broken parabolic



17 June 2010

We've all heard before that people change. Over the years I've become more and more convinced that people don't change as much as we suppose, and that the other adage, about leopards and spots, is probably much closer to the mark. Spots, though, do not a predator make.

Some things are more engrained in a person than others. Someone who just doesn't care about other people has a long road ahead of them before they start to. But a lot of things, little things, are more malleable. Bad habits. Not like smoking or excessive drinking, but things like hitting the snooze button too many times every morning or not putting things away when you're done with them. Or certain predispositions, perhaps to distraction, or procrastination, or forgetfulness. That last one always crept up and bit me. Actually, I've got some tooth marks from all three of them, but talk about people who can't remember to do a damn thing, and yeah, my name comes up.

It's not that I have a bad memory. In fact, it's quite good, in certain ways. I can remember lines from movies verbatim, and song lyrics stick with me. I think it's an auditory thing. And I can memorize information fairly well, like when studying for a test. Ask me a question, and I can dig the answer out of my brain. The problem for me has always been remembering things without a cue. Ask me to pick up milk on the way home from work and I'm hopeless. Ask me when I get home "what were you supposed to pick up?" and I'll be able to tell you, immediately. But there in the car, with nothing reminding me that there's something I'm supposed to be remembering, the milk is doomed to remain unpurchased in the store cooler. You might as well just hang a sign on the front door that says "MILK", just so that I can turn around and go back to the store before I even walk in. This would spare everyone the grating conversation and dirty looks that would be necessary if I actually entered the house.

I've got past a lot of that, though. But not because I changed. Those who know me well know that I wear a ring on the middle finger of my right hand. The one I have now is my second (the first was stolen - long story), but it is in every way identical to the first. I made both, the first at work and the second on my little lathe in the basement, out of Nitronic 50 stainless steel. Both were made to fit the middle finger. It turned out, though, that the rings would fit my index finger as well, though they never felt comfortable there.

That discomfort, as it happens, was useful. It first occurred to me a day or two after I had, yet again, forgotten some task that needed to be done, which had created no small amount of inconvenience. I don't remember what it was now (quelle suprise); I just remember feeling very frustrated with myself, sick of my own unreliability. I tried to think of ways to deal with it. For many, the solution to forgetfulness is to write things down. But that does no good if you don't remember that there's something you're supposed to remember - you won't look at the piece of paper to check what it is.

But then something hit me: in an adaptation of the old "tie a string on your finger" trick, I moved the ring from my middle finger to my index finger. It felt weird. It was supposed to. And sure enough, remembering whatever it was I'd needed to do became astonishingly simple. That weird feeling was like a constant reminder that there was something I was supposed to remember. It worked again and again.

I did it for months without my wife noticing the ring's subtle migration. What she noticed was that my memory had markedly improved. She didn't see a contrived sort of system or method; she saw a more reliable husband. And that was what mattered.

I'm still exactly the same forgetful person. But I found a way to deal with it that took the sting out of the weakness. I didn't actually change; I learned. There's no sense in the leopard just wishing, trying to live as though he has stripes instead of spots; the poacher with the rifle will just chuckle when he pulls the dead cat out of the tall, vertical grass. Better to understand the spots and figure out how to work with them. And that's why the spots on the leopard sometimes don't matter. Maybe the leopard can't change, and maybe that's okay. Because the leopard can learn.

I think I've been wearing that ring five years now. At first, I made it because I liked it. Then, it became a practical and important part of living my life. Now, it gives me a little hope that perhaps some of my other shortcomings could also be rendered inert, and a little more willingness to try.

I don't aspire to be a perfect leopard. I'm just learning to work with my spots.

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