Maybe it’s me

“What the hell is this?” he growled, storming into the office and slamming the papers down on the desk. The jumble of busy-office-chattering-reporters-gurgling-water-cooler shut off with a bang as door met jamb.

I jolted upright. “What is what?” I said dumbly, scrambling to compose myself. Lazy, confident, a bit disheveled – okay, now for the sneer – don’t reach for the papers too quick- oh, dammit.

“I gave you the recommendation you’ve been working so hard for and you threw it all away. The brass took all of five minutes to find this filth.”

I turned the packet around. Sure enough, I found my name emblazoned at the top of the page. Every keystroke below it felt like a punch to the heart.

“Where’d they find this?” Shit, I could have denied it. I cleared my throat. I’d just thrown that option away, so it was no use crying over spilled milk. Or spilled beans, in this case, even if it was one bean and not even the kind imported from Brazil.

“On the internet.”

The internet.

“I thought they shut that down for good.”

“The government can get to it. So can anyone else with enough money. And the brass – our brass – has money.” He shook his head and stared out the window, short-cropped greying hair limned in the light. Pulling out a cigar and a lighter from his breast pocket, he brought the tip to a glowing ember with practiced ease. Now, the cigar was from Brazil. Or something. It was fancy. That was the point.

I sat in my un-fancy chair, wearing my un-fancy blazer and dress shirt, a pretend two piece suit, chewing my lower lip. I allowed myself to be paralyzed. At this point, it was probably better than whatever I could muster, and it still looked like the boss had something to say.

“You know, kid,” he said, confirming my hunch, “I really liked you.” Uh oh. Past tense didn’t sound like the best tense for my sense of self preservation. He went on, “but there’s no place for you here. I’ll give you until noon to pack up.”

I smelled Brazil waft by, aflame, followed by aural chaos until the jumble of busy-office-chattering-reporters-gurgling-water-cooler eased to silence.

I leaned back, threw my legs up on the desk I’d never sit at again and plucked a page from the front of the report. “Damn them,” I muttered, and sent it fluttering to the floor with a flick of my wrist. I scanned the next one. “Damn me.” Another page spun madly on its way to the ground. “Damn them.” Another. “Damn me.” Another. “Damn them. Damn me…”

Finally, I found myself staring at the last page, cheek to palm, eyes half closed.

Then I took my feet off the desk and threw the page over my shoulder as I turned to leave. A thousand pages with my name on them circled the desk, and the final one came to rest in my chair. It was too bad I didn’t have the boss’s lighter. I stepped into discordant noise and shut the door behind me.

Maybe it was me.

Digital Hunter Gatherer

My days go a lot like this:

  1. Wake up
  2. Open laptop
  3. Open browser and type, rapid fire:
    cmd+l, “f”, enter
    cmd+t, “re”, enter
    cmd+t, “new”, enter
  4. Consume content via link aggregators
  5. Repeat steps 3-4, interspersed with eating and bathroom breaks
  6. Wonder what happened my day between 10am and 2am.

Even now, as I wait for my thoughts to percolate down through the grey matter between my temples and into my fingertips, I find myself idly opening a new tab to look at my options. There, in the top left hand corner, is Facebook, followed by reddit, and then hackernews. Twitter is now relegated to its own honest-to-goodness desktop application.

I have a problem.

The only reason I haven’t repeated these steps three or more times since I started writing this blog post is because I blocked the offending sites using the SelfControl app. Even so, my fingers have instinctively opened new tabs, automatically typed the characters that would lead to sites that I hold in equal parts favor and hatred.

Unable to connect.

I am both relieved and resigned. I won’t pretend that this is an issue unique to myself, but I also won’t try to extrapolate on any larger trends as many an author would, eager to simplify and trivialize millennials by describing them en masse. Instead, I can only describe a problem that I’ve been experiencing – perhaps the symptom of a greater problem, but a problem nonetheless.

Hello. My name is Brian. And I am a digital hunter gatherer; an information addict.

I suspect it started with curiosity, a defining characteristic of humanity. There has always been curiosity, and dead cats to go along with it. It was curiosity that pushed us forward, because there was always something to explore and something to be gained by knowing what was over the next hill.

