View from Mudsock Heights

Last week the actor Anthony Hopkins put online a video recording of himself expressing happiness over 45 years of sobriety. In 1975, he said, he heard and heeded a warning: he could continue to drink or he could continue to live, but he could not do both. He chose to live.

The post was widely praised, and rightly so. It was warm and kind, and offered encouragement to those who might be about to surrender to drink, despair, or some other malign influence.

One sentence, though, struck me as discordant in his otherwise admirable message. Hopkins said, “Today is the tomorrow you were so worried about yesterday.” True, but so what? Could we not with equal validity say that today is the yesterday you’ll so regret tomorrow? How about “today is the day before yesterday you’ll have all but forgotten day after tomorrow”?

I’m not being dismissive here. His general thought, I believe, is in keeping with the idea, often successfully employed, that rather than set seemingly insurmountable goals we can sometimes achieve better results by lowering our sights a bit: don’t worry about making it through the year, instead, make it through today. And if you renew that goal daily, the year will take care of itself. That technique has helped many people stop drinking, stop doing drugs, stop smoking, and so on. It is especially useful in a time when isolation, financial ruin, and fear have led to pandemics of drinking, drug use, and suicide. Today say, “Let me make it through today.” And when tomorrow becomes today, say it again.

My quibble is with the platitude itself. We’ve all heard the phrase “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it is true, but it bears no more insight than its inverse, “Today is the last day of the first of your life.” The darker version is not without value, if you wish to remember that all the life we are guaranteed we have already lived.

So. “Today is the tomorrow you were so worried about yesterday.” Were you in fact worried about today yesterday? Did you do anything to lessen whatever it was that made today a thing to be dreaded? I don’t think that this is the intended meaning. I think that the sentence is simply a slightly clever play on words involving the names we give to days in relation to one another.

A useful complaint can be made over the presentation of language that says little or nothing yet implies that it is profound. Recently I’ve been exposed to the work of the observant Japanese writer Nisio Isin (yes, his name is a palindrome), whose stories are notable both for their originality and for their brilliant wordplay. His most beloved work is written in an ancient Japanese form of narrative epic, so his “Monogatari” is a monogatari. I do not read Japanese, but much of Nisio Isin survives translation, especially where he draws attention to how rarely people think about the meaning of the words they utter.

Here’s an example, not from Nisio Isin but from our own common usage: “at all costs.” This phrase is always a lie. Rare is the goal worth achieving at any cost. What is meant is that something is worth doing even if the price is dear. So why don’t we say that, which is true, instead of the other thing, which isn’t?

My annoyance with abuse of language becomes more acute at the beginning of every year the last digit of which is 1. On Friday we began a new decade. We did not begin a new decade a year ago. We merely began a year that ended in zero.

Hold out your hands. Count your fingers. Is the tenth finger part of the original two hands, or is it the beginning of a new hand?

We do not count objects as 0. We begin counting with 1, whether it is fingers, dollars, or years.

In fact, for most of Western history there was no zero at all. We first find it in English in the work of Fibonacci, he of the Golden Rectangle (which is one of the coolest things in both the natural and mathematical worlds). The need for zero was not instantly apparent in a society that chiefly counted things such as years. We knew what “none” was, but we were interested in more than none. Before that, we made up placeholder characters as needed, such as when we wanted to distinguish between 7 and 70.

Yet we somehow adopted the erroneous view that 2000 was the beginning of a new millennium rather than the end of the old one. I think that this became popular because it is the one time in our lives when the number of the new year contained no numerals in common with the old year. It is a nice, round number, and we like nice, round numbers. Also, it is because people on television, who don’t often enough indulge in analytical thought, mistakenly announced it over and over. But 2000 was the last year of the old millennium, not the first year of the new one. (I’ve seen arguments that this is all because the formulators of the calendar forgot to include a year zero. But that’s nonsense, even as counting a finger as zero would be. If there is one of something, it is number one, not number zero.)

A battle I have no chance of winning has to do with the numbering of birthdays. By logical reckoning a person’s 25th birthday is the day he or she turns 24. Why? Easy: the day the person was born is his birthday, is it not? So when that infant becomes one year old, it is on his or her second birthday. The first birthday makes the subsequent ones possible. I avoid the formulation altogether, because the choices are between being wrong and saying that someone celebrated a 100th birthday when it was in fact the 101st birthday, and arguing with an editor. But I digress.

I hope that people embrace the fact that 2021 starts a new decade. Many of us are eager to distance ourselves from 2020. Would you rather start with a blank page, or have one that’s already one-tenth filled with disease, disaster and death?

So say it along with me: This decade is the next decade we hoped for last decade – which ended at midnight last Thursday.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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