Have you ever reverse-engineered your life? What didn't you realize before?
“You have a time machine, you can pick one thing in your life to go back to. Where, when do you go, and do you just observe it from afar, or do you change something?”
Well, THAT was easy.
“Piece of cake,” I responded. “I know exactly what I’d go back and change. The worst mistake of my life.”
The question came via my friend’s weekly Friday evening Virtual Cocktail Hour, a tradition she started during the pandemic.
After chit-chat, we answer one interesting pre-chosen question of the week.
So, so many times I wished I could return to the spring of 1993 and just be friends with Jerry instead of embarking upon a just-over-seven-years relationship, with a middle-break when he dried out and sobered up.
So much sturm und drang before I realized he had a drinking problem. So much hope and comfort after he got serious and kicked the bottle.
I thought now it was forever. It wasn’t. He waltzed in one night and said, “We have to talk.”
Those ‘Bob is God’ details
I love backward-engineering my life’s turning points, good or bad.
This started, as I discovered, with the ‘Bob is God’ trash can in college.
Ten years prior to meeting Alkie Boy, walking around campus drowning in a cloud of angsty depression over some guy and the certainty I would never be noticed by a man again, I often passed a trash can in the Psych building upon which someone had mysteriously etched ‘Bob is God.’
One afternoon the guy behind me in Psych class asked a fellow student, “Who is Bob and why is he God?” I pivoted around, blithely oblivious to the greater symbolism of escape from blander conventionality and much later, from the hell of a failing country. We laughed along with them as we speculated about a trash can.
Jim was my first real love. Through him, I met a new crowd with whom I’m connected to this day. My life pivoted with new friends and an intro to geek/fan culture via a medieval re-creation society. Graduations and life travels created breaks in the friendships B.F. & A.F. (Before & After Facebook) but my life digressed from a more conventional path saving me, as I see it, from the tragedy of the commonplace.
I’d been a weirdo in high school who craved ‘normalcy’ and found it in college; who knew returning the ‘weirdoes’ were my tribe?
The college wallflower became a belly dancer, i.e. the post-high school equivalent of the Head Cheerleader, via the road taken.
Bob, or Trash Can Vandal, you have no idea how you changed a life!
Blame it on Buffy. Or Jerry. Or Ireland.
For twenty years I’ve dealt with the fallout of Jerry’s ‘We have to talk’ moment. It would be unfair to lay the next fifteen years of misery on him since I’ve struggled with depression and anger issues from my early adolescence I can’t fully explain. I remember pre-school feelings of self-doubt and quiet inferiority I can’t pin on my family or, back then at least, non-existent school bullies.
For the last seven years I’ve been climbing out of the mental pit I dug. Jerry handed me the shovel, but I’m the one who insisted on digging so deeply.
We humans possess the most marvelous computers in the Universe between our ears, creations more complex than our most sophisticated technology, and boy oh boy it’s a shame we can’t periodically reboot, because brains ‘blue screen’ more than a Windows 98 beta.
Although Jerry is behind me, he hurt me badly enough that, unlike other past lovers or partners, I want nothing to do with him. Ever. While I’m friends today with ex-boyfriends who once hurt me, if I find I’m sharing a social media platform with Jerry I block him in case he gets any dumb ideas about contacting me again as he has in the past — I’m convinced, just to be friends, but fuck you.
The friend-ship sank in flames twenty years ago. I’ve kill-filed his email address and name.
While watching the Ignited States slouch toward Gomorrah, as a great book title once put it, I’ve pondered what a favor Jerry did for me, even if I didn’t see the benefit for two full decades.
He was another catalyst who changed my life.
Today, I’m in a more stable place rather than what Donald Trump might call a ‘shithole country’, thanks to ol’ Jer.
It’s a longer reverse engineer, beginning two years after the breakup:
I tried to move to Ireland after reading a news story saying it wanted to become the Silicon Valley of Europe, and I was in I.T.
Moving away for awhile appealed because I was chronically depressed and wanted to escape my nowhere life in Connecticut.
When I couldn’t get into Ireland (they’d just opened it up with an EU-first policy, and every Eastern European was trying to move anywhere that wasn’t Eastern Europe), my cyber-friend near Toronto encouraged me to move to Canada because I couldn’t get into Ireland.
I’d gotten email-friendly with him after we met as fans on Usenet’s alt.fan.buffy.the.vampire.slayer back in 1997.
And I began watching Buffy because of—Jerry.
