I read a book in elementary school that has stayed with me over the years, Walter the Lazy Mouse, by Marjorie Flack. As an adult, I wanted to reread the book but, unfortunately, could remember neither the name of the book nor that of the author. My wife, who is especially good at finding things that, often, I’ve mentioned to her only in passing, asked me to tell her the plot. I told her what I remembered. It was enough for her to find it, and she gave it to me as a birthday gift.
What particularly appealed to me about the book was Walter’s personality. Walter did things slowly. We are told, for example, that “In the morning, Walter was never quite dressed by the time his sisters and brothers were having their breakfast, and when they started off for school, Walter would still be eating his cereal.”
Over time, Walter’s slowness became an increasing problem. His absence from everyday family events like meals, for instance, resulted, eventually, in his large and busy family’s forgetting about him. One spring evening, he came home to discover that his family had moved. It was at this point that Walter’s adventures began.
Walter’s ability to take his time, to never feel rushed, was something I envied. Even young, I seemed sensitive to feeling rushed. And I wouldn’t say I liked it.
In high school, one of my favorite books was, and still is, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Again, the lead character’s personality was something I envied. It was said of Phileas Fogg that “He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions.” Notice the phrase, “never in a hurry.” Ahh, bliss!
I have never mastered Fogg’s ability to handle time, nor Walter’s seeming indifference to running late. To this day, I am susceptible to time pressure and feeling rushed. Often I realize that the stress I am feeling is generated internally. But it doesn’t take long for it to manifest itself externally or for it to be perceived by those around me..
As an adult, I worked in computer information systems, first as a programmer, later as an analyst, and for several years as a team leader and project manager. The work I did came with a lot of stress. It was the nature of the business. Work estimates had to be given, target dates projected, and task completion kept in line with the project plan. It was challenging work, especially for an ardent admirer of Walter, the mouse.
Of course, as my experience grew, I learned shortcuts and methods of dealing with odd situations. I kept notes indexed so I could find what I needed quickly. As a programmer, for example, I collected programming algorithms for routine tasks. I sought the best methods for estimating program development time, including counting code lines, taking into account the development language, my expertise, or a team member. I analyzed the relative difficulty of writing different kinds of processing modules. I wrote and stored reusable routines, invested a small fortune in software development books. But even doing all of this, I still worked extremely long hours.
My primary approach to work, then to make a living, now to write short stories and poems, was rooted in an old fable, The “Tortoise and the Hare.” I am familiar with two versions of the story: the first by the ancient Greek, semi-legendary fabulist, Aesop; the second by French poet Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). In general outline, the story is the same for both Aesop and La Fontaine. The details differ. For example, in Aesop’s version, disparaging comments the hare makes concerning the tortoise’s feet and consequent slowness is the stimulus for the tortoise challenging the hare to a foot race. In La Fontaine’s version, the race’s origin is quite different. The tortoise challenges the hare to a race with no reason given. Well, maybe there is.
A significant difference between the two tellings is the location of the moral. All fables contain a moral. Aesop places his at the end of the story; La Fontaine places it at the beginning. But not only is the story’s lesson located in different places, but it also differs in content.
Aesop: Translated by Elizur Wright.
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
La Fontaine: Translated by V. S. Vernon Jones.
“To win a race, the swiftness of a dart
Availeth not without a timely start.”
The meanings are quite different. For Aesop, perseverance, the continual plugging away at a task, ultimately results in victory. On the other hand, La Fontaine puts forth something along the lines of “the early bird gets the worm.” It is because the tortoise started early, before the hare, that he defeated the hare. Of course, along the way, the tortoise had to keep at it. But no matter how fast the hare ran at the end, his late start could not overcome his opponent’s early progress.
Both of these morals served me in good stead in my working life. However, that being said, the fast, steady runner who gets an early start will defeat even the most persevering plodder. I once saw a perfect example of this.
I had a gifted, fear-inspiring, intimidating teacher in my first symbolic logic class. He called all students by their last name only and permitted no one to address him as Professor or Mr; he instructed us to address him using only his last name. Now, the name thing may not sound that big a deal to many people. But to Mississippi students, it seemed extraordinarily disrespectful and went against the grain a bit. But then it was pretty clear that you had no alternative.
One day in class, the teacher and one of my fellow students got into a bit of a personal disagreement that ended with my professor challenging the student to a footrace. It’s hard for me to believe this, even now. So one afternoon, after class, we all walked out to an open field. The two racers agreed to the course, and the race began. There was a significant age difference between the professor and the student. Also, their body types differed. The student was tall, slender, and had very long legs. The teacher was much shorter, rather stout, and certainly didn’t look like a well-trained athlete.
The race began. Almost immediately, the student took the lead. And he never relinquished it. He crossed the finish line well ahead of our teacher. It was the perfect example of a gifted runner getting an early lead, maintaining a steady pace, and persevering to the end. Later, I learned that the teacher had been a cross-country runner in high-school and college. But that had been a while ago.
For most of us, Aesop’s advice, his moral, is a good one. We have to remember, though, that it’s not fool-proof. There is, I believe, some wisdom and humility in acknowledging that.
All the best,