Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: January 2016

Gratitude and schedules.  §

Right now I am living a for the weekends. The weekdays are nothing more or less than the gap between the weekends.

I am also living a life full of ghosts, a mix of the living and the dead, of the present and the past. I have some inkling of how the nobility of the past much have felt, living a life in which you were born, raised, entered adulthood, and eventually died, all in the same building—a building in which your ancestors also did the same things.

This building, the one that I live in now, is full of ghosts, at least as full of ghosts as it is of the living. Ghosts of people that are not longer with us, sure, but also the ghosts of our former selves and of years of the hopes and dreams of a small family that, in its previous form, no longer exists.

In its place, a new family, similar in appearance, but with significant improvements and also some new drawbacks and failings, lives instead. Right now, they split their time between this place and another, and it is at the other place, on weekends, when they are free of ghosts.

When they do not have to be haunted.

— § —

How did we get so lucky as to be here, in the state that we are in? Others have experienced and suffered far less, yet were unable despite much work and many dollars spent, to find the redemption and the love that we are increasingly finding.

I feel grateful. And lucky. And somehow chosen.

You could easily say that our story is an example of the way in which love does not actually “conquer all.”

But you could easily say that our story is also an example of the way in which love does.

Despite difficulties and a long road ahead, we are in a good place. It is a good place to be.

— § —

Happy end-of-birthday to my wife, whom I love.

Difference and proximity.  §

I believe that we are increasingly a culture that cannot cope with difference in proximity. Like must associate with like; every voice in a room must shout in unison; camps and cliques are a matter of the utmost moral imperative somehow.

To say that “I don’t agree” triggers not discussion but instead the script of the activist: aggression, negation, shame, exclusion, distancing.

We take the sign of maturity not to be the mutual agreement to differ, but the mutual agreement to separate and limit contact due to differences.

The activist ethic has taught us that to see difference without aggressively attacking it is to “accept” and to “tolerate” and even to “endorse” that which is different from us, and that all of society is a zero-sum game in which the survival of that which is different from ourselves implies our own destruction.

— § —

And sadly, it often makes me want to check out, to disengage myself. Because there is no longer any room for discourse or discussion or the simple appreciation of diversity. To try to engage in those things is to be perceived as oppressing, invalidating, dismissing, –splaining, and other forms of what are accepted to be immoral behaviors.

This is all obvious stuff, and it’s been said before. But sometimes you want to say things again, just to bemoan the status quo.

The Zen of marriage.  §

Committing to your marriage “only if it is strong” makes your marriage weak.

Committing to your marriage “even if it is weak” makes your marriage strong.

January.  §

For two decades the month of January has held special and mixed meanings for me. This January has been no different, and now that it’s over, I am taking a moment, in the wee hours once again, to reflect.

And to wish my wife a happy birthday.

— § —

I’ve mentioned before that one of the most important creative works in my life is an episode of Northern Exposure called Nothing’s Perfect.

It concerns the relationship that we have to time, to the things that matter to us, and to our own mortality. It argues, with a gentle, heartbreaking touch, that because we are inevitably imperfect ourselves, it is only the imperfections in our lives and in the things that we love that make life beautiful and worth living—if we’re able to embrace, rather than fight them.

Certaintly not a new insight, but perhaps we can grant that this was once a new imagining of it, for a generation that—like every other—was once itself new. Every generation is born to its own time and to its own unconscious “discoveries” of ageless truths.

And as if to provide an object lesson, the original broadcast form of the episode—the one that left me in tears many years ago—has never been available as a recording. Only a slightly edited version, with all of its music replaced and some of its deepest notes blunted, remains for us to see today.

But it is worth seeing anyway.

— § —

“Two and two are four
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen
Sixteen and sixteen are thirty-two

Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
You and your arithmetic
You’ll probably go far

Two and two are four
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen
Sixteen and sixteen are thirty-two

Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
Seems to me you’d stop and see
How beautiful they are”

— § —

The road to one’s own unavoidable end is always amazing, touching, and fraught. There is much to be surprised by, much to be delighted by, much to pull longingly at the heartstrings along the way.

A life is a kind of magic spell, an ephemeral bubble of meaning cast adrift on a grey and uncertain sea. It wanders and dances, silently, hopefully, full of the tension of its own existence and the ambition to somehow be different from every other little creature that ever was.

And then, it disappears as suddenly as it came, and as though it were never there, leaving only the sea itself behind.

And yet later, when we tell the story of its being, it is not the vast, enduring sea that we remember or describe.

— § —

When you’re young, the idea of being “together until the very end” has an abstract, gossamer quality about it. It is not so much a plan of action as it is a statement of purpose.

As you age together with the partner that you believe and hope you have chosen for life, it takes on another quality; as the two of you leave the apparent eternity and immortality of young adulthood behind and begin to see the end of all time ahead of you, it becomes a kind of secret pact amongst souls, a way of being alive in solidarity in the face of an insurmountable, unsolvable puzzle that has no choice but to overtake the innocent and the guilty alike.

