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◌  My career

7 April 2012

This is all about me. It’s unvarnished navel-gazing. You’ve been warned. It’s a sunny day after rain and I walked to a coffeeshop in flip-flops and a four-day fuzz, and I’m in a certain kind of mood.

I was doing taxes and got to thinking. Here’s what I’ve made money at since a year ago:

I may be forgetting something. And of course here and there I’ve picked up some barter and free dinners for small things like math tutoring and personal computer repair. I’ve also put time into things that are kind of like work but don’t pay: some GIS (mapping) projects for my own amusement, a pre-launch web startup with friends, a fiction project, a photoblog (spottily), an as-yet unlaunched geography blog, and a probably DOA podcast. I have a parody Twitter account, which led in a strange way to a guest post – about being a manny – on a mommyblog. I did a bunch of reading on text compression and implemented a toy version of bzip. And a couple other things too fragile to talk about yet. And I carry on a fair amount of correspondence. I spend a lot of time in the Library of Congress photo archives, and have something like a hundred placemarks on interesting things in Google Earth. I try to bring whatever I can to my time with my friends. We’re not even getting into stuff more than a year old, remember. Today my non-work time so far has been spent writing this and working on a geolocated tweet analysis project:

The last things I put on this blog were shoreline photos, reviews of articles on conflict studies and anthropogenic climate change, an explanation of how to generate colors of relatively uniform brightness, a tiny reading of Cosmos as an Anglo-Saxon epic, and a story about a toddler being cute.

My most viewed Flickr image for the last month, by a factor of 30, is an abstract pattern created by integer overflow while rendering a gravity field. The next highest is the Columbia River drainage basin. My highest-voted Reddit comment for the last month, by a factor of 10, is a 1500-word attempted explanation of why Kony 2012 offended many people, how certain kinds of racism operate in the world today, and where to begin to approach the complexities of contemporary Central African politics. The next highest is a clarification of what’s wrong with acting as if we’re post-gender.

Late yesterday night I was kidsitting. All three of them were heaped in bed. The last one awake and I were telling stories about our friend Flying Shoes Bob – mainly the time he went to Angel Falls, freaked out the people at the visitor center by falling upwards, roller-skated on the jungle canopy, moved some fierce panthers to where their population was depleted, and caught piranhas by noodling them as he hung upside-down over the river from his flying shoes. In the course of telling each other about Bob, we covered a lot of physics, geography, biology, and the rules of the road (because Bob liked to hook his shoes under the dash and fly his blue van right over traffic).

The mom came home and overheard. She was magnanimous after a rock show and I think happy to hear her kid storytelling with such commitment. Maybe she’d also seen the drawings we’d been doing downstairs. You’re so creative, she told him, you’ll turn out like Charlie! The kid blinked woozily and asked, Charlie, what do you do? The mom scrunched her brows. Yeah, what do you do? And I stuttered and said I do stuff with computers. And then I knew I’d be writing this.

It must be kind of amusing from the outside, but it’s worrying to live inside. The haphazardness that’s cute to you is scary to me. I think I’m spread too thin. I don’t do all these things because I’m Goethe and I’m good at all of them, you know. There’s nothing these days that I’m doing better than everyone else. Nor am I quickly getting better at anything. That’s a tough feeling.

I think about this when I get attention. Take Twitter. (Please.) A few months ago I gave a talk about how I visualize my GPS fixes and picked up some new Twitter followers. A couple weeks ago, that elbowy gripe about Facebook etc. got passed around by some writers I admire, and I got some more. And but so sometimes I’m reluctant to babble too much about whatever I’m into at the moment, because I don’t want to bore the socks off programmer friends when I’m talking about environmental stewardship, or writer friends when I’m debugging graphics code, or mesh networking friends when I’m thinking about Sam Abell’s photography.

Again, let’s be clear: I’m confessing, not bragging. More is not better. I’m not an amazing polymath. As the list of cool things I’ve tinkered with gets longer and longer without hitting anything that’s actually been useful to anyone, it doesn’t get cooler, it gets sadder. I don’t want to be entertaining (or, worse, inspiring – shoot me); I want to have some kind of coherent internal life that’s reflected in some kind of coherent external life. It worries me that if I didn’t have a lot of the exceptional advantages that I do, I’d probably be in big trouble by now. And however much it seems like taking the king’s shilling, there’s this sense that I should have a career – a central project of projects, something to invest in and build stability around. I have money for a lot of relatively nice things today, but it would be better to have health insurance and a reasonable expectation of supporting a family someday.

I don’t have a clear answer. I don’t think my strategy of no strategy can work for someone who isn’t in their twenties and as privileged as I am at the moment. I don’t think it would be a good idea to overcompensate for this diffusion by trying to, like, find the highest-paying field I can work in, get a master’s degree in that, and do it single-mindedly. I would have a disastrous midlife crisis.

Probably my effort here is best spent giving more respect to people who pay attention to me. I get frustrated when I think people are narrowing themselves when they don’t have to, but then I do it too. I should not worry about scaring Twitter followers. (Twitter is mostly a metaphor here.) I should trust their tastes or ignore them.

Two essays I’ve enjoyed very much lately are Erin Kissane’s Incept Dates and Craig Mod’s The Digital–Physical. One thing I like about both is a superfluidity of reference, a noetic Rollin film. Kissane is not shy to talk about Blade Runner and her personal life. Mod is willing to drop Lish and Carver. If I hated these pieces, I would say they were full of bathos, self-seriousness, and chaos. And I would be right. And I would be missing the point that these qualities are what make two quite different essays both brilliant to me, because even when I resist their points, they push me along axes that I did not know to look for. This would not happen if they told me what I already knew of.

What they say matters to me because they have become vulnerable by putting things in their own terms and risking overreach.

There’s a famous tweet by _why:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

It irritates me. I don’t like the idea that tastes only narrow. I think tastes can be wonderful: they can be ways of getting to the edge of what you know. Tastes order your perceptions in ways that you can swim with or against, and so they make you pay attention to the world. And they tell you when you’re making something good. And then I realize that I’ve come around to arguing _why’s side in different words. The tweet unsettles me because it’s a kind of true that I have to work for.

I thought of that when I read Teju Cole responding to nitpicking:

An essay isn’t a tally of correct points. It is a way of placing new bits of language, and thus new thoughts, into the minds of others. I read the piece and I seem to have some good points. But I wouldn’t say I agree with me 100%.

I’m reading stuff like this to convince myself to relax. Somehow, and I don’t know how, it’s connected with learning to concentrate better – as opposed to more.

I participate in certain subcultures where a lot of weight is put on being smart and getting smarter. But it seems to me that for an awful lot of people trying to do good things, IQ is not a limiting factor. If you are smart but ignorant or smart but lack empathy, you are only better at coming up with justifications for the ways in which you are wrong. I know people who can argue loops around me in defense of something that plainly is not the case, and I do not wish I were them.

I’m more likely to admire someone for having one life: for being the same person when they’re being smart as they are when they’re being nice. And when I’m envious, it’s because they are the same person when they’re making money as when they’re playing. Probably a different side of the same person, of course, respecting context and conforming to different norms as appropriate – but still the same, the way a multilingual person is one person. Not every register is used in every situation, but every register is available. Ethical faculties, knowledge of Australian politics, ability to ride a bike, dirty jokes, memories of childhood, vegetarian recipes, political identity – they can be left in the bag, but not denied.

You’re responsible for what happens because of you. What mostly matters is what you mostly do. Your hopes and fears are not important by themselves. I want to be a good person not by putting my hope in the idea of a perfect vocation but by making everyday things better than they have to be. I don’t know how to handle this.