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.
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

Time passes slowly at first, and then all at once.  §

It’s 1:23 am and for the first time in nearly ten years, I’m writing from an office that is not “my office,” a room in the house where my work and work equipment have lived since we arrived in Utah in 2011.

The feeling is a strange one. The desk is different. The position of the screens is different. The sound is different. The room also faces a different direction (east, rather than west) and somehow this also changes this considerably at some ineffable subconscious level.

The last office was the office in which I finished my doctorate, did my final teaching, became a marketing person and then marketing management, got divorced, spent countless hours with my kids. There were many naptimes, writing projects, tragic phone calls, and hours spent with (now dead) pets there. Some of the best things I ever thought I thought in there.

New room now.

Kids are getting older. One will be a tween in a moment. She carries a phone already. It’s been ten years since I last taught in New York. It’s been twenty years since I finished my undergraduate degree. It’s been thirty years since the first time I set foot on a college campus for class. That’s a long time, and it all passed in a flash.

This isn’t an original post, but that’s okay—it’s not really meant to be. It’s meant to be a bookmark and a kind of prayer. Whether that’s a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer to ask for blessings, or a prayer to seek guidance… who knows.

I’ve never been much of one for schedules and calendars—one to plan my life out to the day, or even the month. The upside is that there is a certain amount of freedom (from multiple things) that results from not doing this.

The downside is that you don’t ever know what’s coming next, or when—you never celebrate your “this is the last time I’ll” moments, because you don’t know they’re the last time until you look back and say “Wow, that was the last time I… I had no idea then that…”

I don’t know whether it’s healthy or not to always move on without in the way of ceremony or celebration of what one is leaving behind.

But that’s sort of how I do it. I don’t spent a lot of time on goodbyes, to circumstances, to things, or to people. I just don’t, even though sometimes I wish I had afterward, upon reflection.

I don’t even know what to say.  §

Looking over the wreckage of our culture, and of our civilization right now, there’s only one thing to say, I suppose:

“The emperor has no clothes!”

The “woke” activists have no clothes.
The “freedom” activists have no clothes.
The Republicans have no clothes.
The Democrats have no clothes.
The business owners have no clothes.
The wealthy have no clothes.
The middle-class have no clothes.
The poor have no clothes.
The scientists have no clothes.
The laborers have no clothes.
The leaders have no clothes.
The followers have no clothes.

Black lives matter? All lives matter? No lives matter!

This giant cluster of a year has taught us something: we’re all liars, and we’re all failures.

Never has the Judeo-Christian morality been needed by so many, yet embraced by so few.

What a mess.

Oh yes, I’ll say it:

BLM is a crock.
MAGA is a crock.
“isms” are a crock.
“phobias” are a crock.
It’s all a crock, and all these people are mad.

Mad, mad, mad, mad, mad as hatters, every last one of them.

I always knew, and people just thought I was a misanthropist. But I always knew. Everyone should have always known.

About the evil—the evil yoga teachers, and the evil historical preservationists, and the evil community organizers, and the evil business tycoons, and the evil teachers, and the evil students. It’s a land of evil and deceit.

Oh, I know how this sounds to everyone. But it’s not me doing the “I’m going nuts” thing. If this sounds nuts to you, you need to look around and realize that the emperor has no clothes. Not the good emperor, not the bad emperor, not the wise emperor, not the idiot emperor, not the good people, not the bad people, not the wise people, not the idiot people.

All of them.

All of them have no clothes.

You have all gone mad.

Am I so sane? Probably not. But at least I can still see that gravity causes apples to fall, rain makes things wet, and bullets are harder than breath.

I appear to be the only one left, or at the very least one of just a handful.

No, the end of the world isn’t nigh. But the end of the West is here.

Anyone who thought I was joking or crazy may want to reconsider.  §

I’m not happy to have been right.

And contra those who are saying that:

  • The pandemic is almost over

  • The political upheaval is burning itself out

I am sadly confident, based on data from scientists and from my own eyes, that we are only seeing the beginning.

In the United States of America, the pandemic slowed for a moment but has now returned with fury, and in a far larger number of places, making any further containment that much closer to impossible.

We’re now in worse shape than we were when we locked everything down (I can’t remember by now whether I even posted about it). People say we don’t have the political “will” to lock down again but in fact it’s not a question of will.

There is, in fact, no governing authority with any actual power at the moment. People just don’t realize this because the governing authorities have sensibly refrained from attempting any governance or enforcement at the moment—either of which would reveal complete impotence and the fact that the public is ready, able, and willing to topple them—and would put the final nail in the coffin of the republic.

As it is, they’re hoping against hope that somehow this will all blow over and they can silently start giving orders again, and that when this happens, the public will start to follow them again as if the first half of 2020 never happened.

They won’t. It did.

The west as a civilizational impulse and as a culture is now in full-scale retreat, even as it is also undergoing a full-scale 180-degree reversal in cultural values.

If you doubt this, you may have missed the part where “protestors” (read: revolutionaries) have begun to place eight-foot guillotines outside the homes of wealthy folk like Jeff Bezos. Or where in my own neighborhood, the same have begin to shoot into the windows of passing cars (with bullets, not with cameras), presumably out of sheer rage that the drivers of said cars are driving somewhere unrelated to the revolution rather than—you know—also shooting.

Or the part where cultural elites at major publications like the New York Times have begun to rehabilitate Robespierre, saying that what he did was rather glorious and all for the best in the end, as you’ve got to chop off a few heads if you want to arrive someday at utopia. You don’t believe me, do you? Google it. And count the number of “important” people who repeated this.

When I posted that the coming times were to be “unimaginable,” I bet you weren’t thinking that our best and brightest would be embracing the guillotine and saying that we’d all previously got it greviously wrong about the Reign of Terror.

No, as Dave Chapelle recently suggested, the streets are “speaking for themselves,” and as usually is the case when this happens, it is not a virtuous thing.

We have the perfect storm. One pandemic exploding and another on the way (you thought I’d forgotten about the new swine flu epidemic taking hold in China, didn’t you), two generations of individuals who have been raised to believe that to be made to feel “discomfort” is a capital offense, an elite happy to throw in with mayhem and murder of the public because the public gave them Trump and Brexit, an ignorant public that were already at historic levels of financial ruin before the pandemic thrust them into historic levels of unemployment and economic collapse, and a complacent bourgoisie too afraid of falling, in all of this, to the level of the plebes to have any interest in preserving their integrity and refusing to go along with things rather than simply proclaiming “viva la revolución!” and laying down prostrate to literally wash the feet of the new Robespierre forces.

No, we’re going down.

And people will again think me crazy to say that I’m writing every post now as though it’s my last because I legitimaly don’t know what’s going to happen over the coming months—particularly as we head into “election season” (does anybody imagine that this will proceed without bloodshed at this point?) later this fall—and I also have no idea who will remain alive and free after the fact.

This is just the beginning, folks. I’ll repeat myself:

Tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

Ghosts are everywhere around us, but for some reason most people can’t see them.  §

The most eerie or uncanny kinds of spaces are the spaces where life once was—where life once happened—but that are now empty.

— § —

Once upon a time, this entire house was one of those spaces.

After I filed for divorce—a shockingly messy situation whose details I won’t go into but to say that it was shockingly messy—I left and didn’t return to the house for almost a month.

When I came back to the place as it was—dark, empty, no longer full of family life, or of children, or even of the everyday furnishings to which we’d become accustomed—I almost couldn’t stand to see it.

It was the kind of strange terror of the uncanny that can drive a person to madness. I know why some of those guys out there commit suicide; it’s because they encounter the world’s inverse image, it’s dead negative, wearing a label that proclaims it to be their lives, and in a fit of the uncanny they imagine that if they fire the pistol, time will reverse. They are already dead. In their confusion, they imagine that suicide will bring them back to life.

