Sunday, June 23, 2013


"Regrets, I've had few
But then again too few to mention."
                                    My Way - Paul Anka, 1967           

My Way has long been one of my favorite songs. Not that I'm alone. My taste in music is eclectic in terms of genre, but otherwise very conventional.  I probably prefer 1930s-40s Jazz, 1960s-80s rock and some 1600s-1900s "classical" music to other types, but there are really only some works of each that I like, and I actively dislike or do not care for much of it. On the other hand, I do not like, as a general rule, disco or hip hop, but occasionally something will work for me there too. But, within these fields, usually, whatever I do like is well known or a hit to some degree. Conventional.  Much of new music is to me a fad that will quickly fade. People still listen to Bach, to Louis Armstrong and the Rolling Stones. That will continue to be the case.  Music that is often on the top of the charts now but not that "good" will probably not stand the test of time.
I think My Way is categorized as a ballad, because it is kind of a story, but whatever it is, it is not my usual cup of tea. Nevertheless, I find it mesmerizing -- at least the Sinatra version.  Among its genre the only songs I can think of which are "in its league" are Louis Armstrong's versions of What a Beautiful World and Mack the Knife and, maybe, Bobby Darin's version of Beyond the Sea and the related La Mer from which it was derived. Maybe some or all of these songs aren't all ballads. They just seem like they go together to me; if you want to argue that all these songs are actually different genres, go argue with someone who knows or cares. Of course, Elvis also had a great cover of My Way, which Wikipedia - the source of all knowledge in the universe - tells me did even better initially than Sinatra's (though Paul Anka had recommended he not try it as it was unsuited for his talents) and so did Tom Jones on the B side of She's a Lady, another Anka song.  But, Anka says he wrote the lyrics (he had bought the tune) specifically for Sinatra, a friend, using phrases he felt were typical of Sinatra.

All this opening blather is just to introduce the subject of regrets, of which, yeah, I've had a few, even if too few to mention - but Anka didn't have a blog when he wrote it in 1967 or he probably would have gone on about it like I'm going to here. In this, I prefer Thoreau, writing when he was a young man - "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrows, but tend and cherish it till it come to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."

Regrets are funny feelings. For one thing, they are a feeling that some people do not like to acknowledge.  I have no doubt that anyone who isn't a true sociopath has had them, but I've heard many people say they have none. I don't know if it makes them feel that they are admitting to making bad choices, being weak or if it wakens some feeling of inferiority in them, but whatever the reason they don't want to own up to it.  Anyway, they may just be smarter than me.  I love to talk about my bad choices, mistakes, misfortunes and weaknesses, etc., at least those of which I am aware, but am here to tell you, it really doesn't work out so well for you when you do.  Probably for the same reasons people don't like to talk about their own, they will beat you over the head with your own regrets if you admit to them, as if they thought of it themselves, or suggest you have grossly underestimated the quantity and quality of them. "They" will even batter you with how often you speak about them (in their minds once becomes twice almost automatically and twice becomes "hundreds of times"). People seem to know that they will get this reaction intuitively.  Not for nothing during political debates, when asked to name one of their own mistakes or weaknesses, most people try to sneak in something positive, like the well rehearsed "I'm a perfectionist." They know if they came clean, suggest a regret in a decision, it would be used against them two seconds later. And I have seen this awareness even down on the grade school level.

Regrets are also funny feelings because, if you do think about them, you might come around to realizing that you don't regret it so much or would do the same thing again if presented with the same choice. For who knows what lies beyond door number two - the lady or the tiger?  Anger is anger, jealousy is jealousy and so on. But regrets aren't just regrets - they are debatable. That makes them akin to opinions as well.
Start with the definition. What is a regret? I'm not going to look in the dictionary for it, but I'd say it was a wish that we had behaved differently in the past. Sounds reasonable. That excludes bad things that happened that are unrelated to our own choice or action.  So, we don't regret Hurricane Sandy, which was not in anyone's control, but we might regret hanging up our wash outside as the first winds started to blow.

