Some of us shine brightly, some burn out, and some just flicker and fade. What’d you do with your fleeting moment on the grand stage?
I like to think everyone wonders about that question, at least once in their life. What is the meaning of my life? What am I doing here? …What will happen when I’m gone?
That last one is tricky. Not a particularly hard question, I just don’t think anyone really thinks about a world without them in it.
What would life be like for the world and all the people I know, after me?
I feel like it forces you to think about what you want to do with the time you have left. What you hope to leave behind, and maybe what that means about who you are right now.
Maybe… we earthbound humans are at best, inconsequential specks, running around on one tiny rock. Floating in one corner of a chaotic vacuum so vast, that we’d die before we could explore the whole thing.
What could you hope to do with your fleeting moment amid such chaos? We’re pretty much a swarm of butterflies in the middle of a hurricane. Lucky to have kept it together this long, if we’re being honest. All it would take, is for this hurricane to hurl a single housecat our way; and all us butterflies have a serious problem. This might all be over in one cosmic blink of fur…
These abysmal quandaries were the wonderings of my youth, in the 90’s, from a 750 square-foot two-bedroom apartment in Queens, NY. Maybe youth is a little early for someone to be wondering about such things, but I had a retrospectively abhorrent upbringing as a child. It shaped me a certain way.
That is to say I was an unwanted child; but brought to life anyway, and then a prisoner in my family’s apartment. Beer and Scotch fueled beltings from a deadbeat that called himself a father, an instigating older sister, and an indifferent mother; was my way of life since I can remember remembering.
Abortions weren’t socially acceptable in their pompously evangelical circles, when I was conceived. So, they couldn’t go through with one. That’s as much as they would admit to; but they weren’t shy about not wanting me otherwise. They tried to give me away to other people, a number of times when I was a child. I would’ve been alright with that, to be honest. I spent everyday thinking I was the worst thing that ever existed.
My family employed complex lines of reasoning, to justify their abuse and neglect. Like, I never had birthdays, or new clothes, or toys. They didn’t want to spend money on something they didn’t want to begin with. I put that together later in life; But there was always a different reason why I didn’t deserve the same things my sister had. Something I did, maybe even months before, which makes me unworthy of something good in life now. I learned to stop asking, since it usually prompted a beating anyway.
Unfortunately the reasoning wasn’t always so complex. I’d been beaten while sleeping in the middle of the night, while taking a shower, doing homework, or out of the sheer routine of having a thing to do at 11am on weekdays, before lunch.
I wasn’t allowed outside, or to have friends, or activities. I did what I was told to do, to make the family look respectable, or not fail at school. It was very important to my family that their friends believed they were good to me. So, I was required to pretend I was happy in front of family friends.
If I wasn’t busy putting on a show for others, I was supposed to be following my sister’s path in school, to do whatever she does, and be whatever she becomes, without being better than her. They told me all the time to just be like her. My own family would bully me for being good at something, and then beat me if I did poorly at school. It took a while to find a balance of ingratiating dumbness, in order to have a little peace.
Not being allowed outside into 90’s New York City, saturated with hip-hop culture, was bitter sweet. I came up in one of the rougher parts. My high school was one of the first in the city to install metal detectors, x-ray machines, and armed security staff. The overgrown, cracked, and eternally dirty track-and-field next to the school — was used as a parking lot by the staff who warranted their cars not being broken into, parked on the public street. I had classes with boys who would go on to become “gangsta rappers”, lyrically reminiscing about their dangerous youth in the hood. Some of them aren’t lying. There were a lot of “incidents” that the police were called to the school for. There were also a lot of incidents that the police witnessed from their cars, and ignored.
My school was predominantly minority populated. Like, there were four white kids in the entire high school. A quarter of the kids made up the brown Asians like me, that enrolled in the only pre-med high school program in the city; Which was put in this school for some reason. The rest was a rogues gallery of the next generation of forgotten African americans. Poor, wayward, and left-behind kids of society. Each disenfranchised from the world in their own way, and fighting to find their own place in it. We had a lot in common, and I would have gotten along with all of them, if they didn’t seem to hate me on sight. I wasn’t able to be fashionable, or up on the latest trends, or experience the world the way the rest of the kids did; So I was different, and kids can be cruel. My sister was fine at the same school, one year ahead of me, and made lots of friends.
