Regrets? Well, Yes and No–1/2


Don’t Sign Off on Your Regrets Yet

It helps to get old before you start thinking about regrets because something you regretted a long time ago may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. You have to see the scoreboard at the end of play before you can judge the game. And never lose sight of the Spanish proverb: “No hay mal que por bien no venga”. “Nothing bad ever happens that doesn’t bring something good along with it.”
I’ve been regretful more than a few times in my life but I didn’t realize at the time that those were the twists and turns that made life interesting and, ultimately, worthwhile. I think too many people try to control all the variables in their lives. If they don’t succeed–and they can never do so completely–they wind up distressed or, in the unlikely event that they do succeed bigtime they’re more often than not disappointed with their trip.
Surprises, both pleasant and not so much, are like all the other changes in our lives. They help to keep us on our toes, to keep coping. Embracing change also helps us to stay young and is increasingly important as we grow older. I’m fond of saying that a rewarding old age is not about drinking mint juleps on the veranda. It’s about starting a project you probably won’t be around to finish. Start some bonsais from cuttings, write a book about the family for your great, great grandchildren, train your chihuahua to be a better person.

Does it Move?

I’m often reminded of something my 10th-grade biology teacher said regarding the definition of “life.” One of the requisites was motion. Does it move? I have forgotten the other two but today, umpteen years later, I’m convinced that if you’re not moving, both mentally and physically, you’re not wholly alive.
So, what do I regret. I regret losing my first girlfriend who was a gentle, sensitive girl. I regret being jealous and possessive. She was also smarter than I was and went through high school scooping up all the academic honors ahead of me. That might have been the underlying cause for our unhappy ending. The end was like almost every other big setback in life–casually random and utterly devastating. The summer after graduating from high school I was working as a dishwasher at a Lake Michigan summer resort. In a surprise visit she walked into the ramshackle cabin that was the abode of the dishwasher and the handyman, and found a long-legged Norwegian-American chambermaid folding my clean underwear and stacking it in a neat pile on my bed. That was the end of life as I knew it when I was 18 years old.
I regret letting myself be drafted into the Army. It was 1966, the year after I graduated from college. It was also the depths of the Vietnam war. My deferrment scheme had failed, and I received orders with three weeks notice to report to the Detroit induction center. I should have defected to Canada, which was just across the bridge on the other side of the Detroit River, but I was too stunned to react.
In the end I wasn’t sent to Vietnam. I spent my military service working days on an Army newspaper at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky and nights as a bartender at the big non-commissioned officers’ club there. In all it was pretty cushy as military service goes but, even so, I was subjected for the first time in my life to sordid, brutal, mindless America. I was also acutely aware of the gratuitous horror we were loosing on an innocent fairy-tale country in southeast Asia. I should have deserted and not allowed myself to become an accomplice in that macabre business enterprise that was the prototype of the Americans’ permanent-war project . But I didn’t, and I bitterly regret it.
I regret having been so self centered, when time has shown I didn’t have a foot to stand on in that respect. My father was always saying to me, “Mike, you only think of yourself.” I thought he was crazy. Who was I going to think of if not myself? Much later I was reading Mark Twain (Letters from the Earth, I think) and something he said hit home hard: “The older I get the smarter my father gets.”

Study More, Read More

I regret not having studied longer. We live in our heads and it pays rich dividends to have them well furnished. Throughout life I was aware that I was insufficiently prepared for every project I undertook, and I am a project person. I constantly found myself relying on guesswork and improvization. And I wish I had read more. A shockingly simple axiom maintains, “In order to write you have to read.” One of the consolations of my life is that my son did study enough. He got a  PhD in geology at the University of Granada, did his post-doctoral work at Geomar, the principal European oceanographic center in Kiel, Germany, and works as a geology professor at the University here. He was also lucky enough to inherit his mother’s sweet character. My cup runneth over.
The cast-your-fate-to-the-wind attitude that I subscribe to presuposes a bit of risk, though not that much. My advice to young people is always the same: Imagine your wildest dream and go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? You have to go home and get a job. What playing fast and loose does require is lots of optimism. One of my favorite people, Harold Evans, the great crusading British newspaper editor (The Sunday Times, The Times) made the reverse of my own journey. He moved from the UK to the US, eventually taking American nationality. He coined a great phrase: “the Americans’ reckless optimism.” I always knew I was optimistic but I never suspected that was a particularly American trait, though I have noticed that my Spanish paisanos have a decided aversion to risk. Maybe I should have paid closer attention to them.

First Steps on the Slippery Slope

In the early 1990’s, after years of watching semi-literate construction magnates driving around Granada in 800-series BMW’s, I decided to leave my job as a hotel inspector and start a business of my own. I was, after all, a bright boy. The last time I had reviewed the Paris hotels I attended a technology fair there and discovered an ingenious computerized fax system that was as yet unknown in the Spanish marketplace. This seemed a formidable business opportunity. I was mesmerized and decided to bet the farm on it. (Advice for young entrepreneurs: Don’t step into the swamp when you’re mesmerized.)
When I got home I hired a couple of IT guys and a graphic designer, bought some expensive computer fax hardware and installed them in a renovated henhouse. My team of bright kids was great and they soon had a working prototype which was capable of attending a helpline 24 hours a day by automatically sending out documents requested interactively from a menu. (Remember, this was before Internet.)
I soon found myself travelling around Spain presenting our revolutionary system to Spanish businesses with special communications needs: banks, travel companies, ski resorts, tourism promotion entities… I might as well have been selling snake oil. With few exceptions my prospective customers didn’t understand the usefulness of the system for their busineses. Or they pretended not to understand. They were wary. They had never heard of anything like interactive fax and didn’t want to risk spending any actual money on it. The rough equivalent in the US would have been a Mississippi-based Eskimo offering your company high-tech solutions.
Later (always later) I learned  that Spaniards and Americans occupied opposite poles on the technology-acceptance continuum, the Spanish being extreme late adopters and the Americans just the opposite, rabidly eager to be the first on their block to boast the latest technology. I was the latter trying to sell gimcrackery to the former. We were all alone in the marketplace with no competitors for more than a year. Then a single competitor appeared. It was only one but it was Telefonica, the Spanish telephone company. You can imagine.
Go to Part 2


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I Was Surprised by Visions of the “Old”

Study the Art of Ageing

I wanted to write a piece on aging and the first thing I did was go to Google to check out images of old age. I was dazzled by what I found. More of the old people in the photographs looked more vital, interesting, engaging and actually beautiful than miserable for being old.

See if you don’t agree. Continue reading “I Was Surprised by Visions of the “Old””