Here's a list of my regrets, such as I can think of while feeling very comfortable after my morning French toast bagel with butter and cup of coffee (by the way, medium black with two  n' Lows, if anyone cares) and no particular regrets on my mind:
1. Ratting: When I was 4 I took some blue rubber animals from a store. I was so guilty, even though I was not quite positive if I had done something wrong, that I made sure I let my mother see me playing with them and we brought them back. That has stayed with me, but I understand I was 4 and don't really feel bad about it. But, when I was 8 or 9 and in summer camp, a bunkmate stole some cookies owned by a counselor, and I still feel guilty about that, even if I was young, stupid and innocent myself. I knew he did it. He knew I knew. I said nothing, adhering to the kid's code of stupid values that we do not rat on one another. I felt ashamed even then and probably should have said something.  But I did not and regret it.  It does not surprise me that I carry this with me so many years later as once aware of a misdeed, I tend never to forget them, even if others tell me that it is such a trifle, I was insane to think about it even then.  

On the other hand, I haven't really improved that much. Most of us haven't. I'm not sure it is possible to be part of this world in any meaningful way without seeing other people steal. Most people say nothing, simply because we know the thief or identify with them in some way and don't want to be a "rat."  As I got older I still would not rat, but I would not go along with people claiming there was nothing wrong with it. That, of course, enraged people, who would rationalize the theft in all kinds of creative ways and make them crazy to find some way that they could say I stole too.  Of course, in the modern world, I find it more and more difficult to tell what we can legally use or not (like stuff on the internet or downloadable), but, that 's not what I'm talking about. I mean clear cut occurrences.
My sister was once asked on an interview whether, if a co-worker was stealing, she would report it. She said no, and was later told that was why she wasn't getting the job. She complained that the question was unfair - that virtually no one would report it, and what the question really accomplished was to rule out scrupulously honest people and reward the dishonest. They decided to give her the job, but on probation for six months (Why? To see if she would rat on anyone?) 

Do I regret now not coming forward when people were stealing from their bosses or company -- such as putting in additional expenditures? Sometimes. There have been instances I've seen where the company was ripping off its employee by not paying expenses worse than the employees were ripping the company off by claiming too much on their expenses. Philosophizing is easy. Real life is a lot more complicated.
In the case with the cookies though, it was one person I knew stealing from another person I knew. I chose to remain silent, probably because the values of keeping confidences and not being a rat had been drummed into me, and possibly to avoid social ostracism by bunkmates when I violated the code. I can no longer remember my entire reason, just the feeling of regret.  I actually have seen very little of people stealing from one another personally in my life when I got older. While I  personally do have trouble seeing companies differently than I do individuals when it comes to taking their stuff, other people feel it is a big difference, and will happily and guilt free steal from a company where they would not do so from an individual. So, we see that far less often. And I'm glad I really haven't had to make that kind of decision, because I'm not sure how I would react. What I would do if it happens probably has a lot to do with whose ox is being gored. In other words, I might substitute my personal feelings for a sense of what is right and wrong. And, whatever I choose, I may regret it. Can't worry about it now.

2. Music: This one is simpler as there is no moral dilemma involved. I never learned to play a musical instrument.  There are probably a number of reasons. But, the one that is probably the most disparaging to me is that I seem to have absolutely no talent at it. I have tried several times to learn as an adult and have failed each time. I put in the effort, the last time practicing an hour a day for six months almost every single day. At the end of it I could not play even one simple piece on the piano, though the keys even lit up to guide me.
When I was in the 4th grade I was learning the saxophone. It didn't work for me. First, unfortunately, they were out of alto saxes and I had to lug home a tenor, which was a lot of work. Leave aside that I lived in a state of physical exhaustion (I've covered this elsewhere), if I had been interested enough, I would have done it, just like I found the time and energy to play sports every day. But, there was very little music in my house growing up and my exposure to it was very limited until I was a teenager. I did not understand how gratifying music could be and quit after a few months despite my teacher insisting I had talent (even then I thought he was just being nice).

Very often with regrets, we are simply creating a fantasy that if we had done X instead of Y, it would have worked out well. But, we cannot know this. In the case of never learning to play an instrument, however, I have trouble seeing how it could work out badly.
I regret not being able to play an instrument now, and know that it gets harder to learn to play as you get older. Unless I find the means to truly retire in the next few years, and that does not seem likely, it is too low on the totem pole to become the priority it would need to be for me to overcome my lack of talent in order accomplish it. So, it will remain a regret.

