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the everyman memoirs

The official blog of author Tali Nay.
JAN
26

How a Writer Measures Time

I have this thing I do, where if I buy something in bulk, I try and calculate the amount of time it will take before I need to buy it again. Then I picture what life might be like at that time; what might have happened in my life by then. And please understand that when I say I picture it, I really do. I spend moments of time waxing pensive over all the different possibilities, the different versions of life that may have played out.

For illustration's sake, let's take q-tips. I buy them in bulk at Costco, 3 packs each containing 625 q-tips. This is 1875 q-tips, which at my normal rate of using 2 q-tips per day, means that they will last 937 days. For those keeping track at home, that is two-and-a-half years. And what will my life be like then? What things will have happened (or not)? Will I be in this relationship? Will I be in another? Will I be at this company, in this house, in this city, this state? Will I be healthy? Will my cat? I'm finishing one of these bulk packs right now, getting ready for the new one, which means nearly two-and-a-half years ago I had this same internal conversation, wondering what my life would be like at this point. It's not exactly that I make goals and measure myself against them. I don't even remember what I had even thought back then, if I had particular hopes for this moment. I can say that my life is certainly different in a few ways, and in many more it is the same. I suppose it's the unknown of it all that has me once again envisioning what another two-and-a-half years might look like.

It reminds me of a recent This American Life podcast where Ira Glass and team were exploring the idea of alternate universes. It's a topic that will probably get any writer waxing pensive, because this whole idea of all the other ways life could have turned out based on different decisions made is almost paralyzing fascinating. It's the Sliding Doors principle (that Gwyneth Paltrow movie where two different versions of her life are played out based only on whether she makes a particular train one night or if she doesn't), where something so simple can change the course of a life. I went to graduate school with a girl who, after graduation, treated herself to a trip to Europe where she met a man after getting on the wrong train. The wrong train! They married and have four children, but what if she hadn't gotten on that wrong train? What if she'd found the correct train? 

Some physicists believe that for every decision we make, there is an alternate universe that exists in which we make the opposite decision. I'd give anything to take a peek into those realities and see how things would have shaken out, how happy I appear to be compared to the reality of this universe that I have chosen. Of course, that's not possible. We have only this one universe, this single pack of q-tips by which to measure our progress. So I guess I'll see you in another two-and-a-half years.

SEP
09

Our Version of Truth

A fan of Ira Glass and his weekly This American Life broadcasts (LaDonna, anyone??), I haven't been able to shake the story told in last week's How I got into College episode. The one about the Bosnian student who believed a certain teacher's reaction to an essay he wrote was the catalyst for the series of occurances that ultimately led him to success. Listening to the student's version, it's a great story. One that makes clear not only the gratitude he has for her impact upon his life, but also pinpoints the exact moment, the specific thing, that started the chain reaction. In this case, the essay. In the student's mind, if he hadn't written that essay, if his teacher hadn't read it, if she hadn't then told him he needed to get himself to a better school and then created the opportunity for him to do so, then he wouldn't be where he is today. It was the essay, see. The essay was the thing.

Interestingly, when they tracked down the teacher years later, she debunked the student's theory, assuring him the essay had played no part. She'd been watching him for months, she says, observing his talents and capabilities and determining he needed more than their school could offer long before he'd ever written the essay. You could tell from the student's reaction that he was having a hard time accepting this. He kept trying to bring the essay back into the conversation, even suggesting that while not the main driver then, it at least contributed to her determination that he needed a new school. Sounding almost frustrated, as if she'd realized he was twisting the story to his own end, she wouldn't even give him that. The essay was not the thing.

The teacher further claims that she can't take as much credit as the student gives her, in that she knew he was bound for greatness and fully believes he would have achieved it even without her help in getting admitted to a new high school. And it's a rather tragic thing, to watch (or in this case listen to) a person's core belief dissolve right in front of them. He'd counted on this. He told the story at every dinner party. It was the reason he had succeeded. 

The interviewer asked the student toward the end of the episode if he was going to start telling it differently now that he knew the truth, but he said he wouldn't. To him, it was reality. It was how he had observed a very significant series of life events. And this may seem sneaky, but the thing is, I kind of get it. Not having the full background, he built this memory around how he perceived what happened, (he wrote an essay, his teacher suggested a new school) and knowing nothing else, it became his doctrine. His truth. It's a reminder, not just of how fragile and shakable our memories can be, but also of how powerfully the most important ones can be rooted into our very being. To the point where we need them preserved, intact, and whole just to survive.