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Self-Help

Credit: Marc Wathieu

My Top One Lists

Because the blinders were on last year, a 2015 resolution to become more culturally aware: to read more books, watch more movies, and listen to more albums.

The best movie I saw in 2014 was The Grand Budapest Hotel. The only movie I saw in 2014 was The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I could make a similar confession almost every year. New movies, new music, and new novels arrive year after year, but somehow gramps here just can’t keep up with them. I am still planning to see Michael Clayton, and that was like four George Clooneys ago.

If culture is, as Matthew Arnold said, the best which has been thought and said, then it is my duty to seek out the best of today’s. I am not sure where I got the idea that it was a duty—maybe from the Jesuits, maybe Roger Ebert—but that feeling is deep in my bones.

Therefore, I have resolved that 2015 will be different from 2014 (and ’13 and ’12 and ’11). This year, I will keep up. I even have a plan.

Step 1: Get Specific

Last year Bob Mondello, arts critic for NPR with a focus on film criticism, watched 308 more movies than I did. Of those 309 movies, only a small percentage were repeats. “I don’t have the time or the bandwith to rewatch movies anymore,” Mondello tells me.

Last year Bob Mondello, arts critic for NPR with a focus on film criticism, watched 308 more movies than I did.

To catch so many movies, it becomes evident Mondello has to make sacrifices elsewhere. Thus, he has not watched any of the great series in our present golden age of television. His reading, likewise, gravitates to briefer media, such as magazines and newspapers.

So, is he ever allowed outside of a movie theater?

Quite often. “I have a life,” he assures me. Last year Mondello says he managed to catch “only” 50 plays as part of his job reviewing theater for the Washington City Paper. He and his husband travel. “We haunt museums in every city we go to.” He does a lot of gallery-hopping. He’s a nut for Frank Lloyd Wright. Mondello is living proof that one need not confine oneself to a narrow sliver of culture.

For those who want to keep up with the best in current cinema and never mind the bollocks, he recommends narrowing your must-see list with the help of critical aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. He says such sites are “ways of getting a critical consensus that I did not have” 30 years ago.

I feel heartened talking to Mondello: Here is proof that keeping up and having a life are not mutually exclusive.

Step 2: Determine Routine

My Top 10 Albums of 2014:

1. Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker

I speak with Henry Brean, a journalist and self-described music fiend, to find out just how ashamed I should be of this list. Turns out, not very. Brean does not compile top 10 album lists. Instead he creates a two-disc compilation of his favorite new songs each year, and a companion top 50 tracks on Spotify. So keeping up with new music today can simply meaning finding great singles, which will make my Year of Keeping Up much easier.

I had heard about Brean and his lists from my wife, who has a Facebook Alliance with him and has discovered many a favorite band through his suggestions. Never having met him before my interview, I imagined him to be a kind of Davy Crockett or Kit Carson of indie rock, a musical pathfinder navigating the rapids of dub-step, hacking through the thickets of emo, and scaling the fearsome cliffs of speed metal to find the springs and pastures of melody—all in the service of less intrepid listeners.

While he may be such a figure to some, that was not his intention. “Around 2008 I started posting my lists on social media to get my music-nerd friends to point out what I missed,” he tells me. Brean turns Facebook into a tool for keeping up with the new, starting a discussion, and filling any gaps in his library.

Now that’s a sound method to make 2015 truly rock. Since I’m not on Facebook, I’ll use Twitter. I can follow my favorite bands and music blogs to stay current. I can tweet my favorite tunes and demand feedback from my legion of followers (37 as of Feb. 1).

With this template in hand, keeping up in 2015 is beginning to seem easy.

Step 3: Plan for Weaknesses

I intend to read Lila by Marilynne Robinson one day. So may I count that as my Top Novel of 2014? Because I did not read any new fiction last year.

My cultural jealousy peaks when I see a year-end top 10 novel list. Such a list indicates an amount of free time so vast that it is pure bragging. Remember, the list-maker only means new novels. Presumably, the person also read 50 others not as good, tackled some classics missed in school, reread some old favorites, plowed through dozens of short-story collections, kept up with favorite magazines, newspapers, and blogs, and did all the other things we need to do (showers, meals, periodic flossing) to remain a healthy and functioning adult. I look at top 10 novel lists and feel such a mix of envy and guilt that I want to drive up to Marquette University and say to the dean, “Hi, it’s me. I am here to return my BA in English because I don’t deserve it.”

Am I trying to consume movies and music and novels more mindfully, or am I going after a number?

So I spoke with Sue Becker, CPA, MBA, owner of Spark Productivity, about how I can read a lot more, watch movies, rock out, and get PAID in the process.

Through an initial email, Becker directs me to a post on her company’s website about a simple New Year’s resolution: Drink more water. To ensure success, one should:

1. Get Specific (Exactly how much do you mean by “more water”?)
2. Determine Routine (When will you drink it? How will you measure it?)
3. Plan for Weaknesses (How will you react if you miss a day?)

Be it a mundane mission like increased water intake or a noble quest like mine, Becker contends that no resolution is likely to succeed without a concrete plan.

I expect our conversation to begin with my first steps, but Becker, strangely, does not start by praising my ambition or my capacious curiosity. Instead, she asks if I have a bigger goal. Am I trying to consume movies and music and novels more mindfully, or am I going after a number?

“Uhhhh,” I say.

“Those are things that are supposed to bring you joy. Your pursuit of a number is going to be counterproductive.”

Becker offers no to-do list, no schedule, no secret key from the shadowy underworld of time management. What I get instead is a mirror held smack in my grill. And brother, was it ugly.

Becker tells me that instead of going after an impressive tally, I should simply appreciate that so much great art has been made. “You could take comfort that it is all available,” she says. “It’s going to be there. When the time is right you can take it in.”

I politely thank Becker for her time, hang up the phone, and stare into the sun for a long, long time.

Step 4: Drink More Water

When I say I want to keep up with pop culture, the term “keep up” has a second, darker meaning beyond “stay current.” I also want to keep up with the Joneses—and the Mondellos and Breans—of pop culture. My desire is not simply to enjoy things. It’s also to acquire more experiences, to impress others with the width and the depth of my appreciations, and to lead the way.

So here is my revised 2015 resolution: Drink more water. As in, consume more of the essentials. Becker is right; the pursuit of numbers has been counterproductive. “I’ve a thirst on me I wouldn’t sell for half a crown,” James Joyce wrote, and that’s how I feel. So why am I planning to sell my thirst to any new thing that comes along?

In 2015 I will read more, watch more, and listen more—that plan has not changed. But I will try to follow instead of lead. I won’t go after a mere number. And I will go easy on myself when my plans collapse.

That Joyce line is from the “Cyclops” chapter in Ulysses, which I never finished. Maybe this is the year I finally do. Or better yet, maybe this is the year I finally forgive myself for not.

Dennis O’Toole is a writer and improv performer from Chicago. His work has appeared on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His blog is at dennisotoole.com. More by Dennis O’Toole