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Food For Thought

I’ve decided that the frantic feeling of being rushed, running out of time, too much to do that we face during the holidays every year is a phenomenon related to nothing more than the calendar. This sense of urgency, and the vague suspicion that we have somehow failed to get it all done, spring from a false assumption that time runs out on December thirty-first, and if we haven’t done as much or as well as we thought we would or should, we’ve run out of time and opportunity. And then there’s a feeling of unease about the coming year. We want to start out with a clean slate to work with in the months to come. We don’t want to be bogged down by unfinished business and unresolved problems.
The calendar doesn’t really have anything to do with it, of course. Calendars are an artificial framework for measuring our lifespan, invented by man and not perfectly accurate. If you remember those world history classes from high school, you might recall that there have been different kinds of calendars down through the centuries and that they have all been inaccurate. Even the one we use today needs adjusting from time to time– isn’t that what leap year is all about? Still, it gets off a bit every century or so. The seasons would change, we would grow older, time would pass just as it always had even if we didn’t divide it all up into months and weeks. In fact, I’ve often wondered why we don’t have ten-day weeks more in keeping with our numbering system, which seems to have sprung from the fact that we have ten fingers for keeping track of numbers.
Near the end of each year, I tend to look at some of the things I thought I’d accomplish– but didn’t– and either resolve to get at them during the coming year, or to abandon them as not worthy of my attention. Some are just vague ideas, things that wormed their way into my mind when I was thinking about something else, things that arose from dreams or from casual comments somebody made when I was only half listening.
A case in point is illustrated by a statement I made in the first paragraph of this essay. I speculated that we have a desire to start out the new year with a clean slate. How many kids these days would even know where that expression comes from? How long has it been since school children did their lessons in chalk on a little slab of black rock? Even in my childhood, and that’s been a while, the only slate I knew about was called a blackboard and it was a great big one that took up most of the wall space in my school classrooms. I did my arithmetic problems and wrote my spelling words on a Big Chief tablet of cheap, lined paper– with a pencil that always seemed to have an inadequate eraser. If we wanted to begin something with a clean slate we would turn to a fresh page in the tablet. We probably didn’t fully realize the meaning of “clean slate” even then. Today’s kids, I suppose, are more likely to start out with a new document in WordPad.
That’s just one of the relatively unimportant thoughts that float around in my head wanting me to turn them into something profound. A recent conversation reminded me of an essay I read several years ago by a talented writer named Barry Lopez. I was reminded of it when a friend mentioned that her husband has an unusual and bewildering (to her) attitude about his pickup truck. He makes statements that indicate he believes his truck knows the way home without his consciously directing it. Or that it misbehaves for other drivers, should someone ask to borrow it. Lopez’s essay, “My Horse” immediately came to mind and I responded to her somewhat derisive observation by telling her that a man’s truck is, in a way, his horse.
Most of the men I know tend to change the oil and check the tires in their own vehicles rather than have someone else do it. They feed it gas and oil, fill the windshield washer tank, change the windshield wiper blades periodically, drive it through the car wash from time to time– in other words, treat it like their forebears did their horses. The horse and the man were mutually dependent and developed a sort of communication, an understanding, that wasn’t there for other riders. They buy it treats (apples or sugar lumps) in the form of fancy wheel covers, state of the art stereo systems or oversized, furry dice to dangle from the rear-view mirror. They spend Saturday mornings grooming it with paste wax, touch-up paint for the scratches and vacuuming the floor mats. They dress it up with window decals and bumper stickers instead of new saddle blankets and fancy saddlery. Oddly, most men don’t name their vehicles, though many women do. I don’t know why that is, except that women tend to treat their cars like pets– dogs and cats are easier to deal with than horses.