Wednesday, November 17, 2004


I read a short story once about a spaceship carrying people in hibernation (I promise this whole entry won't be in geek, just the beginning). Something went wrong (show me a short story where nothing goes wrong and I'll show you a short story nobody reads) and the ship woke everyone up about a billion years too late. Or maybe they made a hyperspace jump and it went badly. Doesn't really matter and most of you don't care about the details. In any case, civilization was gone. Not just "civilization as they knew it" but humanity and alienmanity and sentience period was gone. It was just them. And they weren't going to last long either since the solar system was decaying. It was kind of a crappy position to be in. Their original intent, as yours might be too in such a situation, was to find a way back to their own time. They couldn't do it. Just not possible. They had to make do with what they had and live out the remainder of their lives in this foreign time.

This violated a basic assumption I have about stories, that there's always a way back. I was quite surprised. It was an assumption I was vaguely aware I was making, but I was not really conscious of it until this particular short story brought it to my attention. I've read enough to know that the "hero always survives" assumption is wrong and that the "good guys always win" assumption is wrong, too. It should not have surprised me that the "when you're lost, there's always a way back" assumption was wrong, too.

It's an assumption I tend to make about life outside of stories, too, and it's not true there either. I find myself, when I make mistakes, thinking "Next time, I'll do it differently." Sounds common enough, but I don't mean "Later in life, if a similar situation occurs, I will learn from this one and do things differently." What I really mean, and yes I do think this way, is "The next time I repeat this part of my life, I'll try something a little different." I also anticipate future decisions with such an expectation. I occasionally catch myself thinking "I'll try this first. If that doesn't work, I'll go back and do it differently." It's not conscious or deliberate, I don't actually have a time travel machine in my room that enables me to explore the consequences of my actions before I settle on a final course (not that I'm permitted to tell you about, at any rate).

In a certain light, quantum theory suggests (did I say the rest of this wouldn't be in geek? I might have lied. Next time I'll do it differently.) that there are versions of me that are making every possible decision. But a) I'm not really aware of it and b) that's still not "going back."

It's a subtle assumption that does not have enough significance to cause problems for me, but it's there nonetheless. And it's mostly wrong.

You can't go back. You never step in the same river twice. You can't undo your mistakes. You can't go home again. You can want to go home again, or to go back to your old college town, but even if your parents kept your room the same way you left it (complete with papers on the floor and dust on the shelves), it's not the home you left behind. Things change. You change. Other people change. All it takes is the single tick of a second and everything is different than it once was. Mostly, but not entirely, because you are different.

This is not half as depressing as it sounds. Really.

You can't undo mistakes, but you can often rectify them. Or forgive yourself for them, and move on. The trick to returning home is to accept what it has become, and to learn to stop lamenting the loss of what it once was.

You can't go back to being friends. Although sometimes you can go forward.

Even when you can't, even when going forward leads to something completely different from where you were and contains not even the illusion of going back, as for the passengers in the story, if it's the only place you can go, it's not a good idea to lose yourself in worry over what you have left behind. That will not save you. It might do just the opposite. If you can do that, though, step from one world to the next without looking back, without cursing inevitability and without missing all that was left behind, you are a stronger person than I am.

But I do manage to make those steps, I do find myself going forward when I need to, and I do not (often) lose myself searching for a path back that does not exist. And maybe the reason I can do that is because I hold somewhere the secret the belief that I can go back, that someday I will go back, just not yet.

It seems to work for me (most of the time).

Monday, November 15, 2004


I just discovered that I had created a comment feature that did not actually allow people to comment without specific permission. Not ideal, so I've changed that. If you feel like responding to my posts where other readers (Hi Dad!) can see it, go right ahead. You now have all the permission you need. (Void where prohibited).

Sunday, November 07, 2004


I talk to myself pretty much constantly. This should not be news to most of you. Or, for those of you for whom it is news, it should not be surprising news. Generally these conversations are silent, taking place entirely in my own head. Although there are times, when I think I’m alone, that I’ll have these conversations out loud. This can be amusing when it turns out I’m not actually alone, especially since I tend to make up voices to fit my mood (but that’s perhaps a story for another time).

The thing about these conversations that might be surprising (or not, some of you know me better than I’m willing to admit), is that while sometimes I’m having them with myself, just as often I’m having them with you. I talk to specific people in my head. The girls of note in my life tend to get the bulk of the attention but I also have these conversations with family and friends. Sometimes, it’s for a specific reason (trying to figure out how to tell my Mom I’m growing that beard she hates again), sometimes, it’s just me talking to talk.

