April 2nd, 2002

tell tale heart

Where am I going? Where have I been?

If I weren't a compulsive learner and an academic junkie, I would be graduating college in 40 days. I would have been searching for jobs, doing interviews, making big decisions. As it is, I'm staying within the comforting womb of school for another year with a master's degree to show for it. I was born 16 days late, and one year out of 18 (not counting preschool) is about the same percentage of extra gestation.

I'm almost always on time for commitments, but I'm usually late in developments. I got my driver's license less than three months before turning 22. I had a fear of talking on the phone until I was 21. I went on my first date less than three months before turning 18, and lost my virginity at age 21. I didn't own a tie until last year. Until a year and a half ago, I had only once been more than 100 miles from my birthplace without one of my parents being there (and they essentially dropped me off on that occasion.) Lots of people reach these milieu around age 16, so in a sense I'm five years behind. (I think it's just a coincidence that my brother, five yeras younger than I, also has not had a date, learned to drive, or bought a tie.) To be fair, I read at an early age, took my first college classes half way through high school, participated in a political demonstration in 5th grade, built a homepage in 1994, and had a pretty full beard by age 19.

So what we find is that I'm a geek have stunted social growth. Where's my parade?

The point? Many of the decisions that brought me where I am today were made a long time ago. Given my parents, it was essentially a given at birth that I'd go to college. The snowball that brought me to a major in computer science was started in 3rd grade when I learned to use a word processor because my penmenship sucked. (What would I be doing now if I could write cursive well? Probably trying to tripple major in philosophy, psychology, and English or something. Thank goodness for poor fine-point manipulation.) My attendance at CU was fairly determined financially, and my utter lack of practical ambition during my senior year of high school clinhced it. I think I decided to pursue the concurrent BS/MS degree before I even started my freshman year. If I had to decide that now, I'm not positive I'd go for it. (Well, I'd be more hesitant, anyway.)

It would be fair to say that the next step is already decided as well. "Get a CS degree and get a job programming" has been on the horizon for several years, and I have no reason to second guess that decision. But in a very real sense, the next step is wide open. True, I am pondering teaching for a couple years, but that decision would only delay the existential moment, since I'd follow that with a programming job anyway.

As usual, the existential feeling that can be told is not the eternal existential feeling. It isn't angst (fear without an object; imprecise worry). As usual, I don't worry about much, fear nothing, and have enough of an idea to deal with anything that might come up. It's multifaceted. The first part is forward-looking -- CS sure, but where? What, specifically? And what else?

The answer to that part should come forth next year. I've thought for some time that when I graduate I need to take The Great American Journey. My astounding lack of experience with places outside Boulder means I'm unprepared to accept, in any meaningful way, a job; that is to say, a place of life for the next several years. I think at least two months are needed. Two months in a van with a hammock, a cooler, a laptop and digital camera, myself, and the expanse of North America. A journey of reflectful solitude punctuated by novel social environments and job interviews. If I'm to make much of a forray into Canada or Mexico, I should probably make that three months. The most important decision of the next five years is where I'm going to live. Can I tolerate a place where it snows and then stays cloudy? How about where it gets more than 16 inches of rain a year? Could I stand a suburb? Beyond that choice, things are important, but not so much. I'd love to work in AI; my dream job would be writing in scheme, but that's not of critical importance. Mostly I want to be a code warrior for five or ten years, reaching expert level. Build up some financial reserves so that I can either make it as a freelance shareware author/philosopher or head back to school in (probably) cognitive science. But that's a long way off, and I'm not especially committed to anything.