But it doesn’t.

It took a long time for me to un-dead the space. I had entered a new epoch, a new universe. We had all died that July. We all started over as new people. The space started over as a new space.

The family that was is now fictional, something that never happened.

— § —

Now the space where life once was is the bedroom at the far end of the hallway, at the west end of the house.

I never reclaimed that room myself; it had been the parents bedroom in that fictional story about a happy family, and once I returned and created a new house from uncanny death mask of the old house, I had no interest in sleeping there ever again.

Yes, I have spent the last five years sleeping on my office floor, or on my office couch, or (most often) in my office chair, right in front of my work computer, or at times when I fall asleep reading the kids a story instead of or along with the kids falling asleep, at the foot of their bed.

But no, I haven’t had a bed in five years.

Now, before you go and dig up what seems to be the right amount of pity or shock, let me explain that I’m one of those people the Karens like to scold; I never do things the right way. The big things, I mean—like have living arrangements and sleep every night.

By the time I was a teenager, I was done with beds. I slept on floors and couches and in cardboard boxes and cars and all kinds of other places, but never, ever in a bed.

First apartment? Hardwood floors. That I slept on. College? Same. Floor. Sometimes a couch. Sometimes a folded-up futon. Grad school? I lived in a dorm that didn’t have a bed; it was a deco-era building that had old, spartan leather couches built directly into the wall. I slept on one of those, or sometimes in the chair that also came with the room.

Really, the only time since I was a pre-teen that I’ve regularly slept on a bed was while I was married. And I didn’t do it properly. I stayed up far too late and often fell asleep in my office chair despite having a bed.

It’s the kind of thing that a certain kind of wife turns into a vile offense and a vendetta. I had such a wife, and because there are many other ways in my life in which I’m a non-bed-sleeper, there were a lot of vendettas.

No comment on whether she was a Karen.

But I just wanted to get that out of the way so that we can focus on what I’m actually writing about.

— § —

What I’m actually writing about is that that when I returned to the house, that back room became my dog’s bedroom; he claimed the bare bed and slept on it virtually every night by himself. The kids called it “Shandy’s room.”

Then, Shandy died, but soon the room was occupied instead by Gypsy, our cat. It became the place in the house that she preferred—to get away both from the other cats and from Molly, Shandy’s unwitting replacement.

But the kids have been getting older. They need rooms of their own, rather than a shared room. And there are only three rooms upstairs—the office, on whose floor (or office chair) I have been sleeping for five years, the kids shared bedroom, and Gypsy’s room.

And so it became clear that it was time for Gypsy to join my ex-wife in her residence. Because Gypsy and Molly never made a lot of progress in getting along together and because I need to move into that room—so that my daughter can move into what has been my office for a decade now, and adopt it as her bedroom.

— § —

I spent three hours cleaning the room tonight.

There was a lot of dirt to be removed, and there were many ghosts to be chased away. There are still a number of them there; it’s clearly still haunted, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

That room was “our” bedroom for years and years when I was married. The marriage is dead. Then it was beloved Shandy’s room. Shandy is dead. Then it was Gypsy’s room. Gypsy is now gone.

It’s a room-where-life-once-was.

And now I have to reclaim it and work in it. There is much to be done, and there are exorcisms to be carried out.

Luckily, I’m more familiar with these kinds of spaces than I used to be. The shock doesn’t strike me full in the face like it used to. But ghosts still have the whiff of dread, sadness, and eternal loss about them. It’s not easy to clean and reoccupy such a room—to steal it away from the dead and the missing.

Still, because I don’t get shocked any longer, there’s no danger that I will get confused and think that if I perform the right steps in the right order, I can cause time to run backward once again.

So that’s something.

— § —

This entire post is the sort of thing that once would have made my ex-wife’s skin crawl, and we’d have had a good, knock-down, drag-out yelling and hating fight afterward about how bizarre and sick in the head I am for being the sort of person that can write and say things like this.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with it, but then I guess I wouldn’t if I’m as bizarre and off-beam as she always said I was.

I guess that’s why we’re divorced.

And why now I’m trying to reoccupy a room-where-life-once-was.

When your country’s government falls to the enemy, you get a little bitter.  §

So this post comes at the end of a week of destruction. The U.S. national and local governments are in the process of falling. It’s not entirely clear that the United States will exist at this time next week, or next month.

— § —

The whole nation is embroiled in stupidity, conspiracy theories, and intrigue real and imagined, while on the ground facts are very simple.

The system has been allowed to rot for decades. Gleeful white radicals, looking for the importance that was taken from them when they lost religion, and then parenthood after that, now fancy themselves not only the saviors of the black man, but the saviors of history—history in the Maxrian tradition. We’ve been locked down for months. Jobs have been lost. People have died. The public is about as educated and sophisticated as my straw hat. And social media lets videos go viral.

Including a video of a bad cop killing a black man.

And so the world explodes.

Every major city—dozens of them—on fire. Killing, looting, and destruction in the streets. The police have fled, not because they’re not up to the job, but because said white radicals, most of them self-satisfied and operating the levers of government, have proclaimed the riots to be a good and moral thing, and encouraged them to continue.

Burn more! Steal more! Kill more! Your pain is valuable! Your pain is beautiful! Please—rape and pillage! I’m an ally!

And of course particular factions, most importantly among them the college radio set, have gleefully accepted the challenge. They’re the serious radicals of course, the ones that are always out there throwing molotov cocktails and poisoning housewives by contaminating groceries in the stores, working internationally, usually in a rag-tag way, to bring down governments with the help of PETA, Greenpeace, MoveOn, the NRDC, and so on. Antifa. The ELF. The ALF.

How do I know it’s them? Those of you who know me know how I know it’s them.

Nevermind, you can’t really blame them for seizing their opportunity. No, it’s the public and the leaders that I’m most disgusted by.

The ones that look from afar at the lone family man, formerly a shop owner but now the owner of a pile of rubble, formerly a father, but now surrounded by burning bodies, and say “We feel your pain—which is why we continue to encourage the riot! (Look at our virtue!)”

And all the while the pandemic rages in the background.

— § —

The US as we knew it is dead.

It may in fact be dead in any form at all within a week. Perhaps even less.

Maybe we’ll get lucky.

— § —

It’s all fun and games and ego until it’s your life.

The thing that makes me sickest of all is that I was once one of these people, and I trained god knows how many of them to be exactly this. There is a special place in hell for me.

But at least I have the solace of being able to see that now.

The comfy middle class whites cheering on the riots and destruction to fill the hole left by the baby that never emerged from their once fertile loins will not be eaten by the revolution for a while.

But when they are, it will be a rude awakening.

Parenthood is beautiful and also sad.  §

To the eternal lament of parents, growing up is wonderful but also painful. Life is wonderful but also painful. Your children will suffer if they are to grow, and they will suffer even if they don’t, because suffering is a part of life.

This is a difficult truth that is impossible to accept. You can’t cope with it. You can only live through it, helplessly.

Under the leaves, soil. Under the soil, stone. Under the stone, souls.  §

Being yourself is no easy thing. Or maybe—holding on to yourself is no easy thing.

I stumbled across the video for Stella Maris tonight and I stopped, frozen in time while parts of me burned away. Or rather, not-parts of me. It was like a resurrection. Chills ran across my cheeks. My hair stood on end. I shivered. I stopped breathing.

Dimensions of me long asleep and nearly lost fought their way to the surface, destitute, full of longing, indignant, hurt, desiring and accusing.

I had forgotten me again.

I forget myself every day. Every hour. Every minute.

