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February 6, 1997


Farzana Versey Dominic Xavier's illustration

I am terrible with definitions. I am worse with complicated situations

I am terrible with definitions. However, lately, a few things have occupied my mind. In my bid for self-improvement, I have been obsessed with enlightenment. Since I think I am an original thinker - I think about my origins but have never come to a conclusion I can be sufficiently proud of - I spent a great deal of time wondering about ancestors and history. I mistakenly believed that I would one day be a part of it. But after reading Ambrose Bierce, I've changed my mind. He defines history thus: "An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves and soldiers, mostly fools."

And it is fools that I bump into more often these days. The other day I met one who insisted he was stupid. He said there was a thin dividing line between the two. I set out on this mission of discovery. There's an Arabic proverb that says, "One is more endurable than half a fool." And the American Mercury says that you are stupid when you are educated beyond the capacity to think.

Now I know why my friend made the distinction. He has always been a snob who believes that thinking is a mindless activity. His idea of an "activated" life is to count the stars. He swears that they increase in number each day by just looking at them. He is a gambler. And a miser.

How many misers have you come across in your life? You've lost count? I think we are rather unfair when we pronounce judgement on these creatures (It's always others, never ourselves, right?). After all, it took Anon to look beyond the miser's immediate life into the future to conclude that he is, "One who lives poor to die rich." Not many of us can claim any such affinity with the Great Leveller.

What is death? Picasso thought it was "the only woman who never leaves you." I don't know if that is accurate, and whether dying women can say the same, unless women are presumably immortal. Talking of immortality, I cannot resist going back to Bierce for this delectable one. "A toy which people cry for,/And on their knees apply for,/Dispute, contend and lie for,/And if allowed/Would be right proud/Eternally to die for."

But enough of death and other morbid things. Let us be happy. Bob Hope feels it's possible to be happily just "watching television at your girl's house during a power failure." Others are more finicky and demanding, like Rousseau. He thought happiness was, "A good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion." I should have met the man. I am convinced that the three together can make the skeleton of a dinosaur declare, "Look, I am extinct."

But I don't think I am being fair to Rousseau. I have great patience with philosophers. I reciprocate their patience with me. And with their dental problems. (The two being mutually exclusive, I assure you). As Shakespeare stated, "There was never yet a philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently." The Bard must have been out of his mind when he said this. Don't blame him, though. He has been at the receiving end so often. This chap called Mark Van Doren said of him, "A man who wrote plays in which the main characters are trying to do what they can't possibly do."

Is anything really impossible? Not for a well-informed man, I guess, one who knows when to tap what and how. Does such a man exist? Sure, says Ray Fine, he's the "one whose wife has just told him what she thinks of him." So there. What's a wife? A rag called the Changing Times has found the answer. "Someone who thinks it is all right to tell her husband anything in public as long as she calls him 'Honey'." And a husband? Playboy's reply: "A man who started handing out a line and ended up walking it."

So much for spouses. What happens to the rest, to humanity, to mankind? "A human species with a most conspicuous failing: an inability to stay quiet." (Water Bagehot). But silence has been defined as "a good substitute for brains." This is a trap. And I wonder whether I must go on or stop. Silly question. Now don't ask me to define that. But you ask me to define definition. Sometime did. "A description that inadequately represents a much more complicated situation."

And I thought I had it all down pat. As I said in the very beginning, I am terrible with definitions. I am worse with complicated situations.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier