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Friday, May 09, 2003

Twilight Connoisseur

Listening now to Mission U.K., dark, pulsing, ethereally gritty. I fell in love with this music in a time when I would lie supine on the floor in the dark, seeking detachment from an external world who's promises were empty and who's threats were not. In later times, in other contexts, this same music seemed stifling, mired, as though a pointless destination, clashing against me like a goth on a tropical beach at noon. I am wondering, then, what it means that it feels appropriate now.

I awoke this morning with the remnants of a migraine seeded yesterday by a hot, smoggy day on the Los Angeles freeways, on my way out a little too slowly. Before I opened my eyes, I watched the visual halos sparkle with each beat of my heart. No semi-circles this time, rather an organic grid of sorts. Entertained by this psychedelic show by my ailed cortex, I reflected on the hours before, waking many times during the night not breathing, a migraine/stress/TV induced acute sleep apnea. In one of the traces of my dream-state, I was battling dinosaurs. Through the door, two rooms away, I could hear the screams and tension music from one of the endless stream of tragic scenes that occupy my father's television day and night. I wonder what must live in his subconscious if mine looks like this from such slight exposure. I relax my body and mind, resume smooth breathing, return myself to as content a space as I can beneath the throbbing pain, and drift back off to sleep. I wake again later, not breathing. I have been talking to Tara, who had sat next to me in a ring of otherwise unfamiliar people. She is trying to explain to me why I am unloved, and mostly just tells me good things about me, but then gets to the part she can't articulate, and tells me nebulous things in bits and starts that I can't understand except for the clear negative emotional intent. I bring myself back to smooth breathing, and drift back off to sleep. I wake to pulsing grids of light beneath closed lids.

In the couple of years since I stopped seeing Michelle, her respect for me has metamorphosed into the deepest sort of loathing. Journal entries beginning as odes to non-judgmentalism end in bitter admonishments of certain manipulative, fucked up persons, un-namely me, who lured her in and destroyed her. I once emailed her the simple question "does this refer to me?" after Aaron alerted me to her entries on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She claimed no, made up some story, but then later admitted yes. I spent days haunted by the possibility, researched NPD in depth, ultimately concluded that if I have NPD, so does everyone else I know, but still I am on high alert. Speaking with Randal and Sierra a few days ago about child-rearing methods, I explicitly dismissed most of the "research" on the topic as deserving those quotation marks and offered my own opinions based simply on what I know of developmental neurobiology. When I asked Sierra if she read Michelle's entry on potty-training, she pre-completed my sentence for me with "narcissism?". Yeah, it's a hallmark of NPD to hold one's own opinions as superior to those of the experts. Yeah, I'm prone to that. I reflect: am I an arrogant bastard, or somehow truly justified? I fear: if I conclude I'm justified, does this just prove I'm NPD? But alas, I can't judge myself by where my characteristics happen to align with any of a dozen personality disorders I've been accused of having over my life; I must ultimately rely on my own best objective understanding and my own values. Ironically, this self-judging is the very same NPD sin.

I glance up from the computer, see myself in the mirror, reach behind me and feel the camera within my bag, take a self-portrait:

I think about my glasses, which I bought only to protect my eyes from excessive time in front of the computer. I wanted plus-lenses, to defocus this up-close work further into the distance. The optometrist convinced me I just needed to correct my astigmatism, wanted also to add a minus-component to correct for a very slight near-sightedness. We compromised on pure cylindrical lenses for the astigmatism, and a hundred some dollars later I looked back and realized I'd gotten nothing. At best, these let me sit a little further away than I can without them. She just didn't get it. She's the expert, and she just didn't get it. My reasoning was sound, and she was just following formula. Did they not teach her that prolonged and excessive up-close focusing can cause both far-sightedness and astigmatisms later in life? Maybe not--preventative medicine is counter to profitability. People pay for solutions to today's problems, not tomorrow's. I'm just a freak in that regard.

