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Patchwork: Filling in the Blanks

Chris Quilter

Chris Quilter

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.” I couldn’t agree more, but who said it? Did you know it was _____________ (1) who never came across as our sharpest Vice President. Perhaps he simply wasn’t much good at memorization—a knack I’ve lacked since my school days. I probably have a screw loose, but I’m probably not losing my mind. I just can’t always find it when I need it.

I can’t name that tune, or even sing the parody songs I’ve sweated over for “Lagunatics.” The last time I dialed my grandmother, we could still dial. Yet I remember her phone number (DAvenport 3-5708) and often stumble over my own. (Yes, I don’t call myself that often. But still.) I remember the movies I’ve seen but rarely who I saw them with, which my friends pretend not to take personally.

Like the plot of a bad movie, my memory is shot full of holes. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” Where did that come from? You’re right: it’s ____________ (2). But I thought it was a line from “My Last Duchess” and instead it’s “Andrea del Sarto.” (Wikipedia set me straight, which it does so often I responded to their online fundraising appeal.)

It would be convenient had the poet been writing about New Year’s resolutions because—buried in the fourth paragraph—it’s the point of this column. In 2013, I’m upping the ante. Forget about “Lose weight,” “Exercise regularly,” and “Memorize an entire poem.” This year, I resolve to talk someone into coming up with local public transportation that meets us where we are and takes us where we want to go, so I won’t hang on to my car keys with a Vulcan death grip when the time comes. I resolve to find someone to build an assisted living facility in town, so I won’t have to live in exile if need it. I had a third resolution, but it’s slipped my mind.

The idea that a new year is a chance to start fresh, start over, or try again is part of the American DNA. (I can’t picture the French making New Year’s resolutions.) So many of us are the descendants of “teeming hordes” and “wretched refuse.” The poet is ____________(3). But what’s the the title of the poem? (4) Oppression and starvation certainly pushed them onto the boat, but so did the tug of a new life in a new world. Is it any wonder we find the siren call of self-improvement so hard to resist? It’s in the blood.

Fast forward to an America where betterment is practically a birthright, except among unmedicated depressives, hardened curmudgeons, and other “nattering nabobs of negativism”—a phrase penned by ____________(5) and voiced by ____________(6) before a tax evasion/bribery scandal forced him to resign as Richard Nixon’s Veep. (A delicious Wiki aside: when John Erlichman asked the President why he’d chosen his running mate, Nixon replied: “No assassin in his right mind would kill me.”)

My traditional gripe about self-improvement, based on personal experience, has been the high failure rate. (For further proof, go to any gym in January and check back a few months later.) I’ve since concluded that most of us feel a patriotic duty to go through the motions, but really don’t want to change. It’s not like we’re out robbing banks, and if people are willing to take us as we are, why push our luck?

We are far better off trying to be of some use to those who are in genuine, often desperate need of change and have it so much harder. The ones with hard-won success stories all seem to have embraced a philosophy of change I can recite from memory in its entirety: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We all know the Serenity Prayer, even if we aren’t in Alcoholics Anonymous or similar twelve-step program. My admiration for AA reflects both gratitude—it has given me back people I dearly love—as well as astonishment that a worldwide mutual aid movement has succeeded by steering clear of dogma and hierarchies.

Wikipedia reminded me of yet another fact I had forgotten: the Serenity Prayer can be credited to the American theologian ____________(7) who first used it in a 1943 sermon. He had written it out in prose form. But it reads like poetry, doesn’t it? We might even make 2013 our best year yet if we resolve to recite it—one day at a time.

(1) Dan Quayle, (2) Robert Browning, ( 3) Emma Lazarus, (4) “The New Colossus,” (5) William Safire, (6) Spiro T. Agnew,(7) Reinhold Niebuhr.

 

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