Do you remember the origin of catch-22? In Joseph Heller's World War II masterpiece it's whereby following the rules to solve a problem you go around in a circle and come back to the original problem.
Thus Doc Daneeka turns down Yossarian's plan to plead insanity so as to be excused from flying dangerous missions.
“Sure there's a catch,” Doc replies. Anyone who wants to be excused from flying dangerous missions, he explains, can't be insane.
If you have had a disagreement with the IRS you will know the feeling, but I had an experience last week without any help from the government.
One morning at 6 o'clock I set out on a hike on the fire road from the Angeles National Forest fire station on Angeles Crest Highway.
It was a perfect day, black as night so to speak, warm, not a breath of air and no sound but the occasional swish of a car on the road below.
As I walked on, however, I heard the noise of an animal ahead, a deep-pitched, insistent moaning sound that became louder and more frequent as I moved on toward a small clump of trees.
As I understand it, animals make these repeated sounds either to keep out intruders they think are ugly or to invite intruders they think are beautiful. Wanting neither to fight nor couple with this stranger, I began to have qualms about confronting it. The basic rule is that if it feels unsafe and you are alone, go back.
I tried to steel myself. “Are you a man or a mouse?” I asked.
But then I imagined the humiliation of having my weeping family rouse the firefighters to rescue an old fool last seen being dragged off in the jaws of a mountain lion. I stood there in the dark, torn between going on and doing what I find so painful — turning around.
In the end I followed the rule, turned back — and regretted it immediately, so much in fact that I went back the next morning but saw nothing.
That afternoon, however, another hiker I'd talked to emailed to say he had gone out, too (checking on my sanity, I suppose) and had not only heard but had seen the creature — not a lovelorn jackal or a wailing banshee or an orangutan that had escaped from the zoo — but an owl.
Now, as we know from Thomas Gray's “Elegy,” one of the most beautiful poems in the English language, the owl does no more than complain when some human disturbs its “ancient, solitary reign.”
So I could have walked on as a man without the slightest problem. But, by turning back and becoming a mouse, an owl's favorite food, my chances of surviving, if seen, would have been close to nil.
Clearly this conundrum is not in the same league as Yossarian's. But it is equally wounding to the self-esteem.
P.S.: I feel I also missed a trick when my hiker friend broke the news. I could have said what the English schoolboy said when told the same thing. “Yes, I know it was an 'owl. But 'oo 'owled?”
REG GREEN lives in La Cañada. His website is www.nicholasgreen.org.