This is Water, Too

Given that I actually read through his magnum opus Infinite Jest, it’s not much of a secret that I like David Foster Wallace’s writing style. His commencement address, “This is Water”, is probably one of the more inspirational pieces of written work that I’ve read. A friend sent me a link last week, and the timing was apt to revisit the piece. Although knowing that D.F.W. committed suicide, this is probably one of those “do as he says and not as he does” sorts of works.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing what I can only best describe as mild panic attacks. Curl up in the fetal position hugging my pillow sorts of moments. They suck more when they happen at work, although the high chair that accompanies the standing desk is an acceptable alternative. I’m somewhat optimistic about establishing a truce soon.

For about as long as I can remember, the inner voice has never been quiet: there has always been either lengthy but largely meaningless internal discourse, or music playing inside my head when my mind wanders or is not attentive to the outside environment. Which is a surprisingly large amount of time, given that large swaths of our quotidian existence can be operated on autopilot. At times during these past few days, I do feel like music is the only thing that will save my mortal soul, that the songs that play in my mind are the only things that keep me alive. Like some sort of epic Pythagorean version of Speed. I am scared to know what happens after the music stops. Today, it’s been Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major. I don’t know what evoked the song today, but it’s been the beautiful anchoring force for the day. Listening to songs on repeat for hours is calming.

It’s been a whirlwind past few weeks, and I feel like I’ve been on a roller coaster ride of personal highs and lows. And all this while my emotions have been fritzed. The conclusion of a short and unexpected chapter in my life has gotten me thinking. That a number of my friends also are also going through mini crises of their own has amplified my need to re-examine the trajectory of my life.

All in all, I have very little to complain about. I may not formally be in the one percent, but I am also not really that far off. I live a pretty comfortable life with few major risks, which is why it is so easy to become complacent. I try to slowly push my own limits, but in truth I don’t think I ever push myself as hard as I should to make a substantial difference in bettering myself. In the arena where I lack the most (viz. getting a girlfriend), I am miserable and a failure, and possibly a miserable failure.

I’ve been thinking lately about what exactly is at my core, or my true self. Time and experience shape much of our lives, but perhaps who we truly are does not change, no matter how much we try to change it. Is it possible to fundamentally change who you are or how you think? Maybe it’s true that I’ve become so self-absorbed in what I believe that my mind is closed to new ideas. Maybe as an adult that has assimilated some critical mass of experience and information, it’s no longer possible to truly alter one’s beliefs, ideals, and habits.

For a long time, I believed that the body was merely a vessel for the mind: it was the intellectual sphere that was interesting. The physical was all superficial.  I, now a little older, know that this position is not as tenable. Looking backwards, it seems so strange that this was a carefree thought of youth. Certainly most kids don’t think this way, or at least they don’t act like they do.

In some very abstract sense, ballet is my personal experiment testing out this hypothesis, a devotion of time towards reconciling the incompatible thoughts of the old (the body is nothing) and the new (the pursuit of perfection that manifests itself in the physical is nonetheless still a viable pursuit). Notwithstanding various societal pressures, the foray into ballet was but a baby step. The real shift was in the changing of beliefs, in admitting that it would be worthwhile to do something that previously would have been considered frivolous at best.

All evidence in my life points against the possibility that there is a soulmate for me. And even when you think you’ve found someone so compatible that it hurts to think about it, that feeling may not be — in all probability will not be — reciprocated. Yet, I think that there is something more than some mere Disneyesque fantasy in our need to believe that there is someone out there for us. Our connections with others are but a thimbleful among the ocean of billions of people. Those true, deep friendships are necessarily limited to a handful. And our desire to be desired must manifest itself in some form.

It’s true that I’m not a very affectionate person. I think it’s also true that physical looks are not nearly as important for me as they are for most other people (males and females both). This is probably why online dating seems so futile to me: how can you really get a good sense of who someone really is from some words and pictures? I’m actually beginning to be convinced that the only way I could be in a relationship with someone is if I’m friends with her beforehand. Unfortunately, this severely limits the possibilities of finding a so-called soulmate.

