The first time I saw it happen, I was taking my boat out of the harbor, and about 50 yards away I saw a seagull flying backwards. It was one of those quirks of nature, one of those things that shouldn’t be possible but happens anyway. It was a beautiful sight, his wings outstretched, his nose pointed one direction and his body moving backwards against the landscape of the island behind him and the water below.
Recently, on a particularly windy day, I told my instrument instructor that I always wanted to fly backwards, and as is typical of him he said, “let’s do it.” We had other plans for that day, and I wasn’t in the mood to change them, so I opted for another time. Apparently, it’s an easy thing to do, especially in a small, low-powered airplane such as a Piper Cub or a Cessna 150. The wings of a J3 Cub stall at about 33 knots, or about 38 miles an hour, so all you need to do to fly backwards is to point your nose into a 45 mile an hour wind, fly just over stall speed, and you can find yourself flying backwards over the ground. Find a stiff 60 mile an hour wind or more and you can fly backwards at 20 miles an hour.
Although I have never flown backwards, I have done many other things backwards. The Pimsleur language wizards somehow figured out that it’s easier to learn difficult foreign words by rehearsing the syllables backwards, which is how I learned how to say thank you in Armenian (shnorhakalutyun).
Reading backwards is tricky at first, but after a while it gets easier, because, just like reading forwards, one begins to notice patterns. When I first moved to California, the moment I looked at the sign for the street named “Moorpark” I cracked up laughing. Reading it backwards, I thought that it was a joke, but none of the locals seemed to know it.
In Northern California, where I wrote the first draft of this post, there is a town called Ukiah. I never looked it up to see if it was intentional that it was named for the 17-syllable poem we all had to write as kids in school. Maybe someone else who values his or her precious time even less than I do will look it up for me.
A friend was visiting me from New York, and when somehow the conversation came to reading or speaking backwards, he immediately mentioned the Long Island town of Lynbrook, which is not really backwards, just a swapping of the syllables of Brooklyn, but still, I think, clever enough to be mildly entertaining.
There is a natural food store in LA that is called “Erewhon.” It is actually one letter off, but it is more difficult to read “Erehwon,” and as far as I’m concerned they can be forgiven.
I had always assumed Oprah’s parents were Marx Brothers’ fans, until I read that her birth name was actually Orpah, after a biblical character. Apparently, people mispronounced it as “Oprah” frequently enough for it to stick. Oprah calls her production company Harpo Productions, so at least she gets it.
There is also a coffee shop called Amocat in Washington (guess what city it’s in?) and one in Tokyo called Alucard, which as far as I know does not serve doolb. And my old buddy Francis Albert used to sign his oil paintings as Artanis.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So, by illogical extension, perhaps if I get up in the air on a particularly windy day, rent an old Cessna, point my nose directly into the wind, and slow down, I will begin to understand life as I find myself flying backwards. But I doubt it.