But more concretely, it was curiosity that led a young boy to computers, to using them, breaking them, fixing them, and eventually building them. It was curiosity that kept the computer monitor humming as he explored the world through tight lines of text, software menus, and the audacity of 16 million colors.

It must have been the satiation of curiosity that drove the development of the internet. It exploded like the big bang in every direction, accelerating outward. Search engines gradually tamed the chaos, and suddenly your curiosity about specific questions could be put to rest. If it was on the internet, it could (generally) be found. But what if you couldn’t formulate the question, or didn’t have a question in the first place? Well, the internet arose to this challenge, as well, by telling us what our peers thought – fellow internet users, friends, and family – or what they were consuming. But still, the internet is not satisfied. The next frontier is knowing us better than we know ourselves. Now not only do we have our answers provided and our questions preempted, but the very act of exploration itself is being automated. We don’t need to sample music, trade recommendations for books, or take a guess on a movie – those are things that a computer can do for us.

Granted, it’s efficient and becomes more accurate everyday. As a species, we are becoming more and more efficient at consuming media we didn’t even know we wanted. And I, the dutiful hunter gatherer that I am, I return to my tribe with the prime choices of data products, the delicious fruit lying out of reach of the casual internet user. I survey the internet with a practiced eye, easily picking out the links ripe with upvotes as well as the hidden gems. And when push comes to shove, I am as adept a hunter as I am a gatherer, with a well trained search engine at my heel. The land of the internet is fertile and sustenance can be found as easily as air.

But sometimes I load those three websites without a conscious thought and wonder to myself – is this all that I am?

When I turn my eye inward, I find a much different landscape. What was once the curiosity in me lies on a worn mat, an old dog with a few tricks and no passion. It knows it will be fed. Cabinets and cabinets full of meaningless conquests litter a creaky house whose foundation had begun to go without my realizing or, perhaps, acknowledging it. Outside, the plants have withered in a drought, and all is a dull, reddish orange color.

I am a hunter-gatherer when what my soul requires is a gardener.

Recently I’ve become convinced that there are some problems that we must live through in order to truly come to terms with. Even if one can fully grasp the logical ins and outs of the predicament, there are no magic bullets. There is no article you can read on the internet that will cure depression, no cat video that will make you happy for all time. There is no forum that will grant you reprieve from your past mistakes. Yes, the solutions are out there, but they are not berries to be gathered or game to be hunted. They are nothing but seeds, a frighteningly small handful of them, and months to come before harvest, acres to be tilled before tasting freedom.

That old dog doesn’t know where to go, now that I’ve blocked its way. Maybe it will stay with me awhile to breathe in the smell of newly turned dirt. In the soft darkness, we will wait for the seeds to grow, as companions once again.

Vignettes

Just a few moments I wanted to capture for the sheer joy of life that I didn’t feel like adding to the previous post:

  • Riley and I wandering around the city, day drinking and shooting the shit about life, startups, and causing trouble
  • Striking up conversation with an older gentleman at the Jumping Bean Cafe, talking about how web video changed the world for someone with dyslexia, among other topics
  • Racing the CTA buses on foot
  • Getting thrown around in Aikido class and meeting some down-to-earth people
  • Hanging out at Chicago Women Developers
  • Starting Shy-Town, the introverts-only anti-meetup, with Regina and Mike and watching, incredulous, as it blew up in popularity
  • Jam session with Regina, which is like unstructured guitar hero but with real guitars
  • Wandering around Lake View and into the Chicago Music Exchange, where the instruments are worth more than my life
  • Free food ;)
  • Dancing, dancing, dancing, mostly at Sound-bar and mostly with Lucy
  • CASH Music summit with inspirational musicians and tech people
  • Rereading the Wheel of Time series and realizing how much it impacted me
  • Unlimited trips to the John Hancock Observatory, watching the lake freeze from 94 floors up, then thaw in Spring
  • Work dates and talking about dating with Josh
  • Learning Android and hanging out with DK
  • Watching my nephews and niece grow up and cause trouble!
  • Not joie de vivre, but just thankful to have my grandmother as she weathers a trip to the hospital

Life doesn’t exactly lend itself to short summaries, but I tried. The more I write, the more thankful I am. Sure, in some small ways, life is never as good as it could be, but on the whole, there is no way I can justify being as happy as I am. So I won’t. I just am.

