(Author's note: Several years ago, I had fun writing a serious of columns called "Remembered truths" that examined the wisdom (or lack of it) in familiar proverbs. Following is the one I wrote for New Year's 2001 that took off from "Time and Tide wait for no man." Sometimes, I read my stuff years later and wonder, "What in the world was I thinking?" But sometimes, as with this piece, I find I still like it.)
She was one of the sexiest-looking girls I knew, even if she was only a sophomore. All during our speech classes when I was a senior, she sat right there in the front row, crossing and recrossing her legs while I desperately tried to remember the words I was stumbling through. Whenever I tried to talk to her before or after class, I couldn't think of anything to say, so I stammered out questions: Could I have a stick of gum? Would you let me have a piece of paper? Borrow your pencil for a second?
Then I met her on the street one day the summer after I graduated, one of those chance encounters fate can hinge on. We chatted briefly, then she said, in words I remember precisely to this day, "You know, you never talk to me in class unless you want something." I said something stupid - I don't remember what, exactly, but it had to have been extraordinarily stupid - and we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I never saw her again.
It occurred to me a few years later - duh! - that she might have been giving me an opening, one of those verbal signals people use to let you know a relationship hasn't been all it could be but might be better. And it went right over my head. It might not be the biggest missed opportunity in my life, but it's certainly one of the most memorable.
Then there was the time I was on vacation with family in Colonial Williamsburg. It had been a scorching day, and we'd been walking around in the sun. We sat down at one of the inns, and I ordered a drink I had never heard of before, but whose name intrigued me. It was, I believe, the best-tasting drink I had had up to that point in my life. "This is so good," I said, "that somebody is going to market it and make millions of dollars. We ought to look into that."
Don't be silly, everyone else said, it's not exactly an alcoholic drink and not exactly a non-alcoholic one, either; it'll never catch on. I decided they were right and put it out of my mind. It was a mixture of lemonade and burgundy, and they called it "wine cooler."
Regrets? I've had a few.
It was John Lennon, I believe, who said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans.'" You listen to the rules and follow the schedule and don't take too many detours, and before you know it, you're in a place you never dreamed of, wondering how you got there. Along the way, there have been some happy surprises and unexpected pleasures. But between the cracks and crevices have slipped some chances not taken, paths not chosen. If you get to a certain age and don't have some regrets, you're just not paying attention.
That's a valuable insight, one that comes to some early, some late and some not at all. I got it at age 35. That was the birthday when I finally realized I wasn't still just a few months out of high school and that my "real" life wasn't the one I'd get to whenever I got through fooling around with this one. This is the only life I have ever had or ever will have.
There's a reason people keep making New Year's resolutions, year after year, though they've kept few of the old ones and know full well they won't keep many of the current ones. It's just their way of keeping the faith, acknowledging that life happens, and it can happen for you or to you.
I've come full circle in my opinion of resolutions. I started out making them every Jan. 1, because everybody else did and that was what you were supposed to do. Then I had my youthful rebellion stage - resolutions were human folly, even evil - they wasted our time with wishful thinking. Then I decided they were useless but basically harmless, so why waste energy worrying about them? Now, I think they're actually valuable.
When we make New Year's resolutions, we're pausing to measure the pluses and minuses of our lives. At this admittedly arbitrary point in time, we're taking stock, looking in those cracks and crevices and noticing all those missed opportunities and neglected paths. Yes, it may be wishful thinking, but at least we're aware of where our lives have landed and have some determination that we can move them, with our own will, further down the road.
And all marking of time is arbitrary when you think about it - all those birthdays and anniversaries, years and decades and centuries. Time marches on and the universe advances, indifferent to the sparks and fizzles of the specks of our lives colliding into one another. Considering how very long the stage has been here, and how brief our strut across it, what possible difference does it make if something happened in 1492 or 1493? What's the point of putting marks on calendars? Why capriciously put marks here and there and say the time in between the marks means something?
Because we have to. What is music but our attempt to create an ordered structure out of all the noise that is out there, to make a sound that soothes us instead of jarring us? And what are inventions of dates but our attempt to create an understandable human structure out of the chaos of time? The calendar is just another musical instrument. So we stop, occasionally, and notice things and take stock. We remember birthdays. And celebrate anniversaries.
And make New Year's resolutions.
It's too late for me to make a million from wine coolers, but maybe the next time I think something new is worth exploring, I'll trust my own instincts. I probably couldn't find the girl from speech class, and even if I did, she might have changed or not be the way I remember her (and I certainly won't be the way she remembers me). But surely I'll be paying more attention the next time somebody drops me a hint. Regrets? Oh, yeah. But, then again, too few to mention.
If it's true that time and tide wait for no man, another proverb is also true: Better late than never. If we've blown some chances, there are other opportunities still to be realized, just one resolution - one kept resolution - ahead. All it takes is the acknowledgment that real life isn't something we're going to get around to any minute now.
But you already knew that, didn't you? You just haven't done anything about it yet.
Have a happy New Year.