While reading Lifelode, the character who could see others’ possible futures really grabbed me. After I put down the book, though, I realized: that character didn’t grab me because that image particularly stood out in the context of the book, she grabbed me because of where my head has been recently.
Because, looking back, I’ve been thinking about contingency a lot over the last half year. The place where this appeared most strongly in its abstract glory was the way my fascination with Ascension has played out: as I said at the time, “always, always be aware of the web of possibilities”, and that’s a web that I’ve been feeling as an almost physical presence around me for months now.
That web has manifested itself in many ways. My mind has been focused on sex more than normal recently; the specific direction in which it’s been probing the most, though, has centered on my identifying as bi more than two decades ago. Within quite short order after that, my life went in a direction that means that I’m not actively exploring the ways and extent to which I am attracted to men (or at least not actively physically exploring that!); how would that aspect of my life be different if I hadn’t gone in that direction twenty years ago? I have not the faintest idea. This is a mostly abstract question for me, but the one thing that prevents it from being a completely abstract question is my being told the summer before last by a friend of mine that he ended up being quite surprised by what he learned about his own sexuality a few years back (when he was noticeably older than I am now); I certainly don’t expect that to happen to me, but it’s a reminder of the possibilities that surround us, possibilities that in many cases we’re not really aware of.
Then there’s last year’s job search. Any job search is going to lead to you being confronted with possibility after possibility, and this one, despite its short length, was no exception. Fortunately, the possibilities in question were quite happy, and I ended up having a choice between either staying in a job that I basically enjoyed or selecting from multiple new possibilities that all seemed quite interesting. But: the job offer that I accepted was with a company that I didn’t even have my first interview at until I had an offer in hand from another rather attractive company; if my current employer been even a single day slower in that process, I would be working somewhere else, doing completely different programming, with a different number of quite different coworkers, taking the train to work every day instead of walking to work every day.
And certainly many of the details about why I enjoy my current company aren’t at all what I expected: again, surprises, possibilities that I wasn’t even aware of. In particular, my coworkers are reminding me of the power of contingency, of futures unfolding: as I get older and stay in the tech industry, I spend more and more time with people who are younger than me; and the fact that Miranda was born when I was 28, while not making me anything like a young father in historical norms, does mean (given the mating habits of the circles I move in) that my kid is noticeably older than the kids of most people my age. Being an active video game blogger also means that I spend a lot of time interacting with and being aware of the lives of people who are quite a bit younger than me; though it’s almost certainly not a coincidence that a couple of the bloggers I feel closest to are my age or a bit older.
Actually, many of my current coworkers are fairly close to me in age. But, of the two coworkers whom I’ve spent the most time with socially, one is five-eights of my age and hence has (from my point of view) basically all of the interesting parts of her life ahead of her (including events that I have no reason to think about in the context of my own future); and the other, while quite close to me in age (younger but, from my point of view, within the margin of error), has had some changes in her life over the last few years which make one (make me, certainly!) unusually aware of how paths can diverge, how one’s life can play out.
It’s not just this job change, though: whenever I think about job searches, I remember my last academic job search. At one point, I had a job offer in hand for a school that I would have enjoyed working at, an offer that I was going to accept: that school pressured me a bit more than I wanted, though, and a few other schools wanted to fly me out for interviews, one of which seemed like a better fit for me and sent signals that they thought I would be a good fit for them as well. That plus a non-academic job possibility that seemed interesting gave me the courage to turn down that first job; eventually, though, none of those jobs panned out.
Which I am extremely grateful for: there were some unpleasant aspects of that experience at the time (unsuccessful job searches are never fun), but even in the short term it worked out fine, and in the long term I’ve had zero reasons to regret that sequence of events and many reasons to be actively grateful for it. Still: things could have been quite different. And I’m not at all sure why things turned out the way they did, and in particular why I didn’t end up getting offered the job that seemed like a better fit: I didn’t have the courage to really probe that failure at the time, but my best guess is that my subconscious was dubious enough about me continuing with academia to sabotage my performance in that interview. A fortuitous series of events, even if I’m not sure why things happened the way they did or just how much chance was involved.
Contingency is one half of where my brain has been focused over the last year; the other half is narrative. Again, returning to Ascension: when I play that game, when I’m doing well in it, it’s because I can tell stories about how the game has gone so far and will go in future turns. (Not traditional stories about characters and what not: stories about the gameplay events and ways in which cards’ powers relate to each other.) The same goes for how I’ve been playing other board games; and the worlds created by my obsession from the first half of the year, Minecraft, are all about starting from contingency and crafting a narrative out of what you’re presented with.