Joie De Vivre

My sitting desk. It's the floor.

I’m sitting on the floor of my Lake View studio. I’ve just finished going through a stack of business cards and adding each person on LinkedIn. I used to email each person individually, but I’ve since decided that LinkedIn with a note suffices in most cases.

A few hours ago, I was hosting the Project Euler Sprint at ThoughtWorks with the gracious help of Patrick Turley, ThoughtWorker extraordinaire. “You made this up?” he asked, at some point, a question I’ve been getting quite often, lately. Yes, I made up this math programming game, and I would like you to start your own, which is why I licensed the rules under Creative Commons. It’s ironic because I don’t play games and I am not good at math. But I do like people, making games, and hanging out.

A day ago, I was gathering aforementioned business cards at a startup networking event. I showed up twenty minutes early, traipsed in, and looked bored, neatly bypassing the fact that I hadn’t exactly paid the entrance fee. My actions alone were quite boring, but the chance of getting caught made my heart pound. I waited for Regina to show up, we watched 5 startups pitch their business, got too many drinks at open bar, and then left before I could embarrass myself by dancing. More accurately, before I embarrassed everyone else. I’m perfectly capable of dancing like nobody’s watching.

Speaking of which, almost exactly a month ago, I went dancing at Sound-bar with friends. Mike, who I’ve known since 6th grade, got in before 11:30 in order to get in for free with a password. It was far too early. He had a separate group of friends who was supposed to meet him as well as our mutual friends, but neither showed up for another hour at least. But dance, I did. Afterward, Mike and I attempted to leave only to be held up by his friend Regina, who wanted to join us. We waited outside in the cold for another 30 minutes before meeting up with Regina and Ben, who Mike had met through the Asian American Chicago Network. We ate at Eggsperience. The next day, I sent Mike and Regina this message: “I’m subleasing an apartment for 3 months. You guys wanna build a startup while I’m here? By which I mean – let’s build a fucking startup. Doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s fun doing it”

Which brings us right back to my Lake View studio apartment, a scant three months’ term away from my planned migration to Toronto.

~

I don’t think I’ve never felt this good about who I am and what I do on a day to day basis. I really think the play mentality has helped a lot. Perhaps happiness does result in productivity. Perhaps productivity doesn’t even matter when you’re happy.

Travel Reflections

It’s been almost a week since I landed in Los Angeles, and I’ve begun to realize a few things (in no particular order):

  1. Everything you’ve heard about LA is right.
  2. Everything you’ve heard about LA is wrong.
  3. LA is so huge, you will find places that match your preconceptions and other places that are wildly divergent from what you expected.
  4. LA is incredibly spread out. Public transportation times range from 45-90 minutes to get to places of interest in average traffic, about twice the time it takes in Chicago. The buses aren’t slow, LA is just huge.
  5. I do miss the L.
  6. People don’t like it when you make generalizations about their hometown.
  7. People love to make generalizations about other people’s hometowns.
  8. I should probably stop generalizing or buying into generalizations about places.
  9. I travel in order to eat at high rated Yelp restaurants. LA is good for this. It’s the only place I’ve been to where multiple restaurants have thousands of reviews. Bottega Louie has over 7,000 reviews, mostly positive.
  10. Mentions of the weather are far less common in LA than Chicago because it’s always spring-like. And it’s not constantly trying to murder you.
  11. In many ways, the places I go to end up reflecting me much more than they end up affecting me. Hence the perpetual eating, the programming, and the tricking. But mostly the eating.
  12. I love lists.

I’m still digesting my first week and I have a week yet to go, so I don’t know what else I’ll learn from LA. I have learned that two weeks is enough to get homesick, despite the massive thunder-snow-storms in Chicago, and yet not long enough to truly experience a place. Especially LA. My friend, Richard, has been living here for something like four years, and yet he still discovers new and interesting places in it fairly regularly.