I think about the CPAs I have hired in the past and ended up educating at my expense; about the "doctors" my parents used to work with who talked mostly of "expense management"; the doctor who took six months from my mother's life by ignoring her instructions; the nurse who pulled a needle from an aids patient and turned around and accidentally stabbed my step father with it; the panel of "experts" who designed the food pyramid and foisted it upon a trusting America... I could go on, and on, and on.

If trusting one's own thought and judgment over the experts' is a disorder, then I wish this disorder upon the whole world.

But really, the central theme to Michelle's loathing is that I am dangerously, unhealthily, and perhaps unwittingly manipulative. I take some solace in seeing that this opinion of hers is a common pattern amongst the ex's of most of the men I know, but still I don't like it. Jack Nicholson's voice (as Melvin) still echoes in my head, explaining how he writes women so well in his books: "I think of a man, then I take away reason and accountability."

It seems that being a man comes with a certain responsibility not just for one's own thoughts, but also for those of the women you inevitably influence. Most men learn this early in life from the unwritten book of life passed down from father to son, but I was raised by a single feminist mom who gave me a mere pamphlet of life written by the same people who designed the food pyramid. I may never recover; and I will probably always be accused of the opposite of what's really going on.

Michelle is right about the symptoms, but I don't think she's scratched the surface of the real problems. She always seemed so strong and opinionated, she always argued everything, it never occurred to me I could influence her in any way she might ever regret. To me, if someone makes a decision, it is theirs, not mine, and I don't pretend to know all that went into it. I fear that anyone should ever be swayed by me, because I don't want to be responsible when it doesn't work out.

I am equipped to deal with the uncertainties of life, but I know many people are not. Recently someone asked me if a particular endeavor of mine had been worthwhile. In fact, it hadn't worked out at all, but my answer was "statistically, yes!". That is, given what I knew going into it, it had a net-positive expected value, so it was worth doing even if it didn't work out this time. Since then, I have found myself using this answer ever more, since it fits so well the way I think about things and nicely skirts the false dichotomy implicit in the question.

That fear becomes denial when I fail to accept that someone else is thinking with my mind despite my protests. If I accepted that, perhaps I would move in and make a firm and sound decision for them, but instead I hide below the surface and leave them navigating by the tips of icebergs.

Michelle implicitly blames me for her decision to pursue her passions rather than a stable job, and she blames that in turn on her current unhappiness in life. I remember when she did it, when she dropped her stable-job major in favor of the other. I hardly knew her; we'd barely started dating. I thought it was kind of rash, kind of scary, kind of bold but without obvious foresight. I assumed she'd thought it out; I assumed she knew what she was doing. But part of me feared it was somehow my fault, my influence, that she had only read the banner and never asked about the fine print. But she didn't discuss it with me; she just told me one day after it was done; and so it was done and there was no undoing it; we hardly knew each other then. Then a couple of months later, her parents cut her off financially, she took up stripping in order to pay her way through the rest of school, and she moved in with me when her parent-funded dorm stay expired. In effect, everything she regrets in life right now took place in one spring quarter many years ago, when she was first getting to know me.

Needless to say, this pains me. Especially because I can't see what I could have done differently given what I knew at the time, which means it could all happen again. My friends tell me it's nothing--"you should see what my ex's say about me!", but I want to believe these things are not inevitable.

It's this middle ground that's dangerous, between trust and ego. Come to me as an open book, as I am, and we can read and write our story together; come to me as a black box, and we can exchange knowledge; but come to me with an identity crisis, and chaos ensues.

[Switching music now to Tori Amos]

Andrew* pointed out to me last week the very Freudian nature of our respective tastes in women. Where his mother regularly voiced her problems and concerns to him, mine hardly seemed to have any. Adding 2+2, you would think this would put me in the lead, but the third variable in the equation is the average American woman--who is much more like Andrew*'s mother than mine. Andrew*'s implicit role as therapist makes him what most (iNtuitive) women are looking for--just count the number of occurrences of the phrase "my therapist" on LiveJournal.