And it’s not like I necessarily need to be with someone, although at times I think it would be really, really nice to have someone to confide in. Despite the fact that trying to write everything down is definitely cathartic, this blog only serves weakly. I think my entire family tends to be fairly independent, and certainly this stubborn streak does appear to be inherited. I think it would also be very nice to have someone who believes in you during those bouts of self doubt.

At this point, I think that it is our purpose in life to serve some cause greater than ourselves, and that any self-oriented goal is doomed to be unsatisfactory. I’d like to think that the devotion to dance achieves something to this effect, that the pursuit of art completely independent of the necessities of survival somehow enriches the soul or encompasses some gestaltist notion of the human spirit, whatever that may mean. Or that I’ve chosen a job that meaningfully and positively impacts humanity. I would like to think that the products we build, used by billions, make people’s lives easier and better, and that my paltry contributions to search quality effect some change for the betterment of humanity as a whole. And maybe someday there will be that someone whom I can serve.

In the everyday scrum, I need to occasionally remind myself that this is, indeed, water: that the frustration with the infinitesimally glacial pace of improvement at the barre will yield satisfaction in a few months or years, and that mastery takes decades, not days; that the routine minutiae at the workplace that seem to slowly suck away all that once-felt joy and excitement of working still contribute to the team, the company, the world, if ever so slightly; that my friends and family are beautiful, beautiful people; that the roughest of storms eventually clear and everything becomes rainbows and puppies. That love exists even when we wish to forsake it. That water is everywhere.

Looking forward

The weather has been gorgeous lately, and this first weekend after the spring show has brought with it some free time to recover before the next set of challenges that lie ahead. Maybe it’s not entirely satisfying, but it sure is relaxing to take three naps on a lazy Saturday afternoon. It’s probably for the best to catch up on sleep and prepare for the weekend of craziness (read: vegas) up ahead.

Saw the movie First Position with some friends, and it was kind of odd/nice that of the dozen people in the theater, half of them were familiar adult students. And Mountain View to San Jose isn’t that close. I suppose a ballet documentary is a niche film. Anyway, the movie was unexpectedly hilarious. Holy crap, Miko’s mom totally stole the show. She’s not just a stage mom, she’s an Asian stage mom. Total insanity. I think the documentary overall was rather well done, and did show the diversity of backgrounds from which these kids grew up. It does make me wonder, though, how some people are able to have this singular passion and focus so early in life.

My expat friend who’s living in Singapore came to visit the bay area on Friday last week. He proposed a rather epic food trip, of which we only managed to hit four locations, which isn’t that bad considering all this was before dinnertime: Tartine (breakfast pastries, SF), Bakesale Betty (Fried Chicken Sandwich, Oakland), Top Dog (hot dogs, Berkeley), and Arinell Pizza (Berkeley). We went for a walk through Berkeley campus as well. It really made me miss the Oakland/Berkeley area. But for the commute, I wouldn’t mind living there again.

Spending so much time within a 3-mile radius is really starting to make me feel claustrophobic. It sounds strange to say it, but I’m beginning to feel that I need to have a longer commute, to live a little farther away from work. Having a bigger place to live would be nice, too. My current living room is essentially dead space, so it feels like I’m trapped in a one-bedroom place. It’s a bit unfortunate that I won’t be able to find a house before my current lease is up. On the other hand, thinking about purchasing a place right now might be too big a distraction on the other things in life I should be focusing on.

The main point of this post, though, was to share the sentiments of my friend’s heartfelt email, which said that it doesn’t really matter where we are or what we do so much as we cultivate our friendships and relationships. I’ll admit that I cried a little when I read his email. Maybe I still have a long way to go before I can be at that stage where I can live for others and not for myself, but I’m trying.