Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

The big four-one.  §

So, 41.

When you’re younger there’s all this talk (and thought) about self-improvement, becoming a better person, striving to expand who you are, and so on.

I guess some of that is still in play, but at the same time, it’s much more clear by the time you’ve reached your fourth decade that, in fact, you are who you are and at some fundamental level, you’re not going to change. Ever.


Me in my early 20s. It is now a very, very long time since then. Who and where is this man?

The new project is to work on making the most of things, and on coming to terms with what is clearly inevitable about yourself. Because, as it turns out, when you’re on the down slope, it starts to seem ridiculous to spend all your time trying to be a better person for the future—because the future gets smaller every day, and the dwindling number of present present moments increasingly feel as though they’re not to be wasted in trade for an even smaller number of future ones.

— § —

In middle age, life becomes the perpetual emergency.

Work emergencies, child emergencies, household emergencies, logistical emergencies, financial emergencies, logistical emergencies, and so on.

From everything that I understand and ahve seen in life, this is a class-centric thing. If you see that your middle age has become a series of emergencies, then you know that you are middle class or below (in the social science sense, not in the self-reporting/self-identification sense).

If you are working class or below, then life is not a series of emergencies, but rather a single, long catastrophe. If you are upper-middle-class or above, then life continues to consist primarily of what might be called “normalcy,” i.e. predictabilies.

— § —

When I was growing up, my mom used to reference Thoreau often by saying that “we all start out building castles in the air, but at some point as we age, we wake up and realize that construction has stopped and reality has intervened.”

Until my mid-to-late ’30s I was rather happy that construction on my own castles appeared to be continuing apace, and was confident that in due course, work on them would be finished.

Then, in the last couple of years, reality intervened.

I am now yet another citizen of the world with not castles, but partially finished (and forever partially finished) construction projects overhead—these likely to remain that way, sunk costs only vaguely embodied in ephemeral artifacts for the future archeologists that are my children descendants to excavate, interpret, and discuss.

— § —

I am not totally sold on the value of awareness (not to be confused with the value of self-awareness).

It increasingly seems to me that the achievement of awareness is nothing other than the achievement of full existential dread. Reality is an unsettled and dangerous place that goes about its business whether or not one is entirely aware of the various and sundry nefarious and risky processes and mechanisms that underlie it. These do not need our help to continue, and most of the time continue they do, despite the constant threat of calamity.

More and more, I feel as though “to be more aware” is simply to more incessantly at the shoreline in a vain attempt to determine whether or not the sea will someday rise suddenly to swallow you up in a tsunami. It could. It always cold. But gazing in terror rather than chopping wood and carrying water doesn’t buy one any added security, in practice—only the mistaken impression that one is somehow taking much-needed preventative steps.

To get things done, a certain amount of futility in life must be embraced. Otherwise, all those pedantic and seemingly insightful questions that you raised as a pre-teen—why make your bed if you’re just going to unmake it again in a few hours and why do your homework if we’re all going to be dead soon enough—end up actually having currency.

You only get one life, and it’s going to be rocky, whether you choose to live it or you choose to hide from it.

— § —

Thought we were beyond this, but the kid is having breathing trouble at night again. Only when he’s asleep; he doesn’t even realize it’s happening, and if you wake him up, everything returns to normal.

As soon as he drops off though, he goes into apnea/stridor mode—failed breath, failed breath, failed breath, partial wakeup and big successful inhale, then back to complete doze, failed breath, failed breath, failed breath, partial wakeup and big successful inhale.

You have to monitor him closely and position him well to keep this from happening.

I’ll probably have him seen. It will probably cost a lot. And deductible now is five times higher than it used to be because the plan we used to have is simply no longer available on the exchange. We have basically the best plan going right now, but it’s still crap—you get to spend thousands out of pocket before insurance kicks in.

And the worry level is high. Nobody is getting to sleep very well because the parents are up all night (or at least I am—I presume it’s the same way at the other house) monitoring and adjusting all night.

Then he wakes up happy and everyone else wakes up exhausted.

I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those instances in which a little modern knowledge is a curse. In fact, daughter had the same thing until she was about five, but nobody knew any better, nobody had done any research, and so it was just “assume this is what kids do” mode. Then, she grew out of it and all was well.

With him, because of the previous asthma difficulties, we’re aware of his breathing already, and we’ve had the discussions and done the readings. And as a result, we’re worried all the time, ready to spend a lot, and watching like hawks.


Looking at this picture makes me tremendously sad and also fills me with love for my daughter at the same time. Life hurts. That sucks, because I want to make the world a happy place for her.

That’s not to say that it’s nothing. It’s also not to say that it’s something. It’s more about what you know and what you don’t know in life. Once you know about things, and have spent time focused on them, they are points of worry, attention, and investment. That may well lead to better outcomes overall. It also leads to a higher-stress life, regardless of outcomes.

— § —

Totally different circumstance with different importance, I know, but a similar thing goes for academics and my now largely historical academic life. If I’d never gone to grad school, it wouldn’t have mattered to me all that much that I finish a Ph.D.

If I’d never finished a Ph.D., it wouldn’t have mattered all that much that I don’t work in academics now.

