Prodding the Amygdala: A Look Back at 2015 and Beyond

While often associated (if known at all) with detecting threats and triggering fear, the amygdalae are also an important part of the brain’s processing and storage of memory.

I recently left the condo-encrusted landscape of Austin, Texas, and returned home for the holidays. There, in the mountainous terrain of the small West Texas town, where the night’s rich, black skies are lavished with stars, one descends easily into nostalgia. The languid pace of life creates a vacuum begging to be filled. It’s profoundly quiet. The “white noise of traffic” is a foreign expression, eliciting bewildered shakes of the head as to why anyone would live anywhere blemished by such a thing. Even the Internet and cell reception seem a bit sluggish. Within this environment, the mind is quick to rush in, regardless of your wishes.

Turns out, my head’s bursting with garbage. Or, more accurately, data in desperate need of external storage. I had a dream where I pulled black string out of my right ear. Yards of it. Knots of it. A panic-inducing amount until, eventually, and with enormous relief, a flash drive emerged, the string tied tightly around it. I still remember the feel of plastic pushing through, can hear the pop of it leaving my ear, can see it on the string heaped in my palm.

I never did get a chance to see what was on there.

It could have been any number of things. (I didn’t see a storage capacity.)

A folder labelled “2015” would contain certain files: NightJob.doc, dozens of recipes, countless new kitten jpgs, StevieWonderConcert.vid, scans of professional wrestling ticket stubs, measurements of fallen rain during the month of May, the photo of the resultant collapse of a section of our apartment’s ceiling, group photos taken at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and Mount Bonnell when our mothers visited, and a list of hikes and vistas enjoyed during our anniversary weekend at the Canyon of the Eagles resort where I nearly lost a leg to this maniacal squirrel.

I fed him cashews, and after I ran out, he got pretty aggressive. We tried to appease him with a kale chip, but he wasn't having it. Threats were made. Claws flashed. We slept with one eye open for the remainder of our stay.

I fed him cashews, and after I ran out, he became pretty aggressive. We tried to appease him with a kale chip, but he wasn’t having it. Threats were made. Claws flashed. We slept with one eye open for the remainder of our stay.

The biggest change this year began in January, when I accepted a night shift position at a motel. It allowed me to leave a job I loathed, and one I had loathed for far too long. I started a separate blog to catalog my experiences as the combination night auditor and night watchman, and the first post goes into my initial taking of the job, as well as a brief summation of what it’s all about.

It’s not a job I ever imagined having, especially the security side of it. By no means am I the muscle of the place. For the most part, I finesse drunken guests into maintaining peace and quiet for the sake of the sober, sleeping guests. Only once have I felt slightly threatened. Most people just want to have a good time. Unfortunately, alcohol causes a regression into childhood, with an egocentrism that makes people assume everyone else is yelling as loudly as they are, feels as exultant as they do, and wants to urinate just as publicly as they do.

The job provides me with abundant free time. While I’ve squandered a good amount of it by not focusing on writing, I am proud of two things to come from it. First, I read more in the last year than in nearly any time in my life. Secondly, related to reading, I finally learned to cook. “Learned” is a strange word to describe the process of finally cooking. Mostly, you read recipes, and you experiment with ingredients and methods. If you can follow instructions, you can cook. Michael Pollan’s “Cooked: A History of Transformation” was a big influence on my fully diving into the culinary world. That, and my girlfriend’s return to school.

She had always done most of the cooking, while I did minimal prep and all of the dishes. I remember talking to a friend about this  division of household labor that seems common among our generation. I had felt the same way in previous relationships, but when my friend explicitly stated the idea aloud, it sounded a little absurd. We were both patting ourselves on the back by imagining that our partner’s cooking and our cleaning was a fair, progressive way to live. Now that I’ve been cooking for a year, I can confidently say it’s not the same. Cleaning is quicker, and it requires almost no thought.

Regardless of any desired balance between the sexes, the fact is, a grown person should be able to make food. I lived years going from fast food to fast food, essentially asking, “What trash food can I stuff in my dumpster gut next?”

I spent much of my time at work reading recipes and planning grocery lists. By the time I clocked out, I was eager to go to the store and then to the kitchen. In looking over Pollan’s book for a vaguely-remembered quote, I’m reminded of another reason I became so invested. The obvious downside to the night shift was no longer having the same schedule as my partner. When she came home from class, I was often walking out the door, headed to work. “We’re like two ships passing in the night,” was a common half-joke, half-lament as we hugged on the threshold. With less time together, I realized I needed a way to compensate. Cooking became a way to put effort into the relationship and to help her with a busier school and work schedule. As Pollan asked, “Is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?”

During the holidays, I was able to apply that notion with my parents, too. In a new cast-iron skillet, I made miso maple roasted Brussels sprouts. Finding miso turned out to be a bit of an adventure.The aisle sign displaying “Asian Food” in my small, West Texas hometown’s grocery store apparently means nothing more than that’s where the rice is found. Oh, sorry—ramen, too. The miso was eventually found at a health food store, and the recipe turned out decently for my first attempt.

