A New Search Engine

At this very moment, typing this very sentence, I’m sitting in a café across the street from the apartment I lived in for 2 months in 1990. Almost a quarter-century later, not much has changed in this neighbourhood.

The café wasn’t here. Can’t quite recall what it was. Something automotive-related, maybe. The place I used to get bento from, across the street and north a half-block isn’t there. But for the most part, it’s all the same.

I have great affinity, yet no connection to the physical place I am in and can see from here. It’s like a form of watered-down nostalgia. Then again, all my memories are pretty much watered-down nostalgia. Or just watered down.

I have a shitty memory. Not in the bad memories way, though there are plenty of those. But in the it-just-don’t-work-right way. Stress and Depression contribute decidedly to this. Not being present in the moment. Being too present in particular aspects of the moment. It all leads to a lot of, “yeah, that seems sort of familiar” feelings when I think back to the prior-to-a-couple-of-months-ago past.

A couple of days ago I found some old writing. It jogged some memories. By happenstance, I find myself in the neighbourhood where I wrote said writings. And while it’s all well and good to take trips down Memory Lane, I find that, over the last couple of days, I’m thinking more about the future than the past.

Which I tend to do on my birthday. Right now it’s my birthday. In about 40 minutes it will be the exact moment, Alaska Standard Time when I was born. And as I do on my birthday, and as I seem to be doing this week, I think in terms of what’s next.

I don’t like January 1st of any year. It’s an arbitrary date to mark the passing of one human-defined year to another. I’ve always thought that a Solstice or Equinox would be a better way to mark the change. But for a lot of people, January 1st is more than just a new cat calendar. It’s when you make a resolution to do something, or do something better in the coming year.

That is just bizarre to me. I don’t know when the tradition started and frankly, I don’t feel like opening a new tab to check Wikipedia. Suffice to say that making a resolution on the first day of a new year is about as arbitrary as the marking of the year itself.

To me, a New Year’s Resolution is a personal thing. And as such, it should be made when you start your new year. Your birthday. And, as we covered above, since it is my birthday, I should come up with a resolution for the coming year.

What springs to mind, as I look down at my gut, is I need to get my capacious ass into the exercise machine in my basement and catch up on episodes of Arrow.

But then my stupid brain kicks in and reminds me that being healthy shouldn’t be a goal for a new year, but a habit of every day.

So, instead, I resolve to build a new search engine.

But not the kind you just thought of.

There are two quotes that I like quite a bit, which relate generally to my life and specifically to this story. The first is from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew:

“Such wind as scatters young men through the world, to seek their fortunes farther than at home, where small experience grows.”

Meaning you have to break free from Home before you can really start living and learning. You can’t find out what is truly “out there” by just reading about it, you have to live it. In many ways, Olde Shakey’s right. But, as with all things in my life, for every truth, there is an equal and opposite truth.

The second quote is is from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

“No matter where you go… there you are.”

I always thought the line was just an opportunity for the writer to say something weird in an attempt to sound profound, and thus deliver a joke based on the gap between profound and not-so-much. In the scene, it certainly plays that way.

I would say the line from time to time as a joke. But then, one day, not too long ago, almost 30 years after first seeing the movie, I got the point.

You will change on any journey you take, but you’re still you.

No matter where you are, you are the filter that takes in the world and that is one thing Location cannot change. Therefore, in a sense, you never have to leave your doorstep in order to find out about yourself, which, in the end, is the point of any journey.

These two quotes sum up the driving forces in my life. The meanings are opposites, constantly in contention, and that is how I live; always seeing life events from conflicting perspectives.

It is a gift in that I am able to see, contemplate, and often offer an opinion or idea that relates and perhaps helps the situation at hand. This gift comes in handy with my professional life. In my personal life, it’s more often a curse.

Seeing so many sides keeps me from making a decision until it is too late to have a positive impact. If anything, non-action is my worst failing. Certainly, I react to things, but rarely am I able to make an active attempt to change a situation, particularly one in which I feel uncomfortable.

I forget that I can make a decision and if it doesn’t work out, I can either just deal with it, or I can change my direction by making a new decision. Learning that I am able to do this is an ongoing process. I know it intellectually. It’s just that I haven’t learned how to implement it, or how to make it my initial reaction to life.

If there is an underlying point here, it is that you need to give yourself permission to flounder for a while. Do nothing. Forget time. Make no commitments that can’t be broken. Do everything that interests you. Go out of your way to do something, or out of your way to do nothing. It doesn’t matter. No plans and nothing can go wrong, right?

As the character Joe Banks says in the movie Joe Versus the Volcano:

“There’s just some times in your life when you’ve got to be by yourself; some doors you have to go through alone.”

You can only go through the doors of your life alone. Each step you make that is growth in your life is a step alone through a door. A door meant only for you.

In Franz Kafka’s parable, Before the Law the main character arrives at a door that is guarded by an armed man. The character is afraid to go through the door, but is very curious too. The guard tells him that should he manage to get by him, there would be another door and another guard waiting. That guard would be stronger than he. And another door and another guard beyond that, stronger still, and so on.

The character is overcome with the fear of attempting to pass through the first door. He waits there until he dies, too afraid for all those years to go through.

The subtext of the parable, the point if you will, is that if the character had overcome his fear, the guard would be powerless to stop him. No matter how strong the guard was it was the Fear the character had to overcome. The guard was essentially a figment of the character’s imagination.

Joseph Campbell called this idea the Threshold Guardian. An archetype that is present whenever a person makes a decision. The Threshold Guardian is there to hold individuals back, to keep them from going forward with their life.

Look in any story, any movie, or moment in your life and a Threshold Guardian is present before each big decision. Perhaps it is a friend, or parent, or teacher, who acts as the Threshold Guardian by saying:

“Do you think you should be doing that?”

And the truth, as I attempt to build a better search engine in my brain this coming year, is that there are very few things in this world where the answer to that question should ever truly be no.

Since that Fall in 1990, I’ve gotten better at search. Far less myopic. Far less critical. Far less hesitant. Far less sad.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. And in many respects, for the current purpose, those reasons don’t matter. I’m at a point, again, where my old friend Meg would pull me aside, as she did in the Summer of 1990 at a café in Anchorage, and say, “You’re in a rut.”

Part of that has to do with working on the same project at work for 2.5 years. Part of it has to do with basically being at the top of my profession (the only step “up” from here is teaching, which I would like to do someday). But most of it is that I’ve just stopped searching since joining nGen in 2012.

We moved from Boston to Portland in 2012 and, as when I lived in Boston, most of my friends don’t live in the same city as me. Some do, just not most. When I joined nGen, I started working from home. Actually, I had worked from home in my previous job because my entire team was in South Carolina and I was in Boston. So there was no reason to drive 2-3 hours every day into and home from Cambridge. And working from home means a lot of quiet time.

I restarted Refresh Portland in large part to make new friends, and I have a couple. But I don’t go to other meetups. We have really nice neighbours, but I don’t interact with them much.

That rut.

Driven by that stress, that depression, that lack of external drive, that lack of an inner engine that drives me to search for newer and better me. That’s what this new year’s resolution needs to focus on. Not to fix. Not to make perfect. Just to make better. Or climb out of. Or fill in. Whatever one does with a rut.

I learned a lot of things on that first trip to Portland 24 years ago. A lot of true things. Things I didn’t know when I lived in Anchorage. Twenty-four years ago was the time of such wind.

Now must be the time of no matter.

So, yes, Threshold Guardians in my brain, keeping me from searching, no matter what, I think I should do this.

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