Why Anecdotes

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There’s always something to suggest that you’ll never be who you wanted to be.
Your choice is to take it or keep on moving.

Phylicia Rashad, best known as Clair Huxtable, wife to Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show

In pondering how best to write about my life and beliefs, I realised the notion of ‘Anecdotes’ seemed to best capture the intended content. A collection of events and amusing incidents drawn from my experience. Never recorded anywhere, they only ever emerge during conversation with others from time to time. Sadly, it’s inevitable that we become repetitive with time and the challenge becomes to recall whether a particular anecdote has been mentioned to this individual, or to that group, before!

However, the word ‘anecdote’ proves more problematic than it appears. The OED defines anecdote as ‘a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person’. It cites a Greek origin, ‘an’ meaning ‘not’ and ‘ekdotos’ deriving from ‘publish’, it literally means ‘things unpublished’ – which immediately puts this publication into something of a logical infinite loop. Does these remain anecdotes now they have been published? Perhaps publishing them will mean I can no longer use any of them again. I guess I will need your help to help to create new ones!

 Apple’s Cupertino headquarters

Apple’s Cupertino headquarters
ASIDE: Infinite loop always makes me think of Apple. When the young Steve Wozniak was working a day-per-week at Sylvania, a consumer electronics company, he first learned to program. He consumed a FORTRAN manual and ambitiously set his very first task as the tough old chestnut of the Knight’s Tour challenge. This involves moving a knight chess piece. The goal is to establish a process by which in just 64 moves it visits all 64 squares of the chessboard. Wozniak, with some assistance, set out to keypunch his program to work out a solution.  His approach was a process of elimination to establish the correct start point.  Once compiled he loaded the software, but nothing appeared to happen. The Sylvania team established that his program had put the computer into a loop, an infinity loop. On further investigation Wozniak calculated that the program he had written would take longer to run than the universe had existed to date! Now you know why the address of the building in Cupertino where Apple has its headquarters today is One Infinite Loop.

The OED ‘anecdote’ definition says it had something to do with Socrates who refused to publish his spectacular thought processes, believing that writing served to imprison knowledge. His immortality was assured by Plato and others who did record his thoughts after his death – the ‘imprisoning’ had value. Plato’s account of the trial and conviction of Socrates reported that the great philosopher failed to defend himself against a death sentence. He merely repeated his belief that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’. Reaching my seventieth birthday seems to be a very good moment for me to examine mine.

Socrates and Plato

Collins Dictionary is based on American English usage and provides a different definition – ‘a short, entertaining account of some happening, usually personal or biographical’. Collins goes on to identify ‘anecdote’ as one of ‘its’ ten-thousand most-commonly-used words.

Unhelpfully, the OED and other dictionaries provide a further sense in which an anecdote is described as unreliable evidence, as a sort of yarn or tall tale. This prompts caution as reminiscence seldom casts the teller in a negative light, and eye-witnesses to an event seldom agree on what actually occurred.  I will leave you to decide which definition fits my anecdotes or perhaps we should simply agree that anecdotes are subjective memory, a personal viewpoint – in this case mine!

Another reason for anecdotes is my early realisation that I would rather watch the highlights on Match of the Day than sit through a whole football match – though this is not the case with rugby! I skim newspapers, magazines, television and radio to seek the essence of their material. Thus, for this exercise I thought it would be smart to get to the pith, leaving out too much exposition and philosophising, and not struggling to find purpose – instead I will report events as I recall them. I make no apologies for the name-dropping where that anecdote involved a ‘name’.

This is a simple report of the incidents that I believe to have cumulatively shaped me.

Seventy years – gone in a flash!

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