Reflection

[N.B.: I wrote this in early  April.  Kept it close for a while but it’ll help to get it off my chest.  Ugh.]

So there I was last night, running along the East River at half past midnight, a long run much needed to burn off my excess energy in the last couple weeks.  I run and exercise not to get stronger, but to get rid of anxiety and restlessness.  It forces me to relax.

But that night, running, being cathartic for me, brought emotions boiling over out of me: suddenly I started getting angry, upset, focused.  What was I doing?  Why was I running, alone, as usual, in the middle of the night?  What am I doing in life, do I even have a future career in anything, and why can’t she see me as a treasure worth fighting to keep?

The creeping suspicion that fills my mind and heart is that everything I’ve been trying to do has been a colossal waste of time.  It’s a creeping suspicion that, in fact, all my life’s decisions have set me back, have destroyed any semblance of stability or happiness, which I badly crave and which others sense and shy away from.  The worst part is that I know I can’t help it.  I had to do it.  I knew it would hurt and I did it anyway.

This makes conversations with others about the subject extremely difficult for them to identify with.  By most accounts, I’ve lived a fairly interesting life with a nice story.  Joined the Army after 9/11 and some time daytrading the dotcom bubble, then deploying to Iraq as an Arabic linguist, as a bloody paratrooper for God’s sake, as intel support to actual Green Beret teams.  Got out, moved to DC, studied foreign policy at Georgetown, worked at USAID and a contractor for Homeland Security.  Even converted to Catholicism almost entirely on my own.  Then up and moved to NYC to study art and technology.

But all that — all that! — was not a happy story for me.  Most none of it was happy.  It was done out of a sense of clawing and biting for survival, for trying to find the life for myself and a future family that would make me happy and successful, for trying not to be obsolete in a swiftly-evolving world.

It has isolated me, made me not be able to relate with others.  It’s made me more of a trinket for conversation, a funny-looking animal in a cage at a zoo.  I’m a token veteran in employers’ and programs’ statistics.

I don’t think people understand that there’s such a saddening backstory behind it all.  I have nothing to show for all that, in the end.  Has it been such a waste?

Here’s the real story behind all that.  The story where all of those things happened because I was willing to sacrifice a lot of time and money and stability and love, because I believed in something bigger.  All those things — country, religion, education — they won’t let you know it but they actually need you more than you need them.  They take all comers now, and they even let you join for free, as long as you sacrifice a part of yourself to them.  It’s true there are a lot of people who joined the military or a church or got through school without trying and without caring.  This doesn’t invalidate them as institutions, but one should be skeptical in evaluating people solely on whether they got through these initial tests or not.

It’s good for you to believe in something, yes, but the cold, hard calculus in life is that things like money and love in many ways are very reliable indicators of whether you are worth more to someone else than they are to you.  Are you paying your way to go to school?  Did you sign your life over to the Army for 5 years?  Or does someone else in the world wake up and think before anything else how much she misses you not being there, about how she would do anything for you?  Does some company or backer happily invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into you because he suspects it will come back ten-fold?

Does someone make irrational decisions because she loves you?  Does a company risk its money in taking a chance on you?  Just because they believe in you?  THAT is true value.

I do not believe in only love and money.  I believe in country, religion, education, happiness, free time, et al.  I believe (perhaps falsely, as I am discovering) that hard work earns you respect in these things.  In my world, those hours spent at Mass, those hours spent in the gym pumping iron (blocking everything else out) or out doing push-ups in front of the Atlantic World War 2 memorial or Lincoln Memorial or miles ran — always alone (save for when two people I trust so much in this world, Dina and Dan, trained with me for our marathon together), those hours spent scouring the internet and reading books, those tens of thousands dollars spent on enriching my mind, those should all mean something.

The tragedy is that I fear I might have been better off — a happier, richer person — if I’d not been this mangled creature that I am, if I’d not followed what I believed would make me more useful to myself and to others.

Here’s more of the ugly backstory.  I left the Army right before I could have been eligible for promotion, before I would have settled into a pretty nice leadership position where I’d have more responsibility to train and lead other soldiers, something I genuinely loved.  But I was so disgusted with not just the Bush Doctrine and my hand in it, but also with the treatment I received from a senior officer who never even looked me in the eyes before or after removing me from my team in the middle of a deployment (for blogging and photographing my experiences in Iraq, which later 1) was found to be non-punishable in my case but also 2) became effectively outlawed military-wide).  It was such a slap in the face for the case of leadership and role model behavior, and of course now he is a higher-up at the Pentagon, while other officers I know and love have since retired.

