The Fox at the Door

“One of the most time consuming things to have is an enemy.”

I plucked this plainspoken truth from E. B. White’s “A Report in January,” posted from his Maine farm on January 30, 1958.

EBW’s immediate enemy was the fox terrorizing his hens. Even as he types,
he is on the watch, a loaded shotgun at the ready.

He wants to destroy my form of society–a society of free geese, of Bantams unconfined. So I react in the natural way, building up my defenses, improving my weapons and my aim, spending more and more time on the problems of supremacy….When I realize what a vast amount of time the world would have for useful and sensible tasks if each country could take its mind off ‘the enemy,’ I am appalled.

EBW’s marauding fox was, of course, the least of the “red” enemies in the Cold War era. Earlier that month the Evil Empire’s eye in the sky, Sputnik 1, had tumbled from its orbit, and the day after this essay was posted, the U.S. would launch its own entrant in the Space Race (Explorer 1). With the threat of spy satellites and long-range nuclear missiles, neither Superpower could afford to take its mind off the enemy. Time consuming (and costly), indeed, to have an enemy. Then, as now.

Reading this essay fifty Januaries later, it is tempting to look back with nostalgia on the days when we believed we could contain our enemy. The amount of time consumed defending against enemies has increased exponentially and still we are no safer, only more inconvenienced (compare jet travel in 1958 to today’s airborne cattle cars) and more keenly aware that the enemy could strike anytime, anywhere.

These days, friends can be equally time consuming and distracting from other “useful and sensible tasks” — Facebook friends, that is. My children and their contemporaries are leading a great social experiment to see how many precious hours they can waste online checking each other’s status updates, reading and commenting on “Wall” posts, and tagging photos. Maybe their immersion in this virtual world where people can be friended, and un-friended, with a click is a way of keeping the real world’s foxes from the door.

5 inches of snow. 8 days until the inauguration.

5 inches of snow. 8 days until the inauguration.

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