Thursday, August 11, 2005

A lesson from history

In the course of my Civil War readings, I've decided one of the better nickname stories belongs to Union Gen. Edwin Sumner. Sumner, usually referred to as "Bull," is actually nicknamed "Bull Head," though apparently not to his face.


Because in an earlier battle, he got shot in the head - and the ball bounced off his skull. Infer what you will. All the historians do. Especially after Antietam, when Sumner (one of the oldest generals in the Union army), marched his troops into one of those unfortunate instances of bad luck that would best be termed an ambush if it had only been intentional.

'Twas a massacre for the boys in blue, led by the division of my favorite general, John ("They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!") Sedgwick.

So "Bull" Sumner was an apt nickname for a general who was loved by his troops, not too creative, and believed in leading from the front, full speed ahead. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

I bring up the late Gen. Sumner (who died of illness before the war ended) because I was thinking about being bull-headed tonight.

Somebody mentioned a girl I know and wondered why we weren't an item, since we seemed perfect for each other. There's plenty of reasons why we're not, but that's not the point of the post.

The point is, it got me thinking about relationships, and life and philosophy in general. All on my drive home. This is a dangerous thing, folks.

I started thinking about the two lost loves of my life, Michelle and Stephanie, and what they had in common. (Neurosis, that's what. This, Auburn hair and a love for ice hockey. Again, not the point.) One of the things they had in common was that both had a real dream for what they wanted to do with their lives, and at some point, both gave it up, or at least put it on hold. (Neither, by the way, had anything to do with me.)

We all have crazy dreams we never really do anything with. I want to be an astronaut. But both their goals were attainable at some point in their lives. And whatever they lacked, courage, opportunity, confidence, I don't know, but they wrote them off.

What does this have to do with me, you ask? Well, I was sort of thinking how I'm "unlucky in love," as they say, and that got me thinking that love is one of the places where my way of life just doesn't fit.

See, for whatever reason, I've never shaken the hockey player's mentality that I can succeed in whatever I want, if only I'm tough enough, strong enough, fierce enough and willing to sacrifice enough, willing to take enough pain and shed enough blood. That, I always believed growing up, was the measure of a man. Now that I'm older, and maybe at least a little wiser, I kind of think that's naivete. But I still can't change, not really.

But love isn't about being strong and fierce and brave. It's about something else. I don't know what, but I know it's not that.

My life is littered with underachievement, with failures in the clutch, with things undone and things unsaid, and said things that never should have been.

But through it all, for 30 years, when the proverbial going gets tough, and I've had something I want within reach, I've fought with all I had to get it, and once gotten, keep it. Not always with success.

Maybe I'm a closet masochist. I don't know.

Can man truly change his nature? You know the story of the scorpion and the frog, right? The scorpion asks the turtle for a ride across the river, and the frog says "No, you'll sting me if I let you on my back, and I'll die." And the scorpion says "No, I won't, I promise. After all, if I sting you while we're on the river, I'll die, too." So the frog takes the scorpion on his back, and halfway across the river, he stings the frog, and the frog, paralyzed, sinks into the water. And as he's sinking, he says to the scorpion, "Why did you do that? Now we'll both die!" And the scorpion can only say, "It's in my nature."

And I've begun to suspect my nature, like Edwin Sumner's, is to act first and think later, to grit my teeth and fight to the last, for better or worse. But I wonder if, like Sumner, that's "Bull Head" stubbornness and not "Bull" strength. I wonder if, like Sumner, my very strength is also my very weakness.

On one hand, I've gotten very far. I have a good job at a major-league place where I'm well thought of. I have all the amenities of home, all the trappings of success, from sports car to credit-card debt. My freelance career could only be better if I got paid more. My dream of writing a horror movie is coming true (42 minutes of edited film and counting!).

I don't quit on dreams. I can't. They're what keep me going. The thought of the dreams Michelle shared with me that she hadn't achieved makes my heart ache, this day, years after she walked out of my life. And that has less to do with her than with the fear that this could be me. That's what I was thinking about tonight. If I am sound and fury enough, will I succeed? Or simply set myself up for the disappointment of someone who gave his all and got nothing in return? I've been there. It's not that fun. Nobody cares who loses the championship game. Is it better to never have played?

I've often said this, about Michelle back when, about my life, about my dreams:

I've realized it's better to reach for the stars, and miss, and fall - and I'm so afraid to fall - than stand on the ground, looking up at the sky and wondering what might have been.

Is it true? Or is it just the excuse to justify hauling myself off the canvas one last time in a losing fight, for pride and honor, against all common sense?

I have no answers. Say what you will about the fact that I continue to search.

Maj. Gen. Edwin Vose "Bull" Sumner, U.S.A.
The battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg

Be wary of sporadic updates for the next couple of weeks. I've got the HorrorFind convention coming up, and a lot of stuff I have to get done before then.