Time to show resolve: Young, old and in-between reflect on changing for the New Year

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2011

Bradley Phelps is an 11-year-old sixth-grader who proclaims he was "born and raised in Alaska" with the conviction of a 90-year-old homesteader. He is big in the way a mountain is, sturdy and commanding recognition, with a round face and narrow blue eyes.

"I want to be a paleontologist, an archaeologist, and a pilot when I grow up," the Redoubt Elementary student declares. "And I'm going to probably do it, because there's a lot of people to help me."

This last part he mumbles, as if somehow embarrassed by having confidence in his future success. When asked whether or not he has committed to a New Year's resolution, he is quick to answer in the affirmative.

"Start off better in school this year," Bradley says. "Last year I didn't get as good of grades, so this year I'm hoping to go for it since it's the last year of my elementary school."

He won't have a problem sticking to the resolution or pulling up those grades, he thinks, as his technique for triumph is to "try harder with schoolwork and everything else." In this respect he's probably taking more responsibility and ownership of his abilities than adults who learn that they can blame failure on circumstance, luck, and the will of others.

"I think that if you put your mind hard enough to something, and really believe that you can do it, you can accomplish any goal," he says, with sincerity.

But how does he explain the rampant New Year's resolution failures, or why people give up on changing themselves when they know it would only be to their ultimate benefit?

"Because they undermise the power that they have to do something," he says, and probably means "underestimate," but correcting him would be pointless.

"You just got to try a little harder."

* n n

Michael Shane Williams is a 39-year-old homeless veteran with two bachelor's degrees and a drinking problem. A soft-spoken, articulate man, Shane has a struggling crop of orange hair that is fighting what appears to be a losing battle against his forehead. His oversized hands radiate strength and he moves with the careful lope of someone trying not to break anything.

Hailing from a poor town outside of Shreveport, La., Shane joined the Army his junior year of high school, was deployed to Germany several years later, and saw 10 months of active duty in Bosnia. He left at 29. After working as a medical equipment repair technician for a while, Shane received his associate's degree from a college in Carthage, Texas, and became a certified occupational therapy assistant. He moved to Alaska in 2005, and has since racked up three DUIs, spent time in jail, and found himself homeless.

"There's worse positions to be in in the world," he says. "I'm not starving or anything. But my family worries about me so much. That's what hurts me more than anything about when I go to jail, is having to call them and they're like, 'Oh my God, what's going to happen to Shane?'"

He stretches out the word "worries," gesturing for emphasis.

Shane claims to have not had a drink since being released from jail in mid-November, and it would be nice to believe him. Despite having more than enough to work on, Shane failed to make a concrete resolution this year, but still thinks he understands why people make them in the first place and the pitfalls that follow soon thereafter.

"They either want to change or they like the idea of changing," he speculates dreamily. His speech is slow and purposeful, but far away, like he is thinking about something else.

"One of the problems I've experienced myself and seen in other people with a New Year's resolution -- especially if they make it well before New Year's," he says, "is whatever that behavior is, up until New Year's Day they are doing it even more so than they were before."

He says one time he read about a study where signs were posted around a park -- "No littering," "Do not walk on grass," etc. -- and the behavior of visitors was subsequently observed. Littering and grass-treading increased, he said, because those ideas hadn't even been planted in the peoples' minds until they saw the signs.

"I think that's similar to what happens with New Year's resolutions."

When Shane talks about drinking, he is wistful, and when asked if he thinks he can quit entirely, if he even wants to, he hesitates.

"At this point, I really don't know."

* n n

Clyde Sterling is an 82-year-old retired air traffic controller living at Heritage Place nursing home with his wife of 61 years. He likes football but doesn't subscribe to a particular team, instead preferring northern teams to southern teams, western teams to eastern teams. He regrets retiring early and having his arms inked up with images of bikini-clad women.

He and his wife had strokes within one year of each other (in 2006 and 2007), and Clyde has also developed Parkinson's disease, preventing him from driving his truck that he once loved. His wife Cordelia ("everyone calls her Corky") can no longer speak or eat, as she is paralyzed on her entire left side.

Clyde snorts sardonically when asked about New Year's resolutions.

"I don't believe in them," he says. "I have never seen the fruits of a good New Year's resolution. People make New Year's resolutions because that's vogue."

This scorn is mildly ironic in the context of the last 15 years of Clyde's life: On July 1, 1995, he went to a doctor, who informed Clyde that his alcoholism was becoming a severe burden on his health. Privately Clyde acknowledged that alcohol was ruining his marriage, and he and his wife were dangerously close to separation. So he stopped drinking.

"Since that doctor told me about what was really happening if I didn't change my ways, I have not had a drop of alcohol since that office visit," he says. "I've been to a couple of wedding receptions where they served champagne; always managed that my glass would be full of 7Up.

"If I had done this on the 31st of December, it would have been a New Year's resolution," he says. "But I did it in July, and that's just another day."

Even today, Clyde admits, whenever he sees a martini or a Manhattan advertised on television, his whole mouth begins to water. And still he has never slipped or stumbled.

"It's been really easy for me to stick to it," Clyde says. "I don't know why."

Apparently he just tried hard enough.

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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