Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

I’ve worked in a wide variety of very public roles and written a number of books. In my “real life” I’ve had an audience varying from hundreds of thousands to millions over the years, across big media, online media, and academic media.
 
Teaching
 
Some of you may also know me from the classroom, as I’ve taught at a decent array of major universities, in topic areas from linguistics to anthropology to sociology to cultural studies and media. I am not currently teaching.
 
Companies and Brands
 
If you’re wondering if I'm the “same Aron Hsiao that...” then, in fact, I probably am. I won't mention all of the companies, brands, and publications here because many of them won’t want to be directly associated with a blog like this one.
 
On Google
 
But if you’ve searched Google for “Aron Hsiao” then you’ve found me. The writer me, the professor me, the photographer me, the technology expert me, and so on. All of those pages and pages of results are, in fact, me. I am not aware of any other Aron Hsiao that has recently (in a decade or more) ranked in the first dozen-plus pages of Google’s results.

Born February 29th, 1976
 
Ph.D. Sociology (The New School, 2014)
M.A. Social Science (Chicago, 2004)
B.A. Anthropology (Utah, 2001)
B.A. English (Utah, 2001)
 
7 Books
Thousands of articles
 
1 Life
2 Kids
5 Goldfish
2 Cats
1 Dog
 
Lived in Salt Lake City, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and now... Provo.
 
Myers-Briggs INFP/INTP

I started “blogging” for the first time in 1999 at twenty-three years old, as I was going through my first serious breakup. Without meaning to, I continued to blog on a personal basis more or less without interruption after that. Now it’s been going on seventeen years. All of that content (well, most of it) is here, in one place.
 
In professional life, I have also ended up spending a decent amount of time blogging for an income for others. Still do.
 
But after all these years, Leapdragon remains home.
 
Many have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a site like this one, and from 2007 through 2015 I kept it increasingly obscure online. I have grown tired, however, of hiding myself behind a “professional” cardboard cutout. I’m forty years old and my life, like the lives of many others, gets more complicated by the day, personally and professionally.
 
It’s time to just be me again, in public, and let the chips fall where they may. So here I am.

Politics: Mixed—Old Left + Old Right (Fuck the SJWs)
Music: Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten
Novel: 2666, Roberto Bolaño
Operating Systems: Mac OS, Linux (Android)
Aquarium Fish: Common goldfish, fully grown
Illumination Technology: Neon tubing
Rag: Counterpunch
Academic Work: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Work of Art: Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Helnwein
Art Medium: Still photography
Club/Pub: The Pub, Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago
City: New York City
Place: Antelope Island, Syracuse, Utah
Fabrication Material: Leather
Drink: Green Chartreuse
Beach: Ellwood Beach, Goleta, California
Design Language: Swiss/Modern/Bauhaus
Season: Fall

Right-populism and left-cosmopolitanism are spiritually identical in the end.  §

There are two kinds of film enthusiasts in the world.

The kind that watch films to lose themselves in an hour or two of escapism, and those (all four of them on earth) that watch films to lose their certainties—especially about which they didn’t previously even realize they were certain.


© Aron Hsiao / 2006

For the first group, there is nothing more important than a rollicking good story, neatly done and neatly resolved at the end. For the second group, the goal is to experience utter shock, during which nothing makes sense at all—because it is generally precisely at the moment when one least understands that one is most able to understand.

The same preferences apply to writing, with one group wanting prose that is clear and concise, and the other group seeking poetry that meanders, full of clouds and haze and turbulence that seems to obscure everything and, in so doing, reveals still more.

— § —

We are offered two competing visions of society today.

The meritocratic-left vision proposes that the spoils go to the winners—to those most endowed with the talents relevant to an age. Those least so endowed and up with little or nothing. This, we are told by the meritocratic left, is as just as can be managed in a universe of fundamentally unjust human systems.

The loyalist-right vision proposes that the spoils go to the ruling house—to whomever is best able to hold power and tie it to a historical-ethnonationalist claim. Those with the right lineage and position in “the story” sit in the privileged seats. Those who do not belong to the story get nothing in “our” system—and should seek out and dwell in the system in which *their* story holds power.

Both of these—and, say, Leninist systems besides—make the same mistake, at least in practice and secretly also in aim, though this is often hushed up just a bit for the sake of public relations.

The vast majority of the population in all of them… do not matter.

It is not a problem that there are winners—but it remains a significant and intractable problem that there are so very, very many losers. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t have a society without winners and losers, and this seems to have been empirically borne out over many centuries of history.

But can there be a system without losers? Can we have winners and not-winners, without having, as it were, *losers* who are required to hang their heads in shame, and ultimately destined to live shorter, far more miserable lives in which they quite literally *do not matter* to anyone and have no place in things other than to wait for their deaths and be allocated few or no resources in the meantime so as to hasten the same?

— § —

In traditional systems, this problem is solved by family. To family, one always matters, whether in a positive way or in a negative way. Family is the great antidote to anomie.

But in the modern world, we have done away with these ties, for the most part.

Some meritocratic-leftie out there is currently saying “But you matter to me! Everyone matters to me! Certainly my friends and neighbors matter to me!” Meanwhile, some loyalist-rightie is saying, “In our nation, if you really belong to the nation, we are all brothers. All family. It is the outsiders that have to worry.”

Whichever one of these sounds like you, you’re lying.

What, after all, is it to *matter?*

When the gun is against your temple, your family member will offer to take your place. That is what it is to matter. All these lefties that say “X, Y, and Z all *matter* to me” will still happily place their own lives ahead of others. There are limits, after all. Amd all these righties that say, “we’re all family here, all of us *volk”* will immediately turn on and even seek to destroy anyone who undermines in some way the story.


© Aron Hsiao / 2006

In the modern world, we do not matter to anyone. In theory, we still matter to our families, but our families have been dissolved. They’re abstract and historical, like maps that show what was on the island of Manhattan before New York City existed.

And for all the virtue signalling on the left about everyone mattering to everyone in our enlightenment, and for all the *sturm und drang* about how *the people* are a tight-knit national family of kinsmen, what we really have is a world in which we’ve traded meaning for agency.

— § —

*”What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss…? You’ve been putting it up your entire life. You just didn’t know it. You know the date on this coin…? 1958. It’s been travelling 22 years to get here, and now it’s here and it’s either heads or tails… Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it.”* (Anton Chigurh)

*”I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare: crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving.”* (Colonel Kurtz)

*”I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”* (Roy Batty)

— § —

What nobody questions and all take for granted is (1) the importance of material freedom as an end in itself, and (2) the reduction of “freedom” as a set of possibilities to a single concept in a single domain of human being.

Well we’re all “free” now. One way or another, we’ll have our freedom, because every system of society proposed for the last two centuries valorizes it. We’ll have it as the proletariat, or as the volk, or as the liberal meritocrats. What we mustn’t ever, ever do is look for something else. Something better. Because we must have our freedom—and so we will.

But as a result, nothing—including ourselves—matters. It turns out that while freedom may not “be free,” it is nonetheless shallow and venal in the end.

Freedom, as conceived by moderns, is orthogonal to meaning. Write that down.

— § —

In the darkness, in those cases in which none of the loose ends are tied and chaos reigns—only then does truth peek through.

The web of reasoned arguments, emotional appeals, and general certainties is so opaque as to be impenetrable. There are few places where it can be torn.

Cinema is one of them, once in a great, long while. More are born than survive into adulthood; there are many forces along the way that can’t bear the sight of truth any longer and try desperately to paper them over for a grateful public.

— § —

I don’t have many friends because most everyone, on all sides of the aisle—is working to exacerbate the problem. It’s unwitting, sure. It’s clueless naiveté. But I want no part of it.

In the end, in a world in which even family is a myth from the lost shadows of time, and the plebes and elites alike are relieved that we are no longer so burdened by such unfreedom as were the long-suffering ancients, most “friends” and I just wouldn’t matter—really *matter*—to each other anyway.

A counselor once tried to convince me that not having many friends is a tragedy. But life is short and friends are a poor replacement for human dignity. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Better to go to the films alone.

