Ode to Losing Virginity.

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Tue, 4 Aug 1998 04:43:37 -0700

My wife visited Seattle this weekend, and sometime on August 1st or 2nd
I lost my virginity. I'm not exactly certain when it happened; as is
usually the case with losing one's virginity, I was completely taken by
surprise that it was happening and it is only a day or two later that I
can summon the courage to talk about it.

Before you whet your lips at the thought of a sexual-deflowering story,
let me state very clearly that it is not my sexual virginity I lost
sometime this weekend. Rather, I employ the metaphor of unvirginifying
as a symbol of a rite of passage. In this particular rite, I finally
realized the nature of the universe. The nature of MY universe. Come,
jump right into my nightmare, the water is warm.

At the very superficial level, I've noticed that we ever-increasingly
live in a cynical universe of sharks trying to eat each other. No shark
is completely full, and thus is never completely satisfied. Paul Allen,
unhappy plunking down $2.78 billion for Marcus Cable in April, added
Charter Communications to his acquisitions for another $4.5 billion last
week. AT&T, unhappy with the $48 billion merger with TCI last month,
last week unveiled a plan to couple with British Telecom forming a
hundred plus billion dollar-company with one billion dollars in profits
and a worldwide terabit network. Meanwhile, last week Bell Atlantic
announced plans to merge with GTE to create a local-telco, wireless, and
Internet powerhouse. On July 20, Craig McCaw-controlled NEXTLINK
Communications announced that it will jointly invest in Level 3
Communication's planned national IP-based fiber-optic network.
Meanwhile, over 14 consortia, representing 76 pre-qualified companies,
registered to participate in the privatization of Brazil's Telebras.
And, Microsoft last week launched "MSN.com" (the portal formerly known
as "Start!"), with access to carpoint, expedia, homebuyer, investor, the
20-million-members-plus Hotmail, and an instant messaging juggernaut to
compete with AOL's recently-acquired Mirabilis services. Basically, the
universe as it exists right now is: if you want to start a company in
the communications or computer or entertainment or media domains, you
are going to be bought out or sent out of business by one of the
oligopolist players. It's that simple. No one stays off the radar in
1998 long enough to avoid being bought out or forced out.

By the way, that long paragraph was just a bunch of pablum like the
James-Joyce-like cruft generated by Steve Norquist (a man/machine so
poetic, no one can understand him) with the goal of scaring away as many
people as possible before I go into the details of my intellectual
deflowering this weekend. I have a tendency to wear my mind on my
sleeve; I have a history of losing my shirt.

But believe me, it is better to get these kind of thoughts down on paper
(or typed down on the teletype) as soon to when they happen as possible,
or you risk losing those tender emotions forever to the Ether. Rohit
likens thoughts to colors of mixable paint: if you mix red and white
paints together, then you cannot get back the white you started with
because it is forever lost in the pink paint mixture. So you cannot
wait until a fragile thought merges with your subconscious, or you will
lose that thought forever to the merge.

So okay, we live among sharks in a cynical world, and we work in a
business with tough competitors... where does that leave someone who
fears for his soul? I thought long and hard, and determined that there
are three kinds of people in the world.

PEOPLE TYPE "A" are the folks for whom everything major in life gets
achieved with relative ease. They've been blessed with some resource --
intellect, charisma, wealth, physical prowess, acting ability, social
status, talent within some discipline, tenacity, luck -- or maybe some
combination of these resources, and they are so brilliant with their
resource(s) that everything important to them comes their way through
some application of that brilliance.

PEOPLE TYPE "B" are the "botched and the bungled" -- these are the
people who are not blessed with an overwhelming amount of any given
resource, and as a result their goals in life are much more modest.
Some of these people will actually succeed way past their ability
because they are too stupid to know that they're supposed to fail.

PEOPLE TYPE "C" are the people for whom nothing comes easy. They have
more resources than the people of type "B," and possibly have more
resources than the people of type "A." However, unlike the "A"s, these
resources came with a high price: physical or psychological disorders,
the necessity for sustained hard work, the inability to know when to be
quiet, the two-sidedness of having everything good that happens be
accompanied by something bad.

Now, I'm willing to admit that this may be a ridiculous model -- but if
you start with my model, then the universe gets decomposed as follows.
Most successful people in the world are type "A," most people in the
world are type "B," and most miserable people in the world are type "C."

