of a fireplace, thereby creating a homecoming memento for the ages?
Plenty, it turned out. As the actual photos would later make clear, there is no such thing as a new you. There is only the old you with white patent leather shoes. Moral: the aim of one’s life, in January or otherwise, should not be a version of oneself that is unrecognizable to one’s previous self. Such attempts at thoroughgoing overhaul are for the foolish and/or Renée Zellweger. The modest approach is wisest, a regimen that seeks not 10 pounds but five, not renaissance but nonchalance, not endless love, just someone who vows not to fart out loud.
Thus, it seems to me, might true and lasting change be achieved, however minor, and January itself be reborn, as 31 days of balmy lawyer bait, obnoxious but harmless.