In fact, if you told the twenty-year-old me about the career that I’m working right now, he’d have been overjoyed and imagined himself to be a reasonable success. But with the knowledge and experience that I do have, it feels at times like a failure to live up to potential, or as though that remains a significant risk in my life as a whole.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. That’s a hard pill to swallow because knowledge is everything—power, justice, wisdom, etc.—but it is also one of the most fertile seeds of discontent, worry, and regret.

Hard truths.

— § —

A friend had a car wreck. Or rather, someone was (likely) texting on the road and ran into (and totaled) her car.

There’s a worry to conjure with. I’ve never been in a serious wreck—just that one, minor fender-bender that wasn’t my fault. The only one ever in all my years of driving. And yet even that, minor in physical impact, in cost, and in time lost, completely altered the course of my life forever, leading me out of computer science and into the humanities and social sciences, by way of a missed final exam.

If that five-mile-per-hour bump had never happened that morning, I’d be a completely different person leading a completely different existence.

Knowing what she’s having to deal with right now, it’s hard not to selfishly worry that given how many years I’ve been driving, I’m just about due—and to further worry about how well I could cope right now with, say, a car being totaled and what insurance would likely offer for my nearly-twenty-year-old car in order to replace it.

How would I cope? No idea. How well would I cope? Probably not all that well. Given those conclusions, I definitely feel for her.

And I hope no idiot texter out there does the same thing to me anytime soon, due or no.

— § —

My very subtle and under-the-radar birthday “celebration” is done as of today. Celebration is absolutely the wrong word, as no observer would be able to detect anything of the sort going on in my life right now or over the past week.

But it’s been happening, in little details that have been slightly different from the usual, everyday course of things.

It’s the birthday that started this post, a couple of days ago, and I ended up feeling as though I wasn’t ready to post it yet, as though it was incomplete. And so it was. Here are the things that I’ve been led to as a result of the quiet birthday period, and that need to be said:

  • We tend to think of ourselves as the prime movers of history, but Latour had it right. The objects match us in importance. No, they don’t have agency or initiative. But they are, in comparison, immortal and (by dint of experience) far more “wise,” while achieving a similar level of expressiveness over time.
  • The older you get, the more the things you do have almost nothing to do with your own self and everything to do with your responsibilities to others.
  • When you’re young, fear and desire drive you mercilessly. This makes you incredibly productive. These fade as motivators as you age, which is a good thing. They are not, however, replaced by anything else, which is not such a good thing.
  • Sunflowers are amazingly beautiful things, as are basil plants. Old cameras, too. There’s a kind of organic aesthetic that resonates with something primal in the human experience—and that’s been lost in our world of hyper-clean, sleek-and-hard industrial design. As you get older and you feel the soil’s embrace getting closer to you, you become less Bauhaus and more Thoreau by the day.
  • You don’t just accumulate more history as you age; you also accept and take on more of the history of those that came before you. It’s hard for young people to care much about the histories that their elders repeat and describe. As a young person, you have nothing in common with either these elders or with this sense of “history.” For young people, history is that which is both over and inaccessible. It looks like nothing that they understand, either in substance or in purpose. Youth is an endless struggle in the suis generis forest of novelty. Because the young have no past, and because their pursuits are entirely oriented toward their own futures, history has no meaning for them. Elders’ preoccupation with it seems like a strange personal tic. By middle age, however, the young person has gained a personal history, and it is a history with (for them) deep importance. More and more, their history is all they have, as the bulk of their life tips into history, into the past, and out of the future. And as they increasingly come to identify with their own history more than they do with their own (shrinking, slowly vanishing) potential, the expansion of this history with the linked histories of others gradually comes to take on the character of an expansion and solidification of the self. The older you get, the more history matters, because the older you get, the more you are made of history and little else.
  • For similar reasons that are left as an exercise to the reader, the older you get, the less you are concerned with the timeless Legacy (big ‘L’) that you leave to the world, and the more you are concerned with the everyday legacy (little ‘l’) that you leave to your children.
  • The transition from “I am that which is to come” to “I am that which has been” is not an easy one to make. Good thing you have a couple of decades in which to make it.
  • When I was a kid, I imagined that by the time I was middle-aged, the “problem” of aging would have been solved. It did not occur to me that this might not happen, nor did it occur to me that aging and death are the prerequisites for desire, meaning, and love. The human experience is a kind of practical joke. Life is worth caring about and preserving precisely because all your caring with amount to naught and there is no way to preserve it.

I suppose this has been 41. Next year: 42.

Only a short jump to 50. I am beginning to get wrinkles in places that don’t bend, where there are no joints and little skin movement. My beard has long been graying. My hearing and my eyesight aren’t what they were.

I’m still in pretty good condition overall compared to a lot of people my age, especially for someone that has always worked a desk job and has never been a health and fitness pursuer.

I suppose, however, that I always thought that somehow the rules of aging didn’t apply to me. If there’s one thing marriage, parenthood, and divorce have done for me, it’s drive home the relentless, inescapable, and irreversible nature of the human experience of time.

No one escapes, there’s no going back, and there are no controls in place to ensure fairness. Life is unjust and unforgiving. That’s just how it is, and not a million, or a billion, or ten billion idealistic young activists can change that. Ever.