Quiet That Niggling Doubt

For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’

– John Greenleaf Whittier (from the poem “Maud Muller”)

Regret is an unpleasant emotion. It’s that niggling doubt, that suspicion that you should have played your hand differently in a certain situation. By far the biggest regrets I have are for those times when I knew deep down what I should do but ignored that inner voice and did something else. Most often, it’s been because I chose to take the easy road. I did not what I suspected I should do, but what I thought other people—maybe family or friends—would want me to do, or because I was trying to fit in with my peer group or society as a whole. Those are the big regrets.

There are also little regrets, usually for times I held back and did NOT do something. In general, I think it is better to go for the gusto and possibly fail or look foolish than to hold back, trying to maintain a cool detachment. Far too often, I have chosen the latter course.

Here’s a story about a time I did not hold back. I was alone at a bar (always awkward) and I thought I saw a girl I knew from way back in grade school. The bar was dark, and she was on the far side of the room, so I really didn’t get a good look at her. Furthermore, I was sitting at a bar in Boston but had gone to grade school in Des Moines, Iowa. The person I was looking at would have been someone I hadn’t seen in over 10 years, and I had to mentally age the girl I knew in grade school into a young woman. In other words, there was a good deal of imagination at play on my part. Still, she looked attractive and I spent quite a while nursing my drink, wondering if I should approach her.

Eventually I worked up the courage and began making my way across the crowded room to where she and her friend sat. As I neared them, I could plainly see that she was not the person I thought she was. This was not Ellen from Woodlawn Elementary School. I felt powerless to stop myself, though, as if once in motion this body had to complete the task at hand. So I went up to her and said, “Excuse me, are you from Des Moines?” which is probably the only possible pick-up line dumber than, “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Happily, she didn’t laugh in my face or throw her drink at me. She just replied, “No.” I apologized for interrupting, forced a smile, and slunk back to my spot. I’m pretty sure I paid my tab and left as quickly as possible.

BUT…do I regret doing it? Not at all. I may have looked foolish, and I certainly gave the woman and her companion some fodder for giggles, but I am glad to this day that I didn’t pass up a chance to connect with someone, even though the someone wasn’t who I originally thought she was and the connection lasted about ten seconds. If I hadn’t gone over to her, I would still have that niggling sense of doubt. This is a small and silly example, but it’s one I need to remind myself of from time to time. Go for it!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

– apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain (https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-the-things-you-didnt-do/)

Off the Wall Cinema

Off the Wall
Off the Wall Cinema, Cambridge, MA

I just did a guided meditation online. Full disclosure: I am terrible at meditating. I fidget and squirm. Every sound around me demands my attention. My focus is anything but calm. Anyway, early on in this meditation, I was asked to picture a time when I felt totally at peace with myself and the world. After several minutes of frantically searching for such a time and place, I settled on Off the Wall Cinema, circa 1984.

Off the Wall was a very small theater in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. Instead of the usual theater seating, you sat at small tables. Coffee and pastries were available to snack on during the show. I went to a lot of movies during my first few years in Boston in the early-to-mid 1980s. That was when I discovered that popcorn and apple cider are a perfect combination. Most of the theaters I remember attending are now gone. Off the Wall is one of them.

As a kid I remember being a Laurel & Hardy fan, but at Off the Wall I also discovered and fell in love with silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. At Off the Wall I became a fan of animated shorts. (Favorites include “The Big Snit,” “Sky Whales,” and “Tony de Peltrie.” Look them up.) It was where I first saw classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. (I no longer think of the latter as the feel-good movie it is supposed to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) If you are getting the impression that Off the Wall was off the wall, you are correct.

Before moving to Boston in August 1983, I already had one year of college under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was freshly out of the nest, but it was in Boston that my world truly blossomed. The next few years were a time of exploration and experimentation. If there has been any period of my life I could live over exactly the way it happened the first time, that would be it.