Walter Benjamin was no doubt not the first to argue that in death we are alone. He may have been the most eloquent in suggesting that the stories of those around us enable us to “warm ourselves by the fire” of others’ lonely mortal journeys, including those final chapters and pages that we cannot ever experience consciously for ourselves.

I’ll argue that in coupling and in coupling alone, the effect is deeper than this. By choosing to weave two stories into one, we become conscious of the contours of our own story, from prologue through epilogue, in ways that would otherwise be impossible for us.

In those that we choose to love forever, and so long as we are able to honor them and the love that we have promised to them, we gain the ability to become the soothsayers of which Benjamin elsewhere spoke. We gain the ability to stand and to see outside the times and narratives of our own limited lives.

If it is our children that grant us immortality, it is our spouses that show us what this immortality means and contains, its contours and its shape. It is our spouses that enable us to sense it viscerally, while—paradoxically—we struggle with futility to remain alive together, along with the very relationships that bind us to one another.

— § —

Every light continually gives rise to an unbounded, uncountable infinity of photons, each of which disappears from existence almost as soon as it is born.

This apparently static thing that we call “light” is in fact the process of endless creation and destruction at unimaginable scale.

Then, at length, every light goes out—when this production and consumption of being-as-such ends.

Only darkness is at peace. Light, like life, is nothing less than a kind of wild hunger for birth and death, sublimated into something whose vague glow illuminates the passing of time.

— § —

January, January, here you remain for just one or two moments more.

And then you’ll be gone again.

And when you come back, as always, given truths will either be more true or will have been transmuted into falsehood; new stories will have begun and old stories ended; we will be a year closer—another year in the limited handful of years available to either of us—to the end.

You keep coming, and you keep going, you and your silent snows.

And then someday, you won’t come ever again.

I guess that’s just the way it is.

Return on investment.  §

From time to time as I’m awake in the wee hours of the morning (again), I find myself face to face with a certain amount of student debt accumulated over decades of higher education and I begin to wonder if there is some better strategy for overcoming this debt than the current plan to make my payments on time and have the remainder discharged after still more decades.

Often, half as a form of activism and half as a kind of wild, naively hopeful ambition, I think I’ll start a new blog called “The Bitter Academic” (if that’s not already taken) or begin a new series of highly sensational books aimed at graduate school prospects that function as a kind of expose-slash-what-you-need-to-know about life in the academy and its risks.

— § —

Thing is, I’m not bitter about my experience with higher education, as some are. Oh, the debt load is intimidating and seriously limits my options, but at the same time, it’s a one-sided calculation to pretend that I haven’t benefitted in some way.

I didn’t properly finish high school, so if I hadn’t gone to university at all, my job prospects would have been those of a male dropout in America from a lower-middle class family on the wrong side of the tracks. In short, I’d have absolutely been on dead-end street.

So I went to college. I was exceedingly bright (they admitted me early, as an attempt to rehabilitate what they thought would otherwise be a tragic waste of an otherwise capable mind) but at the same time the factors that led to my being a high school dropout also compromised my ability to progress well at university, and it took me ten years to finish my undergraduate degrees (though I ultimately did finish, and two at once).

At that point, I was likely done with loser lane, but at the same time, with a state university bachelors-level qualification in America that is not in STEM (I had switched from computer science by then, unable to meet, early on, its need for personal discipline) but rather in the humanities, my job prospects continued to fall short of need and expectation. College had “growed me up,” finally and in the end, as they say, but it merely helped to guarantee that I would get a job, not a good job, much less be able to build a career.

My prospects simply weren’t those of the high school valedictorian that had gone to Harvard and earned good grades and an internship; I was still playing catch-up, uncompetitive with those that were going somewhere. There is a kind of compounding effect at work. Be a high school valedictorian and you can get into a top university with great grades; get into a top university with great grades and you’ll enjoy scholarships and internships before you graduate; get scholarships and internships before you graduate and you’re on track to a great job and ultimately career when you’re done.

My trajectory, instead, was to start from behind, a high school dropout in college struggling to pay for my education, which mean that I wasn’t competitive for scholarships and internships, which meant that I wasn’t going to graduate, when I did graduate, with good job or career prospects despite having invested heavily in education.

But what was available to me, by virtue of my having completed and finally acquitted myself reasonably well in the end, was more education. And, that being the apparent difference between, on the one hand taking the years I’d already invested in education and turning them into a rather low-paying, low-prospects work life, climbing the ladder for years or decades just to reach the middle class and, on the other hand, having some hope of a professional career at the end of the day, I went. But of course, given my trajectory to that point, significant assistance, financial or otherwise, was still not on offer. I remained an “uncertain case” that had proven that I could play the game and come back from behind, but not that I was a superstar worthy of investment.

Once again, on the strength of the opinions of those that knew me best, I was “given a chance,” this time to attend a big-name institution. As a part of the deal, however, I’d need to pay my own way, which—given where I was—meant student debt for graduate school. I took it on. And I got my masters degree.

Having finished that degree, I was finally able to begin to secure work at the entry level of the white collar world. To have a title and to earn what could justifiably be called a lower-middle class income. Unfortunately, even for a single man, this entry-level lower-middle class income did not keep up with the requirements of debt service. Graduate school had boosted my employent prospects into the realm of the respectable and promising, but it wasn’t “paying its own bills” and I was running out of runway, to so speak.

