Year ends hit one rather like hard returns hit a paragraph--one just picks a place to strike, and voila, the paragraph is done. Our entire analytical context seems to speak in terms of calendar years, as if they had some mystical resonance. But in fact, they are only part of the covenant of mutual societal convenience. The history of how we got to our current calendar is interesting enough, but does not really tell us why December 31 should have one meaning, and January 1 another. At least with scripture, the questions of which books go into which Bible are matter of Nicene councils and ornate misguided battles against heresy. Year ends, though, are societal conventions, and New Year's Eve is a wonderful confection of the shared societal imagination.
I spent my December 31 putting together a reply brief due later this week. My telephone was extremely quiet, as more people in my world appeared to have found more advantage in days off during the holiday season than even the generous set of four weekdays I allotted myself this December. At lunch, I went to Gopal, the Indian vegetarian buffet just off Central Expressway at Spring Valley. As often happens with strict Indian vegetarian buffets, the plates were metal, to avoid the danger of "bone" china, and the cups were metal rather than glass, for anti-carnivorous reasons I cannot put together in my mind. I wondered as I ate at the context in which the meal was served. So many things we experience each day have their own context which we may not fully appreciate. We all travel through our lives in a haze of ideas and symbols we do not understand.
When I entered law school, I knew I would love it immediately, because it defined a language and mind-set of moral choices and ordered liberties which had always eluded me. I had traveled through life without this language of "context", but the study of law suddenly introduced me to ideas underlying the way our institutions were put together. A first year criminal law course might discuss the difference between a culpable intention, which might result in execution of the accused, and a non-culpable intention, which might even result in exoneration. A lot of our societal assumptions are shown at their best and worst by the way in which law evolves.
Similarly, I have a fondness for reading Christian and American "new religions" theology, particularly liberal Christian protestant thought and the various 19th Century "new faiths" which dotted the American landscape. Both of these sets of theologies, though quite varied, really, involve a good bit of redefinition of old terms and old concepts, in an effort to define new ways of looking at things. As the 19th and 20th Century evolved so much the western way of looking at man and God, so, too, did liberal theology evolve an entirely new dialogue which redefined all the terms in an effort to breathe life into forms that were losing relevance. The result is that one must read a few works to understand the "language shifts" and the lexicon of a particular set of ideas in order to fully appreciate the ideas being expressed.
I think, though, that it is easy to overlook that so many pursuits in which people engage have their own complex ideas and mythology. My favorite game of chess has a literature as old and complex as that of many world faiths. Anyone who follows the intricacies of football, often derided as a brainless sport, will realize that it is first and foremost a strategy game, its subtleties writ large using human players instead of game figures. The advent of intricate role playing games let people literally create miniature game universes, while science fiction or fantasy "histories" allow one to enter worlds whose complexity can rival our own. The book of miniature bonsai I bought recently opened yet another set of windows into a complex 'philosophy' for their care and arrangement. The auto mechanic and the computer programmer work in atmospheres of very practical but very complicated design and implementation. I dislike that people who are not "intellectual" are sometimes derided, when their thinking is no less complex than the intelligentsia. It is just directed at different things. I feel that what is missing is simple progress toward the worthy goals of our society, not a lack of intelligence among its members.
I love that the houseplant hobby has 10,000 plants or more to choose among. I love that a book of cacti can describe subvarieties of subspecies from a hundred microclimes. I love that there are more varieties of fancy guppy than members of the United States Senate, by an factor of several.
But as I do my own part of the stock taking and internal inventory that seems to be an artificial but integral part of this holiday, I remain troubled by how simple I wish everything could be, and how complex I want everything to be. I want to have the world made plain, in the palm of my hand. I want to live in a world so vast and mysterious, I could never understand it. I want both things, and I want them with all my heart. As I approach 2003, with a quiet evening with my wonderful wife, I wonder very much how can I have all that I desire, when my desires are so internally contradictory.