I live a life of forgetting.

Do others?

— § —

I read once long ago in a phase during which I was consuming a large number of Myers-Briggs profiles about INFPs (I am evenly split between INFP and INTP) that while they weren’t natural members of today’s global marketplace, they could—when necessary—don their “ESTJ business suit” for a while, though only with great effort.

It wasn’t there explained that some of us get so much practice at this over such a long period of time that we do things like publish nonfiction books and earn PhDs and manage teams of people.

It also wasn’t explained that to do this is immensely risky.

It’s risky because if we do it long enough, we lose ourselves. We become what we’re not—we become it so thoroughly and so skillfully that it seems we’ve never been anything else.

But, of course, and as the trite wisdom goes, we are then dead inside, having lost ourselves without realizing it. Devoid of both joy and insight.

Oh, I’m very efficient. I’m very professional. I’m very stable, as my team members and family members love to remind me. I can be trusted. To get things done. To figure things out. To stay calm in a crisis. To be the one that everyone else looks to, for a great many things.

But I realized tonight, only after encountering with suddenness an artifact from the deep past, that I haven’t felt anything in years.

Well tonight I felt something.

— § —

I know this is a part of what went wrong in my marriage, and what continues to haunt my relationships today.

My ex-wife, who (as I always knew, and as I can’t count how many people have told me over the years, both before and after our divorce) wears her heart on her sleeve and is consumed by passions, felt as though I wasn’t there.

And of course I wasn’t. And I’m not. Not in that way. Not with feelings.

I can’t be a person with feelings and keep a job. I can’t be a person with feelings and pay the bills. The me with feelings lays in the snow under the stars shivering and telling myself that I have to go inside while, for far too long, I don’t. The me with feelings spends all of the money because money is worthless but so many, many other things aren’t—so many, many other things are so very, very special and magical.

And life is short.

And you can’t keep it with you.

And all there is to do is to notice just how lovely and romantic and tragic and sad the world is, and to love that and hate it, and revel in it and become it.

But you can’t do that.

Not and live in the modern world.

— § —

It’s the first time I’ve understood so clearly why it was so painful for her to be with me.

Because I loved her and I loved our life, but not in the way that she wanted me to. Neither she nor our life dwelt in my soul, could have broken me entirely. She saw this after we divorced, too; it was always more possible for me to live and function without her than she wanted, than felt enough for her.

And I can’t do anything but admit it.

No, I wasn’t in love in that way. It wasn’t that relationship. I loved her and cared deeply for her. But—


I was in my ESTJ “business suit” in the relationship, of necessity. And, being the person that she is—absolutely committed to paying the bills and keeping a tidy house and and entertaining skillfully—the deeper me, the dreamer me, the me that’s an Orthodox brother, the me of endless longing and ecstasy—was not hers and could not be brought to that kind of profound dwelling by her.

We did not, in other words, together weave tellurian magic, but merely a home. It was love as caring for me, not love as craving, as pining, as endless yearning, as ravenous hunger, as wistful, wishful shards of sunlight glancing across meadows in the fever dream of barely recalled childhood memories—safety and sin, fear and fancy, tableaux and trance.

No. It was love, as a husband loves his wife—not as archetypal man—brute, general, hunter, elder— must necessarily devour archetypal woman—muse, force of nature, soil of fertility and mystery.

We’re so different as to be mutually unintelligible in basic ways, and so we became, each in turn, somehow less.

Climbing to my depths was beyond her nature and ability. I was always in resonance with sounds, carried from far, far away, deep beneath the surface of the earth, that she couldn’t and would never hear. Meanwhile, she did not have depths, but rather heights—and as a man of depths, I was unable ultimately to climb up to or to plausibly understand heights or their purpose in the ways that others have and did.

We loved each other, sure. But we couldn’t integrate with one another. Couldn’t appreciate, much less be enraptured by the clockwork beneath the dial when gazing across at the other’s face.

And to make things even harder—though I think this was harder for her than it was for me, probably as result of whatever inscrutable differences separate us, and that I can’t describe precisely because they’re so inscrutable to each of us—I knew that many others could fill such a role for her, yet I struggled even to aspire to the climb, and she conversely knew I could be and had been reached in that way only under the most obscure of circumstances, by the most dedicated of adventurers, perhaps only once before, and by someone else.

And this was painful for her, even if it didn’t and couldn’t ever have been sustained for the same reason that tsunamis don’t and can’t last forever, that earthquakes pass in seconds, that the largest infernos burn out in time, having consumed everything in their wake…

— § —

But yes, I see. Tonight I see in a new way.

How can I blame her for hating me—knowing, as she knew, that as much as perhaps I loved her, I was not inspired by her. Every woman wants to be the muse. Every man wants to be the hero.

We were just not these things to each other.

Perhaps it’s an adolescent wish, yes.

But there’s a difference between, on the one hand, growing old as a couple knowing that once you were these things to each other even if you’ve long since outgrown them, and on the other hand, knowing that you’ve never been and never could or would be these things to each other—that in fact each of you is forever to be haunted by the dim yet startlingly viscous light and shadow of what others perhaps could be or already have been.

What do you do with that?

— § —

Even as I sit here—middle-aged and racing toward “golden years,” knowing that all of this is in the past—that for me all of these artifacts are things only to remember, and never really to be felt again—it is difficult to move entirely beyond the imprint of the feelings that once were.

She longed to dwell in the memory of my skin, of my breath, of my heartbeat. It wasn’t possible. It hurt her. It still wasn’t possible. Those things, for me, are primordial; I can’t grant access to them. They must be unlocked through alchemical reactions that even I don’t understand, but that I at least know are esoteric and obscure, metronomic and preternatural.

I am led by reading to understand that this is a passion that is meant, in the Christian tradition—particularly that of the East—to be felt by all for God. Perhaps if that had been the case for us, things for us would have been different. I have no insight into such matters at this time.

— § —

I sit here, struggling to breathe, having listened to Stella Maris now nonstop for going on two hours, as one feels the rhythm of chants in a monastery. Everything around me is transparent, has dissolved into mist illuminated by hints of coronal moonlight; I can pass my hand through wood, rock, metal, and universe—for a moment—without resistance.

For the first time in many years, I remember myself, and such things inevitably lead to new understanding.

And so, having written this, I am blank. Not in body or soul, but in mind.

— § —

Do you ever get the feeling that you have accidentally, perhaps due to poor judgment and lack of exercise, or some other absurdly quotidian factor, lived the wrong life?

That everything that is—is not what was meant to be?

It’s late.

There is no doubt that some people will die in middle age, of pneumonia.  §

It’s 1:12 am, so this will be a less well-considered (and less well-overwrought) post than the last few.

I’ve finished the laundry, which is something.

Cleaning with me is always that way. I put it off. For a very long time. Then, one thing reaches the point at which I decide that it must be cleaned. Then, having achieved a bit of momentum, I suddenly look around and clean everything in sight.

These days, cleaning everything in sight means deep cleaning, involving ethanol and quarternary ammonium solutions and sodium hypochlorite solutions and so on. The whole places starts to smell like a chemical plant.

I don’t know whether or not it’s doing any good. I don’t suppose anyone does. It could all be for naught.

— § —

I don’t clean as much as perhaps I should or would like to because I’m inevitably behind the gun.

I’ve lived my entire life behind the gun. I was born behind the gun into a family behind the gun. People “on the margins,” they say. My parents were desperately clinging to the lower edge of lower middle class when I was small.