Western civilization is dying, all the faster the more we’re ‘woke.’  §

It was Bob Dylan that wrote the song of our epoch. Tonight it really strikes me:


© Aron Hsiao / 2002

Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch
The band is playing “Dixie”, a man got his hand outstretched
Could be the Fuhrer
Could be the local priest
You know sometimes Satan, you know he comes as a man of peace

He got a sweet gift of gab, he got a harmonious tongue
He knows every song of love that ever has been sung
Good intentions can be evil
Both hands can be full of grease
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Well, first he’s in the background, and then he’s in the front
Both eyes are looking like they’re on a rabbit hunt
Nobody can see through him
No, not even the Chief of Police
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Well, he catch you when you’re hoping for a glimpse of the sun
Catch you when your troubles feel like they weigh a ton
He could be standing next to you
The person that you’d notice least
I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Well, he can be fascinating, he can be dull
He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull
I can smell something cooking
I can tell there’s going to be a feast
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

He’s a great humanitarian, he’s great philanthropist
He knows just where to touch you honey, and how you like to be kissed
He’ll put both his arms around you
You can feel the tender touch of the beast
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Well, the howling wolf will howl tonight, the king snake will crawl
Trees that’ve stood for a thousand years suddenly will fall
Want to get married? Do it now
Tomorrow all activity will cease
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

Somewhere Mama’s weeping for her blue-eyed boy
She’s holding them little white shoes and that little broken toy
And he’s following a star
The same one them three men followed from the East
I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace

A rant on assholery, selfishness, justice, and the modern West.  §

It’s been a very long time since I wrote a blog post entirely on my phone.

The last time I did it, I was on the red line of the New York subway, hurtling from the Upper West Side down to the Village in lower Manhattan, pecking thoughts out on a Palm Treo 680.

My, how things have changed. Lots of things. Okay, let’s be honest—pretty much all of the things.

— § —

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who just now, even though it’s on the edge of consciousness) once said that you do meet assholes every now and then in life, but if all you meet are assholes, then you are the asshole.

I like this idea because it encourages self-reflection, which is one of life’s great gifts to a human being, and also because it’s pithy, and I love pithy sayings.

I’m not sure, however, that the idea actually holds true any longer. I thinks it’s very plausible that a growing percentage of people encounter nothing other than assholes most days because we are a society of assholes.

This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. This isn’t esoteric knowledge, it’s conscious choice.

People in the West—in the United States in particular—work hard at being assholes. They take tremendous pride in it.

Half a century ago, it was predominantly men who aspired to unqualified, crass assholery, but now women have caught up and there is parity between the genders.

— § —

What’s my definition of an asshole?

I guess you could say that it’s someone who is absolutely determined to get everything that’s coming to them, and who’s equally determined to ensure that others do, too.

Someone, in other words, who may think that people are okay or even nice things to have around, but that at the end of the day is more interested in keeping score about relationships and reciprocity than they are in actually having, supporting, or showing good faith in relationships and reciprocity.

This outlook and approach to life is what we today call “justice,” or even more recently, being “woke” or a “realized self.”

In today’s America, so proud of its enlightenment, a realized self is someone that knows what’s owed to them, that smiles firmly as they collect, and that’s willing to pull out various weapons, legal, emotional, and social, to force others to make good on the debt if payment is not forthcoming. Nothing else really gets considered in the definition.

That’s mere justice, after all. And we all love justice.

Problem is, justice alone does not make a good friend or family member. In fact, thinking of justice first and foremost as someone shares anything even remotely passing for intimacy with you every day makes you—rather precisely—an asshole.

— § —

Everyone says this is right and proper—take care of yourself first and then, not far behind, of the justice claims of others. Focus on the “justice,” and sod the rest. That’s presumed to be enlightened humaning. Somehow, people have even come to imagine that all of this is ancient Eastern wisdom of some kind, all of ancient Western wisdom having already retired as mere naiveté.

Of course, everyone is also alienated, lonely, and miserable. Gosh, I wonder why.

They think they’re not getting enough justice. They redouble their efforts. They feel even more miserable. They are sure that everyone is denying them something. That they have to get better at claiming what is theirs and at “taking good care of themselves” to reach happiness, which they imagine without irony to be the natural outcome of perfect “justice.”

You know what doesn’t give two shits about “justice?” About “fairness?” Love, that’s what. Real love and real fulfillment. These things are on the other side of the planet from justice, fairness, and scorekeeping of all kinds. If you love someone, you’ll die for them, even if they don’t die for you. If you wouldn’t, then you don’t love them. And if nobody feels that way about you, it’s because you’re not all that lovable. Even if you’re the absolute master of justice.

Key thing about justice: nobody actually loves it. Remember that justice is blind. It does nothing out of love and everything as a matter of measurement. And if love and fulfillment are what you’re after, hooking up with a blind functionary that doesn’t care about anyone or anything but balancing the scales should not be your first move. So funny that this isn’t obvious to people.

— § —

Okay, I’m not going to try to dissect everything that causes the particular brand of assholery that marks our time and our civilization.

But I do have thoughts on what I think are some of the biggest instances of “wrong thinking” that contribute to its pervasiveness.

  • “I need to live for me. I only get one life. It’s healthy to live for myself.” No. No, you don’t. No, it isn’t. And if you do choose to live for you, then nobody is going to care about being around you all that much. Because you don’t care about being around them. You’re busy living for you. I suspect this comes from boomer parenting, the increasing divorce rate, industrialization, and a bunch of other stuff. A bunch of kids grew up never seeing proper parenting; they didn’t get what they needed, so they presumed that what you do is you make sure to get what you need once you’re grown up and have your own kids. As a result, the next generation of kids also doesn’t get what they need, and the cycle repeats.

  • “I deserve this. I deserve much. My being is inherently deserving.” No. No, you don’t. No, it isn’t. Where TF did this giant pile of entitlement come from? You did exactly what to exist? Nothing. Someone else conceived you. Someone else labored to bear you. Since then if you’re a great person you’ve been on an upward climb to try to do more good in the world than bad, to try to contribute more than you take, and you’re not there yet because virtually nobody is. And if you’re an average person, you’ve been on a gradual descent into worse and worse assholery since you were a pre-teen. You deserve nothing. None of us do. Whatever we get is a matter of the generosity of others, and we should be frankly grateful that others don’t march up and knock us flat more often. Seriously.

  • “It’s my job to make the world a better place.” No. No, it isn’t. Who gave you that job? Who do you think you are, Jesus? This is narcissism, pure and simple. It’s your job to chop wood and carry water and do the same for the people that ask for it, and only after they ask for it. That’s it. If you’re doing more than that, you’re a pushy asshole.

  • “If everybody tried to make the world a better place, the world would be a better place.” No. No, it wouldn’t. The more everybody tries to make the world a better place, the more we go to war, person-to-person and nation-to-nation. Why? Because everybody has a different conception of what an ideal world looks like. If everyone is working hard to make an ideal world, do you know what you get? Modern day America, full of assholes. Never, ever try to make the world a better place. Instead, try to avoid making the world a worse place. In other words, do fewer bad things, not more “good” things. In other words, be less of an asshole.

  • “It’s my job to stand up for the voiceless.” No. No, it isn’t. It’s your job to stand up for your close friends, your family, and your community, if they ask you to do so. That’s it. What happens when everyone stands up for everyone they believe isn’t being adequately heard? See above.

  • “When people care about you, they give you what you need and deserve.” No. No, they don’t. They don’t even know what you need, and caring distorts their impressions of what you deserve. They don’t accurately have the first clue, just like you don’t have the first clue, on either count. More to the point, if you’ve ever thought this, do you know what it says about you? It says that you’re narcissistic. You think the word “care” and your mind starts measuring what you’ll get if someone “really” cares about you. No wonder people aren’t giving you what you think you need and deserve—nobody likes narcissists. And thinking about measurement and entitlements as the key dimensions of caring is practically the definition of a narcissist. You’ll know you’ve stopped being an asshole when the phrase above starts sounding stilted to you and you prefer instead, “Caring means I give every last thing that I have—and doing so fulfills me.” Now that’s caring. Capiche? I know, it’s shocking.

I could go on and on. I guess I’ll stop though, because my thumbs are tired and I can’t judge length when I’m typing on a phone.

Point: Just about everyone is an asshole these days. That’s why the West is having the trouble it’s having. It’s not historical forces so much as cultural forces, and a general breakdown in social mores that once included the concept “Don’t be an asshole,” rather than embracing and valorizing pretty much every asshole-making concept there is.

Thing is—if you’re just keeping score, then who needs you? And these days, pretty much everyone is keeping score—about everything. We’re pretty sure that’s what love is—self-love and love of others, too. Call it Enlightenment poison. The infiltration of measurement into everything.

I guess in a world of infinite measurement, it was bound to be that we’d end up with infinite assholes, too.

FIN

Balance is death. Imbalance is life. That’s physics.  §

What did I used to do in summer as a kid?