My mother was a freak of nature. While not always rational, she was accountable. Nothing she ever did was anyone else's fault or influence, and no problem she ever faced was an identity crisis, it was just a problem to be faced. And every problem had a solution, it was just a question of how good and how difficult. She was not afraid of life's questions, not afraid to say "I don't know", and most simply, just not afraid. She was completely unassuming, yet no one's puppet. She was purely and truly kind and benevolent, yet never a pansy. She ran the dog lab at the Salk Institute for many years because she believed the experiments were important for science and wanted to make sure they were carried out with the utmost empathy for the animals. At the age of 35 she decided to change careers, went back to school and eventually became a doctor so cherished by her local community there was practically an uprising when her and her husband declared their intent to leave town because of their misgivings with how unethically the local hospital was being run. In the end, terminally ill with cancer, she took her own life under Oregon law in order to lend a positive example to the pro-euthanasia movement fighting at the time to protect that right.

When she was Michelle's age, she was single-handedly raising a five year old son and working as a waitress with a half-finished bachelor's degree in biology (which she returned to finish a few years later under no better circumstances). Life went on, and it was good.

She was a fucking hero in her own way, and that has warped my expectations beyond repair. What seems to me like so little to ask may in truth be the impossible. She had no idea I was not an average kid, and she had no idea she was not an average woman, and I have grown up believing, deep down, both of these things even though I know by now how far off they were. It is this that leaves me feeling that my race exists elsewhere in the universe and I'm just misplaced here.

At one point in my elementary years, my mother took us to a family counselor because we were getting into a lot of arguments. By the end of the second session, it had become clear to both my mother and the counselor that we were a healthier family than any who'd ever graced the counselor's doors, including the counselor's, and we were summarily dismissed with instructions to count ourselves lucky.

Maybe I do have NPD, because I do feel essentially healthy. The only serious angst I have in this world begins with other people's problems, with what seems like a whole industry grown from and supporting them. I am happy in life; I am happy with what I have done; I am happy with where I am going; I am happy with it all, because I accept it all, because life is just a game of physics that ends in irrelevancy; I accept it all, except that I'm a freak of nature like my mother, that the world isn't full of people like me, like her, that I can't find a companion to be here, wherever in the universe this is that I am. My hard-wiring doesn't seem to want me to accept that; my hard-wiring says if that's true, then it's all for naught. So I continue to try to prove it false; but mostly it feels like I'm beating my head against a brick wall. Yeah, maybe I do have NPD.

A little unannounced photography...

Among the many topics Andrew* and I covered during our week-long visit, I finally found some purchase on the enneagram theory. Enneagram speaks of nine core personality types or aspects, and thus far I had been unable to even remotely pigeonhole myself into any of the categories. But with book in hand, I eventually realized part of the problem is that the nine types are described with their typical superficial manifestations when in fact they are meant primarily to speak of a person's core motivations, and so the superficial descriptions are largely superfluous. Armed with that perspective, it was easy to identify myself as a 7 at the deepest level, with a 5 surface. I wanted to call this a "7 wing 5" which is the terminology for one's primary and secondary modes, but the theory insists that wings be always one away from the primary, not two. In describing this to Andrew*, I told him I feel my 5-ish aspects are derived from, or in service of, my 7-ish motivations. What I hadn't gotten to yet in the book, and what Andrew* enthusiastically informed me of at that moment, is that the theory predicts this, and that the wing is meant to account for what's left after you take these predicted derivatives away.

