Sandy Oxx, executive director of the Carroll Arts Council, resolved to play the ukulele that someone donated to the council.

Photos by: Phil Grout, Alan Feiler, Jr.

Most years, Sandy Oxx settles on her New Year’s resolution the night before the start of the annual calendar cycle. But for 2014, she decided on her resolution months ago, and you could say it comes with strings attached.

The executive director of the Carroll County Arts Council, Oxx is eschewing the typical, timeworn resolutions – losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more, etc. – and pledging to learn how to play the ukulele.

Yes, you read that right. The uke. Don Ho and Arthur Godfrey, beware.

“Someone not long ago donated a ukulele to our musical instrument bank, so I figured I had no excuses,” Oxx said. “Also, I saw a ÔCBS Sunday Morning’ program about the current popularity of the uke and said to myself, `I just have to do this!’”

But that does not mean Oxx’s hankering for the little Polynesian instrument doesn’t have a utilitarian aspect. She plans to strum the uke at the Arts Council children’s summer arts camp, where she sings and plays guitar every year.

“I already can read a finger chart,” she said. “This way with the uke, I can play another instrument at the camp. Just call me in a year and see how I do with it!”

In some respects, New Year’s resolutions are a lot like Punxsutawney Phil, that pesky underground creature at the center of that other quirky winter holiday, Groundhog Day. Like Phil and his supposed knack for divining the length of winter by seeing his shadow, we envision kicking off the year on the right foot by changing something about ourselves. Some years we realize our goals, but more often than not we seem to be chasing windmills.

According to a 2012 study by the University of Scranton and the Journal of Clinical Psychology, nearly half of all Americans set a New Year’s resolution for themselves each year. That’s a fairly impressive figure; until you realize that, according to British researcher Richard Wiseman, 88 percent of those who make those resolutions are, well, highly unsuccessful.

Dr. Baba Shiv, a Stanford University neuro-economist who has researched New Year’s resolutions, has written that such exercises create a “cognitive overload” inside one’s pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex, which handles such traits as willpower, needs to be trained, much like any other muscle. In other words, resolutions tend to be like using a muscle to lift a 350-pound weight without any previous workouts.

For a better chance of success, New Year’s resolutions should be broken down, advise researchers. Take one bad habit at a time and try to change it, they say, for the best odds of not winding up disappointed, as well as avoiding avoid cognitive overload. Also, they suggest taking baby steps to achieve your goal, and keeping yourself accountable by either telling others about your resolution or writing it down.

The pecking order for resolutions tend to be losing weight, getting more organized, spending less money and saving more, enjoying life more thoroughly, staying fit, learning something new and exciting, and quitting smoking, according to the University of Scranton/Journal of Clinical Psychology study. Those are followed by helping others achieve their dreams, falling in love, and spending more time with family.

That all sounds well and good, but if most of our resolutions bite the dust, why do we keep on pushing the proverbial boulder up the hill, only to see it tumble down again? Is it something in the chemical makeup of humans that refuses to give up on such folly? Or are New Year’s resolutions simply an annual rite of passage that we subconsciously know will probably share some dusty attic space with our long-discarded exercise machines?

Maybe it is the eternal quest for self and world-improvement that fuels our resolutions. Take, for instance, Taneytown Police Department Chief W.E. Tyler, who like Sandy Oxx said he is forsaking the same old New Year’s resolution clichŽs for something a little different in 2014.

“I’d like to find something new each day to do or say to make me a more effective leader, father and grandparent, and have a more positive influence on the people I’m around,” Tyler said. “Of course that’s something I try to do every year, but this year I’m also going to try finding new ways to change other people’s perspectives, whether it’s helping to give them a more spirited attitude or just give them extra time.”

Tyler knows that this might sound a bit trite or obvious, but it is something he has thought a great deal about.

“It’s so easy to get caught up with everything each day, but if I can do just one thing to change someone’s outlook, I want to try to do that, to make me and them better people,” he said. “We all need to change the way we feel about ourselves and our outlooks to get to the task at hand. So I want to try to eliminate some of that for someone each day.”

So where does the concept of New Year’s resolutions come from? What are the origins of this odd little tradition?

Many Americans would likely be surprised to learn that New Year’s resolutions started in Babylonia about four millennia ago. The Babylonians offered promises to their deities at the start of each year to curry favor for future endeavors. The ancient Romans co-opted the Babylonian observance of the new year but switched it from March to January in honor of the god Janus, the patron and protectors of all bridges, gateways and beginnings (and to whom the first month was dedicated).

Back then, New Year’s resolutions tended to have a moral and ethical tone; simply put, be good to others. After the Roman Empire embraced Christianity as its official religion in the fourth Century, the resolutions were replaced by prayers and fasting.

In the Middle Ages, knights made “peacock vows” at the end of the Christmas season to recommit themselves to the code of chivalry. In Colonial America, anything affiliated with New Year’s observances and celebrations was shunned by the Puritans as paganism. Instead, children were encouraged to reflect on the past year and contemplate the year to come, thus eventually reviving the custom of making resolutions. The resolutions usually involved treating neighbors well, avoiding bad habits and sins, and making better use of one’s talents.

For the past 46 years, making good use of his talents has been a hallmark of hair stylist Cal Bloom. The proprietor of Cal Bloom’s Barber Shoppe in downtown Westminster for the past 28 years, Bloom said his primary New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to slow down and enjoy life a bit.

“I’m 68 and my biggest resolution is to at least cut back on my hours,” he said. “I’d like to be able to sell the shop and just work here part-time. My wife and I would like to travel, maybe get a trailer or motor home and go all around the country; enjoy ourselves a bit.”

Enjoying oneself is all very good. But for Dr. Faye Pappalardo, president of Carroll Community College, promoting the importance of higher education is the heart and soul of her New Year’s resolution for ’14.

“One of my passions is to help guide students through the educational process so that they may succeed,” she said. “I will ensure that Carroll Community College continues to foster student persistence in academic endeavors and student retention. I also strive to personally be a mentor to students who need inspiration and motivation.”

A component of that resolution is simply helping to make more Carroll Countians aware of her institution. “I will continue to do my best to be an ambassador of the college,” she said, “and to let others know that Carroll Community College offers outstanding educational opportunities.”