We've heard it all before. From infancy we've been taught that members of our species, Homo sapiens, are the cleverest creatures in the cosmos, endowed with any number of unique and marvelous abilities. "Only humans can learn to use tools." "Only humans are self-aware." "What sets us aside from the other animals is our ability to use language." "We're the only species capable of looking ahead." Or Mark Twain's famous claim that "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to."
This past Sunday millions of mothers throughout America received various sorts of special treatment. Some got breakfast in bed, perhaps cooked to imperfection by loving family members whose good intentions outstripped their culinary skills. Others were treated to brunch at a restaurant, maybe followed by a drive in the country. Many sported corsages, emblematic of their status as queen for a day.
Living as we do by the shores of a marshy lake, we are very much aware of our neighbors, the frogs. Each spring, right about now, the first of the croaking begins. When we hear it we are invariably thrilled. More than the return of the juncoes or the trilling of the red-winged blackbirds, the croaking of the frogs means spring. For months and months we've forgotten all about them. We know vaguely that they're burrowed somewhere in the frozen mud, hibernating through the winter. But it's mostly a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
A recent conversation with a dear old friend brought back lots of memories, many of them about music. Like most American kids, we started taking music lessons in fifth grade. Our music teacher's name was Mr. Hodge. Mr. Hodge had horn-rimmed glasses and a David Niven mustache. He was in charge of the high school band and choir as well as the smaller bands and choirs at two of the grade schools that fed into the high school. Somehow, despite being stretched thin as paint, he not only taught us the rudiments of music, but generally made learning fun.
I recently rediscovered an article clipped from Psychology Today, in which Stephan Rechtschaffen, director of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, delivered some intriguing observations about our modern sense of time. "There are cultures on this planet that have no word for minute or hour," writes Rechtschaffen, "cultures where a moment can last a whole morning. We don't live in one of them." Instead of savoring moments, our culture pushes us toward an ever more productive and efficient use of time.
Several years ago the mystery writer Georges Simenon published a book titled "When I Was Old." In the book he recounted a period of several years during which he felt old beyond his years; old, not in a wise and mellow way, but simply old. What Simenon found most troubling about those years was neither his sense of declining energy nor his preoccupation with death (which he was certain was near), but rather the persistent feeling of being cut off from the mainstream of life.
Years ago, a history teacher told me it takes about a century for mankind to accept a new idea. I don't know how he arrived at that figure, but the older I get the more certain I am that it's optimistic. Why so long? In part, I suppose, because we're creatures of habit, and habits die hard. Then, too, there's the risk of seeming different. If everyone in the group believes the world is flat, woe unto him who proclaims it to be round.
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.