Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Any Which Way The Wind Blows

[I wrote this a few weeks ago, but given the fragile nature of dating refrained from posting it. In the end I didn't get a green light with the girl down in LA and rather than to try to press to on, I realized it was time to let go.]

If we are meant to circle back on ourselves -- and depending whether you are a buddhist or a bad driver this can happen more often than not -- then sometimes we just might head back to our better times. For me the year that changed everything was when I entered high school. I was a poor student before then, and while the diagnose of dysgraphia (a learning disability that is the inverse of dyslexia: an output problem as opposed to an input one) would make sense years later , without such knowledge I entered that year a little more bruised than one should having been shot down by five eastern boarding schools and regulated to a small school on a hill just south of Santa Barbara. I might have disappeared then too, but a series of lucky things helped me thwart my pathologically bad handwriting and enabled me to begin to achieve good things.

It wasn’t just technology; the place had the right level of caring and flexibility, and there are teachers to whom I am eternally grateful. But if you are someone who has difficulty physically writing, then the word processor seemed liked a true miracle. Sentences could be honed and reworked without having to rewrite every word, and the result was as magical as if the device could measure the heavens themselves.

In the end of the things to be burdened with, I am fortunate that bad hand writing matters little. Still it was probably that dependence on the machine which sent me towards a career in front of a screen either professionally as a programmer or recreationally as an essayist. The hard part with both computer companies and wayward paragraphs is that they are at best ethereal and while they might exist in the real world for brief periods of time they are doomed to disappear.

My career has been haunted by this absence of physical reality as I tried first wounded start ups and then later switched to anesthetized banks. When my last project at Mellon wound up being a two year ordeal that was cancelled, I thought I would try to see if I could make a living from my hobby.

The novel I began, a romantic comedy farce set in San Francisco, was wonderful for the first eighty pages. But as I limped through the next ten I found myself and my characters blocked. The heroine was doomed to stay with the rich boss rather than his poor programming lackey. And while I could come up with ideas like earthquakes that might jolt the relationship a particular direction not much was helping to make the book real. It suffered from a lack of structure, and I tried for a while to place the wordy ameba in a literary bucket.

I failed.

Of the sentences I have written over the years, that was one of the toughest ones to type. I am certain that there a bits and pieces that might be salvageable, but I can’t begin to describe how much I wanted the thing to work as a whole. Sometimes I think that lack of description is the problem.

I wandered into this year as I had that one long ago from high school, a bit more wounded than I thought I should be. I have an odometer change in August and the fear of what that means didn’t make my mood any better.

I had to start again, and the only way I know how to do that is to begin asking around. It is a hard thing to say to folks “hey, my career has spiraled away”; there is an instinct to remain poised. This was perhaps why my little pieces disappeared. I would get brief flashes, but it was hard to put anything structurally together. Hope felt stuck at the bottom of Pandora's box.

And then I got lucky. I am not going to question why because it probably isn’t more than random fluctuations in an expanding universe, but a series of little things all lined themselves once again as if there is a comet the orbits the earth every 23 years that can gravitationally pulls things back into alignment. I needed to run into a friend of my cousins who husband was a programmer, and, at the same time, have another new device that was truly revolutionary.

Hello, iPhone.

My partner is a brilliant programer who about a decade ago helped a couple of guys down the hall from him at Stanford with this little search engine called Google. At the same time as Google was leaving the Farm, he went on to form his own company, wunderground, that supports a linked network of weather stations from across the country. He has a world of data - a collection of radar blasts, cloud formations, temperature read outs, and updating web cams - all of which can be displayed on a map. If there were just a hand held device that could be tethered to internet with a rich graphics library.

Hello, iPhone.

The truth is that I did have to hustle for the job. Like everyone else on this planet I didn’t have any iPhone experience, but my earlier work of patching stock models for a bank didn’t seem entirely transferable. I had to reach out on my own and build something entirely pointless but cool, and I think this is the first step towards any fulfilling idea. I built a small application called Whose Hot that colors the friends in your contact book based upon the temperature of their zip code. It is goofy and technical, and I realize now in the same sort of what that looking at my dysgraphia in retrospect is that I need to exist at that boundary between engineering and whimsy.

The work is hard and elegant. To get the iPhone to dance requires deep coding. It is an event based machine and the bugs are deep and difficult. But I am doing really well at it. To be in that place where you know you are good, to have finally arrived at where you feel you should be after so many years of wandering is a rush of pure joy I have not had in a very long time.

He is brighter than me, and I do my best to keep up. At times it feels like we echo those earlier moments of creation of two guys discussing how to make something in a bicycle shop, liverpool pub, or attached garage. We break things down into parts and then try to figure out what we could build that no one has ever seen. And while it is likely that we will not create the next airplane or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” we are doing our best to measure the sky with what we can discover. It is pure engineering and it feels wonderful to come to where I was so many years ago.

So it shouldn’t have seemed that strange when another voice from that time came once again. This one was of sorrow. A great friend of mine from high school died in a roadside bomb in Iraq. I hadn’t talked to him since graduation, but he was one of those folks who changed me and I after some airfare haggling I manage to return to say goodbye.

The weekend in off itself was emotionally draining, and while I ran into a good portion of our classmates I was unexpectedly stunned by how beautiful his younger sister had become. We chatted a bit and I am left a little bewildered about what to do next.

On one hand I really don’t want to be the guy who hits on people at a funeral - especially the younger sister of a good friend. It would be nice I had met somebody so many years ago and that we had a collection of fading christmas cards - the early ones with Hawaiian honeymoon sunsets and the later ones with children in our arms - but I have only ever been the recipient of those. Instead I have had to wander through life where my enthusiasm sometimes comes off too needy and my humor too insincere and this a journey you take alone.

And on the other hand, when I looked at her I could see a good life together. It is a strange thing to want when you see somebody, but I have gotten to that point where I really want a normal existence. I want the christmas cards and more importantly the healthy family behind them. With her it would be a good life with I am sure the usual arguments and compromises, but there are far better that getting the unusual arguments and compromises of the women my friends try to set me up with - the over mileage collection of hyper busy lawyers and just last week someone who went to college with his step mom. “She isn’t that much older you,” he told me after I had discovered this during our date. I think I needed to explain my requirement that I was looking for a mother of my children and not one of my own. I wonder if I suffer relationship dysgraphia.

And so I am drawn back to that one woman. We traded a couple of emails and talked on the phone. I am not exactly getting a green light, she lives down in LA, and I don’t know if she is ready to date having just been divorced. I am not giving myself great odds here - they look like deep problems. But just maybe they could be solved with some impressive engineering combined with just a touch of mirth and the luck of the right gravitational pull.