I've had some Big Befores & Afters. Befores & Afters get their bigness from the size of the Event. The ampersand dividing Before from After is an Event. Every person has two big B&As guaranteed: Before & After Birth and Before & After Death. Those guaranteed B&As are a joke on humans: The first has only an After, the second only a Before. One could make the case for Death & Birth as being just one Before and one After, but that's only if one thinks that there isn't any Before or After if one doesn't know what it is. But nobody'd be fool enough to assume that. There are plenty of Events missing a knowable Before or After, like what was there before I got here and what's going to be here after I leave. Just because I don't know, doesn't mean that there won't be some doozies of B&As.
Most people know a passel of Before & Afters in one lifetime from tiny to huge. Life itself may be said to consist of a series of Befores & Afters linked by the ampersands of privately or publicly significant Events. What is certain is that the Event has made enough of an impression on a person to forever reference oneself as the self before and the self after.
Overlaying the infinitely cracked mirror of one's private self are the public Befores & Afters that make up a community. Until several people experience a common Before & After there is no community. The bigger the Event the more people experience a Before & After. Historical events have a big enough Before & After to bind a nation. Every war, successful or not, serves that function. In that sense, all wars are civil wars because the people involved mark their history Before & After the War.
The other big community-making Before & After is natural catastrophe. The people of New Orleans will always divide life into Before & After Katrina. New Orleanians were already, traditionally prone to dividing life in a series of big & small Befores & Afters because their history was fraught with wars, riots, epidemics, national identity crises and hurricanes. Each of those misfortunes had a Before & After that gave rise to a slew of remembrances, re-remembrances, rewritings, embroiderings, recastings, memorializations and rituals. A historic city like New Orleans is the sum total of its memories of catastrophes ritualized from the divide of Before & After in every aspect of civic life: architecture, language, civic associations, festivals and relations with its neighbors. The specifics of the Event that made for the break between Before & After are often lost in the swell of dramatization that rushes in to fill the divide.
I'm only examining this because I've had, as I've said, some big ones: Before & After Emigration, Before & After Communism, and now Before & After Katrina. There is no escape from what history deals you any more than there is an escape from the two guaranteed B&As life deals you. The good thing is that when you go through an Event with a lot of people, you feel close to them, close enough to go with them through the ampersands of any coming Befores & Afters, G-d forbid.
And speaking of G-d, I have it on good authority that the only thing they look at in the afterlife is your B&A score. The bigger ones you have, the better your chances of having a pleasant After.
Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City.