So let’s step back today, shall we? That’s it, keep going. Don’t worry, I’ll guide your backwards journey. Consider this the written equivalent of a trust fall.
While folding laundry, I noticed a “HAMILTON” shirt that was turned inside-out (it referred to our place of residence, not the super-popular, super-expensive Broadway play). “NOTJIMAH”, or something like it, stared back at me, and since folding laundry leaves some room for mind-wanderings, I found myself drifting backwards on a cloud of random thoughts.
Maybe I’m just guilty of thinking backwards in the pejorative sense, as “uninformed” or “not in fashion with the times”; or maybe just in the literal sense of seeing things back-to-front instead of front-to-back. But it seems to me backwards thinking shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
We commonly boast, “I know it backwards and forwards,” indicating thorough familiarity regarding a particular subject. I once attended a concert where Steve Howe, guitarist of Yes (and other groups), played a fan favorite—after announcing, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others, that he would do it backwards. I expect this column to polarize in much the same way, with a lot of confusion thrown in, too.
The ability to recite the alphabet backwards is used both as an indicator of giftedness in children, and, often entertainingly, as a measure of sobriety in adults. The gimmick of phrasing the questions backwards is, arguably, the only thing separating the TV show Jeopardy from a challenging round of pub trivia. Da Vinci often wrote backwards, his notes only decipherable when held up to a mirror. Ginger Rogers is praised for having done everything Fred Astaire did—but backwards. (Also in high heels, but I, your intrepid columnist, will only go so far.)
The Bible famously begins with “In the beginning,” though if it started with “In the end,” a lot of extra reading, theological theorizing, and existential hand-wringing might have been avoided. Some people skip to the back of a book to peek at the ending, but there’s a difference between doing things backwards and plain ol’ cheating, just like a mirror image isn’t really reversed left to right, but rather front to back. There’s something called a non-reversing mirror that reverses the traditional mirror image, giving you a “true” look at yourself. Some people claim this is a transformative experience, but I suspect it’s about as transformative as hearing yourself talk on a voice mail recording.
The nice thing about writing a column backwards is that when you get to the middle—just about now—things are the same whichever way you read them. How many sentences read the same forward and backward? Not a ton. In word salad, alas, drown I. Dammit, I’m mad!
Backwards thinking makes for great comic book villains, especially two of my favorite Superman foes, Mister Mxyzptlk and Bizarro. The mischievous Mxyzptlk can only be returned to his own dimension by tricking him into saying his own name backwards, while Bizarro just does everything backwards—to a point. On the square-shaped Bizarro World, valentines are given out on January 1st, you only pass your classes with failing grades, and women visit the “ugliness parlor”. In one of my favorite scenes, Superboy needs to win a baseball game against the Bizarros to get his dog Krypto back. He hits the ball over the fence, which of course, in Bizarro World, is an out. But presumably, the way to win would be to score fewer runs than your opponent. But then again, wouldn’t winning actually be losing? Confused? Naturally. It’s a lesson in backwards logic, and wonderfully silly, too.
Sometimes looking at—or listening to—something backwards can reveal information that’s not otherwise available. The born-again Christian music teacher at my all-boys Catholic high school occasionally regaled us with tirades against the evils of backwards masking, educating us by playing snippets of Queen and Led Zeppelin and hysterically shouting, “There! Did you hear what he said?” While this proved to be great entertainment and a welcome diversion from memorizing the birth and death dates of Bach, Beethoven, and other musically inclined wig-wearers, it more importantly revealed that the teacher’s judgment left something to be desired, a fact that his later “proofs” of the Earth being only 6,000 years old only confirmed.
The best thing about writing a column backwards (or at least, writing a backwards column) is that you can say things like “the end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end,” which, orated properly, can sound almost sensible, while confusing people into thinking they’re missing something.
I ended this column—or began it, if you’re not playing along—with the the phrase “Good day!” which itself has an unusual utility, serving equally well as a greeting or a goodbye. (See the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for a classic example of the latter).
Backwards or forwards, a word count is a word count, so it seems we’re coming to the end—excuse me, the beginning.