Craig Nagel, columnist
Kids come by it naturally. A stone, a leaf, a snowflake - any object, no matter how ordinary, can be transformed by the mind of a child into something special and full of mystery. Seen this way, the world teems with wonder and delight. Years pass and the child outgrows such silly notions. In place of mystery there comes boredom, and with boredom the urge to be entertained. The everyday things lack novelty; what's needed is something outrageous, way different, really new. New sounds, new clothes, new games, maybe new adornments.
"Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father who winks at us. An ambitious urban entrepreneur who rose up the social ladder, from leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings, he seems made of flesh rather than of marble." So begins the dust-cover blurb on Walter Isaacson's biography of Franklin, who, during his long life (1706-1790), was America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical political thinkers.
Two months ago, for her birthday, my wife received a lovely gift from a dear friend. The gift, a book, is titled "Norwegian Wood" and subtitled "Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way." "I suppose you'd like to read it," said my wife, handing it toward me. "Go ahead. I'll read it when you're done." Thus it was I learned all sorts of interesting things.
Every so often a book comes along that changes the way we think about the world. Charles C. Mann's 1491 is one of them. Subtitled "New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Mann's book turns our understanding of history upside down and inside out. I recently read it a second time, and found myself wishing it could be required reading for us all. In case that sounds far-fetched, consider the following so called "facts," most of which we all learned in grade school, and which underlie the way we think about what's gone before us, and why things are the way they are.
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.
By most measurements, English is a wonderful language. It's enormous, for one thing, containing somewhere between half a million and a million words, depending on whose count you accept. It's very much alive and it keeps getting bigger, growing on average by some 4000 new words each year.
By way of celebrating a northwoods Thanksgiving, I herewith present a list of things for which I'm grateful. 1. I am thankful to be alive. 2. I'm grateful to be in good health. (But even if I weren't, I think I'd still be glad to be alive.) 3. I'm thankful for my family and my friends. This includes a lot of people. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, standing alone and separate from others, but the truth is that we're defined in largest measure by our relationships with one another.
When I was very young, listening to the radio was an ongoing treat. Every week Grandma and I would settle down on the sofa to hear the latest episode of our favorite program, "Fibber McGee and Molly." Every week, at some point in the evening, Fibber would open the door to his closet - followed by the crash of items falling to the floor. Those sound effects were classic and made a lasting impression on my young mind. Fibber's closet became a permanent symbol of a place so full of junk as to defy hope. Kind of like my shop.
"More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001. C. J. Chivers reported from both wars from their beginnings. 'The Fighters' vividly conveys the physical and emotional experience of war as lived by six combatants: a fighter pilot, a corpsman, a scout helicopter pilot, a grunt, an infantry officer, and a Special Forces sergeant."
Ever since the Pilgrims stumbled ashore from the Mayflower and set about trying to survive in a brand-new country, our national mindset has favored population growth. And why not? To the tiny band of transplanted Europeans scrabbling to avoid extinction in this strange and forbidding place, it only made sense to be fruitful and multiply. An ever-growing population meant more mouths to feed, but with those mouths came hands to help with the enormous task of "settling" the continent.