I have no idea. Literally no idea. I have one or two fleeting memories—images, more like it.


© Aron Hsiao / 2000

There is a room with a north-facing window that overflows with sunlight that somehow fails to remedy darkness. There is a cedar fence. Green grass lies beyond. There are some waterslides. There is a picnic table in a canyon somewhere. I don’t know. Not much more than that.

The summers of childhood are a blank to me. I don’t have any “fond memories” of them. I don’t have any memories of them at all.

I have a feeling that all of my childhood summers passed as this one has—rapidly and imperceptibly. I have no idea what I did this summer, either. But it’s over nonetheless.

I’ve been in a bipolar emotional state about fall the last few days. I veer wildly between a deep distaste for the reality of fall’s arrival—not usual for me—and a kind of intensely sweet romantic sickness that’s bound to be let down by the banality of the actual days but that’s pleasurable nonetheless—usual for me at this time of year.

The fact that there are moments when I’m not okay with fall’s arrival this time around has something to do with the fact that I don’t know what happened over the summer. It’s vertigo, in a way—the vertigo of a disjunction in time. Time is meant to be continuous and oriented, like a bezier curve, not discontinuous and dispersed like a scatter plat of random data.

Summer is meant to be distinctly summery so that fall can be distinctly autumnal, and in the difference between the two lies the order of the universe.

When both appear the same in some way, there is trouble afoot. The sun is meant to set in one direction, not all of them. All of them is more symmetrical, yes, as are an indistinct summer and an indistinct fall, but symmetry is a warning against life.

Maybe I’ll come back to that.

— § —

Meanwhile, I’ve had writers block for a month now. Note the lack of posts. There are at least eight or nine posts typed out here in Byword that never went online because—frankly—they were crap.

They were me doing my damnedest to “write something” because I felt as though I wanted and needed to do so—but not as though I wanted and needed to write anything in particular, which is sort of how it has to go if the words are going to be worth the time spent typing them out.


© Aron Hsiao / 2004

People say “writer’s block” as though it’s this objective thing—like a Great Wall of China in your mind erected by far-fetched emperors of consciousness that are somehow distant from the life you’ve been living until you, the cognitive tourist, suddenly arrive at the wall in the midst of a the mental tour of foreign lands that writing is meant to be, etc.

But that’s nonsense.

Writer’s block is repression. Let’s not beat about the bush. Writer’s block is what happens when you don’t want to and won’t and can’t face the things that you’re thinking—that you would be thinking consciously if only you could dare to be aware, but that instead you’re thinking subconsciously with enough determination to cause the little homunculus of the self to rise up and begin to beat it back with swollen hands.

You get writer’s block when you don’t want to be where you’ve already gone, in one way or another, physical or otherwise. So you shut yourself up in the dark closet of unmarked imaginative vacancy and keep the truth outside at bay. Whilst inside, you can’t even come up with words that you know you’re looking for. You have to consult a thesaurus because your inner homely librarian, anachronistic polyester-clad bureaucrat that they are, won’t let you have any words unless you sneak them out. It’s like the underground railroad for vocabulary.

Only even when the words escape, they’re too busy fleeing for their lives and adopting new identities to come together in collective effervescence.

Have I taken this too far? (I have.)

— § —

In any case, I’ve always had a deep distaste for symmetry.

Other people see a ceramic-potted houseplant on one edge of the table and they go out of their way to move it to the center. I’m the opposite—when I walk past the table and see something in its center, I have to move that something off to one side.


© Aron Hsiao / 2003

People have asked why I only have a tattoo on one arm. Don’t I want a tattoo on the other am so that I “feel balanced” or something?

No. No, I don’t.

I have the deep suspicion that there is an affinity between symmetry at scale and entropy—that true randomness is most likely to have a fairly even probability distribution is most likely to begin against all odds to have a kind of transcendental symmetry.

It’s strong asymmetry that actually represents order, the investment of energy into the universe. For everything to be on one side of the table or the other—that required effort. That’s unlikely. That’s life, rather than thermodynamic death.

Asymmetry is full of vitality and dynamics. Asymmetry is potential energy—negative pole and positive pole, mountain and valley. Symmetry is static and dead. A sine wave, perfectly symmetrical, is just a droning tone—which our brains have been taught by evolution to filter out, as it is informationally equivalent to silence.

Information—which is also potential—which is also life—which is also being—is not carried by sine waves. It is carried by modulation.

Symmetry is just-so. Asymmetry is evidence of will. It demands a reckoning. It brings with it the insult and the joy of the presence of another who has taken the liberty of unbalancing the world, as we all do by our very presence.

— § —

I wrote this post backward.

I’ve realized that I often do that these days, when it works. I start with something. Then, I move to the top of the paragraph and type another paragraph just above it. Then, I move above that one and type another paragraph just above it.


© Aron Hsiao / 2005

This happens continuously until at some point I realize that I’m done and then I pop down to the end (i.e. this bit that you’re reading now) and type out one last section that somehow ties it all together.

This is the sort of thing that used to drive my ex-wife nuts. All of this, actually.

Desiring asymmetry and being bothered by symmetry.

Doing essay writing mostly backward, but not even backward, because after the backward I stop and return to forward, but only for one section.

Thinking that there’s some relationship between thermodynamics, potted plants, memories of summer, and writer’s block.

And so on.

It’s why we could never get along, and why we probably wouldn’t get along still if we had to be in close quarters. She lives her life intentionally centering the plants on the table and writing things from the beginning straight through to the end. Then I come by and slide the plant to a corner of the table and return to writing by putting my finger somewhere in the middle of a random page, or by completing the ending so that I know what the beginning might be so that I can complete the ending all over again.

It’s all nonsense, I know. But at least it’s unbalanced nonsense. That’s something, at least.

Want to join in the ‘big time’ of life and society? There’s just one thing to know.  §

At no previous time in my life have I imagined that I would have anything to do with “national championships” of any kind.

I wasn’t born an athlete. I was the tiny, scrawny Asian kid. And then, a mischievous plumber somewhere in the cosmos flipped a switch and overnight I was the giant, fat white kid.

I also couldn’t be made an athlete. In hopes that I might grow muscles and lungs, I was enrolled on a local track and field team sometime during elementary school. This was after soccer had failed (I was on the field for exactly thirty seconds before a ball sailed into my groin, leaving me crying on the ground) and karate had failed (I went for just a handful of classes before telling my mom that getting beaten up in the sparring ring was not all that different from getting beaten up on the playground and we beat a hasty retreat shortly thereafter).

In track and field, I became so athletic that I never finished anything but last in a race (and most of the time didn’t finish at all). Instead, I became the star shot-putter. Shot put is the event you’ve seen for all of twenty or thirty seconds of Olympic airtime in your life in which a very fat, bearded man that looks like he could be called Sven Ragnarsson athletically heaves a very heavy steel ball just as far as he can heave it.

Usually the distance is measured in meters (no, not hundreds of meters), which—like the relative fame of the sport—says something about its impact on the world along with something about its status amongst enthusiasts of athletics and sport.

I tried to go out for football in high school, but with no previous football experience (my parents hadn’t trusted the safety of the sport until I was old enough to drive, which is of course far too old to start), I never saw the field, the locker room, or even tryouts. You know you’re not even destined to be the athletic (rather than, say, lumbering) fat man when the coach and your physical education instructor both warn you off of tryouts.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

My body ultimately figured out how to make a few teaspoons of testosterone sometime mid-high school and by the end I was actually reasonably trim and quite strong, but “athletic” never replaced “lumbering” as the general qualifier that underlay my corporeality.

So—national championships? It was never even a dream. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken the phrase, in fact.

— § —

Well, until now.

This morning bright and reasonably early, the kids and I were in a parking garage underneath one of the larger and better known western United States convention centers, looking for a spot to park—for the 2018 United States national taekwondo championship tournament. The event has a home page on the Team USA website. You know, the one where all the Olympics teams are listed. In all the big sports.

Somehow my seven-year-old daughter avoided the curse of my lumbering genes and instead is a naturally talented, long, lean, and very enthusiastic athlete. One with an athlete identification lanyard that gets her into events at which there are dozens of “rings” and “judges” and “call times” and lots of pomp and circumstance, not to mention other things I never thought I’d ever directly touch, like the “weigh-ins” and “floor routines” we were working on today in anticipation of competition tomorrow.