Being an outcast nerd that got robbed or picked on everyday, wasn’t so bad actually. I was brilliant, school was boring, and I made friends with all the teachers instead. When word got out that all the deans had the nerd’s back, kids mostly left me alone; I had linked up with the gang that ran the joint, after all.
I was handling a violent inner New York City public high school, just fine.
I didn’t know I was being treated badly for a long time. My family programmed me to know it was my fault somehow, and I grew up with that frame of mind.
I was also programmed not to tell other people about how my life worked. I had to tell others I’m happy, and that everything’s fine; because if people find out everything’s not fine, they’re going to know what a bad child you are, and that you deserve to be treated badly. Do you want other people to treat you badly too now..?
The hypocrisy I learned to hate early — was that they would bully and beat me for days, if they even suspected I had lied to them; But demanded I constantly and convincingly lie to everyone else, to keep their good name. The villainy I learned to hate later, was how they programmed me to be a victim in all the other aspects of my life.
I was one single lonely speck, in one corner of everything from a Queens apartment to the whole universe. I wasn’t meant to be here in the first place, everything doesn’t want me, and all the chaos starts at arms length, in every direction.
So, the abysmal quandary — What am I really even here for?
As a speck in this chaos; I pondered that through my parents eventually divorcing when I turned eighteen. I was physically bigger than them at that point, so the beatings tapered off too. It finally gave me time to think, for the first time.
Perhaps I start by riding the winds of this hurricane.
What if in order to aim your existence in the universe, you have to learn to ride the turbulence around you, and take control of your trajectory amid the chaos.
I consider myself a self taught engineer. I had dropped out of a pre-med community college program that I didn’t care about, or want to pay for; Right when computers took hold of my entire mind. That is to say that I just stopped going to college, and was obsessed with taking computers apart. I was the nerd looking for parts when the college threw out computers. I liked to see if I could put them back together, maybe better. Maybe use them to make my life easier. This seemed to be what people called “engineering”, so I soon started a career in technology.
That was just before the “dotcom boom”, when the geeks inherited the earth. At that time, technology wasn’t a thing people took seriously. I was able to get my foot in more doors, having less experience, and no academic credentials. I enjoyed small business tech; helping mom and pop shops automate their accounting, or a family restaurant take orders online to expand. I wanted to use this thing I understood, to take hold of the chaos around me. Help the other specks in the universe deal with the chaos around them, and make everything better for all of us.
It was a little selfish, to be honest, in the sense that I ultimately wanted the world to not be full of jerks that treated me badly. I felt that I learned people were kinder when their lives worked easier. I was convinced that using my tools to help people around me live better, was the way to smooth the turbulence of the universe around me.
I had made it enough in New York, New York, to make it anywhere. I had my own one-bedroom in a swanky neighborhood of Queens at the time, and was a one-man software consulting business. It wasn’t hard moving out on my own. My mother told me not to live with her, in the house she was buying. I was fine with that. I was living well in my new place, not luxuriously; but it was the first safe space that gave me some sense of independence. All of the chaos could be velvet roped on the other side of the apartment door. I was finally taking hold of my existence, managing the chaos around me, and changing it for the better.
Then I died.
I’m twenty-three years old, lying on the Grand Central Parkway, on the outskirts of the city. I was the front passenger in a car that slid off of a damp road to hit a tree, then another tree, tumble across the highway, and come to a stop looking like a ball of aluminum foil against the highway divider.
One of my few friends, the driver, died at the first tree. Both of my legs were crushed from my thighs to my knees, at the second tree. The rest of me was held twisted and sliced by the broken glass, in the passenger seat while we tumbled. By the time they cut the both of us out of the foil, twenty-six minutes later, most of my blood had already soaked into the asphalt. They did what they could, but I felt a new kind of stillness that I somehow understood would be more powerful than the paramedics.
We were coming home from a nightclub that I hoped we didn’t get into anyway. I wasn’t a nightclub person, but one of my few friends was. You know how that goes. It was just a freak accident on a wet road; my own personal airborne housecat, hurled at me by the hurricane of the universe, while I wasn’t paying attention.