We ate a lot of green beans out of cans mixed with cream of chicken soup out of cans all baked into a single, large pot with a bunch of “generic” corn flakes. (When I was small, there were no “store brands.” There were name brands, and then there were the “generics” that stores sourced from manufacturers. Their packaging was just a plain white box, and the labels said nothing but—in this case—”CORN FLAKES” in big, black, block print.) It was dinner for a family for a buck or so in the prices at the time.

Today, I still feel the same—as though everything in my life is in danger of flying apart at any moment. I don’t think people who are well off have an understanding of precisely what it’s like to live on the margins, hand to mouth—it’s a bit like feeling, all the time, as though you’re on the run from the law.

Now my standard of living is somewhat better than my parents’ was. But I have never quite had an on ramp to the life that they led. The options were basically—ride the debt horse and shoot for the moon, or give up and sink into abject poverty.

I think for an entire generation, that was the sole option. The “live modestly in the lower-middle class” thing is harder and harder; it’s just not available any longer.

— § —

The COVID-19 thing has exacerbated this feeling. On April first, for only the second time in my adult life, I have proper health coverage. The second time.

And the first time, which was just in 2018, lasted only for a quarter—following the acquisition of the company that I worked for (and that did not provide health coverage) by another, larger company. Who covered my healthcare until I was shown the door, right on schedule (we all knew we were only being brought on under the new ownership until the acquisition was completed).

It’s a good time to have health coverage, I suppose, but of course all companies are in something of a liminal moment right now, so it could well be that it won’t last because employment won’t last. We’ll see.

And for those who are well off who are saying, “How is this possible? Employers are mandated to provide coverage to full-time employees!” well, mandates and statutes and regulations are all well and good in theory.

In practice, they don’t even have to pay you. Yes, I worked for a company that did that while I was in New York. No, it wasn’t meat packing or cutting cocaine or anything illegal. It was a well-respected think tank. Well, a sort of legal subdivision-of some-sort of a well-respected think tank. And they’d just stop paying us from time to time, for months at a time.

One day all of the employees, who were generally educated and rather together, got together and send a complaint to the New York labor people. The next day, we received notice that we were all fired. And when we turned up at the door, it was bolted. The company had disappeared, overnight.

The next week they opened up on the other side of town under a new name—well, a new name of the legal subdivision-of-some-sort that was still a part of the same well-known think tank “family.” The new place was the same as the old place—same work, same contracts, same management. Well, one thing wasn’t the same. Us. We’d all been replaced.

So sure, they have to provide you with healthcare, too. Only I’ve never had it. I worked for seven major universities with full teaching loads, not to mention two top North American publishers and two boutique publishers and a couple software companies, and none of them ever provided health insurance to me.

So it’s good to have it. Because I’ve already been living under the gun my entire life and now with COVID-19 threatening, it would be almost too much not to have some sort of healthcare security. So it comes just in time.

Provided it lasts.

— § —

I’m not happy I was right about COVID-19 when I started worrying about it in January. Normally, I’m not the sort to worry about these things. I’m a big believer in the immune system, and in training it. Eating vegetables straight out of a garden. Not sanitizing everything your baby touches to within an inch of hospital grade. Those sorts of things.

But this is different.

And I have a strange feeling about it, one that scares me.

My entire life I told people—I’m not sure how or why—that I would die young, of pnuemonia. I was telling people that when I was twenty. How did I arrive at this conclusion? I can’t say; it’s lost to the annals of history. I only know that at some point it became something I knew about myself, and then, as I entered my mid-30s and finally my 40s, it blissfully faded to “merely suspect or somehow wonder” status.

People in their 20s, especially people that have had a couple of direct brushes with death, as I have, tend to talk about death a bit too freely. And when people would say they were glad I was still around and that this event or that one didn’t get me, I’d say, “Bah, it’s not my time. I’m going to die in middle age of pneumonia. How do I know? I just know.”

But now I haven’t said that to anyone else for years, thankfully. Now, here I am in middle age, and here is a global pandemic that causes bilateral interstitial pneumonia and ARDS.

I don’t know. It’s irrational. But I have a funny feeling about all of this, a spooky feeling. Enough that in between bouts of cleaning, I have been taking steps to put my affairs in order, just in case.

Just in case.

— § —

Speaking of death, it wasn’t only brushes with my own mortality as a young person that shaped my relationship to it. It was the people that died around me as I was young.

That and the fact that I was invariably asked to be a pallbearer at their funerals.

I don’t know whether some people just have a “pallbearer face” or whether in fact most people have the good sense to decline such invitations while I didn’t, but I carried a lot of bodies in my pre-teens and teens.

Two of my own grandparents, four other peoples’ grandparents, two friends my own age and from my own school, and one person from the neighborhood—that I can think of. Now that may not sound like a lot, but for a kid to pack in at least nine instances of carrying a body between the ages of about twelve and fourteen—well, it does something to you at that age.

I got tired of carrying bodies. It was almost a relief to have my own near-death experiences later in my teens and twenties, in a strange way. To get a chance to come to grips with my own mortality rather than always carrying around evidence of that of other people.

But I did also refuse after that to attend funerals or to carry any more bodies, which sadly meant that I missed the funerals of my second two grandparents, something that I regret now. But the past is the past.

This is the present.

And in the present, we are living in a time of global pandemic. And I am sanitizing everything in sight, while also having the strange sensation—not unlike that of deja vu—that comes with being middle aged and hearing of millions being infected with a disease that leads through pneumonia to death after spending a big chunk of my young life being certain that I’d die in middle age of pneumonia.

— § —

Yes, this is a strange and irrational post. And probably nothing of the sort will happen, and I’ll look back on this and snicker.

But it’s 1:40 am now, and at 1:40 am after spending all day cleaning and doing laundry, your mind goes to strange places.

— § —

Whatever happens, I’m not particularly happy about what’s to come. For the vast majority who will survive these few months, the next few months—indeed, the next few years—are not going to be pleasant.

I’ve often wondered about the lives of those who were parents at the time of the Great Depression. Now I get to find out what it was like. And my kids get to be my grandparents—the people who were young at the time of the great depression, but mature enough to realize what it meant.

They will live their entire lives with the memory of “before” and “after.” They can add this memory to the existing “before” and “after” memories that accompany their parents’ divorce.

They will have an epochal consciousness of a kind that I’ve never known, accustomed as I have been to inevitable continuities—like the continuity of forever being behind the financial and career gun, or forever hearing promises of health coverage knowing you’d never get it.

The closest things we Generation X folk have are the fall of the Soviet Union and the September 11th attacks. But both of those are television episodes more than anything else. Someone on the screen says that something very tremendous and important has happened. Then, everything in society carries on much as it was before.

Sure, people say “everything has changed,” but by “everything” they do not mean the shelves at the stores or the methodical day-by-day of going to work, paying the bills, visiting the stores, then coming home and talking about the news.

Today’s kids will live the news. It will transform their lives. Not just some of them, and not just those that are far away.

— § —

We race toward the ides of April.

I’ve always liked this quote, and it seems appropriate now. Bonus points to anyone that recognizes where it’s from:

“Tonight will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond all imagining.”

When the globe stops spinning, inertia drives its swirling contents—for a little while.  §

I’m writing this in a dimly lit, quiet room, because I want my thoughts to be gathered and to be free of distractions. It’s time to write this post.

I’ve been intending to write it for weeks now, but every day it seems as though I ought to wait one more day. To see just a tiny bit more. To hunt for the firefly, the touch of light, in the darkness.

But it’s time.

— § —

I’ve heard a few people say that we’re living in “interesting times” recently. That’s not true. These are not interesting times. These are epochal times. We are living through events greater in import than the fall of the Soviet Union or the Vietnam War.