She’s been doing this for nigh on three years now, and though I didn’t quite get this at first, I’ve come to realize that she’s a two-time defending state champion and gold medalist who’s currently ranked sixth nationally in her division. So it’s a thing. Like, a real thing.

Happily, she did get my “under pressure” genes, so she seems to delight in being stared down by an audience while doing things they’re not capable of doing. I eventually found a use for these genes in professoring and public speaking and later in media, but she’s managed to marry them to the infinitely more exclusive and exciting “gifted with athleticism and the right kind of body” genes to come up with something rather special at the moment.

And yet—though I say that I now finally “get it”—there’s a lumbering high schooler in me that continues to want to ask the dad me the age-old question (a thing I never thought that I, of all people, would be asked):

“How did she get where she is? What path did she take to get from beginner to serial gold medalist and national competitor? Tell us so that others who have the same dream know how to begin.”

— § —

It’s here that I point out that there are some lessons that you are destined to learn over and over again in life.

You learn them because you need them and because you’re capable enough that you can take them onboard. You learn them over and over again because something in your makeup or something in the way that you were raised makes them so foreign to the assumptions that you have about the world that your brain just erases them over and over again each time you look away for a moment.

Here’s the path.

There is no path.

Here’s the lesson.

To win in the big time, you have to play in the big time.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

How did she prepare to win her first state championship? The honest answer is that she prepared by not paying all that much attention to it, and her dad prepared by not “getting” that it was a real thing. If dad had understood that it was the real Utah state championship event, sponsored by Team USA, he wouldn’t have paid the fees and signed her on up. Obviously, being just a year-and-a-half from nada-at-alla and just a junior color belt, rather than an experienced black belt, she wouldn’t have been ready.

Obviously, she would have needed to “start with something smaller” and gradually “plot a course” to move up, rather than jump right into a Team USA event.

And, in retrospect, obviously if she had taken that path, two things would now be very true:

  1. She would not have a slew of medals and trophies, a national ranking, or an athlete badge for the 2018 United States national championship event.

  2. She would not be anywhere as skilled or as developed as she has become over the last two years of pounding and grinding against others driven enough and confident enough to enter Team USA events.

To win in the big time, you have to play in the big time.

— § —

I knew this when I enrolled at the University of Utah at 15 years old. I became top of class in a top ten science department before I could drive. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and withdrew.

I knew it again when I took on a contract and an advance to write a book (something I’d never done before) on a topic I knew nothing about. I wrote it out in six months, the reviewers raved about it, university libraries all over the country put it on the stacks, and I went on to write six more. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and stopped submitting book proposals.

I knew again it when I jumped straight from my (very shaky, 10-year) undergraduate career (that almost didn’t result in graduation) to the University of Chicago graduate school. I earned my first graduate degree and perfect marks along the way. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and left academics for the world of publishing.


© Aron Hsiao / 2006

I knew it again when I flew to New York with just a couple hundred dollars to my name to start a Ph.D. program in a field I’d never studied before. I was made a university fellow before I was eligible to be nominated and was hired as an adjunct professor at a nearby major university before I had achieved candidacy. Others were invested in the importance of my work and ideas before I could even properly articulate what they were. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life and I lost my nerve and moved back to Utah to finish my Ph.D. in isolation, where it now languishes on a top shelf in a market where it holds no value.

I knew it again when I took a job with seniority and a title with which I had no previous experience. I produced work that caused co-workers to tell me that I was the heart of—or the lynchpin of—or the voice of—or the smartest person in—the company. Then, I lost sight of it in the melee of everyday life, became conservative in my approach, failed to assert myself when I should have over time and to do what I could have over time for reasons of propriety and judiciousness, and the company was unceremoniously acquired rather than eventually traded publicly.

I suspect that a lot of people have stories like these. Probably a similarly long list of them. We all made the same mistake, suffered from the same misapprehension.

Why was I allowed to start all these things—enter all of these rarefied spaces and roles that I was eminently unqualified for? Pretty simple, actually. I applied. I asked. Just like my daughter, when she entered that first state championship tournament, cold, having never competed in taekwondo before.

— § —

There’s a very important corollary that follows from the lesson.

There is no ‘path’ from the small time to the big time.

It’s that simple, really. Play in the small time, stay in the small time, no matter how much you win. Want to win in the ‘big time?’ Begin and stay in the big time, no matter how unqualified you are. Over and over again I learn and know this and it begins to pay off. Over and over again, I forget it and drive right back into the ditch of forgettable middle-class mediocrity.

This is a class thing. Middle and lower, mostly. And a Protestant thing. And probably a few other kinds of things as well. At the core of the failure to learn this lesson—underneath every unnecessary reversion away from greatness and back to shadows—is the unhelpful belief that you simply don’t deserve to win—or even to enter into—the big time just yet. It’s always ‘just yet.’ We at the bottom, we just don’t aim for the top.

Because there are others more qualified than you. You’ve only just begun and you’ve started so humbly, with nobody parents in a nowhere neighborhood—so it’s only a matter of time before you fail. You’re not in a position to speak up, or take initiative. What makes you think you can hack it, much less have the right to hack it? Nobody in your bloodline, least of all you, has put in the necessary time!

And so on.

So—you give it all back. Over and over again. You climb 90 percent of Everest and then as you are roaring your way to the top with clear lungs and bright eyes, you decide that you have no right to be there and that by all rights you should go and climb a dozen smaller hills instead, to have them defensibly in your scrapbook, before trying to make this ascent.

Why? Why, for God’s sake?

It’s what I was taught. It’s proper.

You start small. You put in your hours as a novice. Then, as a journeyman. Eventually, as a professional. And then, someday, someday in the far, far future when you’ve exceeded yourself, earned it, justified it, a community of existing victors will notice you, then come along and bestow upon you the honor of “great.” After that—only after that—are you qualified for the ‘big time.’


© Aron Hsiao / 2002

You can’t just jump in and swim without being eaten, and if you’re not eaten right away it’s either because you’re lucky to have escaped your sure fate for a moment or because the devil himself is smiling on you (and if the devil is smiling on you, you’d better run, and then pray for forgiveness).

The ‘right way,’ in other words, is to start at the bottom and make a life of it—not presume to cut the queue and jump right to the top.

Thing is, making a life of it doesn’t actually work. It’s fiction. It’s not how these things are done. If it was, we’d have a world of octogenarian olympians and Harvard and Yale and Chicago would be packed with world-weary gray-hairs rather than young, brilliant hotshots.

You get to the top by opening its front door—helpfully labeled “THIS WAY TO THE TOP” and storming right in with bluster, taking your lumps and smiling along the way. Because there is no entry to the top other than at it’s doorstep.

— § —

Watching my daughter, I desperately hope I can be a better parent to her than I was a steward of my own life through this sort of thing. My pointless waywardness need not derail her joy at jumping into the most exclusive melee with both feet.

And, reflecting just a bit, I could stand to learn the lesson all over again.

Perhaps there’s time yet for me to learn once more—and perhaps, just perhaps—to make good this time.

There are moments that only happen once or twice in an entire life.  §

I expected to write a lot starting Thursday and maybe continuing every day through the weekend. Instead, well—I haven’t. Not because I haven’t just left my job of five years or because I’m not a properly free man—no organizational affiliation, no significant other, no pending obligations—for the first time in over a decade.


© Aron Hsiao / 2000

Instead, I’ve been mostly silent for precisely these reasons. Sometimes you’re mute because there’s just too much to say, rather than not enough. Because you don’t even know where to begin, rather than because you don’t want to reflect on something that’s come to an end.

— § —

I spent the weekend diselaborating my life. This is a neologism. I coin it because I can’t think of another term (though I’m sure there probably is one) for the process of carefully unweaving from your life things that you previously spent much time weaving into your life.

I combed through accounts that stretch back years to pull out and save (legally) the tiny handful of things that I might need to refer to later on.

I signed out of accounts, one by one. Cleared browser caches. I deleted apps, one by one, from my phone, then from my tablet. I uninstalled software from my comptuers. Things that I swore I’d never use, like Microsoft Outlook, had invaded my space, then over the years become second nature to me. Now, they’re gone.

I unplugged equipment and removed it from my desk. Down from four monitors, to three, and now to two. Everything is smaller, less cluttered, less imposing. My desk feels more like my desk again, and less like my cubicle. More personal. The same holds true for my computing environments.

It’s been a bittersweet experience to discover that in fact it’s easier than I thought it would be to leave behind the insistent sensation that I need to check for new communication from the mother ship at all times.

I’m back to just being me.

— § —

It’s been a long time.

Not “little long.” No. “Long, long.”

