Thursday, June 11, 2009

What's It All About, Alfie? The Origins of Dancing Madly Backwards Again

When I began this anthology of haphazard psychotic ramblings and eccentric observations, I promised you, dear reader(s), that one day I would explain the curious appellation it bears. What exactly is the provenance of Dancing Madly Backwards Again?

Well, I'm glad you asked. It all started about 29 years ago. It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. No, wait. That's Ode to Billie Joe. It was actually early September 1980, and a naive kid from Troy was beginning his Freshman year at Ohio University. I had chosen OU in part for the excellent journalism department, in part because it was a relatively small school in a small town, not unlike whence I came. But in large part, I chose to matriculate there (NO, NOT THAT. It's not even spelled that way. Look it up.) because of the bucolic atmosphere of Athens, Ohio. It seemed like a place where I could pursue my studies without much distraction.

Fast forward two months, to November when, as a freshly minted 18 year old, I was proudly voting in my first general election, and for the presidency, no less. I pulled the curtain in the voting booth and cast my vote for John Anderson, who was running as an independent. Did I mention I was naive? John finished strong, netting about 3% of the popular vote. In case you slept through history class, a guy named Ronald Reagan, actor and former Governor of California (kind of like Schwarzenegger, only he did films with a monkey) was elected President of the United States. Yes, it happened kids. You can pretend it didn't, but that won't make it so. You can wish Carter had been re-elected; then you can wish in one hand......

No, Reagan was president. In fact, it was a landslide victory, so the election was called fairly early the night of November 4. So I woke up November 5 with trepidation. I thought Trepidation was an odd name, so I asked her again. It turned out her name was Trudy. I promised I'd call her, and headed back to my dorm.

That's when I saw it. Directly across the street from the main campus green stood the College Bookstore. It was an independent business, not affiliated with the university in any way. It just so happened that its owners were peculiarly unimaginative. Hence the name College Bookstore.

But I digress (because you'd be disappointed if I didn't). The entrance to the bookstore was actually facing Court Street, the main business road for the town. So facing the college green was a huge brick wall that made up the side of the bookstore. And there, freshly spray-painted on the wall, were the words that would haunt me for life:

Dancing Madly Backwards Again

The meaning wasn't immediately obvious. I studied it for days. Every night, on my way to the quiet confines of The Union, where I studied, I passed that wall and it's haunting message. And at 2:30, when The Union closed, I'd walk past that missive of unknown origin once again. I thunk and I thunk and I thunk and I, being a bear of very little brain, got tired of all that goddamn thunking.

You must understand the context of the time, dear reader(s). 1980 was a transitional time. The tumult of the 60s was still fresh in the mind of the student population, especially the older ones on the 10 year plan. The massacre at Kent State was just a short 8 years past. The crimes of Watergate and the disgrace of President Nixon had soured us on politics as usual. Dissent wasn't even considered treason then, like it has been for the last 8 years. In short, Athens was a bastion of free thought and radical political views.

So in that heady brew of intellectual thought, cheap beer, and good weed, an idea was born. The night Reagan became President-Elect of the United States of America, some unknown radical summed up his feelings in four short but effective words.

With the election of the Father of Neo-Conservatism, the architect of trickle-down economics, one bright soul saw our nation in retrograde. After the disillusionment with our government, the loss of trust in the office, our fellow citizens saw fit to elect the one man who represented the worst of what America was. Put briefly, our beloved country was dancing madly backwards again.

Those words stayed on that wall for years. They may be there still, I don't know. Every time I go back to Athens, I experience a flashback, so I haven't been there for a while. But they were there for the span of my career there. And that phrase became ingrained in my subconscious, where it took on a life of its own, and gained a multitude of meanings.

What it eventually became for me was a metaphor for life. When I dropped out of school: Dancing Madly Backwards Again. When I failed at running a business: Dancing Madly Backwards Again. You see where I'm going here.

On the surface, it doesn't sound like a healthy philosophy for living one's life. It's not a very positive metaphor. But I've grown into it. It reminds me of my successes as much as my failures. It teaches me that, no matter how bad things seem, they could be worse, and there is still hope someday that we may dance forward into a better place. Yeah, it sounds lame, and if I were the type of writer who frets over rewrites constantly, I'm sure I could spiff up the sentiment. But it is what it is.

Steely Dan sings, "They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose." If there is one thing I've learned in my 47 orbits of the sun, it's this: life is about losing. You lose family, you lose friends, you lose lovers, you lose jobs, you lose money, yer dog, yer truck, yer double wide.....In any contest there is only one winner. The rest of us are losers. The New York City Marathon hosts thousands of runners every year. The one who covers 26 miles the fastest is the winner. The rest of them are losers.

My point is that "loser" carries a stigma it doesn't deserve. I am a loser. But if I had never tried, I couldn't have lost. And that means that at some time in the contest, I believed I could be a winner. So what does it really mean to be a loser? To me it means that I believed, I gave everything I had in the battle. And a stronger person won, and that person deserves my respect, and if she is truly deserving, she will see I deserve her respect as well.

When you think about it like that, being a loser isn't such a bad thing after all, is it? So I'll wear that with pride. And I will continue dancing madly backwards; again, and again, and again.


  1. Honey, I think this is one of the best things you've ever written. Life is truly about losing, we both know that,in everything we have went through over the years. But there is one thing thing that wasn't completly about losing, us. We did get lost for awhile, but we found each other again, and that in and of itself was truly a blessing. I know it took me almost dying for us to figure it out, but we did figure it out. I love you for everything you are, everything you stand for, even tho we don't always agree on that, and everything that is yet to come. You have my heart.

  2. I think you both have clear vision on the notion of losing. I like Karen's observation that "finding" not just "winning" can be the opposite of losing. That mindset moves the discussion from challenge, competition and failure to deciding what to carry, what to leave behind and what (things, people, ideas) are important enough to retrace one's steps to reclaim. Seems like you both know a thing or two about finding and winning.