Sometimes I find myself thinking about my past experiences, as well as those of others throughout my life, and I’ve come to the realization that the majority of what a person sees in any situation, is purely subjective. As with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, reality for us is only what we perceive like shadows projected on the wall, and, as with any perception, these always change based on the angle of how we see them.
Personal choice plays a huge part in this too, because we can consciously choose to see things in different ways based on how we feel about them. We can for example ignore concepts and ideas that we don’t agree with; truths that we choose not to accept as facts despite available proofs; events that we choose not to see or hear because they threaten our beliefs of how things ought to be, and we can choose to remain ignorant despite the availability of certain knowledge.
We can also choose to do the opposite, and embrace the absurdity of life and how these events shape us into who we are as individuals. This is how life is like a story by T.C. Boyle, in which our conscious perceptions can be used to explore the possibilities in any given situation. We can then choose to see these events in a new light.
For example, I was born in a small town in northern California called Ukiah, which is Haiku spelled backwards in case you didn’t know. My mom and dad were born and raised there too, and my grandpa on my dad’s side was a farmer there back when farms consisted of the majority of the township.
My mom always loved animals, even as a kid, and would bring them home every chance she got. There was a duck that she adopted that lived in my grandma’s swimming pool, which would come back every summer after migrating for the winter. She had tons of cats too, and there was one cat whose tail my grandma always accidentally closed the door on when letting it out. One day the cat was lying on the floor and my grandma went to let it out, and the cat got up and left the room, but the tail stayed behind having fallen off. I remember when I was little, maybe about five or so, waking in the morning and sleepily looking down to the end of my bed where my feet stuck up, and seeing a lump moving around down there and it wasn’t me doing it. Thus screaming I was introduced to the baby possum my mom brought home, which had escaped during the night.
I used to love building things in my grandma’s backyard. She had this really cool shed filled with all sorts of carpenter tools that used to be my grandpa’s, and I would get the idea to build something and go to town with hammers and nails and saws until I had built something; whatever it was. I built a boomerang that really curved when thrown so that it could go around corners; I can still remember the sound of breaking glass when it did that. I built a raft out of wood planks with a big pole sticking up with a flag so I could be a pirate sailing on the seas of fortune and launched it on its maiden voyage in my grandma’s swimming pool. When I came back the next day, my raft was gone, and my grandma said that a huge storm had come during the night and blew it away, and I remember thinking, WOW, I wish I could have seen that! I remember the horrified expression on the gardeners face as I shot my rubber band powered crossbow into the tree from across the yard while pretending to be a great hunter on safari in Africa. My grandma used to have an apple tree in her backyard, and in the autumn the rotten apples would fall off and make a mess around the tree, so she offered me a nickel for every ten apples I was able to gather for her to clean them up. I thought, what an awesome deal! So the next time my grandma came out to see what I was up to, she saw me at the age of nine hanging upside down from the apple tree shaking it has hard as I could like a monkey in an effort to help the loose ones decide to fall.
I always had a weirdly vivid imagination. I used to get in trouble for it in school. I remember sitting in class daydreaming about epic space battles and inventions that I wanted to create, and I would leave the class after the bell rang trying to remember what the teacher had been going on and on about. When I was in sixth grade, I was caught up so thoroughly in the imaginary space battle going on over my teacher’s head, which I was the gunner of my own ship and using my pen to aim and blast my power cannon at enemy ships zooming around her ears, that it took me several moments to realize that I was actually pointing my pen like a pistol at her head and making all of the zooming and blaster noises complete with the explosion sounds of enemy spaceships, and that everybody was staring at me. I used to spend a lot of time sitting in the hall for some reason.
When I was thirteen, I remember trying to impress a girl while on a camping trip with my cousins in the redwoods of northern California, where I would try to catch water snakes in the river with my hands thinking I could do it fast enough to catch them behind the head so I wouldn’t get bitten. When I was, I spasmed in response and the snake flew up about fifty feet before practically landing on my cousin’s head. It was okay though, he had it coming… When we had first arrived to the campsite there was a fire pit that had a smoldering log from the prior campers, and we had the bright idea to coax the flame back into life. So as I was blowing into the pit and wafting the air trying to do this, he threw a cup of white gasoline in front of me causing a fireball to go up about twenty feet which blew off my eyebrows.