Before the job I just left, I was a professor and Ph.D. candidate. Before that, I was a graduate student. Before that, I was an editor. Before that, I was writing books and working in tech. Before, before, before.

I have been “at it” for a very long time. Thanks to the generosity of my former employer, I feel for a moment as though I can breathe. The last time I could breathe was probably in 2001 when I graduated (after ten long years) from my undergraduate program. Even then, I was a young twenty-something, full of ambition and restlesness; I couldn’t sit still.

And everything since then has been a mixture of ambition, emergency, and torrential circumstance.

And so it has been that suddenly this weekend, though I owed goodbyes and replies to a lot of people, I felt the urge instead to simply be, the thoughts in my mind fragmented and undulating and full of paradoxically dim light, like the glow at dusk on a windy day as it passes first through swaying leaves, then through a suddenly illuminated, then to a forgotten wall where no one notices as it dances—for just a few minutes—before being lost once again, despite its infinite beauty, intricacy, and importance, to time.

With the kids away, no job, no wife, no degree program, no festering youth (and as of just yet no creeping old age or infirmity), no obligations, no immediate worries or fires to put out… I just wanted to be. Just me. Just me, in silence.

Because I don’t know when this will happen again. Perhaps not until retirement. Perhaps—for it’s certainly possible—never again.

You have to recognize and appreciate the moment as it passes around you; time won’t hold the line back for you, or for anyone.

— § —

What now?

A new week begins in just a few hours. I have the good fortune to have several job offers already waiting for me, some unsolicited; I’ll need to select from amongst them and begin to roll again.

The kids will be competing in the U.S. national taekwondo tournament over the coming nine days. It happens to be in Utah this year. My daughter is a reigning state champion and is currently ranked sixth nationally. She’s seven years old. This, too, is a fleeting moment that may never happen again. Someday, in all likelihood, she’ll sit, wide-eyed, as she’s told about “that summer long ago when…”

I’ll look also toward starting my own business once more, after all these years. Because this is likely the last time I’ll have the luxury of job-hunting without the yoke of age around my neck (“I know he’s good, but he’s kind of old, don’t you think—”) and it’s time to begin to plan may way around that eventuality, so that I’m not broken by it when it arrives.


© Aron Hsiao / 2002

I’m optimistic. Despite all the odds, and despite many well-founded moments of panic and despair along the way, it would appear that I’ve made it through this stretch relatively unscathed, unless something goes very wrong over the next week or two.

That’s always possible, of course.

But for a moment—just a moment—I’m letting myself feel as though I’ve arrived safely at middle age after all, and can drop sails for a moment and have a cup of tea before beginning all over again—before beginning to plot a course toward the next shore, still so far away.

I’ve crossed many, many seas to get to where I am. There are many, many seas to cross before I arrive ultimately on the other side of my journey, wherever that arrival will be.

— § —

For a moment, however, I am merely sitting in the wake of diselaboration, taking a moment to be. And now, finally, to write—even if I haven’t written all the many things.

I’ve written, I think, all that really demands to be written.

Now, a short few more hours of peace.

Then, we set sail again for distant shores.

This is a bookmark in time and space.  §

Inflection point.

3.

2.

1.

NOW.

The wind has been in the willows for a long, long time—activism notwithstanding.  §

About five years ago, one summer, we suddenly had earwigs everywhere. These are ugly bugs, though they’re entirely harmless. They speak to something ugly in the human soul. They have horns and spikes and crawl close to the ground, and they’re hard to kill.

They were everywhere, for a few weeks, and then they were just gone. And I hadn’t thought about them since; they had passed into forgotten history.

Until this month. Suddenly, five years later, without explanation, they’re back. They turn up in the dogs’ food dishes. Or crawling across the floor. Or on the wall next to the air conditioner.

I’d never expected to see them again.

— § —

Fifteen years ago, I drove home alone on Interstate 15 having left, for the very last time, my job at eBay. I felt wistful and uncertain. The future was unknown. I left behind friends and the only serious job I could clearly remember by that time.


© Aron Hsiao / 2004

Fifteen years. Between then and now, I moved to Chicago. Earned a masters degree. Wrote books. Moved to Portland. Then to Los Angeles. Won awards as an encyclopedia editor. Wrote more books. Moved back to Salt Lake City. Then to New York. Got married. Had children. Earned a Ph.D. Taught at New York University, CUNY, The New School, and a bunch of other universities. Moved across the country again to Provo. Became the public voice of a technology startup. Over half a decade, did countless interviews with Time and Forbes and Business Week and Inc. Magazine and Slashdot. Appeared on television and radio in and amongst moments of divorce paperwork and transcendental life changes.

My time at eBay all the way back in 2003? That, too, had long ago passed into forgotten history.

Until this year. At the end of 2017, my company was acquired by eBay. Once again I was an eBay employee, based at the same campus I’d worked at in 2003. Once again I interacted with faces I’d known all the way back in my twenties. Once again I’ve become habituated, over the course of 2018, to life at eBay.

And now, after all of those intervening years, I once again find myself facing the end of my time at eBay. Once again this end corresponds, intuitively, to the end of an entire phase in my life. Once again this Friday I will sign off for the very last time at eBay and say goodbye, just as I did all the way back in the late spring of 2003.

Once again I feel wistful and uncertain. Once again, the future is unknown. Once again, I leave behind friends and the only serious job I can remember by now.

— § —

They say that deja vu—the false sense that you are repeating an experience that you have had once before—is eerie and disorienting.

I think that it’s reality and history that are far more eerie and disorienting—in particular, the actuality that you are repeating experiences that you have absolutely, and not merely intuitively, had before. This is far more common than we like to admit, and it affects us far more deeply than we’re prepared to believe.

Our entire metaphysics, and our understandings our natures within it—as Benjamin points out—are predicated on a particular understanding of of time.

Who needs deja vu, the pale imitation, when it’s clear that we quite literally live out the same scenes over and over again, entirely beyond our ability to avoid or control them?

We either laugh about it or we avoid talking about it because if we were to seriously confront the question, we’d probably fail entirely to cope.

— § —

One of the strangest side effects of social media—and another that I didn’t anticipate as a young scholar—is the way in which it has created a deep suspicion of information and knowledge, along with a resulting paradox: the belief that enlightenment is positively and linearly correlated with:

  • Ignorance

  • Closed-mindedness

  • Dogmatism

That is to say that the presumption is now that apart from a handful of received truths, all texts and all information are false propaganda motivated by power interests, and thus, the less one reads, listens, and knows, and the more one holds tightly and uncritically to a few shockingly simple axioms, the more elite and educated one is.


Public domain

In fact, it is assumed to be the truly naive and ignorant who—say—read books and enter into reflection. Such poor, credulous folk actually think that there is something to learn, rather than realizing that they are being manipulated by Nazis, Communists, and Inquisitors. Only the truly stupid, the easy victims that suffer from mental weakness and have been fooled into service by malevolence, believe in the actuality of nuance, the pursuit of truth, or the value of thought.

The good and the wise know that what we must all do is cover our ears, cover our eyes, and cover our mouths—to hear none of these lies, to refuse to gaze at lies lest we be seduced, and of course to refuse to recite anything anything beyond received canon, lest we allow ourselves to speak for Satan. We are living a new medievalism.

This is the state of things on the left and on the right. And of course, virtually every dimension of life now lives either on the left or on the right. One innovation of late modernity vs. the medieval universe is that the territory of the apolitical is the smallest bordered territory in the history of the globe, and it shrinks every day.

As a rule, we are given as a society to the suspicion that this is where Satan lives. At length, we will finally eradicate this territory, from which it is presumed that all heresies, including the heresies of nuance, truth, and thought, ultimately flow.

— § —

I spent the better part of the afternoon cleaning out (and up) my office.

At some point, while carrying a bag of trash out to the large can on the driveway, the breeze came up and stopped me in my tracks.

The sky was a bit gray—maybe the sun was behind the clouds—and the leaves on the many trees in the strip of land beside the driveway rustled as the branches swayed back and forth, a few inches at a time.

I froze. I froze because I was caught out of time. Which is another way of saying that it was a timeless moment. Which is another way of saying I’d lived that moment before—not just once, but many, many times, in almost exactly the same way.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

Of course, we do this all the time without noticing it. We do the same things over and over and over again. We are so habituated to this daily or weekly repetition that we don’t notice how very strange it is for beings of limited lifespans to repeat themselves ad infinitum—we don’t notice that, in fact, our lives are far shorter than we think they are because at the end of them we’ll have lived, after all, only a tiny handful of unique days or experiences.