I left a fairly decent job in DC where people respected me; I had a fairly nice life and I definitely had a lot of very close friends.  I even found a lovely woman.  But she came right after I had decided to leave it all, go to NYC, and attend school.  She later dumped me after I’d moved to NYC, as a result.  Though I suspect she also knew she would never love me.  I left DC, a city I love, after I reached a dead end in my job.  After my neighbor’s apartment caught fire, leaving me without any possessions for four and a half months except what I brought to work that day and for what I spent my hard-earned savings on afterwards to resume my life.  In the process, a very kind woman that I had just started dating took me in, and that all ended too when my move to NYC began to loom.

I moved to NYC to learn how to code, to fight in the most competitive city in the world so that I might have a chance at making a lot of money, doing something massive, important, and wonderful.  I did it because I felt like I had to, but not because I wanted to.  I feel like every decision I’ve made has taken me further from where I’d be happiest, because I’d hoped that somewhere on the other side, I’d find what it was that I needed.  You know Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist?  Some people love the book, some think it’s simplistic and cheesy.  But it chilled me to the bone.  Its lesson — that you can travel far and wide, but really where you should be is where you were to begin with — scared me.  Have I wasted my time, always trying to be so hard-working and diligent and explorative?

I’m restless.  Extremely restless.  Tired.  And frustrated.  I want to be happy, to be loved, to be in love.

Cut to last week.  I’m on the stoop of some row house with a beautiful woman I’d been dating.  A woman who so defied all the stereotypes of my past relationships and of my expectations that I was mystified and enchanted by her.  I would have never expected her and then all the sudden she one day was being introduced to me while I was coding as someone I MUST talk to, and I was mesmerized.  The arc of the relationship was magical and uncontrollable.  It hurtled through the vacuum of that time you spend in school where reality and non-reality blur because you’re everywhere and nowhere while you study.  I knew I didn’t want to date or get involved while in school, but my God, she was irresistible.  Projects got in the way of “letting go”, but I presumed we had more time…

I’m on the stoop with her.  And on the surface it looks great.  We’re enjoying a fairly warm winter evening, right?  But really what I’m doing is trying to convince her not to leave me.  Her stated reasons are because she’s about to graduate and doesn’t want to have large decisions in her life affected by our relationship, which hasn’t had time to develop enough yet.  But I suspect, once again, that she knows she doesn’t love me and never will, and this is a good time for her to end it.  I wonder to myself how she can be so controlled, so calculating about it, unless she’s either highly rational or just wants out.

One of those guys who goes around selling roses stops by, but I turn him away, saying I’m busy talking to her, and that if I play my cards right, then maybe I’ll need the rose later.  But I kind of already know I have no chance.  I’m drowning.  It’s the coldest thing to see, when you see someone close off her heart to you.  You feel as far away from human as possible, like a discarded toy.

The saddest part, I think, was that then this massive burly guy comes up to me and interrupts, asking, “Were you in Special Forces?”  He saw the tattoo on my arm, the unit patch for Special Forces.  Yeah, I was an Arabic linguist for Group, I responded.  The man shakes my hand, says his father was in Group, and he’ll buy me a beer in the bar inside once me and the gorgeous woman beside me head in.  I thank him.  He ends up being, as I found out over a shot and a beer, a Brooklyn firefighter who’s lost good friends too.

It’s sad because this is the stuff that great stories are made of.  I’m trying to convince this woman that I’m worth it, even if the timing isn’t perfect, even if the stars haven’t aligned, even if she’s worried about her own life, that wow, this guy gets the respect of random strangers, particularly big threatening strangers.  She mentions that it’s pretty good timing for my cause, but it seems an afterthought.

I still know I have no chance.  And that is the tragedy.  The great stories people tell about how they got the girl, the stories you only see in movies.  Or, the stories you only hear from those cheerful old men you listen to who lived through World War 2 and ended up being married to that same woman for 50 years just because he said the right thing at the right time, back in the days when these magical stories had power, when men could sweep women off their feet and then they’d be happily married the rest of their lives.

