“San Francisco and so forth”

[Content warning: no interesting insights, just random discussion of my past]

It’s been eight years since I came across America in real life. I liked it immediately and have spent most of my time here since. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise, but my guess is that my life would have been pretty different. At least in terms of friends, projects, living arrangements, leisure activities, romantic experiences, proximity to futuristic meal delivery services, intellectual ideas, transit options and weather. I think probably not in terms of approximate personality, ethical views, general life goals, sexual proclivities and height.

My first trip to America was in part a visit to my first boyfriend, so it is also only a little over eight years since I first tried being in romantic relationships. I also liked that, and have also kept it up most of the time since. Which has also substantially influenced many details of my life. Though probably still not my height or approximate personality.

I was talking to a friend recently about how there seems to be an era in their life which they feel continuous with—back maybe a decade—and an era before that which feels more like it belongs to a different person. A nice and similar person, but someone a bit more like a smaller sibling. I said my experience was about the same, including the sense that there was relatively narrow break between eras, rather than earlier and earlier selves just seeming more and more alien. We speculated a bit about how this works (a week after the end of the previous era, did it feel like I had only been myself for a week? Do other people have a similar experience?)

Now I think there are maybe at least a few distinct eras in my own memory, and perhaps they aren’t as crisp as I thought. But probably one changing of the eras was roughly the year or so in which I came to date people, met many of the (tiny) LessWrong/SingInst/etc community in real life, came to America on holiday then moved here months later,  began to hang out with whole crowds of people more similar to me than almost anyone I had known before and talk about things I cared about, finished undergrad, and started working on real projects instead of student essays about globalization or whatever. Probably less important, but adding to the suitability of this as the beginning of an era, I also stopped being a vegetarian, and tried sex, and hung out in four other countries, and was sick for like a month, and someone was much more effectively unpleasant to me via talking than I had maybe ever experienced. So maybe the relatively abrupt change is in the territory.

I recently found this blog draft that I apparently composed quite near the start of the era defined by those changes—after the heady first week in the US, at the end of November 2008. I didn’t get around to publishing it then (or, I hope, editing it much). I post it now for historic value. It isn’t especially interesting, but it feels strange to me to see something from the very beginning of the American Era.

At the moment this is a travel blog. More accurately it’s a not particularly subtle attempt to increase readership of my non-travel blog amongst the people who think I should write to them while I travel. I don’t intend to write about travelly stuff for very long though, because I don’t care that much. It’s a compromise (on your part).

My first glimpse of the land of hope and freedom and chocolate covered sausages was some delicate mountain shaped darkness in the clouds near where I looked for San Francisco. After over 13 hours of not seeing America (well, 21 years, but the last bit stood out), they were welcome mountainous smears. Minutes later, customs were friendly, though in a strangely nosy fashion (so, how did you get the money for this trip? It must be hard while you’re at uni..), so I escaped early, and waited for Anna, who I contacted through Michael, who I contacted through Eliezer, who I didn’t know at all, but had written an email to once. We tried to drive to a place to get food, and succeeded after a slightly embarrassing amount of time, considering that we were is a large city stuffed with food. …  Anna and the other people I met are working onAI risks. For those who don’t follow links, this means ‘preventing robot induced doom’. The next couple of days were conversation mostly, so I’ll skip that, though they were a couple of the better days in recent memory.

I awoke the next day to notice I was supposed to leave for the airport right then, followed closely by the realisation that I was actually supposed to leave an hour before. This cost nothing but time, the rest of which ran away with an evening of finding, catching, un-catching, and re-catching other forms of transport. This resulted in Denver, or specifically the home of a couple of Servas members, who I chose from the book because their interests included ‘stopping coal power plants’, which I thought more interesting than the usual ‘movies, books, travelling..’. They have an impressive veggie garden and greenhouse on a city property with a back garden trailing into a lake, and I had a four poster bed and an invitation to Thanksgiving. And internet! Oh, and the company of really interesting and kind people. So far this travel style seems to be about a hundred times as good as hostels (with a wide variance from mood).

The next evening was Thanksgiving. I met the extended family of one of my hosts. While it was a friendly atmosphere surrounding interesting people I won’t go into it, because I don’t want to write about people – to publicly analyse those you’ve hardly met seems presumptuous, even if it would only be good. On a side note, I was given a tiny chili which I’m told I have to put in a huge pot of food for edibility.

I got around to looking at Denver on my way to the airport out of a car and bus window respectively. There was a mound of cloud erupting from the horizon which my host said was a coal power plant. How much more serious using electricity seems with that sitting in my line of vision. I’d never seen one before in real life.

I missed my plane once more, and spent an afternoon experimenting with the capabilities of my newly received iphone (thank you Mama!)  in the presence of airport wifi. I sat beside a tiny girl on the plane who wanted to play hangman. She couldn’t read, but was tenacious; my loss if presuming words didn’t usefully inform my letter guessing. I got my bag at the airport about ten minutes before the bus left for my much preferred location, Bloomington. Fortunately this was about 10 seconds longer than it took to find it, realise the bus ticket machine wouldn’t accept the some denominations of money, discuss with the bus driver the fact that he didn’t care that much and would go without me, find that nobody behind counters had any money, ask every person in that part of the airport whether they would swap money, tell the guy at the very end of the room I really didn’t care if he was short a couple of dollars, thank him, run back with my 25 kilos of luggage and buy a ticket while waving to the driver not to commit me to another two hours of sitting in airports today.

I got to Bloomington early and sat on freezing stone seats in the pool of light outside the white stone union of Indiana University. It seemed pretty cold, but I wasn’t sure how much I was underestimating the real coldness due to numness. I also wasn’t sure that I was at the right stop. I wandered back and forward and sang just softly enough to not be heard by whoever else might be sharing this lonely foreign night. Apart from being the first chance to sing for days, this kept at least my vocal chords and bottom warm, which shivering on stone seats didn’t. Ramana rounded a corner and everything changed in a second. The rest has been happy so far, but I don’t feel like writing about it.

One response to ““San Francisco and so forth”

  1. > “the sense that there was relatively narrow break between eras, rather than earlier and earlier selves just seeming more and more alien… a week after the end of the previous era, did it feel like I had only been myself for a week?”

    I suspect I might be now in this kind of situation. (Well, as far as I can predict how thinking about “now” will feel to me a few years later, so the rest of the comment depends on the assumption that I am right about this.) I think there are two aspects involved.

    The illusionary aspect is that a time interval of a week or a month feels like an instant from retrospective (“in November I was X, and in December I was Y; instant change!”), but it’s hundred or thousand hours when you are in the middle of it, so many changes feel slower at the moment, and you also don’t know which of them will be permanent (so you think “this was an X week” instead of “this my new X me; and it’s going to remain like this at least for a decade”).

    The real aspect is that changes often enable further changes. Some of them may be things you wanted to do for a long time, and now the new situation allows you to do them easier. A change from “I wanted to do X” to “I am actually doing X now” doesn’t feel like a personality change; even if the experience of having actually done X may change your personality later. A successful change may encourage you to do more experiments. Changing your social group removes some old social pressures from your life, and adds some new ones; this will cause many further changes later.

    So changes create more changes on a relatively short time scale, and afterwards your memory compresses this already short time scale to an instant. But at the moment it doesn’t feel like an instant, it’s more like “doing many things differently in the recent few weeks”.

    Also, we probably better remember what we did than how we felt about it. It can take one day to stop doing X and start doing Y, but it can take one month or more to become “the kind of person who does Y naturally”. (Which in retrospective becomes: “it took me one day to switch from X to Y.”)

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