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.

Arrows and Options and Vomit, Oh My

Everybody in the world's commenting on this essay by Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, so I figure I might as well bumf around on it too.

I stumbled across it via the Radiolab iPhone app (which is excellent) in the middle of a pisser of a day: low focus, bad workout over lunch, and kicked off with this post from Rands in Repose in my RSS feeds. The Rands post announced that he will now start advertising jobs as a way of monetizing the site that might actually benefit his readers. He asked this question:

There are many forms to not being busy. You might just be getting your day started with a cup of coffee, you might be on your lunch hour, or you might have seven precious minutes to take a deep breath amongst your crushing responsibilities, but here’s my question: is the lack of busy more fun than your job?

And I was just getting my day started with a cup of coffee, but I thought, well...yeah. And then I went back to navigating my way through the best career advancement opportunity I've ever been handed. Yeah, I know.

I was feeling more than a little down on myself -- bad workout, bad focus, bad answer to that Rands question. Then I found Jad's essay.

It's about how Radiolab started and the deep existential dread Jad felt trying to get it off the ground and make it good. It's about the joy of not having a plan.

In it, he brings up three ideas that kept me standing still until I'd finished reading the whole thing: pointing arrows, the adjacent possible, and running toward things that make you want to vomit.

Pointing Arrows

I'm a messy person. My house is a wreck, and I'm lucky to have kids to blame for it, but it isn't their khaki shorts on the bookcase. Still, there are many places in my life where I crave order like it's oxygen, particularly when I am contemplating a new project or task. I don't need (or want) all my days to look alike, but when it comes to the important stuff, I do need to know the plan. I need an anchor point. An outline, a process diagram, a syllogism, something. That's what my brain craves: logic, sequence, order, plan.

That's precisely what frustrates me about living. I often grope for a plan for my life but have yet to grasp one. Truth, I normally can't see beyond the next move or two in my own career or personal life. And so my life has mostly felt like a chain of back roads I've meandered along. I was okay with that when I was young and immortal. No more.

My hope? Looking for that moment when something seems to shift, when a chance encounter illuminates a possible way forward.

My life has been pierced here and there by those pointing arrows, as I bet so has yours. Those little moments open up possibilities that make my brain pay attention for a change. They invite me to go left instead of right, often without a hint where I'm being pointed, just a glimmer that it could be important. Listen up. Pay attention. It feels like something important's happening.

This job and my last one were pointing arrows from the first interview. Falling for my wife, of course, was a pretty big one. So was that Back to Work podcast I wrote about before that completely changed my life. And so was Jad's essay.

I always follow those arrows. I never regret it.

The Adjacent Possible

I love that term. I love the concept more. It's the change right next door, the one you can make right now. I love it because it's what makes the uncertainty tolerable for me.

When I'm overwhelmed with frustration because I don't know where I'm headed or what my life is finally going to amount to, I am calmed with a simple thought: What can I do now? What can I change?

It usually ain't much. The answer is often "keep heading this way and see where it leads". Sometimes it's "you've hit a dead end and you should have planned for this weeks ago". But sometimes it's something new.

My adjacent possibles are easy to enumerate because they are few. I am a husband and father, which pretty much trumps all other considerations. That takes away a lot of sexy (and probably therefore illusory) possibilities. It means I don't have time for hobbies, let alone something like starting up my own business, but it also keeps me from doing anything truly stupid. It's one thing to do something that scares you. It's quite another to do something that could hurt your kids.

But that's another thing, too: my job is to protect them and provide for them, but it's also to lead by example, and that example has to include that you go for the thing you think you should be doing. Trouble is I don't know what that is. I'd love it to be doing something like this, but as of yet I have no way to monetize it. File it under "things I hope I work out one day" and keep writing stuff like this because I love it and I think it's important.

So I keep my eyes open. I look for what's next door and hope it leads to a good place.

Anthony Hopkins once asked a priest "Father, what is the shortest prayer a man can pray?" The priest replied: "Fuck it."

It's okay that I'm not a master of life strategy. It's easier to make choices when you're not surrounded by dozens of possibilities and terrified of getting locked into one. Speaking of terror:

Gut Churn

Fear's a tough one. Fear and self-doubt have been my most faithful companions in life. Making a step toward something that terrifies me is, well, terrifying. But.

I don't know if it's the need to be a good role model to my kids, my growing awareness of my own mortality, or simply that I'm getting to be too old to give much of a damn, but these days I find myself more inclined to push myself toward doing things I find scary. Or at least I find myself telling myself that I should.

I've been quietly working on a thing with a guy that scares the shit out of me, a thing that I very much want to see the light of day and may die if that doesn't happen, a thing that seems silly to care that much about and won't earn me a goddamn dime. No, it's not a thing I'm going to tell you about. Even you, Mom.

But it's a pointing arrow. It's an adjacent possible. It sure as shit churns my guts when I think about it. It may lead nowhere; it may lead somewhere merely pleasantly distracting. But I have to see.

I'm scared of it, and right now I kind of suck at it. If (when) you behold the first couple of efforts, you'll detect both that fear and the suck. But that's why I have to do it. It's the monster in the closet, and I'm not going to kill it. I'm going to ask it to dance.