But when there’s a larger gap to break up the monotony, to shake us out of our blindness, we see: these moments are not fresh. Every day is not a new day. A person’s life does not consist of “homogenous, empty time” that is filled, as if by an auteur, with as yet unwritten scenes.

A person’s life consists of just a few scenes, by and large, the vast majority of which have already been revealed by the time one reaches adulthood, or certainly by the time one reaches middle age.

This is where the transition to gratitude in later life comes from—it is applause at a play that has already been staged and has completed the better part of its run. There is little left but to savor it, to appreciate it for what it is, because it has been written and performed already; each day is an instance of what already has been on previous days; it will likely not be otherwise, despite any attempts to innovate.

Time and human agency don’t work in the ways that we think they do, and we don’t respond to them in the ways that we think we do.

And when we capture a glimpse of the depth and entirely avoided beauty of these natures, it stops us in our tracks. But only for a moment. The show must go on, because the run has already been slated and tickets for the remaining performances sold, and as sci-fi often hints to us, we are strangely powerless, despite our best efforts, to alter what time—the universe?—God?—in fierce autonomy has already fully pronounced.

Ours is a role already conceived and staged. If we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that we are not the playwright. We are not even the director.

— § —

Activism leads to ignorance and totalitarianism precisely because of a very human desire to avoid this fact—a desire that leads to its repression, which in turn requires the repression of a great deal—perhaps even an all-encompassing amount—of evidence.

We refuse to accept that the metaphysics with which we operate and are comfortable is incorrect, a wish rather than an actuality. In the pursuit of the homogenous, empty time that we are sure is our birthright, we begin to see conspiracies everywhere around us.

We erect elaborate imaginaries ordered around dark forces that are presumed to be working, always, to cause human suffering and to erase human freedom and flourishing from time. The promising emptiness of the future seems to have been filled by an elusive vandal or saboteur and our job is to ensure that this ne’er-do-well doesn’t foreclose on our infinite potential and infinite freedom.


© Aron Hsiao / 2003

Even the rustling of the trees becomes offensive, and anyone who dares to talk about it—or the earwigs—or the eBay jobs—or the ways in which every life is far shorter and far more determined already than we admit it to be—is a co-conspirator.

We ironically assert that philosophy and religion—who proclaim this vandal, this saboteur, to be the ghost of our own smallness—are wishful thinking. In fact, they are the antidotes to wishful thinking that we increasingly refuse to consume—that we can’t bear to consume.

And so in our particular time we use social media, the best tool ever devised to try to empty out time once again, to restore what we subconsciously believe has been stolen from us. The activists activize. The dogmatists dogmatize.

Everyone works hard to ensure that nobody reads a book or an article or gives voice to a thought suggesting anything other than that the possible grounds for utopia have been stolen from us, and that with indignation and a particular crusaders’ ethos, we can again restore the possibility of utopia to its rightful place in our wide-open futures.

— § —

Meanwhile, the same jobs come and go. We take out the trash, mow the lawn, clean the toilets, then do it all again. We drink and sing for the new year, barbecue for Independence Day, cook a turkey for Thanksgiving Day, and erect a tree for Christmas. We take the same photos again and again and again.

The earwigs come back. The wind rustles in the trees. We pretend to be blind through all of it.

And we meticulously avoid the obvious for the space of exactly one human life, reflecting now and then throughout that deja vu is so very weird and circular. We do this while we repeat ourselves. While time, which owns us, repeats ourselves. This is the secret underbelly of all of politics, including our own.

— § —

I know. Somehow with me it’s always about life, death, and time. Naturally, we’ve seen this movie before, too. I am what I am. As are you.

— § —

It’s not that time is coming for you. Come on—wake up for just a moment. Stop in your tracks.

It’s not that time is coming for you.

Time already came, long ago. You’re just waiting for the show’s run to come to an end. You know all of the scenes already and the ending, too. You’ve been performing them for years.

None of this, I realize, can actually be said. It’s all a conspiracy. And to say this out loud, or even think it, is to be “complicit.”

Which is why so many of us feel that it is absolutely imperative, in our era, to put the lie to this lie on Facebook. Freedom demands nothing less than that we formally indict—and do our utmost to convict—the wind.

Moths and men don’t have friends. But children and foxes do.  §

I’m writing this on the Neo tonight because sometimes it just feels like there’s so very much noise in every other space, on every other device. The networked world intrudes even when it doesn’t intrude.

We don’t have enough “connection” in our world, and yet as the trope goes, we can’t disconnect either. I imagine this means that the forms of connection at issue are the wrong ones.

But whatever. I digress and I haven’t even started yet.

— § —

I haven’t touched the Neo in months, but tonight when I reached up to the top shelf and pulled it out, a dead moth fell to my desktop with a thump. One wing was still attached; the other wing slowly fluttered down and ultimately came to rest right beside it.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

For a moment—so brief as to be almost imperceptible—I was made incredibly sad by this moth’s long-completed passing. By the fact that it was once a living creature. By the fact that it lay there so long, high on a shelf, in darkness, undiscovered. By the fact that it’s finally been discovered not by any being that can make use of it or that ever wanted to know it, but by a human that will, in short order, throw its body into the trash.

Then I remembered that it was a bug, and all of that disappeared. But for a moment—for a moment, I swear I felt so much pathos—and so much compassion for—this moth.

Meanwhile, I’ve just watched Molly (my dog) eat a beetle without ceremony, and I felt nothing. So whatever.

— § —

I was taken aback early this morning by the thought that the people that I know at my taekwondo gym, and see only in that capacity, are probably my best (not to mention only) local friends.

This has come up before. Other people—mostly women—and especially exes—have for many years told me that I need to make more friends. Every now and then, though not too often, I’ve reflected on this, but this morning I happened to see without delay just why I don’t have many local friends, and why it’s always women saying this to me, never other men I know or have known.

The reason is, quite simply, that men don’t have friends. This goes double for fathers.

This is often framed as some sort of homophobia, or as some sort of internalized form of gender oppression related to masculinity, but it’s actually much simpler than all of that.

First of all, men without children don’t have friends because they have girlfriends. The cultural judgment here is that a man who has a girlfriend but hangs around with other men is a jerk. Worse if he hangs around with other women. He ought to be spending time with with his significant other, and with her friends (as the old Spice Girls song suggests). If he can’t do that, he’s sexist or chauvinist, a cad, or at the very least tremendously selfish and insensitive.

And let’s be clear, we’re talking about “hangs around” because to sustain a real friendship requires time. Regular time. Like, hours per day multiple days per month kinds of time. Any man who invests in a friendship in this way will soon find himself without a significant other and facing rather a lot of judgment from anyone in his circle.

The only condition under which it is permissible for a man to have a friend is when he is single. However, when he’s single, befriending a woman (particularly in today’s climate) also invites judgment along lines of sexual culture. It’s not comfortable to socialize with women that aren’t significant others because every moment is fraught with risk and optics questions. Meanwhile, socializing with other single guys gives rise to an uncomfortable elephant in the room: “We’re both here, given social norms, purely because we’re single.”

It becomes impossible to decide whether you’re actually friends or whether you just happen to be single together and at a loose end, and that sort of “Are we really friends?” ambiguity is never conducive to intimacy or even patience. Guys don’t have patience for ambiguous situations; we generally want to resolve them. When we can’t, we tend to just blurt it out. “I have no idea whether we’re actually friends or just here because we don’t have a date.” “Yeah, I get you man.” “See you later.” “No doubt.”

Meanwhile, if you have children, friends are absolutely verboten to a man, for a variety of reasons:

  • You are being keenly and continuously judged on whether you spend your free time with your children. Fail to do so and you may soon no longer have them.

  • You are being keenly judged on the behavior of any friends that you have, which is a tremendous risk. Their behaviors and crimes become yours. How well do you really know your friends? Will one of them declare bankruptcy? Did one of them once hit a girlfriend? Has one of them been seen exiting a gentleman’s club? You may well find out about these things only at the moment that you lose your children because of “the company you keep.” Better not to risk it.

  • Then, there’s the direct issue—this behavior isn’t bad merely because of its knock-on effects. How much do you want any non-family, non-significant other adult around your children? Why, exactly, don’t they have a family? Why, exactly, do they have time for “friendships,” and what does this say about their safety around children?

  • Of course, there’s also the life-stage thing. Reach a certain age and most of the people your age also have families (and/or ex-families) and children. They don’t have any more time or risk tolerance for you than you have for them.