Furthermore, if you constrain yourself just to "graduate students," you
get a nifty microcosm of advanced education's indentured servants. The
"A" types are so brilliant, they know everything -- and clearly deserve
a degree. The "B" types are so stupid, they THINK they know everything --
and then depending on how well they can fool everyone else, they either
get a degree or get kicked out. The "C" types, however, are in the
middle -- they realize that there is much they will never know. Note
that unlike with society at large, the "C" types I think are the clear
majority in grad school.

Now there's a fork in the fate of all "C"s. The "good C"s realize
that there is much they will never know, and they decide that that is
The Way The Universe Is, so they do what they can, and they present
their work honestly, and if the evaluating committee likes it, they get
a degree, and if the evaluating committee doesn't like it, they leave
school without a degree but with a clear conscience.

The "bad C"s on the other hand care a little too much about the fact
that there is so much out there that they do not know. They spend
months, even years, paralyzed from moving forward, instead opting for
collecting and collating and connecting as much information as possible.

---- push 1 (warning: self-insulting rant)

A good analogy for the "bad C"s is FoRK itself -- sure, we keep
increasing the information pool in our collective soul, but how much
closer to self-awareness as a community have we gotten? I've been here
from the beginning, and I can honestly proclaim that as a group we are no
further along than we were 32 months ago. Do we collectively know more?
Sure. Has it collectively helped any of us to deal with the sweeping
changes most of us are undergoing in our lives? No way.

---- push 2 (warning: boring FoRK administrivia)

Someone, I think Chris, asked where FoRK is concentrated. Well, there
are 98 members on FoRK now (AFAIK), and I'd say more than half are
concentrated in four areas: Seattle, Silicon Valley, Southern
California, and Boston. I don't have exact numbers because I don't feel
like collating such information. Heck, I used to know everyone on
FoRK's name, and now I don't even know that. This, I suppose, is the
cost of an open community: there is much you cannot know, by definition.

Wow, we're nearing 100 current members (there have been 115
ever-FoRKers) and our 10,000th FoRKpost. Ah, milestones.

---- pop 2

Maybe the goal of FoRK is NOT to know everything. Maybe the goal is
something deeper. I feel like many of us are presently in the midst of
major transitions -- metamorphoses, if you will -- in our lives as we
race to change our positions in life before the magical click of January
First, 2000. I'd wager that half of FoRK right now will have a major
life change sometime in the next 18 months. Job shifts, leaving school,
entering school, marriages, divorces, big moves, deaths, births.

---- pop 1

So there you have it, I've suddenly pigeonholed the entire human race
into three boxes, and my sweeping generalization further breaks down as
I apply it to graduate school to similarly pigeonhole grad students into
three boxes. But follow along with me anyway, because even if the
hypothesis is bunk, it's really helpful to understanding the swing in my
mood this weekend that led to my intellectual deflowering.

Before I go on, there's one more thing you need to know about the type
"B"s. The stupid people of the world -- the botched and the bungled,
the unenlightened and the uncaring -- are actually quite happy in a
Taoist sort of way, because they don't know enough to be miserable.
Ignorance is bliss, the poets say. And although it may be frightful to
see ignorance in action, ignorance itself is NOT self-aware, so it
doesn't see what it's missing or doing wrong. In other words,
stupidity has a built-in defense mechanism that allows stupid people to
remain happy despite being stupid. That really was a lovely little
piece of design work by whoever it was that set the human species in

---- push 1 (warning: gross thoughts)

Then again, that creator also designed the genitals to have a sewage
line running through a recreational area -- how smart was that? And
while I'm being blasphemously lewd, why the heck weren't the sexual
fluids in that area designed to taste like chocolate and butterscotch,
so people would be more enthusiastic about going down there?

---- push 2 (warning: Tim Byars troll)

Byars, if you're still reading, can you answer me this question:
is there such a thing as no-strings-attached sex? Or will one party
ALWAYS feel something more than the other party feels where sex is
concerned? The reason I'm asking you is that you know more people
who engage in recreational sex for a living than probably the rest
of us put together...

---- pop 2

Other parts of the human body design I do not understand: small
bladders, morning erections, hormones that prevent a person from
thinking, and human fragility... it's way too easy for us to hurt
each other, you know?

---- pop 1

So there I was for the last 28 years of my life, trying to figure out
which people type I was, and the best that I could come up with is that
I embodied some weird mutation: I was a type "B" with a twist. I was
stupid, but the twist was I knew how stupid I was. A self-aware stupid
person who knew that he never had the potential to do anything. A
miserable beast surrounded on all sides by "A" types revelling in their
own success, but unable by virtue of lack of any of the needed resources
to enter that Promised Land. Surrounded by other stupid people who
could not possibly understand why I was so miserable because they were
so blissfully ignorant.