I feel like “things” and “places” interest me far less, now. Spectacles are nice, but they don’t do much. I can’t play with spectacle. Perhaps places and things are less interesting because cities are much alike. Perhaps it’s because I’m not terribly invested in collecting material possessions. Clutter actually makes me anxious. But perhaps I don’t find things and places interesting because I’m just not observant enough, not keen enough to the beauty in the urban landscapes. Another reason to study photography – to find beauty in the ordinary.

Both views are probably legitimate. But I really prefer natural beauty, methinks.

Play

Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let’s go and play!
-Anna, Frozen

I had two important realizations recently. The first centered around play. The second around work.

Play

I realized that I didn’t want to work at all. Dear future potential employers: Sorry, I quite frankly don’t have it in me to lie and tell you I’ll be a busy little worker bee. My productivity hinges primarily on social factors – am I around friends? Are we having fun? Is there dialogue and open communication and laughter? – that have more in common with play than with anything else.

I want to be having fun. This, above all else, is a goal in and of itself. And that, I think, will solve my other problems, or render them moot. So I am trying to create situations in which I can play.

What does it take to play?

  • No expectations – everything is a positive, creative act.
  • No goals – goals detract from the moment. Ironically, in order to reach my goals, I have to forget about them while I figure out how to foster creativity.
  • Go places! Travel.
  • See friends.

Right now, I have a bit of breathing room. Perhaps its my lack of conventionality (or sanity), but I’ve given myself ample time and essentially no buffer between myself and abject poverty to figure things out.

I think things will turn out just fine.

Work

While contemplating all of this, I started keeping track of little projects I would like to work on. Throughout my Play! phase, I would scribble these down and then ask myself, “Do I want to do this right now?” and the answer would always be “no.”

My prior ruminations on rolling downhill laid the groundwork for the next step, but the triggers were two things: The Young Horses, a group of Chicago developers, finally released Octodad: Dadliest Catch to the public, and I read In the Name of Love, which has the title “Do what you love, love what you do: An omnipresent mantra that’s bad for work and workers.”

The article stressed the importance of hard work, even if it wasn’t “lovable,” or creative. Some things are monotonous, but they need to be done, anyway. Meanwhile, the Young Horses worked their asses off for years to publish Octodad, but it was a creative act, one that was done with friends in a playful environment. It was hard, creative work.

So my naïve, childish revelation for the night is that play and work are not mutually exclusive. I can play…but I can also work hard. “Play” doesn’t mean “easy.” It’s easy to just sleep the day away. Real play takes work. Interesting play takes work.

I still want to play. I’m not giving in yet.

Rolling downhill

I’ve come to realize that finding the situations, environments, and people that motivate me is far more important right now than having hollow goals. I’ve hesitated to write about what I’ve been working on lately because, truthfully, I haven’t been working on much of anything. If you have asked me in person in the last 3-4 months, it’s been my startup idea, but my progress on that has been precisely zero.

Despite the lack of apparent progress, I would not do it differently. I’ve learned a lot more about myself, which is invaluable information. At the same time, making things would be nice. And dealing with the basic insecurities I’ve unearthed would be great as well. So…what’s to do, knowing that goals are largely unhelpful in creating forward momentum? Roll downhill. I just have to find the environments or processes that position me at the top of a hill.

I particularly like that metaphor because it acknowledges that even if you have a certain amount of potential energy, nothing’s going to happen until you find a way to convert that into kinetic energy – in other words, movement. So “What gets me to move?” has been something I’ve asked myself a lot lately.

I just hopped on over to Hacker News for the first time in forever and found myself reading an article by the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, about how to be successful that supports my thoughts regarding goals. Instead, he emphasizes using systems to increase serendipity, bounce back from failures, and to be persistent.

That’s exactly what I would have written if I had a clearer vision for this blog post!

Time to roll on to the next topic.

