Do Over

The road to Chicago.
I blew off my psychology classes in college. I never studied, never read the texts, but because psychology is the bronze medal of the sciences, I ranked at the top of my classes. I was a dumb kid. My girlfriend used to study her eyes out every night. She was much smarter than I to begin with. My most successful relationships have been with girls who are smarter than I am. We both aced the tests. Never made sense to me why she'd work harder than she had to. 

A few weeks ago I was trying to explain to someone why people gamble so compulsively. It has everything to do with the schedules of reinforcement. It's the fixed interval--no. The variable ratio-- not quite. I couldn't remember the goddamn schedule. (It's the variable ratio schedule that creates incredibly high response rates. Thank you, Google.) She understood psychology. I knew it for an exam. I learned pneumonic devices and she internalized principles. It's only a decade later that I understand the difference. For years I thought she was the sucker. But it turns out my degree is nothing more than an attendance record.         

Regret creeps up on you more slowly than you'd think. Cruelly ironic, actually. Your failures and missteps are brought into focus long after the information would have been useful. When my Dad used to warn me about wasting my time, or not taking a shot, or chasing my dreams, I always assumed it was standard issue parental wisdom. Only now am I starting to see that it came from a deep, lamentable place. It is born of regret. He spoke from an abyss in his stomach, his only hope that I never know it. Given enough years, we all build an abyss. 

But no one can be moved by words. We are conservative creatures by nature. We have to lose things to learn things. No amount of lecturing could have made me take my major seriously. And those who've lost make it their life mission to spread the gospel to those who haven't, but their ears aren't ready to hear. They don't yet know the emptiness of regret. Their stomachs are full and naive. Being human is comical. Only now am I capable of being a great student, long after the desire to carry a book bag has left me. I became the man my college girlfriend needed me to be only after she left.

There is no do over. We swing, miss, and are asked to sit down. There's no returning to those classes or her. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera wrote, 

"We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always a sketch. No sketch is not quite the right word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch of nothing, an outline with no picture.

For years I have loved this quote. It always spoke to me about how tragic and fragile human existence is, but now I would like to add an addendum. College is a sketch. Carolyn was a sketch. And though we are never able to revisit those works, life goes on. If you are truly moved by your failures, they cement themselves in your body so that you never make them again. I poured every ounce of my body into grad school. I slept in my office, and studied so hard my eyes temporarily refocused and I could only see things that were a foot in front of me. I internalized principles and treated women well. 

Don't ask for a do over. Let regret teach you something. You may get good at drawing.  

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