Yesterday, at the Top 25 trivia tournament (where we did not win, but finished a perfectly respectable 7th place), one of the questions referenced The 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die. Today, The Guy I Am Currently Dating sent me a list of these books…and of course, I was curious to see how many I’d read. The answer? Far fewer than I’d imagined, and I generally consider myself a well-read, well-educated person.

So, it seems that I have a brand-new, exceptionally-long term project to work on! I am going to attempt to read 50 of the books I haven’t read, as well as to see 50 of the movies I haven’t seen, from the “Before You Die” lists. While I easily read 50 books and likely see 50 movies a year, the challenge in this task lies in the fact that my entertainment consumption habits aren’t always exactly along the high-brow, “classic” lines. Sadly, they’re more likely to be stories about glittery teenage vampires, socially-relevant-but-predictible novels by the likes of Jodi Picoult, an hour here and there with Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and television shows about strangers eating rice for 30 days in an attempt to win a million dollars, and unnaturally orange 20-somethings with anger management issues.

In attempting to cross off 50 memorable works from these lists each year, it’s more of an attempt at broadening my horizons and turning my addiction to all things media-related a little bit back toward the cultural, enlightening, and artistic, rather than a genuine belief that I’ll ever finish the list. (At 50 a year, it would take me almost 20 years to complete these lists; plus, since new additions show up on the list, it is truly a lifetime project…provided my lifetime expands that far into the future. Either way, my attention span rarely covers a year, much less a lifetime. ;P)

So, there we are. I am going to read 50 classic novels and watch 50 classic films this year—and, of course, share them all with you. I’m not sure if this will cut down on my occasional feelings of “There’s nothing interesting to do”, or just turn me into an introvert, but it’ll be an interesting experiment and new goal for 2011.

I’ve included both lists on the site (links on the right hand side), along with a running tally of those I’ve read/watched. Anyone want to play along for the next year, and increase your own “classics” knowledge? :)

I suppose this isn’t really the most cheerful topic on which to share my thoughts, but this blog is one that’s been formulating in my head for awhile. If you’re not in the kind of place where reading this is beneficial to you, please, by all means, skip it and come back tomorrow.

One thing I really want to work on this year—-and not just this year, but as a general outlook on life, for the rest of my life— is the idea of living in the moment. For a very long time, I was an expert at this type of outlook, at valuing the “now”, often at the expense of making responsible decisions or practical plans for the future. However, over the past two or three years, something strange has happened. I’ve become very “future-oriented”, the kind of person who books her calendar months in advance and actively works toward long-term goals, and avoids engaging in relationships, friendships, and situations that don’t seem to fit in to my future plans. In short, I’ve become the opposite of who I always thought myself to be, and while I’ve seen some benefits in this newer, more adult way of thinking, I also feel like I’ve lost something important. I’ve lost the ability to appreciate the small things, the joy in today, the light-heartedness that seems to fall by the wayside when you’re always thinking about some other point in time. Over the past year, especially, I’ve become very affected by thinking about the past, and being afraid of the future, and have seemingly abandoned my ability to focus on the present. As a result, I’ve lost some of the joie de vivre that’s always characterised me, and my approach to life.

I think a big contributor to this problem is that, over the past year or so, I’ve become much more aware of the idea of mortality, and for the first time in my life, it’s occurred to me that one day I will not be here—and that mixture of both certainty and uncertainty terrifies me. I’m not sure what’s made this thought so present in my life all of the sudden; it happened a few months before turning 30. Perhaps it’s the simple fear and panic that accompanies growing up, getting older. It could also be that this year really reinforced the idea of being a temporary fixture in life, and threw mortality at me in a very “in-your-face” kind of way. Shootings outside my front window, friends telling me a new story seemingly every month about someone who passed away too young and without warning, friends who are no longer just losing grandparents, but parents, and my own relatives suffering from severe health issues and a general decline of quality of life—all these things are frightening to me, and really force me to think. Unfortunately, I think just a little bit too much already.

The idea of death is certainly not new in my life. I’ve always been a little preoccupied with it, although in a much different way. In my life, I’ve been to more funerals than weddings, and my earliest childhood memory is one of being in a dimly lit hospital room, saying goodbye to a woman I barely remember, one who was very frail, and sad, and had a white bandage wrapped around her head. Later, of course, I realised this woman was my grandmother, who died at age 50 of liver cancer that had spread to her brain. I have no idea why this image sticks with me, and it’s almost more like a scene from a movie, than a memory. However, it was my first exposure to mortality, to saying goodbye, and that’s always monumental. I was just barely 3 years old at the time.

I lost three of my four grandparents before the age of 12, as well as numerous other relatives. I survived two difficult car crashes, and some other thoroughly frightening situations, before the age of 16. I’ve said goodbye to friends, lovers, and classmates barely older than myself. Death and mortality are not new to me. In fact, these events are probably responsible for me living through my teens and 20′s with an approach to life that’s been all about experience, at best, and blatantly self-destructive, at worst. I had the strange capacity for putting myself in risky, threatening, or uncertain situations, and feeling more of a sense of elation, than fear. At one point, I began to identify that I was putting myself in potentially dangerous situations simply for the adrenaline rush. I thought I didn’t care about the consequences, even if the consequences involved me not being here anymore. It turns out, I did care, a great deal—there was just a much more confused, darker part of me that simply refused to acknowledge or think about them.

Then, something happened. Something clicked in my mind, and pointed out my approach to life wasn’t about appreciating life to the fullest, it was about recklessness. Slowly, changes came about in my life, and before I knew it, I’d started to turn into a different person—one that was both me, and a me I didn’t quite recognise.

Oddly enough, the defining point in this process wasn’t getting older, being involved in a long-term relationship, or seeing my friends get married, have babies, and change *their* lifestyles. It was the death of Brittany Murphy, which happened just a few days before I turned 30.

