Ever since I started writing this column back in the Middle Ages, I've made it a point to avoid topics of a deliberately political nature on the theory that, like sleeping dogs or poisonous snakes, some subjects are best left undisturbed. That said, I do believe it's long past time to question the wisdom of allowing the current tone of our political discourse to continue without challenge. Politics is by its nature a contentious enterprise. Many of us take our political positions quite seriously. It's no wonder that arguments flare and verbal sparring abounds.
Scrounging through the bookshelves for something interesting to read, I came upon a little volume published years ago titled "The End of the Road," written by none other than the famous Motel Six ad man, Tom Bodett. Mr. Bodett does more than just drum up business for a motel chain. He's also written several books, been a PBS radio commentator, hosted a couple of syndicated radio shows, and in recent years has appeared as a regular guest on the NPR show "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me."
Fresh out of New Year's resolutions? How about adopting mine? This year I resolve to let go of everything that bogs me down. Every possession, every memento, every relationship, every fantasy, every preoccupation with the past - everything that blockades my growth and saps my ability to revel in the gift of life: all of these things I propose to throw overboard. I intend to enrich my life by simplifying it. Not by avoiding legitimate responsibilities or by shirking hard work, but by being honest about what does and does not bring me happiness.
Each year it gets a little harder to set aside one's skepticism and enter willingly into the yuletide spirit. In the face of relentless advertising, bombarded by endless special programs on TV, driven near to madness by the broken-record litany of Christmas songs on the radio, I wait sour-faced hoping for humbug to melt into mellowness. Then, sooner or later, I encounter a rerun of "A Christmas Carol," and feel my cold heart begin to thaw.
Having recently published my first novel, I was beginning the tiresome task of cleaning up the hundreds of notes and computer entries left in its wake when I came upon the following, written many years ago by my hero, Sydney Harris, and originally published in his book "Strictly Personal." Harris, who fashioned a long and successful career as a syndicated columnist and drama critic for the Chicago Daily News and later the Sun-Times, never wrote fiction; but his insight into the craft of novel-writing strikes me as penetrating.
This past week I was honored to say a few words at the memorial service of an old friend. In the week preceding the event, I spent several hours scrolling through memories of the times we'd spent together. One of the first things that grew clear was that my friend, Ralph, had made an enormous impact on my life, especially in regards to work.
There is, in each of us, a longing for life lived on simpler, more innocent terms. Aware that our day-to-day lives contain far too much stress and not nearly enough satisfaction, we imagine a time in the future (retirement, perhaps?) when things will slow down and joy will well up and we will live happily ever after. At the same time, twisting to escape the present, we conjure a past that was somehow much nicer than now.
This past summer brought an uncommonly large number of visitors to our homestead, and with them came hours of talk. Much of the talk was about days gone by, especially about the growing-up years, and specifically about summer. There were, we all agreed, a handful of summer obligations that none of us escaped. At the top of the list was chores. Various families had various ways of getting things done, but precious few kids dodged the bullet of doing chores.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all." These often-quoted lines from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" came to me the other day while marveling at a wedge of geese cleaving their way through a cloudless sky.
Every now and then my mind refastens on one of my first literary heroes, and I spend some time marveling at all that he accomplished. His name was Nikos Kazantzakis (pronounced NEE-kos Kah-zant-ZAH-kees), best known in this country as the author of "Zorba the Greek" (the film version of which, starring Anthony Quinn, has become a classic) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (made into a controversial movie in 1988 by Martin Scorsese). Kazantzakis was a man of great passion and energy, devoted to finding truth.