2014: From Toronto, With Love

I had been looking to leave the country, or at least the greater Chicagoland area, for a variety of reasons. My grandmother recently asked me to move out of her house, for reasons unknown, as she won’t even be back until February. And, in retrospect, I realize that even being in Chicago itself was causing me undue stress. I think it came down to having too much control over my schedule. I was ultimately responsible for everything I did as a result of living alone. I was also responsible for taking care of my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s tenant, and other things.

The end of the year is a weird time for me. I become at once withdrawn, waiting for various events to occur, and outgoing, captured by the idea that I should do something for my birthday. It’s an anxious sort of back and forth. I generally tell myself that I’ll let my birthday slide right up until the night before, and then do something impulsive to try to get people together, with mixed results. This year, I gave myself a trip to Toronto as a birthday present. It was my friend’s post in his Facebook event page that finally got me to leave the country. “Snowboarding in Toronto a week from now? I can do that.” I invited myself and booked a flight.

The week passed by in a whirlwind of food and lobsters and talk about dicks (Thanks, Alex. Alright, it was all of us). The theme for every meal was, “Tonight, we FEAST!” and trust me, we did. I had also been primed for night life. Moving back to my parents’ home in the suburbs meant having a reliable broadband internet connection and random, eons-old stashes of booze. I became a night owl and, for the first time in my life, I had an active urge to consume alcohol. Finally, moving to Toronto meant being able to stay up later due to the timezone differences.

I noticed this the first couple of times I visited Toronto, but people seem genuinely more content. Whether it’s the fact that people my age can actually find jobs, or just a facet of Canadian lifestyle, everyone actually seems at peace with where they are, career wise. There’s less neurotic tension in Toronto than I encounter in Chicago, on average.

At first, I dismissed this as weakness. They seemed less ambitious, on the whole. Now, I see it as a strength. My sister recently made a realization that in order to take big risks, people have to be very secure in certain aspects of their lives. I feel like Torontonians must have a kind of security, whether social or financial, that we lack here in Chicago. Toronto recently overtook Chicago in population. I feel like there’s a vitality to the city that is missing from Chicago.

Oh, also, a preponderance of middle/upper class people of color. Wow, so many different kinds of people to look at in your average mall!

Putting distance between myself and Chicago also let me examine myself. While I understand that traveling in order to solve your problems is an American habit and hardly a universal psychological tendency, it worked wonders for me! I realized that I didn’t have any strong ties to Chicago, other than the fact that rent was free, and now that I’d been evicted, that tie was gone. If I was going to pay rent to stay in a major metropolitan area, it might as well be somewhere else. One thing that particularly attracts me to Toronto is my good friends who are dedicated to their respective arts. There’s nothing I want more than to be able to work side by side with friends, on our own projects or as a team…

Anyway, this post has rambled on for long enough. It’s been a promising start to 2014. Here’s to keeping up the momentum!

Au Revoir, 2013

Thanks to iDoneThis, I was able to review 2013 on a day by day basis, which probably skewed my understanding of the year, ironically. By bringing a magnifying glass to the life events in my year, I think I may have lost sight of the bigger trends. But it did remind me that 2013 was a busy year, one of many reversals: I moved into and out of an apartment in the first half of the year, and then into and out of my grandmother’s house in the second half; I got a gym membership at the beginning of the year and then canceled it at the end; I started work on a friend’s startup and stopped; I quit social media – twice; I had a shield commissioned for The Starter League and then wrote a blog post about how it was a bad value proposition; And in what proved to be the most educational of all, I fell in and then out of love in a few short months.

My grandfather was still alive in 2013. My sister graduated and we went on a camping trip through Michigan. I put a bid on a house, which I lost, thankfully, because I quit my job. I started the Project Euler Sprint meetup group. I started guitar lessons. I was fortunate enough to be able to perform with Dance Crash in Austin, TX. There was the car accident – my first traffic collision. And I left Chicago and the United States altogether to spend my birthday and new year’s day in Toronto with Alex and George.

I’m still learning about myself. As Alex said, he is trying to achieve complete self-awareness. This is something I’m beginning to realize is far more important than having ambitious goals. Ambition without understanding is a setup for failure, not just in reaching those goals, but also, having reached those goals, realizing that they are meaningless.

