With no particular prescience involved, when I started writing this column I numbered the wordprocessor files. Rather to my amazement, this tells me that this is my 120th column. Being clever at math, that means I have been writing them for ten years. My God!
The sensible thing to do, there being no suggested topic, would be to make this some sort of anniversary piece, wisely reviewing the events and changes over the last ten years and drawing some sort of inspired bit of wisdom from the whole process.
As I have commented here before, I am singularly handicapped when it comes to the calendar. I am simply not calendar minded. I have no clue how long ago things happened in my life and have something like a plus or minus ten years margin of error for current events. (I’m a killer on Jeopardy when it comes to the really historical stuff….and a total dud for things that happened while I was alive.)
I know that 9/11 happened, Bush was elected, Clinton got caught with his pants down, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston came down with Alzheimer’s, a flock of movies came out and someone named Britney Spears moved pubescence into the popular mainstream. Aside from Britney (who was barely alive a decade ago), I would be reluctant to swear exactly when any of those occurred, but I think it was within the last ten years.
I’ve explained my problem with current events to a couple of friends and asked for suggestions about this anniversary column and they both suggested I recapitulate the last decade from my own point of view and maybe talk about the personal changes that have occurred.
Let’s see now. How have I changed. Hmmm. Less hair, more pounds. Catastrophically bad memory somewhat worse (though some of the folks who knew me back then would hardly credit that as possible). And…?
Oh, yes. One more thing (how could I have forgotten?): I seem to have made it onto AARP’s permanent mailing list. I can only comfort myself with the knowledge that they put you on their list way before you really qualify.
Of course, I’ve noticed that my friends have unaccountably aged while I have barely changed (not counting that hair thing). It’s true I now have the names and numbers of medical specialists on my Rolodex, and I’ve become a regular visitor to my pharmacy. But really, it’s my friends who are different. They have become obsessed with their grandchildren and are starting to inject their own latest ailments into casual conversations. And has anybody else noticed how as your friends age the details of embarrassingly personal bodily functions are no longer taboo topics?
But enough of that. It’s clear I have the same calendar dysmnesia (race you to the Webster’s) with inside events as outside. Without getting too darkly psychological, let me defend myself.
The truth is that our lives are mostly made of similar days seamlessly flowing along. What I think most of us remember as standing out from the “even tenor of our day” are the special events. My last decade has, like everyone else’s, had its share of birth and deaths, hospital emergencies (other people’s, thank goodness), broken-down cars, and emotional explosions, few of which I care to remember.
And that, I suppose, is the point. A lot of the things we call “news” and a lot of the most intense memories are scarcely happy events. I suspect that part of my calendar handicap is based on a solid unwillingness to drag the miserable moments of the past in to screw up the present. I’ve known a few people who seemed to have been captured by the past. They spend an inordinate amount of their time recapitulating all the bad things that have happened to them. As an occasional relief, they digress into all the bad things they have witnessed.
I’ve never known a single person like that who couldn’t tell you the exact time and date of every disaster, personal and otherwise, they have ever known. It wouldn’t surprise me if a deep psychological analysis of my little handicap wouldn’t reveal it to be based on a secret fear that I shall listen to my own voice some day and hear their kinds of stories coming out of my mouth combined with another fear that someday I shall look into a mirror and see their unhappy faces staring back.
Instead, I prefer to revisit in memory a different set of special moments. I imagine I will remember till the day I die standing on the Great Wall of China and seeing it snaking away into the distance until it vanished into the fog. Or wandering around the shop stalls in the gathering darkness of the twisted streets of Xian, bargaining in my bad Chinese as the shops closed around us. More recently, I remember pacing off the length of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in a chilly November drizzle. And I hope I will always remember the impact the stark and brutal Norman chapel in the Tower of London had on me.
On a more plebeian note, I have a great store of memories built up of wonderful dinners and great conversations with friends. If at the end of my life I had built up nothing but an endless string of times such as those, I would reckon I had lived a good life.
And for those memories, I don’t need to know the day and date. They are just warm and vivid free-floating memories, not punctuating my life at specific points but simply adding good moments to the whole.
Truth to tell, of all the things I have done over the last ten years, one that I am probably proudest of is this column. The Good Lord knows that if, at the beginning, someone had handed me a contract that committed me to writing them for ten years I would have run screaming from the room. But it has turned out to be enjoyable trying to shoehorn something fun to say into the official topics. It has even been amusing, in a masochistic sort of a way, to have to meet a monthly deadline.
I have saved all those computer files of my columns. And my computer tells me some surprising things: that over the last ten years I have written around 160,000 words, totaling 205 Mensan pages (431 standard pages). It says the longest sentence had 80 words in it (I have to wonder which one that was…sounds a bit improbable to me). My average word length was only five characters and my average sentence had fifteen words in it.
I suppose that is kind of impressive (what the heck, 431 pages is a book!). But what my computer can’t tell me is how challenging and fun it has all been. Then, too, the computer was not around when a surprising number of people have told me how much they enjoyed the column in general or took the time to comment about a particular issue.
I’ve thought, on occasion, when the brain was empty and the deadline loomed, about hanging it up at some point. And, yes, ten years sounds like a good, round number. I had visions of some moderately dramatic anniversary coda.
But, you know, somehow I just can’t make myself do it. At least yet. Someday, when the brain really runs dry, I’m sure I’ll pack it in. But not today.
Today, I’d like to take this decadal opportunity to thank everyone who has enjoyed this column and made it so enjoyable for me to write. Writing is a strange, solitary business. It seems pretty egotistical to me, as well, pounding away at your keyboard with the fanciful notion someone will enjoy the result when you are (finally) done. But I can’t tell you what a rush of pleasure that comes when someone spontaneously says that this column is their favorite thing in the newsletter. Until I started writing this column, I had no idea why authors thanked their readership.
Now I do.