As far as I can tell, stories hold no power anymore, and particularly not in my life.  I have remarked to friends that I’m a horrible storyteller, and that I don’t even have great stories to tell.  They are in somewhat of disbelief, but I know a great storyteller when I see one, like my friend Chris for example.  He tells the most amazing stories.  While I have interesting stories, the problem is that they are like my story from the stoop — they have less-than-noble endings.  The setup is there, the execution is there, but The Prestige, the punchline, whatever you want to call it, fails.  I’m an intern at The Colbert Report, and perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned there, besides all the coding/server administration stuff I’ve learned, is how you absolutely MUST complete the joke.  THAT is the difference between a comedian and anyone else.  THAT is the difference between a storyteller and anyone else.  None of my stories have The Prestige.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.” –”The Prestige”

You see, so the only way my story pans out to be a happy one is if the ending is absolutely amazing.  It can’t fall flat.  It can’t fail.

But, my dear reader, it’s looking awfully bad.  This woman, this one particularly smarts.  My friends could pretty much define my taste in women, but this one, she is so utterly different.  And she is also so far away from me that I once again feel inhuman, feel cold.  This story of reality starts off shimmeringly brilliant, radiates, and then burns out, dull.  That magic I thought was there, wasn’t there.  Was it there at all?  It wasn’t enough?

What am I going to do?  I run in the dark, I read tons, I write things that are never read, I slavishly throw myself at a woman who would rather I forget her, I relocate and smash the stability I build up.  It’s destructive.  I have nothing to show for it all.  I have just a few very close friends — the kind who will actually go out of their way to do something for you.  But I have even more acquaintances who probably would have been great friends if I’d invested the time they needed from me.  If I’d stayed in one place, got really good at one thing, planted roots, then maybe women I fall for wouldn’t be pushed away by my ephemeral presence.  I’d have become expert, earned a better salary, had more responsibility to lead.  But I don’t have any of that.  I’m a student, pursuing (now) a more technical developer’s life, competing against kids a decade younger who are expert coders.

I often think back to my time in the Army.  The thing about the Army was that it made me a man, and it introduced me with people I will always love, will always make time for, will always feel human for.  I’ve been to three weddings in my life, and all of them were for military friends.  The people who came back afterwards and made a point to help me out, or to tell me how much they loved me — almost all of them were military.  People who believe in something bigger, who believe in acknowledging others, who do great things even though they know they will get nothing in exchange.  I got a reference from a man who defended me when no one else did when I got in trouble, and I got a note from another senior officer who said he would have pushed me for warrant officer if I’d stayed in.  Why did I leave again?

I admit that I have people who say they trust me, who say they respect me.  But this just makes me feel more inhuman.  It does not make me feel loved.  In my world, trust is intimately entwined with love.  I could not love someone anymore unless she showed me that I would never need to distrust her.  This is what love is built on.  Not the insecure, uncertain morass that relationships are now.  When people say they trust me, they respect me, what they are essentially saying is that they understand I am not trying to take away anything from them, that I am not a threat to them.  The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.

The other dimension of people saying they trust and respect you is that you are essentially boring.  That they know you’ll be there, so why put forth the time?  The key determinant is asking whether someone will either 1) spend time on you or 2) make a sacrifice for you.  Instead of empty words of deference and respect, which most don’t live up to, spending time with someone is a true measure of care because it shows that the time spent with you is worth more than time spent working on other things, like one’s career or whatever.  This lady who runs the laundromat around the corner from me, she asked what my ancient Greek tattoo meant.  I told her that it meant happiness, something I’m searching for in life.  She asked me, do I know how to find happiness?  The secret is to make someone else happy.  I said I’ve been trying, but people did not want it.  She said to keep smiling, and that I’d find someone, for I’m a handsome man.  It was a needed compliment.

Think how I feel when I give the slightest nudge to others for them to give me some of their time, only to have them recoil and not just say no, but draw away completely?  How secure do you think I feel when even someone close to me leaves me when I ask for the smallest thing?

I guess the conclusion that I’ve come to is, why would I keep doing the same thing, knowing it’s pulling me further and further away from happiness?  I’m tired of moving or traveling alone.  I’m tired of starting over in a new career.  I’m definitely upset at being told by a woman that we’re moving in different directions, and she won’t go on the same journey with me.