After losing my sight when I was fourteen, I went through a series of exciting experiences with seemingly homicidal nurses and demented doctors, which went on for some years before I ended up at the California School for the Blind; where a new interesting chapter of my life began. I don’t know how it is now, but back then it was a strange place where weird things would happen that weren’t likely to happen anywhere else. There was a little blind boy who used to like to suck on his prosthetic eye during commuter flights back home, and when unsuspecting stewardesses would come up and say “aren’t you a cute little boy”, he would smile at them revealing the eye. I remember talking with one girl who thought she was an exiled princess from Russia. There was a blind couple who attempted to have sex on the front lawn of the school under the mistaken belief that if they couldn’t see others then others couldn’t see them. The California School for the Deaf was adjacent to the school for the blind, and the deaf kids would tell bloodcurdling tales about the blind gangs that roamed the deserted school grounds at night with their bloody canes and attack guide dogs. I was very happy when I finally graduated high school.
I then started my higher education at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont California, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I majored in Political Science. By my second year, I realized two important things, one, I couldn’t stand the idea of becoming a lawyer, and two, this new Technology Field thing sounded really cool. I had a computer by then, and it was totally awesome, I could press buttons and it would do stuff! The path of my future was set. About the same time, my fiancé was working at a local non-profit for the homeless, and one of the donators was a little startup company in Redwood City called Napster. So one day, Shawn Fanning and Debbie (who later became a friend and attended our wedding) came in to donate some things for the shelter, and Cristina was telling them that I wanted to learn more about the computer field, and asked if they had any ideas. So Debbie said, have him call me, he can intern with us. I dropped out of college, and went to Napster for the interview a month later. This was in February of 2001, when things were still ramping up.
To be perfectly honest, the interview did not go well. Back then, I was painfully shy; often to the point that I would freeze up if anybody addressed me directly. Part of this was because I looked different based on the nature of my injuries, and I had a total lack of professional experience to draw upon. So, when I was asked during the interview, “can you tell me what skills you have?”, I thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t think I have any”. I’d like to think they offered me a position because they saw qualities within me that I didn’t have the ability to recognize at the time, but in truth, they were probably just being nice. So began my not-so auspicious career in the Technology field. To this day, I have never gotten a job that I have ever applied for. The only ones I have, were the ones I didn’t apply for. I guess I just don’t interview well.
Those were exciting times for Napster, since they were in the process of getting sued by practically every band and music industry organization in the world. The Redwood City office was an old industrial building with an open floor plan, and every morning towards the end, an announcement would be made, “Okay folks! Today we’re getting sued by … !” The list of names was usually fairly long. I stayed with them till the last day, when we all packed up and left the building for the last time. It was sad, but the experience really did define the future of my career in the field. While I was still working there, my wife and I got married in the spring of 2001, and it was a beautiful day in May. She broke her thumb the night before, so she had this big thumb cast thing sticking up like she was perpetually trying to catch a ride somewhere. I still remember the music towards the end of the ceremony, as she pin wheeled her arms beside me. (Her high heels were sinking into the grass and she was trying not to fall over backwards at the time.)
Years later, I started working with another local company called SSB Technologies, which started me down the path of building accessible technologies. After starting, I was initiated into the corporate ranks by learning the tightly held company secret that SSB actually stood for “Side Show Bob”, and thus, history was made.
About the same time, my wife and I started travelling more, which was great! We visited her family in Portugal where I shocked her family with my uncouth American ways like drinking my soup from the soup bowl, using the fish knife to cut strawberries, and (oh god) by putting a Hershey’s Kiss in my espresso. I remember teaching her little cousins how to be blind by having them cover their eyes and walk around bumping into things like walls and furniture and people. I remember sword fighting with an orange tree using my cane in the botanical gardens of Furnas on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores trying to knock loose an orange for my wife, which turned out to be a lemon orange which made her squeak and hop up and down when she bit into it. Also, when I was hugging the teeth shaped battlements with a death grip in the castle of São Jorge in Lisbon after belatedly realizing there was no railing behind me to the courtyard three stories below (which my wife forgot to mention at the time). I remember how we accidentally wandered into a procession of the Royal Family in London while walking past Buckingham Palace, discovering the wonders of late night English broadcasting such as the three hour history of the referee whistle, what it feels like to sit in an inch of icy rain water on the top deck of an English Red tour bus during a storm, and how eerie the sound is of a constable of ravens in the Tower of London. I remember happily tweaking the noses and ears of the gargoyles in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, accidentally kicking a skull like a soccer ball while we made our way through the Catacombs, accidentally feeling up the wrong end of Rodin’s Monument to Balzac when trying to figure out what the statue was (which is probably on YouTube somewhere), and being given romantic advice by a drunk Parisian lady in an empty greasy diner in the middle of the night.
My point is, that I choose to remember all of these things in this way, because all of these experiences define who I am and what I perceive as reality. I can’t ever go back to change the past and undo the painful experiences there, but I can choose to incorporate them into the tapestry of my life in such a way that it makes me a better person.
As such, life is like a story by T.C. Boyle, filled with humorous stories and strange events that define who we are as people, and the world would be a better place if everybody could see it this way.