On the Riverbank

I am on the riverbank. In front of me, a river of my thoughts, feelings, emotions. Not a peaceful river. It’s loud and turbulent, twisting in its bed, mesmerizing. A moment later — and I am caught by the current. Attracted by a random thought, I become part of the river. I become my emotions and feelings. I am struggling with the rest of the river, fighting. Fighting something. Fruitlessly. Hopelessly. Was there ever a riverbank? Was that just an illusion?

This metaphor of the river and the riverbank is helpful in describing my cognitive processes. I habitually live in the past or in the future, beating myself up about something I’d done or fretting about something that may happen. It takes effort to be in the present.

It took me a while to see that “being in the present” does not mean forcefully ignoring the past or the future. It’s about being apart from them, just on the side, on the riverbank. When I am on the riverbank, I can hold my emotions lightly, without getting entangled in them. I can sense my feelings as reactions to emotions. I can see my thoughts arise and let go of them. An observer, not an actor. There’s so much clarity and crisp understanding in these moments, in such contrast to the murky, unruly river.

I am realizing that I spend most of my life in the river. After a stressful day, I often marvel at the sheer power of the river’s pull and how closely it held me, had me nearly forget about the existence of the riverbank. I can go days and weeks trying, and failing to find it.

But I’ve felt the beauty and peace of the riverbank. I want to practice, and develop new habits to find my way to it more often. In the harshest tempest of my emotions, I want to learn how to stand on the riverbank and make my choices, rather than having the choices make me.

Puzzle Me

Where do I end? Where does the “outside of me” begin? These questions seem simple at first and evoke answers involving epidermis, but I am discovering that my boundary has little to do with molecular structures. Rather, I perceive my boundary in the social context, in relation to others around me. Such boundaries tend to be rather ill-defined and ambiguous. As a result, I often experience the boundary crises: the mismatches in my understanding of where the boundary actually lies. To help me make sense of these crises, I have a fun metaphor.

In this metaphor, I am a puzzle. There are many pieces of feelings, needs, identities, fears and aspirations in me-as-puzzle. This puzzle is quite unusual in that it’s near-infinitely complex and–ever so slightly–constantly changing. No matter how much I work on assembling the puzzle, it always seems like I barely started. But this puzzle is how I define my Self, so am steadily compelled to keep working on it, consciously or not. Some pieces fit just right. Some I still haven’t figured out where they belong. Some look curiously out of place.

Other people are puzzles, too. They have their own bits and pieces that they are fitting together. It’s a lot of puzzles.

Sometimes, I get confused and decide that pieces of other people’s puzzles are mine. In such cases, my imagined design of a puzzle creates a boundary crisis of insufficiency. Because I view these foreign puzzle bits as requirements for completing my Self, I am doomed to suffer: these pieces will never be fully mine, and I will never feel sufficient. I will never feel like I am good enough or at peace with who I am.

My impostor syndrome is a good example here. It’s that underlying belief that my accomplishments define my worthiness. That is, I define my self-worth by how others value what I’d done. I crave that missing puzzle piece of others’ approval. I can’t fathom how my puzzle could be complete without it, and yet I can never own it.

The opposite also happens. I may decide that my puzzle pieces are necessary for completing other people’s puzzles. This creates the boundary crisis of overwhelment. Seeing bits of my Self as critical in others’ lives, I am also doomed to suffer: I will always feel overwhelmed trying to co-assemble multiple puzzles, rather than just focusing on mine.

For example, when I avoid giving a colleague unpleasant feedback because I am overcome with anxiety that they will take it poorly, I assuming responsibility for how they would receive that news. All of the workarounds and clever techniques that follow are me trying to complete their puzzle with my pieces.

Now, I have plenty of cases of both. I have been putting this puzzle together all my life, and doing so mostly unconsciously. I grabbed others’ pieces and tried jamming them in, and I took plenty of responsibility for others’ puzzles. My puzzle is a mess, with tons of opportunities for suffering.

To reduce this suffering, I systematically examine me-as-puzzle, remove foreign pieces, and take back the pieces that are mine. It sounds easy, but given the decades of lodged pieces in this massive, unique collage that is me, it is quite challenging. Remove a piece, and whole swaths of the puzzle suddenly become unmoored, world temporarily seizing to making sense. It’s a high-risk proposition. If I am not that puzzle that I was before, then who am I? Where do others end? Where do I begin?

The Illusion of Injured Identity

Throughout my live, I accumulate identities: a father, a husband, a software engineer, an occasional blogger. These identities are curious constructs, because they link me to other objects or concepts. Each turns two separate things–me and something else–into one, fusing us. Suppose I view myself as a hockey fan. Put differently, a “hockey fan” is one of my identities. Bizarrely, when someone says something disparaging about hockey fans, I have an emotional response. I feel irritated or defensive. What’s happening here?