I didn’t know Brittany Murphy. I knew who she was, but wasn’t even a big fan of her movies. However, I was strangely shocked and affected by her death. For two or three weeks afterwards, I read every article the internet posted about her death, and why such a shocking thing would happen, seemingly out of nowhere. It was a depressing, and potentially obsessive new hobby that I really couldn’t quite understand.

And, one day, it hit me. I identified with Brittany Murphy. Reading all these stories about this teenage actress who’d become somewhat lost and directionless in her twenties, struggled against self-destructive behaviour, and was looking to find her place in the world….on some level, it occurred to me that I could be reading my own obituary, and it shocked and saddened me. One article even described her as a “pale-skinned redhead of Irish-Italian descent.”, and the thought coalesced in my mind. I was sad about Brittany Murphy, because in a lot of ways, she was similar to me, and not much older—-and I wasn’t ready to die yet.

Over the past year, the result has been that all my reckless behaviour has seemingly disappeared, and I’ve become much more focused on improving my life, creating things, and defining the kind of person I’d like to be, rather than just simply trying to experience as much as possible. It’s become a looming thought in my head that I might not be here next year, next decade, or at any given point I might like to be here. At some point, it’s a certainty that I won’t be. And those thoughts have made me more frightened of my own mortality than I’ve ever been. Perhaps it’s just because I know for sure that I truly *want* to be here, and for as long as possible. While most people seem to know that inherently, I didn’t always.

Since around the age of 14 or 15, I truly believed I wasn’t going to live past the age of 30. I chalked it up to intuition, psychic dreams, and an ominous feeling like something in life was out to get me. All of my friends have had to hear about the mythical Mack truck, and why I felt making plans for the future unnecessary.

So, it is still strange to me that I’m still here, when for so long, I genuinely believed I wouldn’t be. It is strange to me that all of the sudden, making plans for the future isn’t something scary, but necessary. It is strange that I think about the future in terms of “my future”, as something that applies to me. It’s been a lot to go through, this dramatic psychological shift that happened in a little more than a year, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it or who I am these days.

But what I do know is that it’s more important to me than ever to appreciate life, without focusing on the ever-present threat of death as a natural counterpart. Nobody can go through life thinking “I’m happy I didn’t die today”, without being unhealthily focused on all the things that might present a danger to you. Many people, however, are able to appreciate each day as a gift, separate from the past and the present, and beautiful in its’ own right. I’d like to be one of those types of people.

Even though I didn’t really make that many “New Year’s Resolutions”, so to speak, I find myself being very motivated to make positive changes that weren’t necessarily the first things on my list I intended to focus on, but positive, nevertheless. Not only have I been fairly productive about catching up on work and turning out decently creative content over the past few days, I’ve also been spending less time watching TV, and more time catching up on other interests.

When I was in NYC, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of the book “Shopgirl”, by Steve Martin. Even though it’s quite a number of years old, and I’d seen the movie way back when, I’d never gotten around reading it. Of course, I both loved and related to it, as my friend thought I would. The impressive thing about the book is that there’s really relatively little story to it; rather, it’s driven by a fairly impressive amount of character development that makes the story less about what’s happening, and more about the psychology of what’s driving the action. Steve Martin has a unique voice that manages to be at the same time intellectual and removed, and perceptive and empathetic. I really admire artists that have a number of creative gifts, and while I’ve never been the biggest Steve Martin fan, he absolutely commands respect for falling firmly into that category.

Each year, I make a resolution to read at least 100 books I’ve never read before over the course of the year, which typically works out to two books a week for me. Some years, I’ve exceeded the goal, while last year, I fell far short. I’m happy that this book was my first of 2011, since I felt such a strong connection to it. Only 99 more to go!

In addition, I’m a bit of a magazine fan, although admittedly I only seem to read those that are somehow about fashion, celebrity gossip, and entertainment. Since I know I am not that shallow, I decided to add Timeto the list with one of my free subscription offers. It’s actually one of the more worthwhile magazines to read, and may help me stay current with my trivia. ;) I’m catching up on the Person Of The Year issue, which this year, is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a pretty fascinating character.

I’ve also been in somewhat of a nesting/organizational stage, since we signed the lease on my apartment for another 6 months. Whenever I find out I’m going to be staying put for awhile, I go through a few weeks where I’m very committed to wanting to improve my surroundings, and create a place that feels as much like “home” as possible. Even though I won’t be getting, or even renting, the thing I truly want—a cute little townhouse— anytime soon, I’m still indulging my “nesting” instinct, and attempting to Alayna-fy my apartment as much as possible. To that end, I ordered a few post-holiday sale items, including a bookcase for my bedroom, and a short little shelving unit to provide some additional storage space in the living room. Of course, it’s that inexpensive laminate particle board stuff that will end up being donated to a recently-divorced friend in a few years, and requires me to put it together, but a small investment for my greater nesting needs.

I also cleaned out my closet a bit, and tossed out old clothes, trash, and everything else that’s lurked but been totally forgotten for a year. In the end, I had four boxes of trash to show for my labour, which gives an indication of the extent to which I am not a naturally organized human being. I think it’s so much a part of my fundamental personality, that it’s not even worth making a resolution about. *laughs*

The most impressive of the “new year, new lifestyle” changes I’ve made, however, has to be the fact that I used my oven tonight, and cooked a dinner that included all the major food groups, and was still under 400 calories. Since losing weight, getting in shape, and developing healthier eating habits are going to be a focus for me in 2011, I felt proud of myself for starting out on the right foot.

Now, if only I could get all the work done I told myself I’d complete today….but not only am I running low on hours, I’m running low on energy, and developing a large headache. A few hours away from the computer may do me a world of good.