And so the obvious thing to do was to return to graduate school once again. That, in theory, would boost my employment prospects still higher, all while putting “on pause” the need to service previous student debt. But once again, my past had already placed me on a particular track, and it was the “you haven proven yourself bright, but not a certifiable winner” track. Scholarships and the opportunity to gain professional experience along the way were finally on offer, but only partially. It was “Now you’ve shown yourself worthy of some investment—but perhaps not the kind of investment we make in valedictorians from Harvard.” So, student debt once again to make up the difference. And, given that I was now in my thirties, also to live some semblance of a normal life while still slogging along through studenthood. After all, you only get one life; you can’t put off living it forever just to better your career prospects. Or rather, you’d seriously prefer not to, given the choice, since you’re not getting any younger.

At length, I completed the Ph.D. This time, I (in many ways) finally caught up, with a sterling record, multiple honors, and strong faculty support. Job prospects became generally excellent—not for academic work per se, whose competitive market is the subject of much writing elsewhere, but I’d finally been able to work early and often on career-track jobs that paid much more handsomely than those I’d been competitive for with a mere masters degree. And I’d finally been able to date, marry, and become a family man.

Unlike the superstars, however, in reaching this point I’d accumulated significant debt, and this meant that I was still behind; there was no way that I could, despite faculty support, sensibly pursue the academic career path of low income and hard labor for many years. Upon completion, I’d be on the hook for large payments. And once again, it seemed as though my ultimate financial identity had changed little. Much better jobs and incomes, but much heavier debt service as well that significantly limits my options and my future.

— § —

This story could easily sound like a bitter one, since there have ultimately been limited net financial benefits; for a long time it has been, essentially, a kind of net financial stagnation since the first undergraduate degrees.

There have been benefits in other areas, however. The work that I’ll be doing for the rest of my life is more interesting, more autonomous, relatively speaking, and higher in status and exposure than the work I’d have done for most of my life had I stopped after completing my undergraduate degrees.

Along the way, I’ve been able to see and live in interesting places, live an increasingly stimulating and, for the average person, exotic intellectual life, and experience professional growth and satisfaction in a variety of industries in ways that have enriched me as a person. I met my wife and owe much of my personal life, such as it is, to my educational history.

And I have both confidence and competence that I’d never have otherwise had.

In short, despite the lack of financial progress, I’m living and will likely continue to live a far better life in a number of qualitative ways than I otherwise would have. Certainly my first foray into higher education mattered. I am not left sitting, for the rest of my life, next to sign on a street corner that says, “High school dropout, will work for food.”

So there have been benefits. But none of them, I’d say, have been financial since the undergraduate days. For me at least, decades of higher education have essentially been a way of treading financial water; academic progress meant that I’d earned the permission to take on more debt in the interest of a more preferable quality of life, with sufficient increases in earning capability only to service the debt I’d taken on. In short, I’ve repeatedly earned the right to take on and successfully service more debt. The advantage that was meant to sell me on the prospect (and that, indeed, did) was that I’d live a generally better life.

And so I do and I have.

— § —

But all of this leaves me with the question of what to do now.

Being in the position of basic financial stability with regard to this debt—I am able to work at a career, and to service it successfully—I am of course now in a position to begin once again to ruminate on ways to get ahead of this game.

What if I were able to find a way to completely repay it well ahead of schedule? This can’t merely be a matter of “discipline” as the debt is simply too large and my income prospects still too middle-class for discipline to make much of a dent in the ultimate balance.

But if I were able to find a way, I’d finally, finally actually be ahead of the game financially relative to where I began. Without debt to service, I could, for example, pursue an academic career, or save some money for retirement, or live a relatively comfortble life, and so on.

But how? This stage of the process requires more enterpreneurial thinking.

— § —

Unfortunately, building out a “sensationalist critic and exposer of the academy” persona and trying to leverage it in the interest of income won’t quite do. The brand of “The Bitter Academic” isn’t going to be the tack.

Because at the end of the day, I’m not bitter. I did, in fact, begin all of this as a drugged-out high school dropout, and am grateful that someone took a look and said, “Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all; with his brain, perhaps we can get him into a university somewhere on a probationary basis and see if he can succeed there in some way and make something or other of his life.”

So I couldn’t well sustain it. And it would be a betrayal of some very generous people who have helped me along the way, and are not themselves the reason that our system works the way it does, turning years of investment and debt not into a better financial life and better financial prospects on a net basis, but rather essentially into better social status and titles.

I couldn’t stomach the carrying out of such a betrayal, particularly if it wouldn’t even feel genuine to me.

— § —

So I’ll continue to muse about this sort of thing, when I’m up early in the morning without necessarily wanting to be, and feeling the full weight of the debt service that lies ahead of me over time, and what it likely means for my future: that I’ll never really be financially better off than my lower-middle class parents were, even if I enjoy more prestige and deference from others, as well as a more interesting work life.

Hopefully something will come to me at some point. I am, after all, a doctor and a professional in marketing and communication. There must be some way to shift ahead a bit, even while running breathlessly on a very rapidly spinning treadmill.