The public is of course largely oblivious to what’s to come, which may be a blessing, albeit one that can only last for so long. They look around and see that things are stressful, worrying, maybe even bad, but also note that most of the things that they take for granted in life are still there, still unchanged, and draw from this the mistaken conclusion that all will be well. That there may be some uncomfortable changes, but that on the whole things are going to be familiar.

They aren’t.

The die is cast. No matter what happens now, the die is cast. A chain of events has been set in motion whose full effects will only dawn on us over the course of decades, possibly centuries, though most will begin to realize that something big has happened within a year.

The discovery of the novel coronavirus of 2019, and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, is a seminal historical event. For generations now creative people, young people, people with imagination and whimsy have mused around the coffee table about what would happen to earth and the societies on it if aliens were to arrive here one day.

The aliens have arrived.

I was a bit embarrassed at times as I wrote my last few posts because they seemed so much more alarmed than did members of the general public, and after all, I’m not a medical doctor or a virologist or any other kind of expert on pathogens, so what did I know, and maybe I had it wrong, and so on.

But I’ve realized over the last few days, slowly at first, and now completely, that the alarm that I felt wasn’t ill-informed. I am, after all, a sociologist. I do know something about how large-scale societies and their members live, breathe, evolve, grow, and die from the macro perspective.

— § —

What I saw very early on was that the single largest manufacturing center of the world was being slowed, strained, and then brought entirely to a halt by an alien invader—for weeks and weeks, and with no end to the threat in sight.

After so many years studying societies in particular and the globe as a whole, what my instincts told me without my having to run any actual numbers was that the consequences would be immense.

Now? Now virtually every major economy in the world is facing the same challenge, and either taking or about to take the same steps. There are seven billion people on this planet, half of whom have grown accustomed to a certain kind of life—habits of social interaction, expectations of production and consumption, understandings of local and international geography, and so on—that has already been arrested, killed.

And like any organism, the organism of global society has a life force that can’t be stopped and re-started at will. When metabolism stops, the organism dies. It can’t be resurrected. A new one has to be grown. Sure, for a few moments remnant metabolic processies here and there throughout the body will continue. And the hair and nails will grow, and the body will remain warm, and so on.

But the organism is dead.

The beating hard of 20th century global society has stopped. It will not be restarted again—not in the same way. All that is left is for the body to gradually grow cold in the coming months. And then, we will wake up and realize that we face an unfamiliar world.

— § —

The events that have already occured are a catalyst, a global catalyst injected into the ongoing reaction of global human life. This catalyst will accelerate every trend that we have observed in recent years—trends that we already understood to be considerably accelerated relative to the ways in which trends behaved just a century or two ago.

These accelerated trends include:

  • Climate change (you think I’m wrong about this on the data, but talk to me again in ten years)

  • Wealth inequality and health inequality

  • Automation on the one hand and unwork on the other

  • The collapse of the West and the rise of the East as the “center” of the geosociopolitical world

  • The overtaking of embodied life by virtual life

  • Computational society

  • The loss of traditional cultures (note that I include here 20th century American culture)

There are more, but that’s a taste at least.

— § —

We will also lose many people. This will be formative not just for the societies that emerge on the other side but, naturally and as both effect and cause, for the individuals in those societies.

There has been much talk of the generation that was shaped by the financial crisis of 2008. But in real terms, life continued very much as it had. Those who came of age in 2008 lived through the end of financial security, of the expectation of increased wealth.

Those who come of age in the months and handful of years to come will live through the loss of many dear people, the loss of the places that they went and the things that they did, of the local landscape, of their place in the world, yes also of financial security and not only financial security but in fact food security, health security, and in many cases housing security.

In comparison, 2008 was nothing. A blip on the radar. What is coming is not a speed bump, a correction, even a depression.

What is coming is an epochal shift. Not a stock market crash. Not even the collapse of a single country like the USSR. What we’re in the middle of is of the same order as the Reformation, the Fall of Rome, Industrialization.

Those of us that are already adults will be like Walter Benjamin’s veterans returning from war to a world in which only the sky above their heads remained unchanged, in which every other single thing was foreign, uncomfortable, shocking, perhaps even frightening.

When the war is over, there will be no home to come to. Not as we knew it.

— § —

And so little of this is about the disease itself. We have the disease itself to contend with on top of everything else. The pathogen, the fear, the death, the corrective in our understanding of our place in nature and our capabilities and limitations as a species.

And note well—all of this has been my light-to-moderate read on things. The severe and worst-case read on things… I won’t write. Because I have to get up in the morning and live.

— § —

Am I totally wrong about things?

I’d love to be. Let’s say that I certainly hope so.

But when the whole world was unconcerned with China in January, I was silently alarmed. When the whole world was saying that the risk was low in February, I had already gone ought and bought months and months worth of supplies, and began to track the numbers every night—not just the infection numbers, but the financial numbers, the logistics numbers, the shipping numbers, and so on—began to wonder for the first time in my life whether it might not be irresponsible as a parent to not own a firearm, perhaps even several of them. Things are going to change. Slowly at first, and then entirely.

Let’s hope reality decides to deliver to us a miracle and that I’m wrong, or vastly overestimating things.

But sadly, I doubt I am.

The feeling of helplessness and quiet, lazy dread—it’s remarkable. I’ve never known anything quite like it. But there will be a lot of things we’ve never known to familiarize ourselves with in the days and weeks to come.

We’re at least as much to blame for the state of things as the viruses.  §

It’s 2003 and I’m scheduled to go on a trip with a friend. We’re to visit China and Russia and everything in between.

But a new virus has been identified that causes a disease called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and it is killing people in China. And elsewhere. And the World Health Organization is requesting that people cancel or postpone all non-essential travel.

I do. It nearly costs me one of my dearest friends.

I never make it to China. Or Russia.

— § —

And here we are. It’s 2020 and I’m worried. I’m worried because everywhere I’ve looked for half a decade or more now, I’ve seen a kind of worrying complacency and lazy decadence that—in the end—always comes to no good.

We’re so far down the rabbit hole that we’ve spent years now yelling at each other about the words that we use, doing elective surgeries to bodies in a manic conflation of cosmetics and biological necessity that is only possible in places where everything is so inexpensive that cosmetics and surgery can easily be mistaken for one another because each is as inexpensive as one another.

Where nothing has costs, everything seems serious—and then the figure of death rolls in, scythe in hand, and laughs at everyone while they wail like brats about just how unfair it all is.

— § —

I regret that I have not yet completed (nor even taken real steps to complete) the conversion that has been a clear matter of destiny for me now for years.

I regret that I have not done so many things that I believe I ought to have done, that I have invariably put off until “tomorrow.”

I have bad premonitions about this one.

Cancelling trips will not be enough, I think, for any of us.

I watch the news about “elections” and it becomes clear just how stupid all of this is. Just how stupid all of us are.

— § —

There is a tendency amongst the young—I had it in spades when I was young—to want to cry out to the elders, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that life is short? That it’s precious? How can we live like this? How can you go to work every day and do nothing in particular, and continue to vote for and participate in a system in which these people hunger their entire lives and those people have more money than they can spend and no one—neither group—is contributing whatever it is that they’re best able to contribute to human memory?!”

The elders of course take pains to explain that this is the sort of thing that everyone comes to understand in time, and they’re right in a way—in time, you do come to understand it, which is to say that you begin to do the same things that they did because there appears to be no practical alternative.

Today, you have to eat. Tomorrow you’ll worry about tomorrow.

But there are moments in a person’s life, and maybe—just maybe—moments for an entire world at which it becomes clear that at least in some way or other, the young people are right. So many tiny specs on a pale blue dot and yet we have Shakespeare and Plato and calculus and physics. These are the things that matter.

All of that other stuff—all of that other stuff doesn’t matter.