It snowed pretty heavily the day we were scheduled to return to Austin. Driving was discouraged, accidents reported, roads closed. The snow was beautiful. It’s an oddity in central Texas, so I wanted to enjoy it while home. We postponed about half a day, and it left me with more time to reminisce. If I could find my way back into that dreamt flash drive, I could find an embarrassment of embarrassments from my youth. Gigabytes of alcohol, hormone, and boredom-fueled memories.

The place itself inspires myth-making, but it’s difficult to appreciate as a child. Maybe everyone fails to appreciate their hometown until they leave or grow up. But West Texas? Contained within a theoretical settingthescene.doc file –

“Native American myth says that God, or the Creator, after he finished with the stars in the sky, the fish in the sea, and the birds in the air, took all the leftovers, all the jagged and broken and gnarled things, and dumped them in one big pile. That pile became Big Bend, the mountains and desert of West Texas bordering Mexico.”

Recently, I told a coworker the myth, and he laughed.

“That’s where you’re from?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. Why’s it funny?” I always thought it was dramatic, that it could make a good opening to a short story.

“It sounds like even the first settlers out there thought it was a dump.”

Growing up, surrounded by mountains, I felt hemmed in on all sides. I was jealous of the girl who lived in a big house on the far side of the eastern-most mountain. She had a view out. She could see an escape, when we were stuck looking at the car across the street, propped up on cinder blocks. Driving to the edge of town, on back roads, we made a million miles on the same handful of routes. Up and down the one-ways, windows down. That one week in summer, every car and even the trucks blasting Fat Pat’s “Wanna Be a Balla.” On weekends, we’d get drunk at the end of a dirt road, a junkyard really, called the Dead Animal Place, named quite literally for its apparent purpose of dumping one’s deceased pets. Even wild animals seemed to find their way there. Train tracks pass through it, making a small bridge over the dirt road, and I once found a partially-decomposed deer splayed across the middle, a back leg at an impossible angle. Kids actually made out there. Had sex. Romantic ambiance can take a backseat when the engine’s running on hormones.

What I remember more and more, and what I now feel as a profound loss, is the memory of being so bored as a kid. Before cellphones, before the Internet, I recall overwhelming boredom. Thoughts expanded, churned. My mind went places on its own, not tugged along by hyperlinks or the gravity of ads and clickbait. I think sometimes what I miss most about a pre-digital environment, tied so inextricably with my youth, is this vast, blank space waiting to be filled. My mind had so much room, my vision undirected by screens. I don’t forget the copious amounts of television, but that seems different and certainly less pervasive. The landscape of my youth, and the media environment—or lack thereof—are connected for me.

The house itself hasn’t changed much. My stepdad has the same two photos hanging on his office walls. One is of President George W. Bush, and the other is of himself standing beside an 18-wheeler he drove for several years while working for the border patrol. Guns lean against walls in the same room with a bed furnished with cat-shaped pillows. Days of Our Lives plays regularly on the television.

My stepdad took a moment to point out the location of the vents in the bedroom, even explaining how to open and close them, as if I had not spent years living there. What he didn’t explain was his strange interest in the Hallmark channel and its horrendous programming. As if to balance out the sentimentality, we also watched Steven Segal’s Marked for Death and one of Wesley Snipes’ many forgotten action films.

We could have gone out, grabbed beers at either of the two or three bars, but we didn’t. On previous trips, I did, even though I never knew what I wanted to find, or who I wanted to see. The few close friends I had in high school are either gone, or I make specific plans to see them. When I did go out, the only people I would see were those who I had some tenuous relationship to begin with, but now, based on the single fact of having shared proximity during our formative years, we are compelled to acknowledge the other’s existence. “Oh, hey! We never really spoke during high school, but the town being so small, we saw each other nearly every day, and the least we can do is exchange pleasantries and update the other on our present location and occupation, despite all that information being readily available, and in all likelihood already known, via Facebook. Good to see ya!”

Obviously, I’m great at parties. My small talk is impeccable.

When it came time to return to Austin, we teemed with leftovers. Taking dessert as a single example, my mom made two chocolate pecan pies. However, one did not turn out as “pretty” as she’d hoped, so she made a third. That’s for a total of five people at Christmas dinner. Thus, with pie and turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes, we hit the warming blacktop, headed home through the melting snow and to that new kitten I mentioned earlier in passing.

Appearances are deceiving. She's a real shit. But, the cuteness is too strong to fight.

Appearances are deceiving. She’s a real shit. Fortunately, for her sake, the cuteness is too strong to fight.

It was a good year. I’ve already found a new obsession in macarons, and I’ve posted more blogs than last year. May the new year bring bounties of both.

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