As my Uncle Ludbok used to say, “If you put coulda, woulda, and shoulda in one hand, and a nickel in the other, you can buy a donut.” Well, the price of donuts has gone up since Uncle Ludbok last chewed on a sinker, but the sentiment hasn’t changed.
Living in the past, pondering errors made and roads not taken, is a sucker’s game. And like most sucker’s games, it is rigged so that the house always wins. Always. So why do we play? We play because fixing the past is so easy. And once the past is fixed, the present and future become perfect. We’re successes; in great shape; wealthy; have perfect relationships; and so forth.
As I said, a sucker’s game.
More than one sci-fi writer has played with the theme of changing the past. Inevitably, even if the change is seemingly minor, the result is always catastrophic. (Ray Bradbury popularized this theme in his short story, “A Sound of Thunder.” If you’ve not read this story, do so; you can thank me later.) Which is why it is so easy for us to fix the past in our minds: We only allow for happier endings than what we experienced. And the utopia that results always ignores the more-than-obvious problems our fixed pasts would possibly have generated, or the changes that never would have happened.
“If only I’d taken this road and not that one, look where I’d be today.”
“Had I majored in business administration instead of theater I would be a millionaire today.”
“And if I had only…”
You get the idea. You get it because you’ve lived it.
Yeah; me, too. Sometimes, too often.
If we spend time looking back how will we ever see the view in front before it, too, becomes the past? And is the past what we really want to change? If there were
Enough with the questions; let’s play a game called WWMC – What Would Mike Change? I have gone to the random.org Web site for generating a date (www.random.org/calendar-dates) between 1960 and 2013. The generator produced ten dates randomly selected from these years (1960 is the year when I turned eight, and seems a good year with which to start), and the idea is to change one event from each year and theorize how life might have been different. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just do the first listed year – 1964. Pause for deep sigh. For the earlier the year, the more potential the hypothetical change offers.
For most of 1964 I was eleven. An easy change would be to state I would have taken schoolwork much more seriously, thus ensuring—excuse me, “ensuring”—greater academic success, which would have led to better college and career choices. Another easy change: Despite my parents’ total apathy toward sports, I would have found a way to focus on them so I could have been more athletic and learned sooner, and better, about the value of teamwork. Also, I’d be able to take sports seriously as an adult—thus resulting in better career opportunities. (Don’t believe that? Just find a successful businessman who can’t discuss last night’s game.) No, I would have changed something far more primitive: I’d have punched Tommy in his nose.
Tommy (name changed to protect the guilty) was the school’s bad boy, and he was in my class through most of elementary school. Note that I said “bad boy” and not “bully.” Bullies, in my experience, are cowards and travel with others of their ilk. When confronted, they cower. Tommy, on the other hand, just had a bad streak in him. He was the one who would trip kids holding lunch trays, put tacks on their seats, demand that you “lend” him five cents for milk. Anyone who resented his behavior to his face was invited to meet him after school. Anyone who reported his behavior received the same invitation. Anyone receiving said invitation and who didn’t show up would be tracked down.
As I recall, Tommy had a share of school suspensions but not as many as you’d think. I saw him fight boys a few times and the combination of his step jab to the face followed by an uppercut to the gut was all that he needed. The rumor was that he carried a switchblade, had a drunk for a father, and brothers in prison. None of which, of course, were true.
My Tommy-time came in 1964.
I was a nice kid, had a lot of friends; was a bit of a class clown at times; and fairly timid and deferential. For the most part, Tommy left me alone. We’d sometimes talk, but were never what anyone would call friends. I believe he left me alone largely because he preferred smaller prey. But the day came when I was in Tommy’s crosshairs.
Frankly, I cannot remember what brought on the confrontation but I clearly remember Tommy accosting me in the playground after school, and even more clearly remember backing down to him and feeling so empty afterwards. My parents never knew about the incident and it didn’t last long in anyone’s memory; Tommy was quickly on to his next victim.
Yeah, I’d change that one event. Before he could have cocked his arm I would have drawn mine back and gone straight in for his nose. No one had ever done that. And if, by that act, Tommy had continued the fight, so would I have until it was over, regardless of the victor. Because by changing that event at that time, I’d have no longer been timid; would have faced up to many others throughout my life; and been a much more decisive, confident adult, right?
Wrong. One swallow does not a summer make, nor does one act change one’s personality. Personality, as behavioral psychology professes, is pretty much carved in stone by age 5. So hitting Tommy, particularly being the first one to hit, would have bought me some trouble from school and earned me a few torturous lectures from my parents (well, my mother, anyway), but I’d have more than likely remained the same. I would not now be appreciably different than I am.
So, go to the Web site and generate a year, and then determine what you would change if you could. Ruminate on what might have been. And then reflect on what is. Because there’s much good in the reality of now, even if we—OK, I—sometimes have to dig deep to find it. And whatever you find—whatever I find—is far more enviable than what I will ever win from a sucker’s bet.
One final thing: I don’t know why, but I feel it necessary to put a period at the end of the Tommy sentence. In 1966 we were in different schools and I only saw Tommy once again. I was home from my freshman year at college and walking on Central Avenue, the main drag where I lived, when I saw Tommy unloading kegs from a beer delivery truck. I immediately recognized him because despite being older, he looked no different. Same baby face; same hair style; same relatively small build (although powerful arms—no doubt in part a result of his delivery work). I was taller and a little broader than I was in 1964, with hair near to my shoulders, and a moustache, but must have been recognizable enough because Tommy broke out in a huge grin and came over to shake hands and talk for a few minutes. I have no memory of what we spoke about and I’ve never seen him since.
Still, I wish I’d made that move six years earlier.