I just have to find and act on it.

Taking a moment.  §

For the first time in weeks, I feel like I actually have a moment.

Technically, I’m still on the clock, and there’s still work to be done today, but I can take a moment, just a moment right now, before diving back into work.

Just a moment.

— § —

I’ve changed the aquarium water. It was long overdue, and I apologize to my rather large and dirty fish for the wait. They’re helpless and I’ve not been the best aquarium keeper as of late.

We got them when my daughter was tiny; they’ve been with us now for the better part of five years, and grown from tiny feeders to very large, eight- or nine-inch beauties.

I’m glad they’ll be able to breathe a little easier again.

— § —

There is nothing in particular to report, and nothing in particular that I feel right now. I am just taking a moment, for the first time in a very long time, to enjoy the light coming in the window, gray-blue and beautiful, as winter light always has been.

The blinds in my office have been permanently closed since July. I forgot that they existed. I forgot, in some ways, that light existed. Now suddenly they’re open again, and the light itself could almost be mistaken for the future, for time, for possibility.

The light creates degrees of freedom and possibility where a moment ago there was only stasis. That is fitting, given that all life on earth begins with light. Light is literally the genesis of all things, the carrier of all potential for living things like myself, my family, and these fish.

It is interesting to me that the presence of natural light seems to change my perception of time, given the physics. I don’t want to get all mystical and new age here, but it is interesting. I do feel it on a visceral level.

— § —

I wonder if that’s what’s been missing from my life.

Something that simple?

Light?

Boundaries and parenthood.  §

It’s 12:45 in the morning and I’m awake. I’ve been chased out of the bed by the boy. Now I love the boy, very, very much. I would do anything for him.

Well, anything but let him climb into bed and chase me out.

Actually, even that, because here I am.

I’m told that we ought to make a rule that they can’t be in the bed, and lead them back to their own bed. And that sounds great in theory.

But at 12:45 in the morning? When you know it could lead to a full-on meltdown? And keep everyone awake for hours? And everyone is already tired? And the family situation is already complicated? And parenthood and child-rearing are amongst the most disruptive issues?

It doesn’t seem to be worth the risk, short term.

And yet it also seems to be one of the biggest generators of risk, long term.

I don’t know what to do, or what I prefer to do, much less what is right, objectively (if there is such a thing in this case) or even for us.

So here I am, awake at 12:45 in the morning. Not happy about it, but also not comfortable with doing anything else.

But at the very least, I can’t just lay there and be rolled over, clung to, and crowded around. My sleep night is just not about the kids. Even though I love the kids.

My “temporary daddyhood hormone levels” must have returned to normal at this point, because it’s no longer cute. I don’t feel all nurturing when it happens. I feel annoyed as hell.

— § —

Long term, we have to figure this out and set some boundaries if we are to find a new normal together as a family.

One very serious truth about our lives since we became parents is that they have been ruled—absolutely ruled—by children. Our relationship as spouses as well.

And that can’t happen.

Because kids are, by nature, hungry. It’s been encoded into their very genes by evolution. They will demand everything all the time and take whatever you don’t hold down.

As parents, it’s your job(s) to set the boundaries that protect the viability of the family and of its adults’ ability to function, precisely in the kids’ best interest(s).

Because otherwise, if you give “as much as you can” or “as much as they need,” they will grow up in a fractured family (if a family at all) with barely functioning, exhausted, emotionally drained, impoverished and unfulfilled adults.

— § —

I wrote a few days ago that I feel like my wife and I are a couple again.

It is repeatedly demonstrated to me that the biggest risk to the future of this state of affairs is the fact that we still have so little—so very, very little—space and time in which to act ad feel like a couple.

In this situation, we need to realize that whether we prefer to put the kids first or ourselves first, in fact the requirement is the same: we need to find a way to create and protect this space.

Because even if we “put the kids first,” what the kids need is a family and parents that love each other. This cannot happen if the parents don’t even have a space to have ten minutes of conversation with one another in a day.

One doesn’t like to be harsh. But I am increasingly feeling as though much, much more discipline and much, much stronger boundaries are needed. The kids need to be told that some of the emotional reserve and substrate in the house absolutely belongs to mom and dad and is not there for, or open to, the kids’ consumption or intrusion. Period.

Only not at 12:45 in the morning.

From the past. (Plus kids.)  §

1999
 
2000
 
2002
 
2003
 
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2004
 
2005
 
2006
 
2008
 
2009
 
2012
 
 

— § —

Moral of the story?

Having kids beats the ever loving sh*t out of you and leaves you decades older. Even if you’re not the mom.

Relationships and commitment.  §

It suddenly occurs to me (though it should have sooner) that the big dividing line in the commitment/no-commitment game that so many couples play (it is, after all, one of our most cherished tropes) has to do with how people value relationships in the first place.

The pro-commitment group sees a life-long relationship, at the end of the day, as “worth it.” So worth it that it’s worth almost any sacrifice; one of the biggest/best, if not the biggest/best thing a person can have in life. Not any character of relationship in particular, but a committed relationship in general. It is the fact of the lifelong relationship itself that is “worth it.” It is “I am willing to rearrange my life in almost any way to have and keep a committed relationship forever, because a forever-relationship is worth more than anything else I’ve got or am likely to have.”