3. Bullies: I was raised a pacifist. Frankly, it is a good way and I'm not to sorry for it. But, I have to admit that having gone through life without having had a real fight, I think it would have been better if I didn't shrug it off when I was young and had a few tussles. In retrospect, which is always easier, there were some guys who needed a beating and a few times it would have been worth it to take one even if I was right. You can't go back again, and given that you can also get hurt in fights, maybe it wouldn't have been such a good idea. But, in the safety of our own minds, where we win all our fights, it seems like a good idea, and I regret it a little.
4. Career:  Mom always told me when I was little that the greatest gift I could give myself would be to do something for a living that I loved. I could not see how doing what I loved for a living would not ruin it. I've been an attorney for almost 29 years and spent about 3 preparing for it before then.  There are some aspects I love about it - the abstract intellectual challenge, particularly with constitutional law; the little bit of teaching I've been able to do or working with younger attorneys; the gratification of a cross-examination that went well or being able to persuade a judge to change their mind (harder than you might think - people don't like to change their minds). But, most of the rest of it - as they used to say in Mad Magazine - blechh.

I knew even after a short period of being an attorney that you were very often dealing with people at their worst. It is no longer a closed profession with only a small amount of attorneys, but one where there are too many attorneys competing for a small amount of work. The work that would interest me most is not available to me for the most part, and for that I also have only myself to blame. 
If I could go back in time, I would likely choose a different profession; one I loved. I see myself in this alternate universe as a professor or journalist or, even possibly, despite never having in this universe taken any courses in it or prepared in any way - a physicist. Of course, I cannot know how it would have worked out. Might have been a disaster. Not too long ago I was speaking with a younger attorney who it turned out was the son of a college professor of mine, who had been a successful journalist. The young lawyer had not surprisingly initially followed in his father's footsteps and gotten a job with a very successful media outlet.  It wasn't, he said, what it used to be as the internet changed journalism completely with emailing and texting replacing field work and stringers. Half of the people he worked with ended up going to law school.  I wrote to his father, now retired, and told him that I regretted not becoming a journalist.  Perhaps just being kind, he wrote back that I probably ended up exactly where I belonged. That may be true. Nonetheless, I regret it and it is probably the major one I have. You can say all you want that it is not too late. It almost certainly is.

5. Teeth:  Some people have great teeth. I don't. Much of it is probably genetic, but a lot is how hard people work to maintain them. I don't do well in either category. I rarely get cavities now - I think I had only one since my 20s, but had a golf course filled in when I was young. In my 30s or 40s I lost one tooth to an abscess. That worked out okay, other than the expense, because  the implant I got is now my favorite tooth.  But, none of that is a regret. What is, is that my teeth are also a little crooked, there not being enough room in my evalovin' jaw to fit them all, and that was fixable when I was a teenager. The surgeons would have had to break my jaw to fix the problem and for whatever reason, my parents thought it wasn't necessary, but I'm pretty sure the cost was prohibitive. Of course, my brothers volunteered  to break my jaw for nothing if that would help. Ah, family.
I really didn't have a lot to say about it, not being the person who would have written the check. I paid for my own daughter's orthodontic work later on, and it was expensive. But, if I had been the type of kid to insist on something with my parents ("I don't care," being my usual comment about almost anything), perhaps it would have been done. It's not a big one, but it is a regret.

6. Girls. One of the problems with letting your insignificant other know you have a blog is that they can patrol it and make sure you are not writing about other women. Oh, to have one who was so disinterested she didn't - but I do. So, she's reading this right now thinking - So, what little ho is this going to be about? No, it's not that at all.
My regret with women is not that I should have went after this one or that one at all. But, there were some who were terrific people and very nice to me and to whom I wish I had been more thoughtful. It is not that I wish I was with them now, but I do wish that I had been more conscious of their feelings and could have shown that I cared a lot more than I was capable of at the time.

At the time, in my 20s and very young 30s, I really did not understand very well that anyone would care so much about a relationship. Sure I could get my feelings hurt too, and did on a few occasions, but not so much that I understood just because I wasn't so interested, it didn't mean that they weren't.  It's not that I was mean to or dishonest with them either - I just didn't care enough about having a relationship in general. Frankly, I was aware enough of it to recognize that to be the one who cared least was a good position to be in, in some ways.  And I also recognize now (as I do with all my autobiographical recollections) how large a role my state of constant exhaustion played in everything I did. Perhaps that is just an excuse.  All told, it probably have been nicer for them if I showed a little more interest - other than in the obvious - and I didn't. I regret it.

