One of the most valuable things I ever learned was this: The smallest details can fundamentally change what something is.
The best example is with food. Adding curry to your stew immediately makes the diner think about Indian spices, even if all the other ingredients suggest it’s beef bourguignon. The same goes for designing a webpage or arranging furniture in your room.
Each decision matters.
But most of our decisions are made without articulating what we are trying to accomplish with the decision. They are gut reactions to our environment. However, there is no such thing as a neutral decision; every decision accomplishes something — the question is, what?
To be honest, I used to think success was a lot more about skill and luck, and a lot less about thought and discipline. But I’ve learned that this isn’t how a mission is accomplished. Define the goal, make decisions to reach the goal.
Except, in life, I liked to be surprised by the outcome. I like the poetic improvisation in this way of life, and sometimes I wonder if a more rigid articulation of goals prevents the serendipity that occur otherwise. In fact, as much as I’d love to define a goal and go all-out on that goal, I still feel an insatiable urge to explore the world around me, which could also be described as “being distracted.” But I secretly hope that one that that mission will be clearly defined, and that this is a phase. And I secretly hope that all the exploration will yield interesting artifacts after I get back on the path. But what if I never make it back to the path? What if the mission is never defined? What if this is just a lazy excuse to loaf around? Frankly, it very well might be.
November 19, 2013 Leave a comment
I struggle with the idea of permanence — the idea that something could be forever. There are three distinct ideas that occupy me.
1. Desire: The desire for permanence, juxtaposed with the possibility that it does not exist, yields no comfort.
2. Death: Evidence that we do not exist in this state permanently reveals no hints about what that means.
3. Faith: Virtually all world views offer some idea of permanence, whether it exist within our souls or our universe. What’s interesting, though, is that permanence is not about existing eternally. Rather it’s about existing ultimately. By that, I mean that it exists even if our universe ceases to exist — even if time crumples into a hole of gravity. It exists without prerequisites.
Permanence scares me almost as much as it comforts me. It implies that there exists a homeostasis, either in the form of a void or a grand orchestra.
November 18, 2013 Leave a comment
I was locked out, so I sat on the steps. I played with the mulch. I occasionally pulled at the door, hoping it would magically unlock. It never magically unlocked.
I should’ve worn a coat, like my mother always told me, but I didn’t. I was cold.
I walked around the building and tried every door. They were all locked.
So I kept playing with the mulch.
This was Monday.
It was at the state capitol, where I now work. I thought surely someone would open the door. Because the universe couldn’t afford to disturb my morning routine. I needed to walk up the steps, like every other day. And take the underground concourse to the cafeteria, like every other day. And wind my watch 13 times, until fully wound, before ordering the breakfast special, like every other day. And then I needed to sit down in the corner booth and read the New York Times.
Like every other day.
Except I’d only ever performed that routine three times, so it wasn’t really a routine, or like every other day. But this was a new job in a new city, and after living in three cities in three years and being unemployed for three months, I needed this. I needed normalcy.
Most adults would’ve given up and gone home. But me? I was like a 10-year-old waiting for his mother after school. I sat on the steps outside. I pulled at the door. I played with the mulch.
No one ever showed up, and I eventually figured out it was Veterans Day, and that government buildings don’t open on Veterans Day. But instead of going home, like a normal adult, I sat back down on the steps and felt stranded, like a child without a way home after baseball practice. The way I figured, I was supposed to be in that building, so I needed to wait here until that building opened. Logic.
It often seems like everyone else has daily routines that free them from thinking about getting through the day. But when you lack normalcy, and you’re constantly adjusting, it makes the small, predictable things — like the breakfast special or winding a watch — that much more important. Those things allow us to feel like we have mastered a small part of the world.
I eventually went to a coffee shop. I want it to be my coffee shop, and I want to have my corner. I want it to always be open for me.
November 14, 2013 Leave a comment
As a young journalist, I did a lot of tedious, unglamorous work and I was OK with it. Because it was all part of the journey — part of the climb to the peak — and this was to be expected. And that hard work paid off, because I got closer to the peak, and each step felt so satisfying.
But nowadays when I do tedious, unglamorous work, I start resenting the universe. I wonder why I haven’t earned a better place in the world. And perhaps that contributes to the dissatisfaction.
The real difference, though, is that when I was younger I always knew where I was in the storybook. Pixar has 22 Rules of Storytelling, and one of them is a template for a story that humans generally identify with. It goes:
Once upon a time _______
Every day, _________.
One day, ___________.
Because of that, ___________.
Because of that, ___________.
Until finally, _____________.
For most of my life, I assumed I was in the first two lines. It was still “once upon a time” where I did something every day. The turning point hadn’t arrived yet, because I was young. But as I grow older, there are small turning points, and I feel like I should move onto the next part of the story. I want to get to “Until finally” because that is ultimate fulfillment, or so it seems, but everything around me says that I’m still stuck at “Every day…”
So this the part where I need to understand that everyone doesn’t get a storybook turning point — the “one day” doesn’t come for everyone. In fact, it’s something you have to work for — every day. It’s hard to swallow, because it requires patience and humility, but it’s better than pretending we’re reached “Until finally” only to realize how disappointing it is.
October 29, 2013 Leave a comment
When I was young my parents owned a dry cleaning business, and in the back there were dozens of large boxes full of hangers. The boxes were stored two-deep, so I would split the boxes and create a small room in which to play. I didn’t pretend it was a house, but rather an office. And in that office, I had a colleague named Mr. Hong who I distinctly remember as being Asian.
I don’t know what business we conducted, but I do remember we talked about important things in that office, because that’s what offices are for. I remember talking about money, but not in definite terms but rather in vague adjective like ‘a lot’ and ‘a little.’ And I remember eating crackers in the office, because everyone needs a break.
I remember being happy and relaxed, which in retrospect is incredible because all around me there were dry cleaning chemicals and industrial-sized steam presses and the constant clanking of washing machine drums. The worst thing that ever happened was an earthquake, or maybe it was the time I put my uncle’s cigarette in my mouth. But even during those times, I felt safe.
And the next morning, I would come back again with my parents and crawl between those boxes, and Mr. Hong would already be there and business would still be good and cracker time would always be at 10 a.m. I’m sure at some point I was bored or lonely, and one time I apparently ironed my hand in the steam press. But I don’t remember any of that; I just remember being comfortable, and I remember the sheer excitement when my dad came to find me in between the boxes because it was time to go home.
October 6, 2013 Leave a comment