The idea of an entire TV series based on a poorly-performing 1992 movie the critics hated sounded like a supremely stupid idea. Jerry had said, “Oh, we have to watch it! It sounds really good! Joss Whedon, the creator, hated what they did to his movie. The TV show is what the movie was supposed to be. Darker. More serious.”
“I’m tired of vampires,” I said. And this was well before Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and the endless succession of boring beautiful bloodsuckers stalking the early decades of the new century.
“Let’s just watch the first few episodes,” he said.
It was way better than I’d guessed, and I fell in love with Giles. Then Spike. Buffy is why I started hanging out on the Usenet group and cyber-met Larry near Toronto, eh? We transferred the friendship to email. His mother died, then Jerry and I split up, and when Ireland fell through, Larry encouraged me to come to Canada.
Why did I immigrate rather than move temporarily? Canada wants immigrants, not half-assed will-they-stay-or-will-they-go semi-perms. Also, blame it on Bush.
“You had the right idea! You knew what was coming all along!”
Actually, I didn’t.
I look terribly prescient to my American-imprisoned friends with 20/20 hindsight. Okay, I knew the country was ambling down the Highway To Hell under George W. Bush. When I saw the famous Abu Ghraib photo in the newspaper, I thought, “This is not the country I grew up in.”
We tortured prisoners now. Political prisoners. Republican politicians and reactionary xenophobic mouth-breathers bobbled their slack-jawed heads in terrifying approval.
“I want to get out of here,” I said. My devolving countrymen weren’t the only reason why, but it added urgency.
I never foresaw the state of the States today. I never imagined we’d be dumb enough to elect a moron like Trump. Or that we’d prefer conspiracy theories and fake news over reality, even as a killer virus ripped its way through a country whose collective IQ more closely resembled a residential neighborhood speed sign.
During the pandemic, I counted the number of American COVID-19 deaths by units of Vietnam: 1 Vietnam = 50,000 American deaths.
One little, two little, three little Vietnams, four little, five little, six little Vietnams…
Words fail to describe how grateful I was not to be living in the COVIDed States anymore. Now I happily go about my business every day without worrying about taking a bullet in a mass shooting.
I’m barely on speaking terms with my mother country.
What would have happened if Jerry and I had stayed together? I might have died in Trump’s AmeriKKKa as my compatriots committed maskless, mass suicide, pitching tantrums over social distancing and a shut-down economy, dragging out their own torturous death throes as the world slammed shut its own borders to America. Remember when Americans worried about people trying to get in?
That was, like, that January.
The reverse-engineering exercise
Reverse engineering is figuring out how a device works by starting with what it does and tracing backward to its beginning.
When you apply it to your life it can reveal hidden insights can change your perceptions.
I’ve been thinking about Jerry differently since I realized I have him to thank for my life in Canada. I’m not going to send him a fruit basket or anything, but I’ve experienced a little psychological relief as a result.
What would have happened if I’d never left the U.S.?
I might have been mired in near-hopeless, perhaps suicidal depression. Maybe unemployed, staring down poverty with a gossamer safety net, thanks to decades of Republican meddling, and a president who didn’t care about anything that wasn’t him. I’d be surrounded by hateful Americans from both political sides whose lives had always sucked and who wanted everyone else’s to suck too. Misery loves company.
I might well have felt like those remaining Jews in Nazi Germany, no longer allowed to leave, realizing they’d waited too late to follow the smarter ones out the door.
Stuck in a sea-to-shining-sea prison, goose-stepping toward totalitarianism, mindlessly chanting “Make America Great Again!” instead of “Seig heil!”
What would I do if I could go back in time and change one thing?
Maybe I couldn’t risk messing with my life and staying in America. Maybe I’d have to let that first ill-fated dinner date with Jerry take its natural course.
Maybe this was the only way my headspace could lead me to a civilized country before it was too late.
If I warned 1993 Nicole about what was going to happen if she persevered with Jerry (once she stopped screaming at the sight of Senior Nicole), would she—I—have listened?
What if I could go back and be Nicole, but with my 2023 brain? I suspect that scenario would work out far happier, because I’d always know I needed to move to Canada as soon as Al Gore threw the election to Dumbya by not challenging its end game at the Supreme Court.
Part of me is horrified at adding thirty years to a 60-year-old life on stop of the thirty or so years I still expect to live. Who wants to live to be 120, even when you don’t show it? But—I could remake a lot of mistakes, and the breakup with Jerry launched A Series of Unfortunate Events that I can mostly blame myself for.
But it doesn’t really matter, because we can’t go back and fix the past.
The worst thing that ever happened to me was the best thing that ever happened to me.
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