The not-sure-about-commitment group sees relationships, at the end of the day, as good, but less intrinsically valuable. Much more of the worth is tied up in the content of the relationship. Relationships are good, but they may not place the same high value on the lifelong relationship itself. That is to say that their position is, “a lifelong relationship would be great, under certain circumstances, but it’s not so great in itself as a thing that it’s worth risking many other things for; those other things are at least as valuable.”

I’m in the former camp. A lifelong relationship is the single highest, most valuable thing I could ever hope to have in my life as a living, breathing person. I’d give up two legs, my sight, and my last decade of life if I knew I was trading them for a lifelong relationship. So it has a higher priority for me than anything else.

The complicating factor is that you generally can’t know which relationships are “lifelong” and which aren’t in advance. I would emphatically not give up any of those things for a relationship that I knew would be over in a decade. A non-lifelong relationship is worth far, far, far less to me. I don’t want to be dramatic, but I’d say that a non-lifelong relationship is worth something more like a new car (depending on the car) or a really great luxury wristwatch. Supercool, but compromise myself for it? Forget it. There are many other things in my life that would be more important than a non-lifelong relationship.

But of course you can’t know. So how to set your priorities? That’s where the “commitment” discussion comes in.

Commitment, if someone like me believes in it, enables the pro-commitment person to give things their all—which is exactly what they want to do. For someone that values lifelong relationships less highly than various other things, however, this can all seem a bit suspect. Why would you value a relationship in-itself so highly? Doesn’t it matter whether the relationship is good or bad? Aren’t there other parts of your life that rank at least as highly, if not more highly, on the importance scale? And if not, is that really healthy?

— § —

So the two groups view each other with suspicion.

The pro-commitment group is wary because the not-sure-about-commitment group may not be committed, and if they’re not actually committed, then their investment calculation is substantially different. What the pro-commitment group is after is a lifelong relationship, because that is the Best Thing No Matter What[TM]. But they don’t want to give so many things up for a relationship that may be over someday. It’s just not the same. It’s not worth as much.

The not-sure-about-commitment group is wary because it seems to them that the pro-commitment group puts too much value in relationships themselves, which makes them feel boxed in. It’s just not true that a lifelong relationship is the most important thing for them, not as such. It depends on how the relationship serves other things in their life. And so being involved with someone that is pro-commitment seems to call on them to make sacrifices that they don’t want to make. Sure they’d like to preserve their relationship as long as possible, but there’s a lot that they’re not willing to give up for it, no matter how committed it is. And in fact, it bothers them that anyone would even ask for a “committed no matter f**king what” of them. Who does the other person think they are? No matter what? Get real! And if they are pressured too hard for this, it means that the relationship is not the right one any longer. Will this other person actually expect me to give that much? Well I don’t want to commit to that. I’m just not interested in that. It matters to me how the relationship serves me. If they want too much, I’d better go. And I’d better not promise too much at the outset. Yes, I’m “committed,” but not so much that it affects these other things in my life. I’m “committed” to being with them and only them until we’re not together anymore. That’s all.

Two different kinds of commitment. Commitment-to-the-death and commitment-to-exclusivity-until-end-of-contract. Each secretly needs the other to be on the same page to feel comfortable, and for their own commitment to really work.

— § —

Put these two together and the results are unpredictable.

One person is at “I will do anything—anything—for you, so long as I continue to believe we’ll be together forever, and I expect you to do the same. That’s what enables me to believe it.”

The other person is at “I will be faithful and loyal to you, and only you, and do my best to maintain this relationship until or unless it becomes clear that it is no longer the right relationship. At that point, my commitment to be faithful and loyal to you and only you ends.”

That’s the source of the difficulty. They’ve committed to different things.

— § —

The million dollar question is… can it work? In some cases, does this fly for both? Or is it inherently unstable?

Dispersion.  §

I really want to pull things together, move forward, regain focus and some sort of plan for the next five years, but it’s proving difficult to do when I struggle just to keep the dishes clean.

I’m spread a mile wide and a millimeter thick. That doesn’t lend itself to being my best self, or to making progress for the future.

This can’t go on forever; I have to figure out some way to get out ahead of things. I need to:

1) Invest more of everything in my marriage

and

2) Keep myself showered and groomed
2) Keep the bills (somehow) paid
2) Keep the day-to-day company work done
2) Keep the dishes and laundry done and house sort of disinfected

and

3) Spend more time in my kids’ lives

and

4) Develop a side income
4) Try to bridge my career past to my career future
4) Revive past major projects, esp. academic
4) Pursue side projects
4) Rediscover and reconnect with myself

At some times, it feels as though all of this is night-on impossible. Right now, group (1) is high-priority and I try to keep it always at the forefront. Group (2) is mostly done most of the time, but as you move down the list it gets more sketchy.

I honestly haven’t made it as far as group (3) in weeks.

And group (4), which is the “me” group?

