A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


I'm not especially fond of snakes.

No, that's not right. I can't stand snakes. No, that's still not right. I hate them. No, "hate" isn't right, either. What is the right word? Loathe? Despise? Abhor? Detest? Fear?

Yes, that's it. Fear. I fear snakes. I fear them a lot.

Now, I know this is not a manly thing to admit. Men are not supposed to be afraid of such things. After all, little boys are made of "snakes and snails," aren't they?

Which reminds me, I'm not especially fond of escargot, either.

But snakes scare me to death. I nearly walked out of the first "Indiana Jones" movie when the Nazis threw Indy and his female companion into the pit filled with snakes (only Nazis could be that diabolical). The shot of the snake slithering out of the statue's mouth just about did me in. "One more snake," I told my date, "and I'm outta here."

Thankfully, snakesmanship wasn't a high priority with my date. She married me anyway.

Not too long ago I was walking along Paul Gaugin a mountain road with my two youngest children when we came upon a small garter snake sunning itself on the pavement. I ran screaming to the other side of the road, startling the snake into a forked-tongued frenzy and sending Jon and Elizabeth into a fit of hysterical laughter. They thought I was trying to be funny.

I wasn't.

That said, there is one thing that I find fascinating about snakes. Two or three times each year, they go through a process called "molting," during which they slither out of their scaly old skin and emerge to face the world in a scaly new skin -- repulsive though it may be. According to hissologists (or whatever you call people who study such things), snakes don't shed their skins for aesthetics. There are important physiological factors having to do with their growth and development. Simply stated, if snakes don't make this change on a regular basis, they will die.

The same is true for humans, I think. Not the skin thing. The change thing. If we don't make changes on a regular basis, we'll die. At the very least, we'll stop growing and developing, which is sort of like dying -- only without the peace.

That's why it's such a good thing that January comes around every year. While it's true that January can be cold, dreary and awash in post-holiday blahs -- especially if you watch TV or if you're an NBA fan or if you're starting to receive the holiday shopping bills -- it is also a month of new beginnings. January is the month during which humans can shed the timeworn, travel-weary skin of habit and emerge to face the world clothed in an exciting new skin of freshly cultivated customs, practices and behavioral patterns. Of course, we can make those changes at any time -- not just in January. But there's something about the dawning of a new year that brings with it the extra courage and determination that significant change requires.

And that's just what we need to do in 1999: we need to change. We all do. Whether it's a minor peccadillo or a major character flaw, we need to fix it. If it needs to be altered, alter it. If it needs to be adjusted, adjust it. And if it needs to be eliminated, eliminate it. But do it now. Today. This week. This January. Off with the old skin! On with the new! That's how we grow. That's how we develop. That's how we change. And change, said John F. Kennedy, "is the law of life."

For humans as well as snakes.

by Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and