I know it’s a cliché, yet, I have long been fascinated with Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken.
This is, I believe associated with my interest in time travel.
Two roads, sliding doors.
That kind of thing.
I also know that some people, perhaps most don’t think this way. They not interested in what might have been.
I sometimes wonder why.
One theory relates to my life trajectory.
I have taken twists and turns that my peers did not.
At age 12, I moved from a suburban existence in the South Side of Glasgow to live for five years in Israel. At 16 I moved back to Glasgow, to a red sandstone tenement.
At that age, I left school, shifting from the basketball courts of Ostrovsky High to the smoking common room of Langside College then to Dundee University.
I had plans to become a neurosurgeon, then a paediatrician then a psychiatrist then an emergency medicine doctor before settling with geriatrics, the care of older people.
At each twist and turn in the road, my interest was keen.
Recently, I have been listening to Elizabeth Day’s podcast How to Fail.
Today she was talking with Gloria Steinem, yesterday, Bernadine Evaristo. Last week, Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen, and Jarvis Cocker.
The theme of the podcast for guests to present three failures that have shaped their lives, and eventual successes (for Jarvis, falling out of a window, Bernadine, not reaching Australia by car).
Elizabeth Day herself is unusual. The daughter of an English surgeon, she grew-up in Northern Ireland, went to secondary school in England, is a journalist and writer with a clipped English accent that reminds me of Katie Derham. (You can find out more from this podcast)
I was thinking this morning of the failures that have shaped me.
As of this evening, I remain uncertain.
Perhaps my failure to become a neurosurgeon (schoolboy aspiration) or a psychiatrist (more mature interest) were instrumental in making me who I am.
On two occasions, I applied to train as a GP in Sheffield. I was rejected twice. I now work partially in primary care (and I think I am doing a reasonable job) which is a partial vindication.
For decades I used to dream of being a martial artist. For those of you familiar with my blogs, Bruce Lee was and remains a hero. I followed his philosophy and physical exploits.
Between the ages of 13 and 17 I had a passion for Karate. It occupied my thoughts and imaginings. It mostly fell apart with my return to the UK and an inability to find a club that would accommodate me. Well into my 30’s and perhaps 40’s I used, in my mind’s eye, to imagine myself performing rapid-fire Jackie Chan-style mawashi-geris.
In my middle years I frequently considered an earlier life-trajectory, which would have been to join the Israeli army and become an officer (as all my closest school friends, except one did (his tenure in the IDF was short-lived)).
I used to imagine myself as an undercover operative, using my knowledge of Hebrew and English to infiltrate the enemies of the state and win covert operations.
On a trip back to Israel after I received clemency from the Prime Minster (Rabin) I met-up with my old school friends. They were serving their time, one in the submarines, another as a naval commando and a third doing something secret.
We went walking along the Jordan river (or perhaps the Banias). I turned around and they had all disappeared. I couldn’t find them. They had performed a military-style vanishing act, only to reappear five minutes later, in the undergrowth. I still don’t know why they did it.
I carried that with me. Perhaps I could have learned a lesson in stealth. Not much use as a doctor, although who knows.
Was my not becoming an Israeli soldier a failure? My mum was pleased I became a doctor. I imagine perspective is important.
In my early 30’s I fell off my bike.
I was run over by a tram in Sheffield.
For anyone who is familiar with tram tracks, they are a hidden threat for cyclists.
It was a Tuesday morning. I was cycling to Sheffield Medical School to deliver a lecture on older people. It had been raining. I was cruising along Hillsborough Road when a tram came up behind me (they are silent). The tram tooted its horn, I moved laterally, and my wheels jarred into the track. I flew over the handlebars, and it ran over me.
Afterwards, when I visited the police headquarters to collect my mangled bike, they showed me a video of the event (the trams carry forward-facing cameras). It was as dramatic as it seems.
I was knocked out and taken to A&E with a fracture skull (the same department where I was working) – anecdotally, as they were going through my belongings one of the consultants found my stethoscope and said, ‘I think the man is a doctor!’ – amazing they didn’t recognise me. Perhaps there was too much blood.
I failed to give that lecture although I later re-scheduled and thanks to the generosity of a drug rep, provided pizza for the students (I did the lecture in the evening).
The scar and the incident have been with me all these years. My children have an aversion to bikes. I remember my son, three at the time visiting me in the resuscitation bay.
Two roads. This way or that.
I could have died and then what?
As a young boy, perhaps five years old, I remember a trip to Largs (a resort on the banks of the Firth of Clyde). I was paddling on a slipway. I couldn’t swim. My mum caught me as I was wading out. I gather from the concrete landing there was a severe drop off. I carried the thought of my drowning for many years.
Had I drowned, the story would have ended.
Had I not travelled to Israel in 1985 who knows. I suspect I would be a down in the mouth Glaswegian with high blood pressure.
My mum had a brain tumour in 1990. She almost died. What would have happened to my life course had she not survived? By then I was on a trajectory for medical school. Would my chosen specialism have been different?
What is the value of this reminiscence?
Or is it reflection?
There is no past. Only now.
The past informs our present. It makes me the person I am today and will become tomorrow. If not A then there would be no B, or the C would be alternate.
A mathematical truism.
I have written about some of the antisemitism I experienced as a young boy in Glasgow in the 70’s. In primary five I moved to the Jewish school, Calderwood Lodge. Another fork in the road. I still experienced bullying, just a different kind.
Much of my experience relates to my existential outsider-ness.
What makes an outsider? A stranger?
A Scottish, Jewish, Hebrew speaking Israeli. A Scotsman in Yorkshire. A duck out of water. Where to begin? Where will it end.
Does it matter?
Just another existence that will be snuffed out when the time comes.
On Elizabeth Day’s Podcast, I have heard two of her guests (Michael Rosen and Gloria Steinem) talking about death, its meaning and significance. Their conclusion, that even though a person has gone, so long as their memory continues they are still with us, their existence matters and continues.
Here is to the day I am forgotten.
Be well and perhaps contemplate your own failures or forks in the road.