A key to the second piece of my existential moment can be found in one word in the above paragraph. As a hint, it's not "scheme." Rather, it's solitude. When I first hatched the desire for the Great American Journey In A Van (this was probably around freshman/sophomore year), it was to be a journey by two. See, when They tell you all about growing up, you absorb that you'll find your life partner, or at least your first spouse, in college. Sure, I figured. 25,000 people. A significant portion of them are probably smart, sexy, and cool. Lots of interaction with different people, abundant chances for connection. I've had a (physical) crush pretty much every semester. So what's the problem? First, I'm not the sort of person who'll establish a relationship based on looks. In order for someone to become more than a fantasy catalyst I need to know what she thinks. What are her interests? What does she find funny? So, says the practiced pro, ask her out and learn these things. Problem. The first couple years I was still socially inept. I wanted to try this out, but could not for the life of me figure out how. I didn't have the guts to say "Hi. I've chosen my seat in class for the last several weeks so that I could get several inconspicuous glances. I know I'm kinda weird looking, but I'm interesting to talk to. Would you like to go out somewhere and chat?" Partly it was geekly inhibition. Partly it was the fact that the only things I did outside of class and my room were interest-based (you don't go to philosophy club if you aren't into philosophy, it's no fun to visit a game store if you don't play games). Fast forward a bit. As an RA I've learned how to talk to strangers, use the phone, hang out, all that fun stuff. So what's my excuse now? I'd like to be a responsible boyfriend, and that entails devoting time and energy to the girl in question. But I'm working on a large software project, taking graduate school classes, working as an RA, and trying to get enough sleep not to do anything stupid. And I don't have it in me to put someone above schoolwork -- I don't even think I have it in me to put personal health and hygene above schoolwork. If I were dating me this year, I'd feel neglected, and that's not a way to start a good relationship. I have gotten to know some pretty cute girls fairly well this year (one of whom I'd had "it'd be great if we ended up in the same class and talked a lot and went out" fantasies about during they previous year and, hey presto, there we are in class talking). However, upon reflection, I decided that, though we get along great as friends, we'd be a bad couple. I'm a tough person to date -- I have some strange practices, a weird sense of humor, odd views, and am incapable of letting a debatable point slide. Part of dating me is getting into deep philosophy, and I've gotten the "that's horrible, how could you think that?" look from girls a lot.

Do I ramble? I contain recursion. The point is that another face of my existential upwelling in the last few days has been a desire for intimacy. I can fully appreciate the biological and evolutionary sources and basis of the emotion I'm feeling, but that doesn't make my arms any less empty as I try to fall asleep. I wish I had someone I could wrap myself around, muse with, kiss, make puns, exchange backrubs. All of that cute soft-eyed stuff. But such a one is not here now, nor has she been present for most of my life. And the prospects next year aren't exactly rosy -- dating and graduate school aren't frequently conjoined. Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of solitude, and I get along with myself better than many do. But as much as I like being awake, I also like sleeping, which is convenient, since I'm biologically wired to desire sleep. Ditto intimacy.

If part the first is future-looking, part the second is focused on the present situation, part the third looks back, critically. I've gotten good grades, but what else substantive have I done? I haven't ever had a lot of close friends, and I keep in touch with even fewer. For all my talk and thought about making the world a better place, I haven't made a big impact on much of anything. I'm disappointed with several aspects of my performance as an RA, such as making close friendships and inspiring and provoking thought and action. I have brought a lot of smiles with odd dress and unique antics, but that's something I almost don't put effort into. I'm satisfied with life as a Taoist tare-panda most of the time, but there's lots of stuff I haven't done well or at all. I think the key is getting closer to people. I'm capable of all sorts of wild and deep conversations, but I don't have them very often outside the confines of Philosophy Club. I think this is because I'm lousy at starting conversations. My internal monologue jumps from inside joke to domain specific pondering to long-running intellectual progression, none of which are particularly inviting to the novice user of Trevor's mind. Further, I don't really know what to ask or say to draw out key features about other people. I've made it to small talk, but I can't get the big ball rolling. (Of course, time constraints are also present. When I've got Too Much Work, I feel irresponsible chatting for more than a minute or two.) Maybe I don't go to enough parties. (I could enumerate my college party experience without removing my shoes.) But I also wonder why few people start these conversations with me. I feel bad that I haven't reached out more to my residents, but why haven't most of them reached out to me? Why don't I get invited to parties, why don't people ask me deep questions? If you have insight here, please share it. If you'd like to partake in a conversation of depth, start it right up. Give a holler by email, chitter at me on IRC. I'm even trying to be on AIM regularly. (Username Flwyd, big surprise.) Did that sound like a pathetic call for attention? It wasn't; just an invitation, if one was needed.

Time continues. Later today (it's 1:40? ugh) I register for classes at CU for the next to last time. This evening I interview to be a Hall Director Assistant. The outcome of that determines what kind of summer job I can look for and what I'll do with my free time next year. University deadlines happen regardless of existential moments.

Perhaps, at a very fundamental level that spring break tends to bring out, I really just want to lie around in the sun all day. I put lots of effort into being lazy, and this may be a plodding use of an hour and a half of not sleeping to come to a conclusion I knew all along. If you've read this far, I hope you've been able to glean some insight into your own existential moments, or at least into who I am. If you'd like me to stop by your neck of the woods (or want to tell me about some other shoulder of the woods that I really oughtn't miss, preferably with lots of sun and good computer jobs) on The Great American Journey, give me a buzz.

Be seeing you.
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