  • Which leads, finally, to the most important item. If you’re a man with children in today’s society, whether in an intact marriage or (doubly so) not, you don’t get to spend nearly as much time with your children as you’d like. At the very least, there’s work. Then, for divorced men, there’s the custody thing. A good deal of spare time, if not all of it, belongs to the kids, not to “friends.” The time in your life that doesn’t belong to your boss is severely limited. You want it to belong to your children or, barring that, to yourself.

None of the things above have to do with homophobia, and none of them have to do with machismo, “toxic masculinity,” or any of that nonsense.

If you doubt what I’m saying here, just imagine—for example—a single man who befriends a married couple with kids. He’s always hanging around with them all, he as the lone outsider, stopping by for random reasons to spend hours hanging out in the house with them. What do you think of him? Be honest. Or, imagine a divorced dad with small children who spends a ton of time hanging around with other single guys (because, of course, the non-single guys are all required to be with their significant others). What do you think of him? Be honest.

For men in our society, friendship with other men isn’t on the cards. It’s effectively prohibited—not by norms of masculinity that a man aspires to embody, but by the threats and failures of masculinity that society ascribes to him, regardless of who he is, whether he is single or married, childless or a father, and whether the hypothetical friends involved are male, female, or couple.

The culture is simply such that it’s frowned upon—and likely a significant personal risk—for an adult man to invest in “real” friendships of any kind.

Which is why men all seem to have “old friends from college” or “old friends from high school” that live several states, or at least several cities, away, that they get together with just a few times per year (or per decade). These “old reliable” friends avoid all of the problems above by not taking too much time and not being too nearby. They’re allowed.

— § —

There was some other topic that hit me a bit hard this morning, but now I forget what it was. I hate that—when in the morning I muse about a topic for an hour as I work distractedly on something else, thinking “by god, I have so much to say here, I could write a book”—yet by evening I can’t remember what it was in the first place.


© Aron Hsiao / 2003

— § —

A thing deserving mention: walking through a public space this afternoon, I saw a young girl absent-mindedly carrying around a plush fox toy.

Like the aforementioned moth, this generated a rush of emotion for which I wasn’t prepared.

First, I was filled with that swell of feeling that can only be described as “parentness.” It’s a strange mix of deep love, the tragic (you re-feel all of the times you couldn’t protect the innocence of your children or save them from little pains), and the beautiful (you are in awe of the sublimity of what innocence remains), all juxtaposed with the image of your own child(ren) that your encounter with someone else’s child brings to the fore.

I realized at the same time that I also felt no small amount of envy. Yes, envy. And loss.

It is rather too hard, and too bland, and too dark to be an adult in our society. To be straining to outrun terrible fates of all kind (financial, familial, career, etc.) every moment of every day, trying to keep a roof over small heads and so on. Okay, I’ll cop, I admit that this is likely not a problem of society per se but more of the reality of life on earth for mammals that must care for their young.

Such a sense of loss, though. That I can’t have such things, carry such things, tactilely or emotionally experience such things any longer. That I’m not capable of finding any joy in them any longer. There’s simply too much reality onboard.

I’ve heard that one of the things that happens to you as you get older—no doubt as the mantle of responsibility for others finally begins to fall away—is that you return to childhood and to exuberance and to innocence, rediscovering the ability to enjoy little, beautiful things once again.

I’ll hope that this is so. And if it is, I hope that when I get there, I remember to get ahold of a small plush fox, carry it everywhere, and enjoy it immensely in whatever time I have left before I die.

More realistically—I hope that I eventually get there at all. Our lot, as members of the not-elite classes, is often to die before our serious “they’re-depending-on-us” working years are even close to being done, leaving everyone in the lurch.

In which case there is no second childhood after all, which would seem to be transcendentally unfair.

At some level I suppose that’s what everyone is after out there, in the end—even the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, in their own desperately misguided ways. The possibility of a return to childhood.

When you can, of course, have not just little plush foxes, but also friends.

A quick public service announcement.  §

I am temporary.

So are you.

Just FYI.

The future is the ghost that haunts us as a species.  §

If you can predict the future, does that make you a genius or a fool?

Or is it actually neither? Is it actually more true to say that almost everyone can predict the future in certain important ways, and that’s why humans in particular struggle with life so?

Isn’t that the cause, for example, of the rising suicide rate, the genesis of “Spade” and “Bourdain” as stories? Were these not people who, able to see the future clearly, couldn’t cope with what they saw?


© Aron Hsiao / 2005

The “experts” suggest that the problem is that people imagine a future that isn’t real, but it dawns on me that this isn’t actually true. Rather the opposite—people may have all kinds of reactions to futures that aren’t real, but they carry on. What stops people dead in their tracks (forgive phrasing) is when they see a future that they know to be likely, or at least not very unlikely, that they don’t want or that scares them.

— § —

I remain quite sore from my first three days of taekwondo training. Historically I have not liked being sore following physical exertion, but in this case, I like it.

Funny, that.

The people that run my dojang have become central inspirations in my life. A key reason for this is that they are neither social justice warriors nor movement conservatives. They are, in fact, not publicly political at all. Instead, they are friendly, pro-family, very pragmatic, very generous, very compassionate.

How is it possible that several someone(s) have so escaped our modern plagues? They are the only people like this that I know. It’s one of the reasons I like to go back so often. It’s like time travel into the past to go there—a past when we all had better futures.

— § —

Last night I read a Lao Tzu quote—not sure how accurate or where from—that sticks in my mind.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I’ve read what amounts to the same thought on many other occasions, but the way it is formulated here seems particularly forceful and clear to me.

Or maybe it’s that I am finally ready to grok it? When the student is ready, the master appears?

— § —

It is a common human experience to believe that you have radically changed, only to discover afterward that in fact, you haven’t—what has changed are perhaps a few central thoughts and desires. The domain of things that have not changed includes:

  • Your habits

  • Your personality

  • Your coping mechanisms

  • Your identity for other people

It’s always a bit of a come-down to realize that what felt like a sea change in actuality changed mostly nothing about your real, as-lived life, even if internally it felt as though so very much had changed.

People who aren’t very self-reflective never come to this realization. They believe that in fact, they have changed completely, and that an unfair world refuses to recognize this change. This leads them precisely to intensify the habits, personality, coping mechanisms, and public identity with which they no longer believe it fair to associate them.

In fact, it is quite hard to change. The “change yourself” meme is misleading in that way. For all the sturm und drang, for all the difficulty presented by changing “yourself” (noumenon), it is far, far harder to change yourself (phenomenon).

— § —

For too long I have been living life as if I was on the lam. This is no way to live. Despite the above, let’s see if we can change it.

When the world is about to end, you take up taekwondo.  §

Yesterday I rushed the kids into, then out of, a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City for lunch. Before that, I rushed them into, then out of Liberty Park. After the restaurant, we hit I-15 and I rushed them back to Orem for M’s sparring class. We were late. I told them it was my fault. It was. I can’t seem to catch up, even though there isn’t much to catch up to.

I am running behind. I have been running behind for at least two weeks because someone has modified what “day” means recently, and they are all now too short.

Time has been moving ridiculously quickly. I even took the week off thinking that doing so would give me more of it. It didn’t. I have had no time all week. The powers that be have taken time from me. Nothing that I need to get done is getting done, and I don’t theoretically even have all that much to do.

— § —

For at least ten days now, every night around the time when I start to press the kids to go to bed, I have been itching in every finger to write something here.

Every night I have fallen asleep as I read bedtime stories, etc. Every night when I have awakened at 2:00 am, as I invariably do, I have opened an editor window and stared at it in silence, not knowing what it was that I wanted to write.

Everything that a few hours before had been explosively trying to escape me was now missing.

In the middle of the day, there are a million things and no time. In the middle of the night, there is time, but without a single clear thing.

As always, I have gone back to bed around 4:00 am—recently, feeling bewildered each time.

— § —

Not for the first time recently, I woke up this morning feeling deeply apocalyptic. Almost in a panic. It is not a nice feeling.

It settles down a bit over the course of the morning, but on days when the apocalypse rises with the sun, it doesn’t ever quite go away, and I have to watch myself throughout the day.


Taken by someone with small hands.

Having a meta outlook on the world is not always a good thing, but when you’re feeling apocalyptic it’s probably the only thing separating you from self-imposed catastrophe of one kind or another.

— § —

I recently started training in taekwondo. I have gone to two classes at this point. I think it’s already the highlight of my week, if for no other reason than that it’s something different.

