Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year's resolutions.
And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed farm equipment. "That would be a pickax or a sickle," says Danny, 12, who studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.
But today we can't simply return some borrowed tool, toy or casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top English-language novels, to be more patient.
And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in university extension classes and buy "Ulysses" and "The Great Gatsby."
But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do we even bother making resolutions?
"Relentless optimism," Jeremy, 14, suggests.
"Self-deception," Gabe, 16, says.
"Social pressure," Zack, 19, adds.
"Why do we diet?" my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically, knowing that it's human nature to want to improve oneself.
And it's human nature to want to divide time into manageable and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.
And that's what New Year's Eve is -- a symbolic milepost, a fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our resolutions will stick. But there's nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to coincide with the rebirth of the land. That's why they almost unanimously resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the new crops.
And there's nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches us, we're all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.
Spiritually, we know that change doesn't happen without prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul. During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or injured during the previous year.
We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than "who shall live and who shall die."
Psychologically and experientially, we know that change doesn't happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom --Â until life slams us up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.
New Year's Eve is the only secular holiday, save our birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.
Perhaps it's that intimation of mortality, combined with the knowledge that once again we've made no one's year-end Top 10 list, that triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.
And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7 or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate weight loss with no exercise.
But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband's delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it's our turn to clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let's institute truth in advertising and call New Year's resolutions by their real name: New Year's wishes. An opportunity to dream, to fantasize, to visualize a "before" and after" us. A shot at the self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in more than 41 million chance of winning.
I don't know about you, but I don't have many more habits I'm willing to break. Over the years, I've quit smoking, worked myself down to my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody's asking if I want to give up carpool driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family's human PalmPilot.)
I don't know about you, but I'm saving my serious repenting for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash superficiality.
Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.
Personally, for 2004, I'd like to eat more vanilla ice cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, "chilling."
But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that's been sitting in the garage. Â
Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.