A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


Some rank observations

Why is the lowest rank in the army, which affords its holder no privacy whatsoever, called private? The corporal, at least, seems reasonably preoccupied with bodies. But what is a sergeant? Someone bedecked in serge? A warrant officer, I suppose, is the person in the office which processes warrants, but you’d never know it from their duties.

I get lieutenant; he’s a tenant in a place, and the captain is surely the head man. But if he’s the head man, why are there ranks above him?

To be sure, in the navy, there are fewer ranks above captain, but that’s the navy, always going their own way, doubtless from spending so much time on the bounding main, far from civilization. A friend, and ex-submariner, once told me they left port with 150 sailors, and returned with 75 couples. I guess that explains the ranks of mates; very chummy, these sailors. Perhaps it also explains admirals, presumably persons most to be admired. As for the rest of them (only some of whom are able bodied), they are seamen. Very clear and to the point, much like the airmen in the … air force. Someday soon these basic descriptive ranks will have to be modified to reflect the modern military: seapersons and airpersons.

But above the captain in the army there are majors and colonels before you even get to the highest ranks. Majors, I believe, are self-explanatory, but what on earth is a colonel? Something to do with columns? If so, why is he allowed to lord it over the head man?

The generals, those with the highest ranks, presumably do not have any specific duties, like the lower ranks, with the exception of the lowest of them, the brigadier, who mucks about with brigades. Yet they feel compelled to recapitulate practically the entire officer rank system among themselves, from lieutenant to major, skipping colonels, perhaps because generals get nowhere near any columns except during parades.

Don’t get me started on unit designations; that’s something only a very admiral general could explain.

Our times

“So, is Hannah ever coming back?” said Christophe.

“Hannah?  Who’s she?”

“I thought you knew her.”

So began a typical conversation at what I’m pleased to call my favorite coffee shop.

It’s small, maybe 20 feet wide and twice as deep, occupying a space on Main Street that in other times hosted perhaps a shoe shop, or a candy counter.  I go in most days, for the same thing: a breve and a peanut butter cookie, except when the cookies are sold out.

That’s fairly often, because they’re good, and also because they’re flourless, so all the legions of the gluten-free and guilt-ridden snap them up at the first opportunity.  When they’re gone, I fall back on Russian tea cookies, dependably gluten-rich, laced with sugar and probably un-vegan to boot, and therefor rarely sold out.  During the first weeks of the Crimean crisis, I took to calling them Ukrainian tea cookies, until the Ukrainian nationalists started to irritate me as well.  Someone suggested the more neutral Balto-Slavic tea cookies, so I went with that until I got disillusioned with the whole prospect and went back to the original name, feeling defeated.

Anyway, the shop, and the experience: because I go there regularly, they know me, in the same curious way I know them.  I know their personalities, and how they work, whether they’re cheerful or surly, and occasionally, their names.

But not Hannah.  Try as I might, I couldn’t place her, even after she was described to me.  Even after I was told she had worked there for two years, and even though Christophe was sure I knew her well enough to have information about her that he did not.  Even though all I know about Christophe is his name and how well he makes coffee, and all he knows about me is my usual order.

We live unaware, surrounded by mystery, amazed when it reveals itself.

Saints preserve us!

Pope Francis has put two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, on the fast track to sainthood.  Well, alright, for all I know, they were fine people, and maybe deserve some recognition.  Setting aside for the moment the question of all the millions of other fine people who were their contemporaries, but not popes or even Catholics, I have a major quibble with the reasoning here.

According to the ancient rules of such things, to even get this far (beatitude) there has to have been an attested miracle.  This can vary widely, from healing the sick to simply not rotting in the casket.  In the case of John Paul II, there have been two alleged miracles, both involving inexplicable cures from incurable medical conditions after praying to him (while dead, of course) to intercede with God on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Here’s what’s weird.  Presumably, had JP II not been in heaven, all those pleas for intercession would have been for nothing, and the women involved would still be sick today, if they hadn’t died first.  But according to the Church, God is perfectly just.  The whole thing seems to resemble a lottery, in which your health depends not on medicine, or even on your personal faith or the extent of your prayers, but on whether you guessed right as to the eternal disposition of some dead person.

Of course, this is just a minor quibble, in the face of the idea that God, presumably the creator of the universe and hence all of the laws of physics, will suspend those laws on the request of someone from earth.  And not do it for anyone who doesn’t ask nicely, or even for the vast, vast majority of those who do.

Mysterious ways, indeed.

Into the wild


Today, while wandering through the beautiful campus of Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, I had the rare privilege of stumbling upon a herd of bicycle, gamboling on a hillside.  I quickly snapped a photo; I apologize for the focus, they were gone in a flash.  Still, I was able to notice a few thing that might be of interest.

As you can see, unlike their domesticated cousins, wild bicycles all have the same distinctive markings; I didn’t see any exceptions.  In addition, there was no size differentiation, such as we are used to seeing.  This is not really surprising; compare dogs and wolves, for example.

But the most notable thing was their joyful abandon, capering through the campus.  I wish we could re-instill that feeling in the domestic bicycles we all love!

But what does it mean?

A recent discussion I was engaged in, with a blogger I respect but differ with on occasion, has put me in mind of what happens to writing once it’s published.  It is an often stated truism that once you put it out there, it means whatever the reader thinks it means, not what you intended to say.  Ironically, I have to say that while it’s true, it is often misinterpreted.  It does not mean that you shouldn’t care how your writing is interpreted.

After all, while writing can be therapeutic, there’s no point in making it public unless you want to communicate something.  I get that some people will never understand whatever it is that you’re on about; that’s the uncertainty of the enterprise.  You lose control once you fling that child of yours into the wild.  But, up to the point of sending it out, you have total control.  Why wouldn’t you want to make your message as clear as possible?

There are times, of course, when ambiguity is precisely the message.  Then it’s up to you to make the ambiguity as clear as possible.  There’s a big difference between subtlety and obfuscation.  It’s the art of making sure the rock under which you’re hiding the key tells you something about the door it opens.

There are other times when the very thing you think clarifies your meaning forces a detour around it.  The discussion I mentioned above was about the use of profanity in writing.  Profanity calls attention to the point you’re making, which is why people like to use it, but so does an exclamation point, or writing in all caps.  Undeniably, there are situations in which these things are justified, but they are few and far between.  Overuse them, and you become the meaning, instead of the text.  Think of it: what is your reaction when you see something in all caps, with exclamation points at every opportunity?  Is it to consider more carefully the importance of the text, or is it to consider the character of the author, regardless of the text?

To me, certain words are carriers of attitude: fuck, shit, bitch, and the like.  I’m not sure I care about the attitude of the writer as much as what they are trying to say.  More importantly, when you use these words, what do you want me to think about as a reader?  Your attitude or your message?