What I am experiencing is truly a wondrous thing: the link to identity rings the power of the negative comment about hockey fans into me–bzzzt!–like an electrical current, and I feel something akin to physical pain. Sometimes this pain is mild (I am not that big of a hockey fan), and sometimes it’s not. The stronger the link–that is, the stronger I am fused with the object of my identity–the more intense the pain. Back in the Shadow DOM days, I quit Twitter because I simply couldn’t handle the excruciating hurt of comments that I would even remotely perceive as negative toward Web components. The identity link was so strong that in my mind, I was Web components.

In such cases, I am feeling the effect of injured identity. I am acting as the designated receiver of pain of an injury to an object. This injury is not real. Objects can’t feel pain. But through the magic of fused identity, I am here to take on that responsibility.

How did I end up fused with my identities? Best I can tell, it’s a habit that I developed to become a functioning member of society. As I was growing up, I was bombarded with calls to become a “responsible adult”, “good neighbor”, “trustworthy friend” or even a “rebellious, out-of-the-box thinker”. The societal system around me applied its unyielding pressure to adopt the identities that were necessary to be socially accepted. At school, at home, around friends, various identities were held out and incentivized. A “good student” gets goods grades. A “cool kid” gets respect from his buddies. A “weird kid” gets bullied.

At that age, I only knew of one way to adopt an identity: to assume it, to become it, to make it part of myself. So I became a whole web of identities. Some of them I considered desirable and some I desperately did not want.

Though this habit had helped me make sense of my life early on, as the mental demands of the modern life increased, I began to find the effects distracting and counter-productive. When I feel the pain of injured identity, I immediately move to protect myself. My sympathetic system mobilizes to cope with a physical threat. My heart rate goes up. My perspective narrows, zeroed in on the threat. My contrast knob goes to 11. No shades of gray here. I spin the stress response roulette: fight, flight, or freeze.

Since there’s no actual physical threat here, my response is usually directed at another person, whom I perceive to have injured me. Will I be my best self interacting with this person? Nope. Will I regret this interaction later or stew on it for hours/days/months? Yup. Will I have a nagging feeling that I wasted a ton of energy? Definitely. Maybe even have another stress response to feeling terrible about the waste and beat myself up? Oh, I have totally done that. Have I mentioned that I myself could be the target of my threat response?

I want to change this habit.

For me, the change begins with learning to detect an injured identity. After I cringe as someone comments about me not writing any code lately, I take time to reflect on what’s going on. I trace the pain back to the “software engineer” identity and examine my linkage with it. Just being able to observe this process rather than being driven by it has been immensely helpful for me. In doing so, I begin to gently separate myself from from the identity. I start seeing it as something that I have, rather than something that I am.

I am not defined by my identities. They are just tokens of the society’s currency, and though valuable, they–just like coins in my pocket–do not determine my worthiness. My self-worth comes from something deeper. Staying focused on this distinction, patiently struggling to see through the illusion of injured identity is how I gradually turn these random pangs of pain and automatic reactions into a deeper, more centered life.

My Own Clock

Most of my life I lived unaware of My Own Clock. I am not sure how, but I never seemed to see it. As a kid, I was somewhat bothered by the odd pulsing sense coming from some invisible thing deep inside. It was weird and I preferred not to dwell on it. Instead, I learned to listen to others’ Clocks. Early on, other people appeared big and important. Listening to the tick-tock of their Clocks was just the logical thing to do. I even got pretty good at carrying the beat of others’ Clocks, almost as if they were my own.

It wasn’t easy. Everybody’s Clock is different, with their own drifts and skips. Synchronizing all of those Clocks was work. At first, I was excited to learn and master it, because being in sync allowed me relate to other people and appreciate their being. But I kept noticing that occasionally, the rhythm of another’s Clock would resonate in magical ways. Something inside of me would match that rhythm–just briefly–and the world would become a bit brighter. Like rays of light, little by little, these blips of resonance revealed that carrying others’ Clocks wasn’t just work. It was toil.

Boy, those were tough times. I felt lost, realizing the misery of existence that is just fitting into others’ Clock beats. I felt betrayed, let down by the insight that all these Clocks, however well-adopted by me, can never be part of me. And yet, this insight is what nudged me to a wondrous discovery.