— § —

I’d like to think that if we end up with 50 or 100 million dead, we’ll wake up this time and do something different with ourselves, stop yelling about the safe spaces and the idiots and those other people who are to blame for the terrible things that aren’t, after all, so terrible—like being called a name here and there.

If only microbes were so facile as to fall for name-calling, we could do away with them for good.

But they’re the work of nature, and nature is not patient. God is not patient. It’s very possibly the greatest irony of fallen man—we, we mortals on the pale blue dot, we have infinite patience. Patience until we fade away or are suddenly snuffed out.

And we all throw up our hands and have more patience.

God and nature—not so much. What they have is being, that which is. Being that is not nearly as ephemeral as ours is.

We wear the costumes of control and dance around in them like so many fools.

— § —

All those years ago. 2003. Now it’s nearly twenty years later and everything old is new again.

Except me, that is. Except all of us who were here then, and ought to have known better, but instead have fallen for idols like “activism” and “innovation” and so on.

Where are our novels, our treatises, our memories, our legacies?

We’d better get to writing them. For all of us, come COVID-19 or some other cause, time is running out, because time is always running out.

And the control emphatically does not belong to us, however highly we may regard ourselves.

House cleaning, COVID-19, divorce, and Vietnam are all multiples of forty-four.  §

You put off cleaning the house. You put it off because of how overwhelming it all feels. And then at some point you get started.

And then, once you’ve started, you clean for hours and hours without stopping, unable to stop. Sometimes when this happens, you clean in places that you haven’t cleaned for years.

— § —

I am not normally an alarmist about things, but COVID-19 is different.

Already we see what is effectively community transmission in a variety of places. Meanwhile, the entire economy of China, manufacturer of virtually everything physical—everything real that exists in the world now, has been shut down for weeks.

And it’s all going to stay shut down. At least for weeks more. Possibly for months more. It’s not beyond imagining to come up with scenarios in which it does not return to what it’s been.

Meanwhile, that community transmission hums along. More and more clusters pop up. The climb begins. People say things like, “Oh, the mortality rate is only two to three percent, it’s not that bad.”

But the R0 is well above three, at the very least—it’s going to keep spreading absent some incredibly drastic measure taken by everyone in the world. And climate change has long told us that we cannot, as a world, take drastic measures.

And if we presume that the mortality rate hovers around the low bound of two, and that only half of the world comes down with it in the end (which may be optimistic under some realistic scenarios), then we are talking about 50 million excess deaths. Few things like this will have been seen before. Not Hitler, not Stalin, not Mao.

World War II as a whole is the only thing that really matches it.

And keep in mind, that mortality rate has thus far been in advanced industrial societies with clean hospitals and respirators—and is likely underreported due to the nature of the regime where the outbreak is currently largest.

— § —

Some people are calling this a “black swan” event. But a black swan event is something that is both incredibly unlikely and that could never have been predicted.

That makes COVID-19 anything but a black swan event.

People have been warning about and expecting it for years. Decades, even, in a variety of ways.

  • Worries about the offshoring of critical manufacturing, including things like medication and basic technology, have been a staple in politics since the first elections that I can remember, and I’m nearly half a century old. Now we face a situation in which critical resources will be needed, but they’re only made in the epicenter of the pandemic—which is currently entirely shuttered, and keeping what little production it can muster all to itself.

  • Worries about bioweapon and biodefense research at BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs are nothing new. How many times have we been warned that if a pathogen escapes, or an insane person working in one of these labs wanted to destroy the world, it could mark the end of civilization as we know it? There is, in fact, an entire cottage industry in Hollywood dedicated to playing out and portraying these scenarios for the public.

  • Worries about the US healthcare system, it’s inability to sustain basic health and basic immunity due to a broad lack of practical access to healthcare and healthcare guidance across half the population, are also a staple of national politics for at least the last three decades. Now we face a global pandemic in an environment in which medical bankruptcy is a way of life and people routinely avoid doctors yet go to work to ensure that they can continue to make ends meet.

  • Worries about largely uncontrolled crossing of most of the world’s borders have been treated as prejudice and an attitude that runs counter to the ethos of basic human rights, without regard for the obvious public health and public safety issues that porous borders all over the globe represent. I can remember discussing this when I used to teach sociology—most of my students had never considered questions of public health, only economics and crime, when it came to this issue. Now we have a tremendous exodus of potentially exposed Chinese citizens through a variety of countries with lax controls where they can then disperse around the globe.

We have a complacent, comfortable public. The kind of public that wails and gnashes its teeth about how free speech of various kinds is “literally killing us.”

I can only hope they are not in for a rude awakening in which they gain more experience with what the phrase “literally killing us” means—one in which, if it comes to pass, their protests in the streets will and can do nothing to stem the tide.

Nature may be about to have its revenge.

— § —

Beyond all of this, yet somehow also weirdly apropos of coronavirus and dogs and student debt and a million other things, I realized today as I was wiping down the front of the microwave oven that I haven’t had a plan in over a decade now.

I got married. At the time, I planned to finish my PhD, become a professor, start a family, write a slew of books, make a life for myself in New York, and grow old in the cocktails-and-books set.

Then, the marriage started to go south. There were fights. Ultimatums. A demand for pregnancy. More ultimatums. An realized pregnancy. Then fear. Desperation. Tactics. More tactics and more tactics, all just to try to hold things together and do right by self and offspring.

I was in myopic survival mode by 2009, and it has been a perpetual race against the metaphorical blitzkrieg and the clock since then.

I have been in tactical survival mode for over a decade, and I’m tired. And there is no end in sight. No moment to plan. No room for meaning or legacies or thoughts about the bigger picture.

I don’t quite know of any path to escaping survival mode, short of that particular kind of insanity that some people opt to adopt in which they suddenly chuck everything and disappear, sometimes in to jail, sometimes into a new identity, qua escaping their situation and leaving everything behind.

I do know that I’m tired. That I feel like a soldier that’s been on the front for far too long, jaded, loud, growing ever more careless even as I grow ever more skilled at the tactics, day by day.

Survival mode has a strange and toxic effect on the soul. It is generally incompatible with the maintenance of a strong moral center. I need to be vigilant.

But that doesn’t quite work either, because vigilance is what got me here. It’s all I do. It’s the crux of survival mode.

— § —

For some reason, I’ve been asked several times over the last few days how old I am.

I grow tired of answering: “Nearly forty-four.”

I grow tired of it because it’s causing a kind of panic to set in. For reasons that may or may not be obvious. And because it exacerbates the fatigue in some strange, subtle way. The more I say it, the more I have to confront it. And to confront my circumstances, my little Vietnam that will never, ever end.

— § —

All of it.

Just all of it.

Hence hours and hours of cleaning, including all of those places that I never, ever clean.

When you’re not sure about anything at all, at least try to get some sleep.  §

So I’ve been ill.

I’m not ill very often, but this is an accumulation of things finally catching up to me. I was due. I’m probably due for another few days at least. Been a long time coming.

Life can wear you down.

I’m not quite sure how it’s possible that my life is so simple and even underwhelming in the abstract, in concept, yet so incredibly complex and overwhelming on the ground, in terms of the actual day-to-day experience.

— § —

I feel the novel bug rising inside me again.

A couple times before I’ve started writing a novel and made very good progress, arrived at hundreds of pages and a cracking good story that others have said they were eagerly waiting to read the end of—only to lose momentum and not return until I can’t even remember what’s in the pages.

Not sure why.

Somehow it links to a larger, common thread through everything. I’ve been so successful in so many ways, and yet—yet I can’t shake the feeling that there are a million and one things I ought to have done, could have done, yet simply didn’t for some inexplicable reason.