A good something different.

It has been a very long time since there was something different in my life, and the “something differents” that I last recall were not good ones. You might even say that they were awful.

There are a few other “something differents” now coming down the line over the next few weeks and months after several years of utter stasis, and they are also hard to face.

One good something different is something to cling to. Hi-ya.

— § —

My theory is increasingly that time speeds up precisely when you don’t decisively know what to do with it. It falls through your grasp like so much sand, lost forever. When you’re unfocused and unsure, there is nothing to really mark the hours other than the always inevitably approaching ends of transcendental things:

  • Summer vacation with your kids

  • Your current employment and living arrangements

  • The childhoods of your children

  • Your working years

  • Your parents’ lives

  • Your own life

When you don’t have any purpose for “today,” every life-event “someday” is drawn into relief. Today disappears in a flash of abstraction. What’s left are the bare facts of life.

You can’t subsist in modernity on the bare facts of life, because we’ve removed all of the tolerable, everyday ones. “Feed yourself,” which used to be a daily task to focus on, has instead been concentrated into a periodic mega-event that is a kind of threat—you only think about it and have to work at it in the catastrophic and unusual event that you can’t actually do it.

Such is the case with everything. The removal of all of life’s little problems, with which we have been so concerned since the Enlightenment, also erases most of the time that is life’s substance, unless you are able to find other little problems to make your own.

If you can’t, then all of the moments—hours, days, weeks, months, years, whatever—between now and then next problem—which of course is now invariably a large one, all the little ones having been ameliorated—simply disappear.

— § —

The British once tended to do deeply philosophical light television. We’ve done it a couple of times ourselves. Right now I am reminded of three programs:

  • The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

  • Good Neighbours

  • Northern Exposure

Somewhere in the moral universe where these three programs touch is where I am living right now.

I hope to leave these environs behind, at length, because apocalyptic is, in the final calculation, just not all that nice.

— § —

Time is a lot of things:

  • Money

  • Life

  • Freedom

  • Memory

  • Experience

  • Work

And time… is always running out.

Find something to keep you grounded, they say. That’s good advice.

Who is this Byung-Chul Han and why don’t I know about him yet?  §

I just read this over at TAC. (Yes, I read TAC. Sue me. I read left rags, right rags, center rags, and just plain rags.)

The quote:

“[W]hen he writes in The Scent of Time that ‘The decay of time goes hand in hand with the rise of mass society and increasing uniformity,’ he’s not arguing that things are speeding up or accelerating in the modern world, but that time itself—a medium in which to pause, tarry, contemplate, and differentiate one thing from another—is being exchanged for instantaneousness.”

Like, OMG. I just, just wrote this the other day, right here, in different words. And it’s important. This is not some stray thought. And apparently this thinker thinks it’s important, too. A kindred spirit. How do I not know of and/or how have I never heard of Byung-Chul Han?

Is this what happens when you leave academics behind? You miss out on important things that happen after you left? Or has he been around forever and I just never knew because no academics know much of anything outside of a very narrow vertical any longer? Must find out. Must get his books and find out. I’m excited.

— § —

Meanwhile, I have finally caved to friendly pressure from all sides and will begin studying taekwondo on Monday.

This goes very much against the grain. I am already quaking in my boots. But dammit it is time I start doing things that go against my grain voluntarily once again. Because the biggest thing I’ve learned in 42 years of living is this:

You can either do things that go against your grain voluntarily, and benefit, or you can refuse and wait until the world forces you to go against your grain as a kind of penalty. Either way, you will do things that are outside your comfort zone. But if you do them yourself, things get better. If you wait until the world provides you with things that are outside your comfort zone, it is almost always because things have gotten worse.

So your best bet is to continually push yourself into new areas, which opens new opportunities, rather than waiting until the world pushes you into new areas as consequences of your inaction.

I know better than the way that I’ve been living. I know better but it’s been too long anyway. Call this a step of which only I know the significance.

This season is make-or-break. Digital thinking for a digital time.  §

The idea that time is God’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen all at once has been attributed to many of history’s most important thinkers. This suggests that whatever the source, we find something about it to be deeply true. It also suggests that at some level, modernity has broken time. Because modernity, increasingly, is precisely that state of being in which everything does in fact happen all at once.

— § —

One of the saddest truths about life is that while the distance from incompetence to competence is very large, the distance from competence to incompetence is very small. If you want to stand a chance, you must never stop clawing as the ground shifts underneath your feet; to hold ground is hard enough. To make it up again? Nearly impossible.

— § —

Metaphysics is that which is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Empirical science is that which is larger on the outside than it is on the inside. That isn’t to say that empirical science is wrong, or that it’s useless. Only that its immense power comes from a very small actual territory; much larger territories remain to be explored—not in the universe, which is a human abstraction, but in fact in human being, which is—paradoxically—our most fundamental reality.

— § —

The left imagines itself to be fighting for a justice that it will someday bring about, while in truth it is fighting like a child for an immortality that no one can ever grant. The right imagines itself to be fighting for a freedom that is indispensable to human thriving, while in truth it is fighting for imprisonment within human mediocrity. We are told as we are raised that we are to fight “the good fight,” but strangely enough, almost no one in this era of maximum battle is actually doing it.

— § —

Not so long ago, “this is not a pipe” was a scandalous thing to say. Now, it is absolutely mundane. Now, the scandal occurs when one has the gall to claim that “this is in fact a pipe.” Because everyone knows that only the straight, white, cis, male descendants of hundreds of years of colonialists would presume to see pipes. Not-pipes are laudable, but pipes and assertions about pipes? In pipes lies catastrophe. In fact, the road to hell is paved with them.

— § —

In an age of the deterritorialized and the digital, it is the spatial and the analog that call to us the most. Being human, we want what we can have only in our dreams. Locality, continuous variation rather than discrete stepping, and immortality are our fondest dreams. It may still be possible to resurrect some semblance of the former. The latter has been misconstrued in our digital zeitgeist; hence the hospital and the yoga mat. We think ourselves to be either alive or dead, rather than on a continuum between the two, and with this in mind, we are more terrified than were the peoples of ages past. Perhaps in the era of quantum information, we will see ourselves to be alive and dead, mortal and immortal in a visceral way, and all of this will disappear. Perhaps we will also begin to understand that everything is also always at once true and false, but precisely not in the postmodernist way in which everything means nothing. Rather the opposite—every thing, every single thing, will mean every thing, every single thing, all at the same time.

— § —

There’s that problem of time again. Modernity broke it, but perhaps it doesn’t matter if something is broken once you don’t need it any longer. I’m not sure I’m prepared to live in the quantum age, but I do suspect that in some ways it will be more human—and more divine—than the digital age. The digital age is an age of fragmentation; the quantum age promises to be an age of identity. In an age of identity, simultaneity makes perfect sense. All things are already always all things, and always were.

— § —

I don’t know what all of this nonsense is all about. But whatever. I’m overwhelmed right now, this season—legitimately overwhelmed—for the first time in my life. I’m not seeking answers, and I’m not seeking questions. I’m seeking truth and a way forward. Any way. All ways.

This pits me decidedly against all of my intellectual upbringing, which was largely about the emptiness and impossibility of truth and the importance of the “sideways.” I even have a massive tome on the importance of seeing sideways on my shelf. I am tempted to burn it.

In the grand tradition of all that has been rejected by all that is presently holy, I paint a giant cross on my chest and yell, “Forward!”

Why some of us don’t date, despite the urgings of others.  §

Me: “This is amazing. Maybe one of the most beautiful, most deep things ever.”

Her: “Only you could think this way, okay? I mean seriously, like—what?! Your ideas about beautiful, deep moments are really fucking weird and sterile.”

Me: “But don’t you think—”

Her: “No. Only you would think Calculus and concrete are beautiful and deep. Seriously. Frankly, it’s frightening.”

— § —

Her: “Isn’t this the greatest moment ever? Everrr!? Wooooooooooo! Don’t you love yoga on a mountainside with friends? Best ever, ever, ever!”

Me: “It’s pretty cool! Everyone’s so happy—I think that’s awes—”

Her: “‘Pretty cool’ my ass. As usual, you make Spock look emotional. Fuck you. You don’t think this is the best moment in all of existence? This isn’t the greatest single day of your life?”

Me: “I said it was pretty cool!”

Her: “Yeah, and I said fuck you.”

— § —

This is the dynamic of every serious relationship I’ve ever had. People tell me to date. I say I’m tired. This is what I’m talking about.