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.

Humbled

I visited a friend on Friday. We hadn’t seen each other since high school, essentially, but we kept in touch on and off via Facebook. Recently, I asked if anyone knew of a good Chinese tutor, and she volunteered herself. I happened to be in the area, so we met up the next day.

She had a newborn baby girl, three months old, and while we caught up, I found myself unable to take myself seriously. I rattled off what had happened since high school, all my ups and downs and career changes, and my current projects. But I realized something then; I could become a millionaire, I could change the world, or I could become the president of the United States of America, but none of that would have the gravity of bringing a new life into the world.

It put my life into a different perspective. I felt like I was a child, myself, playing with toys and make believe. I am, for better or for worse, largely free of responsibilities. And any responsibilities I have, or might take on, are still nowhere near as important as the responsibilities a mother takes on with her child.

We talked a bit about women feeling more pushed to have children young, and about how her parents’ generation were all forced to have children at a later age due to China’s Cultural Revolution. And then she repeated something I’ve heard time and time again – that she had asked around and she had gotten the same advice: have more kids and have them younger. My mother had gone through a similar process and gotten the same advice a generation ago.

I think I understand the “biological clock” a little better. With a responsibility like that…

It also made me reflect on my own values. My dad has said again and again through the decades that he always put family first. It’s something I don’t take lightly – I will have a family someday, and I will put them first. I may have dreams and ambitions, but they will take a backseat if need be. “We” will always be more important than “me.” This is a fact of humanity. None of us would make it alone.

It did make me wonder if it is a business advantage to be able to put family second, though. I don’t think I would ever want to prioritize something over family, but at the same time, I wonder if that’s the reason for the personal problems in so many high profile people’s lives, or, conversely, the reason for their success in business. Elon Musk is said to have asked something like, “How much time is reasonable to spend on family? Ten hours a week?” and Marissa Meyer is able to maintain her productivity by offloading care to hired help. I doubt she is spending much time with her child. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Entering the Flame

The more I wrestle with being in love, the more I realize I have no control. Like a moth to the flame, I am burned and I retreat, but it remains integral to what I am to be drawn to the light.

Last night, I was talking to a friend of mine, explaining my various neuroses, my fears and the illusions I had painted to explain the decisions I was – or wasn’t – making. What I wasn’t doing was living. I had believed I was living a thousand lives in my imagination of the future or alternate realities in which I had chosen differently. What I wasn’t doing was living my actual life. Somehow during our conversation, I remembered what it was like to love courageously. It was less like dancing around the flame out of fear and more like choosing to enter it.

During one skiing trip, I remember standing at the top of my first black diamond slope, the hardest category of routes. It swiftly disappeared into what seemed like a sheer cliff. I was terrified. But I convinced myself that the first few feet of the course didn’t look that bad. Even then, knowing what that first step would lead to, I had to acknowledge that I was doing something potentially suicidal.

Relationships scare me far more than any ski slope. The potential for pain, the questions that inevitably arise to pierce to the very heart of my identity (and my partner’s), have always kept me from any sort of relationship, really. In this, I am as cautious as my Chinese zodiac animal, the rabbit. In the past, I had only been in relationships in which I was chased, more or less. I have very little experience with, or inclination toward, chasing a romantic partner. But I’ve never felt so attracted to someone before, never so pulled to chase, regardless of the circumstances. Hence my conflict. I dash back and forth, afraid of uncertainty, but called to the flame. I guess in this metaphor, it’s crossing the road without being squashed flat by a passing truck.

This back and forth has been killing me. I did something that made logical sense at the time, according to what my brain said was the right and proper course of action. It made sense, and still does. But my heart has punished me unforgivingly for it. I’ve never been in this much pain for making a rational decision that I still agree with. Even now, it will catch up to me and force me to face my inadequacies, and in response I will just shut down and go to sleep.

But realizing my neuroses and remembering courage lets me move forward, even if it is into a less than perfect world. That’s the nature of the world, and of relationships. Remembering courage lets me take the next step, even if it is a painful one. I may be entering the flame, but it is a transformative flame, nonetheless. I will survive and become something else; I will not die in a stasis of a million different possibilities and alternative realities. I will open myself to reality and dance with fate, knowing that nothing is for certain. I must still live my life.

I must enter the flame.