The Evolution of the Rear View Mirror

I once worked at a place where, shall we say, the politics were byzantine. I would joke with friends that I had a rear view mirror on my computer so I could see who was coming up from behind to stab me in the back.

Flashback to 1983 when I was in Buenos Aires, Argentina on business and was invited to the estancia of a local celebrity for dinner. My companion and I were seated with about ten others at a long, antique, wooden table. It was obviously a very old table. Curiously, the wall side of the table was in poor condition being severely scarred by deep cuts in the table top. I found it odd that our distinguished host would display furniture so damaged as everything else was in elegant taste.

I asked about the history of this unusual table and our host told me it came from England and had been in his family for hundreds of years. He said it came from the castle of some nobleman of the time. The cuts in the table were due to the fact that in those days they didn’t eat from plates (there were no plates) but all cut their meat and ate directly off the table. Forks hadn’t been invented yet either. Think of the money they saved on dish soap!

This table was larger than would fit anywhere in most people’s homes, even today. Back then, to only use half of it must have been quite a luxury.

Anticipating my next question he explained that in those coarse days, hosts and guests always sat with their backs to the wall, not wanting to be vulnerable to assassins. Even in the best of houses one never knew what servant might have been bribed to dispose of an unwitting visitor. And the poor rube didn’t even have a shiny plate with which to view his approaching doom. The typical serf didn’t often have house guests but one never knew who might cross the threshold at the local nobleman’s manse. And I thought my office politics were brutal.

As he spoke with his back to the wall I realized I was listening with my back exposed to the room. I became keenly aware of a draft and reflexively turned to the serving woman to assess her willingness and ability to slip a shiv into my back. She seemed oblivious to the conversation. If she had such designs, they were not on me.

The conversation turned to lighter topics and the meal was delicious.

Then a few years later I was at a job fair and one of the give-a-ways from one vendor was a spherical mirror for the computer monitor so you could see who was coming up behind you…

Amazing! Not only was I not alone in these feelings but someone actually took the initiative to fill this curious niche and produced the very thing I joked about having. Innovation lives on! Of course I grabbed one even though I didn’t need it anymore.

Thankfully, modern humans have evolved beyond those dark, Hobbesian days of tooth and claw where those without a friend were dispatched via a shining blade. Now such matters are handled more adroitly with a sharp tongue, or a pink slip.

Rear view mirrors are now an amusing novelty with no practical purpose.

Or are they?

Do you hear something?


Tornados in the news always remind me of that spring day when we frantically planted flowers anticipating the storm. Flower beds, lilacs across the back, raspberries up the side; like at the old house. Everyone contributed to the effort as the clouds loomed.  We wanted to take advantage of the coming rain.  Dad had bad knees from the war so he directed traffic while we all carried plants, dug holes and planted.

As we finished up word came of a tornado watch.  Exciting! Cool! We stowed tools and set to securing a safe shelter in the southwest corner of the basement. Like a family campout with blankets, snacks, flashlights, sodas.  Everything.  The emergency PSA admonished us to open some windows a crack to equalize the inside air pressure to the outside so the house wouldn’t explode.  Unreal, intense, mysterious.

Mom and little sister retired to the shelter while my Dad, my older brothers and I stood sentry on the front lawn, scanning the glowing green sky for a funnel cloud.  Suddenly, Dad said, “There it is. Let’s go!” And we ran inside and flew down the stairs.  Steve and Jeff out raced me but I flew down the stairs and it took mere seconds to get to our redoubt on the far side of the basement.  It was dark but Mom’s flashlight guided us.

“Where’s Dad?”  Mom was frantic.  I couldn’t hear her.  In those brief seconds the wind rose to such a pitch all I could hear was the howl of the tornado.   She yelled again, her voice a glass shattering in a jet engine.  Her face said it all.  I looked around in panic.  Chaos.  No Dad.  He made sure we were safe but he didn’t follow.  I left him behind.

“I don’t know! He was right behind me.”  Mom couldn’t hear me either but she understood.  She turned away, alone.

I’ll never forget that sound, the low growling howl, the lost chord sung by the damned; calling me.  What song is your house tuned to–would it hum in sympathetic harmony while being ripped apart at the seams?  The air was alive, dancing, enticing anything that would come.

That afternoon, preparing the house for the storm, stowing papers from the desk top where do you stop? How do you secure a whole house from a tornado?  It seemed futile and silly.  We opened windows. Is two inches enough?  Six too much?  The clouds roiled.  The air was electric.  Surreal.

There was nothing to do.  It was over us.  Nothing but wait and hope.  We were enveloped in chaos and sound, indistinguishable, one grotesque sound wave.

It faded.  It was only the most hellish seconds.  And now stark, silence.  What next?

“I’m here! I’m safe!” Dad was ten feet away from us.  Ten feet– three strides– a dive.  Slower coming down the stairs, when the wind hit, he hit the deck under something solid, the pool table.   He rode it out alone with God.  Tears of joy.  We ran to him.  All safe.

The house was intact. Curtains lay neatly on the bed, in the wrong room.  A gap on the wall where once a picture.  Furniture at random. One crystal glass plucked from a set of four.  Gone.

The garage slightly off its foundation.  The house was intact.

Our newly planted flowers stripped of leaves.  They came back.  Trash strewn everywhere.  Some girl’s doll.  For years after, whenever we dug into the earth shards of glass and broken shingle, driven inches into the clay in parallel pattern.  Eight tornadoes sighted that night.

The next day my teacher scolded me for not having my homework done.  She wouldn’t believe a tornado ate my homework.

Deja vu

I recently came across a notation of a dream I wrote down years ago. There is no date on it:

The Christmas Thief

A thief stealing Christmas gifts from under a tree is surprised by Santa Claus whose hand thrusts the thief into eternity.

Standing for eternity with his hand on the thief’s shoulder, Santa takes pity upon him where upon the thief ceases to have ever existed but in Santa’s memory.

Residing in Santa’s memory, the thief now is faced with the impossible choice of spending eternity in a frozen moment of guilty revelation or never to exist at all.

What does this mean? I still don’t get it.

Dreams are strange animals.

I once dreamed I by chance met an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years. Most of my dreams are mundane at best and I quickly forgot it.

Then I was in a photography gallery contemplating making a purchase when who should walk in the door but my old friend from the dream who I hadn’t seen in years! I immediately remembered the dream. (That this should have happened in a photography gallery, where captured, frozen moments of time are displayed seems apt.)

It was a perfect déjà vu. Seeing him, I was shocked and amazed and speechless as I kept realizing our encounter was a replay of my dream. But the curious thing was that I acted the same way in the dream. I found myself caught between two worlds, identical yet interacting in my mind as the moments passed. Every time I tried to speak I would get caught in the déjà vu and balk which confirmed the déjà vu.

My friend must have thought I had gone mad seeing me incapable of normal conversation.  Perhaps I had; or one of me had anyway. It is a short circuit of time. The image of a mirror reflecting a mirror is commonly used and is a good but flawed analogy. That sight in a mirror is amazing and it draws you in with a sense of vertigo but it doesn’t create the sense of fragmented time that I felt.

The moment passed but I still puzzle over it. What does one do with such an experience? You can only attempt to capture it in words which are such a pale recreation of that extraordinary moment where you are literally in two places at once but the two places are identical.

It lasted just long enough to make me conscious of the possibility that it might not stop. But it did.