Friday, June 24, 2011

Nick the Magic Unicorn

Nick is an interdimensional space-faring unicorn.  He is also one of the smartest people I've ever known, and one of the unhappiest. I've known a lot of very weird people with a lot of interesting lifestyles in my life, and been both horrified and delighted by what I've found.  I've always found Nick's eccentricities to be both charming and original, and he's personally bought me over ten drinks in the past year and a half.  Nick is also the key to understanding something about myself that has long confounded me, and it is to Nick that my narrative has taken me.

I find writing about Nick to be somewhat paradoxical, and this is one of the real challenges of a blog like this.  Thus far, everyone I've written about has more or less been out of my life -- characters from my past rather than my present.  But Nick and I are still good friends.  What I write here I write with explicit permission on the grounds that I conceal his identity, and I am very grateful that he trusts me enough to let me publish this.  At once brilliant, strange, driven, wise, foolish, and surprisingly capable of empathy when it's needed, he is both blunt and capable of astonishing subtlety, very often at the same time.  No matter how difficult he can be to be around sometimes, he is both a loving and supportive friend, and an endlessly fascinating person to me.

This story starts, like so many, on an internet forum.  I wrote a story that Nick liked, and he wanted to roleplay with me via instant messenger.  I noticed the contradiction as soon as we started talking about our respective creative works.  It didn't take me long to work out just how cerebral he was, like the computers he worked on, and yet so creative that his imagination at times overwhelmed him.  My fantasy life has been well-documented here, but I was unprepared for the depth and intensity of Nick's.  Nick is only a few years older than me, but he had clearly spent most of his life working on an entire universe -- places, timelines, and people -- right down to the tiniest detail, such as the choice of fabric of a military uniform.  I got lost in that world after only a weekend of exploration.  But the intricacy and complexity of it belies a simple truth about it: it is separated from the rest of him by a tremendous firewall.  The Nick that the outside world usually gets to see is not the Nick of that universe.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Nick is an eminently practical man.

Nick's philosophy in life is to take game theory and apply it to every sphere of human existence.  One of the first times we met, I was driving him to a restaurant from the train station and he complained bitterly that I "drove like a little old lady."  I have a bad history of getting speeding tickets and try to avoid speeding anymore unless it's absolutely necessary.  A couple of months later, when our roles were reversed and he was the driver, I watched him fly into a frustrated rage that he had mistimed a column of traffic lights and now had missed hitting all greens.  To Nick, something is only as good as its usefulness, and then that usefulness is in turn rated on a scale of how useful it is.  This applies to both people as well as everyday objects, and it's a belief that we both not only share, but can often turn into a source of endless frustration and disappointment.

I tend to value both objects and people by their potential.  A lot of people believe that genius is something innate.  I am not one of those people.  Rather, it is our ignorance (or the ignorance of others) that holds us back.  On the face of it, this seems like a rather optimistic philosophy.  Certainly, there is a lot of benefit to be had by optimizing one's potential.  This is something Nick and I agree wholeheartedly on.  But this belies a deceptively simple truth about this belief: most of what we encounter day-to-day isn't the best that it could be for any number of reasons.  Nick tends to turn this disappointment outward towards others.  I not only do that, but take it a step further and turn it in on myself.

The truth of the matter is, neither one of us really know how to have fun.  When you spend your life constantly trying to analyze your surroundings, you lose out on the experiences to be gained by just accepting them as they are.  My favorite moments on my meditation walks are not when I'm thinking about something in particular, but when I'm just simply enjoying my surroundings and taking in the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront.  This is something many of us preach, but in practice it can be nearly impossible.  Why wouldn't it be?  I don't know a single person -- myself included -- who doesn't struggle with this.  Is life meant to be about doing everything bigger, faster, and better than before, or is the meaning of life about letting go?

The irony is of course that at least in modern times, it's both.  It's this drive for the former that brought us the ability to ponder the latter.  The older I get, the more important it becomes to me to try to strike a balance between the two.  He only seldom admits it, but it's plain for me to see how stressed and depressed it makes Nick to believe what he does.  I think in his mind too that he sees himself as something of a disappointment, despite a very high-paying and intellectually rewarding job and a substantial savings account.  What good is success if you can't enjoy it?  At the same time, we have become so obsessed with the failures and shortcomings of others (particularly our leaders), but we run away headlong from any kind of self-reflection of our own.  It seems clear to me after many years of effort that one of the first steps to coming to terms and accepting the world is to accept yourself.  But we don't, and instead we recognize the failure high and low but everywhere except where it truly matters.

One of the most confounding things to me about being a Buddhist is just how easy the Noble Eightfold Path seems to be on its surface.  You would think that it would simply be a matter of changing our views and practices.  But that makes a fundamentally wrong assumption: that we are inherently and instinctively rational and integrated beings.  If I know one thing about the human race it's that we're quite the opposite.  So maybe I should be cutting myself -- and everyone else, for that matter -- a break.  I think Nick could stand to do the same.

As for our respective imaginations, I don't think either one of us would be where we are today without them.  Freed from the restraints of a restrictive reality, we can both imagine worlds without limits, however impractical or implausible.  Not everyone talks about it, but I like to hope that most of us have a secret place like that in our minds even if we're not necessarily comfortable openly sharing it.  That is after all the greatest of human gifts.  The tragedy is that all too often we reject it in return for the illusion of security.

Nick is many things to me, but what I value the most about him is just how alike we are.  He is both a good friend and a living reminder to know when to push forward, when to stretch your mind to its limits, and most important of all, when to just simply relax and enjoy the ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment