Monday, December 20, 2010

My First 100 Days

Several times a week I'm asked by people who know of the Van Winkle Project a general question: "So how's it going?"

I appreciate the interest, but it's a difficult question to field. Even at this major milestone in the project as I glance to the right and look at my "Time Remaining Before I Awake" counter and notice that it's fallen below 265.

Hurray! I've just put in my first 100 days.

Feeling Presidential
Ever since FDR took office in 1933 and followed with a quick whirlwind of economic moves designed to keep the nation from sinking deeper into the Great Depression, the first 100 days have been scrutinized whenever a new president assumes office. The thought is that if some remarkable achievements are made during that time, it bodes well for the remainder of the 4-year term. Conversely, failures in the first 100 days could doom the presidency.

The historical record doesn't necessarily bear out such simplistic sentiments.

There's a website that tallies significant presidential 100-day accomplishments, starting with FDR up through George W. Bush. Below is a partial snapshot of the wonderful graphic: you'll find there

When I look at the complete chart I notice presidents who began inauspiciously, ugly, or even with a near disaster, but then they had later successes, and often they were re-elected:
  • John Kennedy presides over the Bay of Pigs debacle, the failed U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba.
  • Richard Nixon orders the bombing of Cambodia.
  • Ronald Reagan is shot by John Hinckley on Day 70.

Then there were presidents who generated 100-day excitement and later circumstances thwarted their agendas or damaged their reputations: 
  • Gerald Ford declares war on inflation.
  • Jimmy Carter makes moves to address the U.S. energy problem.
  • George W. Bush places large tax cuts before Congress which will soon pass, even though the experts say he lacks this the needed political power since he is the winner of an election that had to be decided by the Supreme Court.

In reality, presidential 100 days are a lot like the NFL preseason. A team can lose most of those games (which don't count) and still end up in the Super Bowl. Or they can win them all and stumble once the regular season begins.

Of course, the Van Winkle Project isn't really about doing, so much as it's about not doing (i.e., refusing access to information about what's going on in the world politically, economically, and culturally). This makes it hard to offer up my own sort of 100-day accomplishment report.

Van Winkle Accomplishes Nothing
When I judge the success of my first 100 days (and try to answer that pesky opening question), I realize that the standard of looking at what I haven't done casts everything in an unusual light. A successful 100 days of "sleep" for me means that I've truly kept myself in the slackest intellectual state imaginable. To do this, I have to daily pare back my natural curiosity with the equivalent of a sharp knife.

For the most part I have succeeded. There have been a few leaks that I didn't step out of the way of in time, and a couple of times I was weak, put down my knife, and gave into temptation and read a newspaper headline or glanced up at a scroll on a screen tuned to the news in a public place.

Don't get between Van Winkle and his knife!
On the other hand, I really have no idea who is going to make the NFL playoffs, what movies are in theaters, what President Obama's approval rating is, what the Republican-Democratic make-up of Congress will be for the next two years as a result of the mid-term elections, what the unemployment rate is, whether there have been any hurricanes, or if any famous people have died. And there's probably more that's happened that I can't even imagine, right? Wait. I'm picking up my knife. Don't tell me.

So to convince myself, as much as anyone, that my first 100 days have proceeded pretty much according to plan, I prepared a chart.
Mandatory essentially meaningless graphic
 My 100 Day Failures
As the above chart shows, I had some moments when the news leaked through or I weakened and brought some of it into my life.

1 - I found out about the rescue of the Chilean miners because I was reading our son's school newsletter and there was a headline about it. I was shocked. The last I heard was that the miners would be out "sometime before Christmas." I still have no idea how they were rescued so relatively quickly.

2 - After the mid-term elections, I really started itching for political news. I'd see headlines with the word "Obama" in it and then another with the word "tax." I eventually pieced together that the president was working, with difficulty, to get Congress to pass a tax bill before they adjourned.

3 - I went to get a haircut last week at Sports Clips. What could I do. The place has "sports" in its name because it's thought that a good way to get men to patronize anything is to offer them sports. So every screen, even on a Monday morning, is tuned to ESPN. I sat in my chair and I closed my eyes, but I still heard the post-Sunday analysis of the end of Brett Favre's "streak" of playing in 297 consecutive games. I know now that his shoulder hurts and his throwing hand is still numb and that he's never taken that bad of a hit in all his years of playing. It's likely the end of the road for the 41-year-old who, in football terms, played just about forever.

It hurts, bro.

How Do You Spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S?
Another measure of success beyond the quantitative (how successfully I avoided any kind of news information) is the qualitative. I think when people ask me, "How's it going?" this is what they're getting at. They want to know how I'm feeling--and holding up.

Here's a list of feelings I've experienced. They run the gamut as at different times I've felt:.
  • Lonely
  • Free
  • Weird
  • Fake (like I'm not really missing anything)
  • Pretentious
  • Relaxed
  • Anxious (what's going on out there!)

For the most part there have been benefits to this project, some of them unexpected. I'm thankful for that because, otherwise, it would be difficult to face the fact that I'm still less than a third of the way done with my newsless regimen.
  • I have a bit more time each day.
  • I have no opportunities to think hyper-critically about current events or the cultural landscape or to get up on my soap box and rant about them.
  • I've written 38 posts which is excellent practice at what amounts to a whole new genre of writing, blogging, which I now know has its own needs and demands.
  • I've had a chance to exercise my sense of humor when I write.
  • I now have a better idea of what others are doing in the blogosphere, which is humbling because there's SO MUCH out there, and the blogs that are good manage to be shockingly original in the midst of the overall blog glut.
  • Close to home, where most of my "news" now takes place, I've noticed more than ever before what I can only call "everyday wonders."

Thrilling Conclusion
I'm going to hang in there even though I'd really like to flip on the TV and catch some NFL or NCAA heroics before the seasons end or I'd love to go to a new movie or read a review of a book that just came out. Oh well. I'll try to accentuate the positive. If I get a tax cut when I go to fill out my taxes in 2011, it will be like a second Christmas. I won't know about it until Turbotax tells me. Still, I wonder how much it might be? A few hundred dollars? Five hundred? A thousand? Oh, someone help me! - V.W.


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