Off the Wall closed in 1986, near the end of what I consider my short Golden Age. In 1987 I went back to school and cut my hair. I tried desperately to be normal. That was a bad idea. I’ve since tried to recapture the wonderful sense of endless possibility I felt during the glory days when Off the Wall was flourishing and I was young. I didn’t get there during my meditation session, but I did have fun remembering those happy days.

 

History

Old Statehouse

I lived in and around Boston for several years, and one tradition I rarely missed was the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade by the Boston Pops. The highlight was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, church bells, and fireworks. A spectacular 4th of July celebration is appropriate for one of the few American cities that relishes its history.

In general, the United States doesn’t seem to care a lot for its history. Don’t think for a moment those MAGA people really know or care about history; what they have in mind is a short-range look through a narrow lens at a mythical golden age that never existed. They could stand to do a bit of reading.

The Oxford History of the United States is a series that covers US history is great detail. The research is impressive and the writing is erudite yet accessible. The series as it stands so far:

  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
  • Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
  • James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore
  • George C. Herring, Years of Peril and Ambition: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1776-1921
  • George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014

There are still a few gaps to fill in, most obviously the long period of time between 1492 and 1763. Oxford has been taking its time with this series, so we may have to wait a while yet.

These are all hefty books. Reading The Oxford History of the United States requires a serious time commitment. If you want something a bit less ambitious, but still of high quality, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Any single-volume history of the United States, even one with nearly 1,000 pages, must be selective about what is included and what is left out. Therefore, a focus is necessary. The focus Lepore has chosen for These Truths is the question of whether or not the US has lived up to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Her answer is a qualified “sort of.” Although there is much to love and admire about the US, it has never truly believed that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fair warning: Lepore does not hold back her opinions, dosing out extra helpings of opprobrium for southern pro-slavery Democrats, speech restricting liberals of the 21st century, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Even if you don’t agree with her on everything (I don’t), there is much to learn from this excellent book.

Happy reading, and Happy Independence Day!

My Favorite Running Routes

Last time, I talked about running. This morning I am going to continue that discussion by telling you about my three favorite running routes. I’ve moved around a lot (too much) since I first began running, so I’ve run in cities, small towns, and suburbia, in some pretty ritzy areas and some really ugly areas. Coming up with this list was easy. I didn’t include races, or any place that I ran only once due to happenstance. These are three routes I spent some time on, and got to know intimately.

When I lived in Medford, Massachusetts, I could run from my home, around Mystic Lake, and back home to make a circular 6-mile run.  Some of the route was on sidewalks, some was on trail right alongside the lake. It took me through three towns: Medford, Arlington, and Winchester. I became so familiar with this route that I named several landmarks along the way, including the Squirrel Tree.

Also in the Boston area: both sides of the Charles River. At various times I lived in Back Bay, the South End, the North End, and in Central Square (Cambridge), and from each of these locations, my run inevitably took me to the Charles River. I first discovered this route not as a runner but as a walker. I was living in a dorm at the Berklee College of Music, and for the one semester I was there, I spent more time exploring the city than I did attending class. My steps eventually took me to the Esplanade, which runs along the Boston side of the Charles. The Esplanade is a popular tanning spot in the summer, and I logged many hours laying on a towel, reading and baking myself.

Then there is the Chicago Lakefront which is, in a word: AWESOME! My spotty college career began at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I would ride my bike south from the beautiful Northwestern campus all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. There I would get a hotdog and/or ice cream from one of the many street vendors before heading back north. The whole round trip was approximately 40 miles. Later on, I would run along the lakefront, starting from various places. There was always something going on, always some new variation to discover. I especially liked it on gray foggy mornings, when the sky and Lake Michigan would merge into what looked like a big blank spot in the universe, as if someone had erased everything east of the city.

I haven’t run any of these routes for several years now, but I assume they are still there, only no doubt changed a bit since I last saw them.