Ummm…

— § —

Now my wife will be frightened by all of this if she reads it, as she won’t see how I can place marriage at (1) and yet self at (4) and have any hope that we can make it through this.

The problem is that the things in (1), (2), and (3) are all self. They’re the highest parts of self, the most important for self-maintenance. I will not survive in any way as someone that can “pursue side projects” or “reconnect with myself” if I am not showered and fed, or if my environment isn’t reasonably tidy, or if the relationship I have with my wife and kids goes south.

So those other things have to come first.

But I must, absolutely must tactically figure out ways to get myself to a place where I can sometimes work on tasks in group (4). That’s where progress and the future lie.

Breastfeeding and PPD.  §

This is what I’m posting on my blog? You bet, actually.

— § —

So I got sucked into a Facebook discussion on postpartum depression and anxiety. NPR ran a story on how we need to screen for it. And some matronly old superior-person posted a reply that basically said if all those terrible bottle-feeding moms would breastfeed, this would not be an issue, because Natural[TM] stuff like breastfeeding just magically fixes problems like PPD.

This got me right in my grumble, even though I’m just a dad, not a mom.

I mean, seriously, WTF? Seriously?

Okay, so my wife breastfed and we bought organic and we read parenting books and we rearranged basically our entire lives to try to be perfect and things have not been smooth anyway and she did, in fact, suffer a whole hell of a lot because pregnancy and delivery are a huge stress on the body, and minds are parts of bodies.

— § —

This is a recurring and intensifying thread in American life and Facebook has only made it worse.

The cult of personal responsibility has infected every corner of life, even in things as personal as parenting and breastfeeding. Gosh, your body had an issue of some kind? It’s your damned responsibility, why didn’t you make better choices?

F**k that.

— § —

I want nothing more than to grab these people by the sleeves and tell them:

  • You will die someday, no matter how “well” you live, because you are mortal
  • Bad things happen to good people and this has been a well-known human trope for millennia
  • Both health and mental health (which is a subset of health) are not entirely about your choices
  • If Cure X always fixed Problem Y then Problem Y would be long gone by now

Jesus Christ I’m tired of the “if only you’d” brigade:

  • If only you’d breastfed
  • If only you’d eaten organic
  • If only you’d done yoga, or Tai Chi, or…
  • If only you’d gone away to an Ayurvedic retreat in Lhasa
  • If only you’d drink much more coconut oil and acahi juice
  • If only you’d vote progressive
  • If only you’d…

If only we’d done the right thing then what? WHAT? WHAT IS AT THE END OF YOUR MAGIC STRING, THERE? We’d never suffer? We’d never be let down? Things would never go wrong? We’d live forever? What, exactly?

— § —

NO.

Human bodies are frail and the world is imperfect.

We all will die.
We all will get diseases someday of some kind.
People will always suffer.
Children—CHILDREN!—will get diseases and suffer, too, sadly.
And it won’t even be anybody’s fault.
Some people will be poor.
A meteor may fall . on . your . head . tomorrow and it won’t be because you were bad.
BEING PERFECT CANNOT SAVE YOU OR ANYONE FROM THE METEOR.

PPD happens. It is not the result of choices. It is the result of biology and stress and novel process branches in complex biological systems. And it is treatable. Yet we don’t treat it, or even look for it, which is a national travesty. One amongst millions of them. It does not result from “not breastfeeding.” As a family, we are proof of that. Other things that don’t result from “not breastfeeding” include:

– Autism
– Poverty
– Teenage rebellion
– Preference for junk food in 5th grade
– Poor math scores in Mrs. Jacobs’ class
– A love for Abba albums

For fuck’s sake. Just FFS. That’s all.

— § —

PPD only affects families that don’t breastfeed, but ought to have?

Come back to me when you live forever, self-important matron lady.

Kids. Marriage. Family.  §

This is supposed to affect women more than men, goes the conventional wisdom.

But in fact I have long felt, and feel more every day, that there is a way in which having kids effectively put an end to my life as I knew it, and myself as I knew him, both professionally and personally.

I have not made much progress toward recovery, or toward building something new.

Sometimes it haunts me and is hard to deal with.

But it is what it is.

— § —

Okay, I’ll come clean with myself. This is a risky diary because it’s point of contention with my wife.

But in 2009 and even 2010, I felt like I had the game won. Like my career and my life were on the right path, all major obstacles had been removed. Things were, for me, going according to plan, and I was professionally and personally fulfilled.

I know she wasn’t. Which is what makes all of this hard and complicated.

I chose family, and let the other elements of my life go. I would make the same choice again. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sting to feel like I had so much of what I wanted for my own future (as apart from family) in my grasp, after years of fighting the good fight, and after years of ignoring naysayers, and that now it is all but gone.

It does sting.

But it’s also true, very true, that I made my choice and that I’d make the same choice again. My family is also what I wanted for my own future. Sometimes multiple things that you want just don’t go together.

Most of the time these days I don’t think about this. But today, for some reason, looking at my own career and looking at the careers of others, I am envious and just a bit sad at what could have been—what almost was.

— § —

What I want, more than anything else in the world, is just to be heard on this point. To hear someone, anyone, say once: “You gave up an awful lot for what you have today. An awful lot! That must have been hard, and I can see how sometimes you must wonder what might have been. Hope you’re happy with your choice, despite the sacrifices and complications.”

That would give me the chance to say: “You know what? I am!”

And I would feel good.

But so far, that has never happened. And sometimes that doesn’t feel as good.

New stages, old vistas, bloody-mindedness, and satire.  §

After a happy workday I am trying not to let myself get too high or too low tonight.

Too high is a risk because, after a lovely weekend that was somehow bigger than its ostensible measurements, I feel—for the first time in ages—as though my wife and I are a couple again. As though we are together, an item, an us, not two people in love but in trouble trying to “make it work” but rather an honest-to-god loving couple. It’s amazing to feel this way again. And if I’m not careful, it makes me feel as though it makes absolutely no sense that we live separately. Why? Whatever for? We’re a couple, for god’s sake, and we share love, kids, and our fortunes for the future in many ways. If I’m not careful, in fact, I’ll get ahead of myself and recklessly jump in with both feet. And that would be bad for us as a couple. We need to take our time and just be happy with each other.

Feeling too low is also a risk because, of course, I miss her. Today, for the first time, without a hint of worry or stress or doubt. Just miss, as you miss anyone that you love who’s away. Yet she’s not away—she’s just a few blocks distant. We could all be together again tonight, and every night. Five minutes. Why go through the missing? Why suffer at all? The result is the same: If I’m not careful, I’ll get ahead of myself and recklessly jump in with both feet. And that would be bad for us as a couple. We need to take our time and just be happy with each other for a while.

We need to take our time and just be happy with each other for a while.

And for the first time in a long time, being happy with each other feels sort of effortless.

We can get around to arranging our lives and tackling the “issues” of life later. For now, it’s time to just be a couple again. It is so needed, and so right.

— § —

Anyone that underestimates the bloody-minded child does so at their own peril. I know, I used to be one. And my daughter may be more bloody-minded than even I was at her age.

I remember being a young kid being taken to church in my Sunday “best” with everyone around me both mortified and applying, by turns, all kinds of pressure—angry pressure, gentle pressure, bribery, reason, and any objects at hand—to try to get me to change the way I was wearing my clothes.

How was I wearing my clothes?

– Little girls’ stickers all over my unlaced shiny leather shoes
– Pant legs on my suit pants rolled up to mid-calf revealing white soccer socks, pulled high
– Sleeves on my sport coat jacket rolled up to mid-forearm
– Necktie tied around one arm, with ends dangling to my waist
– Nike sweatband on my head
– Shirt collar turned up
– Hair all combed over from left to right, then hairsprayed in place sticking out directly sideways

I appeared totally inappropriately, unlike the other boys, all dressed nicely and slickly in their suits and ties like little businesspeople. I looked ridiculous. Like I needed attention in the most embarrassing of ways. Everybody knew it. I knew it. Why did I dress that way?

So that they would bug me about it, after which I could refuse to change anything about it. Precisely so that I could have the satisfaction of making everyone uncomfortable by doing something that was unquestionably my thing in my way, even if it was stupid, in fact because it was stupid, and I was gonna be stupid. Nobody was gonna stop me, and I was going to make sure they understood that. And if adults were gonna be bugged when I did something stupid as a little kid, well, served them right for demonstrating finally that the adult world wasn’t beyond the kid world in importance or seriousness at all, despite all their claims to the contrary.

Or the time that for the first time in two decades, three generations were together from multiple continents all in one place and all anyone wanted was a photo. Would I be in the photo? Of course not. Begging. Pleading. Cajoling. Explanations. Recriminations.

Not a chance. I ruined it. Everyone hated me. In ways, I even hated myself. I ended up in a horrible mood.

So why? Because underneath it all, I felt as though the me-ness of me wasn’t being respected on a day-to-day basis. My feelings. My preferences. My needs. Why should they be, if I was just a kid? Because despite their claims of superior need, their explanations for why things were important and serious, they weren’t actually so elevated and distant in their seriousness that a mere kid couldn’t cause their vaunted emotional stability as adults to utterly crumble. To a kid, this was both liberating and terrifying.

My preferences were clearly just as important as theirs were. Stay with me here. They shouldn’t have been—but they were.

I saw through the contradicting claim—that a kid’s preferences, my preferences, weren’t to be taken seriously—and at the same time that my preferences as a kid were so important to them as to bring their adult lives and emotional selves on any given day to a screeching halt. We were on equal footing, but they didn’t want to admit it. So I clearly had a right to myself just as they did. As a result, whenever I found a moment in which I saw an opening to be me conspicuously, I took it. I reveled in it—and in the terrifying fact that I could make them squirm. Power to the powerless, who had, at the same time, been made far too powerful.

As I said, I see this in my daughter. That streak of irrational, very conspicuous bloody-mindedness, it’s familiar to me. It worries me. About her and about the job we’re doing as parents. But I get it. So I try to acknowledge it when she does it. That she is who she is, and I respect that, even if I think what she is doing is bizarre. And that I am still the parent, when all is said and done—but that I will give her the space, within reason, to be a kid. I will try to avoid either pressuring her to conform or granting her the power, which she really, really, really doesn’t want, to bother me as the adult when she doesn’t.

Because if her silly little whims as a kid have the power, as she suspects, to screw up the adults that are supposed to protect her and the adult world in general, then the weight of the world is actually on her shoulders—and the adults in her life don’t have the power to take care of her in the face of life’s hard facts and realities at all.

That’s how I grew up—knowing that if adults weren’t strong enough to cope with little kid me and my little kid life without losing their shit, then little kid me had better toughen up and get strong enough to take care of myself against the whole adult world.

Kids like me didn’t “seek attention” because we thought what we did was important, or because we wanted it to be important. We sought attention because we had already been told that everything we did was important, far more important than we wanted it to be. That everyone we needed to rely on was actually relying on us for just as much. And we were hoping, every day and with every fiber of our being, that someone would respond by telling us that it just didn’t matter.

We just wanted to hear, “Whatever, you lovable weirdo. It’s not my preference, but you’re just a kid. I get it. It’s all good, I love you anyway. When you’re done being weird, we’ll get lunch and tell some jokes. Until then, do your thing baby. I’ve got your back. I’ll be over here being the adult in the room.”

I don’t know for sure whether my daughter is in the same boat. There’s no way to know. She’s a separate person. Maybe I’m projecting all the time.

But some of the behavior is superficially familiar. So I try to be safe for her, in case that’s what she needs to someday feel safe to conform.

— § —

I’ve started reading a piece of cultural satire called “The Situation is Hopeless but Not Serious” by Paul Watzlawick. Two pages in, it is already full of rather apropos gems. My favorite so far?

“In his attempt to be true to his Own Self, he is enveloped by a spirit of negation, for not to negate would make him untrue to himself. The mere fact that other people may recommend something becomes the very reason for rejecting it—even if, seen objectively, that something would be to his advantage… However the true genius manages to go to the ultimate extreme and with heroic determination rejects even what he himself considers the best decision, that is, the voice of his own reason. Thus the snake not only bites its own tail but actually devours itself, and a state of unhappiness is created that is beyond comparison. Of course, for my less gifted readers this state of misery remains a sublime if unattainable goal…”

Hmmm…

Up a road slowly.  §

When I was young and in grammar school and something of a voracious reader, I often selected my next readings from lists of award-winning books for young adults. I remember selecting a book called “Up a Road Slowly” at one time and being excited, as I carried it home from the library, to read it.

For me, at that time, it was a flop. It seemed slow and ponderous and frustrating in the way that everything in the story was somehow about the benefits of slowness, of patience, of growth over time.

I wasn’t at all ready for it then. I can’t imagine that many young people are, actually. I can picture an awards committee full of aging adults being quite taken by the story and seeing it as something that was quite beautiful in their eyes and that young people “ought to read.”

— § —

I think that even throughout my adult years, I wasn’t quite ready for this story, or for this concept. The book has long held a place in my imagination as that very same flop, an example of what a story probably shouldn’t be, a case of a book with didactic intentions that forgot what an audience was.

It is only now, pushing forty, that I have recalled the story and writing again for the first time in rather a long time, and suddenly, with new eyes. Suddenly, it seems quite lovely to me.

It is a season of life in which I am, suddenly, happy to be going up a road slowly. Suddenly, it doesn’t just resonate, but it seems in fact to honor things that are good in gentle ways.

— § —

Tonight for the first time in some time, I remember that spring exists, that summer exists, that fall exists, that there are seedlings and breezes and rainstorms and warm early mornings to come again—that winter is not eternal, that time does, indeed pass, and that there are other things than present circumstances to come.

It is precisely because present circumstances are good that I can do this, and doing this makes present circumstances seem all the better.

There is a paradoxical way in which “living in the present” opens up the rest of time to be embraced, and in which embracing the rest of time as it is, with a clear head and without any particular striving enables one to live in the present.

It is a different flavor of awareness, and it is good.

— § —

Tonight life is good.

Seeing adulthood.  §

It’s hard to know when you’re grown up, or how to be grown up, when you didn’t get much of a chance to be a kid.

— § —

The end of childhood can arrive early in all kinds of disguises, worn by parents:

– Violence
– Ambition
– Concern for the future
– Need and loneliness
– Inadequacy

I’m sure there are others.

— § —

For those that don’t know, here’s what kids do:

– Play to exhaustion
– Shirk responsibility
– Lie compulsively
– Yell and make loud noises
– Manipulate and cajole
– Throw tantrums
– Need endlessly
– Ridiculous shit
– Silly shit
– Ignore the future entirely

If you have a kid that isn’t doing this stuff at five, or seven, or even ten years old in some way or other, don’t be too proud of yourself. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve succeeded.

It may mean precisely that you’ve failed. Ask yourself whether—because they didn’t feel safe and loved and accepted doing these things with you during their formative years—they’ll spend the rest of their lives compulsively doing them with other adults instead.

— § —

And if you are an adult that recognizes yourself in that last sentence, you should probably also—for your own health and happiness—ask you just what it is about your childrens’ childhood that you have such trouble tolerating. And why.