I think it has something to do with actually being subconsciously averse to certain kinds of success. But I’m not sure exactly what the details are or why that might be—it’s just an intuition that I have.

— § —

It’s late and it’s been a few nights since I really slept well—I’m ill in that way that leaves a person with a hacking cough and a huge headache at 2:00 am, and then at 3:00 am, and then at 4:00 am without any particular resolution.

Maybe tonight I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll start again on a new novel.

If I had a million dollars, I’d go to therapy and learn to write fiction—and go to bed.  §

If I had a million dollars, I’d go to therapy and ask the therapist why it’s so hard for me to go to bed in the evenings. I put it off—and then I put it off—and then I put it off some more.

Every now and then, but only every now and then, I stumble by accident upon the solution, which is to stand up at some point before my hand is forced by physical collapse, and simply walk in the direction of the place where I intend to sleep, lay down, and declare myself to be in bed.

But it’s maybe one out of a hundred times that I manage to do this. The rest of the time, I’m powerless to resist the intertia that keeps me nailed to the office chair in front of the large computer, and solutions do not occur to me.

What’s the source of that weakness? I don’t know. I’m sure it’s the same thing that’s at the core of a great number of things that bother me about myself.

— § —

Fiction is dead.

This is clear to anyone that’s looking. No measurable audience of import any longer consumes it. The public is not aware of it. As a category, it’s barely remembered to exist.

It’s just not a thing any longer.

I think this fact is related to much of our modern, post-industrial society malaise.

Fiction, after all, is about stories. About narrative. And stories—narratives—are things that we don’t do any longer. Fiction belongs to the world of biography, a world of storied selves in which people understand their own lives and the lives of others in terms of a chronological sequence of events and the feelings and relationships that accompanied them.

That’s not the world that we live in today.

We don’t see ourselves as biographical creatures, as creatures with stories. We don’t understand ourselves in terms of chronology, or of events, or of relationships.

Our lives aren’t characterized by the wide range of things of import that happen. We don’t even inhabit that universe any longer.

We’re quantitative creatures. We’re bundles of metrics. Our achievements—graduate degrees, job titles, marriages, births—are no longer tales to be told; they’re data points to be aggregated.

We live in the age of analytics. No longer bundles of memories, we’re now bundles of facts and measurements. Averaged 3.3 in high school. Went to college on time, or maybe early, or maybe late. Not because anything—the because doesn’t matter; it’s a peripheral issue at best. There is no “because.” Scored some quantity on the GRE components. Interned at this company. Made partner at that company after only that many years.

Conversations, pivotal moments, drinks in bars, inspiring mentors—none of that stuff resonates with us any longer because it means nothing to our organizations or for our earning potential.

Fiction is dead because biography is dead. We don’t even maintain them for ourselves any longer.

When future generations try to understand our lives, we won’t leave behind ourselves diaries of thoughts and feelings or an oral history of family relationships.

We are leaving behind ourselves databases of achievements and statistics. We measure ourselves in numbers and facts.

Creatures that measure themselves in numbers and facts don’t read Dostoevsky or Mark Twain. They read The Week and The New York Times and The Nation and the latest analyst reports from Gartner and Deloitte.

The age of products and feature sets is also the age in which we ourselves are products and feature sets.

This is not a salutory development.

— § —

I lay in bed typing this in the midst of a general failure of discipline and initiative.

Yes, I have managed to put myself to bed.

No, I did not manage to do the things that I was supposed to do before I got there. Chief amongst them was to start (or even re-start) the novel I have intended to write for at least a decade now.

Parts of it exist. Maybe a hundred pages or so.

Many is the weekend on which I declare to myself at closing time on Friday that this weekend I will race to the finish. Because I know that I can do it. Only I don’t.

I never do.

Once business has closed on Friday, I declare my intention but say that I’ll do it over the course of Saturday and Sunday. Friday, of course, is to rest and recuperate.

Saturday morning I tell myself that I’ll start Saturday afternoon.

Saturday evening, having done nothing—or perhaps having wasted hours and hours “putting my tools together in preparation to begin” or some such nonsense—I’ll tell myself that I’ll start Sunday morning and work all day Sunday.

Sunday morning I manage to get out of bed and to walk and feed the dog, telling myself that I’ll absolutely race to the finish on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday afternoon I do the dishes and the laundry and console myself with the thought that after these are done, I can at least get one more chapter out Sunday evening as the last thing of the day.

And then—and then I put myself to bed. Rather than waiting until I’m exhausted.

Why don’t I write?

I know that I can do it.

I know that I can do a great many things. Just like going to bed. I just don’t do them.

— § —

If I had a million dollars, I’d go to therapy and ask the therapist not just why I never go to bed on time, but also why I don’t do any of the things that I want to do, and that I ought to do, and that I know that I can do.

And why I’ve always struggled to do any of these things.

Am I trying to punish myself for something?

Am I trying to punish others for something?

Is all of it psychobabble?

— § —

I can remember a particular uncle on my mom’s side that was abusive to me as a child. Violent. Physically abusive. Thrown furniture. Drowning attempts.

Nobody ever really took it seriously but me. The other adults trusted him to back off before serious harm was ever done, and in his defense, he always did. Now that I’m an adult I can see that the physical abuse was really a form of emotional aggression. He’d never have harmed me, but he did want me to suffer—to be afraid, to feel small.

That’s not a terribly huge in in the grand scheme of things.

The bigger sin really belongs to a great many other adults with whom I grew up or who were involved in my education, or my upbrining, or the local community in which I was raised.

The thing that I took away from my childhood about adults—and the thing that I remember most about most of them—is just what liars and hypocrites they were.

Not intentionally, of course—just as a matter of expedience. I’m sure they fully intended to keep their promises, or to make good on their word. I’m sure they meant every word that they said at the moments at which they said them.

But it never stuck.

Because at the end of the day, what all of them had in common was the fact that every word out of their mouths was fundamentally gutless. They were saying to me—me the child—whatever needed to be said in order to get themselves off the hook at the moment.

Sure—sure, I’ll remember to do that for you. Sure we can do that together. No, I don’t believe this. Yes, I do believe the other. Only they didn’t ultimately mean any of it, once time had passed, once the chips were down. They said the things they said because they were weak.

Just like I’m now weak about working on my novels.

I don’t take this to be a normal human failing. I don’t let all of us off the hook. There have been generations that were’t limp like this, that meant what they said and said what they meant and kept their word.

Oh yes, there are times when I definitely blame the Boomers. And there are times when I blame those who raised the Boomers. But of course they were, in turn and in their own right, traumatized by world wars the likes of which the world had never seen and could never have imagined.

Who is to blame?

There are times when I don’t think there’s any point in blaming anyone at all.

— § —

And so, here it is—I am laying here writing in bed, just not the thing that I’m meant to be writing, that I want to be writing, that I know that I can write.

And there is nobody that I can blame but myself, just as there is nobody for the generation that raised me to blame for my lack of faith in them but themselves.

The collapse of our institions is part and parcel with all of this, and with the collapse of the novel.

We don’t do the things that we mean to do any longer, and we don’t hold anyone responsible any longer—including ourselves—because we no longer track any of these details anyway.

We track the metrics. The little things, the day-to-day, the relationships, the stories, none of it is stored anywhere. None of it matters.

It’s why we graduate worthless people these days. I was one of them and I taught a bunch more of them besides. All that matters is the data point. All that matters is the degree at the end.

So the moment-by-moment—the reading the actual texts, the knowing the actual canon, the being on an actual journey, the developing into an actual wise soul—it isn’t tracked anywhere, or observed anywhere, and there is nowhere for it to make sense.