Moving back to my parents’ house in the suburbs means taking things slow, which I’m also beginning to value. Speed can be useful, but it can also be utterly distracting and demotivating.

I discovered new kinds and depths of friendship, and began to understand how difficult practicing loving kindness can be. When things get heated, I sometimes need months alone before I am able to think coolly. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s even possible.

Always, always questioning myself. Sucks sometimes, but I feel relieved when I do figure things out.

For 2014, I have a mess of questions tangled together like strands in a ball of yarn: Where will I spend 2014? How will I make things work, financially? Can I figure out the happy secret to better work? Am I pursuing my passion? What are my passions, really? What about love?

Somehow, I don’t expect answers. I just expect more questions.

“Wife Mode”

“I’m in husband mode, not dating mode,” she said to me, regretfully. It rocked me back a little. But instead of thinking that she was too serious, I wondered why she didn’t consider me husband material.

My heart has been up and (mostly) down these past few months, but I’ve found some answers about who I am as a person along this journey that light the way ahead. One of these answers has been to the perennial question, “Why doesn’t Brian have a girlfriend?”

I always knew that I didn’t date casually, and that family was incredibly important to me, but it wasn’t until I met my friend’s newborn baby that I put the two together. All of the stories that I hold dearest to me are stories about my family: my parents, my siblings, my cousins. They are the very core of my being. When I found out that my brother was gay in high school, I felt that the biggest betrayal was that my kids wouldn’t have cousins to play with, as we had when we were growing up. There is nothing more important to me than family – and starting a family of my own.

So when it comes to relationships, I am extremely reserved. My friend explains this as the Asian Dude Narrative, in which mate selection doesn’t just have to do with superficial characteristics like beauty or brains, but also elements like thoughts on child-rearing, family situation, and other factors involved in raising a family. Bingo.

When I think of whether I would date a woman, I think of the relationship as it would play out over years. I date in order to start a family – which is to say, I don’t date. Because the stories and narratives that played out as I grew up are so important to me, I am attracted to women for whom I could see those same kinds of stories playing out with us as the principle actors. Hence my obliviousness to women’s interest, whether forced or not, my tendency to immediately think of a long list of incompatibilities if I’m even the slightest bit attracted, and my inability to enter into relationships on a whim.

I have been in “wife mode” my entire life, and it’s because my family is pretty much the foundation of my personality and objectively the best thing that’s ever happened to this world.

As a corollary, unless I somehow manage to reject this notion, I don’t think I could ever be a player or sleep around. And I’m perfectly okay with “only” having been in two relationships before. In some sense, I’ve always known who I’ve wanted to be with. I’ve just been more selective than a lot of my peers.

But I also wonder if these limitations are too stringent. If I’m waiting too long for some perfect image of a woman to show up. I can and do meet women, but I don’t go out of my way to investigate who they are because some little thing here or there will put me off and I’ll lose interest. I will even quash my own interest if it doesn’t seem like it will work out in the long run.

So, understanding myself as being in “wife mode” helps answer some questions, but it also brings up questions of its own. I know I would be emotionally more stable, more fulfilled, and happier in a relationship. Am I doing myself a disservice by being so picky? Am I waiting when I should be more proactive?

~

Miscellaneous:

  • I’ve always ignored the dating game in favor of self improvement and becoming more awesome. And let’s face it, I’m fucking awesome. It’s a long term play for a long term committed relationship as opposed to smoke and mirrors in the short term.
  • When I am in love, I love so strongly it transcends space and time. There’s no distance I wouldn’t go, no period of time I wouldn’t wait if I was assured that love waited on the other side. This is why, even though it’s not rational, my heart believes in a soulmate and love that lasts through lifetimes (I loved The Myth and Air). Rationally, I don’t hold to any of that – reincarnation, least of all. But rationality takes a seat when it comes to love.
  • Love is also my savior. By myself, I can’t see myself living past the age of 29. But when I’m in love, it’s like a window into a future where I am old and frail, sitting side by side with my wife in a circle of friends as the grandkids play in the yard. Love means sharing a life, and there’s so much life to share that there’s no way to fit it all in a mere 29 years.
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