In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until, say, twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?
—Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
I'm in a hotel room in Munich. The room's clock tells me it is 1:00 am. My biological clock tells me it is pi past eleventy, and so I am wide awake and emailing my wife about mayonnaise.
There's a couple in the street below. The woman is singing in a beer-thickened alto, the man responding in a low baritone that stumbles toward silence. He sounds like he's trying not to sound eager. I can't make out the words, and I speak only a tiny bit of German, but I'm fluent in lust. He's hoping. She decided hours ago.
I am here to write web applications. This is my life, and I often feel guilty for my good fortune. Sometimes it feels like my life and sometimes it doesn't, and I have no idea what to make of that. I find myself measuring it against and ineffable and undefined idea of "destiny" that's been banging around in the back of my brain. Which is a not-at-all-insane thing to do.
I claim not to be a fatalist, but I am a liar. I think about things in terms of their purpose, their function. I don't think about other people in that way, but I know of no other way to think of myself. What function am I supposed to serve? What is my place?
The fallacy of this kind of thinking is the assumption that the world has a static design, that it is a finite state machine. But life has taught me that even if there is a machine, and even if that machine has a designer, he's committed to a fairly hands-off, emergent approach.
That's a fancy way of saying that people ain't tidy, and I know that that's true, and I suspect that the machine isn't real, but still I reach for it. Rands tells me that such an instinct is, if silly, common to my kind.
But here's the thing, if we want to talk about function: Things are often defined by what they do. If I am something other than a software developer, I would be doing that, or at least working my way towards a state of doing that. I would write more or learn the guitar or go back to school or start reading to blind kids or something. But I don't.
So I'm sure Aristotle would give me a slap, if he were more than dust in my nostrils. I don't give a good goddamn about the inside of your head, he would say. I don't care about your heart. I care about what you do. Show me what you do with your time, and I'll tell you who you are.
On the other hand, it is well past one in the morning here. I have to be in the shower in just over five hours and down to breakfast in less than six, where I have made a personal vow that I will brave the white sausages for breakfast. Yet I'm still up, at a table in my underwear, listening to the slurred alto down below tease her companion along, and I am writing and thinking it through. Maybe that's my thing, who I am.
Thinking it through puts a handle on the world. Sure, the handle's probably a fiction. The world of people has no structure or sense beyond that The Heart Wants What It Wants, and Sometimes It Wants Stupid Things. Trying to find meaning in human interaction is like trying to find math in a taco. What little moments of clarity we find are so easily derailed by sleep or hunger or south-bound blood flow.
There is emotion. There is the need to burn. Those are our constants. That is who we are. But it makes sense to me that I roll this rock up this hill. It makes sense that I pursue the sense of it.
Programming is all about defining a problem and grasping its handle, but most programmers I know fantasize about other, less rational pursuits. I know one who left to become a musician and bought a chain of coffee shops. One is opening his own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio, hoping that he can turn it into a business but never daring to admit that hope out loud. Another confessed to me that she'd like to take people alligator hunting.
Me, I'd like to enchant people. I am an easily enchanted man. I owe much of my childhood to Dahl and Tolkein and Daniel Pinkwater and George Lucas, and I figure being the conjurer would be a pretty spectacular thing. My motives here are not entirely selfless.
The newness and the foreignness of everything here in Germany does a fair bit of enchanting, keeps me stimulated, makes me hungry. So does being out of the heat of the southern US. So does being in a culture considerably less boorish and simultaneously know-it-all and know-nothing as the one I hail from. But that would all wear off in a few months and then life would be life, as it always is.
So you do what you can and you go where you must, but you can always sneak in some thunderbolts under your coat. When I do, it's a hell of a thrill, second only to letting them out. I had to leave three of mine on the other side of an ocean but managed to smuggle the rest through customs, and they didn't give me a second look. Now I'm working on making room to take them all for walkies every day.
I'm repeating myself, I know. I don't know what else to do but prod these little problems with a stick and make notes in my book. Each time I do, it takes me a little less time to remember that there is little here beyond desire to understand. There's no map to this particular territory. There is no compass but hope and need.
Right now that man downstairs needs that woman to wrap herself around him, and I think she needs that too, but first she needs him to squirm and dance a little. I need a blanket, the smell of my children, fewer midnights listening to other people outside and more swapping warmth with my wife. I need those things more than the map.
And, hell, I'd gladly give up on the map altogether if I could hold you in my thrall for just a few minutes here and there. Not for applause or money, just to know that the magic is real and that I can wield it, however clumsily. To know that if there is to be no order, no sense, no plan, that there is yet thunder and that I can, from time to time, call it down. It's selfish, and I'm beyond fucking okay with that.
Now it's off to bed.