One such conversation that occurs relatively frequently, involves introducing a person to someplace that has great significance in my life (right now that mostly means my home town or my college town, but there are other places as well). I say “relatively” because this conversation pretty much only occurs when I’m visiting such a place, which does not happen as often as it should. When I do visit these places, though, I always, without fail, find myself providing a running commentary in my head, directed at a specific person, about everything around me.

I had my first date at a coffee shop up that street. I helped redo the tile floor in that diner. My mom worked at that library. I used to run on these streets for cross country practice. My dad, my brother, and I used to hike together on these trails. My best friend lived down this road. This house is the site of a really funny story that wasn’t all that funny at the time.

That’s the dorm where I lived first year. I had a major crush on a girl who lived in the corner apartment in that building. A group of us went to eat at that sandwich shop, in formal wear. I had a major crush on a girl who lived on the bottom floor of this building. That office is where I worked for Dr. Gorman. I had a major crush on a girl who shared a class with me in that building.

Of course, the conversations I have in my head go into more detail, these are just examples of how they might start. I have a lot of stories in my head that I want to share, and if there’s nobody present to share them with, I’ll create someone. That works well enough for now but it’s all just practice. Someday I’ll be able to inflict all these stories on a real person and I’m really looking forward to that. That is, after all, what I’m practicing for (Oh, the poor girl who gets taken home to meet my parents. She’ll be talked half to death before we even get off the highway… I’ve had eight years to practice those stories.).

So, anyone up for a trip to Charlottesville? (I'll hold off on suggesting Southbury. That's only for the truly brave)

Thursday, November 04, 2004


To say that the following frustration is a pet peeve is not entirely accurate. It is, however, close enough that I'll go ahead and use that phrase to describe it until I come up with a better one (it's less like a pet than a wild animal that keeps returning to my door because I feed it from time to time - maybe leaving little gifts for me, but not actually my pet). The peeve is this: the systematic abuse of the english language. I do not mean that I get upset everytime someone gets confused about grammar or accidentally replaces "accept" with "except. I am talking about a more insidious form of abuse, blatantly using words in a manner that directly contradicts their own definition. My specific example today is the word "literally." Here's the Random House College Dictionary version of the definition: adv. 1. in a literal manner; word for word "to translate literally." 2. in the literal or strict sense. "what does the word mean literally?" 3. without exaggeration or inaccuracy "literally bankrupt"

Note that "literally" does not mean "very." It does not mean "extremely." It is not purely for emphasis, it does in fact have a definition that restricts it to a very specific use. When you use "literally" to modify a phrase, it means that the phrase is completely accurate as stated with no metaphorical deviations. It is a way of setting apart those times when you are exaggerating from those times when that's honestly-to-um-goodnessly exactly the way things are.

In today's world, however, "literally" seems to have lost its way. People use it as a form of exaggeration, which seems (to me at least) to run exactly counter to its stated definition. It has been used as a way to take another step closer to superlative. When someone says "Today was literally the worst day of my life," they do not usually mean what they say, that it was worse than every previous day they have ever experienced. What they mean is that this particular day is worse than the days they have claimed to be the worst day of their life. "Literally" has become a matter of scale. However, like "pregant" or "dead," "literal" is a true/false word, not an indicator of degree.

I could sit here and make up hundreds of examples (literally) but alert reader Bruce has already provided me an excellent true life example of exactly the problem I'm talking about (the bold emphasis is my own):

I know how much the overuse of "literally" gets on your nerves so i thought you'd find this annoying. But if you make a mental picture it's down right gruesome: "This form of massage involves the use of heated lava stones blended with Swedish strokes. The heated basalt stones literally "melt" through stiff muscles, going beyond the physical experience of typical massage and entering a deeper dimension of relaxation, health, and spiritual well being."

As stated, that certainly does go beyond the typical massage. I don't know about you, but my spiritual well being might be significantly compromised if my muscles started to melt. Although as Bruce points out, "I'm especially amused that they use quotes around "melt" to show they mean it figuratively, even though they say they mean it literally." These people went so far as to acknowledge that they were not being accurate, and yet kept "literally." I guess it means their stones really (don't really) melt people's muscles. Sigh. Think about what you're saying people, that's all I'm asking...