My decisions have pulled me further and further away from having a home, from having love, from having happiness.  My parents’ home is no longer home to me.  I can never go back there, there is nothing for me there.  People cutely mention that they don’t have a home anymore, for they can travel wherever they want.  But I want so badly to have a home.  It doesn’t have to be physical, it can be emotional.  The closest I had to a home was in DC, and then an apartment fire pushed me out.  I’m now so far adrift, so far out on my own.  As Axl Rose wrote, I’ve jumped into the river too many times to make it home.

I have to change things up.  What I’m doing is not working.  How many people have I actually helped in the course of my life?  I like to think I managed to train quite a few new Army kids for war before they deployed.  I’m proud of that.  I feel like I’ve been a fairly loyal friend here and there.  Perhaps overly loyal to exes.  Galapag.us, a fantasy of being my life’s work, has been loyal to me when I’ve been abandoned so frequently in the last few years.  She’s a loyal lover.  But I don’t know if Galapag.us will ever work out.  I want to have a stable, devoted relationship.  I don’t think I’ve been in one since I was a pretty young twenty-something.  And even that had an asterisk — it was long-distance.  But without that base, something to build upon, something to use as a springboard to try risky things, I am always on shaky ground, always unsure.  That relationship is the stability I think I need to get through to the next level.  A partnership for the journey, not a partnership as a reward for completing the journey.  It’s emotional support for building one’s life, and so far I’ve had to rely on gritty determination as my “emotional support”.

I’m wracked with insecurity.  I always have been.  I’m a big guy, and intimidating to many, particularly if they know the Army background, but I lived my childhood as a goofily thin tall kid with no muscle, with bad skin and glasses and braces.  I loved to play baseball but a coach who treated me like a sympathy bench player while his son and his favorite non-son player were chosen to play first base, which I showed any real talent at.  I struggled through math pretty early on, as most of the other Asian kids excelled and eventually became engineers.  That’s when I was struck in the face with how different I was from them.

Now, I’ve made use of all that insecurity.  Much of it is now gone, through testing myself and seeing what I’m capable of.  I don’t get anywhere near as nervous anymore.  What insecurity I had I can now recognize in others, and walk and talk them through it (but most people won’t listen — they have to experience it themselves and go through the same pain).

Luck is one of the key determinants in success.  Certainly people who make it big have been working on their talents for ages, and they’ve slowly accrued enough expertise to break through.  But in the end it’s luck.  Luck that you meet someone at the right time, luck that you’re mentally ready to fully take it.  You have to be ready when it comes because it swiftly moves on.  I had an ex who, despite her being so toxic otherwise, was rather complimentary when she told me that she admired and was attracted to me because I was so willing to “fall hard”, when almost everyone else can be such a coward.

What’s funny about that is that I know I am falling hard for things that I have no chance at.  It’s almost futile.  But I have to care.  I have to believe, have to hope.  I’m so bad at most things, and am aware at how bad I am at them, that the only thing I know for sure is that I’m good at never giving up, pushing when no one else is watching, being the last man standing, just because I believe.  You have no idea how isolating that is.

I’ve never had a lot of luck.  What I’ve gotten has come either through sheer determination, pursuing things that needed me more than I needed them, or because I was willing to sacrifice a lot to get it.  When my only chance at something is through wishing it to happen, it never occurs.  What this has meant is that any opportunity I get, I take it and then treasure it, am loyal to it in full.

Here’s what I don’t get about just about all the people I know.  They are almost paralyzed by choice.  They live enchanted lives, and forego perfectly good choices because they expect to have even better choices later.  Should they go into law or medicine?  Georgetown or Johns Hopkins?  China or Italy?  They wring their hands, avoid making a decision, and end up doing nothing at all.

When I think about a Fitzgeraldian Jazz Age, it reminds me of these people I know.  People who dress up for champagne balls at venues with gilded banisters to talk about equities and finance and trips to the Caribbean and skiing, away from the war-twisted, broken families I saw in Iraq, the lost poor black communities in Columbus, GA, or Washington, DC, the shattered injured veterans of foreign wars, the scores of people just trying to cling onto any sense of normalcy in their lives.

I talked to a good friend about relationships once and he said that he was talking with a family member about how he was afraid to get into a relationship because he wasn’t sure where he was going to be, and she castigated him; she, being much older, upbraided him for being so stupid.  Why turn away happiness?  Why treat a connection with another person so casually, so disposingly?

