I have this weird sort of history with poptarts. On my desk at the Kentucky Mesonet is a carefully pressed poptart wrapper. I’ve kept it for years, both to add color to my desk clutter and because it was miscut, the pattern that normally sits front and center instead being split in half, one partition on either side, leaving the bulk of the poptart wrapper to the company’s iconic blue. But I also have history with reeses cups–they come in pairs, and both are prone to get me feeling down. I’ll finish whatever bite I’m on and reach back into the package, searching about with muscle memory but not looking, and I’ll come to realize that I had already eaten the second half of the treat. Perhaps I wasn’t paying much attention to how much of the snack I had eaten, or perhaps my short term memory is none too impressive. Regardless of how it happens, eating these snacks is emotional, frequently ending in my raising a fist and vowing to get my revenge on past Bryan.
Yet other times past Bryan isn’t so bad. Some of my happiest “little things” memories is reaching into my backpack during my undergrad Gay and Lesbian Literature course and finding a poptart, package unopened, both pieces in perfect, unbroken condition. Apparently I had bought it earlier on my way up the hill to class. I couldn’t remember, but I knew past Bryan had my back.
Past Bryan also wrote a post two years ago about Herbert Simon, abstraction, decision making, and, central to his concluding remarks, habits, practice, and “memory chunking.” After ten years of practice developing some one skill, we’d be as talented at that skill as a chess grandmaster is at, well, chess–at least in terms of the memory chunks, units of cognition that enable us to see “bed” as a word representing our happy place, not as the three letters that make it up, B, E, and D.
Also in that post, past Bryan asked us to bear with him as he started to go through some changes; he knew that his last undergrad semester was beginning, so soon he would be moving on to graduate school as most of his friends moved back home. Plus, he was getting married; the Christmas just a month before he had proposed to his significant other of four years, so that coming August–no, not that one, the one after that one–they would be walking down the aisle at a vineyard, by a lake, in a nondenominational ceremony, that way his mother and father could both be there. On two fronts then, his “process,” that practice at writing blog posts each week, was about to go through changes. Life gets busy, and we have to adapt. But past Bryan wasn’t afraid. He had things planned out–not so far as to already have baby names for his grandchildren picked out or the colors of his second house coordinated with his mid-life-crisis convertable, but he had a rough idea of where life was taking him.
That semester he stopped keeping up with his blog. Past Bryan was making a transition out of his creative nonfiction routine, playing with genre as he pitched a satirical syllabus as a retelling of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. He passed Creative Retellings, and satire had opened up in him a realization that he can get away with writing anything he wants. Only in letting go and writing freely, in crossing through that jungle-like ice-cream shop of absurdity and weird metaphor, could he reach, well, I don’t know, something. Something grand. Whatever the hell it is.
That summer, past Bryan began working on his master’s thesis, falling into a routine specifically crafted to keep him productive. The driving mechanism of this routine was a scheduling concept–if he was better at writing after taking a walk, then he should delay all writing-heavy tasks until after lunch, when he would visit the gas station a mile from his fiance’s house to buy a kickstart and a bag of chips. And so, over the course of a few months, he had arranged his life as a carefully sequenced priority queue of tasks, each assigned a classification based on when it would be best to tackle.
But this routine couldn’t last, and again past Bryan had to accept change as inevitable as the next semester drew near, the first semester of graduate school, the first semester of a quickening in pace and an increase in rent. Getting things done, it began to seem, was much more work at this stage in life than simply “spending ten years of practice doing some one thing.” If our patterns improve the longer we follow them, the mind learning to adapt to the regularity so we become more productive, then how do we account for the sudden changes in our lives, uprooting us from our comfortable “day in, day outs?”
Past Bryan began to struggle with this question. He found comfort in this question. He found distraction in this question from his failing relationship with his fiance, the tension growing over the duration of several wet Kentucky fall months. They were becoming more distant, less intimate, less able to agree on the road ahead of them. He began spending more time away from her, staying at his unfurnished, one-bedroom apartment, nearer his school work, nearer his problems that needed solving. He wrote a paper about antifragility and hypothetical rabbits. He had figured out the math for a simple model that got better, adapted quicker, healed as it was exposed to continuous inputs from stressors. His best friend, Joey, commemorated him on his practiced, stubborn stoicism. He had a plan he was seeing through, simple as that.
His next step was to present some work he had done on social network analysis. He was laying in bed the night before, nervous about the next day’s drive to Lexington for the conference, and he was waiting for the text–like Mary Jane’s “go get ‘em tiger”–that said “good luck,” any text, at all, from her. But he knew she wouldn’t write; she had moved out of her mom’s house, taken up smoking and drinking, began cooking and selling “jollies,” and totaled the car they had bought together. Whoever she was the Christmas before finally died in that car crash.
The lights were off, and the sun and moon were tucked away behind the horizon, just as he had tucked himself away from the world under his blanket, when a notification buzzed, lit up the otherwise silent bedroom. The text began, “good luck.” But it wasn’t a text–the icon was wrong. It was an email, and Dr. Atici, his new graduate advisor, was wishing him good luck and a safe trip tomorrow.
I stopped. That killed me. I fought through the panic attack’s shakes and texted Joey. I needed him to know that the stoicism I had had–it had finally given up. Some solid candy coating had finally fallen away and my insides were goo, new to the world and scared as shit. Careful planning and stochastic modeling had long ago failed me and I was utterly lost and just now realizing that the future was as big and unlit as the world outside my blanket. At least in here I had the glow of my Android phone.
I watched all of Buffy, seasons one through four, on that phone. Each day after class and work–which were, at this point, beginning to run together as I was taking on new responsibilities each week as a graduate assistant–, I would lean in on the only table in my apartment, eat soup, and try to keep Spencer’s paws away from my chicken noodles, the two of us kept company by the Scoobies and thier adventures in Sunnydale.
Our relationship, my fiance’s and mine, ended as quietly as that fall semester did. Looking through her drawers for a piece of paper to scratch out on an idea for my thesis, I found a note addressed to a coworker of hers at Chili’s. She said she didn’t miss him–she was homesick for him. I took pictures of the note–and the Plan B package, her new vibrator, and three empty condom wrappers–to convince future Bryan it was all real, that I really had left the note on her pillow while she was at work, packed my laundry, and drove an hour and a half in silence back to Bowling Green, to my cat, to my empty, one bedroom apartment. At some point I must have grabbed the ring from her shelf, and at some point she must have stopped wearing it, claiming she simply didn’t want to tarnish it working in the kitchen all day, because it’s back in its box, at the bottom of a new end table in my living room.
I think I grabbed that ring because I didn’t want her to pawn it. I didn’t want it to go away. I didn’t want to remember what changes she had been through, becoming a person I didn’t know or couldn’t trust. I wanted to keep it to give it back, to give something back to past Bryan. Because somewhere along the way, I stopped being him. I stopped being future Bryan, and I stopped being the reasoning machine Herbert Simon reduced me to. I stopped writing this blog, too, and I lost whatever practice I had going two years ago. That, I can get back by taking a second masters, this time in Rhetoric and Composition, but past Bryan’s certainty is gone.
I can’t account for the future with certainty. Any forseeable plans I have will undoubtedly change; all models of the world are wrong, even if some have been useful so far. I can preach system’s thinking as a means for understanding the world in all its complexity, but the world won’t stop being complex. Seeking better understanding will make us stronger, as a species, and it will make us more productive and it will save lives, but it will never console us. I have to be brave. I have to do that for myself. ∎