As with most people most of my regrets are for those things I did not do and not for what I actually did. Mark Twain, whose aphorisms I love, but whose writing I could never quite get into (excepting Letters from the Earth and Pudd'nhead Wilson, both very high on my list), may have said or written "[t]wenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do," but no one can find where it was he supposedly said or wrote it. It doesn't really matter if he did or not, except historically.  The thought rings true anyway.
So, perhaps as Paul Anka wrote, I have too few regrets to mention. I'm sure there are some I forget, but if there are more, they do not seem so important that I can recall them easily. A regret we cannot remember probably deserves a different name.  In life so far I have not been as lucky as I would like (who is?) but probably far luckier than I deserve.  In the end, unless scientists learn how to make us immortal, the few regrets I have will probably recede in time as I near the end.  

They seem to have receded for Thoreau.  When he was in his forties and dying he wrote to a friend "You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing."
What happened to regrets as living life afresh? Did he change his mind?  Perhaps whatever regrets he had no longer loomed so large in his mind under the circumstances of his impending death. As Samuel Johnson once wrote - "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  On the other hand, if regrets were not on Thoreau's mind, why did he mention it? One of the last things he is also recorded as having said on his death bed, when asked if he had made peace with God, was that they had never quarreled. This sounds like another way of saying I have no regrets. Perhaps, instead of concentrating on other things, he could think of little else and was desperate to convince himself that it was not the case.  Not to be overly pessimistic, but maybe this is just something we want to believe as we get older, to add purpose and dignity or meaning and the appearance of success to our lives, or even something we really believe as solace for what we suffered. It is more charitable to just take him at his word, and he was one unusual fellow. I love Thoreau's writing and I guess I hope it was so. If it was, I can't know now if I will go out as uncomplaining as he did, but I can hope I will and have him as an example.  We'll see.


  1. Ah Frodo, you turn wistful as you age. Alas, I cannot share my regrets as your blog IP address would burn for years. People would type it in and just get a screen filled with fire. Anyway, I have the quandary of being happy with where I am, so I suppose I would repeat them to make sure I wind up in the same place.. versus wishing I could have hurt some people a lot less. It does help that I cleaned up as much of it as I could. Anyway, very reflective topic.. well done, laddie.

  2. Well, that's why you have to be careful with regrets around any magical object, as many fantasy movies have taught us. You might end up changing where and what you are now. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I imagine that every one does have regrets. Keeping the from becoming consuming is probably the best way to deal with them. I never knew you had a tooth implant- funny. And I think you should give the violin another try!!

  4. I'm pretty sure that Paganini's ghost would haunt me if I tried to learn the violin again. But, it gives me an opportunity to tell my violin experiences all over again (I'm sure I must have told them here before, but who would remember?) While my daughter was taking flute lessons at a local shop in the seventh grade, I decided that rather than sit there trying to read in that cacophony of sound, I would take up an instrument myself. So, because I am apparently sonically masochistic, I chose the violin. I was in about 38 or so years old and my first teacher was 21. I didn't know how I was doing, but I assumed poorly because I couldn't really play anything after a few months. And I had a lot of questions about everything. One day I looked at my teacher and asked "Do the other kids ask a lot of questions?" She looked at me so sadly, shook her head and said, "No one has ever asked me a question before." It was apparent she was happier that way. Soon after she told me she was leaving the store's employ to work more with her band. I was suspicious, but soldiered on. My new teacher was about the same age. After a short period of time she told me that she was leaving, but someone else would take over.
    "Where are you going?"
    "I'm moving to India."
    "Oh, come on. That's the worst excuse I ever heard. You can just say I'm the worst student you ever had."
    "No, I swear. My husband is taking drum lessons there."
    "He could take drum lessons in this store, for crying out loud. Just admit I drove you away."
    "No, I'm serious. He's learning a type of percussion instrument they only teach in India."
    Anyway, that was it for me. Life was getting busy right about then and I had to give up something, so it was the violin. It was the right thing to do for the music world in general.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .