Time travel and what I learned from the super beef burrito: A personal essay

DeLorean time machine
Wikimedia/Creative Commons

“Time travel,” specifically the ability to move backward in time to change the past, has consumed imaginations for generations. Whether you think of Doc Brown climbing into a DeLorean in “Back to the Future,” James Franco’s sleepy performance in the “meh” Stephen King adaptation “11.23.63” or romance fiction such as “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” titled so poorly it reads as self-parody, you can conjure up an image of what time travel might look like. For me, it looks like warping through the space-time continuum to deal with some problems from my personal history.

Growing up, Pops always told me that making a mistake was really just learning a lesson “the hard way.” And since then, I have learned many, many lessons the hard way. However, quantity does not equal quality of experience. So while “the hard way” means a lot of things, getting through my own mistakes is rarely pleasant and often wildly embarrassing. And because of this difficult reality, I was inspired, like the protagonists of the fictions above, to explore my past. To see if I couldn’t have learned some valuable lessons the easy way.

As any good problem-solver does, I decided to deal with a couple of little problems first to get the creative juices flowing for working through the larger quagmires.

The first set of mistakes I would hash out: moments of terrible indigestion. They are relatively easy conflicts to resolve, and the two-word resolution “self control,” in hindsight, seems painfully obvious. However, it was only learned after sitting, hunched over, with heinous gastric pain for four hours in a very full and very small Prius on the ride from Las Vegas to Long Beach, California. Now, I know I shouldn’t have finished the back half of the Super Beef Burrito I ordered at lunch. Or, for that matter, order anything with “super” in the title ever again. So that would, hypothetically, be a real quick fix. I would time warp and warn my past self of the “super” horrors of having to sit and stew with the Moby Dick of burritos in my stomach. Instead of remembering that road trip as the car ride from grease-trap hell, it could be a pleasant memory of coasting home with friends.

And although the experience learning these lessons often comes at the expense of my physical comfort or dignity, or of others’ or all of the above, it is not hard to see why these lessons are important.

While “moments of terrible indigestion” is a niche category, its lesson shares a commonality with a lot of other mistakes I have made in the past. Lessons involving terms such as “self-control” and “self limitation” chronically make an appearance in my life. Sometimes I don’t think about the consequences of my actions. And although the experience learning these lessons often comes at the expense of my physical comfort or dignity, or of others’ or all of the above, it is not hard to see why these lessons are important. But many of these mistakes probably could have have been avoided before I had to learn “the hard way.”

This brings me to a more difficult question, however: What about the lessons that can only be learned “the hard way?” How does one deal with something so specific and unanticipated that it may not even register as a possible problem until one is wholly confronted with its existence?

For example, I had to learn when to close my eyes while kissing — you guessed it — the hard way. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that one closes their eyes while kissing. I did. I was just unsure of at what distance from the kissee’s face the initiating kisser closes their eyes. So, in eighth grade, before sixth-period P.E. with Ms. B., when I attempted to kiss my very serious eighth-grade girlfriend in front of all her friends and mine — because preteen rituals are both tribal and performative in nature — I closed my eyes when my face was a foot away from hers. And my lips landed on the geographical region in between her upper lip and her nose. A week or so later, we called it.

“The hard way,” like most parent-isms, is born from a lifetime of experience. A lifetime of full mishaps and discovering there’s no real way to change them.

And while that stunt saw me cast out of eighth-grade high society like a leper from ancient Rome, it was a pretty important lesson to learn. I didn’t know the importance of intimate timing before that fateful day on the soccer field, but I do now. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot think of another way I could have learned the correct technique. Let’s say I “Magic-Tree-House” my way back to middle school and instruct little me on the nuances of sight and lip coordination. Would it be worth a few more weeks of having lunchtime and period two math with my very serious eighth-grade girlfriend? Or can I only time the eye-close properly now because of the fear of embarrassment if I don’t?

I think the answer to the question of time travel and the entirety of this reflective exercise lies in the fact that I’ve learned from these experiences. “The hard way,” like most parent-isms, is born from a lifetime of experience. A lifetime of full mishaps and discovering there’s no real way to change them. And while the ability to travel back in time is rooted in fiction, the importance of confronting your past mistakes and learning from them is not.

In my case, reckoning with the past doesn’t mean climbing in an H.G. Wells-style time machine or a canceled car line from the ‘80s; it means understanding the importance of the poor decisions I’ve made. Even the small, seemingly easy to correct ones. We’ve all blown it before, and we’ll all screw up again, but learning from our mistakes is the only way we can grow. And while that may sound cheesy, it is nothing compared to the Super Beef Burrito, and sometimes you have to learn “the hard way.”

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.