Pen Ultimate / Reverse Psychology

Moving backward in time and space is not as impossible as one might think

When I was in the ninth grade, I was lucky enough to live practically next door to my school. My father used to joke that I could safely leave home at five minutes past eight (when class usually started ), walk backward - and still be on time. Those days were not to last, however: At the end of the year the school moved to a new location on the other side of town, and getting there was no longer a laughing matter. But my father's quip continued to be useful for me as a way of describing a hoped-for situation, despite the fact that it mixed two different notions of moving backward: in space and time.

The same notion is expressed much more poetically by William Shakespeare in "Hamlet" (Act 2, scene ii ). The Danish prince, with a book in his hands, is asked what he is reading by Polonius, the king's closest confidant. Hamlet answers, famously, "words, words, words" - only to be nudged again by his interlocutor, who does not understand that one should never come between a man and his book, and persists: "What is the matter ... that you read, my lord?" The prince says: "Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward."

Now, crabs do not usually walk backward, but rather typically use their 10 legs to propel themselves sideways and, most frequently, forward. This also goes for those with eyes on the sides of their heads. I don't know if anyone has ever figured out why moving forward seems to be most natural for us and other living creatures. In our minds, time also moves from past to present to future, and we interpret this as going forward and as progress. Whenever we reverse ourselves and move back in time or space, we are thus acting contrary to our natural tendency. Of course, the muscular and nervous systems of people and animals allow them to move backward, although they may do so with head and eyes facing front, slowly and hesitatingly.

A comic strip by cartoonist Bob Thaves perhaps best shows how difficult it is for people to move backward. Created in 1982, when the feminist revolution was well under way, the strip had two characters, Frank and Ernest, peering at a poster announcing "Fred Astaire Film Festival." A female onlooker says to them: "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backward and on high heels."

Clearly, Astaire was great in his own right, as a dancer, singer and actor, but in most of his stage and film appearances he was teamed up with a female counterpart. These included his sister Adele on stage, and dancer-singer-actors like Cyd Charisse, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth - and of course Ginger Rogers, with whom he starred in 10 musical films between 1933 and 1949.

A dance duet, even if it's a wild tap dance, is usually performed with male and female facing each other, with him leading (and often holding her in his arms ) and her being led, and consequently moving backward. Surely that is more difficult, and it is she who does it whereas he does not - although she at least has his eyes to pave the way for her. Especially in the case of duos like Astaire and Rogers it looks like a piece of cake (walk ) for her, but it is damn difficult, especially when moving at a fast clip - in high heels to boot.

Those who preach the gospel of making our lives happier and healthier, and believe it is important for humans to challenge their capabilities and stretch the potential of their brains, nerves and muscles, claim it is worthwhile to walk or even jog backward. A person burns one-fifth more calories jogging backward, while taking 100 steps backward is equivalent to 1,000 steps in the other direction. Additional benefits of backward exercise include the fact that over time balance, hearing and peripheral vision are improved (the system has to compensate for not seeing where it goes ); one's abdominal muscles get a great workout; and people who have had knee surgery or suffer leg or ankle injuries recover faster. In other words: Backward ho, on your way to a better future.

This is all fine and dandy, but I'm not young anymore and certainly not as nimble as I was in the first paragraph. I don't wear high heels, nor do I walk much at all, for that matter. Indeed, I share with Polonius "most weak hams" and travel mainly on a three-wheel electric scooter.

Inventors of motorized vehicles have always endowed their creations with the ability of traveling both forward and backward (albeit, usually much slower ). Indeed, the reverse gear (from the Latin revertere - "turn back" ) has been an integral part of every automobile since 1875. Inventors grasped the fact that unlike agile, two-legged humans who can turn 360 degrees on a dime - a four-wheeled chariot needs to move forward and backward in order to be maneuvered, for example, into parking spaces. Drivers are assisted in that delicate process of reversing by rear-view mirrors, and in recent years by sensors that beep faster and faster as the rear end of the car approaches another vehicle or obstacle.

Scooters like mine are not equipped with mirrors or sensors, but their three-wheel design allows much better maneuverability than any car. Of course, I must turn around and look carefully before reversing, but despite the fact that neither my head nor anyone else's can turn 180 degrees, I am usually able to see quite well where I'm heading. I use the reverse gear on my scooter to maneuver at such times, although I usually do not drive backward for more than a meter, at most. That is, unless I am confronted with a situation such as when alighting recently from a train at the Cologne Bonn Airport station, on my way back to Israel.

At that very moment, I discovered that my scooter has whims of its own: It insisted on only moving backward. Being used to objects behaving badly, I sat down, put one hand on my four-wheeled suitcase and the other on my steering wheel, turned my head around as far as my neck would allow - and embarked on my nerve-racking journey backward, to the check-in counter in the airport. Somehow I navigated along the platform toward an elevator, which I backed into carefully since it had a narrow entrance, and proceeded through a couple of corridors, into another elevator and so forth until I reached the counter.

Let me tell you: It can be done - hell, I did it - but easy it ain't. Especially if you misjudge the approach into an elevator or doorway and your rear wheel gets stuck. You cannot move forward and have to get off the scooter, drag it sideways, get on again and keep backing up - forward, as it were.

While my plane was racing along the runway, I couldn't help thinking that dancing backward on high heels is perhaps not as difficult as one might think.