Manhattan: my muse, my love… my downfall? Yes, after two and a half long years here, I’m moving on. I’d love to be able to say, "It’s not you, it’s me,” but let’s face it: it’s you, Manhattan. When I got here, my neighborhood was so authentic. I used to get a friendly wave and a how-do-you-do every single day from the kindly old local woman down the block from me (she gives the best hugs!). But I don’t see her around much anymore what with all the changes in my neck of the woods. The neighborhood lately is overrun with artisanal candle shops and cobblers and phony taverns that can only play at lived-in authenticity. Dutch tourists arrive by the boatload to gawk at the locals, and it seems like every last one of them ends up staying and gentrifying the place further. Full disclosure: yes, I’m Dutch myself, but my neighborhood was virtually all Lenape when I moved in, and that kindly old woman I mentioned has been like a grandmother to me ever since I got here. It really feels like the only home I’ve known for the last few years is being erased. Now, it’s time for me to strike out for the territory and find a new home — and just maybe find myself while I’m at it.
I leave New York a few times a year, usually to visit my parents. Every time I board the ferry, I feel a guilty sort of elation watching the wooden jungle recede from view, as I leave behind its congestion and agitation and, yes, its smell. By the time my Conestoga wagon pulls away from the ferry terminal in New Jersey, I feel like a prisoner making his great escape. And yet — and yet, and yet, and yet — every time I come back, as I make my approach and dusk falls and the candles come on and this great, gorgeous living organism of a city unfolds before me, I fall in love with New York all over again. It’s that feeling I’ll miss most of all. Sadly, there’s just no place left for a loyalist dreamer like me anymore. The British seemed to lose so gradually that I didn’t even notice it was happening. But change has come to New York, and it’s now past time for me to make my final escape. Let’s just hope they make a decent johnnycake in Canada!
It ain’t my neighborhood. That’s as vibrant and diverse as it’s ever been; at the last rooftop party I attended, I counted among our ranks Irishmen, Mohammedans, even Portugee. It ain’t my job. Bootblacking pays the bills just as it ever did, and I’m plenty happy with my side hustle as a pamphleteer. It certainly ain’t the food. My local watering hole makes a mean boiled potato, and I can’t complain about the Delmonico’s steak I sometimes treat myself to on paydays. No, it’s the city itself. New York, you win. I lose. I can’t even say what did me in first. Was it the never-ending stream of flaky roommates? The cholera scare I had this summer? The draft riots? Or maybe it was all of it, closing in on me and finally chasing from this mean mistress, New York City. I’m not sure what comes next, but as soon as I can find someone to sublet my place through the end of my lease, I’m gone.
Tonight, I saw my last New York sunset. The Gorbulaks from Star System Niobe-82B blew up the sun, and for me, that meant it was time to go. I’ll miss my barbershop. I’ll miss the nutrient delivery patches from the bodega around the corner. I’ll even miss my bodega’s resident pet frabnyx, even if that mean little bastard tried to scratch me with the venomous spur at the end of his fore-tentacle every time I reached for a soda. I moved to New York from Neo-Chicagoclevetroit with a head full of dreams and a heart full of hope when I was an impressionable 22-year-old. I leave an older, wiser 25-year-old. As I write this, my escape shuttle is about to enter warp speed. I’ll be starting a new life in the Andromeda colonies in just a few days, but I’m bringing with me something the Gorbulaks could never take away: my memories of New York.
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As a psychology professor, I teach classes on changing behavior, and I usually start by asking my students how many of them have made New Year’s resolutions that failed. Most hands go up. In fact, many people respond that they have stopped making New Year’s resolutions because they don’t work.
But it does not have to be this way. Simply put, if you want to succeed with your New Year’s resolutions, you have to start way before New Year’s Eve to get ready. Don’t make a fervent wish on Dec. 31. Instead, people need to give themselves some preparation time.
The reason that resolutions fail is that people don’t put in enough effort to allow them to succeed. The things we resolve to change in our lives are generally the systematic failures in our lives. For instance, people often resolve to get in shape, stop smoking or drinking, or to get more serious about establishing a career.
But even if you want to make a change, it is not easy to make systematic changes in your behavior. We have habits that get in the way of achieving our goals. We also have constructed an environment that supports our behavior and have surrounded ourselves with people who help us.
You first have to focus on positive goals rather than negative ones. A positive goal is an action you want to perform; a negative goal is something you want to stop doing. Your habits are memories of actions you perform in a particular situation. You can’t learn not to do something, so if you focus yourself only on stopping behaviors, you will never develop new habits.
For example, when I was growing up, I used to bite my nails. I would resolve periodically to stop biting my nails, but that never worked because I would eventually return to my old habit. When I was in graduate school, I observed my own behavior, and discovered that I bit my nails primarily when sitting at my desk at work. So, I bought a bunch of desk toys and started playing with them instead. It is awkward to bite nails while playing with a toy. I now have the habit to play with desk toys, but I no longer bite my nails.
More people also need to make realistic plans for what they want to change about themselves. If you want to start going to the gym more often, it is not enough to say that you want to go to the gym three times a week. Where is that going to fit on your calendar? You need to pick specific days and add that to your agenda. Unless you get specific, you will have a hard time identifying all of the obstacles that will get in your way. Put the gym on your calendar Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. That is specific enough to give you a fighting chance of succeeding.
People need to make changes to their environment as well. We tend to do things that are easy. A big key to behavior change is to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard. During the past 50 years, the successful public health campaign to get people to stop smoking has succeeded in part because it is now virtually impossible to smoke in public buildings. As a result, people in the workplace or in restaurants or bars can’t just pick up a cigarette and light it. They have to walk outside. The undesirable behavior has been made hard to do.
Finally, after New Year’s Day, you need to be kind to yourself. Real behavior change is hard. There are days when you will succeed and others when you will fail. On the days you fail, treat that as an opportunity to learn about what to do in the future rather than as a reason to give up. People really can succeed with their New Year’s resolutions. They just have to plan ahead.
Art Markman is the founding director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations, the author of “Smart Change,” and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin