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

Penelope trunk, tough questions, mentors, and sad truths.  §

“It’s generally despicable moral values that drive remarkable people.”

This is why I pay attention to Penelope Trunk.

— § —

I need to be challenged. I need someone to challenge me. I need someone to ask me tough questions. I’ve written this before, but I want to expand on it.

A lot of people in my life think or have thought that they’re asking me tough questions, but they’re actually lazy questions or selfish questions. Rather than being questions of me to challenge me to be honest, think clearly, and confront realities, the questions are actually:

  • Ways of coping with their own failures through projection (i.e. they only think it’s a question for me, or maybe even an accusation aimed at me, but in fact I could be a houseplant or a watermelon; they’re really talking to or about themselves without realizing it).
  • Ways of evanglizing or advocating for something (i.e. they think they’re asking me tough questions about myself, but in fact any answer that I provide is irrelevant because they have a particular destination in mind for me, and once again I could be a houseplant, in fact it would be better because then they could just pick me up and move me to where they’d like me to go).
  • Ways of trying to pick my brain for some wisdom or insight they subconsciously imagine that I have (i.e. they think they’re asking me tough questions but in fact they’re hoping for my answers to their own tough questions and presuming that they’ll be better answers than their own answers).

I am in need of someone to ask me tough questions that are relevant to me in the interest of getting me to answer those questions for myself, either because they care about me or because I’m paying for the service.

Only it will have to be because they care about me because I can’t afford to pay for the service.

— § —

I wonder if there are some people out there who don’t need to be asked tough questions and don’t need to be challenged in order to find clarity and success.

Certainly I’m not one of them.

I do believe that most everyone needs a good, regular mental and emotional ass-kicking that comes from a place of care and whose characteristics include directness and honesty. I think that most people descend into self-ignorance, denial, and escapism/lazy status-quoism without these.

But are there or might there be some people that have an internal self-insight mechanism? Wish I was one of them. I used to think I was, but that was just youthful naiveté.

— § —

Best question-askers in my life so far:

  1. My dad. I wonder if I should impose on him for a good ass-kicking. The thing is, with him it has to arise organically. I think that if I asked for one directly, he’d have no clue what I was asking for, and might even be anxious and worried about the whole thing.
  2. My aunt—one of my dad’s sisters. I still remember a walk that I took on a golf course with her one day (the one and only time in my entire life when I set foot on a golf course). She was tough. Boy, was she tough—especially since it was one of the most painful periods in my life. But that’s what really good tough questioners are able to do—kick you while you’re down just hard enough that you get back up, because they know that you can, even if you’ve convinced yourself (in all your self-indulgent pathos) that you can’t. Boy was it good for me.
  3. Several professors. I wish I could say mentors, but the structural realities of my own academic life have always been such that I couldn’t afford mentorship. Because that would mean buying into the academic plan wholesale, and having the time and mental energy to become preoccupied with it. I was always the guy who couldn’t really afford to be there, so I couldn’t ever really take advantage of the context and make it worth my while. I went all the way to finishing a Ph.D. as the guy who couldn’t really afford to be there. I’m still the guy, in fact, who can’t afford to have been there. I had no business, given my economic background, playing a rich man’s game like academics. But I did. And there were three professors (none of them at Chicago, for those who are wondering) who were reasonably good at asking tough questions, though I sometimes think they could have been tougher. Probably they felt hamstrung due to academic culture these days and uncertainties about just how far they could push things before I ran to administration with a complaint about hurt feelings or something. After all, I never quite got to know any of them quite as well as I wish I had been able to—again, see the discussion on mentorship and economics several sentences ago.

So that’s it. It’s frankly not all that many. The older I get, the more it feels like a giant black hole in my life. I haven’t been pressed enough, haven’t been forced to grow enough, have been suck entirely too much on “self-reliance” and “self-insight.” Those are limited things.

— § —

My ex-wife would laugh at this and say that it’s all bullshit because I don’t listen to anyone. She’s absolutely wrong on that point, though, always was.

I listen to people when they’re worth listening to. The people above have been very worth listening to. I continue to get the feeling that people like Penelope Trunk, despite the fact that I reference her in a totally different context (i.e. it’s not an interaction) is worth listening to.

The problem is that most people aren’t worth listening to, and most people don’t ask you questions honestly; they’re really doing something else when they ask them.

It’s true that some people don’t listen to anyone. But it’s also true that if you feel as though someone is not listening to you, you should ask yourself whether you’re saying anything worth listening to, or asking anything worth answering—or for which the askee’s answer will actually make a difference, either to you or to them.

A lot of people think that people aren’t listening to them when in fact people have already listened and realized that they heard every last thing that person was ever likely to say, encapsulated in the first five or ten words that came out of their mouth, and that it wasn’t actually all that useful or purposeful and so there was no point engaging with it any further.

— § —

People who are worth listening to are few and far between. It pains me to say that because for years I held it as a taken-for-granted value that everyone was worth listening to. But it just ain’t so, ma.

That’s one of the sad truths of life in society.

Rehab is universal. So is history.  §

I had a big weekend planned in terms of productivity, but I’m me so the big weekend turned into a “big day” beginning Sunday and then of course Sunday had to begin with a diet soda buy because caffienated diet soda is my biggest remaining vice.

Yes, I suppose that someday it will kill me, but then so will quite literally anything else in the end, and on the scale of vices if I’ve lost the smoking and lost the alcohol I suppose there are worse places to be than drinking diet Coke.

So the whole “big weekend” (well, starting on Sunday)—which will eventually turn into a big Sunday starting at 11:00 and then into a big Sunday afternoon starting at 1:00 and then into a big Sunday night starting at 5:00 and then into a big rest in preparation for the big day that no doubt starts on Monday morning—had to begin with a trip to the drugstore at the bottom of the hill.

— § —

So it’s a Sunday morning in Utah valley. This means certain things.

It means that there will be nobody around. Nobody but a handful of cars (in Utah, generally speaking, cars are people and people are absent). It will be quiet. I will be utterly alone with my thoughts. I will go into the 24-hour drugstore and there will be not a human soul visible.

Even the cash registers by the electric front doors will be unmanned when they open; I’ll walk in an empty store to the soda aisle, grab my two-liter of Coke and my two-liter of Mountain Dew, walk back to the cash register, and ring the bell for service. Five or ten minutes later, someone who has been alone in the store for so long that they’ve forgotten how to talk will finally turn up and mostly wordlessly ring up my purchases, and then I’ll drive back up the hill, on mostly empty streets.

It’s all quite fabulous for being unmotivated and getting nothing done on weekends, particularly on Sundays, since it enables you to pretend that thte world has stopped existing and thus your task list no longer has to be tackled; you’ve been given a metaphysical free pass by the apparent end of all of time.

Only today, when I pull into the parking lot, there are three very well dressed, very hip-Hollywood-looking forty-or-fifty something standing outside in front of the electric doors. Their posture (feet slightly apart, hips slung and holding up beige designer jeans, white straw fedoras cocked to one side on clean-shave, white, bald heads) and the ways in which they are sporting too-big smiles, sliding their eyes sideways as they animatedly speak, and so on tells me that these are well-off professions talking doing that brand of upper-middle-class white “talk cool, talk serious, talk professional, talk witty” socializing about things that—if they get it right—come off as “I don’t take this too seriously / even though it is very serious / but I know that you know that I know that you know / that the way in which we must play it off because we’re above it all / is merely evidence of our success / and in fact everyone else must play it through.”

In short, these people looked so out of place in Utah Valley in general, and on a Sunday morning in particular, as to throw me entirely off.

And then I went inside.

Emptiness? Solitude? Hardly! Two cash registers were flanked by two lines of the very same people, each seven or eight people deep, same level of over-dressed-ness for Provo, chatting with the same Whole-Foods-and-Hot-Projects animation with one another, and two silent cashiers working in studied silence, no doubt intimated by their apparent betters, to ring up their purchases and get them out the door.

Had I stepped somehow across some sort of time-space rift into Los Angeles or Chicago? Into Brooklyn? It was disorienting. And fascinating that it was all so immediately clarifying. Culture matters. And it’s visible. The only times you start to doubt this are those times when you haven’t seen any variation in it lately. I’ve clearly been having one of those for a while.

— § —

Now I know these cashiers, it being my wont to have the same weekend over and over again (and many similar weeknights besides), so as I was bringing up the rear, and as by the time I was being rung up most of them had made their way out the door, I asked—

“Hey, who are these people? This isn’t a Sunday morning Utah Valley crowd.”

The cashier who always knows and welcomes me by name (except this morning, having been cowed into silence by the magnificence of the mid-life hipster brigade) finally broke out her silence and explained to me that this group comes down every now and then on a Sunday morning from Sundance in a big Mercedes van like the one I had seen on the parking lot. There is apparently a very expensive rehab center center there that draws people from all around the country.

So, to draw on a clichéd phrase, that explained everything.

The mannerisms, confidence, serious-not-seriousness-about-seriously-important-things, and catastrophically on-point (and anachronistic-by-age) fashion became obvious necessities. It’s a Sundance crowd. Naturally these are well-off jet-setters who are hip enough to need rehab. Naturally!

Talk about things falling into place!

If someone came to me and said “I want you to do me a photo shoot for a luxury lifestyle product aimed at upper- and upper-middle class coastal creatives, so find some models and give me a scene of some edgy middle-aged white Hollywood and New York creative professionals who have their own brand, earn both too much and not enough money to talk about, each know at least ten nationally famous people personally, and have gone away to Sundance for rehab,” this is exactly the scene I would have put together—the very bodies, the very hairdos, the very costumes, the very postures, the very affect. Everything.

— § —

So at first when Donna told me this (the cashier’s name isn’t Donna, but I can’t remember her real name because I’m horrible, and it’s a Donna-like name in its cultural valence, if that makes any sense) I did the ironic thing inside my own head and went over everything I’ve just typed, just as I’ve typed it.

“Oh, of courrrrrrrrse they are.” (← Me inside my head.)

Internal smirk and snicker. I’d like to say that I’m growing with age, but it took Donna’s next statement to wake me up.

“Sorry about the lines. It creates a bit of a problem because they all come at once in a secured vehicle, they all have to check out at the same time, and they don’t have access to cash or wallets, so they have to share a single card and their minder has to enter the pin for them. Makes it hard to run multiple registers.”

Now a light comes on.

These are people in rehab, after all. Branding or no, wealthy or no, hipper-than-thou or no, Sundance or no, intentional or no, here they are on a Sunday morning not doing the things that their talents have otherwise enabled them to do, but rather on a social island, invisibly wandering around a drugstore in a rube state, having been driven down the mountain together by a chaperone.

Despite appearances, they’re not actually the embodiment of breezy freedom and savvy that they ooze. They’re not actually free to move about the country. They’re stuck being shuffled around like inmates in a disguised prison bus that they didn’t drive down themselves, buying products at a Walgreens in the middle of suburbia in the middle of a Red State in the middle of nowhere. They’re without their primary assets—cash to wield like power tools and an audience to appreciate their poses and render them valorizable.

I found myself torn between familiar feelings of inadequacy—high incomes, no doubt high influence, better clothes, clearly better social skills, to judge by their facial expressions and animated conversations—and feelings of actual pity.

On the top of things and on the bottom of things at the same time. That’s something everyone can empathize with. The intensity of the paradox and the heights and depths probably vary, but the human condition gets even those with have happy wallets, seven-figure manners, networks to die for, and beige woven fedoras that cast shadows on perfect white skin and white teeth.

— § —

Over the last two years I’ve read a lot of what I can only describe, with some embarrassment, as self-improvement books. These from every corner of the bookstore—psychology, business, spirituality, lifestyle, etc. It is a marked change from the academic literature that occupied the previous twenty years of my life.

I’ve read about highly effective habits, getting back your mojo, finding your purpose, developing grit, and passion, and insight, and skills, and blah, blah, blah.

Has it helped?

Hard to say. Earlier this morning after having waken up and before going down the hill to buy my diet soda fix, as I was reflecting on the possibility of writing this post, I had one of those moments in which I thought maybe I’d made a conceptual breakthrough and conceptually distilled the line between success and failure that all of these books talk about down to a single axis of something-or-other. Put yourself on the right side of this axis and you’ve got it made; let yourself slide to the wrong side of this axis and you’re in trouble.

Thing is, I can’t for the life of me remember what it is any longer or what I was going to write about it (even though it seemed clear, obvious, and powerful at the time), so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that I probably had it wrong anyway, since if it was so right, (I’d like to think) I’d still remember it an hour later.

If I had to go even further out on a limb and try to summarize what I’ve learned in all of this reading, I’d have to say that I’ve learned that there are no answers. Self-improvement, like most everything else—academic life, the internal combusion engine, iPhones, hike-with-your-dog meetup groups, Oprah, national government, etc.—is mostly snake oil.

There is no help to be had. Not in the way that I look for it, anyway.

That is to say—there are no answers to be had.

I think partially by virtue of the class that I grew up in and partially by virtue of the particular regional culture that I grew up in, I have a deeply embeded sense that somewhere there are people that have The Answers and also The Skills and that these people thus have The Money and The Good Life and that aspiration and ambition are really about acquiring The Answers and The Skills so that I can join them.

And that I’ll know when I get there because once you have The Answers and The Skills, certainty sets in like a wondefully comforting disease and you know what to do and can see how each question that you face has a right answer and each choice that you make has predictable outcomes and you can operate it all like a telephone switchboard and ride life right into the seat of a classic convertible driving down a long, winding mountain road covered with fallen red and orange leaves toward your large victorian masion in the New England woods, where your two well-groomed, well-trained dogs and your Harvard-bound children will greet you.

All you have to do is learn and practice.

This is, of course, bullshit, and intellectually I know that it’s bullshit. Over and over again I have been amazed—for literally decades—at the way in which powerful people that I work with and for and that are in positions of leadership have no certainty about their choices, operate on imperfect and incomplete information that in academics would earn scathing comments from journal reviewers, cross their fingers and hope for the best, and yet as all of this is going on feel complete confidence in the notion that what they are doing makes sense and is valuable.

I don’t have that. Where I see opacity and a startling lack of defensible data, they see concrete information to act on. Where I see snake oil, they see valuable steps and tools.

Maybe that’s the difference between success and failure. Understanding that no-one and nothing is perfect, anywhere, so if you have even five percent of the truth, five percent of the discipline, and five percent of the moxie that would theoretically be possible of the world were perfect, you’re on your way to being in the top five percent of all of humanity.

Others, like me, tend to sit around and keep pushing to try to find 95 percent of the truth, 95 percent of the discipline, and 95 percent of the moxie, and feel that we’re unjustified in acting and unworthy of compensation of any kind until we get there.

What I grew up feeling was “cheating people because you’re not up to doing the job right but you’re taking their money anyway” was in fact a complete misconstrual of the job. The job is not to “do epic shit” if you’re a person who has trouble seeing the “epic” in shit that is utterly, utterly imperfect. The job is, rather, merely to “do some shit or other.”

That’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn. And a kind of courage I continue to struggle to have. At forty-something I’m better than I was at thirty-something, and at thirty-something I’m better than I was at twenty-something, but—I’m still not there.

I had a conversation with a friend recently and blasted an old drama teacher from college for telling me that I wasn’t really trying. She didn’t mean that I wasn’t putting out a good product. She meant that I wasn’t taking any risks. For me. That’s the key concept. Risks do not inhere in the action; some people are more competent than others. Risks inhere in the actor (literally, in this case).

I need to take more risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, &c.

If I want until I’m able to actually competent enough to “do epic shit” before doing anything, I’ll wait forever. Or rather, I’ll wait another forty years or so and then croak having done nothing.

— § —

Part the third: history as materiality.

I wanted to write about this as my masters’ thesis for a while, before I veered off into other areas like urban space (tangentially related), experience design (less related), and ethnonationalism (related in metaphysical terms, I’m sure, but defending that statement would be an exercise in INTJ-only abstractions and/or the most offensively trite kinds of monument-centric memory studies theory).

Everywhere in my life are obsolete things. I don’t mean tools necessarily (though these are certainly a part of the set), but Things more broadly. Material of all kinds that were emplaced aeons ago in other lives and lifetimes I’ve led and that have become a part of the scenery, consciously forgotten but still present in the sensorium.

Vampire stickers hidden behind a bathroom stool near the tub that my daughter placed there when she was maybe two years old, before she could read, hell before she could talk, before I was divorced, when family life was a completely different thing. Chalk drawings we did on the bricks of the house three or four summers ago. A green couch on the patio that nobody has sat on since I can remember. An empty chest of drawers in a room I never use. A coffee maker to make the coffee I don’t actually drink and haven’t done at least since I was working on my dissertation. A whiteboard above my desk that I used to use to track my progress on:

  • Dissertation and academics
  • Book writing and editing
  • Being a good husband
  • Being a good professor
  • Software development projects

Now it hangs there on the wall, empty. I haven’t written on it in ages. I’m no longer an academic. I no longer work for a publisher. I no longer write books. I’m no longer a husband. I’m no longer a professor. I cannot even remember what specific software development projects I was ever working on, only that for a while I had a bunch of tasks listed there and that toward the end I was giving myself an “F” very loudly on the board for progress in that area.

I have three printers. I rarely print a damned thing. But there they sit, connected, stocked with paper.

On the hooks in the hallway hang winter coats, hoodies, and outerwear in quantity. I have not just got them out of storage and hung them up in anticipation of the coming winter season. They hung there all summer. And the summer before that. They fit no one any longer. They’re just there, and I don’t even see them.

Every now and then I notice one of these little details here and there and spend some time remediating it—cleanup, redecoration, trips to the thrift store, etc. Only it actually takes quite a bit of time to rework these corners of material life; you can lose three or six hours clearing away the historical cruft in just a tiny spot in the house or a miniscule area of your life. It’s hard to think that it’s time well spent. So it accumulates, all of this history, and colors you and your days.

I grew up in a house with the kind of socially involved mother who was always following dead people around. What I mean by that was that she knew literally everyone in the neighborhood and of kept in contact with all of her extended family, and as a result, someone was always newly dead and she was always volunteering to turn up and help out—help the family, help to clean up the house, help everyone and everything to move on.

And I grew up seeing the vast stores of cruft and material inertia that these often very old people had accumulated around them. It used to make me think that all old people were crazy. Why did they keep all thus stuff? Didn’t they find it oppressive and weird to be surrounded by years and years of things whose very purposes and identities had long since become completely unclear?

Now that I’m at middle age, I’m fairly sure that they did. But you can either spend time trying to clean things up or you can just move on and do new things. If you spend all of your time trying to track down all of the stuff that isn’t current any longer and get it written out of your life, you’ll have precious little time for anything else. That would be a way of spending your life “un-living” it, trying to undo it.

There’s nothing morally or ethically or spiritually wrong with that, it’s just that it means that you won’t get any new life—it’s like the big crunch theory; half the life of the universe is spent expanding outward, the other half contracting back inward and undoing the incredible quantity of things that have already happened.

Most people don’t want the second halves of their lives to be a matter of reliving the first half of their lives in reverse as they try to erase any evidence of their having been here; they still want to live new adventures, experience new things, write new chapters. And so they move on; you let the already written parts be already written and stand or fall on their own; you stop concerning yourself with them.

In practical, everyday, in-the-building-where-I-live terms, this means that shit piles up. Now and then when something gets in the way, you go back and clean it up, but most of the time when you do the calculation (Should I work on a current or a new project, or should I spend that time going back and un-do the material cruft of an old project?) you decide to just move on.

If the old coats hanging in the hallway aren’t bothering anything, it’s probably not worth the effort to remove them. When there are new coats for which room is needed, the old coats will go naturally. If they never do, it means that you’ve moved on from those hooks and hangers anyway.

There is a school of thought that says that the right way is to avoid all of this, and that the right way to avoid all of this is to ensure that you don’t accumulate any material cruft to begin with. Live minimally and so on.

This strikes me as more cocked fedora-ism.

“I know that you know thta I know that if we’re going to be hip, important creatives, we need to study Zen habits and adopt them as a pose.”

I don’t believe for a moment that the loudly Zen people don’t have accumulations of things that have built up and that they’ve left behind. Maybe they don’t have them in their living rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms; that’s the lower-middle-class way of doing things. But they’re there.

If you really did live “minimally,” i.e. you really did generate absolutely zero historical detritus of any kind, conceptual, metaphysical, emotional, or material, I’d suspect that you weren’t actually living at all.

Everyone has detritus, even if it’s disguised as a Mercedes van driven down from Sundance to a Walgreens in the middle of Provo, Utah.

Quantum is fast.  §

Try the new Firefox beta. Seriously. It is fast. Fast.

And the UI weirdness/ugliness has been fixed.

I have been a Chrome user for many years now, but suddenly Firefox is tempting again.

Gender essentialism and getting things done.  §

I wanted to be more productive than I have been this weekend.

Friday started off in the way that so many of my weekends do—moreso, in fact—with a tremendous rush of ideas and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to “get to them” and begin to execute as quickly as possible, after getting “a few basic things” like house-cleaning, laundry, and shopping done.

Oh, and (new and unusual this weekend) a certain amount of work for the day job in preparation for a big week next week.

Well now here we are late Sunday, and the house-cleaning, laundry, and shopping have at best been ambivalently started, and the suddenly pressing task is the weekend work for the day job. No new ideas will be executed upon. The ideas themselves likely won’t even been noted somewhere in a tickler file.

They will return to the clouds from whence they came, silently and forgettably, as I try to make better progress on the things that are urgent.

In part, it’s become clear to me over the last hour or so that step one is to write a blog post. For reasons unknown to me (I suppose someday I’ll go into therapy and excavate them), this is not an uncommon genre of roadblock for me. It happens often that I feel and seem blocked in my flow and unable to avoid procrastination until I realize (the realization embodied as a kind of intiution) that I will make no progress on anything until I sit down and make a post on this blog that, in fact, almost nobody reads nor has done for eighteen years.

It must be serving some cognitive purpose.

— § —

I got to reading the highbrow former-print-now-online rags as is my wont, and an article on Love in the Time of Individualism caught my eye. So much so that I ended up logging in and commenting via Disqus, which I never, ever do.

I think I’ve just had enough at some point of the feminine world and the feminization of the world. Not because I think it’s “girl stuff” or less-than somehow. I have no problem with women being women and I have no problem with feelings, with world peace, with valuing individuals, etc.

But I am tired of what I see as the denial of masculinity as a thing that results from an ostensibly materialist (but secretly ideological) reframing of discussion of nearly everything into feminine terms that are then couched in universalist languae and presumptions.

I’m older than I was a decade ago, and I’m out of academics now, and I’m a parent. And I can see a few things far more clearly:

  1. Gender essentialism is truth.
  2. Humans value and engage in transcendence—particularly men—but the dominant discourses (which I recognize more and more as inherently feminine ones) are unable to represent or to even conceive of it.
  3. Young folk aren’t actually that smart, they’re just willing to spend a lot more energy yelling a lot more than older folk.
  4. A great works curriculum in education is the best chance we have of turning this ship around. A legitimately great works curriculum, that is to say—not one in which every attempt has been made to impose a quota system on the selected authors of said works.
  5. I am both farther away and closer to transcending my current circumstances than I imagine.

Scattershot, I know.

— § —

I am coming to think that what I need most of all in my life is to adopt the “broken windows” theory of life-living. I have always been a “key inflection points” person myself—let the windows break, they’ll all be fixed afterward if you get the bonus, and the bonus is contingent on being able to properly allocate the labor and time, which can’t happen if you spend your time worrying about broken windows that you can easily have fixed afterward.

But perhaps the “key inflection points” model only works for young folks with young folks amounts of energy, stamina, and motivation.

More and more I think that I need to give up on forming plans and executing on strategies and spend my time getting all the little things clean and into tip-top shape in my life, and that perhaps then the big things will follow.

This isn’t a conclusion based on reasoning so much as a wish or a hope. Because the “key inflection points” model seems to have carried me about as far as it can in life; things have been stuck in “neutral and starting to roll backward down the hill” mode for at least five years.

I’m looking for an alternative framework—fundamental framework—that changes the nature of the game. That subjectively and phenomenologically is of a cloth with my experience of being-in-the-world. At the core of things, I need to figure out what manhood is about in my life and in today’s world. Not easy when the term itself is verboten and imagined to be discredited.

But the rest, I suspect, will follow. Better late than never.

Lower-middle class psychology, ideology, and Easter eggs.  §

I’m sitting in the kitchen. It’s sort of clean. The whole house is sort of clean, and a lot of things are sort of done. “Sort of” is rapidly becoming an everyday reality around here.

Thing is, I can’t keep up. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to keep up in the abstract—whether someone can do it—but I know that I basically can’t. It’s too much for one person. House, car, kids, career, the everydays of household and finance and utilities administration, the everydays of cleaning and tidying and maintenance.

It is quite simply impossible for everything to be “kept up.”

And so you’ve got to prioritize. You do the brake lines on the car because cracked brake lines represent a safety risk. That means that you do not do the dishes, mop the floor, or mow the lawn. You pay bills, meaning that you do not go to the aquarium or buy new shoes. You tidy the living room which means that you do not tidy the office. You file some records and do some budgeting which means that you do not get your weekend work done.

All of these things could have been decided differently, but the outcome would be the same; some stuff—all of it important, even critical—would not get done. Critical stuff not getting done seems to be what adult life is about, at least in our society.

I suspect it’s a class thing; I suspect that not everyone has this experience; I suspect that the fact that I have this experience means that I grew up lower-middle class in middle America and despite best efforts that everyone makes, I like everyone else have utterly failed to move out of that class or to grow beyond my own financial, cultural, and intellectual fundamentals into something new.

There are only two cultural strands of explanation for why this happens to people and how they end up this way—divorced, single parent, financially strained, ceiling fairly low for the long term, not getting stuff done despite prioritizing, the subterannean data of society increasingly indicating that this is just such a person.

(1) You are a victim.
(2) You are making bad decisions.

Somehow (1) feels ridiculous. This is the left position. And (2) feels inadequate when most of the decisions are about prioritization between equally critical things—not, for example, deciding to go out (as the “welfare queens” fairy tale goes) and buy a big screen TV and a BMW and drugs, then partying endlessly while letting the electricity goes off and home base turns into a squat that doubles as a crack house.

— § —

This weekend was like every other weekend recently.

Before the weekend got here, the weekend “to do list” (this is an explicit thing, it is written down—or rather, typed in) grew and grew and grew. By default, whatever I have to prioritize downward gets pushed onto the weekend to-do list. This makes it “okay” not to do it today, even if it was due today. Because I’ll get to it on the weekend, when I’ll have infinite time!

Of course, the weekend comes and I do not have infinite time. Generally speaking, one or two things on the weekend to-do list at most get done. The rest get pushed until “next weekend.”

Eventually a lot of them “age out”—they sort of unofficially become “things that will never get done” and fade. That’s not good because it means that I am not performing accountably in any number of areas in my life, and people (myself included) just don’t consciously notice it all that much (yet).

But it is no way to live. It does not feel good, or right.

I did at least do the usual one or two things, however:

(1) Some needed maintenance work on the car. There is more to be done. I am determined that my car will, this time around, be a priority in a way that it has never been in the past. Because I’m tired of owning a car that I know has many things wrong with it and expecting it to take the day off at any moment with thousand-dollar-repair-bills to follow. And I’m tired of living through those moments actually arriving and distorting the fabric of my life. If I’m going to deal with the lost time, hassles, and costs anyway, I’d rather do them on my own terms, as conscious decisions, where I can slot them in with at least some level of tactical awareness.

So far since getting this car I’ve replaced the timing belt, cam seals, coils, plugs, breather system, front wheel bearings, transmission servo cover, transmission fluid, motor oil, oil filter, cabin filter, console shifter rocker arm, fuel filter, and I forget what else. Brakes are up next.

I got the fluid flush and fill and bleed done and one (rear passenger) soft line. That took me no less than ten hours. I hate flare nuts and I hate tools and I hate the people who design these things in such a way as to be unmaintainable. But whatever. I frankly will need to re-do the soft line because the flare nut is rounded. I have a flare kit and flare nuts on the way. Three and a half more lines to go. Then flush and fill on the angle gear and the rear differential.

Point being that there’s a lot to do. And that a fraction of the first job up right now took up a huge chunk of my weekend, cost more than I wanted, and left me filthy. But I at least got some more car stuff done.

(2) I managed to tidy a bunch of the house. The house, the house, the house. It’s creeping up on me. Things are falling into disrepair, and it’s all I can do to keep it tidy. Actually not all of it, basically just the four or five rooms we live in. Standing policy is that nobody goes into any other rooms because I cannot possibly attend to them; if they get really untidy, who knows when I’ll get around to tidying and cleaning them, and having “junk rooms” is no way to live (I know this from experience growing up).

So I did get the basics done—toys cleared away at least into semi-sorted piles in their proper rooms, tools cleared away into a semi-coherent pile in the maintenance closet, dishes piled in the sink with at least what looks like care, and the hard floors swept and mopped (well—in their centers; priorities, right?) and the soft floors (what’s left of them as they decay) vacuumed (again, “center only” being a classic lower-middle class caveat).

— § —

Projects that I have raw materials for but have not yet managed to attend to:

  • Brake lines on car (remaining three)
  • Angle gear service on car
  • Differential service on car
  • New floors for upstairs (a giant pile of vinyl planking, primer, and tools sits on the kitchen floor waiting to be used, and has done for weeks now)
  • Content for side project website (paying for a domain for months now, but only have one content item up so far)
  • SAS adapter for main computer system (to upgrade backup device, not yet acquired; no point acquiring that until the adapter is installed
  • Blu-ray burner for main computer system (secondary backup, no media yet but similar caveats)
  • Toilet rebuild kits (these things are ancient and their flushing systems are borked)
  • Tons, just tons of educational projects to do with the kids, all waiting on “someday” to do them

There’s a lot of paperwork, some of it rather critical, left standing in a pile as well.

I’m doing what I can, but everything falls a little farther behind each day.

— § —

You are a victim or you are making bad decisions.
Trump is evil.
Clinton is evil.
Climate change is an emergency.
Climate change is a hoax.
Hurricanes.
NFL head injuries.
Debt ceiling deals.

A lot of words have been dedicated to what’s wrong with the American public or what’s wrong in the lives of the American public (these two sometimes blend into one another, and at other times don’t) over the past year, but I have the nagging feeling that none of them were all that useful.

I am sympathetic to the American public (hell, I’m a member of it, and I’m mad as hell, too, in a way) because I think that what’s going on is that there is clearly something wrong but they can’t quite put their finger on just what it is. I feel the same way.

I can’t help but feel that at the core of things, the problem is that we live in a highly ideological, actually quite repressive society in which everyone first of all is talking about the wrong things (because the right things can’t be talked about) and then saying the wrong things about them at that.

The right things that can’t be talked about have receded so far from consciousness and memory (because it’s better not to talk about them) that people aren’t even sure what they were any longer; they just have a sort of hole in their lives and selves where those things used to be.

Every now and then you get a glimpse of this, the fleeting sensation that you are not actually living a genuine life because of the nature of life in contemporary America. I had one earlier tonight when I was thinking about wanting to write a blog post. I have that feeling often—I want to make a lot of the things that I did today and make this blog back into what it once was two decades ago—a forum for self-expression and for recording my thoughts and activities to enable me to reutrn to them later and reflect.

But the reason that this blog isn’t what it once was is that it can’t be. It’s too risky to say what I think in any given moment here, too risky to record my actual activities. After all, words can be misconstrued. And people have vehement opinions, highly ideological positions in our society about everyday things. And if the wrong person sees the wrong thing on your blog, it can affect your future in all kinds of negative ways. Your employability. Your opportunities. Your parenting. Your legal status in various ways.

We don’t conceptualize this and when we do we decide that it’s all overblown, but the fact is that we quitely and unconsciously self-discipline so as to be able to live. Yes, self-discipline is important and right, but in the Zen monk way, not in the Foucault way. When it is done freely and for noble ends. Not when it’s done simply to be able to get along.

In this society, I think that people are receding from public life and from public consciousness as a matter of risk. Better not to know too many people. Better not to say too many things. Better to just keep your head down and hope that nobody notices you as you skate on through. Don’t do anything big and draw attention to yourself. Just do the paperwork and tend your garden and stay out of sight.

That does not describe life in the America that I grew up in many decades ago, though early hints were present. I suspect that if people could speak their minds and pursue a broader variety of ends as legitimate without potentially affecting their jobs, children, etc., there would be less polarization in America. And the news would look very different.

Everywhere, everyone is compressed like a spring, closeted, self-repressive. In the academy. At work. On the playground with the other parents. On Facebook. The correct presentation of self—correct with respect to the inevitable protester-whistleblower who will find a way to fuck up some part of your life, and likely a dear one—has become the guidingin principle in a highly public, highly transparent society. And the result is has been to put a false bottom in the box, a false back in the closet, so that when the contents are observed in all of their transparency, they have keen public rectitude, with all of the important stuff hidden out of sight.

The problem is that the important stuff, lying quietly beneath the false bottom or behind the false back—languishes and is forgotten and rarely taken out any longer. After all, you never know who may be looking.

What’s in those spaces?

Personal beliefs. Memories. Opinions. Values. Gods. Cherished wants and reams. Pleasant personal habits and preferences. Basically everything that makes a person a person, rather than a good ideologically correct automaton.

In public, everyone is busily engaged in what Harold Garfinkel called accounting practices—making sure that they can reasonably account for their behaviors and thoughts, and that they do not engage in any behaviors or have any thoughts for which they cannot satisfactorily account to the people with the power.

And, in our quest for big-J justice, we have been sure to give power to everyone. Meaning that we are now accountable (morally, legally, and economically) in public to literally everyone—including anyone that might be offended.

And “in public” is now a 24/7 proposition.

— § —

I brought out a few books—Foucault, Garfinkel, Simmel—to add a few choice quotes here, but now I’m not going to do it. I couldn’t find my Derrida—I have a quote in mind from Specters of Marx that seems to sum up the zeitgeist nicely.

But I opened them and I just can’t be bothered. Now they’ll sit in a stack on the kitchen table for days. Probably the kids will find them and draw in them or tear pages out or something.

I wonder where Specters of Marx went. Maybe I gave it away. I keep accidentally giving all of my most-loved books away. I want someone to read something in them, I think they’re so great—so I had them off enthustiastically, forgetting that this means that I won’t have them.

As a kid of the digital age entirely, I forget that in the material realm, to give-away is also to not-have, because information encoded in matter using old-fashioned methods like print does not automatically remain behind when conveyed elsewhere as does information in matter using newfangled stuff like magnetism and electricity.

There is also still a basket of colored easter eggs (not real ones—fake ones just for dyeing—emblematic of our age) stting on my kitchen table. I say “basket” but it’s a kind of disposable cardboard pseudo-basket with little yellow chicks and pastel flowers painted on the side—dollar store bric-a-brac of the “I hate living in modernity because it makes me own stuff like this that I feel bad both throwing away and keeping” variety.

That’s why it still sits on the kitchen table, eggs in it. Because if I dispense with it, then I’ve been wasteful and consumerist and am polluting the environment for all of one hour’s middling fun back in spring, and so on. Yet if I actually put it away in a closet somewhere, I’m filling my life with totally unneeded, disposable shit that has no business being kept.

So long as I keep it on the kitchen table, I don’t have to account to myself or anyone else for whatever decision I make. It’s liminal. It’s a problem that Hasn’t Been Dealt With Yet, like all the rest. Stuffed under the fake bottom of the box, hidden behind the fake back of the closet, all in plain sight in the middle of the kitchen.

— § —

TL;DR version—

I think we’ve got it wrong, all of us. Our society has it wrong.

Not as in “we made the wrong decision about it” but rather “we have entirely the wrong it, we have been led to that state like lambs to the slaughter—quite ironically by our very own selves—and we are not busy looking for the right it at all, because we know that we absolutely must not even stumble across it consciously, much less go out and hunt it down.”

There is a restoration that must take place, but I don’t think it takes place within the confines of the society that we’ve created here.

I think that a few of the pundits have basically the image already—this society has gone wrong, and will fade and fall. Another will come and will then dominate, unpolluted by what’s here.

We’re doing what the Soviet Union did. Different flavor of ice cream, but still the same basic substance.

— § —

Time to go to bed. I can’t accountably afford to spend any more time on this blog stuff.

The basket and the eggs will probably stay here on the kitchen table forever. There is more to middle class social psychology than meets the eye. It’s not all victimhood and bad decisions. It’s tactics in a already long-lost, yet still unmentionable battle.

Out.

You gotta be kidding me.  §

It’s been a very long time for me since the start of a “real” school year. One with full-time school days every day of the week. Hard on the kids. Also murder on the grown-ups. At least on grown-ups like me.

One of the main reasons I once went into Academics as a career was the idea that I wanted to work all of the time and none of the time—that is to say, I need to be able to work more or less continuously to be sane, but I also need to come and go as I please most of the time while doing it, without having eight- or nine-hour blocks completely greyed out in my calendar every day.

School did not sit well with me when I was a kid. (Anyone who knows my bio or anything about it knows this.) I wasn’t able to function in the daily schedules until I got to college, basically. I have spent exactly one year over the course of my entire working life in a regular, in-house nine-to-five job—and it nearly killed me. Other than that, I have always been either remote-flex or on a university teaching schedule.

And now here I am, at 42 years old, with a kid that has just entered the first grade and is back on a full-time school schedule. And I am losing my mind. Like, it is so constrictive that I want to pull my hair out. House is a mess. Nothing is getting done. I hate it. I hate these schedules. There must be a better way.

I can’t see how anyone can get anything done on a full-day/every-day schedule. It just deadens the mind, all while being so highly structured that there is no room for any adaptation to the actual vagaries of life.

I have the vague theory that this regimentation is not actually due to the productivity gains that come with rationalization, as some optimists have proposed, nor a matter of the more easy extraction of surplus value, as some pessimists have proposed, but something worse—an alternative to mass-liquidation of human beings. That is to say that the wealthy and powerful would rather that we don’t exist at all. But if we’re going to, and they can’t mow us down or freeze us up into ice cubes and store us away, the next best thing is to plug us all into desks stuck in a single room and force us to stay there all day.

Okay, that’s hyperbolic. Well, mostly.

— § —

I am also bummed with entropy.

You cannot keep things intact with kids around. You simply can not. House. Car. Appliances. Affordances. Whatever it is in your life that you value and want to care for, kids do not. Not that there is malice in it; they are simply incapable of being careful and tremendously and often physically enthusiastic.

This combination = shit gets fucked up. All the time. Dents and scratches and stains and misuse are par for the course, no matter the value of the property and no matter how hard you try to educate them about responsible care of and for it. They’re just not there yet; it’s not something they’re capable of.

Anyone that has nice things and that has kids either has (1) kids as dumb as rocks who sit there like potatoes all day doing nothing, or (2) wealth. Lots and lots of wealth that enables them to replace the shit that gets fucked up.

For the rest of us, those living in middle-class precarity, kids are a direct trip to poverty. Your career, your assets, and your potential and intellect all slowly collapse as you transfer the wealth, mostly in the form of investments in their future minds, to the children.

Yes, it is worth it. Children are awesome. But do not for a moment imagine that there is not also some sadness in watching yourself and your life be slowly digested and consumed as raw material as a part of the process. There is an element of ritual suicide buried somewhere deep in the heart of parenting; you become a sacrifice to a future you will not see but hope to improve, through them.

It is a way of “dying nobly.” Make no mistake.

— § —

In more specific terms, this season has been hard because everything is breaking. Everything. I cannot think of a time in my life when I have been farther behind the curve in terms of tools, appliances, cars, housing, etc. falling into disrepair. There is no way that I can keep up with the costs; we just have less and less, gradually.

I can maintain the most critical things—car, for example, though not cosmetically, and house floor, also for example, largely by doing both myself and just buying the raw materials—but the luxuries, they are going. As the kids break them, they do not get and can not be replaced.

And I am more than a bit nervous about how long I can hold out. Money is beyond tight, and so is time. It feels like I’ve been stuffed against my will at a giant precarity buffet and now I’m rolling around, so full of precarity that I can barely breathe, and trying to function all the same.

At some point, there is a failure threshold. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how close I am to it. That’s terrifying and sometimes a lay awake in the wee hours and stare at the ceiling and worry about it until I think my head is going to explode.

Then I get 1.5 hours of sleep, wake up, and hop back on the ridiculous school-year-schedule-overlapping-with-serious-job-schedule treadmill. If I’m lucky, it’s a treadmill that leads to old age with nothing having really been accomplished in my life.

If I’m lucky.

Let’s hope I’m lucky.

Baggage.  §

I need a fresh start. I am being weighed down by baggage. I don’t mean emotional baggage. I mean:

– Material baggage, thinks to take care of, thins to maintain, things to own
– Financial baggage, obligations entered into in the past
– Data baggage, a universe of information that I’ve saved and that now sinking beneath
– etc.

There is too my history—data history, material history, all kinds of history—everywhere around me. I am spending all of my time keeping “the plates of the past” spinning in the air, and it is leaving me zero time for the future.

I need to start cleaning this up.

Walk and chew gum? Show me.  §

I keep seeing people on the left saying “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

By this, they mean that we can tackle:

  • Climate change
  • Income and wealth inequality
  • Education
  • Racism and sexism and individual rights
  • Economic problems and the end of work
  • etc.

…and do it all at the same time. In short, the “walk and chew gum” trope is a self-important claim that comes up whenever there is debate about what to prioritize, in order to subvert and avoid the need to prioritize (or to have conversations about prioritizing) all together.

“I don’t think we should put one or the other first,” goes the inevitable bromide, “we are perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.”

Here’s the thing.

To date I have seen zero evidence of this.

Show me the money. Show me some success at this. Because from where I sit right now, all of these things are dumpster fires, and the Democratic party is out of power across the board, locally, at the state level, and at the federal level, in virtually every facet of government.

You may think that you are walking and chewing gum, or that you are capable of walking and chewing gum, America, but you frankly suck at it. As in suck.

Pro tip: Wishing something does not make it so. It is not a law of the universe or an a priori ontological fact that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. What if, surprise of surprises, you actually can’t, and that’s why you aren’t despite trying all this time?

Are you prepared to have a discussion about priorities then?

Because mother nature right now is doing a pretty good job of showing you the real stuff, as opposed to your ideological feel-goodism.

Let me say again, for the record, because in America right now this is not something that people are conceptualizing well:

Wishing something does not make it so.

Believing something does not make it true.

No matter how pure your heart.

And fuck Walt Disney for creating a generation of “adults” who actually believe this to be the case, and who are willing to fight to the death, fingers in ears, screaming “LALALALALA I CANT HEAR YOU” all the while, to avoid having to face the simple fact that the kindest, most fervent wishes of your deep, tender heart to not—ever—a material world control.

I know, so unfair.

But yeah, why don’t we keep on “walking and chewing gum” while the whole world sinks underwater. With their last breaths, some will still be working hard to “believe,” so as to make everything okay again.

Difference.  §

Every now and then it is important for the universe to remind me:

  • That I am different from everyone else.
  • That the differend separates me from them, forever.

Evening walks in the dilated eye of the storm.  §


© Aron Hsiao / 2017

A foot. A foot. A foot. A foot.

Darkness. Light. Darkness.

Here and there, little glimpses through unremarkable windows into other peoples’ happy lives. A few fruit trees. Aging and forgotten address stickers peeling away from suburban mailboxes. The smell of dog urine. The sounds of crickets and the odd passing car alternating in the night.

No idea where you’re going and only a vague memory of where you’ve been.

The smell of bread. A disembodied woman’s laugh somewhere in the distance. She sounds young, maybe twenty.

A few raindrops.

A foot. A foot. A foot. A foot.

— § —

Some people lose their minds worrying about all the terrible things that could happen next, and in doing so, they bring about the apocalypse.


© Aron Hsiao / 2017

Other people constitute their minds in brooding about all of the terrible things that have happened already, and in doing so, they render the daylight forever unto darkness.

I’m sure there is a third kind of people somewhere, but no, they are not the ones that spare no expense in signalling their enlightenment and virtue. These latter are merely pedestrian manifestations of the first two.

Yes, the Buddha lives on in books. So does everyone.

— § —

And for those who work anxiously to bring about the future with every passing moment:

There is no method nor twist of plot by which time becomes your friend. Understand that. Then remember it, always.

— § —

It’s not that hope doesn’t count for much, it’s that the smell of rain in the city, which is free, is already as close to enlightenment as man can come—but it is only ever present in solitude.

Academics, forest, trees, and politics.  §

In the beginning, I loved university because it expanded my horizons; it made them as big as the world. At the University of Utah, where I was an undergraduate, I was privileged enough to be exposed to several intense, broad survey courses whose scope covered many decades or even centuries and much of the globe—in art, in literature, in film, in geography and culture, in history.

These courses created in me for the first time the sense that the world—and my place in it—could be understood in some way, that there was sense to be made of things, that our massive, late modern melee was something more than just random noise comprising random forces that popped into and out of being like inscrutable subatomic particles.

This ultimately led me to grad school, first at Chicago, where I turned up with a naive list of things I wanted to know more about—Marxism and Marxist theory, 20th century social movements, the history of ethnic conflict, how these all related to the rise of a new, global regime of computing technology, and so on.

I struggled at bit at Chicago because in fact the courses there were not like the ones I’d had at Utah. While some of them were titled so as to suggest that they discussed such themes, in practice they didn’t discuss themes as such much at all, at least not explicitly. Rather, each one of them went in-depth with one or several cases that were, I suppose, meant to be representative or illuminative in some way. The nature of this representation or illumination, however, was often left unstated, and few claims were made about themes or about the big picture. There was not weaving of these strands into something more; instead, the approach to basket-weaving was to lay a series of four or six pieces of straw on the table, parallel to one another, inspect them meticulously under a magnifying glass, and declare them to be, obviously, a part and parcel of what “at times is called” a basket.

As I pushed repeatedly for something more and continued to try to learn what I’d wanted to learn and do what I’d wanted to do, some of the faculty there got a bit tired of me. I scored well enough on my masters thesis, but it became clear very quickly that there wouldn’t be a place for me to do a Ph.D. at Chicago. Instead, a couple of the faculty and staff suggested that I ought to go to The New School, where they did my “kind of thing,” whatever that was. (I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not quite sure to what it was, exactly, they were referring.)

The New School was a very exciting environment and I quickly found, in fact, several faculty members that were able to set me on the path, once again, to bigger forms of understanding. One of them became my dissertation chair. Another did not; he was savaged by certain other faculty behind his back for being too much and “intellectual historian” and not doing enough with “particular contemporary cases.”

It was a bit of a political struggle to finish my Ph.D. and the details are unimportant here (apropos of this post, in fact). What is important is that I finished and that as my time as a Ph.D. student wound down and now, afterward, I’ve found my interest in academics also waning. Don’t get me wrong—I still think and I still write and make notes, and my committee was incredibly supportive at the end of the day and put themselves on the line to support me. But it’s hard to get excited about professoring, or about spending time amongst the up-and-coming professoriate.

Why? As I get older and develop some distance from—as well as a retrospective perspective on—my time within the academy, it becomes clearer to me. I still want to know and understand the things that interested me as an undergraduate so many years ago. But as Camille Paglia perhaps most famously points out, the “big survey courses” and “metanarrative” are well out of fashion in the academy.

I wanted to learn in bigger and bigger swaths and circles of fact and theory and history. To see the world at a glance, not in order to obscure specificity, but in order to understand more completely how it all fits together. Instead, there was constant pressure to learn in smaller and smaller circumferences, less and less scope with more and more detail—because, after all (at least by the reckoning of much of the academy toay), there is no “big picture” version of history, of society, etc. It does not all “fit together.” Any claims to the contrary are mere metanarratives, which are always at some level petty power grabs and ideological baggage of the most coarse kind.

In today’s academy, there are only the details; a search for or belief in anything beyond that is a way of either consciously or unconsciously serving the narrow interests of one narrow group or another in some narrow way. There is no whole, there is no world, there is no history, there is no big picture to be drawn and understood and celebrated. These things are mirages.

The job, rather, is to adopt a small handful of “cases”—particular locations, identity groups, events, etc.—and to dig into them for one’s entire career until once can state rote who was missing what button on their uniform on what day in what location, and how the importance (or lack thereof) placed on this missing button at the time expresses something previously ineffable about the power dynamics not of the place, or of the time, but of that individual and the three or four individuals around them and their three or for particular identities, which cannot even be generalized to identity groups, as such generalization does violence to the particularity of it all, which is an asserted, often a priori value par excellence of the contemporary academy.

I have faded from academics because all along I wanted to study and come to conceive of the forest, of its past, of its future, and of its dynamics and properties. Today, this is seen as a generally unethical, or even immoral thing to desire. The job today, as it turns out, isn’t to study the forest, which would be to oppress its trees by failing to recognize their singularity. Rather, the job is to study the six or ten trees immediately around you in such detail that you can name, catalog, and describe at length every single branch, every pinecone, every knot, and every root in sufficient detail to enable anyone who hasn’t seen those particular trees to draw or even reconstruct them accurately from your account.

Well, that and to come to understand, accept, and internalize the notion that there is no forest, there never was a forest, and any claim that there is or ever was a forest is a matter of oppression of the trees.

At the end of the day, this is why I left academics. Because I wanted to study the forest—and after spending enough time in academics to get a Ph.D., I finally came to terms with the fact that the contemporary academy was never going to tell me anything more about it. I could not get to where I wanted to go by starting on a college campus, and in fact the Very Smart Powers That Be on college campuses would consider my quest to be a harmful one and would actively seek to subvert it so long as I pursued it there.

To learn about the forest, I’ve got to do it on my own. Somehow and sometime. When I get the time, &c.

Dread.  §

I don’t typically speak bluntly, in simple terms about my feelings, because often they are neither blunt nor simple. Certainly I don’t write about them here that way.

But right now I’m going to.

Tomorrow school begins again. One child in first grade, another in kindergarten. They’re excited about it and raring to go. But me? I am worried. Down. Troubled. Pessimistic. This is not typical for me.

My entire life I’ve always been an optimist about the future, and even more than that, fall has always been one of my favorite seasons of the year. The start of the school year has, since I can remember, been a special time of renewal and optimisim for me, them moment when I knew most powerfully that the year ahead was going to be a good one, that all would be well.

I don’t feel that this time around. I feel a creeping dread, as though I’m being stalked by a tiger in the undergrowth that I can’t see or hear, but that I know is there, ready to spring out and devour me.

I’m not sure why. I don’t know what I’m picking up on. It’s nothing in particular, nothing that I can put my finger on. But I haven’t lived on this planet for four decades to come out the other end clueless and with bad instincts. My subconscious mind is picking up on something, even if my conscious mind doesn’t know what it is.

Trouble is afoot. A storm is brewing. This season will not be easy.

If we make it to 2018 with all pieces still in place, everything more or less intact, and everyone more or less happy, I’ll be relieved.

In the meantime, I am taking deep breaths and trying to tread quietly and alertly. I do not wish to be taken by surprise; least of all when I know very well, somehow, that the tiger of some variety—though I haven’t seen it yet—is on the hunt.

Being without stockpiles of summer wine.  §

It’s the middle of the night, or rather, the earliest portion of the morning, and here I am, awake for no particular reason. It feels as though it’s not something I can control.

In fact, the entirety of my life right now is colored by that sense—the sense and experience of feeling and being helpless, of having to face whatever comes without any particular input into it or ability to affect it.

There was a time, years ago, when my parents told me that life had become to small for me. That opinion led them to endorse my departure to graduate school.

Now, it feels as though the opposite is true. I’ve been humbled; life has become too large for me. If only I could go back to those days as a young twenty-something during which little was earned but there was little to pay for, there was little to do but little of it really mattered.

I miss the freedom, which I once despised, to wake up in the morning and do nothing in particular, then to meander into the mountains with car and camera to pal around with nature for a while before returning to the city merely to stroll amongst the people and buildings until it was dark, followed by an evening watching and being tittilated by the news on CNN without ever really being impacted by it.

When I was young I felt as though nothing that I did mattered and this frustrated me; I wanted what I did to matter, and I wanted myself to matter. Now older, I feel as though what I do and who I am and become matter far too much and for too many people. I’m tired of the responsibility of mattering. I want to not matter once again.

Youth wasted on the young &c.

— § —

I head into the school year after the coming weekend keenly aware of the ways in which life with my children is changing forever as they now both begin to go off to school, and of the ways in which life is likely in coming years, in a divorced household in an economically insecure society, to become something beyond any recognition to my self today.

Nothing lasts; nothing is durable in our world today. It is all very liquid indeed.

Point being that I am overtaken already by an anticipatory kind of nostaliga and am trying to savor and to feel grateful for the years that my children and I have had together in their early childhoods, particularly this summer, this last summer of early childhood and (why do I feel this?) last summer in which the vestiges of an old life still obtained.

Yes, I have the sense that things can and will change—that the consequences of divorce did not and have not played out just yet. There were stressful times at first, but we have been in a period of calm now for some months. I am constantly beset by the intuition, growing every day, that this has been the calm before the storm. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I anticipate a raging thunderstorm, necessarily, but more a gentle but insistent rain that comes and stays and dwells with us until everything we have known is eventually washed away and only that which is entirely different, even if verdant and renewed, remains.

The disappearance of the old necessarily follows from and in fact is the arrival of the new, and in our dispensation every moment the new arrives in all its terrible glory.

Much of me would like nothing more at this point than for life to simply hum along as it has over the last year or so, but that is not how life works. Not in this epoch and not in this land. Reality—our reality, here and now—exists to destroy itself, to not continue to exist in the same way tomorrow. That is its one and only purpose—to negate itself. That is our most cherished cultural value—that reality should always and forever wholly negate itself, moment by moment, day by day.

The reality of the summer we have just had has been, in retrospect, sweet and whole and meaningful and intimate. Despite fractured family, we have had some semblance of normal family life, the kids and I. It is bittersweet to see school beginning again and to wonder whether there will ever be another summer like the two that we have just had.

I suspect not, but only for moments at a time, because I can’t keep it up without losing my shit.

America.  §

I suspect that the U.S. is coming apart at the seams, about 25 years earlier than I’d always imagined would happen. I am not sure that there’s a way out of this.

Most of the intellectual elite don’t understand that Trump is not the disease; he is a symptom. The U.S. has long suspected that it had cancer, but it has just been to the radiologist, who returned with the shocking news that it has stage four cancer and only a few months to live.

Trump is the scan, and no lifestyle choice can do anything to slow or reverse the process, though certain lifestyle choices could well accelerate it and reduce the time left to just a few weeks.

I am sad that my Childrens’ lives are going to be so different from my own growing up. No stable home, divorced parents, uncertain future, dying planet, and a different national identity and country, given that the U.S. is unlikely to still be here in its current configuration.

I am also fearful about what all of this means for the lives that they will lead.

Parenthood.  §

This is not a popular view. But in my estimation, any society in which a majority of the population does not engage in their own child-rearing is one that is ultimately doomed to collapse.

“Think of the children” really is a thing, and it is a thing that you cannot properly do until you have your own. No, parenthood does not change everyone, but it changes enough people in a particular enough way to fundamentally alter the frame in which a public approaches social self-sustenance.

I don’t believe that someone can be morally complete unless and until they have their own children. Now throw the tomatoes and/or tell me you’ll never speak to me again. This is not to say that childless people are necessarily somehow bad or to be looked down upon—just that there is a particular sociopolitical and historical naiveté that cannot be overcome until one is forced to engage with it on a realist basis over the very long term. It’s rather like being in a position of military leadership, or in critical areas of medical practice, with both the power and the responsibility for life and death themselves on your very tired and inadequate shoulders.

Put another way, it is not really your responsibility until it is really your responsibility, i.e. your decisions and actions alone are directly and immediately responsible for the very lives of innocent people—no escape hatch. Saying that you’re willing to take on the responsibility is not the same as actually having it, completely, without the ability to avoid it. This comes only with parenthood or—as I just pointed out—certain other rarefied positions in the social system.

Certainly parenthood is the only thing that can force this level of discomfort, introspection, and risk/responsibility acceptance for the broader population. I just don’t believe that there is anything that can take its place. A society in which parenthood is on the wane—is itself also on the wane.