Hell, if I was a wise man it wouldn’t make any sense to me because I don’t understand what a wise man is and I don’t know what to do with a wise man anyway.

What matters is the data point.

  • Did he get the degree?

  • Did he wake up at the right time in the morning?

  • Did he continue to earn a good salary?

  • Did he keep his kids out of prison?

Those are the only things that matter, or that anyone understands.

The color of the snow or the taste of the confection or the scent of pine on the air while the Christmas carols played—that’s all the bizarre, foreign stuff of memory and narrative and fiction.

And fiction is dead.

I know because I’m lying in bed on time for a change to avoid having to try to write in that alien tongue.

There is an inexplicable way in which reality is far more shaky than we make it out to be.  §

The most inscrutable dimension of the human experience is the separation that exists between lived reality and material reality—between the concrete, physical things and the feelings, emotions, and events that we experience as the biggest components of our lives—yet that are very often conceptual more conceptual in nature, strictly speaking, than we make them out to be.

— § —

You subscribe to a magazine. It’ll be a month or two before the first print issue arrives. Your interest in it is vague, but perhaps you’ve been meaning to take up windsurfing, or gardening, or whatever—and the magazine will help. Time passes. You forget.

You receive divorce papers—or maybe word of the death of a friend. You attend a custody hearing—or is it a funeral? The world falls apart. You spend days alone in grieving. You consider seeing a therapist. You wonder how you will go on. Finally, after days and days of deepening, darkening isolation, you finally put together the strength to drag yourself to the mailbox for the first time since it all happened.

And there is your windsurfing magazine. Or your gardening newsletter. The one you subscribed to all those weeks ago. You stare and stare at it.

Or you’re at home on a normal weekend. The laundry needs to be done and you do it. It takes so very long to dry the towels in the machine; you muse on the need for a new dryer. Finally you get them out. As you fold them, you absent-mindedly appreciate their warmth and softness. You stack the folded towels neatly in the linen closet.

A few days later, you’re in a car accident. Your car is totaled and you have to buy another one. There are insurance claims to deal with. The other party in the accident is in the hospital. There are claims and counterclaims. Several police conversations. Perhaps court dates are scheduled.

Meanwhile, you buy a new car. It’s very different from your old car, a big change and a large expense you hadn’t planned to have for another few years—maybe even another decade. The other party experiences significant complications. Now, they’re in need of a donor organ. Your life becomes a matter of intensive waiting for news about this other party, half your enemy, half your comrade in a strange kind of battle, and their quest to save their life.

You find yourself driving back and forth to the hospital in your new, strange car. Now you’ve made the trip four times in two days. You come home, red-eyed, full of bewilderment about the turn your life is taken. You go to shower. You open the closet.

There are your towels. Short days ago, you were trying to decide whether or not to buy a new dryer, then telling yourself it’s a needless luxury, because look—they’re beautiful and soft and fresh.

There they sit, nicely folded. You almost can’t pick one up. You can’t believe that they still exist. The fact of their presence in the closet, sitting there as if nothing had happened, makes the world seem insane.

— § —

In all my nearly forty-four years of life, this is the sensation that I still am most mystified by—that I simply can’t figure out and don’t know what to do with.

The sudden realization that the larger objective world has gone on its merry way as it always does even if your own little subjective universe has seen catastrophes and holocausts seemingly unbounded—and that the person that you were a few days or a few weeks before—a person whose story you know and whose activities you’re intimately familiar with—is nonetheless no longer you, but has passed on and is entirely dead.

You have somehow been born anew, a new person in new circumstances with a new future unimaginable to the previous you that no longer is.

It’s the strangest sensation on earth.

The problem with our society isn’t a lack of awareness or a lack of empathy, it’s a lack of surrender.  §

It’s impossible to calculate how many dollars circulate through the economy in service of the building of “awareness” about one issue or another—how many man hours are spent every year, every week, every day by skilled individuals whose dearest desire is to raise “awareness.” Awareness is everywhere; it’s a key prayer, the most beloved incantation, among the deepest desires of contemporary secular religion.

“Please, holistic universe of oneness, bring them all awareness. Let my eyes be uncovered; let me have awareness. Please ensure that all of us come to awareness. Please it be awareness and nothing else, awareness for all and forever, amen.”

— § —

What has all of the last thirty years of “awareness” done for anyone, though? Did “awareness” actually help anyone, with any particular issue. No.

More to the point, this is the information age. Anyone can distribute any message to millions. Everyone stands on every digital street corner not merely peddling but proselytizing to raise awareness of their particular, cause, issue, source of suffering, idea, catastrophe, etc.

We do not have a dearth of awareness.

Everyone is aware of everything. Every damned thing. It only took a year or two for every person in advanced industrial societies to receive “awareness” of every one of a billion distinct issues once “awareness” became part of the economy.

We’re all aware. We’re aware of the whales and the owls and the plastics in the ocean and the indigenous medicine men and the blacks and the latinos and the diseases and the natural disasters and the disabilities and the political crimes and the forms of discrimination and the queers and the veterans and the fallen heroes and the pesticides and the child labor and the spiritual suffering and the forgotten and the indigenous languages and the insulin and the fires and the workplace traumas and the same-sex marriages and the opiods and the genetic abnormalities and the agricultural adulterants and the refugees and the seniors and the underpaid teachers and the disappearing frogs and the overloaded social workers and the surplus waste and the needed safety standards and…

We’re all aware.

Some people have tried to overcome the stalemate by saying that it’s not an awareness deficit that we have, but a deficit of feelings, an “empathy gap.”

That’s bullshit. We all feel terrible. We feel terrible all the time. We suffer deeply. We cry and cry and drink and bemoan and editorialize and activize. Oh, we feel terrible. We’re full of empathy.


— § —

What’s missing is simple.

Self-denial. We’d rather suffer through a thousand years of empathetic wailing than give up a single, tiny iota of our agency. Everything must be voluntaristic.

Our careers, our families, or communities, our religion, our laws—everything. Above and beyond anything and everything else is the basic value of agency. We’re only too happy to empathize, but we want to choose who we empathize with, then choose what we do about it (and, preferably, choose who is to do something about it, and what they are to do).

What’s missing is a key lack—a lack that we need to re-establish if we are to save our civilization, but one that I don’t believe we can re-establish, because all of public theology runs against it.

What we are missing is a lack of passivity.

To survive again, we must re-bind ourselves, re-link the chains, re-tie the ropes. We must lose our freedom. We must be constrained again by social norms, society-wide mores, legal structures, heavy responsibilities. Not rights. Not options. Not individual agency.

Individual agency is the form that our particular decadence has taken, and until we replace it with self-restraint—not self-control, not self-discipline, but self-sacrifice and self-restraint—we are on the short path to end times.

All that has to happen is for one person to cede all ground to his enemies—and for his enemies to then do exactly the same in return. That’s the entire metaphysical Judeo-Christian basis for the west and all that it has achieved. That we demure with civility to our enemies, instruct our children in this method, and ensure that one overriding social pressure exists: that everyone must give in whenever possible, at all times.

Activism won’t get us there. Policy won’t get us there. Awareness certainly won’t get us there. Only reciprocal surrender, with civility, gets us there. It’s also the least likely thing to happen at this stage of the game, despite how desperately simple and (ironically) just and equitable it is.

We’re all trapped in a giant game of The Prisoner’s Dilemma where the only way to win is to stand up and leave the game, but we won’t. We’re all embroiled in a tragedy of the commons—but the one thing we won’t do is the one thing that can save the commons: agree en masse to take none of it at all for our own part, and to do without—and to give it wholly to everyone else.

That’s all it takes—for everyone to simply choose to walk away. It’s both tiny and simple and catastrophically huge and inexplicable all at once.