I died at 12:31 am, on a crisp December Saturday midnight.
And then came back to life at 12:32 am...
That’s how the paramedic described it. They were doing chest compressions for a bit; which felt like getting punched in the chest by a linebacker. Then they eventually called time of death. Then I took a breath while they were starting to pack up. So, they strapped me to a stretcher and sent the ambulance to the hospital, thinking I’d die again along the way.
What’s it like..? The devil likes stabbing stuff and drinks Brimstone sours, but we didn’t exchange numbers or anything.
If you think hospital bills are something else when you get sick; you should see what they look like when you die. I lost everything. As a consultant, all my expenses were my own, including healthcare. There was all sorts of metal in my legs to hold them together, and I needed a wheelchair. NYC isn’t exactly wheelchair transportation friendly, and remote-work wasn’t a thing back then, so my opportunities for tech gigs evaporated. Not being able to do my regular life from a wheelchair took a different kind of toll. You have the energy, but your own body betrays you, repeatedly. Eventually you don’t have the energy left, having accomplished nothing. It was more overwhelming than I expected.
I burned through what resources I had left on rent, bills and surgeries, all to get out of the wheelchair. Then I had to beg my way back to my mother and sister; who were offended that I seemed obsessed with having a life of my own, instead of just living to serve them as usual. They spent weeks trying to convince me that the accident was my fault because I didn’t embrace Jesus in my life enough.
I was back in the chaos. A basement of a house my mother bought in Queens; surrounded by all my current worldly possessions, trying to see through the pain of learning to walk again, while figuring out how I get my life back. I used what money I had left to occasionally pay a house bill, or buy gifts for emotional bribery. I otherwise clung to as much as I had left, expecting to need it for whatever happens next.
That’s when I started to wonder what it was that I had really lost?
An apartment, a small business, a bunch of money, my legs, my independence..?
Sure — all that, and each one a proverbial knife in my side, except for the two in my legs. But I never had any of that before. Having my own place and a job was new to me, and I decided that broken legs could heal if I was willing to do the work. Doctors said I might not be able to walk, but I convinced myself they were just managing my expectations. The money comes and goes if you’re good enough; I didn’t have any friends or family to stake me a stack of green to start life with. I already knew how to start from the bottom.
I still had my mind, too. The thing that loved to look at the world, pick it apart, and make it work better. The material things I managed to have clung to, by the ripe old age of twenty-four, only took a few years to build. I was good enough to do it once, and I still had everything I needed to do it again. Now with something new to fuel my process; A perspective on the boundaries of my existence in this universe.
I am not just a lonely speck, floating on a rock through the chaos. I am a fresh spark, careening through the cosmos, looking for brilliance.
Brilliant enough to burn the chaos away. Maybe a brilliance that lasts so long after my spark has burned out, that it continues to keep the chaos at bay.
The story that the paramedic told me, years later — was that my accident happened while he was just a medical technician. He was also coincidentally the first on scene, but didn’t have the training or gear to help us, and had to wait for a paramedic unit to arrive. He said he was sure I died that night, and wondered if he could have done more as a full paramedic; Which is why he then decided to go through with the training.
He was telling me all of this, pale-faced, like he was talking to a ghost; when we coincidentally ran into each other about 4 years later, walking around a backyard barbeque. Fancy that — This guy goes out and saves other people’s lives for a living, because I once died on a stretcher in front of him. Now, that’s a brilliant spark.
I don’t remember the moment it happened; But there was a moment. I decided there was nothing in my life that I couldn’t change by myself. Whether or not I had the power to change it, is a different question;
I decided that the answer to that question should always be “yes”.
With that, I started reengineering my life, creating the solutions. I built increasing amounts of adversity into my routines as rehab for my body over the years. I buried my head into the latest learnings of a very fast moving industry that I had already started to fall behind on. I clawed my way back as fast as I could. It took years. A lot of hard work. A lot of sacrifices. A lot of hard decisions with no good options; But I took the pieces of a life lost, I put it back together, and I made it work again.