I am not exactly sure how, but one day, I saw a glimpse of it. While reflecting, I was startled to see My Own Clock. Not a precisely-executed replica of my Father’s Clock. Not a beautifully-crafted myriad-piece orchestra of The Society Clock. Rather, My Own Clock. Clicking its own rhythm. The rhythm that way back then, would briefly resonate with others’. A barely audible tick-tock. And yet, my own, unique rhythm.

That glimpse was a profound and energizing experience. Now I knew that it’s there. It is there. I still can’t always find it, and I still confuse it with the other clocks. It’s a struggle to unlearn the habit of falling into the rhythm of another’s Clock. But every day, I strain to look and listen. And every day, get a little bit closer to living by My Own Clock.

From HTML5 to Gibson’s Matrix?

I shouldn’t admit it, but — what the heck. I haven’t read the Sprawl Trilogy. Until this weekend. After falling prey to another round of the seasonal crud, and with the long Memorial Day weekend in sight, I dove in.

The books aged extremely well. It was too easy to ignore the awkward artifacts of the 80’s culture and go with the smooth and intricate flow. It felt just right. Not the mind-boggling, monolithic Stephenson’s universe that pounds you with all its kilo-page might. It was gentler and more focused on the characters, rather than the surrounding gadgetry and sound reasoning behind its existence.

Anywho. I walked away inspired. The Sprawl was a tantalizing illusion, my brain spinning in a vertigo of subconscious attempts to fill in the missing engineering details. But in riding this high, I also felt disappointment. It’s 2009, for crying outloud. Where are the AIs? I mean those that can reasonably fool a Turing test? Where are the consoles that connect you directly to the full sensory representation of the Internet? And hovercrafts?! I want my frickin hovercrafts!

How is it that we are still tinkering with a 10-year old hypertext format, asymptotically trying to make it work right on our respective rendering engines, bolting new steel plates on the old wooden boat as it creaks, sinking further under the weight of our add-ons? How come there’s a whole echelon of computer industry burning midnight oil congealing bits of CSS, HTML, and JS into the scary, scary nonsensical frankensteins that we call Web sites? And how come it is so hard to build and grow these sites — not to mention use them?

Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps it was the naive notion that HTML wasn’t just an accidental leader of the rising wave, that it was somehow special, because it was just like text and thus “easy of use?” I shudder even typing these three words. Or was it the idea that the Web is what it is and shouldn’t break it? Or maybe it was us, proclaiming that content is king and that the vehicle didn’t matter? We’ve become content with what we’ve got. Even new aspirations, however alien, look suspiciously like the same old stuff.

But yes, we are where we are. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be anywhere. Right? Riiight. We have this spec, called HTML5 and we’re trying to make it work. It’s better than what we have today, and it is a step forward. But on the big scheme of things — is this what we need? Small, painful incremental steps on the burning coals of the Web as we know it? Is this taking us somewhere? And if it is, are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Lucky Chrome

How can you explain this sheer amount of luck? Are there any special terms for it? I have no clue.

To illustrate — this year, yours truly:

  • After long 14 years finally got his green card
  • Moved to California
  • Landed a job at Google
  • … on the Google Chrome team!
As my good friend put it: “Wear your seatbealt. You have used up all of your luck”.

Thank You, Birmingham

It’s been a long time. I remember driving down I-59 for the first time and suddenly seeing you, lit up, silent and magical in the damp summer heat of 1995. I remember the shock of first encountering the true Southern talk at a McDonald’s drive-through and not being able to comprehend a word — or even make out a syllable. This was a whole different world. This was a whole different time.

Over the next 13 years, I learned lots of things. I learned that driving expensive German cars is not at all what I really want from my life. As a side effect, I learned how to get in debt up to my eyeballs and how to get out of it. I learned that parents will love you no matter what and that their hearts will bleed as they watch you making the stupidest mistakes on your path to comprehension of life.

I also learned that you can’t “fix” people or change them to your liking, no matter how hard you try. I learned that things will happen in most unpredictable ways and a beam of light would shine in the darkest of the night to reveal a new path. I learned what it means to be a family man and exactly how little sleep young fathers and mothers need to keep going.

Along the way, you were there for me. You cheered for my successes. You helped me deal with failures and consequences of poor choices. You taught me about serendipity, resilience, dedication and faith. And most of all, you taught me what it means to truly love someone.

You opened my eyes to the complexity and depth of the racial and cultural divide of this world and gave me hope that this divide can be overcome, even if one person at a time.

Thank you, Birmingham. Thanks for my friends, the opportunities, and the impeccable Southern hospitality. Thank you for your wisdom and willingness to embrace this quirky Russian.

On August 1, we part ways. True to your old-fashioned ways, you stay where you are. But a little part of you will move on with me and my family. Mountain View, here we come. Looking forward to meeting y’all out in California.