Them’s the Brakes

“She seemed to be such a happy person.” I have read that refrain, or something like it, so many times following a suicide.  Or conversely, the decedent may have been labeled a “sad person,” suggesting his own life was almost expected. Regardless of whether we say a person is “happy” or “sad,” what criteria do we use to make those judgments about people we probably do not know? For that matter, how do we classify ourselves, and on what basis?

Happiness and sadness are subjective attributes, though objective measures of their markings can be made. Yet having a smile or a frown on one’s face or having furrowed or smooth brows does not assure correct assumptions about a person’s state of mind. But we tend to collect behavioral clues and make subjective judgments based on them. I doubt we make those judgments solely on the basis of those behavioral clues, though. We blend those clues with our perspectives, which have been shaped through experience, leading to our judgments. A different set of experiences blended with those behavioral clues might have led to a completely different judgment. In both cases, the judgment amounts to a biased guess that we might dress up by calling it something else: “an empirically solid assessment,” perhaps.


I woke up this morning with a rather assertive backache from my mid-back to the bottom of my spine. This often happens when I sleep on my back. I always start on my side, but apparently during the night I toss and turn a bit. Frequently, I turn onto my back and stay that way for far too long. The pain may not be entirely my fault. It may be that the mattress is too soft. Or is it too hard? With a different mattress, would I tend not to roll over onto my back? Or, if I did, would I not develop aches and pains? Rather than invest in another mattress, though, perhaps I should invest in a good massage. Starting from the base of my skull and moving all the way down to the tip of my spine, a deep massage might erase the pain, turning that ache into its antithesis…whatever that might be. I would gladly pay for such a massage, delivered by someone whose strong hands and thorough knowledge of massage would deliver me from discomfort. And I just might.


Every human voice may not be unique, but most are sufficiently different that we can identify a speaker solely from the sound of her voice. I wonder whether individuals of other species can assign specific individual identities to the intra-species sounds they hear? Does a goat hear the bleat of another goat and say to itself, “Oh, that’s the bleat of Gloria Goat?” My curiosity about whether other creatures can identify friends and family by sound was triggered this morning when I heard a rather complex, elaborate bird call. An experienced naturalist might be able to say, oh, that’s a Carolina Wren (or whatever), but he cannot identify the specific bird making the noise. But can birds differentiate between individual calls/songs? I could ask them, but they will not answer. At least not in a language I understand.


I sometimes begin writing about something on my mind but, as I think about it, I decide to delete what I have written. I pick something else, something completely unrelated to what I had first begun to write. The reason is that I realize readers might assume the topic I had written was relevant in some way to me when, in fact, it is not. And for whatever reason, I find it easier to just avoid the topic than to attempt to explain why, given its irrelevance, I am writing about it. Odd, these little personal foibles that are damn near impossible to explain, much less defend.


I’ve allowed too much time to pass during the last hour and a half. I’m putting on the brakes.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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