Regardless of what credence we lend the theory as a whole, the exercise did make one thing clear to me: The world sees me as a 5, yet I see myself as a 7. Superficially, I don't look like a 7 because I'm not innately physically hyper-energetic/overtly cheerful as they tend to be. Though in a related superficial sense I very much meet the portrait by having at one time or another been a sky diver, hand glider pilot, fixed-wing pilot, motorcycle rider, skier, snow-boarder, wind-surfer, gymnast, and so on. My 5-ish exterior, the hyper-intellectual, for me is driven by a far-reaching desire for cool experiences, for the outcome, even if the outcome is sometimes just the joy of understanding. People are often surprised that I don't like chess. If they understood that I was a 7 in 5 mode, I don't think this would surprise them. Nor would they be surprised that I have no attraction to academia, even though the things I work on seem to have an academic bent. I don't study the brain out of a fascination for systems, I study the brain because I want to learn its methods so I can apply them myself, to make something cool, something fun to experience. And non-human intelligent entities are cool. Understanding how the brain works is in some sense just a tedious step along the way, and much of it will probably be irrelevant, evolutionary cruft best done without. I think I ended up so much in 5 mode because I learned as a child that nobody's better at making things I enjoy than I am. If my skills were up to it, I would write my own music, make my own movies, design my own houses and toys, and ... build my own people? But in most of these domains, other people's skills more than outweigh the loss in customization to my particular tastes, so I thoroughly enjoy other people's music, movies, and so on. But in some domains, I feel ahead of the game, and AI is one of them. And part of the fun of AI is being there first, like part of the fun of raising a child is being there when they say their first word, take their first step, conquer their first country.

Yeah, robots are cool. I get butterflies just thinking about a hunk of metal and silicon looking at me, really looking. Would you be scared? Would you be excited? Would you ponder the nature of life, of consciousness, of death? Would you be envious? Would you feel pity? Would you feel obsolete? One way or another, you would feel, and you would feel things you've probably never felt before, except maybe in your daydreams if they're anything like mine. It would be a defining moment, a resilient notch in your life's clock, a huge grain of sand filling the otherwise empty space between notable moments. It would be fun; it would be life. Yeah, robots are cool.

And some day I'll prove it.

The day after I washed my car for the first time since I bought it:
(Yes, that's bird shit all over the hood, window, top, and door.)

(And no, I wasn't anywhere near a tree.)

With all of this traveling around and socializing, I am finding myself quite capable of existing in Extroverted mode. The retreating into Introverted mode is something I only need to do when I am background processing on something challenging and intellectual, which is most of the time but not right now. This is a unique phase for me, that I have no pressing obligations, nobody relying on me to solve some problem or invent something or produce something cool within a finite amount of time. All I have is my own drive to do those things, and I have intentionally put the more long-range ones on hold because I know they're incompatible with my current chosen lifestyle. And I'm ok with it, almost to my own surprise. It's my travel mode; entire seemingly core aspects of my life just vanish, and I adopt others.

But I'm starting to get inspired again, strangely prompted by Rageesh's dismal portrayal of the current state of AI research. It seemed so promising last I looked, but apparently they've fallen into a new rut, like they were for the last half a decade with supervised mapping algorithms. It makes me mad--I want to see cool stuff happen, and they're not doing it! So I have to.

Anybody want their very own mad scientist? We're trying to find a home for this one, ideally we'd like to place him with a young, petite female of the homo sapiens species since that seems to be his natural affinity. He's house trained, clean, and creates more than he consumes. If provided with sufficient food, water, and electricity, he will produce gourmet feasts and robots. How can you go wrong?

Speaking of which, Rageesh found an Indian cookbook which he swears is the only he's seen that really captures the cuisine. I double-checked it with him against some of the things he's made for me in the past which were excellent, and he confirmed on the spot that the book's recipes looked pretty much like his own (handed down from his mother). Furthermore, it's catered to the modern American kitchen, is indexed using both the English and Indian names, and has a hundred pages of introduction covering the methods, spices, and ingredients. The book is called Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni. I hope it doesn't go out of print before I have a kitchen again. (Update, 2008/01/27: I have since bought that book and its companion Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, and they are both truly excellent. When more than one cookbook lends to a meal, invariably it's the Sahni dishes that people comment on.)

Lastly, thanks Andrew* for an enjoyable week of discourse and good food, both in and out. Forget what the theory says--embrace those 7'ish tendencies, it's good to be a connoisseur.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com