Here's where I start to get allegorical, because I don't want to be
caught calling anyone in particular on or off this list as being stupid.
It is my experience that the best thing to do, whenever anyone asks what
I think they are, is to figure out what they think they are and echo it
back to them in a nuanced variation on their own words. At least,
that's what the voices in my head tell me what to do...

So now we're at the point in the story where we were when I began this
writeup: the first weekend of August, 1998 or so years after that guy
was born, in Seattle working on a paper that like most things in my life
is taking far longer to finish than it should, with my wife of four
weeks visiting from 1200 miles away.

And I spill. I spill everything: what's been bothering me, what
continues to bother me, the things in my life that I cannot change that
cause me large quantities of stress, the horror that it's so easy for
some people I know because they are blissfully ignorant of that which
they do not know, my irritating tendency to call people on the phone
when they happen to be in a naked and/or intimate moment, my
overanalysis and underanalysis of everything, my hopes and fears and
dreams and self-proclaimed inadequacies, ad nauseum.

And she just sits there while I spin an infinity.

And then something occurs to me as I'm playing out all the potential
scenarios of what might happen to me before I die.

The thought I thought was this. That it's possible that I'm not a type
"B", that I'm not born stupid. That it's possible that I was born a
type "C" -- someone very much realizing there is much he doesn't know --
but have not yet figured out what my resource is or how to glean it once
I do figure it out. That this paralysis I've lived for the 28 years of
my life is due not to a pronounced ceiling in my talents, but to the fact
that I still haven't figured out WHAT my talent IS. That I am far from
self-enlightened, that I still have an entire journey ahead of me, that
I get to live with the knowledge that yes, it may seem that life is so
easy to so many people around me, but that I have still been blessed,
like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or Truman in The Truman Show, with the
power to "leave" any time I figure out how exactly to do that.

And I was shocked silent.

See, if you go through life thinking you're dumb, then you have an
excuse not to do good work. But if instead you realize that with a
whole lot of hard work you have the potential not to be dumb any longer,
you are hit by ambivalence. Your fate is your own with which to succeed
or to fail; the responsibility for success is very much your own, and
not a function of the cards you've been dealt. Sure, you can complain
all you want about the fact that life isn't fair -- for most people it's
either too hard to even be an option or too easy to even be worth
consideration -- but it doesn't change the feeling that you alone affect
your own future. In a life such as mine, replete with failings and
missed opportunities, this sort of realization just sort of bowls you
over with wonderment as to how you could have deceived yourself for so
long up to now.

There are particular details to my situation that I cannot share,
because I do not want to leave a smoking gun perusable on the Web.
Suffice it to say that I now have a much more complete understanding of
the universe I struggled so hard for so long to deny, and that I have
made every mistake in the book leading up to this point, and I now have
a good idea of what I have to do, even though at times certain aspects
of that will be repulsive to me. (I know this paragraph in particular
is vague, but believe me, it means a lot to me to write it.)

This weekend was an extreme rite of passage for me. I had a vision of
what I thought it was that I wanted, and I played through that scenario
in full to its logical conclusion with someone very special to me, and
in so doing I revealed the inconsistencies in taking that approach to
fruition. I can now move forward again, thanks to the much-needed
charge I got this weekend.

See, I've often held the opinion that people do not change their core
nature without a life-altering epiphany -- a realization that so strikes
at the core of one's existence that in so doing it alters one's core
from that point forward. What comes next does not necessarily make me
happy; I place my whole value system in question as I hold my nose and
jump feet first into what I know I must now do. My wife, though not
thrilled at the prospect of my walking on hot coals, understands the
fundamental struggle I have been enduring and now will incur and
supports the means in this case justifying the ends.

Of course, the killing off of my old self by shedding my outer skin to
reveal to myself my true inner nature puts me at that point where once
again I go through those stages of the terminally ill for my old self


Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Anticipatory grief. Acceptance.

I cannot say unequivocally that my writing this down helped anyone but
me. But I can say that when you're in the state of mind, the emotional
condition, the frame of reference whereby your life is undergoing a
major upheaval, it is most helpful to try to write something -- ANYTHING --
down that will help you to understand the situation better and live
through this to the next stage. I cannot declare that life is fun, but
I do think that it is interesting, and I hope that the struggle is worth
it in and of itself.


One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
-- Benjamin Hoff, _The Tao of Pooh_