In the end, I’ve felt like I’ve built myself a prison where there’s nothing I can do but keep continuing to do what I’m doing, pushing my way through.  There is no place to return to.  I work out hard to cure this restlessness I have, I push harder and read and study and explore to get smarter, I keep setting up my heart for disappointment because I believe you have to be in it to win it.  I know it’s destructive.

And it feels like a waste.  I remember two guys from my unit who died in Iraq while we were deployed together.  Daniel Winegeart and Dustin Adkins.  They died because of stupid shit.  It wasn’t valiant, like being in a firefight like in the movies.  Stupid shit entirely.  But I went to their memorials.  You think you can control yourself, because you’re a fucking man and because you’re a soldier.  But then you see the families come in, and the bagpipes start playing, and you hear the uncontrollable, heart-wrenching bawling and moaning from the parents left behind, and in the case of Adkins, his wife and two children.  It was one of the most dreadful things I’d ever experienced.  And to think that these two men (boys really) would now be 6 years older, building productive families and lives for themselves, while I’m still fucking around trying to figure out what to do and how I’m going to make it?  This is just?

I think it’s time to scale it back.  It’s time to try something else.  Maybe I need to focus on just being happy.  I have no clue where to start.  I shouldn’t be starting many new things in the position I’m in.  I’m tired.  I’m exhausted.  Anyhow, the last few relationships have taken a lot out of my spirit and my heart.  Puzzling, I suppose, that it didn’t affect the women so deeply?  What does that say about me?

I’ve had the pleasure of being good friends with several people who have shown me what a good friend can be, and how powerful it can be to have that good friend supporting you and you supporting him.  Thank you Slavek, Chris, Luke, Itzbeth.  There are others who have been nothing but supportive and nurturing as well, even when it wasn’t easy for them to be that way with me.  I can only hope that one day, sooner rather than fucking later, I’ll find some career that finds me valuable, some woman who finds me valuable, some community and life that finds me valuable, where I can help those who need helping.  But I believe in things, and that makes things pretty damn difficult for me to be happy, especially when it’s so hard to find others who feel the same way, who will risk their hearts on someone or something just because they know it might be the only way out from a life that’s terminal halfway before it’s all over.  Guess I’ll just keep pushing.  It’s the only thing I’m good at.

[N.B. It has not escaped my notice (to use a Watson and Crick litotes) that what I describe above is basically what my grandfather Victor studied.  “Turner noted that in liminality, the transitional state between two phases, individuals were “betwixt and between”: they did not belong to the society that they previously were a part of and they were not yet reincorporated into that society. Liminality is a limbo, an ambiguous period characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sexual ambiguity, and communitas.”]

Filed under: Me
  • Guest

    I enjoyed your blog entry as it had been sent to me by a gal friend of mine who said it seemed to resonate with what I am going through. I try to keep a positive attitude towards things, but sometimes it is easier said then done. I often tire of the cliches in life when it comes to being single and having someone out there waiting around the corner. Usually, these come from those happily married couples who got married shortly thereafter college and who have strong marriages. Nevertheless, enjoyed your article.

  • Mike Nelson

    Thanks for sharing this, Ben.  Everyone who’s past fifty (like me) has asked all the questions you’re asking–and often taken years to find adequate answers.  But I guarantee you that someone as talented and as aware and as persistent as you are will find some damn good answers.  Keep looking.

  • tracieoh

    Hi Ben,

    I remember stumbling on to your site, years ago, possibly looking for something related to the Robin Hood theory of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. I believe I was inspired to research the story because I’d finally gotten around to reading Rand. I think I even tried to plead with you to give her a shot and ignore what everyone else has said about her. For me, I was attracted to the idea of the guiltless man, and the fact that I couldn’t follow any belief system that celebrated sacrifice and martyrdom as ideal.

    So, after reading this post, I just want to make something very, very clear. You’ve been my starting point for learning about what’s new and interesting on the internet. I regularly visit Boing Boing and Kottke to find the most wondrous things, and not all exclusively internet related. From them, I’ve discovered more and have passed on my discoveries to others. I place the highest value on someone who teaches me and shares their knowledge with me. And with that, I want you to know that I’ve tried to share what I’ve learned from you with others.

    Tracie from Ohio