And the same goes from all of the other examples above. In fact, my brain latched on to the narrative aspects of job searches before it latched on to the contingent aspects of those searches; and, while I say above that I’m quite glad that I left academia when I did, I’m sure that, if matters had turned out differently, I would have crafted a narrative that led to that result being the inevitable course of events instead. (I spent more than a decade and a half crafting that narrative, after all!) It’s not at all difficult to see one of the aforementioned coworkers as an example of the wonderful power that appears when you tell your stories properly, either.
In all of these examples, then, I’m not dealing with a web of possibilities as a manifestation of chaos. That web of possibilities is instead a manifestation of unexpected possibilities of coherence, of beauty. And narrative is the way that my brain is currently choosing to express that coherence, to help me understand its existence and meaning.
Why is my brain particularly focused on these topics right now? It could, of course, be pure coincidence—one lesson this year is that brains just do weird stuff some times, sometimes quite a bit weirder than I’m entirely comfortable with!—but let’s take a lesson from the narrative side of that focus and make a story out of that sequence of events instead of treating it as unexplained randomness. I turned forty near the start of last year; round numbers are an excuse for introspection, so it’s probably not entirely by chance that I’m looking back more than usual right now.
And looking back in a certain specific way. Forty is a traditional age for people (men in particular, perhaps?) to have a mid-life crisis; my guess is that the above is how my brain is choosing to express some of those symptoms. It’s a natural time for me to be looking back at what’s happened; being around young coworkers encourages that, and having a daughter who is going through major transitions of her own, forming certain mental habits in ways that I expect will strongly influence her life over the next years (decades?) is quite something to behold. (I didn’t expect middle school to be as much of a phase change as it has been, and I certainly didn’t expect the details of how it’s playing out.)
Also, Zippy’s decline and death happened this year (his decline started earlier, but it made itself year much more strongly this year than last year), so I’ve been getting hit by age as well as youth. And what both Miranda and Zippy have in common is: I’m realizing that we only have six more years living with Miranda (and she’s already much much more independent than she had been), and all of a sudden we don’t have any dogs to look after. So Liesl and I right now have quite a bit more freedom than we had over the last twelve years, and a dog-free window of opportunity to experiment with the even greater freedom that we’ll have in the quite near future when Miranda leaves. (Six years once seemed like a long time to me, but no more; compare that in particular to the twelve years that we’ve had with Miranda so far.)
Side note: one funny thing about looking at my mental state through a mid-life crisis lens is how unlike a traditional mid-life crisis it is in many ways. I’m wondering about different possibilities, and even wondering about possibilities of an explicitly sexual nature: the truth is, though, that my brain doesn’t even seriously consider any possibilities that wouldn’t have led to my spending decades with Liesl in the past and continuing to do so in the future. If I think about it intellectually, I can point to the unlikeliness of the coincidences that led to our meeting and falling in love, in the same way that I point to coincidences that led to me having the job that I have; but it’s a purely academic exercise, my brain is essentially unable to take seriously possible past histories that wouldn’t have led to us spending the last two decades together or spending the next four decades together. (The same thing goes for Miranda: an important part of what makes her her is formed out of 46 coin flips, so there’s a lot of room for randomness to manifest itself, but I am completely unable to imagine what it would be like to have a child who is not Miranda.)
Another traditional aspect of mid-life crises: looking back with some amount of regret. That I am also completely lacking in: there have, of course, been negative surprises over the last four decades as well as positive surprises, experiences that I didn’t enjoy at all at the time; not so many of them, though, and my brain is happy enough to not worry about them in retrospect, to see them more as sources of information and curiosity than anything else. And I don’t see any reason to think that my best years are in any sense behind me: I’ve had a good run so far, but very little that I did in the first two decades of my life had an impact beyond my immediate friends and family, and while I’m happy enough with what I’ve done over the more recent two decades, I don’t see any reason to believe that I can’t do a lot better over the next several. My life may be half over: but having four decades ahead of me is a long, long time!
My lack of regret doesn’t mean that I want to be blase about the future, however. As I said above: let’s make a story out of the random events in my past, and then let’s extend that story to see where my life might gracefully go next. I would be perfectly happy if my brain could spend the next year churning away on that issue, coming up with a grand plan going forward. Not a plan for the rest of my life, certainly, or anything even approaching that, but maybe a broad sketch for the next decade that will help me have an impact in ways that I haven’t so far?
Or maybe my brain will learn something from responding to the rolls of dice, the draws of cards in board games (the unfolding of moves in go!) and step beyond that narrative crutch. The way you can go isn’t the real way, the name you can say isn’t the real name; if I can move from being the ever-wanting soul who sees only what it wants and turn to being the unwanting soul who sees what’s hidden, I’d be happy with that as well. Mystery of all mysteries indeed.
This post has not been revised since publication.