I re-became a hacker turned successful engineer. I worked for education nonprofits, billion dollar tech, media production, and journalism outfits in New York City. There’s a joke Captain America once made about not being able to afford a place in his hometown of Brooklyn. I live in the fancy part of Brooklyn, where the actors who play other Avengers actually live. My fitness trackers say I top out at a 21 mph sprint in the park.
Fifteen years after dying, I was getting my body back, working on making my differences in the world, and living pretty well doing it. This is starting to work out brilliantly, all over again.
Then the pandemic of 2020 happened.
We locked down NYC two days after I flew back from surfing the gold coast of Costa Rica. That trip seemed like a swan song to a life this planet may never know again. I didn’t lose my job when the world fell down; But there was a way of life that was lost to me, for the second time.
I was spending all my time in my one-bedroom apartment, in the swanky part of Brooklyn. It was the most idyllic prison you could imagine. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go; While the city that never sleeps, suddenly took a nap.
All told, I was handling pandemic life a lot easier than everyone else. I didn’t have friends nearby to miss, or kids of my own to worry about. I was used to the many forms of loneliness since I was a child, and my fancy neighborhood was well insulated from the growing social unrest over the summer of 2020. The unrest didn’t bother me. From my point of view, everyone was finally noticing what I learned twenty years ago in high school. I actually felt like it warranted a lot more outrage and unrest, than simply carrying signs until the police beat you at the 7pm curfew, because they made a rule that says they can.
When the George Floyd protests went down during the middle of the pandemic — fireworks plagued midnight city skies across the whole country; But not in my neighborhood.
You could get on the roof of my building, and see them in every direction like the fourth of July. They were far enough however, that you couldn’t really hear them, and it certainly wasn’t disturbing. I remember the mayor getting on TV and replying to questions about the fireworks with — “I hear them too…” No he didn’t. His house was one block away from me, and I didn’t hear a damn thing.
Of course the chaos was still apparent. You couldn’t turn on the TV or pick up your smartphone without seeing something about the healthcare debacle, or protests happening across the country. Being a brown minority made it pretty inescapable; and that dichotomy of lifestyle made me wonder if this is what “making it” really meant.
I had found success, comfort, stability, and a way to avoid most of the chaos in the universe around me, but only avoid it. It felt like I found just enough space in a corner for myself; away from the chaos that everyone else was still boiling in. That also felt completely wrong.
What did I do with my fleeting moment — If all I did was find a corner of the universe for my spark to flicker, until it eventually faded..?
So, I quit my job; and it finally gave me time to think.
Being raised as a social outcast prepares you for lockdown. You don’t spend unnecessary amounts of money on nightlife or bar tabs. Being a highly paid white-collar software architect also prepares you for lockdown. I had the resources to just stop working, while still living in swanky Brooklyn.
“Funemployed” is how an ex-colleague once described my pandemic life. Eventually the country got a vaccine to combat the virus. Then the pandemic made a new strain for everyone to deal with. It was the tennis match from hell, but I was thoroughly funemployed through all of it.
I had all my own tech gear, and eventually started building things again; I was remembering the ideas I always wanted to get into, but had to put off when I became an American worker. The artistic motivations I once had as a curious builder, were nudging their way back into my mind. Nudging slowly however, as I still fought the same burnout as everyone else; only “working” while most of the things I enjoyed were still around, but not really.
The smell of croissants and donuts waft through my window in the mornings. The odor of the additional garbage around the city wafted in at other times. The weather is great for a drive, run, or ride; when you weren’t inhaling exhaust in traffic. Cute new outdoor dining spots blindsided you with new pandemic operating surcharges on your bill. As if the rampant gentrification and cost of living increases wasn’t bad enough. The New York City I grew up in, and thought I loved, was starting to nag me more and more by the day.
There was a life lost to me, yet again; But this time it wasn’t in pieces. This time it was on my terms, to some degree. I wasn’t going to need to claw my way back; but I didn’t really want to go back either.
Life before the pandemic now seemed like a routine I made out of riding the turbulence in the universe. Which doesn’t seem like a way to live. In fact I’m realizing that’s how you spend your life flickering, until you fade.